Paul's Anguish for His People: A Study of Romans 9
Romans chapters 9-11 pose a question: Are these chapters a digression, or a main point? Paul has stopped describing the gospel, and begun to talk about the role of the Jewish people in God’s plan.
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 (vv. 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 speak the truth in Christ — I am not lying, my conscience confirms it through the Holy Spirit — I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart.”
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 cursed and 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, those of my own race, the people of Israel” (vv. 3-4). Just as Moses offered to give himself up for Israel (Ex. 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.
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: “Theirs is the adoption to sonship; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises” (v. 4).
Gentiles had many of these advantages, too — they can be adopted through Christ, offered the divine glory, a new covenant and wonderful promises. But Paul is 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 an important part of their culture and religion.
Paul lists two more Jewish advantages in verse 5: “Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of the Messiah, who is God over all, forever praised! 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 Paul’s main point here 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 missing out on salvation, which gives the appearance that God’s promises to them have been broken.
God’s freedom to choose
Paul begins to address the problem in verse 6: “It is not as though God’s word had failed. For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel.” The root problem is whether God’s word is true, whether he is faithful to his promises. Paul then points out that we can’t expect all Jews to be inheritors of the promise.
In verse 7 Paul gives evidence: “Nor because they are his descendants are they all Abraham’s children.” Some of Abraham’s descendants are not counted as his children; they are disinherited. Paul quotes Genesis 21:12 as evidence: “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” Ishmael was Abraham’s son, but he was not counted as a descendent for the purpose of the promise — the promise was given to the children of Isaac.
“In other words, it is not the children by physical descent who are God’s children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham’s offspring. This was how the promise was stated: At the appointed time I will return, and Sarah will have a son” (vv. 8-9, quoting Gen. 18:14). Only Isaac was a child of promise. But God’s selectivity did not stop there — not even all the children of Isaac were counted among the chosen people.
Verses 10-13: “Not only that, but Rebekah’s children were conceived at the same time by our father Isaac. Yet, before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad — in order that God’s purpose in election might stand: not by works but by him who calls — she was told, ‘The older will serve the younger’ [Gen. 25:23]. Just as it is written [Mal. 1:2-3]: ‘Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.’”
The word hated doesn’t imply hate as we know it — the construction is a Hebrew figure of speech to emphasize the love for the other. God blessed Esau, but he did not choose him for the covenant he gave Israel. Instead, the promise was carried through the line of Jacob.
All this supports the point Paul made in verse 6: not all the Israelites are God’s people. God can choose the people he works with, and when, and for what purpose. He had a special purpose for Israel, and he did not choose everyone for that role.
But Paul has not yet solved the problem he began with — if God is not giving salvation to all of Jacob’s descendants, what good is it to be a descendent of Jacob? It looks like God is not keeping his promises.
God’s freedom to give mercy
In verse 14, Paul approaches the question from a different angle: “What then shall we say? Is God unjust?” God chooses some people and not others, and this doesn’t look fair — especially if you think that God made a promise to save all the Jews.
But Paul answers in verse 14: “Not at all! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion” (Ex. 33:19). It’s a matter of mercy, not justice. The surprise is not that some people are left out — the miracle is that some people are saved. God can give mercy to whomever he wants, without being unfair to the others (Matt. 20:15).
Paul concludes, “It does not, therefore, depend on human desire or effort, but on God’s mercy” (v. 16). Salvation is by grace, not by what we want or do.
God’s freedom to harden hearts
It is easy to show that mercy is fair, but Paul also has to include the opposite, because it seems that Israel is being hardened. He begins with the example of Pharaoh: “For Scripture says to Pharaoh: ‘I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth’” (v. 17; Ex. 9:16). God tells Pharaoh: “I put you in a position of power so I could show the world that I have far more power. You will be an object lesson of what happens to people who resist my purpose.”
“Therefore,” Paul summarizes in verse 18, “God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.” Both of these can be fair. We have to accept what God does, and not judge him by our own understanding.
