< August 03, 2008 >

Commentary on Romans 9:1-5

 

We now enter into a three-chapter exposition on the providence of God (9:1-11:36). In these chapters Paul draws upon scripture after scripture to unravel the rejection of the gospel of Jesus Christ by the heirs of God's covenantal promise.

Paul's agony is over the rejection by his own people, the Jews. How did Paul bring his audience to this strategic point in the letter?

Following the customary opening salutation (1:1-7) and prayer of thanksgiving (1:8-15), the theme and thesis of the letter starts us on the path to the entire letter: "For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, 'The one who is righteous will live by faith'" (1:16-17).

The argument commences describing that God's judgment and wrath have been revealed to Jew and Gentile alike, neither standing in a place of privilege, all are guilty before God (1:18-3:20). Into this universal human reality "the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe" (3:21-22).

As true descendants of the covenantal promise to Abraham (4:1-25), we have been freed from the wrath of God (5:1-21), the enslavement to sin (6:1-23), the demands of the law (7:1-25), and the power of death (8:1-39). Each of these chapters concludes with a doxology of praise to Christ in whom each of these enemies has been defeated (5:21; 6:23; 7:25; 8:37-39).

The first eight chapters in Romans have set the stage for Paul to address that which is so crucial in his own life, a life now centered in the crucified and risen Christ and how he has moved from a persecutor of Christians to a proclaimer of the gospel (Gal. 1:13-16).

Knowing that our study over these three Sundays is leading to the concluding doxology (11:33-36) is a strong interpretive clue as to the way in which Paul's argument will take place in these chapters. Paul is convinced from our introductory text (9:1-5) that all God's promises of life are found in Christ and belong in the providential hand of God.

As we move through Paul's argument in these chapters, there are several scriptural texts that Paul brings to bear concerning rejection of Christ by his own people and God's unfailing faithfulness. A text that needs to be brought into focus as we move into these introductory verses is that which occurs at the close of chapter nine.

The stumbling block (Greek: scandal; that which gives offense) is the Christ whom God has placed in Zion:

"See, I am laying in Zion a stone that will make people stumble,
a rock that will make them fall,
and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame"
(9:33 citing Isaiah 8:14 and 28:16).

The words of Isaiah reflect the scandal and promise in the Christ. He is the one whom God has sent as the fulfillment of the law and prophets.

So, as Paul begins this important section in Romans, he is speaking the truth in Christ and with great compassion for his people: "I am speaking the truth in Christ--I am not lying; my conscience confirms it by the Holy Spirit--I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart" (9:1-2). These are remarkable words coming from the heart of Paul; he carries a personal burden but he is also aware that the only one who can relieve him of this burden is God working through the Holy Spirit.

Paul also affirms that the word he announces comes forth from an anguished conscience for his people. In addition, the scriptures that he will cite extensively are words through which the Holy Spirit bears witness to the truth of God's revelation in Christ Jesus. Paul's conscience is clear; he can do no other than bear witness to words that cut to the heart.

Paul now goes to the wall for the sake of his own people, the Jews: "For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh" (9:3). In the Galatian letter Paul bore witness that it is Christ who bore our curse, citing Deut 21:23 in his argument: "Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us--for it is written, 'Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree'" (Gal 3:13). Is Paul actually saying that if he could put himself on the tree as Christ, bearing the curse of God, he would do so for his own people? Yes. These are words that can only come from Paul's anguish for the sake of Christ crucified and the people of the covenant promise of God.

"They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs" (9:4-5a). The list is inclusive. They are the recipients of all that God has to give. The whole of Jewish scripture is included in such a listing. They are the chosen people called by God to be a servant people: "I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth" (Isa 49:6b).

Not only are they the recipients of all that God has to give, but they are the people from whom the seed of promise has come as they bear the very gift of God to the nations: "And from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen" (9:5b). Paul has saved the greatest of God's promises to last. The identity of the Messiah is the greatest of God's gifts to Paul's kindred according to the flesh. This brings Paul to the only words that can express the focus of all that he has said in these introductory words--a doxology of praise to God--"God blessed forever. Amen!"