In this section of Romans, chapters 9-11, Paul returns to some important questions made back in chapter 3:1-4, namely, what are they to make of the role of Israel now that more Gentiles seem to be responding to the Messiah than Jews are? Again, the occasional setting of this letter is very important and must be kept in mind the entire time: the situation of Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians in conflict at that time in the Roman churches. Paul is talking largely about corporate life in Christ in Romans, not how the individual alone gets saved. This section actually makes that point quite clear while also illuminating Israel’s significance and the unity God wants in Christ between all people groups. Again, we are hitting highlights here, not doing a full commentary on every passage, recapping some lessons from the summer that may benefit others as well.
First, let’s note how often this passage is mistaken for being a context-less theological treatise about God sovereignly elects individuals to salvation. One passage that can help clarify the debate, when understood contextually, is Romans 9:13. Let’s read verses 1-18:
Rom. 9:1 I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience confirms it by the Holy Spirit— 2I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. 3For 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. 4They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; 5to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen.
Rom. 9:6 It is not as though the word of God had failed. For not all Israelites truly belong to Israel, 7 and not all of Abraham’s children are his true descendants; but “It is through Isaac that descendants shall be named for you.” 8 This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as descendants. 9 For this is what the promise said, “About this time I will return and Sarah shall have a son.” 10 Nor is that all; something similar happened to Rebecca when she had conceived children by one husband, our ancestor Isaac. 11 Even before they had been born or had done anything good or bad (so that God’s purpose of election might continue, 12 not by works but by his call) she was told, “The elder shall serve the younger.” 13 As it is written,
“I have loved Jacob,
but I have hated Esau.”
Rom. 9:14 What then are we to say? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! 15 For he says to Moses,
“I will have mercy on whom I have mercy,
and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.”
16 So it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who shows mercy. 17 For the scripture says to Pharaoh, “I have raised you up for the very purpose of showing my power in you, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth.” 18 So then he has mercy on whomever he chooses, and he hardens the heart of whomever he chooses.
A couple of things become obvious when context is taken into consideration here. Toward the end of his argument, as if to tie it up, Paul quotes Exodus 9:15, which is about God’s name being proclaimed in all the earth. “To the ends of the earth” is a missional phrase that always entails bringing all nations under the authority of God, which began in His covenant with Abraham. In Isaiah 49:6, God says:
“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
to raise up the tribes of Jacob
and to restore the survivors of Israel;
I will give you as a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”
In Acts 1:8 before Jesus ascends to his enthronement at God’s right hand, he alludes to this as well, commissioning the disciples in a global mission “to the ends of the earth.” So for starters, that has to betaken into serious consideration when reading Romans 9:13, which is a defense of God doing mysterious things for the sake of reaching all nations.
Yet there is another important detail in this chapter that we must address because it illuminates the corporate nature of God’s election. Romans 9:13, “As it is written, ‘Jacob I Loved, but Esau I hated.’” On the face of it, this sounds like God picks and chooses individuals to save. We must keep in mind historical context of Romans here, though, as well as the original context of the quote Paul pulls from—where exactly? He’s talking about Jacob and Esau, so—perhaps Genesis, isn’t that where their stories are? That is where their story is, but this quote of the Lord talking to Israel actually comes from a much later time period, in the book of Malachi, around c.515-458BC, between the completion of the second temple and Ezra’s ministry in Jersualem:
Mal. 1:1 An oracle. The word of the Lord to Israel by Malachi.
Mal. 1:2-5 I have loved you, says the Lord. But you say, “How have you loved us?” Is not Esau Jacob’s brother? says the Lord. Yet I have loved Jacob but I have hated Esau; I have made his hill country a desolation and his heritage a desert for jackals. If Edom says, “We are shattered but we will rebuild the ruins,” the Lord of hosts says: They may build, but I will tear down, until they are called the wicked country, the people with whom the Lord is angry forever. Your own eyes shall see this, and you shall say, “Great is the Lord beyond the borders of Israel!”
How is this about Jacob and Esau, exactly? That is what we must ask if we are to take Paul seriously in Romans. The answer is: in Malachi, Jacob and Esau clearly represent two different groups of people—not merely individuals. Israel is Jacob (v.2), and the Edomites are Esau (v.4). Again, if we take the historical occasion of Romans seriously at all, it is easy to see that Paul, in chapters 9-11, is addressing how the two group sare saved and unified in Christ—not merely how individuals are saved. He is not writing an theological essay with no situation in mind at the church; there is a very specific occasion of Christian Jews and Gentiles in conflict, trying to figure out how to be church together.
THE OLIVE TREE (Romans 11:13-24)
We also spent special time in our series this summer on the image of the Olive Tree in Romans 11:13-24, which of course serves the same unifying purpose for the two groups to whom Paul wrote, yet it disrupts another doctrine commonly taught in Reformed circles and even in some Arminian churches, what some may call “once saved, always saved.”
Rom. 11:13 Now I am speaking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch then as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I glorify my ministry 14 in order to make my own people jealous, and thus save some of them. 15 For if their rejection is the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead! 16 If the part of the dough offered as first fruits is holy, then the whole batch is holy; and if the root is holy, then the branches also are holy.
Rom. 11:17 But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, a wild olive shoot, were grafted intheir place to share the rich root of the olive tree, 18 do not boast over the branches. If you do boast, remember that it is not you that support the root, but the root that supports you. 19 You will say, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” 20 That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand only through faith. So do not become proud, but stand in awe. 21 For if God did not spare the natural branches, perhaps he will not spare you. 22 Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness toward you, provided you continue in his kindness; otherwise you also will be cut off. 23 And even those of Israel, if they do not persist in unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again.24 For if you have been cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these natural branches be grafted back into their own olive tree.
After having humbled the Jews in chapters 9-10, Paul turns here to the Gentiles and says, not so fast—don’t get proud—if God is willing to let some of Israel go (and they are the natural branches of this Olive tree and you’re just a wild shoot lucky to be grafted in…), you better believe he can cut you out of the family tree if you leave this faith. Verse 22 summarizes it best: “Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness toward you, provided you continue in his kindness.”
So much for once saved, always saved. That is not to say we are constantly to be walking on spiritual eggshells, as it were, afraid at every point we might lose salvation; there is such a thing as too high of a view of our own salvation, as Paul warns against here and in 1 Cor. 10:12 (“…let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.”). Yet, Paul also goes great lengths in chapter 8 of Romans and elsewhere to remind us that if God spared his own Son, to what lengths will he not go to in order to save us (keeping, of course, His own need for fairness and justice in mind)? Consider Rom. 8:38-39, where Paul writes: “I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
As we discussed in the last lesson, God’s Spirit equips us for our walk, yet we also have a role to play in obedience, so let us heed Paul’s words in this letter, to thank God for his mercy and for even living in us by His Spirit. Let us also show our sincerity of gratitude and newness of life in Christ by living out lives that look like we believe what we say we believe.
Until next time: grace, peace, and happy studying!