"May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit" (Romans 15:13).
Many consider Romans 9 to 11 to be three difficult chapters about Paul's concern for his Jewish people. To make sense of the argument, and to see how it fits into the logic of the epistle, we again need our model of being put right by the power of God, not by "human will or exertion" (9:16). It then becomes clear that what went wrong with the Israel of Jesus' day was a failure to look in faith to the power of God to perform their original function in the world.
In chapters 2 to 8 of Romans Paul has focused mainly on the faith of individuals as they look to the power of God. Now in chapters 9 to 11 he turns to his own nation's attempt to perfect themselves without God's empowering. This should not surprise us because we know that on the one hand our individual responsibility is important, but there is also the corporate response of our family, our church, and our nation. All these interact on one another in a complex tapestry of either faith or self-sufficiency.
In the Epistle to the Galatians for example Paul writes about a whole church turning away from the power of the Spirit. A similar corporate response is assumed in the letters to the seven churches in Revelation 2 and 3. That book also suggests that God is interested in nations, as nations, bringing their glory into the City of God (Revelation 21:24-26). And in his sermon in Athens Paul spoke of nations appointed to "search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him" (Acts 17:26-27). Could it be that when a nation begins to look to the power of God it has new glories to contribute? But a nation that has excluded God from its national life sinks into uncreative futility (1:22-32).
If we grasp Paul's concern we could distinguish a wrong kind of nationalism, which seeks to achieve national glory by its own power, and a right kind of concern for one's nation to be enriched by looking to God. Those who work among nations and tribes in the world-wide mission of the Church can illustrate the astonishing changes which occur among a people when churches are planted among them. This was part of Paul's apostolic concern (see 15:16 and 19).
We might wonder how many people looking to the power of God are needed to act as salt or light or leaven to enrich the flavour of a city's life? (Matthew 5:13, 14; 13:33) Though there is no way for us to answer such questions, there is no doubt that in chapters nine to eleven Paul views his own people in the light of their destiny, their rejection of the power of God, and their future restoration to their function among the nations (see 9:4, 16; 11:12, 15, 24-25).
9:1-3 Paul's "unceasing sorrow and anguish" tears him apart to the point of wishing he could allow himself to be cut off in exchange for his brothers and sisters being brought to faith in the Messiah.
9:4-5 Paul then lists seven great Old Testament signs of God's presence with the Jewish people. These were taken for granted by Jews, but it is worth noting the heart significance of each of them.
ADOPTION - In addition to being known as the Children of Israel, Moses taught them to view themselves as the children of God, and God as their Father (Deuteronomy 8:5; 14:1; 32:6; 19-20; Proverbs 3:11,12). This comes out in the response to Jesus "We are not illegitimate children; we have one Father, God Himself" (John 8:41). Feminists have pointed out that there are also references to God as mother (Deuteronomy 32:11-12, 18; Psalm 131:2; Proverbs 5:1; 7:24; 9:1; Isaiah 42:14; 49:15; 66:13; Matthew 23:37; Luke 13:34). In either case it is impossible to view God as a loving Parent (Hosea 11:3-4, 8) if one assumes one's own self-sufficient ability to manage on one's own.
SHEKINAH GLORY - The glory of God had settled on Mount Sinai (Exodus 24:16-17) and the tabernacle and later the temple were to be sanctified by that glory (Exodus 29:43; 1 Kings 8:11). God's glory is withdrawn from those who prefer to fashion a god by their own power, as happened when the people made a golden calf by the work of their own hands (Exodus 33:22; see also Isaiah 2:10; 6:3; 35:2; 40:5; 66:19; Ezekiel 3:12, 23-24; 9:3; 10:4, 18-19; 11:22-23).
COVENANTS - The three covenants made with Abraham related to the land, to the Jewish people, and to their being a blessing to all other peoples (Genesis 12:2-3, repeated to Isaac in 26:3-4, and to Jacob in 28:13-14). But none of these had meaning apart from the power of God. Those covenants are unconditional in the sense that the power of electricity is unconditionally available in a modern home. But we deprive ourselves of what is unconditionally given if we insist on using an oil lamp and burning the furniture for cooking. Nor do the rules for the safe use of electrical power take the place of the power which is available. As Paul had previously explained, "The law, which came four hundred and thirty years later, does not annul a covenant previously ratified" (Galatians 3:17).
GIVING OF THE LAW - The ten categories of moral judgment set out in Exodus 20 are universally recognized as the basis for moral discussion all over the world. But their content and proper application in the confusion of our life can only be known by the wisdom of the Holy Spirit. See for example the "But I say unto you" sayings in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:21-48). And having understood the proper application of each of the commandments in terms of loving God and loving our neighbour, we still cannot live out God's kind of loving in our own strength apart from the power of the Spirit of God.
