The Question of Choseness — Romans 9-11

Of all the questions that Paul answered in debate with Jewish Christians, the issue he addresses in Romans 9-11 was the most sensitive to both Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians: Is Israel no longer chosen or is it even rejected? This was very likely a oft-asked question by synagogue-Jews and Jewish Christians as Paul preached the Good News, especially about the inclusion of the rest of the world in salvation. And it was not a simple answer. Because this is a text that is often the source of questions, I’ll depart from my usual method of “cherry picking” passages to comment on, and will instead attempt to trace out the thread of Paul’s inspired answer. I have no illusions, and you shouldn’t either, about the fullness of the answer of my post on this passage — there are books on this subject — but hopefully it will provide a primer for an understanding of this great passage in Romans.

I could wish myself accursed — Romans 9:3

One thing that shouldn’t be ignored in Paul’s answer is his great compassion and understanding for the feelings of his fellow Jews, who doubtlessly had unbelieving relatives (probably like Paul himself) and was wondering about their destiny. Twice Paul expresses his concern and here at this point goes so far as to say that he might consider giving his own salvation for them, if it were possible. Paul’s loyalty to his fellow Jews should never be questioned, then or now. We claim loyalty to family, but then, unlike Paul, we sometimes fail to tell or try to persuade them about the most important thing they could know, Jesus. Let us be unashamed and unafraid to share the Gospel. They might not accept it, but then it will be their choice, not ours.

They are not all Israel who are descended from Israel — Romans 9:6

Paul begins the argument by reminding the Jews of some little noticed history of Israel, that not everyone who came from Abraham was part of Israel. Abraham, after Sarah died, had a second family; they were blessed by God, but they were not the children of promise (Gen. 25:1-11). And children of promise is a big point here; God made choices about who would receive the blessings of the promises made to Abraham: Isaac (not the sons of Keturah) and later Jacob (not Esau). Where Paul is going with this line of reasoning is that the definition of Israel (the chosen people) is always defined by God’s choice. Already he has stated: Romans 2:28, 29 “For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh. But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God.”

That’s not fair? — Romans 9:14

Suddenly now, Israel was calling God’s choices unfair. Paul answers, “Really?” The truth is that God, in His sovereign power and authority, chooses whomever He wishes, and has been doing so since the beginning of time. His sovereign choices aren’t arbitrary, however;  He has His reasons, though He owes no man an explanation or a chance to sway His choice. Far from being unfair, His choices are fair in two ways: 1) since He is God, it is completely fair that He makes the choices, and 2) since God is completely just by nature and not arbitrary in anything He does, we can trust that even if we don’t understand his choices, what He decides will be truly fair.

God sets the rules about choseness — Romans 9:20

To return to an illustration I used yesterday, in which I’m the coach of a basketball team setting the criteria for who will be on the team, God also sets the criteria of who will be chosen. Paul’s argument runs that the potter obviously has complete free will in what he chooses to do with His clay. Israel to this point had been fortunate enough for God work with them (honorable use, vessels of mercy), while the Gentile world had only been able to grope for God (common use, vessels of wrath). And if God decided to no longer call Israel His people, He certainly had that sovereign right without being accountable to man. But God’s choices haven’t been without sound reasons. Some of racial Israel was being “unchosen” because of their unbelief (9:30—10:4).

It’s not that hard — Romans 10: 6-10

Here Paul uses a parallel to Deuteronomy 30:12, Moses’ appeal to Israel for obedience to a perfect Law given to Israel “on a silver platter”. Paul simply updates Moses’ appeal to apply it to Christianity’s faith. “Dear fellow Jewish-Christian, who are worried about your unbelieving brethren,” Paul seems to be saying, “God didn’t make ‘being chosen’ difficult. Whoever will call on the name of the Lord (through faith, confession, and all that they imply) will be saved.” God’s choice (on the basis of faith in His Son) hasn’t been arbitrary or unfair. On the contrary, His choice has made possible what the Law could not, truly save both Jew and Gentile from condemnation.

