8 Nov 2018
A Commentary by John Stott
If evangelism is made up of a series of successive stages, beginning with heralds being sent and ending with sinners being saved, how is the unbelief of Israel to be explained? For *not all the Israelites accepted the good news* (16a) – a surprising understatement in view of what he has written earlier about ‘only a remnant’ (9:27). It is partly for this reason that some understand these verses as relating to Paul’s mission to the Gentiles. But NIV is surely right (as in verse 1) to apply the word ‘Israelites’, which is missing from the Greek sentence. The whole section is about the Jewish response – or rather non-response – to the gospel. Their unbelief, Paul now shows, was foretold by Isaiah in his rhetorical question: ‘*Lord who has believed our message?’* (16b) (cf.Is.53:1). Yet they should have believed. Verse 17 reverts to the argument of verse 14, although it reduces the five stages to only three; *faith comes through hearing* (NEB ‘is awakened by’) *the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ*, that is, ‘the word of which Christ is both content and author’. Thus preaching leads to hearing, and hearing to believing. Why then have the Israelites not believed? In answer to this perplexing question Paul ventilates and rejects two possible explanations (18-19), and then supplies his own explanation (20-21).
First, *did they not hear?* This is the right first question to ask, since believing depends on hearing. But Paul no sooner asks the question than he summarily dismisses it: *Of course they did* (18a). As evidence of this assertion he quotes Psalm 19:4:
18b. ‘*Their voice has gone out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world.’*
Paul’s choice of biblical quotation is surprising, since what Psalm 19 celebrates is not the worldwide spread of the gospel, but the universal witness of the heavens to their Creator. Paul of course knew this perfectly well. It is entirely gratuitous to conclude that he misremembered, misunderstood or misrepresented his text. It seems perfectly reasonable instead to suggest that he was transferring eloquent biblical language about global witness from the creation to the church, taking the former as symbolic of the latter. If God wants the general revelation of his glory to be universal, how much more must he want the special revelation of his grace to be universal too!
But is it true that the gospel has *gone out into all the earth* and *to the ends of the world?* As an understandable hyperbole I think it is, just as Paul was to say later to the Colossians that the gospel ‘has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven’, so that in consequence ‘all over the world this gospel is bearing fruit and growing’ (Col. 1:23, 6). Since Paul is here alluding to the spread of the good news in Jewry, however, it may be better to understand Paul’s claim as what F.F.Bruce has called ‘representative universalism’, meaning that ‘wherever there were Jews’, in particular wherever a Jewish community existed, ‘there the gospel had been preached’. So the Jews *have* heard; they cannot blame their not believing on their not hearing.