Paul answers his own question in regards to the advantage of the Jew, as we begin to subconsciously connect Gentiles and their participation in the covenant with any mention of Jews, with “Actually, there are many advantages. First of all, the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God” (Romans 3:2). Proclaiming and living the oracles of God had been the mark of Israel’s “salvation” (justification, covenant membership), as a constant reminder of the power of God that resulted in their being delivered from out of Egypt and set on a path towards their promised land, while also connecting them back to Abraham and the miraculous beginnings of their people, which was the birth of Isaac.
If the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God, then the Gentiles are now also being entrusted with what is to be thought of as the oracles of God, which is the Gospel. Likewise, this oracle serves as a reminder of the power of God, as a reminder of Jesus’ Resurrection and the commencement of a new creation that is being shaped by the power of that Resurrection, by a people being constantly shaped by that power, who have been set on a path to the promised renewed creation. Paul speaks to this in the first chapter when he writes “For I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for it is God’s power for salvation to everyone who believes” (1:16a).
As we have already seen, that statement does not end with “everyone who believes,” but continues on to say “to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” In proper context then, this “everyone” eschews generality, begging to be understood in specific terms, as inclusive language. We recognize (perhaps for the first time) that it reinforces the idea that the salvation to be had, which is inextricably linked with covenant membership, involves the coming together of Jews and Gentiles. As we consider this, it begins to dawn on us that, if we look at Romans as the primary text for the understanding of “justification by faith,” then this issue of justification is inseparable from consideration of who is going to be thought of as God’s covenant people, along with how that determination is going to be made.
Salvation becomes less mystical or ethereal or concerned with attaining to heaven, with the associated dichotomies of “works righteousness” versus being “declared righteous by grace through faith” (especially when works of the law and faith in Jesus are rightfully understood as markers as covenant participation rather than attempts to get to or tickets to heaven) falling flat in the face of the much more important and immediate concern for the church in that day (as it should be for the church in this day and in all days to come), which is the presence and power of the kingdom of God, its extension to the whole of the cosmos, and its inclusion of all peoples as equal participants in the resurrection-expectation fueled kingdom.
Jumping ahead to verse nine of the third chapter, we continue to find ourselves unable to avoid the Jew/Gentile theme, as Paul builds to his passage on justification and we hear “What then? Are we better off? Certainly not, for we have already charged that Jews and Greeks alike are all under sin” (3:9). Before moving further, we must determine how Paul is defining sin. We cannot simply insert our own culturally-shaped and prejudiced thoughts and opinions here. What is sin? When and where does Paul make this charge as he so claims? He presents his charge in chapter one, in the extended section that begins with “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of people who suppress the truth by their unrighteousness” (1:18). Sin, in Paul’s mind, can be linked with the failure to bear the divine image, with which man had originally been charged. We sense this when we hear “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes---His eternal power and divine nature---have been clearly seen, because they are understood through what has been made. So people are without excuse” (1:20).
The remainder of the first chapter sees Paul detailing humanity’s failure to bear the divine image with which they had been endowed, drafting a litany of humankind’s abuses. This, of course, is not limited to Gentiles, as just before launching into this scathing discourse, Paul did mention both Jews and Greeks (1:16). So as the mixed Romans congregation hears Paul’s letter read to them, and as they hear the words that are appended to the revelation of the wrath of God, they do so in within the falling echo of Paul’s very first linking of Jew and Gentile.