All you need is a preacher — Romans 10:14ff

So believe! And it is here that Paul seems to turn to a little of a commercial, obliquely promoting his own mission plans (15:22-24) by pointing out that this faith is distributed by the efforts of preachers, although there have been those who have not believed. Here we find, however, another important step in being saved (one not often spoken of) you have to hear — even more, you must listen. Faith comes from hearing and hearing by the word of Christ (v.17). Are you listening?

Prophecies of a choseness turnover — Romans 10:18-21

Some Jews might try to explain the failure away, by blaming the preaching of the Gospel — surely they just haven’t heard yet. But the failure of many of racial Israel to turn to Christ wasn’t a failure of the preachers of the Gospel (though there was still work to be done). Many Jews remained unbelieving in spite of the widespread preaching of the Gospel. “Well, perhaps,” a second response might run, “they just didn’t understand.” Paul’s essential response was that if the Gentiles understood (and they were coming into the Kingdom in droves), surely Israel should’ve understood even more.

Has God turned their back on them? — Romans 11:1-10

Paul says that the answer is no. In the same way that remnants of Israel (e.g., the Israel of Elijah’s day) have always remained faithful and part of the chosen, so also with their present situation. Faithfulness is not now defined by works of the Law, but rather by God’s new “choice of grace”. The rest, sadly, are being hardened. This idea of hardening is not accomplished by God forcefully “blinding” someone to the truth or arbitrarily overwhelming someone’s will. Hardening is something that God allows, sometimes with help (e.g., Pharaoh or Ahab in 1 Kings 22), but it is always a self-inflicted wound originating from a heart of rebellion. In this case, many of Israel willed not to know, which profoundly deepened their problem. I’m reminded in such cases of 2 Thessalonians 2:11 “For this reason God will send upon them a deluding influence so that they will believe what is false.”

Gentiles beware! — Romans 11:11-24

Paul has been saying all these things as it were in the hearing of the Gentiles, who may have been expected to be cheering about this point — perhaps even gloating at racial Israel. Now the Jews were the ones who were Ephesians 2:12 “…separate from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.” But don’t forget, Paul goes on to say, you grafted olive branches could get excised from the olive tree as easily as the natural branches were — you could lose the salvation that you’ve gained merely by living disobediently, unfaithfully, and unfruitfully. Moreover, those Jews who have been excluded at this point could become “chosen” once again by faith in Jesus. Pride went before a fall for Israel, it could go before a Gentile fall, too!

God plans to work it all out — Romans 11:25-36

But in all of this, Paul thinks that he may see a great plan.

  • Romans 11:14, 15 “if somehow I might move to jealousy my fellow countrymen and save some of them. For if their rejection is the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead?”
  • Romans 11:25, 26 “For I do not want you, brethren, to be uninformed of this mystery–so that you will not be wise in your own estimation–that a partial hardening has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in; and so all Israel will be saved; just as it is written, “THE DELIVERER WILL COME FROM ZION, HE WILL REMOVE UNGODLINESS FROM JACOB.””
  • Romans 11:30-32 “For just as you once were disobedient to God, but now have been shown mercy because of their disobedience, so these also now have been disobedient, that because of the mercy shown to you they also may now be shown mercy. For God has shut up all in disobedience so that He may show mercy to all.”

Perhaps all this is happening to save as many as possible, of the Jew first and also of the Greek.

No wonder then that Paul ends with the praise: Romans 11:33-36 “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways! For WHO HAS KNOWN THE MIND OF THE LORD, OR WHO BECAME HIS COUNSELOR? Or WHO HAS FIRST GIVEN TO HIM THAT IT MIGHT BE PAID BACK TO HIM AGAIN? For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen.”

See you tomorrow, Lord willing.

About parklinscomb

I'm a minister for the church of Christ in Manchester NH where I've worked since the 1970's. I'm a big fan of my family, archaeology, the Bible, the Lord's church, and Gander Brook Christian Camp.
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