WORSHIP - The Old Testament tabernacle with its sacrifices, and later the temple, were to encourage praise and thanksgiving for the grace and mercy and power of God. The prophets kept complaining that these means of worship had been turned into the human manipulations of priestcraft and magic (see Isaiah 1:11-17; Matthew 21:12-13; 23:13-31). "God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth" (John 4:24).
PROMISES - Whereas the covenants with Abraham are permanent and irrevocable (Romans 11:29), other Old Testament promises focus on what the Holy Spirit of God will do through the Messiah (Isaiah 42:1; 59:21; 61:1-3; Jeremiah 31:31-33; Ezekiel 36:26-27; 37:14; Joel 2:28-29). Obviously if a nation rejects the life-giving work of the Spirit it excludes itself from what the promises offer.
PATRIARCHS - It is interesting that Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses and David are now familiar to children in the Sunday schools of all nations. We might add that the ideas of liberation and Exodus, Job's inexplicable suffering and lament, and the Psalms of David also belong to Christians of all nations.
After listing these seven Old Testament assurances of God's presence among them, Paul adds an eighth:
THE MESSIAH - All Jews in some sense believe in the Messiah. In Paul's day many came to know by the Spirit that Jesus was the anointed one (Acts 2:41; 3:5; 5:14; 6:7), and in our day many Jews honour and learn from Jesus without ceasing to be Jewish. Paul will later explain how Jews who had rejected the Messiah can be grafted back into God's continuing olive tree (11:17-26).
9:6 So God's Word has not failed, but it is obvious that the line of faith in the power of God does not come down by ordinary genealogy. At key points in Jewish history one branch is chosen and others prefer to live by their own works (9:12) rather then live in total dependence on the power of God.
9:7 Though Abraham pleaded for Ishmael as his firstborn son, God had another national destiny for the Arab people (Genesis 17:18-20).
9:8-9 This is because in Abraham's faith genealogy his descendants are "the children of the promise." We have already noted that Isaac's line were counted as the children of the Spirit (Galatians 4:29). And it is the children of the Spirit, as opposed to those who live by their unaided flesh, who are the children of God (Romans 8:14-16).
9:10-13 Paul adds that "something similar happened to Rebecca." The similarity is that on the one hand Esau would live by his own works (9:12), but Jacob with all his faults would look to the power of God. And this was reflected in the choice of the children of Israel for the line of the Messiah. "I have hated Esau" should therefore be paraphrased as "I have rejected Esau's line for my purpose." But this is not a rejection in sense of eternal damnation. And in fact the Arab tribes descended from Esau still had an important place in God's purposes for Arabia (Genesis 36:1-43).
9:14-16 Paul sensed, as we do, the impression of "injustice on God's part." The resolution of the problem seems to be based on four theological facts. First, that God is free to appoint nations and people for particular tasks in any way he chooses. Secondly, this is nothing to do with whether or not they will have places in heaven. Thirdly, we have seen throughout the epistle that "human will or exertion" (9:16) never receive God's mercy. And fourthly, as opposed to our works, faith is always looking to God's power to work in us (9:32).
9:17-18 Paul adds the awesome fact that those who refuse to turn to God in faith have their heart further hardened. This is illustrated in the way Pharaoh hardened his heart (Exodus 5:2; 7:13-14; 8:19, 32; 9:7, 12, 34; 10:1, 20). A similar handing over to greater enormity is described in the degradation of a civilization (1:24, 26, 28).
9:19-21 Paul goes back to the first theological fact of God's freedom to have mercy by appointing servants as he chooses (9:13-15). A potter has every right from the same lump of clay to make a glazed cup for a king's table and another vessel for the servants' bathroom. It is not that one is better than the other. They have different functions.
9:22-29 This seems to begin a new paragraph about God's freedom to assign wrath consequences to achieve his long term purposes. In some cases he patiently delays when we would assume a nation deserves immediate destruction. God is also free "to make known the riches of his glory" to people of any race who respond to his call.
9:25-29 This divine freedom is illustrated by indirect allusions from the prophets, which Jewish readers would understand in a wider context. For "children of the living God" see under adoption in 9:4. Here the saved remnant are the many Jews who became Christians (see Acts 2:41; 4:4; 5:14; 6:7). The words "quickly and decisively" may refer to the predicted destruction of the Jerusalem religious establishment (see the day of the Lord under 2:16).
9:30-33 The conclusion of the chapter is a powerful confirmation of the model we have been testing. On the one hand Gentiles, who made no attempt to earn their own righteousness, are experiencing God's kind of "righteousness through faith" (9:30). Israel on the other hand tried hard to attain their righteousness by obeying laws, but failed "because they did not strive for it on the basis of faith, but as it were based on works" (9:32).