Week Three – Romans 3:1-20 Honesty time. Anyone ever cheat on a test? How did you do it? Did you write every bit of information you thought might be on the test on the palm of your hand? Did you do the “drop your pencil” and glance at your neighbor’s paper? Or did you do the expert move of yawning and stretching while squinting to read the answers off someone else’s test? How many of you actually got the answer key to the test and just memorized the answers?
When I was going through school, the closest thing we had to electronics was a Texas Instrument calculator. All tests and quizzes were done on paper that were usually copied by mimeographs with the purple-looking ink. Freshly mimeographed paper had the best smell, did it not? We all would always fight to go to the teacher’s lounge to make the copies simply because of that smell! There’s nothing like it. What are the chances there’s a mimeographed paper scented candle out there? I digress. The teacher would usually have a “key” which was a copy of the test or quiz on which all answers were written. To get a copy of that key was like finding gold! Nowadays, you would have to hack into someone’s tablet or laptop in order to gain access to the answers, but years ago, it was usually as simple as opening a desk drawer. It was even more simple if your teacher had children in the school and you just so happened to be friends with said children.
Now before you get all Pharisaic or self-righteous with me, I can truthfully say I never once cheated by looking at a key. It did happen a lot when I was in school and I did have opportunities, but honestly, I was too chicken to take part. But I remember when we would get those test or quiz papers back after they had been graded and seeing the response of those who I know had cheated. All of them would have these smirky expressions of satisfaction thinking they had gotten away with something. Most of them were fairly clever, I think. They had discovered that in order not to be caught, they had to put down just a few wrong answers so that it wouldn’t look nearly as suspicious but not so many that they didn’t get a good grade.
For those kids it was all about the grade. They attended school, they sat in class, they took notes to an extent because it was expected, but when it came time to test what they had learned, they cheated. They had to cheat. Because it wasn’t about learning for them, it had more to do with making the grade, meeting the standard and expectations.
I can truthfully tell you that I learned things in school that still stick in my mind today that are of absolutely no use to me. For instance, potatoes are comprised of parachyma tissue cells. Water fleas are called daphnia. Not once has either of those facts ever been asked of me even when playing Trivial Pursuit! I don’t know why those two particular bits of information have stayed with me all of these years, except to say that I learned them at one time. Those facts are not just something I memorized in order to pass a test. I actually learned those things and therefore, retained that information.
Well, Paul writes this letter to both Jews and Gentiles but in doing so, he recognizes and addresses their different backgrounds, what they’ve been taught and how that knowledge has affected their individual lives. I’m actually go back to the end of Romans 2 because our scripture today is really a continuation of the same subject.
Romans 2: 28 “You are not a true Jew if you are only a Jew in your physical body. True circumcision is not only on the outside of the body. 29 A true Jew is one who is a Jew inside. True circumcision is done in the heart. It is done by the Spirit, not by the written law. And anyone who is circumcised in the heart by the Spirit gets praise from God, not from people.”
Romans 3:1 “So, do Jews have anything that other people do not have? Is there anything special about being circumcised? 2 Yes, of course, there is in every way. The most important thing is this: God trusted the Jews with his teachings. 3 It is true that some Jews were not faithful to God. But will that stop God from doing what he promised? 4 No! God will continue to be true even when every person is false.”
The Jews, as we know, had a covenant with God and as such, there had been an outward branding of such that was to symbolize that covenant. That would have been the circumcision. This scripture tells us while the circumcision was special, the most important thing was that God had trusted the Jews with His teachings. He had given them the answer key. It was as if He said, “This life is a continuous test so I’m going to give you, My chosen people, the answers so that you might learn about Who I am and will be able enjoy an abundant and fulfilling relationship with Me.” But the Jews looked at that law and decided they didn’t want a perfect grade. They wanted a grade that met the standard they had set. So they picked and they chose what fit into their comfortable mold and didn’t keep the law as they should. Even the Jews had an advantage over everyone else that walked the earth, they didn’t fully embrace it. Paul is pointing all of this out to them and reminding them that although they had not been faithful to God, God had been to them.
I was very fortunate to have been raised in a Christian home where we prayed blessings over our meals, we turned to the Scriptures for guidance, we attended church on a regular basis and our entire foundation of character was built on being good, Godly people who sought to please Him with our actions and our words. Some might think that gave me an advantage in life and I’m not going to necessarily disagree with that. But I will say that sometimes growing up in a Christian environment can give us a false security of salvation.
