ROMANS 9-11: THE CONTEXT
Chapters 9-11 form the immediate context, dealing with the question of Jewish unbelief. The great issue at stake in these chapters is God’s faithfulness. God has a covenant relationship with Israel:
• God promised Abram, “I will make of you a great nation. I will bless you and make your name great. You will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you. All of the families of the earth will be blessed in you.” (Genesis 12:2-3).
• God also promised Abram, “I will establish my covenant between me and you and your seed after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God to you and to your seed after you” (Genesis 17:7).
• God said, “But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel…I will put my law in their inward parts, and in their heart will I write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Jeremiah 31:33).
But many Jews rejected the Messiah, and the church became predominantly Gentile. The question is whether God aborted his everlasting covenant with Israel and switched allegiance to Gentiles? If so—if God is fickle—can Gentiles trust him? Are God’s promises to Gentiles any more trustworthy than his promises to Jews?
There is a corresponding question: Is there hope for Israel? Has God written off Israel, or will he find a way to return it to the fold? Paul addresses that question at length in chapters 9-11. He says, “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, and is rich to all who call on him. For, ‘Whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved'” (10:12-13—the quotation at the end is from Joel 2:32).
Paul goes on to ask, “Did God reject his people?” and answers, “May it never be!” (11:1). He reminds us of Elijah, who believed that he was the only remaining faithful Israelite, but God told Elijah of seven thousand who had not bowed their knee to Baal. Paul says, “Even so then at this present time also there is a remnant according to the election of grace ” (11:5). The idea of a faithful remnant, of course, was present throughout Israel’s history (11:7-10). Paul talks about God using the inclusion of Gentiles to make Israel jealous so that they might be restored to salvation (11:11-12). He says, “a partial hardening has happened to Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in, and so all Israel will be saved” (11:25-26).
So Paul’s answer to the Jewish question is that God has been and continues to be faithful to the covenant. “God’s unfolding plan is this: the acceptance of the gospel by the Gentiles will work to bring about the conversion of Israel” (Craddock, 390).
While considering the context of 9:1-5, we should look briefly at chapters 2-4. Paul spoke there of Jews who relied on the law but failed to live by it (2:17 ff.). He said, “For circumcision indeed profits, if you are a doer of the law, but if you are a transgressor of the law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision” (2:25).
It sounds as if Paul is denying that it means anything special to be a Jew, but he addresses that head-on by asking, “Then what advantage does the Jew have? Or what is the profit of circumcision? Much in every way! Because first of all, they were entrusted with the oracles of God. For what if some were without faith? Will their lack of faith nullify the faithfulness of God? May it never be!” (3:1-4).
He goes on to speak of Abraham, who was justified by faith (4:1 ff.). He implies that Jewish people through the ages were justified by faith and will continue to be justified by faith in the future. Paul hardly believes Jews to be hopeless, but instead believes that God continues to woo them and that many will respond in faith.
One last point. Some people have suggested that chapters 9-11 were not part of Paul’s epistle. They offer three reasons:
• Chapters 9-11 are so cohesive that they could stand alone.
• The transition between the soaring joy of 8:37-39 and the despair of 9:1-3 is so abrupt that they sound as if they were written by two different people.
• If we were to remove chapters 9-11, the transition between chapter 8 and chapter 12 would be quite natural.
However, most scholars today believe not only that chapters 9-11 are part of Paul’s original epistle but also that they are an essential part. In this epistle, Paul presents a detailed outline of God’s plan of salvation. The epistle would be incomplete if Paul failed to address God’s plan for the Jews, which he does in chapters 9-11.
ROMANS 9:1-5. THE PROBLEM
Paul launches into this chapter without defining the problem that has brought him sorrow and anguish. It is only as we read through chapters 9-11 that we understand Paul’s concern for Israel—and his concern that anyone might think that God has written off Israel.
ROMANS 9:1. I TELL THE TRUTH IN CHRIST
1 I tell the truth in Christ. I am not lying, my conscience testifying with me in the Holy Spirit,
“I tell the truth in Christ“ (v. 1a). In the Greek, “truth” (aletheian) is the first word of the sentence, giving it emphasis. For Paul to say that he speaks “the truth in Christ” further strengthens his emphasis. He would never falsely use Christ’s name to support his claim that he was telling the truth.
“I am not lying, my conscience testifying with me in the Holy Spirit“ (v. 1b). Paul’s mention of the Holy Spirit strengthens the emphasis even further. “Paul evidently felt himself under attack here…. Almost certainly there were those who considered that the apostle to the Gentiles had turned his back on his own people” (Dunn).
ROMANS 9:2. I HAVE GREAT SORROW AND UNCEASING PAIN
2that I have great sorrow and unceasing pain in my heart.
Paul follows his opening comment with an anguished cry of pain. He admits to great sorrow and unceasing anguish, but does not tell his readers why he is in such pain. For him to speak of sorrow and anguish so quickly after his joyful statement of 8:37-39 would capture his readers’ attention and make them wonder why the sudden shift in his emotions.
