Pain saturates this Sunday’s RCL Epistolary Lesson. Romans 9 nearly overflows with what Paul calls his sorrow and anguish over widespread Jewish failure to faithfully receive God’s grace.
It’s grief that’s a close relative of what some of Romans 9’s proclaimers also feel. It’s similar to the sorrow we feel over the failure of some we love to love the Lord. It’s like the anguish God’s adopted children feel over the eternal danger that non-Christian co-workers, friends and acquaintances face.
While God created us for a close faithful relationship with the Lord, our first parents chose to trust Satan more than the Lord. Some of Adam and Eve’s descendants are able, by God’s Spirit, to trust God. Many, however, are unable to trust in the Lord.
The Bible repeatedly describes God’s grief over such stubborn unbelief. Genesis 6:20’s report that when the Lord saw the extent of peoples’ wickedness, God “was grieved . . . and his heart was filled with pain” echoes down through the ages.
So we’re not surprised that grief over unbelief hangs like a dark thundercloud over the book of Romans right from its beginning. Yet just before Romans 9 opens, Paul sings a happy song of victory. Nothing in all of creation, he celebrates, can separate us from God’s love. So Jesus’ followers wonder if those we love can somehow faithlessly separate themselves from God’s love.
Many Jews have not yet received God’s grace with their faith. Romans 11 at least implies that some Roman Christians were celebrating that. So Paul believes he should warn them that they should mourn and pray about rather than gloat over Israel’s lack of faith.
The apostle, in fact, seems so determined to express his grief that he repeats himself in verse 1 by insisting, “I speak the truth in Christ – I am not lying.” In verse 2 he basically repeats himself again when he writes “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart.”
Paul may feel at least somewhat vulnerable to charges that he’s a religious fanatic. It’s a vulnerability God’s 21st century adopted children may also feel. After all, in a culture that preaches religious tolerance, Christians are in fundamental ways religiously intolerant. In a world that claims that there are many ways to God, we claim that the only way to salvation is through Jesus Christ.
When Jesus’ followers make those and similar claims, our contemporaries sometimes charge us with being religiously prejudiced. When Christians insist that salvation is found only in Jesus Christ, people may accuse us of being anti-Jewish or anti-Muslim.
Those who proclaim Romans 9 might ask both our hearers and ourselves if we feel great sorrow over the potential plight of our unbelieving loved ones. We might explore the unceasing anguish that we feel for followers of false religions.
In verses 3 Paul illustrates the depth of his anguish by making an unattainable wish. There, after all, he writes, “I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of … the people of Israel.” Quite literally Paul claims that if could save his fellow Jews by going to hell, he would willingly do it.
So no matter how we understand Paul’s later insistence that “All Israel will be saved,” it’s clear that he feels deep pain over Israel’s widespread unbelief. He recognizes Israel’s dangerous situation and, like Moses before him and Jesus after him, is ready to die in her place if that will somehow result in her salvation. The Jews are, after all, what Paul calls in verse 3 his “brothers [and sisters],” those of his “own race, the people of Israel.”
Paul’s pain over Jewish unbelief is deepened when he considers the remarkable privileges God has historically granted them. In verse 4 he notes, “Theirs is the adoption as sons; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises.”
God has graciously invested so much loving time and energy in the apostle’s Jewish siblings. When, after all, he wrote our text, God had already shared a relationship with and been faithful to the Jews for well over a millennium.
Scholars note that verse 4 contains a kind of parallel arrangement of Israel’s privileges. Israel’s “adoption as sons” and the “receiving of the law” are linked because God essentially adopted her as a nation at Sinai when God gave her the law. This was a unique privilege because while God loves both Gentiles and Jews, God uniquely chose to adopt Israel as God’s own.
Israel “divine glory” and “temple worship” are also related because the Jews generally assumed that God’s glory lived in the temple. Again this reflects a special privilege, because God generally showed God’s glory to Israel alone in, among other places, her temple.
Israel’s “covenants” and the “promises” are linked because God often made God’s promises in the context of God’s covenants with Noah, Abraham and David. Those promises were also unique privileges, since God largely made his Old Testament promises to and covenants with the Israelites.
Paul, however, sets apart two of Israel’s special privileges in verse 5. The Jews, he writes there, had “the patriarchs.” It’s almost as though “the patriarchs” are Israel’s defining privilege, the one from which all of her other privileges flow.