Take Tarzan for example. Tarzan was orphaned as an infant in the jungles of Africa. As the story goes, he is adopted by an ape named Kala who raises him as her own. He swings from trees like the other apes, he crouches down like the other apes, he eats with his hands like the other apes, he grunts as a means of communication just like the other apes. And why? Because he assumes that although he looks a little different, that he too is an ape. His environment, his habits, his behavior is like that of an ape because it’s all he knows. It’s not until later in his life that Tarzan realizes how very different he is from those he calls family. He is so adapted to the lifestyle of apes that he doesn’t fully acknowledge that he’s not really one of them.
The same can be true if you grow up in a Christian home. You can be so accustomed to the morals, the beliefs, the behavior, the lifestyle that you just assume that makes you saved, sealed by His blood. I speak from experience here. It wasn’t until I was in my late teens at a Christian rock concert during altar call that the realization literally flooded me that I wasn’t saved. I can vividly remember the feeling of being drenched from my head to my toes as I walked to the front. I had been raised in a Christian environment, had years and years of perfect Sunday School attendance, knew just about every hymn in the red hymnals that were placed on the back of the church pews and did my best to be a good person. But that night at the concert, I realized it wasn’t enough. This is the point that Paul was trying to make to the Jews. The circumcision, the knowledge of the law simply wasn’t enough.
If you’ve done the Faith Ministry visitation in years past, we were trained to ask people before we left them what they believed it took to get into heaven. It was heartbreaking to hear some of the answers. This question obviously wasn’t posed at the beginning of the visit. It would have come much later in our visit after we had chatted and gotten to know the person a little bit. One man in particular sticks out in my mind. He had just been so sweet. He was raising his grandchildren, living on a fixed income but he was proud to have a large vegetable garden so that he could share his bounty with his neighbors. When he was asked what he believed would get him into heaven, he responded, “Well, I try to be a good person and obey all of the laws like not going over the speed limit, not stealing and stuff like that.” He added in that he still had a church membership at his childhood church although he admitted he hadn’t been in many, many years.
You see, he knew just enough to make him think he had passed the test. He had some of the right answers but somewhere along the way, he hadn’t really learned what it was all about. You may be sitting here today either listening to this in class or reading it in the blog, and thinking there’s really nothing here for you to learn. This is Christianity 101 and you passed that class a long time ago. If that’s the case, good for you. Keep on with your close walk with the Lord and every once in a while, look over your shoulder at all of us that are way, way back far behind you. But for the majority of us, we think we’ve got the answers to fill in the blanks, but the critical question is, have we really learned enough to pass a pop quiz? We come to church, we spend our allotted time reading the Bible or a devotional book, we listen to Christian music, we send out birthday and Christmas cards making sure there’s a Bible verse printed on there, we offer to pray for those in need, we’ve memorized a few Bible verses and so we think we’ve done what needs to be done. Yeah, we recognize that we are sinners and certainly don’t proclaim to be perfect, but we feel as if we’ve met the standard that we’ve set for ourselves. In other words, our “outward circumcision” is made visible to others and we’ve got enough Bible verses and Christian phrases that flow out of our mouths to give a pretty good portrayal of a Christian. Ghandi is quoted as saying, “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”
Paul knew that a wakeup call was long overdue. In verse 4 of Romans 3, Paul uses the words that David penned in Psalm 51:4. “I did what You said is wrong. You are the one I have sinned against. I say this so that people will know that I am wrong and You are right. What You decided is fair.” This admission of wrongdoing is written by David after his encounter with Nathan when David is confronted with the inappropriate relationship with Bathsheba.
Paul continues his letter in verse 5. “When we do wrong, that shows more clearly that God is right. So can we say that God does wrong when he punishes us? (That’s the way some people think.) 6 Of course not. If God could not punish us, how could he judge the world?”
If you grew up with siblings, you probably witnessed them getting punished from time to time. Most often, you would think, “well-deserved” punishment. But when it came time for us to be confronted and punished, we’d have a litany of excuses. Our parents’ disciplinary tactics didn’t seem so well-deserved when applied to us, did they?
