19 June 2018
A Commentary by John Stott
Throughout the first half of his letter Paul has forgotten neither the ethnic mix of the Roman church nor the tensions which kept surfacing between the Jewish Christian minority and the Gentile Christian majority. The time has come for him to address head-on the underlying theological problem. How is it that the Jewish people as a whole had rejected their Messiah? How could their unbelief be reconciled with God’s covenant and promises? How also did the inclusion of the Gentiles fit in with God’s plan? It is notable that each of these three chapters begins with a personal and emotional statement of Paul’s love for Israel – his anguish over their alienation (9:1ff.), his longing for their salvation (10:1) and his own continuing Jewishness (11:1).
In chapter 9 Paul defends God’s covenant loyalty on the ground that his promises were not addressed to all Jacob’s descendants, but to Israel within Israel, a remnant, since he has always worked according to his ‘purpose of election’ (11). This can be seen not only in his choosing Isaac rather than Ishmael, and Jacob rather than Esau, but also in his having mercy on Moses, while hardening Pharaoh (14-18), even though this was a judicial surrender of Pharaoh to the wilful hardening of his own heart. If we still have problems over election, we must remember that it is always inappropriate for human beings to talk back to God (19-21), that we must let God be God in his resolve to make known his power and mercy (22-23), and that Scripture itself foretold the calling of Gentiles as well as Jews to be his people (24-29).
It is plain from the end of chapter 9 and from chapter 10, however, that Israel’s unbelief cannot be explained *tout simple* by God’s purpose of election. For Paul goes on to affirm that Israel ‘stumbled over the stumbling-stone’, namely Christ and his cross. This is to accuse Israel of a proud unwillingness to submit to God’s way of salvation, and of a religious zeal which was not based on knowledge (9:30-10:4). Paul goes on to contrast ‘ the righteousness that is by the law’ with ‘the righteousness that is by faith’, and to emphasize from a skilful use of Deuteronomy 30 the ready accessibility of Christ to faith. There is no need for anybody to go in search of Christ, since he has come and died and risen, and is close to any who will call on him (5-11). Moreover, there is no difference in this between Jew and Gentile, since the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him (12-13). But, for this, evangelism is necessary (14-15). Why then did Israel not accept the good news? It is not that they had not heard it or understood it. Why then? It is that all day long God had stretched out his hands to welcome them, but they were ‘disobedient and obstinate’ (16-21). So then, the unbelief of Israel, which in Romans 9 is attributed to God’s purpose of election, in Romans 10 is attributed to her pride, ignorance and stubbornness. The tension between divine sovereignty and human responsibility constitutes an antinomy which the finite mind cannot fathom.
With chapter 11 Paul looks into the future. He declares that Israel’s fall is neither total, since there is believing remnant (1-10), nor final, since God has not rejected his people and they will recover (11). If through Israel’s fall salvation has come to the Gentiles, now through the Gentiles’ salvation Israel will be made envious (12). Indeed, Paul sees his evangelistic ministry in terms of arousing his own people to envy, in order to save some of them (13-14). And then Israel’s ‘fullness’ will bring ‘much greater riches’ to the world. Paul goes on to develop his allegory of the olive tree, and teaches two lessons from it. The first is a warning to the Gentiles (the wild olive shoot which has been grafted in) not to presume or boast (17-22). And the second is a promise to Israel (the natural branches) that if they do not persist in unbelief, they will be grafted back in again (23-24). Paul’s vision for the future, which he call a ‘mystery’ or revelation, is that when the fullness of the Gentiles has cone in, ‘all Israel will be saved’ as well (25-27). And the ground of his assurance is that ‘God’s gift and call are irrevocable’ (29). So we may confidently expect the ‘fullness’ of both Jews and Gentiles to be gathered in (12, 25). Indeed, God will ‘have mercy on them all’ (32), meaning not everybody without exception but rather both Jews and Gentiles without distinction. It is not surprising that this prospect leads Paul to break out into a doxology, in which he praises God for the depth of both his riches and his wisdom (33-36).
Tomorrow: A brief overview of Romans (continued) – Romans 12:1-15:13 The will of God.