Romans 9:1-5 – Why is Paul so upset?

, posted by kingswoodhart

This is part of a series of posts on Romans. The main focus of this series will be chapters 9-11 of the letter. These chapters, particularly chapter 9, have been interpreted in various different ways. My aim is to demonstrate what I consider to be the correct interpretation. I will do this by considering the structure and context of the letter and then focusing in on these chapters, showing how the proposed interpretation fits with the context and structure of the letter, as well as being internally consistent within chapters 9-11. Click here for the contents page.

We have seen that chapters 9-11 of Romans match with chapters 3-4. In chapters 3-4, Paul explains that a right-standing before God is not based on ethnicity or works, but is given to all who have faith in Christ. An expected response to this, from Paul’s ethnic Israelite audience, is “what about the large number of ethnic Israelites who are not currently trusting in Christ and are therefore not in a right-standing before God? Has God let them down? Shouldn’t God save them anyway because they are ethnic Israelites? Is there any hope for them?” Paul addresses these questions in chapters 9-11.

As shown in the previous post, the first section of chapters 9-11 is chapter 9, verses 1-5:

“[1] I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit—[2] that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. [3] For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh. [4] They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. [5] To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen.”

Paul is deeply sad that many ethnic Israelites are not currently (i.e. in Paul’s time) in a right-standing before God (through faith in Christ), despite them having had many privileges in being able to know who Christ is.

We can see from verse 3 that he is talking about his fellow ethnic Israelites, who are his “kinsmen according to the flesh”. What’s so sad is that many of them are not currently Paul’s spiritual kinsmen in Christ.

Paul says he could wish that he would be cut off from Christ for the sake of his ethnic brothers and sisters who are currently separated from Christ. However, he knows that this wouldn’t work because the only way they can be saved is by Christ himself.

Paul’s desire for the salvation of the ethnic Israelites is similar to that of Moses in Exodus 32:30-32, when Moses visits the Lord after the people of Israel sin in making the golden calf. Moses says to the people of Israel, “perhaps I can make atonement for your sin”, and then he says to the Lord, “please forgive their sin – but if not, then blot me out of the book you have written”. The Lord did not grant Moses’ request to be blotted out of the Lord’s book, but we see that Moses’ love for his people was self-sacrificial, like Paul’s. He was willing to be cut off for their salvation.

Paul and Moses’ desire for the salvation of the ethnic Israelites mirrors that of Jesus himself, who said “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing” (Matthew 23:37). Jesus also longs for the salvation of the ethnic Israelites.

Jesus was also willing to be cut off for their salvation, and he actually went through with this: “he was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of my people he was punished” (Isaiah 53:8), “he himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed” (1 Peter 2:24). Sadly, many of Paul’s fellow ethnic Israelites “were not willing” to come to Jesus to be saved.

Back in Romans 9, in verses 4 to 5, Paul lists many of the advantages that ethnic Israelites have had in being able to know Christ, ending with the fact that the Christ himself is ethnically one of them! It reminds us of Romans 3:1-2:

“Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision? Much in every way. To begin with, the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God.”

Note that in Romans 3:2, Paul says “to begin with”, and then introduces only one advantage of being a Jew (i.e. an ethnic Israelite) – that they were “entrusted with the oracles of God”. He doesn’t list any further advantages of being a Jew in chapter 3. The words “to begin with” show that Paul is intending to return to this subject later in the letter. This is what he does in chapter 9, starting with the list in verses 4 and 5 of further advantages of the Jew. This shows us that the discussion in chapter 9 is linked with that of chapter 3:1-8 (this is one of the connections between the related sections of chapters 3-4 and 9-11). We will consider further implications of this in future posts.

It was a great advantage for the ethnic Israelites to have these privileges, but, as Paul also makes clear in chapter 3, this is no guarantee of an individual ethnic Israelite’s salvation. It is, however, a very sad situation when someone who has been blessed with all these privileges refuses to accept his own ethnic brother – Jesus – for who he is.

This situation – the fact that many of Paul’s fellow ethnic Israelites are not currently trusting in Jesus – sets up the whole of Paul’s discussion in chapters 9-11, until he ends chapter 11 in the same way as this section (9:1-5) ends: “forever. Amen”.

There are points that Paul starts making in the next section (Romans 9:6-29) that he picks up and develops further in the related section of 11:1-32. It is helpful to look at 11:1-32 before 9:6-29 so that we know where Paul is going with the points he starts to make in 9:6-29. This will help to ensure that we interpret Paul’s initial points in 9:6-29 in the right way. There is disagreement among Christians about what 9:6-29 is teaching; this approach will help us to interpret this section correctly according to its context. For this reason, we will be leaving the next section (9:6-29) until last. So next we’ll be looking at 9:30-10:3.

This was first published at the Predestination Station, where comments can be made.