But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
–Romans 8:37-39 (NASB)
That’s how Paul wrapped up the eighth chapter of his Holy Epistle to the Romans (as we count the chapters and verses) and as I recorded in my previous reflection on this letter. Paul is offering a note of comfort and conciliation to his Jesus-believing Gentile readers in Rome that in spite of all the adversity they face, they will never be separated from God’s love through Messiah.
But while Paul wasn’t writing letters in chapters, what we call chapter 9 does seem to start off with a major shift in topic.
I am telling the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience testifies with me in the Holy Spirit, that I have great sorrow and unceasing grief in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed, separated from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh, who are Israelites, to whom belongs the adoption as sons, and the glory and the covenants and the giving of the Law and the temple service and the promises, whose are the fathers, and from whom is the Christ according to the flesh, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen.
I’ve always wondered why Paul began this part of his letter by saying he wasn’t lying. Who would have thought, over halfway through reading the epistle, that Paul started being duplicitous or disingenuous?
Of course, there’s this:
And when they heard it they began glorifying God; and they said to him, “You see, brother, how many (tens of) thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed, and they are all zealous for the Law; and they have been told about you, that you are teaching all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children nor to walk according to the customs.
Paul had enemies in some Jewish communities in the diaspora and they had apparently been spreading rumors that he had been teaching the Jews in the galut that they did not have to follow the Torah of Moses or the traditions of their Fathers. Perhaps some Jews and Gentiles hearing these rumors (and remember, at the point Paul is writing this letter, he’d never been to Rome before so none of the people reading this would likely have met him before) thought they were true. If indeed Paul was following the instructions for teaching the Gentiles formally adopted by the Apostolic Council’s halachic ruling as chronicled in Acts 15, he was teaching the Gentiles that they were not obligated to the yoke of Torah as were the Jewish disciples. I can see where this could have been confusing.
But either through malice or miscommunication, the rumors existed and the Gentile (and Jewish) disciples in Rome may have believed they had good cause to doubt Paul’s affection for his fellow countrymen. So given that Paul’s about to launch into an impassioned plea for unbelieving Jews, a strong preface of “I’m not lying” may have seemed necessary. Of course, all this is guess-work on my part, but as I’ve said before, these “reflections” on Romans are just my impressions at reading the letter “cover-to-cover,” so to speak.
Paul says he’d rather be accursed and separated from Christ. The ESV translation uses “cut off” in place of “separated” which immediately brings to mind the following:
For whoever does any of these abominations, those persons who do so shall be cut off from among their people.
If (and it’s probably a big “if”) the Apostle to the Gentiles meant “cut off” in the sense of the Hebrew word “Karet” as described by Derek Leman, then Paul was indeed saying he was willing to undergo great suffering, complete isolation from Israel, and perhaps even death for the sake of the salvation of some of his brethren in the flesh, that is, for other Jews.
On the heels of that declaration, Paul then says that his unbelieving Jewish brothers (and indeed all Jews) are those to whom belong “adoption as sons,” “the glory and the covenants,” “the giving of the Law (Torah),” “the Temple service,” and “the promises, whose are the fathers.”
In other words, the promises God made to Israel, that is, all Jewish people, as recorded in the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings (what Jews commonly call the Tanakh and what Christians refer to as the Old Testament), all of them, still belonged to all of Israel, to all Jews from Paul’s point of view as he was writing his letter.
Remember, Paul was writing after the crucifixion, death, resurrection, and ascension of Messiah, the Christ, who sits at the right hand of the Father and who is our High Priest in the Heavenly Tabernacle. Apparently, none of that deleted, watered down, erased, or “fulfilled” any of those aforementioned promises in order to make them go away or to transfer them from Jews to Gentiles.
So if the Jews had all those advantages, why was it so important to Paul that they accept the validity of the revelation of Yeshua as Messiah?
…whose are the fathers, and from whom is he Christ according to the flesh, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen.
What an odd way to end that sentence. What does Christ (Messiah) have to do with everything Paul said in the previous verses?
But now He [Messiah] has obtained a more excellent ministry, by as much as He is also the mediator of a better covenant, which has been enacted on better promises.
You’ll have to read my sermon reviews of D. Thomas Lancaster’s lengthy sermon series on the Holy Epistle to the Hebrews, particularly Better Promises and Glory to Glory to get the full meaning of what I’m saying here, but a big, big part of those “promises” of “the fathers” (also translated as “the patriarchs”) are the promises of the New Covenant, which Paul has been referencing heavily so far in his letter, a Covenant for which Yeshua is the mediator.
