STUDIES IN ROMANS

Copyright Rosemary Bardsley 2002

STUDY FIFTEEN: PAUL RETURNS TO HIS QUESTION ABOUT THE JEWS - ROMANS 9:1-11:36

In Romans 3:1 Paul faced the question 'What advantage, then, is there in being a Jew At that point he gave only one brief answer (3:2), preceded to another question (3:3-8), then to a full-on inclusion of the Jews along with the Gentiles in a sweeping statement in which no one escapes from being condemned under a heavy verdict of guilt and legal inability (3:9-20). From 3:21 to 8:39 Paul has given both Jewish and Gentile believers an extensive explanation of the meaning of the substitutionary death of Jesus Christ and its implications for our on-going relationship with God. Having done so, he now returns to the question of the Jews originally raised in 3:1, and in the space of these three chapters addresses a range of inter-related questions, in the light of the kata sarka/kata pneuma contrast.

A. THE QUESTION OF THE JEWS (9:1-29)

[1] Paul's concern for the Jews (9:1-3; 10:1). Not wanting the Jews to assume that he is anti-Jew, Paul firstly affirms his deep and overwhelming concern for the Jews.

[2] Having expressed this amazing concern, he then more fully answers the question of 3:1: What advantage is there in being a Jew? He lists eight advantages (9:4-5):

  • the adoption of sons
  • the divine glory
  • the covenants
  • the law
  • the temple worship
  • the promises
  • the patriarchs
  • the human ancestry of Christ, who is God over all.
For discussion: in your group discuss why each of these is an 'advantage'. Consider relevance of each the following factors in each of the advantages: revelation and knowledge of God; prophetic symbolism; anticipation of/preparation for the coming of Jesus Christ in prophecy, ritual and history; and privilege and mission/responsibility.

[3] Israel's failure does not mean that God has failed (9:6-9). In these verses Paul makes an important statement which helps us to gain God's perspective on the nation of Israel: 'not all who are descended from Israel are Israel'. In other words, as Paul goes on to explain, there are two ways of looking at Israel. There is the great mass of people who are actual physical (kata sarka - verse 3, sarkos - verse 8) descendants of both Abraham and Israel (Jacob, see Genesis 32:28), and there are, as we have seen in Romans 4, and as Paul explains at length in Galatians 3 and 4, the spiritual descendants of Abraham, who possess the same faith, and the same blessing, as Abraham, and who inherit the promises made to Abraham. Whatever Israel may have thought, God himself has always been aware of the distinction between the natural, physical, national, political 'Israel', (that is Israel according to flesh), and the 'children of promise', the true, spiritual 'Israel' (that is, Israel according to Spirit). The two have never been co-identical. [Paul's statement here about the two Israels demonstrates the kata sarka/kata pneuma distinction. That Paul still had this distinction firmly in his mind is verified in the previous verses: in 9:3 he referred to Israel as his own race 'kata sarka', and in 9:5 he referred to Israel as possessing the human (kata sarka) ancestry of Christ.]

[4] In 9:10-29 Paul brings a further factor into the discussion; he affirms at length, that the point at issue is a question of God's mercy. The significance of Israel, indeed the very existence of Israel as God's special people, is not a question of justice or rights, but of mercy.

In historic perspective God had always affirmed that Israel's unique relationship with himself, and her role in his purposes, did not result from some merit on her part but was the result of his mercy:

Exodus 31:13: 'You must observe my Sabbaths. This will be a sign between me and you for the generations to come, so you may know that I am the Lord, who sets you apart as holy' (see NIV footnote). See also Ezekiel 20:12. These two verses teach that the Sabbaths were intended to remind Israel that it was God's action that made them his special people, not their actions or claims to fame.

Deuteronomy 7:7: 'The Lord did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples.'

Ezekiel 16:3-6: Your ancestry and birth were in the land of the Canaanites; your father was an Amorite and your mother a Hittite. On the day you were born your cord was not cut, nor were you washed with water to make you clean, nor were you rubbed with salt or wrapped in cloths. No one looked on you with pity or had compassion ' The I passed by and saw you kicking about in your blood, and as you lay there in your blood I said to you, 'Live! [Read all of Ezekiel 16.]

In Genesis 12:1-3 God, in his mercy, with his great plan of salvation in mind, broke into the ordinariness and unworthiness of one human life, and initiated the earthly dimension of his saving purpose. God chose Abraham to be the human ancestor of his incarnate Son, and the spiritual forefather of all people who have real faith in him, the one, real God. This choice of God has nothing to do with merit - either Abraham's or the world's. It is an act of mercy. This choice of God is not based on God giving us what justice demands: rather, as we have seen in Romans 3, the end in mind in this choice, is that God, by this choice, sets in place a salvation that that will enable him to deliver us from his justice and yet remain just.

