Room For Everyone
There are three chapters in the book of Romans that are hard to understand, which sometimes get overlooked. These are chapters 9, 10, and 11. Sometimes people frame chapters 10 and 11 as being about missions or evangelism. Many theologians have especially focused on chapter 9 as a proof for the doctrines of predestination that are held by many Christian denominations. While most people have been able to grasp the themes of justification, sanctification, salvation, sin, new birth, baptism, and hope from the first 8 chapters of the book, this is where Romans takes a turn that many people simply cannot understand or apply very easily.
And it is chapters 9-11 that form a key to understanding one of the most overlooked elements of the whole book of Romans. There is an ethnic conflict going on in the Roman church between Jewish and non-Jewish people - an element that is not often highlighted. This is why Paul spends such a long time in this book talking about the law and relating it to the history of Israel. His argument is leading somewhere - to a solution for the racial, ethnic conflict in the Roman church.
Here's the problem in its simplest form: the original followers and disciples of Jesus were virtually all ethnically Jewish. Many of them saw the Christian movement as a continuation or extension of the history of Israel and Judaism, and some even believed that the only way for a man to be truly Christian was for him to get circumcised and identify as a Jew.
At the same time, the Christian movement had clearly spread beyond the borders of Israel and invited many Gentiles (non-Jewish people) into the Christian community. People who had known very little about the Old Testament scriptures or the religion of Israel were now calling the God of Israel their God, and pledging allegiance to Jesus as the Messiah - King of Israel and Lord of the whole world. But some of these Gentile converts believed that God was now done with Israel as a people group, and that he had rejected them and moved on to other people groups.
These conflicting beliefs led to great tension in churches where Jewish and Gentile believers held different amounts of influence - which seems to have been the case in Rome. Paul's difficult question to address was this - was God done with Israel, and if not, what role did Israel still play in fulfilling God's purposes?
This question was deeply personal for Paul, since he himself was one of the Jewish Christians who had grown up identifying with the nation of Israel and their unique God. Paul expresses early on in chapter 9 that he is broken hearted that more of his own people had not accepted Jesus - and that he is desperate for them to recognize him as their Messiah. He does not appreciate that some Gentile Christians who have converted to the God of Israel think that the people of Israel can now be brushed aside since they already "played their part."
So throughout the book of Romans, Paul has demonstrated the way that God's plan has always been for both Israel and the rest of the world. God does not have two separate plans, but rather one plan where everyone fits in and belongs. At the very beginning of Israel’s history, there was Abraham. Abraham was the forefather of a nation, and God promised that through Abraham’s descendants, all the nations of the world would be blessed. (Genesis 18:18; 22:18)
Here, we see that God has elected a group of people corporately. It is not that God has picked individuals within Israel whom he will "choose" as his true followers, but rather he has selected the whole nation to fulfill a purpose, and each person within that group needs to choose whether or not to live up to that calling.
Of course, some people in Israel did better than others, all throughout their history. When Jesus finally came as the Messiah, some had been following God closely enough to recognize his work in Jesus, while others rejected him. Some of God's
"elected" or chosen people ended up not being on God's side. Paul explains that this is because not all of the ethnic Israelites were God's true people. Rather, Israel's own history showed that God's people were those to responded to God's promises.
"But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, 7 and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” 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 offspring. 9 For this is what the promise said: “About this time next year I will return, and Sarah shall have a son.” Romans 9:6-9 (ESV)
Abraham had two biological sons, Isaac and Esau, but Isaac was the child of the promise, while Esau threw away his inheritance. In the same way, it was possible for some biological descendants of Israel to throw away their inheritance while others accepted the fulfillment of God's promise. Jesus also opened the way for people who were not biologically related to Abraham's family to also take hold of God's blessing to this family in the same way that Israelites did - by faith.