Certainly, as Paul goes on to write in verses 6-13, Abraham’s children include people that haven’t biologically descended from him. By God’s grace, he’s also the “patriarch” of believing Gentiles as well as Jews. Yet Paul can’t imagine how God will allow most of Abraham’s biological descendants to permanently ignore God’s promises.
Paul adds an eighth Jewish privilege in verse 5 when he writes that “From them is traced the human ancestry of Christ.” While Christ certainly doesn’t belong exclusively to one racial group, we can say that Jesus was thoroughly ethnically Jewish. Matthew especially reminds his readers that he was a direct descendant of Abraham, Isaac and Israel.
Reflecting on this, Paul grieves at while how God has given Israel so much, she has largely responded by stubbornly hardening her heart and stiffening her neck. Israel has essentially faithlessly wasted all of her special privileges.
In this way Israel’s plight reminds Jesus’ followers of the plight of some unbelievers we know. Their parents raised them in Christian homes, churches and, in some cases, schools. At least some unbelievers once enjoyed the privilege of things like prayer and devotions in their homes, Sunday School and regular church attendance. Yet they’ve thus far resisted receiving God’s grace with their faith.
Such unbelief deeply grieves Christians wherever it flowers. In some cases, it is Jewish unbelief. For others it is Gentile unbelief. However, the great sorrow and unceasing anguish we feel over them are the same.
Is there, then, no hope? Are Jewish and Gentile unbelievers trapped on a one-way freeway to hell? Are God’s adopted sons and daughters condemned to lifelong sorrow and anguish for those who haven’t received God’s grace with their faith?
Paul makes it clear that God isn’t yet finished with the Jews. God hasn’t yet written the final chapter in the book that is his dealings with them. So the apostle passionately clings to hope for Israel.
As a result, Paul can end our text in subtle but bold hope. In verse 5 he insists “Christ is God over all. Amen!” It’s the apostle’s way of reminding us that Christ, not any other person, is God. So salvation isn’t finally up to people; it’s up to Christ who is God over all.
Certainly God calls people to receive God’s grace with our faith. But neither that faith nor anything else Christians do saves us. Only God’s grace through Christ who is “God over all” saves anyone.
So Jesus’ followers can remain hopeful about those who haven’t yet received God’s grace with their faith. God’s salvation, after all, is “first for the Jew, then for the Gentile.” In a real sense, then, it will be relatively easy for God to graciously “regraft” Israel back onto Abraham’s “tree,” if she doesn’t persist in her unbelief.
Yet God’s adopted sons and daughter also ought not worry so much about others’ eternal fate that we arrogantly neglect our own. Paul, in fact, uses Romans 11 to warn Gentiles that if Jewish branches could be broken off, Gentile branches might also be faithlessly broken off.
This suggests that those who have received God’s grace with our faith in Jesus Christ should not break our own branches off God’s salvation “tree” by becoming so proud of our salvation that we forget that only God’s grace saves us. By God’s Holy Spirit, God’s beloved people continually faithfully cling to God’s gracious promises to us in Christ.
However, both our anguish over and hope for those who don’t believe, whether they are Jewish or Gentile, also prompts us to continue to pray for them (and ourselves!). We know God has chosen for eternal life those whom God has gifted with faith to receive God’s grace. Christians don’t, however, know whom God has not chosen, whom God will eventually simply allow to harden their hearts against the Lord.
So neither Romans 9’s proclaimers nor its hearers “give up” on anyone. As long as people have breath, there is hope. God will have mercy on those whom God wants to have mercy. Nothing will stop God from saving “all Israel,” that is, all those, both Jewish and Gentile, whom God has graciously chosen for eternal life.
Ruth’s parents were devout Christians who raised her in a Christian home and church. Yet as she matured, Ruth abandoned her parents’ faith and church. Her wandering took her to the White House and halls of congress, as well as to some of the most famous and powerful people in the world. She, for example, played a huge role in establishing the United States’ Strategic Petroleum Reserve.
But Ruth’s wanderings never took her far from Christians who unconditionally “stuck with” her, loved her and prayed for her salvation. Long after some people had given up on Ruth ever becoming a Christian, people like Margaret, Mentey and Hilda mourned her unbelief and faithfully showed her God’s love.
As Ruth aged and some of her powers declined, she came to recognize her need for God and God’s church. In her late 70’s she publicly professed her acceptance of God’s grace with her faith in Jesus Christ. After all, Christ is God over all, forever praised, even by those who took a very long time getting around to it.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 2, 2020
Romans 9:1-5 Commentary