To our human hearts, which automatically relate to God in terms of tit-for-tat justice, and to his Jewish Christian readers who had a historic law-based, merit-based perception of God's relationship with them, Paul points out the fallacy of this mindset in the light of Israel's history and prophetic theology. He illustrates his point by reference to Esau and Jacob, the twin sons of Isaac: God, in an act of mercy, chose Jacob (9:10-13). This immediately raises the question 'Is God unjust?' To which Paul responds - Not at all! The question of justice is not the point, because:

If God acted with justice everyone would be destroyed (9:27-29); even the people of Israel would merit the same fate as Sodom and Gomorrah. Those who clamour for 'justice' or 'fairness' do not realize this; they assume that there are some people who actually merit acquittal in the Law courts of God.

If anyone is to be saved, that is, to be God's people, it can only be as the result of God's free action, which is defined as mercy (9:15-18).

Salvation has nothing to do with what a person does and it was never meant to have anything to do with what a person does (9:6-16). Here we see promise and mercy opposed to nature and human desire/effort, in relation to Abraham's offspring. The point is that Abraham's offspring according to flesh (kata sarka) are not identical to Abraham's spiritual (kata pneuma) offspring.

Salvation has nothing to do with what a person is or does; it is the result of God's mercy (grace); it is of necessity intimately related to God's choice and God's action (9:16-26; 11:1-6). Here we see that God's purpose and mercy work together for the salvation of both Jew and Gentile. To accuse God of injustice, to believe that he condemns some unfairly, means that we fail to see that apart from his choice of some of us, none of us would be his people.

For your study:
  1. How does Paul's argument in 9:6-29 connect with his explanation of Gospel righteousness in 3:21-8:39? What elements in these verses indicate that Paul is here exposing a kata sarka mindset in his Jewish readers? What does he say to combat this mindset?
  2. Read 9:6-26 identifying all the words and phrases referring in various ways to God's free choice. Read the passage again, identifying words and phrases referring to God's mercy. Discuss the deep and intimate connection between God's mercy and God's free choice. Is it possible to be saved by grace apart from the intervention of God's sovereign choice? (This question is not asking anything about our understanding of or agreement with the two teachings of salvation by grace and God's free choice, but about the essential, inter-dependent cooperation and coexistence of these two truths.)

B. HOW THE JEWS MISREAD THE PURPOSE OF THE LAW AND MISSED OUT ON SALVATION? (9:30-32; 10:2-21).

Here we begin to see that, though the Gentiles obtained righteousness by faith (9:30), the Jews failed to obtain it because:

  • they pursued it by works (9:32)
  • they stumbled over 'the stumbling stone' (9:32,33)
  • their zeal was not based on knowledge (10:2)
  • they did not know that righteousness comes from God (10:3)
  • they sought to establish their own righteousness (10:3)
  • they did not submit to God's righteousness (10:3).

The truth is

  • Christ is the end of the law (10:4)
  • there is righteousness for everyone who believes (10:4)
  • righteousness by the law demands perfection (10:5; Galatians 3:10)
  • righteousness by faith outlaws salvation/condemnation on the basis of works (10:6-7a)
  • salvation is on the basis of belief in Jesus Christ the Lord, whom God raised from the dead (10:8-10)
  • no one who trusts in him will be put to shame (10:11).

Because

  • there is no difference between Jew and Gentile (10:12; 3:22-24)
  • they both have the same Lord (10:12)
  • they both are blessed by the same Lord (10:12)
  • everyone (irrespective of race) who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved (10:13).

Therefore

  • the message of Christ has to be proclaimed, heard and received (10:14-21).

Paul has brought his answer to the question about the Jews right back to his main thesis. He affirms yet again that it is not a question of human righteousness, but of a righteousness that is by faith. Questions about 'justice' and 'merit' are redundant in the light of the truth of gospel righteousness (justice), even though the kata sarka mindset cannot see it. Stuck in the rut of a performance based relationship with God the Jews are unable to perceive the truth and the liberation of the grace-based relationship with God which has always been the possession of the spiritual descendants of Abraham, and which is explicitly proclaimed in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This is one foundational point at which the Jews stumbled.

Paul also in this passage gives his fullest statement in this letter about the focus of this faith by and through which we are justified (acquitted): it is faith that believes and acknowledges that Jesus Christ is Lord - raised from death by God the Father (10:8-13). This is the second foundational point, that of faith in Jesus Christ the Son of God, the Lord, over which Israel stumbled (9:32-33). In rejecting him they rejected the very God in whom they thought they believed.

