In Romans 9 to 11, Paul deals with Israel’s role in God’s plan. Does the new covenant, and the salvation of Gentiles, mean that God no longer has a special interest in the Jewish people? Since salvation is by faith, is there a role left for the people of Israel? In chapter 10, Paul develops the question, which he will answer in chapter 11.
Paul begins by expressing his hope that the Jews would accept the gospel: “Brothers and sisters, my heart’s desire and prayer to God on behalf of my fellow Israelites is for their salvation” (Romans 10:1). Paul wants his own people to be saved.
Humanly speaking, we would expect the Jews to do quite well: “For I can testify that they are zealous for God…” (verse 2). But the problem is that “their zeal is not in line with the truth.” What did they lack? They were “ignoring the righteousness that comes from God” (verse 3). They knew that God is righteous, but they did not know how he would count humans as righteous. They were therefore “seeking instead to establish their own righteousness.”
In this passage, Paul is making a contrast between a righteousness based on works and the law (9:30; 10:5), and a righteousness that comes through faith (9:30; 10:6). The Jews aimed at righteousness through their covenant with God, a relationship the Gentiles did not have. The Jewish people, focusing on the law, could not see a different means of righteousness, and could not see God working with other people.
As a result of looking to their works, “they did not submit to God’s righteousness” (10:3). God’s righteousness must come by grace, not works, and as long as people look to what they do, they fail to accept the gift of righteousness the gospel reveals.
So Paul concludes: “For Christ is the end of the law, with the result that there is righteousness for everyone who believes” (verse 4). Some translations say the “goal” of the law, or the purpose of the law. Both goal and end can be supported by other verses, but which emphasis did Paul intend here? I suspect that he meant both. In a race, for example, the goal is also the end. When we reach the goal or purpose of some endeavor, the project is finished. Christ is the supreme expression of the law. Now that we have him, we do not need the preliminary, for he is the means of our righteousness.
Although some details of the grammar may be debated, Paul’s conclusion is clear enough: Righteousness cannot be obtained through our efforts to keep the law. Rather, it must be 1) given through Christ, 2) received by faith rather than works and 3) available to Gentiles as well as Jews. When it comes to salvation, Jews do not have special privileges. The law, which was given to Israel, is not the means of salvation.
In verses 5 to 10, Paul will elaborate on faith, and in verses 11 to 13, he will emphasize that it is available to everyone.
Contrast between law and gospel
Throughout this section, Paul uses the Old Testament for support. (There are more quotes per verse in these chapters than anywhere else in the New Testament.) In Romans 10:5, he quotes Leviticus 18:5: “For Moses writes about the righteousness that is by the law: ‘The one who does these things will live by them.’” The old covenant included faith, but it emphasized obedience. Since no one could do everything the law required, it could never be a means of righteousness. The new covenant, however, is based on Christ, so it succeeds where the old covenant could not.
“But the righteousness that is by faith says: ‘Do not say in your heart, “Who will ascend into heaven?”’ (that is, to bring Christ down) or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’ (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead)” (Romans 10:6-7, quoting parts of Deuteronomy 30:4, 12-13). In Deuteronomy 30, Moses told the Israelites that God did not choose them because they were righteous, so they should have known that God could reveal himself to sinners, including Gentiles. Moses told the Israelites that the commandments are revealed rather than hidden. God’s word for them was readily available. Paul applied this principle to Christ and the gospel—the word of God in the gospel is easy to obtain.
“But what does it say?” Paul asks in verse 8, and then he quotes Deuteronomy 30:14: “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart.” Deuteronomy goes on to say “so you may obey it,” but Paul does not quote that, for he is applying the principle to the gospel, not the law. He says instead, “…that is, the word of faith that we preach.” The message about righteousness through faith is near you — it is not hard to find.
Paul shows how accessible true righteousness is: “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (verse 9). Paul is not giving a new formula for salvation that requires spoken words — he is showing how the words mouth and heart apply to the gospel. It is Christ (not the law) that should be in the heart and mind.
“For with the heart one believes and thus has righteousness and with the mouth one confesses and thus has salvation” (verse 10). Paul puts faith and confession as parallel ideas, not distinctly different, and he puts righteousness and salvation as roughly equivalent terms. The law required obedience, but the gospel requires acceptance.
