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Paul's letter to the Romans

chapter  9

Share my grief

The three chapters 9 to 11 have often been seen as an odd sidetrack in Paul's argument,  as though he here breaks off to wring his hands and grieve over what might have been.   But more recently some commentators have seen these chapters as a climax of the letter.   Certainly we should,  if possible,  give Paul the credit for knowing what he is doing,  and for constructing a good logical argument.   Chapters 9 and 10 have often been seen as proving that the small remnant consisting of those Jews who have become Christians is a sufficient fulfilment of God's promises to Israel.   But chapter 11 makes it very difficult to sustain that viewpoint.   Paul is glad that a remnant remains,  but he hopes for much more than that.
I speak the truth in Christ and in the Spirit too  -  there is no pretence,  when I say that I am grief-stricken and completely desolated.   I could pray God to curse me and cut me off from Christ if it would help Israel,  my own people,  my flesh and blood.   God took them as his children,  gave them the splendour of his presence,  the covenants,  the law,  the worship,  the promises.   They are the descendants of the patriarchs,  and from them,  by physical descent,  came the Christ.   May God most high be forever blessed!   It cannot be that God's word should have proved false!      [1-6]
The opening words are not an unguarded emotional outburst.   Teachers of rhetoric advised that,  after establishing an adequate foundation,  you should let your own feelings show in order to arouse the same sentiments in your hearers.   What is actually signalled to us here is that we have reached the high point of the whole letter.   In the light of all that God has given and promised to Israel the present situation cannot possibly be the end of the matter.

Certainly we need to be clear about what the name Israel refers to  . . .

Of course not all the descendants of Jacob belong to Israel,  nor are all Abraham's offspring his true children.   According to scripture:  'it is through Isaac that your descendants will be traced.  (Gen 21:12)'   Not the natural children,  but those born through the promise are the ones counted as Abraham's seed.   The promise was:  'I will come to you at a certain time,  and Sarah will have a son.  (Gen 18:10)'.   And that's not all.   Both of Rebekah's children had Isaac for their father,  and yet she was told,  even before they were born,  before they could do good or ill,  that the older would serve the younger  (Gen 25:23).  This is because God's option is what matters,  rather than what people do.   Another text says:  'I showed love to Jacob,  hatred to Esau.  (Mal 1:3)'.

Are we forced to conclude that God acts unjustly?   Not at all.   God said to Moses:  'I will be merciful where I am merciful,  and kind where I am kind.  (Ex 33:19)'   It doesn't depend on human will or effort,  but on God's grace.   The word to Pharaoh was:  'I have raised you up in order to demonstrate my power in my dealings with you,  and to make my name known throughout the world.  (Ex 9:16)'   God shows mercy where he chooses,  he also hardens hearts where he chooses.

You will say,  how can God blame anybody,  then?   No one can resist what he makes up his mind to do!   But who are you to challenge God?   The pot can't ask the potter why he made it like that.   The potter is sovereign over the clay.   He is entirely free to make something beautiful and then something ordinary out of the same lump.      [7-21]

Paul believes in the sovereign grace of God.   It is superficial,  but not too difficult if you have a legal turn of mind,  to imagine him resting his case on the bare fact that we have no claim against God,  who can do as he pleases.   Some distinguished commentators in the history of the church have simply left it at that.   But Paul knows that sovereign grace is still grace.   Though we cannot second-guess God,  he encourages us to think that in the end justice and grace will be seen not to be at odds with one another.
But maybe God,  even though he might have wanted to express his anger and make his power known,  patiently put up with those 'pots' that called forth his wrath and were fit for destruction.   Maybe he did this in order to reveal his glory with the 'pots' which called forth kindness and which had always been intended for such glory.   Such are we,  called from among Gentiles and Jews.

We read in the book of Hosea:  'those who were not my people I will call my people,  and a nation unloved will become my beloved.   Where it was said to them "You are no people of mine" they will now be called the children of the living God.  (Hos 2:1,23)'   Isaiah said:  'Israel may have as many descendants as the sands of the sea,  but only a remnant of them will be saved.   God's judgment will be rigorous and final.  (Is 10:23,23)'   And also:  'If God had not left us a seed we would have ended up like Sodom and Gomorrah.  (Is 1:9)'

So Gentiles who were not struggling after righteousness have attained it  -  through faith.   Israel,  having the law and looking to it for righteousness,  has missed out.   Why?   Because they did not go the faith way,  but thought they would get there simply through good deeds.   They came to grief over the stone Scripture tells of:  'Here I am,  setting in Zion a stone to stumble on,  a rock to trip people up.   Only the ones who have faith will not be put to shame.  (Is 28:16)'      [22-33]

  paraphrase and notes by Evan Lewis


Making connections with Paul the apostle
What Paul did NOT write

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