For further study on this point: Go to the 'Who is Jesus studies on this website and check out John's Answer: Part 1 and John's Answer: Part 2. Or, read through John's Gospel identifying the Jew's refusal to accept Christ's claims about his true identity.

While solidly affirming that salvation/justification is by God's mercy and God's free choice, Paul at the same time teaches the reality of human responsibility and human choice: if someone is saved it is because they have called on the name of the Lord (10:13,14). If someone calls on the name of the Lord, it is because they have believed in him (10:14). If someone believes in the Lord, it is because they heard the message (10:14). If someone has heard the message, it is because someone preached the message (10:14,15). If someone has preached the message, it is because someone sent them to preach it (10:15). Faith, the faith through which a person is saved/justified, does not come out of the blue. It is the end result of a series of human choices and actions, by means of which the message of Christ is communicated to the people on earth. At any point along the way human disobedience and hard-heartedness can stymie the progress of the message, including the final point of calling on the Lord: 'All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and obstinate people' (10:21).

[For deeper thinkers: there are various points in Scripture where we find a Christological mystery: that is, a mystery or paradox of the same nature as the person of Jesus Christ. He is one hundred percent God and, at the same time, one hundred percent man. Not half and half, neither really one nor really the other. True God. True man. Without reduction. Without fusion. Without division. This same mystery exists in our salvation: it is one hundred percent the work of God, totally independent of and uncaused by any action or merit of ours. Yet at the same time, it is one hundred percent dependent on our personal response, our calling upon him, our believing that Christ is all that he claimed to be, so much so that without this response, salvation is never ours. On the one hand God exhorts us 'Choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve!' (Joshua 24:15), on the other he tells us that 'he chose us in (Christ) before the creation of the world' (Ephesians 1:4). These paradoxes are not contradictions, but the expression of the mysterious double dimension that is operative in a single person, event or action. This Christological mystery can also be seen in the practice of prayer.]

C. ARE THE JEWS REJECTED FOREVER THEN? (11:1-36)

As we read Romans 11 it is essential to keep in mind two principles that Paul has already laid down: firstly, that salvation is always by mercy, not by merit; secondly, that there is a difference between the physical Israel and the spiritual Israel. Both of these principles are expressions of the according to flesh/according to Spirit kata sarka/kata pneuma contrast.

Paul asks the question: Did God reject his people? (11:1). In explaining his answer, which is 'By no means!' he makes the following points:

  • Although the great majority in Israel turned against God, there has always been a remnant chosen by grace which God has preserved for himself (11:1-6). Paul emphasizes the grace nature of this remnant: the fact that, in Elijah's day, there were 7000 who did not worship Baal, was entirely due to God and his grace. But for his intervention they also would have worshipped Baal. This is something we need to keep firm in our minds.
  • This remnant, saved by grace, are referred to as 'reserved for myself' (11:4) and 'the elect' (11:7), a clear indication that their existence as God's people was the result of God's proactive intervention.
  • Others are hardened (11:7).' Romans 11:7-10 is one of those 'difficult' passages against which our human minds and hearts revolt. There are other passages like it: Romans 9:14-23; Isaiah 6:9-10; 29:9-12; Deuteronomy 29:4; Matthew 13:10-17; Mark 4:10-12; Luke 8:9-10; John 12:37-41; Acts 28:23-28. From our human perspective these passages seem to indicate a harshness in God, even a fault, something that seems utterly unjust and unfair, and we are not sure that we want anything to do with a God who acts in this way. From the divine perspective we learn something totally different, and we get this divine perspective from Jesus Christ, the incarnate God.

Consider: We are told in 2 Corinthians 4:4 that 'the god of this has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ' and that the reason people do believe is that God 'made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ' (2 Cor. 4:6). This parallels the words of Jesus Christ: 'No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him' (Matthew 11:27b). We find actual examples of this in Christ's use of parables referred to in the Gospel references above: the parables told God's truth: but only those to whom Christ revealed the meaning understood. To the others who heard but did not understand, their hearing produced further hardening of their already hard hearts. Constant hearing of the word, without understanding and responding, produces more hardening and deeper darkness. The more the word of God comes to those who reject it the harder their hearts become. We saw this process and its consequences described in Romans 1:18-32.