In order to access those promises fully, the next step in Jewish religious life and faith was to acknowledge the revelation of the Messiah and it was so important to Paul that Jewish people do so, that they claim their own heritage, he was willing to voluntarily surrender his part in those promises, including the final and total forgiveness of sins and the resurrection into the Messianic Kingdom.
But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel; nor are they all children because they are Abraham’s descendants, but: “through Isaac your descendants will be named.” That is, it is not the children of the flesh who are children of God, but the children of the promise are regarded as descendants. For this is the word of promise: “At this time I will come, and Sarah shall have a son.” And not only this, but there was Rebekah also, when she had conceived twins by one man, our father Isaac; for though the twins were not yet born and had not done anything good or bad, so that God’s purpose according to His choice would stand, not because of works but because of Him who calls, it was said to her, “The older will serve the younger.” Just as it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”
This set of verses has been misused time and again by Christians including those belonging to some portion of the Hebrew Roots movement, to say that Christians are “spiritual Israel” or that Jesus-believing Gentiles actually are Israel in fact.
But hold up there, Tiger. Not so fast.
Verse 6 may say “for they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel” (and we typically think of “Israel” = “Jacob”), but look at the verses that immediately follow. I suggest that what Paul is actually saying is that not all offspring of Abraham are Israel, but only the descendants of Isaac, the child of the promise (remember, Paul was talking about promises God made to the patriarchs). God loved Jacob but hated Esau. In other words, God loved the child of promise Isaac and Isaac’s child Jacob, but He hated Isaac’s child Esau. Only one of the twins could inherit the promises and that child’s offspring became the Twelve Tribes of Israel who are now the Jewish people.
It has nothing to do with Gentile Christians and only has to do with Gentiles in the sense of the non-inheriting offspring of Abraham and Isaac since their descendants are not Israel, not Jewish.
I think this is Paul’s way of saying that all of the direct descendants of Abraham and of Isaac and of Jacob are loved because of the promises God made to each of them (see Genesis 12:1-3; 17:21; 22:15-19; 26:2-5; 28:10-17). Those promises and all the other promises God made with Israel were never rescinded, thus they all remained (and still remain to this day) in force, but only for the Israelites.
What shall we say then? There is no injustice with God, is there? May it never be! For He says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I raised you up, to demonstrate My power in you, and that My name might be proclaimed throughout the whole earth.” So then He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires.
I once heard these verses used to support Calvinism or the idea that God selected only specific individuals for salvation from before the creation of the Earth and not others. Since God is sovereign over the universe, He has the right to do this, but was Paul inventing Calvinism in these scriptures?
Look at the context and especially what he wrote above. He’s been talking about how “God loved Jacob” (Israel) and “hated Esau” (the non-children of promise from Abraham and Isaac, and perhaps all pagan peoples descended from them). Is this unfair of God? According to Paul, no. God had/has the right to choose Israel from among all the nations of the Earth for special blessings, promises, and duties (and make no mistake, being the sole objects of the covenants and obligated to their conditions by performing the Torah mitzvot is indeed a challenging set of duties).
Now recall that Paul isn’t writing to the Jews in Rome but to the Gentile believers, very likely because he had heard of some strife between the Gentiles and Jews sharing community space in the Roman synagogues and that the Gentiles might have been getting a bit arrogant in their special status of equal co-participants in Jewish worship life without the obligation to undergo the proselyte rite. I’ve said in previous “reflections” that the non-believing Jews may have been pushing back by emphasizing their special chosen status as Israelites and no doubt that had the intended effect of “stinging” Gentile pride.
I think what Paul is saying here is that God had every right to choose the Israelites for whatever reason or not reason at all, and that God is not being unfair. God can have mercy on who He chooses and there’s nothing we can do to change God’s mind. Paul uses the example of Pharaoh whose heart God hardened during Moses’ numerous appeals to secure freedom for the Israelite slaves, and God did this for His own glory, even though you might think it was unfair, since this hardening ultimately lead to the deaths of many, many Egyptians.
But God is sovereign and Paul is saying because of such, God can choose Israel for special blessings and quite frankly, we Gentiles have nothing to say about it.
I didn’t fail to notice that such a position has applications in the Messianic Jewish and Hebrew Roots movements of today. Many non-Jews involved in each of these two disciplines can sometimes get that “I’m on the outside looking in” feeling when it comes to Talmud study, davening in a minyan, or even reciting the blessings of donning a tallit, that is, those mitzvot that are distinctively Jewish.