Everyone is invited
“For the scripture says,” Paul notes in verse 11, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” This is quoted from Isaiah 28:16, which says that God will lay a cornerstone in Zion for a sure foundation, and people who have faith in this cornerstone will not be found short on the day of judgment. Paul quoted the entire verse in 9:33; here he just repeats the part about believing in Christ as the key to salvation.
Paul then repeats a favorite theme: “For there is no distinction between the Jew and the Greek, for the same Lord is Lord of all, who richly blesses all who call on him. For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (verses 12-13, quoting Joel 2:32). Salvation comes by calling on the Lord, looking to him for salvation. In Joel, the Lord was Yahweh, but Paul uses the verse for Christ, showing that he accepted Jesus as God.
Salvation comes by accepting Jesus Christ as Lord. The problem is that Paul’s own people are rejecting the message. He highlights this in verse 14: “How are they to call on one they have not believed in?” They have to call on the Lord to be saved, but if people think he is a crucified criminal instead of the Messiah, they won’t call on him.
“And how are they to believe in one they have not heard of? And how are they to hear without someone preaching to them? And how are they to preach unless they are sent?” (verses 14-15). Salvation comes in response to the preaching. But the problem can’t be solved by sending more preachers — preachers have already been sent, and most of the Jews still haven’t believed. So where in the sequence is the problem for the Jews?
Israel hears but does not believe
Messengers were sent: “As it is written, ‘How timely is the arrival of those who proclaim the good news’” (verse 15). This is quoted from the Greek version of Isaiah 52:7, which uses the common New Testament verb for preaching the gospel. In Isaiah’s day, the good news was the prophecy of the people being restored to their land.
Paul says in verse 16: “But not all have obeyed the good news, for Isaiah [53:1] says, ‘Lord, who has believed our report?’” People didn’t accept the message — it is an old problem, found throughout the history of Israel. Isaiah says that the message has to be believed—it’s a matter of faith, one of Paul’s favorite topics. So Paul says in verse 17: “Consequently faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the preached word of Christ.” Paul seems to be completing the evangelistic sequence of verse 15. People need to hear the message before they can believe it.
However, it’s not enough just to hear the words. In verse 18, Paul asks: “But I ask, have they not heard? Yes, they have: Their voice has gone out to all the earth, and their words to the ends of the world.’” This is quoted from Psalm 19:4, which says the heavens declare the glory of God. And if the whole world has heard the message, the Jews have also heard.
“But again I ask,” Paul writes in verse 19, “didn’t Israel understand? First Moses says [in Deuteronomy 32:21], ‘I will make you jealous by those who are not a nation; with a senseless nation I will provoke you to anger.’” Israel failed, and God told them in advance that he would work with other peoples. This verse revealed to Paul what God was doing in Paul’s ministry: He wanted the salvation of Gentiles to make Israel jealous, so the Jews would then accept the gospel. That is what Paul worked so hard to achieve.
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Scriptures are quoted by permission from the NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2006 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com. All rights reserved.
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This article was written by Michael Morrison in 2004 and updated in 2015. Copyright Grace Communion International. All rights reserved.
“And Isaiah is even bold enough to say, ‘I was found by those who did not seek me; I became well known to those who did not ask for me’” (verse 20, quoting Isaiah 65:1). Isaiah is talking about wayward Israelites, but Paul applies it here to Gentiles. If God can reveal himself to disinherited Jews, then he can do it to anyone. So God turned away from the zealous, and he blessed people who didn’t even know to ask.
Paul concludes the chapter by saying, “But about Israel he says, ‘All day long I held out my hands to this disobedient and stubborn people!’” (verse 21, quoting Isaiah 65:2). God did not want the Jewish people to go astray, but they would not listen. Israel had an opportunity for salvation, but most were refusing it.
Does that mean that God has given up on them? Certainly not, Paul says. But that is in chapter 11, and we’ll see his conclusion in our study of that chapter.
Things to think about
- Was I ever zealous for God and his law, but mistaken? (verse 2) Has that experience dampened my zeal? Should it?
- Is the gospel message in my mouth as well as my heart? (verse 8)
- Who was sent for me to hear the good news? (verse 15)
- Am I envious of a blessing given to someone else? (verse 19) Does that envy have good fruit, or bad?