So how is the Jew better off? Is there any profit in snipping?
A great deal in all respects! For a start, the Jews were entrusted with the commandments of God. So what if some were unfaithful; does their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God? Certainly not. Let God be true even though all human beings were liars! As scripure says, “That you may be proved right in your words and prevail when you are brought to judgement.”
But if our wrongdoing serves to prove the justice of God, shall we say it’s unfair of God to inflict his anger upon us? (This is worldly language) Certainly not. For how then could God “judge the world”? But if God’s truth gains extra credit through my lie, why am I condemned as a sinner? Indeed, “Why not do evil so that good may come of it?” as some people slanderously claim I’ve said. Well, they are fairly condemned! But does their wrongness exceed ours as Jews? Not at all, for I have already proved that Jews as well as Greeks are under the power of sin. As Scripture says,
“There are no just people, no, not one; no one thinks wisely, no one looks to God; all have wandered from the road and become worthless, no one does good, no, not one. Their throat’s an open grave, their tongues are treacherous, the venom of vipers is under their lips, their mouths are full of curses and spite. Their feet are quick for bloodshed, they have taken the road to ruin and misery, but ignored the way of peace. There’s no fear of God in their eyes.”
We know that whatever the Torah says, it speaks to those who are under Torah, so that every mouth may be shut and the whole world held accountable to God. Therefore by the deeds of Torah no flesh is justified in God’s court, since by Torah comes recognition of sin.
But now the justice of God is demonstrated apart from the Torah – although Torah and Prophets bear witness to it – the justice of God through the faithfulnesss of Jesus, for all believers without distinction. All have sinned and come short of God’s glory but are made just by his kindness as a gift, since they are bought back from slavery through Messiah Jesus. God set him out publicly as the place of his merciful presence for those who trust in his blood, by passing over in his pity the sins of times past, and now in this present time displaying his justice: that he might be just, and make just the one who trusts in Jesus’ faithfulness.
Clearly the issue in this passage is the “justice of God”, which is under question. For if the main instrumnet of that justice has been the Torah, it would seem to have failed, since nobody has kept it, and all have fallen short of “God’s glory”. This latter expression refers to the Genesis account of creation acoording to which human beings are made in the “likeness of God”. This likeness is God’s glory, a target which every human life has missed. Genesis tells the story of how God selects one family, Abraham’s, so that through their faithfulness to him and his to them, the whole of creation may be blessed and restored to glory.
Paul is saying that both the Gentiles -whose sinfulness he has described previously in this letter- and also the Jews, have lived in injustice. God has been faithful, but human beings, and especially the people to whom God gave the Torah, have been unfaithful.It looks as though God’s plan’s a busted flush.
But Paul makes the audacious claim that God’s has worked outside the Torah for the benefit of both Jews and Gentiles. Through Messiah Jesus, a Jew faithful to his Jewish calling and to the justice of God, God has revealed his way of making all people just. So for Paul, the revelation of God’s justice is not postponed until the day of judgement but has happened in Messiah Jesus and especially in his death. It has happened NOW, that is, in the past event of Jesus’ death and in its present announcement by his followers.
The means by which God achieves this through Jesus is not described at length in this passage, but is presented briefly in the last paragraph above. It contains some greek words and phrases whose meaning has been much contested over centuries of Christian commentary.
First of all, there’s the phrase in Greek pisteos iesou christou, which is usually translated faith IN Jesus Christ, whereas I think its natural meaning is the faith or faithfulness OF Jesus. Paul is saying that although all human beings and all Jews in particular have been unfaithful to God, this one man has been faithful to God’s desire to bless his whole creation.
Next is the Greek verb dikaioun which is often translated justified or declared just, whereas I think that the justice of God”s salvation is no mere quasi legal status but a real transformation that “makes us just” people.
Third is the Greek noun “apolutrosis” rightly translated “redemption”, which however is a word whose religious use has gone dead. We need reminding that it means “buying back” and that in the Jewish Bible God’s great act of redemption is his buying back his people from slavery in Egypt. I have translated accordingly.
Fourth is another much disputed word “hilasterion”, which might be an adjective meaning “expiatory” or a noun used to translate the Hebrew “kapporeth” which is the gold lid of the holy covenant box. On the day of atonement the high priest sprinkled this lid with the blood of an animal as a sign of the renewed covenant between God nad his people – a covenant was often sealed with blood. It seems clear to me that this is the meaning that Paul wants to transfer to Jesus. Martin Luther saw this meaning and translated it “gnadenstuhl”, in English “mercy seat”. The lid which he calls a seat was seen as the location of God’s merciful presence for his people. For Paul the crucified Jesus is this location.
Summing up, I think Paul is asserting that God’s glorious plan for his creation has not failed, in spite of human unfaithfulness, but has in fact triumphed through his own faithfulness and the faithfulness of Messiah Jesus. This one Jewish man has fulfilled his people’s calling to be God’s servant for the sake of the world. Through his costly obedience God has bought all people back from slavery to the powers of spiritual evil. His sacrificial offering of his life is also the place of God’s merciful presence where sinful people are persuaded to become just people. The process of transformation is really only asserted here and awaits further description in Paul’s letter.