Some non-Jews attached to these movements have said it’s unfair for Messianic Jews to withhold the observance of these mitzvot to themselves and have even gone so far as to say that Messianic Jews are exclusivist and racist.
And yet we have Paul strongly stating that God has every right to give the Torah to the Jewish people and not assign the same chosen status to those of us who are not descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. My impression of Paul is that he would have little patience with the demands of such folks.
You will say to me then, “Why does He still find fault? For who resists His will?” On the contrary, who are you, O man, who answers back to God? The thing molded will not say to the molder, “Why did you make me like this,” will it? Or does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make from the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for common use? What if God, although willing to demonstrate His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction? And He did so to make known the riches of His glory upon vessels of mercy, which He prepared beforehand for glory, even us, whom He also called, not from among Jews only, but also from among Gentiles.
So being clay, all of us, in the hands of our molder, that is God, who are any of us to complain if He made some clay Jewish and some clay Gentile? Those He made for “honorable use” (I know this is going to sound unkind) can be compared to the Jewish people, while those made for “common use” are the Gentiles. After all, relative to the entire world population, the Jewish people have always been only a tiny number, apparently reserved for a special use while the rest of us, because we are so many, are more “common.”
I think this was Paul’s message to the Roman Gentile Jesus-believers. He sounds like he was definitely playing “hard ball” in this letter, but since he wasn’t with them in person to emphasize his points, he had to make sure there would be no way his readers could misunderstand him. Going back to that part of the chapter where Paul said he wasn’t lying, maybe he had a good reason to say things in as definite a manner as possible.
Thus the “vessels of mercy which He prepared beforehand for glory” to whom God would “make His power known” are the Jewish people, but some of that glory also extends to us, “not from among the Jews only, but also from among the Gentiles.”
This is the hook Paul uses to keep the Gentiles engaged so they wouldn’t be completely put off by everything he just said. Further:
As He says also in Hosea,
“I will call those who were not My people, ‘My people,’
And her who was not beloved, ‘beloved.’”
“And it shall be that in the place where it was said to them, ‘you are not My people,’
There they shall be called sons of the living God.”
Isaiah cries out concerning Israel, “Though the number of the sons of Israel be like the sand of the sea, it is the remnant that will be saved; for the Lord will execute His word on the earth, thoroughly and quickly.” And just as Isaiah foretold,
“Unless the Lord of Sabaoth had left to us a posterity,
We would have become like Sodom, and would have resembled Gomorrah.”
Now Paul flips the Prophets, so to speak, emphasizing where the Gentiles are included in the promises, showing them where they/we are involved. Paul has made his point that the Gentiles can’t assume the role and place of the Jews and now he’s showing the Gentiles where their role and place lies using the relevant scriptures.
Finally (for today’s meditation):
What shall we say then? That Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, attained righteousness, even the righteousness which is by faith; but Israel, pursuing a law of righteousness, did not arrive at that law. Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as though it were by works. They stumbled over the stumbling stone, just as it is written,
“Behold, I lay in Zion a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense,
And he who believes in Him will not be disappointed.”
There are not two paths to justification and salvation, faith for the Gentiles and the Torah for the Jews. That the Gentiles are not obligated to “pursue righteousness” through the Law in the manner of the Jews but are saved by faith alone, does not make them better or worse than the Jews, but the Jews, having the Torah (pursuing righteousness through the mitzvot), must still walk by faith. If a Jew (as perhaps some of the Roman Jews had been thinking) believed that mitzvot observance alone justified them before God, then the Torah became a “stone of stumbling” and “a rock of offense” for them. Torah doesn’t replace faith, it is by faith that the Jewish people walk the path of Torah.
If Paul expected both Jewish and Gentile disciples of the Master to pursue righteousness by observing the same Torah statues and commandments, then he would have said the “stone of stumbling” and the “rock of offense” was for both Jews and Gentiles who lacked faith, but he didn’t. He deliberately juxtaposed the faith of the Gentiles and the Law of the Jews, for it was the Gentiles who were bragging that by faith they were saved and that they had no obligation to the mitzvot, rubbing Jewish noses in Gentile “freedom,” so to speak.
In spite of the differences in role and responsibility between the Jewish and Gentiles disciples, the common denominator, the place where God was totally impartial as far as Israel and the nations were concerned, where He broke down the dividing wall between the two groups (Ephesians 2:14), was that only the faith of Abraham justifies anyone before God. We are all justified by faith in God through the mediator of His promises, Messiah Yeshua (Christ Jesus).
What an illuminating “reflection” Romans 9 turned out to be.