Imagine reading a book on nuclear fission, when suddenly you find three chapters where the author reveals his feelings about friendships lost. Bewildering, no? That’s how Romans 9-11 appears. But, as we’ll see, Paul has a purpose consistent with the gospel.
“I am speaking the truth in Christ — I am not lying; my conscience confirms it by the Holy Spirit — I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For 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” (9:1-3).
Paul elaborates on the truth of what he’s about to write. Not because we think he might lie, but because he earlier said some harsh things about the Jews (2:9,17-29; 3:9,29; 4:9-18; 9:25-10:5,19-21; 11:1ff.)—and what he’s about to say is quite the opposite.
He is, he writes, “speaking the truth in Christ”. That is, he’s speaking the truth as Christ himself would. His “conscience confirms it in the Holy Spirit”. That is, he knows intuitively that he’s speaking the truth as found in his Spirit-filled heart.
And what is this truth? “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For 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.”
What causes such sorrow and anguish? Paul hints at it when he wishes he himself were “accursed and cut off from Christ”. Messiah, for whom the Jews longed, has come—and they rejected him. They are “accursed”. The Greek is anathema—“delivered over to God’s wrath”. They are “cut off from Messiah”.
And Paul wishes he might be in their place. Commentators go to considerable length to explain the possibility of Paul prayer-wishing such a thing. Could Paul have really prayed like that? Might God accept such a sacrifice for others. I think Paul is merely stating how much he loves his “kindred according to the flesh”, and what he would do to save them if he could.
“They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen” (9:4,5).
Paul stands in awe at the God-given privileges they enjoyed. “Israelites” is a general term of honor meant to summarize the privileges that follow.
“ . . . to them belong the adoption”. One commentator explains this is Paul’s way of speaking of the Israelites as God’s sons. “Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the Lord, Israel is my firstborn son, and I say to you, “Let my son go that he may serve me.” If you refuse to let him go, behold, I will kill your firstborn son.’ ” (Exodus 4:22,23) . . . Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the Lord, Israel is my firstborn son, and I say to you, “Let my son go that he may serve me.” If you refuse to let him go, behold, I will kill your firstborn son.’ ” (Deuteronomy 14:1).
“to them belong . . . the glory”.
“Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. And Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled on it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. Throughout all their journeys, whenever the cloud was taken up from over the tabernacle, the people of Israel would set out. But if the cloud was not taken up, then they did not set out till the day that it was taken up. For the cloud of the Lord was on the tabernacle by day, and fire was in it by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel throughout all their journeys” (Exodus 40:34-38).
The “glory” signified God’s holy presence among the Israelites.
“to them belong . . . the covenants”. These include, not only the Mosaic covenant, but all the promises the LORD made to Israel.
“ . . .remember lthat you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. (Ephesians 2:12).
“to them belong . . . the giving of the law”. Paul takes his readers back to Sinai and the LORD’s revelation of how his people must live as his covenant people. The law reflected the very nature of God.
“to them belong . . . the worship”. That is, the sacrificial system by which their sins could be atoned for and which pointed forward toward Messiah and the Temple where the Holy One himself dwelt among them.
“Now even the first covenant had regulations for worship and an earthly place of holiness. For a tent was prepared, the first section, in which were the lampstand and the table and the bread of the Presence. It is called the Holy Place. Behind the second curtain was a second section called the Most Holy Place, having the golden altar of incense and the ark of the covenant covered on all sides with gold, in which was a golden urn holding the manna, and Aaron’s staff that budded, and the tablets of the covenant. Above it were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat. Of these things we cannot now speak in detail” (Hebrews 9:1-5).
“to them belong . . . the promises”.
Here’s one the Lord made to Abraham . . .
“I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. And I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you in their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and your descendants after you. Also I give to you and your descendants after you the land in which you are a stranger, all the land of Canaan, as an everlasting possession; and I will be their God” (Genesis 17:6-8).
And another through the prophet Daniel . . .
“In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed” (Daniel 7:13,14).
“to them belong the patriarchs”. Great men of faith and exploits: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and probably David.
“ . . . and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen.”
“Messiah”, writes C.E.B. Cranfield (late New Testament scholar), “is the supreme privilege, the supreme dignity of the Jewish people”.
* * *
Despite all that, the majority of Jews rejected the Messiah. Hence, Paul’s great sorrow and unceasing anguish.
How could such a thing happen?
We ask, because we suddenly remember that through Paul God the Holy Spirit has made promises to us, too. Roman’s 8 runs full of them and ends with this extravagant promise . . .
“For I am convinced 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.” Indeed, all of Romans 8 contains similar grandeur that it takes our breath away.
Now: if God didn’t keep his word to Israel, how can we be confident he’ll keep it to us?
Hear Paul’s emphatic response: . . .
“It is not as though the word of God had failed” (9:6a).
Paul will explain in following verses. He’ll answer our, “How could such a thing happen?”, question. But, for now, this is enough. On this we must stand. And pray that the Holy Spirit will root it deep in our minds and heart. For this is the very nature of our God . . .
“God is not a man, that he should lie, nor a son of man, that he should change his mind.
Does he speak and then not act? Does he promise and not fulfill?” (Numbers 23:19).
Be assured. Nothing in all creation can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord, no matter how life seems.
“It is not as though the word of God had failed” (9:6a).