In 11:11-25 Paul address his Gentile Christian readers, warning them against pride (11:18), arrogance (11:20-21) and complacency (11:21-22). Gentiles, ('the world' verse 15), are being shown mercy and receiving reconciliation and salvation - being grafted into the 'olive tree', the people of God - while unbelieving Jews are missing out. As we read through this passage with its mass of horticultural symbolism one things stands out that is free from symbolism: the significance and reality of unbelief and faith. This is the issue that determines the spiritual position of all, whether Jew or Gentile (11:20,23).

In this section (11:11-25) we must constantly keep in mind the distinction, referred to above, between the physical Israel and the spiritual Israel. Let us assume that Abraham is the 'root' of the 'olive tree' to which Paul is referring. Some of the natural branches (physical descendents of Abraham) don't have faith - they are not part of the true, spiritual, Israel - they are 'broken off'. Believing Gentiles are 'grafted in'. If unbelieving Jews start believing, they can easily be 'grafted' back in.

What then is the fate of Israel?

Some teach, on the basis of Romans 11:11-32, that literally all of Israel will be saved; some teach that all of Israel living at the time of Christ's second coming will be saved. The first of these is undermined by the obvious fact that up to the present moment of history many, many Israelites have died without faith in Jesus the Messiah, and so, according to Jesus himself, do not have eternal life, were already condemned, and cannot see or enter the kingdom of God (John 3). The second is undermined by statements made by Jesus that at his coming there will be an immediate judgement and allocation of permanent eternal destinations for which everyone has to be ready (Matthew 24:1 to 25:46); no time is given for people alive at that time to do a quick about face and suddenly start believing. [Note: dispensational teaching inserts a thousand year interim reign of Christ between his second coming and the final judgement; obviously, such teaching leaves time for 'all Israel' alive then to be saved; however, this interim dispensation cannot be found in the teaching of Christ and the apostles. It derives from an interpretation imposed on the Scriptures from a literal understanding of one phrase used several times in Revelation 20:1-7 - but it is somewhat dishonest exegesis to insist on taking one phrase literally in a chapter, indeed a whole book, which was written in a deliberately figurative literary style.]

But back to the question: what is the fate of Israel? Will all Israel be saved? Obviously not - for there have been, are, and will be, those who do not believe the claims of Jesus Christ, and therefore 'die in their sins' (John 8:24). What then is Paul teaching here in Romans 11:11-32? Just as in Romans 5:18 he wrote 'just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men', and in 11:32 he writes 'for God has bound all men over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all' here in 11:25-26 'Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved .' He then goes on to explain the equalization of all people revealed in the Gospel that he has already demonstrated in 1:18-3:20, and effectively summarized in 3:22-24: 'There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.'

Here in 11:28-32 Paul restates this: both Jews and Gentiles are disobedient to God; this means that the salvation of both can only be in terms of mercy, not merit. This throws the whole question of salvation open to all people - both the (disobedient) Gentiles and the (now revealed as disobedient) Jews. So long as salvation is viewed as according to merit/performance (that is, kata sarka) it is not open to all - it is only open to those who can merit it (and Paul has clearly demonstrated there are none who can!). But because salvation is, by the Gospel, shown to be freely given on the basis of mercy (not kata sarka but kata pneuma) it is available for all (irrespective of their present disobedience).' The Jews' present disobedience cannot annul the promise made to the patriarchs that justification is by faith not works - a blessing brought to all the nations of the earth through Jesus Christ, the one promised offspring/descendant of the patriarchs (Genesis 12:3; 18:18; 22:18; 26:4; 28:14; Galatians 3:8).

Paul concludes this section with a doxology of praise (11:33-36) in which he extols the wisdom, knowledge, judgements and mind of God. We would relate to him on the basis of our own merit (11:35) seeking reward from God for what we have done for him. God, in his unfathomable wisdom, knows and operates in a far superior way: he knows we could never merit salvation, he knows that we cannot by our own efforts gain legal acquittal and the right to eternal life through our own deserving. Just as all that is owes its origin and present existence to him, even so our salvation - our believing, our repentance, our life with him - owes its origin and its present existence to him:

'For from him and through him and to him are all things.
To him be the glory forever! Amen.' (11:36)

In this doxology in praise of God's wisdom Paul puts forth his final argument against a merit based concept of salvation and life with God. God simply does not operate that way. It is we humans who devise the kata sarka way of relating to God. In our insignificance we desire this personal claim to fame, this personal significance, that we, by our efforts, can move the hand of God to accept us and grant us entry to life with him.

Not so. All things are from God. All things are through God. All things are to God. Even our salvation.

Let us therefore cast aside, let us bury, our human desire to gain and maintain salvation by our own performance, and in that casting aside, in that burying, give to him the glory that is his due. The Lord is our salvation: we trust not in ourselves, but in him.