Romans 9:30-10:3 – Why have so many ethnic Israelites failed to obtain righteousness?

, 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.

As explained at the end of the previous post, which covered Romans 9:1-5, we will skip over 9:6-29 for now and move on to 9:30-10:3.

Let’s start with 9:30-33:

“[30] What shall we say, then? That Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness have obtained it, that is, a righteousness that is by faith; [31] but that Israel who pursued a law that would lead to righteousness did not succeed in reaching that law. [32] Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were based on works. They have stumbled over the stumbling stone, [33] as it is written, “Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense; and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.””

In this section Paul sums up the reason why so many of his Christian brothers and sisters are Gentiles, and so few of them are ethnic Israelites. It’s clear that when he talks of “Gentiles” here he is referring to those Gentiles who are trusting in Christ, and when he talks of “Israel” he is referring to those in ethnic Israel who are not trusting in Christ (sadly the majority of them).

Paul’s explanation of the reason why there are so many Gentile Christians and so few ethnic Israelite Christians is simple: many Gentiles have put their faith in Christ, whereas many ethnic Israelites have not put their faith in Christ and have been relying on their own works instead. There is no mention of any extra aspects to the situation or of anything going on behind the scenes; it’s purely and simply a matter of who is trusting Christ and who is not. This fits precisely with what Paul has been saying earlier in Romans – it all depends on faith.

In verse 31, Paul states that the non-Christian ethnic Israelites have not succeeded in reaching the law that they were pursuing, which they thought would lead them to righteousness before God (see the earlier discussion on the difference between the “law of works” and the “law of faith”). In contrast, in verse 30 we see that the Christian Gentiles have achieved righteousness.

In verse 32, Paul asks the crucial question about non-Christian ethnic Israel’s situation: “why?” – why have these ethnic Israelites failed to obtain righteousness while these Gentiles have obtained it? The first two words of Paul’s answer are very important. He starts with “Because they rather than “Because God. His answer isn’t “Because God ultimately didn’t want to save them” or “Because God hadn’t given them the ability they needed in order to be saved”, but his answer is “Because they [non-Christian ethnic Israel] did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were based on works”.

Paul is laying the blame solely with these ethnic Israelites – they chose to try to obtain a right-standing before God based on their own good works. It is implicit that they could have trusted Christ instead (and Paul will make this explicit in chapter 10). If it were not possible for them to have faith, then Paul’s answer would not have been “because they did not pursue it by faith” – that would not be answering the “why” question. He would instead have explained why it was not possible for them to have faith, and that would have been the real reason why these ethnic Israelites had failed to obtain righteousness.

Unsurprisingly, what Paul is saying here fits squarely with what John’s gospel says (John 3:18):

“Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”

Back in Romans 9, Jesus is the “stone of stumbling” and “rock of offense” of verse 33. He came to save his fellow ethnic Israelites, but many of them rejected him. Rather than accepting his offer to save them, they rejected him and chose to continue to trust in their own works. Because of this, Jesus became a “stone of stumbling” and “rock of offense” to them, when if only they had trusted him instead of themselves, he would have been their saviour. “Whoever believes in him will not be put to shame”.

Now we can move to the second part of this section, 10:1-3:

“[1] Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved. [2] For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but their zeal is not in line with the truth. [3] For, disregarding the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness.”

Paul’s prayer in verse 1 is striking. He is praying for the non-Christian ethnic Israelites to be saved. Note that Paul is speaking only of the non-Christian ethnic Israelites, and that he does not split them into two groups and only pray for one of those two groups to be saved. Instead, he treats all of the non-Christian ethnic Israelites in the same way and prays for them to be saved.

We can conclude one important truth from this prayer – Paul thinks that it is possible for the non-Christian ethnic Israelites to be saved! (Otherwise, why pray for it?) Paul must also think that this is something appropriate for him to pray to God. This means that Paul can’t be in a position of believing that God has rejected any of these people such that they can never be saved. Paul would never pray for something that he knew to be against God’s will. If Paul believed that God had rejected some or all of these people, he would never have prayed for them to be saved. Such a prayer would amount to Paul saying “God ultimately doesn’t want them to be saved but I do, and I think God needs to hear this from me”. Paul would be asserting himself over God in praying for something that he knew God didn’t ultimately want.

We can therefore conclude from this prayer that Paul cannot possibly be in a position of thinking that God has condemned any of his fellow ethnic Israelites, such that they have no hope of being saved. Any of them could still be saved, which is why Paul is praying for it to happen. Paul thinks it is both possible and in accordance with God’s will for these people to be saved. (We will see that chapter 11 confirms that this is Paul’s view.)

In verses 2 and 3, Paul notes that the non-Christian ethnic Israelites have a zeal for God – they really want to please God and to be accepted by him. However, they are going about this in completely the wrong way. Rather than acknowledging that they can never be good enough for God on their own (and instead accepting the free offer of Jesus’ righteousness), they are trying to achieve a right-standing before God based on their own works. This is the same point Paul was making earlier in 9:32 (see above).

The fact that these ethnic Israelites were going about obtaining righteousness in the wrong way was not due to ignorance on their part. Paul goes on to rule out such excuses for them in the parallel section of 10:14-21. A number of translations use English words such as “knowledge” and “ignorant” in verses 2 and 3, which can be understood to imply an excuse for the ethnic Israelites, but this is not the sense intended by Paul. I have used the words “truth” and “disregarding”, in line with the NET and HCSB translations, respectively.

All the talk of “righteousness” and “faith” in this section reminds us of the key statement from Romans 1:16-17:

“[16] For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. [17] For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The one who by faith is righteous shall live.””

We see that Paul is sticking firmly to his key message of salvation by faith to all who believe.

Here is a structure for this section of Romans (9:30-10:3):

Structure of Romans 9v30-10v3.PNG

In the next post, we will look at the centre of Romans 9-11: the central section of Romans 10:4-13.

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