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The MacArthur New Testament Commentary Romans 9-16
By John MacArthur, Anne Scherich
Moody PublishersCopyright © 1994 John MacArthur
All rights reserved.
The Tragic Unbelief of Israel
I am telling the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience bearing me witness in the Holy Spirit, that I have great sorrow and unceasing grief in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed, separated from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh, who are Israelites, to whom belongs the adoption as sons and the glory and the covenants and the giving of the Law and the temple service and the promises, whose are the fathers, and from whom is the Christ according to the flesh, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen. (9:1–5)
Romans 9–11 is one of the most fascinating passages in the New Testament, filled with essential and very practical doctrine and focused on Israel, God's chosen people.
Throughout church history, however, this passage has often been greatly misunderstood. Some commentators and expositors all but ignore it. Others treat it as a parenthesis that has little, if any, connection to the rest of the letter. They take it as an aside in which Paul expresses personal concerns and insights about his fellow Jews. According to those interpreters, the central message of justification by faith is interrupted at the beginning of chapter 9 and resumes at the beginning of chapter 12. They argue that Paul's beautiful and climactic paean of praise, hope, and assurance in 8:38–39 flows naturally into 12:1.
It is true that if Paul had left out chapters 9–11, the argument and the flow of the letter would still seem unbroken. But, as we will see, it is also true that these three chapters are integrally related to the rest of the letter. Paul did not want to continue his teaching on justification by faith until he clarified some related truths regarding Israel and Israelites. As part of that clarification, the apostle needed to contradict some prevailing falsehoods over which many Christians, especially those who were Jewish, were stumbling.
Paul no doubt had taught the basic truths of Romans 9–11 many times, and, although he had yet to visit Rome in person (1:13), numerous believers there had known Paul personally and had heard those truths spoken from his own lips. It is possible that some of his letters to other churches had been read by Christians in Rome. And because Paul had received previous opposition to these truths, he anticipated the questions and arguments that some of the Roman church members were sure to raise and answers them in the inspired words of these chapters. An initial look at these questions and a brief suggestion of their answers may provide a helpful start to this section.
First, he anticipated the argument that, if the gospel of Jesus Christ offered salvation to all Gentiles, then God must have forsaken His ancient people Israel. Jews who heard the gospel concluded that the doctrine of justification by faith was a new idea that was valid only for Gentiles and that Christians believed the ceremonies and works righteousness of Judaism had no merit before God. They were sure the gospel implied that Jews no longer had a unique place or purpose in God's plan of redemption.
These Jews were quite right, of course, that the gospel discounts Jewish ritual and works righteousness as a means of salvation. But ritualism and legalism, even the keeping of God's divinely-revealed law, had never been a means of salvation, only a means of expressing or symbolizing obedience to God. As Paul makes clear earlier in this letter (see especially chaps. 3–5), God has never justified any person, Jew or Gentile—not even Abraham—on any other basis than His grace made effective by personal faith. It was also true that the New Covenant in the blood of Christ had replaced the Old Covenant and that God was calling out a new people for His name from among all nations and peoples.
In his introduction to this letter, Paul states unambiguously that Christ had given him a unique apostleship to the Gentiles (1:1–5; cf. Gal. 1:16). But the book of Acts clearly indicates that he also was called to bring the gospel to "the sons of Israel" (9:15). It is therefore not Strange that, whenever possible, this apostle to the Gentiles began a new ministry by first preaching the gospel to Jews, in a synagogue or other meeting place (see, e.g., Acts 9:20; 13:5, 14; 14:1; 16:13; 17:1–2; 19:8). He was genuinely, passionately concerned for Israel's spiritual condition and so was eager to answer the questions he knew they were asking.
Near the end of Romans 11 Paul asserts with divine authority that the Savior of the world came from Zion (that is, was a Jew) and that ultimately "all Israel will be saved," just as the prophet Isaiah had declared (Rom. 11:26; cf. Isa. 59:20–21; 27:9). Early in His earthly ministry, Jesus told the Samaritan woman that "salvation is from the Jews" and that He was the promised Jewish Messiah who would offer salvation not only to Jews but to all mankind (John 4:22–26). Paul was doubtless familiar with that declaration by His Lord, and he assures the Romans that it is inconceivable that God could reject and forget His people Israel. True Christianity and anti-Semitism are therefore contradictory terms in the most absolute sense.
Paul anticipated and answered a second question he knew would arise in the minds of many of His readers, namely, "If salvation is from the Jews and is first of all to the Jews, why did Israel, including her highest religious leaders, reject Jesus as their Messiah, Savior, and King?" If, as Paul said, "the gospel ... is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek" (Rom. 1:16), and if God grants "glory and honor and peace to every man who does good, to the Jew first and also to the Greek" (2:10), why are most Jews still in unbelief? Why is the uniquely chosen and blessed nation of Israel, who knows the law and the prophets so well, not only rejecting the gospel of Jesus Christ but zealously persecuting fellow Jews who believe it?"
As we will study in detail in a later chapter, Paul's response to such thinking was: "What shall we say then? That Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, attained righteousness, even the righteousness which is by faith; but Israel, pursuing a law of righteousness, did not arrive at that law. Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as though it were by works. They stumbled over the stumbling stone" of salvation by faith (9:30–32). Continuing his explanation, the apostle says, "Brethren, my heart's desire and my prayer to God for them [fellow Jews] is for their salvation. For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not in accordance with knowledge. For not knowing about God's righteousness, and seeking to establish their own, they did not subject themselves to the righteousness of God. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes" (10:1–4).