However, Paul knows that his case is more difficult, so he says in verse 19: “One of you will say to me: ‘Then why does God still blame us? For who is able to resist his will?’” The objection is that it’s not fair for God to punish people for disobedience when he made them disobey. Paul does not say whether the accusation is true — he just pulls rank. “Who are you, a human being, to talk back to God?” He quotes Isaiah 29:16: “Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’”
Paul asks questions that emphasize the gulf between God and humans: “Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for special purposes and some for common use?” Here Paul refers to Jeremiah 18, where God says that he can change his plans for Israel depending on how they respond to him.
Then Paul asks another “what if” question: “What if God, although choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath — prepared for destruction?” (v. 22). The marvel is not that God rejects his people — it is that he is so patient with those who reject him.
God’s freedom to call his people
In verses 23-24, Paul asks another “what if” or hypothetical question: “What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory — even us, whom he also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles?” What if God’s patience is designed to help us appreciate his mercy? If God is patient with those who oppose him, how much more is he patient with those who turn to him?
Paul has dismissed the question about fairness and is now moving to statements about God’s calling. He starts by showing from the Old Testament that God is saving not only Jews, but also Gentiles.
“As he says in Hosea: ‘I will call them “my people” who are not my people; and I will call her “my loved one” who is not my loved one.’ In the very place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ there they will be called ‘children of the living God’” (Romans 9:25-26, quoting Hos. 2:23 and 1:10). Hosea is talking about the restoration of Israelites who had fallen away, but Paul is adapting the verse to say that God is calling Gentiles, who had never been part of God’s people.
God can reject Israelites who persistently reject him. He has no further obligation to them — they are in the same category as Gentiles. So, if he can make these rejected Israelites his people again, then he can make anyone his people. He can choose people he previously ignored, just as he did with Abraham and Israel. What God did with the Jews, he can also do with everyone else.
Paul moves into a slightly different idea when he quotes Isaiah 10:22: “Though the number of the Israelites be like the sand by the sea, only the remnant will be saved. For the Lord will carry out his sentence on earth with speed and finality” (vv. 27-28). The word remnant is important.
“It is just as Isaiah said previously [in Isa. 1:9],” Paul says in verse 29: “Unless the Lord Almighty had left us descendants, we would have become like Sodom, we would have been like Gomorrah.” The surprise is not that many Jews reject the message, but that some accept it. If we were left to ourselves, we would be desolate. But because God has been merciful, a remnant of people are responding. God’s word has not failed — Isaiah’s prophecy has come true. A remnant is being saved.
Israel missing the goal
“What then shall we say?” Paul asks in verses 30-31. “That the Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained it, a righteousness that is by faith; but the people of Israel, who pursued the law as the way of righteousness, have not attained their goal.” The Jews were trying hard to be righteous, but they failed, and the Gentiles, who were ignoring it, were given righteousness by God.
Why did Israel not attain their goal? Because they were trying to be righteous through the law. They focused on the law that made them distinctive and failed to see that it was leading them to Christ. They had a good goal, but they were pursuing it in the wrong way. “They pursued it not by faith but as if it were by works” (v. 32). The Jews focused on their advantages, but those things are ineffective in salvation. What we need is faith in Christ.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com
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This article was written by Michael Morrison in 2004 and updated in 2011. Copyright Grace Communion International. All rights reserved.
“They stumbled over the ‘stumbling stone’” — Christ (v. 32). “As it is written: ‘See, I lay in Zion a stone that causes people to stumble and a rock that makes them fall, and the one who believes in him will never be put to shame’” (v. 33, quoting Isa. 28:16). The word of God predicted that most of the Jews would stumble against Christ, and that has come true. But the person who believes in Christ will be saved. A remnant will be saved.
In this chapter, Paul stated the problem—explaining that only a few of the Jews accept Jesus as the Christ. This should not be surprising, for it was predicted in Scripture. But that is not the end of the story, as we will see in the next two chapters.
Have I ever wondered why Jews don’t accept Jesus?
How concerned am I for the salvation of my people? (v. 3)
What advantages do I have in salvation? (v. 4)
Is it fair for God to save some people and let others continue walking toward disaster? (v. 14)
Is God fair, or are we even allowed to ask the question? (v. 20).
If God saves a few Jews, does that solve the problem, or do I still have questions? (v. 27).