Unfortunately, most of us view our Heavenly Father’s disciplinary tactics much the same way. It’s well-deserved when it’s someone else, but “Whoa, Nellie!” when it comes to us. This was the thinking of the Jews. They were, after all, God’s chosen. They were special. It seemed perfectly reasonable that God would punish Gentiles for misbehaving, but certainly not the Jews! They had a history with God, a heritage that non-Jews did not possess. Of course some of them loved God wholly and completely and sought to be obedient in all ways. We’ve just finished our study on Ezra and Nehemiah. Both men loved God and did as they were told and were mourned when others didn’t share that passion. Daniel is another great example. We could go on and on with the faithful ones but Paul is addressing those that haven’t really learned Who God is and what it means to be in a direct relationship with Him.
“God doesn’t have any grandchildren.”[i] We don’t inherit a relationship with God. Our connection with Him must be direct, and one on one. Just because our parents are saved, our granddaddy was a deacon, our uncle was a pastor, we’ve all been baptized, we’ve had our name on the church roll since the day we were born, and by golly we’ve even got a red letter Bible with our name printed in gold on the front cover still doesn’t guarantee we’re getting into heaven. Many of us grew up singing the ole hymn “When the Roll is Called Up Yonder, I’ll be There.” Well, some people may be there when the roll is called, but I expect they’re going to be awfully shocked when it’s not the church roll they’re talking about.
Years ago I was asked by some friends to attend a fundraising dinner in Atlanta. The friends were some of the sponsors of the event and I had helped them in the weeks prior and as a thank you, they had invited me to be their guest. This was what I would call a “hoity-toity” event of which I am most uncomfortable. There were to be local celebrities including athletes and news anchors from the Atlanta TV stations as well as some of the more well-to-do members of society. After all, this was a fundraiser. I fretted over what to wear because I certainly didn’t have anything in my wardrobe that was appropriate. I ended up with a fancy long dress that I never wore again. My friends were going early to the event to be there to greet people and make sure everything was set up correctly. I had offered to help, but they insisted I be like the other guests and arrive as the event began. There I stood in line as uncomfortable as I could be. Bedazzled in sequins and restricted in Spanx and panty hose. There was a news anchor several people ahead of me and many people were coming up to her to say “hello”. I noticed as I waited that as people were making their way into the venue, that tickets were being presented to some doorkeepers. I’ve got to be honest. I started perspiring because I didn’t have a ticket. I’m looking around for my friends hoping to get their attention but I didn’t see them. Luckily, the news anchor and her husband didn’t have tickets either and the doorkeeper simply checked a list of names and welcomed her. Whew! They had a list of names. I began to breathe again. When it came my turn, I sweetly said, “I’m sorry I don’t have a ticket.” “No problem” was the reply. “What’s your name?” I gave them my name and got my right foot ready to enter the grand hall. They asked for my name again and continued searching. “Could it be under any other name?” was asked of me as my heart began thumping out of my chest and my face turned blistery red. I tried to explain that I was the guest of some of the hosts and that they were my friends. For some crazy reason, I highlighted the fact that I was appropriately dressed for the event as if that mattered. Still, no entry. And then the guillotine of embarrassment dropped when they asked me to step aside so that the others behind me could make their way inside.
I stood there simply not knowing what to do. I was all dressed up expecting to be a part of this grand event but my name wasn’t on the list. I had every intention of being on the other side of those doorkeepers, but what I presented on my own wasn’t enough to get in. Fortunately, one of my friends happened to pass by and saw me. He cleared with the doorkeeper that I was to be admitted and therefore, I was able to pass through that door and sit amongst those who either had a ticket or whose name was on the list. You see, it didn’t matter that I was there, I was dressed appropriately and I knew the names of two of the hosts. That was not sufficient to grant me entry. It took someone from the inside to say, “She’s my guest. I want her to join us” in order for me to get in. I looked around and I was served with everyone else. I got the same food, the same service, the same experience of those who had not encountered any trouble getting in like I had. Once I was in that room, I was treated just like everyone else.
Paul is telling the Jews that being Jewish isn’t enough. Their heritage was not what made them righteous before God. Yes, they had had the advantage of knowing God’s laws but that wasn’t enough to save them. Paul is reinforcing the fact that Jews and Gentiles are on an even playing field. Now that Jesus has come, we all have an opportunity for a clean slate. He’s also letting them know that there’s so much more for them to learn. A lot of their old ways, prior to Jesus, were no longer enough. Following the laws was no longer enough.