ROMANS 9:3. I COULD WISH THAT I MYSELF WERE ACCURSED
3For I could wish that I myself were accursed (Greek: anathema)from Christ for my brothers’ sake, my relatives according to the flesh,
“For I could wish that I myself were accursed (anathema) from Christ for my brothers’ sake“ (v. 3a). Paul says that he would sacrifice his own salvation for the sake of his fellow Israelites. His model for this statement is Moses, who asked God to spare Israel for making the golden calf. Moses then said, “if not, please blot me out of your book which you have written” (Exodus 32:32). The difference is that Moses would have perished with his people, while Paul would perish in their place. Paul’s model is also Jesus, who gave his life as a sacrifice for the sins of the world.
Paul reveals that his sorrow has to do with his “my relatives according to the flesh“ (v. 3b)—his fellow Jews—but we will have to read chapters 10-11 to learn the reason for his concern. When Paul says, “my relatives according to the flesh,” he means something akin to “blood relatives”—in this case, his Israelite brothers and sisters.
ROMANS 9:4-5. WHO IS THE ADOPTION, THE GLORY, THE COVENANTS
4 who are Israelites; whose is the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the service, and the promises; 5of whom are the fathers, and from whom is Christ as concerning the flesh, who is over all, God, blessed forever. Amen.
Earlier, Paul asked, “Then what advantage does the Jew have?” Now he lists nine advantages:
• “who are Israelites” They are descendants of Jacob/Israel, and enjoy the blessings of the covenant that God made with Israel (Genesis 35:10-12).
• “whose is the adoption“ Israelites are children of God by adoption (Deuteronomy 14:1).
• “the glory” Israel had been privileged on many occasions to see the glory of the Lord (Exodus 16:7, 10; 24:16; 29:43; 33:18-22; 40:34; Leviticus 9:23, etc.).
• “the covenants” God made a series of covenants with Israel (Genesis 17:7; Exodus 2:24; 6:4; 19:5; 25:16; Jeremiah 31:33).
• “the giving of the law” The law was given to Moses on Mount Sinai (Exodus 19-20).
• “the service” Israel’s worship began with Abram building an altar to the Lord (Gen. 12:7), but was formalized in the liturgy of tabernacle, temple, and synagogue.
• “and the promises” Israel was the beneficiary of many great promises, the first being the promise of the birth of Isaac to Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 17), and the last being the promise of the coming of the Messiah (Deuteronomy 18:15; Psalm 118:22; 132:11; Isaiah 2:4; 7:14; 9:2, 7; 11:10; 25:8; 28:16; 42:1; 49:6; 52:14; 53:2; 55:4; 59:16; 61:1; 62:11; 63:1; Jeremiah 23:5; Ezekiel 17:22; Daniel 7:13; 9:25; Micah 5:2; Zechariah 6:12; 9:9; 12:10; 13:7; Malachi 3:1).
• “of who are the fathers.” The great patriarchs were Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Exodus 2:24; 6:3, 8; 33:1). They were the fathers of the Israelites, but now the Gentiles can claim them as spiritual fathers as well (4:11-12, 16-25; cf. I Corinthians 10:1) (Gagnon, 103; cf. Wright, 629).
• “and from whom is Christ.” The Messiah was born of the house and family of David, the great king of Israel (Luke 2:4—cf. Matthew 1:1-17; Luke 3:23-38).
“as concerning the flesh, who is over all, God, blessed forever. Amen“ (v. 5b). There is a problem of interpretation with this benediction, stemming from the lack of punctuation in the original. The question is whether we should put a comma or a period between “all” and “God.” If we put a comma there, as the NRSV does, “Messiah” and “God” are in apposition—i.e., Paul is equating the Messiah with God. If we put a period there, Paul is not equating them. The basic question, then, is whether Paul is saying that the Messiah is God.
Scholars are divided on this point, but in the next chapter Paul calls Jesus Lord (10:9) and then says, “Whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved” (10:13—quoting Joel 2:32, where Lord refers to God). He then quotes Isaiah, “Lord, who has believed our report?”—where Lord again refers to God.
Most scholars conclude that Paul intended to equate Messiah and God—to say that Jesus, whom Israel has rejected, is God. Just as the Israelites rejected God at Mount Sinai (Exodus 32), so now they reject God’s Son (Wright, 630; also see Morris, 350).
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Barclay, William, The Daily Study Bible: The Letter to the Romans (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1975)
Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holladay, Carl R.; and Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, A (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1992)
Dunn, James D. G., Word Biblical Commentary: Romans 9-16, Vol. 38B (Dallas: Word Books, 1988)
Gagnon, Robert A.J., in Van Harn, Roger E. (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: The Second Readings: Acts and the Epistles (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2001)
Gaventa, Beverly R. in Brueggemann, Walter; Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV — Year A (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995)
Morris, Leon, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Co, 1988)
Wright, N. Thomas, The New Interpreter’s Bible: Acts, Romans, 1 Corinthians, Vol. X (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002)
Copyright 2008, 2011, 2017, Richard Niell Donovan