The Deeper Story

Paul was a Jew. He wasn’t just an average Jew, but he was trained by one of the best Jewish teachers of the time, Gamaliel. How do we know that? Let’s start in Acts 5. We have this narrative of the Jewish leaders trying to stop the apostles from preaching about Jesus. The apostles are being interrogated by the Sanhedrin, which was the same group that decided Jesus should be put to death. In the middle of the meeting, we learn about Gamaliel: “But a Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, who was honored by all the people, stood up in the Sanhedrin and ordered that the men be put outside for a little while.” (Acts 5:34 NIV). So we know that Gamaliel is a teacher, an expert in the law, honored by all the people, a member of the Jewish ruling class and highest court. We also know that the others on the court listen to him because in the verses following he gives advice on what to do and persuades the whole Sanhedrin.

So we know Gamaliel was top notch, but how do we know that Paul was one of his students? For that we need to look at Acts 22. Here Paul has been arrested by the Romans to protect him from a Jewish riot in Jerusalem. He convinces his guards to let him try to explain his actions. It doesn’t turn out well, but at the beginning of his speech we learn some things about Paul.

“Then Paul said: “I am a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city. I studied under Gamaliel and was thoroughly trained in the law of our ancestors. I was just as zealous for God as any of you are today. 

Acts 22:3

And there is the connection to Gamaliel. Paul was expertly trained in the law, what we call the Old Testament, and the Jewish methods of studying and interpreting it. Because of his training, he knew his Bible. He would have had complete books memorized. So when he is writing the epistles (letters), including Romans, he is constantly referring to other Scriptures, sometimes explicity, but always under the surface of what he is saying. In order to understand what Paul means, we need to look back at the Scriptures he is referring to. Like in Romans 4 where he is using the narrative of Abraham and his life to explain how righteousness is something that comes by faith not by the law. We need to at least be familiar with the story of Abraham to understand the point.

In Romans 3:10-18 Paul is pulling ideas from several places in Scripture to make his point that we are all alike under the power of sin. The NIV uses quotation marks. In English we think that means that he is quoting word for word directly from some place. Due to translations from one language (Hebrew or Greek) to English, there are differences between the source and the quotation. But the idea is the same.

10 As it is written:
“There is no one righteous, not even one;
11     there is no one who understands;
    there is no one who seeks God.
12 All have turned away,
    they have together become worthless;
there is no one who does good,
    not even one.”
13 “Their throats are open graves;
    their tongues practice deceit.”
“The poison of vipers is on their lips.”
14     “Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.”
15 “Their feet are swift to shed blood;
16     ruin and misery mark their ways,
17 and the way of peace they do not know.”
18     “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”

Romans 3:10-18 (NIV)

The NIV’s quotation marks point to the fact that this is not all from one passage of Scripture. Each set is a different quote. Using the cross-reference feature of our Bibles we can see where he is drawing his words from even if we don’t have the Old Testament memorized.

In verses 10-12 Paul is paraphrasing Psalm 14:1-3 and Psalm 53:1-3. As sometimes happens in the Psalms, those two passages are basically the same.

The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, and their ways (deeds) are vile; there is no one who does good. God (The Lord) looks down from heaven on all mankind to see if there are any who understand, any who seek God. Everyone has (All have) turned away, all have become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one.

Ps 53:1-3 with Psalm 14’s differences in ()

The first part of verse 13 is from Psalm 5:9b, and the last part is from Psalm 140:3. Paul is probably referring to Psalm 10:7 in verse 14. Verses 15-17 are paraphrasing Isaiah 59:7-8. And finally verse 18 is a direct quote from Psalm 36:1: “I have a message from God in my heart concerning the sinfulness of the wicked: There is no fear of God before their eyes.”

What stands out to me when I look up all of these passages in the Psalms and Isaiah is how the whole passage applies to what Paul is saying, not just the specific verse that Paul is quoting. They all point to God’s justice, salvation, and righteousness. Both Psalm 14 and 53 end with this verse: “Oh, that salvation for Israel would come out of Zion! When the Lord restores his people, let Jacob rejoice and Israel be glad!” Psalm 5 includes this “But I, by your great love, can come into your house; in reverence I bow down toward your holy temple.” (Access like KPaul talked about today.) Psalm 140 is a prayer for justice and rescue. Psalm 10 begins with a call to a God who stands far off but ends with the recognition that God hears the cries of the afflicted and responds.

Paul is telling us about the gospel in these first chapters of Romans. The gospel of God revealed in Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit. A gospel that reveals his righteousness and his wrath. Here in Romans 3, Paul uses these Old Testament passages to remind us how we are all under the power of sin. We are all deserving of God’s wrath. But God in his mercy rescues us. Restores us. Provides justice. Responds to our cries. And put together these passages tell the whole story of the gospel.

Isaiah 59 is beautiful. The whole chapter is about God’s power to save us despite our wickedness. These verses describe how we live under the power of sin.

So justice is far from us, and righteousness does not reach us. We look for light, but all is darkness; for brightness, but we walk in deep shadows. Like the blind we grope along the wall, feeling our way like people without eyes. At midday we stumble as if it were twilight; among the strong, we are like the dead….We look for justice, but find none; for deliverance, but it is far away. For our offenses are many in your sight, and our sins testify against us. Our offenses are ever with us, and we acknowledge our iniquities; rebellion and treachery against the Lord, turning our backs on our God, inciting revolt and oppression, uttering lies our hearts have conceived. So justice is driven back, and righteousness stands at a distance; truth has stumbled in the streets, honesty cannot enter. Truth is nowhere to be found, and whoever shuns evil becomes a prey.

Isaiah 59:9-15a

That is the situation for all of us. But then the story changes when the Lord looks.

The Lord looked and was displeased that there was no justice. He saw that there was no one, he was appalled that there was no one to intervene; so his own arm achieved salvation for him, and his own righteousness sustained him. He put on righteousness as his breastplate, and the helmet of salvation on his head; he put on the garments of vengeance and wrapped himself in zeal as in a cloak. According to what they have done, so will he repay wrath to his enemies and retribution to his foes….From the west, people will fear the name of the Lord, and from the rising of the sun, they will revere his glory….The Redeemer will come to Zion, to those in Jacob who repent of their sins, declares the Lord.

Isaiah 59:15b-20

Paul didn’t haphazardly choose some verses from the Old Testament to quote here. He was intentionally pointing to passages that tell the story of the gospel. The story of how we are in desperate need of a Savior. And God heard our cry and came Himself to provide that salvation. His righteousness can cover our wickedness and become our righteousness because he knows that we have none in ourselves. And Psalm 36 is a perfect song of praise to end on.

“How priceless is your unfailing love, O God!….For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light.”

May you be blessed by God’s word today.

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