Studies in the Epistles of Paul
Paul's anguish for his people
Romans chapters 9-11 pose a question: Are these chapters a digression, or an important part of the letter? Paul has stopped describing the gospel, and begun to talk about the role of the Jewish people in God’s plan. But this is one of the topics he needed to address for the Christians in Rome.
One theme that Paul continues from earlier chapters is that God does not show partiality. Salvation is not just for the Jews — it is for Gentiles, too. But has God given up on the Jews? No way!
When Paul wrote this epistle, he was in Corinth, hoping to travel to Rome on his way to Spain (15:23-24). But first, he planned to take a gift from the Greek churches to Jerusalem (15:25-29), and he knew that many Jews viewed Paul and his gospel with hostility.
So when Paul wrote to the Romans, he had one eye on the Gentiles, and another on the Jews in Jerusalem. Paul is not only rehearsing his message to Gentiles; he is also rehearsing what he will say in Jerusalem.
He’s answering an objection: If the gospel is promised in the Jewish Scriptures, then why are so few Jews accepting the message? Paul claimed that the gospel was rooted in the Old Testament, but why should anyone believe the gospel if the people who knew those Scriptures best, the Jews, didn’t accept the message? The Jewish rejection of the gospel was undermining Paul’s message.
Had God given up on the Jewish people and turned to the Gentiles instead? And if he did that, can we be sure that he won’t abandon the Gentiles, too? Why were most Jews rejecting the free gift that Paul was offering?
Advantages of the Jews
Paul begins chapter 9 with a strong assertion: “I am telling the truth in Christ (I am not lying!), for my conscience assures me in the Holy Spirit — I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart” (verses 1-2; NET Bible used throughout chapters 9-11).
Chapter 8 ended with rejoicing and confidence in God’s love, and then all of a sudden Paul says he is full of anguish. He hasn’t even said why — he delays that for rhetorical effect until verse 3. He just said that nothing will be able to cut us off from the love of Christ, and yet he says, “For I could wish that I myself were accursed — cut off from Christ…” He is making a huge contrast, wishing for something he has just said is impossible.
What has filled him with anguish? It is “for the sake of my people, my fellow countrymen, who are Israelites” (verses 3-4). Just as Moses offered to give himself up for Israel (Exodus 32:32), Paul also says that he is willing to be cut off from salvation, if such were possible, so his people could be saved.
Why does he begin with a three-fold assertion that he is telling the truth? Probably because some people thought that Paul had abandoned his people, and that God had, as well.
Paul has deep concern for his people, and he is convinced that without Christ, they are headed for destruction, despite all their advantages. He lists some advantages: “To them belong the adoption as sons, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the temple worship, and the promises” (verse 4).
Gentiles had many of these advantages, too — they can be adopted through Christ, given the divine glory, a new covenant and wonderful promises. Paul seems to be referring to special events in Israel’s history: when God adopted the nation at the exodus, when God’s glory filled the tabernacle, the covenants given to Abraham, Moses, Levi and David, the sacrificial rituals and the promises given through the prophets.
Those things were a head start in salvation, one would think, but they hadn’t helped much. The Jews were so proud of these good things that they were overlooking the best thing — Christ. If salvation is in Christ, then it’s not in the law and the temple worship, and many Jews were not willing to admit the relative unimportance of something that had always been a central element of their culture and religion.
Paul lists two more Jewish advantages in verse 5: “To them belong the patriarchs, and from them, by human descent, came the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever! Amen.” This verse is one of the few in which Jesus is called God. The grammar is sometimes debated, but it seems most likely that the Messiah is being called God and given a praise doxology appropriate to God. But that is not Paul’s focus here. His main point is that Jesus is a Jew, the fulfillment of the promises given to the patriarchs.
So if Israel has all this, what’s the problem? Paul doesn’t directly say! But he implies that since the Jews have rejected Jesus, they are cut off from Christ, missing out on salvation, which gives the appearance that God’s promises to them have been broken.