In fairness to the Jews, this would have been a difficult transition. Whereas they were used to following laws, preparing their sacrifices and obeying rituals, now Jesus has changed it all. Galatians 3:24 “In fact, the Law was to be our teacher until Christ came. Then we could have faith and be acceptable to God.”
I can’t help but liken this to retirement. For many years, Monday through Friday and some weekends as well, I had to get up on my own, get dressed, drive into work and put in nine, ten or more hours a day so that I would receive a paycheck. Well, now that I’m retired and I don’t have to do anything, guess what? I still get a paycheck!
The Jews had to be scratching their heads and thinking, “This is too good to be true. There’s got to be more to this than what we’re seeing.” And as a result, Paul sees that many of them are creating loopholes and are taking advantage of this route to heaven.
He then poses a few more arguments that some had probably entertained in their minds and used as justification for their lifestyles.
“If my lies serve to show off God’s truth all the more gloriously, why blame me? I’m doing God a favor.” “The more evil we do, the more good God does, so let’s just do it!” Romans 3:7-8
Sounds preposterous, doesn’t it? It’s baffling to think that someone would have the thought process that the more “bad stuff” they do, the better and more merciful God looks. But tell me that a true transformation testimony doesn’t get you all choked up on the inside. Hearing someone speak of the radical change that God made in their life is energizing!
I recall an older woman getting up to give her testimony and she started off by saying that God had saved her from a life of habitual drug use, prostitution, gambling and alcoholic additions as well as many years in prison. As we all sat there in total shock as this Aunt Bea from Mayberry looking woman spouted off a life story more suitable for a Satanic rock band member, she grinned. She said, “I knew that would get your attention a lot quicker than to tell you I was saved at the age of ten at Vacation Bible School where my daddy was the preacher.” True? You betcha!
We’ve all heard the saying, “It’s easier to ask forgiveness than to ask for permission.” Well, truthfully, some people apply that thought process to their own life. They have the “because I’m saved by God’s grace, I can do whatever I want” mindset. This is what Paul was trying to prevent the Jews from adopting.
The Message is so blunt that it deserves to be our translation for this point. Romans 3:9 -So where does that put us? Do we Jews get a better break than the others? Not really. Basically, all of us, whether insiders or outsiders, start out in identical conditions, which is to say that we all start out as sinners. At this point, Paul uses the method of pearl-stringing select verses from the Old Testament (Ecclesiastes, various Psalms, and Isaiah) in order to create this line of conviction.
“Scripture leaves no doubt about it:
There’s nobody living right, not even one, nobody who knows the score, nobody alert for God.
They’ve all taken the wrong turn; they’ve all wandered down blind alleys.
No one’s living right; I can’t find a single one.
Their throats are gaping graves, their tongues slick as mudslides.
Every word they speak is tinged with poison. They open their mouths and pollute the air.
They race for the honor of sinner-of-the-year, litter the land with heartbreak and ruin,
Don’t know the first thing about living with others. They never give God the time of day.
This makes it clear, doesn’t it, that whatever is written in these Scriptures is not what God says about others but to us (emphasis mine) to whom these Scriptures were addressed in the first place! And it’s clear enough, isn’t it, that we’re sinners, every one of us, in the same sinking boat with everybody else?”
In a nutshell, Paul is telling them (and us) that no matter our heritage, our upbringing whether nurturing or dysfunctional, our environment whether healthy or polluted, our genetic background whether it is admirable or shameful, EVERY LAST ONE OF US will stand on the same platform before the throne of God condemned because of our personal sinfulness. It will be up to us and us alone to pass the test, to be certain that our name is on the roll that matters in order gain entry into heaven. But y’all God is so good to us that He’s already given us the answer key. Not to be memorized for a short period of time, but to be learned so that it sticks with us. Some of my fellow students may have fooled their teachers when they cheated on those tests (I kind of doubt it), but there’s no fooling God. And that sweet, delightful smell of those mimeographed papers will pale in comparison. 2 Corinthians 2:15 For we (you and me!!) are like a sweet-smelling incense offered by Christ to God, which spreads among those who are being saved and those who are being lost.
What did God teach you today?
[i] Quote by E. Stanley Jones
Our relationship with God is important and it has to be real!
It’s all about what you decide.
We are even ground.
Are you on God’s roll?
Do we sufficiently portray ourselves as being Christian?
Podcast available at: https://anchor.fm/diane-simcox/episodes/Are-You-Living-Like-Tarzan-e17vl5i