Many people believe that this passage in Romans means that God predetermines who will be saved and who will be lost, and that human free will is compatible with being individually predestined to be lost or saved. But here is what Paul says:
"19 Well then, you might say, “Why does God blame people for not responding? Haven’t they simply done what he makes them do?” 20 No, don’t say that. Who are you, a mere human being, to argue with God? Should the thing that was created say to the one who created it, “Why have you made me like this?” 21 When a potter makes jars out of clay, doesn’t he have a right to use the same lump of clay to make one jar for decoration and another to throw garbage into? 22 In the same way, even though God has the right to show his anger and his power, he is very patient with those on whom his anger falls, who are destined for destruction." Romans 9:19-22 (NLT)
What many people don't realize is that Paul is arguing that Israel - God's elect - is the vessel for dishonorable use. The elect nation of Israel bore the wrath of God because they received God's law and were unable to keep it, bringing punishment on themselves. This whole process led to salvation because it created the circumstances for the Messiah to come. But some people along the way ended up being accepting, and others ended up rejecting God.
Paul remained convinced that there was hope for Israel. While many Gentiles were being "grafted in" (Romans 11:17-18) to the community of Israel, Paul knew that Israel still had a place in God's plan. “Some of the people of Israel have hard hearts, but this will last only until the full number of Gentiles comes to Christ. And so all Israel will be saved.” (Romans 11:25b-26a NLT) For Paul, true believing Jewish people and Gentile converts to the way of Jesus all made up "true Israel" together.
All Israel would be saved, whether born as Jews or "grafted in" to the promise by faith in the Messiah.
What does this passage mean for us today? Here are a few important points that apply to us:
First, it means that everyone is welcome in God's family and there are no racial or ethnic exceptions that have a different plan. (Romans 10:12) All races, cultures, and nationalities are included in the scope of God's promise, and none are to be considered more or less important. At the same time, all Gentile Christians must recognize that they have inherited the knowledge of God from the unique, particular history of Israel and the Jewish people, and should respect any people who trace their heritage back to Israel - since it is through the history of Israel that God expressed his will to the world most clearly.
Secondly, this passage helps us to understand the role of God's law in Israel's history and how we should relate to the law. The law - the Torah and its commandments - made Israel a "vessel" for a painful and "dishonorable" use because of how stuck in sin they became. (edit the next sentence into clearer statements) They were the chosen people, but the task they were chosen for came with many troubles. The law - which defined who they were as a people - could not save them, and the statements of the law themselves could not lend them the power to obey it.
Remember that Paul said in Romans 5:20 that the law came in and made sin worse by making the principles that people were violating clear and explicit. People were sinning while knowing that sin was wrong. The law increased the severity sin, and sin increased condemnation and punishment. So when Jesus came, he dealt with sin at it's height, at it's worst point - among people whose identity was built on having that law, and yet were unable to keep it.
This leads us to a third point - The law in and of itself cannot save you - and people who try to keep the law in their own strength are living under the wrong power. (9:30-33) The law of God is good, as Paul said in Romans 7, but when we are living in the power of sin, the law can only remind us of sin, of our own discouraging imperfections, and awakens sinful desires in us. The only true way to keep God's law is to have the experience described in Romans 6 and Romans 8 - being born again in the power of the Spirit, who will give us the power to follow God's principles.
And a final fourth point - We should always preach the gospel, because everyone needs to hear it. (Romans 10:14-15) Paul's heart was broken because his people were struggle to see and accept the fact that Jesus was their Messiah. "14 But how can they call on him to save them unless they believe in him? And how can they believe in him if they have never heard about him? And how can they hear about him unless someone tells them? 15 And how will anyone go and tell them without being sent? That is why the Scriptures say, “How beautiful are the feet of messengers who bring good news!” (Romans 10:14-15 NLT)
Who does your heart break for? Who do you see in need of the hope of the gospel? Think of some ways that you might successfully communicate the hope of Jesus to such people.
Racism is an important topic in our contemporary world. Many people see it as a political issue that is separate from the concerns of the Bible. How might Romans 9-11 apply to issues of race for the church today?
Have you ever heard of the doctrine of predestination, or the debate between predestination and free will? Many passages in the Bible are complex and can be interpreted in different ways. This post has taken the side of a free will reading. Read through Romans 9-11 for yourself - does it seem to present God's plan more as predestination, or as free will? And is there more to it than that?
Read Romans 9:17-18. Does this seem to suggest that God was controlling Pharaoh and predestining him to be disobedient and lost? Compare what you see in Romans with this analysis of Exodus by the Bible Project. What insights do you gain from it?
Does God have a different plan of salvation for Israel and the rest of the world, or is it all part of the same big plan? What reasons do you see for your answer?