Because Paul well understood that most of his fellow Jews trusted in their descent from Abraham and in their good works, he asserts in unmistakable terms that "he is not a Jew who is one outwardly; neither 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" (Rom. 2:28–29). In other words, the true Jew is a spiritual Jew, a Jew whose heart and mind have been cleansed and purified ("circumcised") by the Spirit and who therefore belongs to God by faith. Neither physical circumcision nor physical lineage from Abraham can save a person. They can, in fact, easily become barriers to salvation by giving a false sense of spiritual security. Trusting in such human things kept Jews from receiving Jesus Christ.
Because the gospel is clear that both Jews and Gentiles are saved by faith, the Jews must turn from their trust in their own religious achievement, humbling themselves, rejecting the intimidating pressure of the tradition they lived by. They rejected that gospel and thus rejected their Messiah.
This salvation was not new. "Apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested," Paul says, "being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction" (Rom. 3:21–22). The individual Jew has never been saved on any other basis than personal faith in God, no matter how pure and well documented his physical descent from Abraham. "We maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is He not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since indeed God who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith is one" (3:28–30). God creates Jews and Gentiles alike, and He saves them alike, in faith, apart from works and rituals. The Jews were not saved because the barriers of ceremonies, traditions, and legalism in general blocked their way.
The apostle later asks rhetorically, "I say then, they [Israel] did not stumble so as to fall, did they? May it never be! But by their transgression salvation has come to the Gentiles, to make them jealous" (11:11). In other words, Israel's failure to come to Jesus Christ in faith, tragic as it has been, is not permanent or irreversible. In fact, because Israel's failure opened the door of the gospel to the Gentiles, jealousy of the Gentiles eventually will have a part in leading Israel to turn to the Savior God through faith in Christ, to receive at last the Messiah they rejected at His first coming.
Not only that, the apostle says, but, "if their transgression be riches for the world and their failure be riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their fulfillment be!" (v. 12). If Israel's unbelief brought so many Gentiles to the Lord, how many more will be brought to Him when Israel finally believes. John reveals that the number will be incalculable. "After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, and palm branches were in their hands" (Rev. 7:9).
This question could be stated another way: "If Abraham is the father of those who are truly saved by faith, how can his descendants largely reject God's way of salvation as set forth in the gospel of Jesus Christ?" The apostle had answered that question in chapter 4, saying,
What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, has found? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about; but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? "And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness." Now to the one who works, his wage is not reckoned as a favor, but as what is due. But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness.... And he [Abraham] received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while uncircumcised, that he might be the father of all who believe without being circumcised, that righteousness might be reckoned to them. (Rom. 4:1–5, 11)
In other words, large numbers of Jews reject the gospel of Christ because they trust in the outward rite of circumcision and, as already mentioned, in their physical descent from Abraham, rather than in the unqualified faith in God that brought salvation to Abraham and made him "the father of all who believe without being circumcised," Gentile as well as Jew (v. 11, emphasis added).
Paul knew that a third and closely related question would also arise in the minds of Jews: "Granted that individual Jews must be saved by personal faith, what about the nation of Israel? Has God discarded His ancient chosen nation?" Paul's response to that question is given in chapter 9. It is the "Israelites," he explains, "to whom belongs the adoption as sons and the glory and the covenants and the giving of the Law and the temple service and the promises, whose are the fathers, and from whom is the Christ according to the flesh, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen" (9:4–5). It has always been a unique blessing and privilege to be a Jew, and the nation of Israel has always held "favored status" before God among the nations of the world.
But that favored position has not prevented God from disciplining that nation or from temporarily putting it aside "until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in" (Rom. 11:25). Once that has occurred, the Lord "will pour out on the house of David and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the Spirit of grace and of supplication, so that they will look on Me whom they have pierced; and they will mourn for Him, as one mourns for an only son, and they will weep bitterly over Him, like the bitter weeping over a first-born" (Zech. 12:10). Then "the sovereignty, the dominion, and the greatness of all the kingdoms under the whole heaven will be given to the people of the saints of the Highest One; His kingdom will be an everlasting kingdom, and all the dominions will serve and obey Him" (Dan. 7:27).
In this section Paul shows that the nation of Israel was temporarily set aside by God because of her continued impenitence and unbelief, most especially for her rejection of the Messiah. In His gracious sovereignty, however, and with divine certainty, God will preserve for Himself a remnant of Israel. That nation, in the form of an ordained remnant of its people, will be brought by faith not only into the purified and restored kingdom of "David's greater Son" but into the eternal kingdom of God.
Paul also reminds his readers that, just as Isaiah prophesied, "Though the number of the sons of Israel be as the sand of the sea, it is the remnant that will be saved" (Rom. 9:27; Isa. 10:22). Through His prophets God had made clear that only a remnant of the nation would ultimately come to Him in genuine faith. Through Isaiah He had promised that "in the last days, then it will happen on that day that the Lord will again recover the second time with His hand the remnant of His people, who will remain, from Assyria, Egypt, Pathros, Cush, Elam, Shinar, Hamath, and from the islands of the sea. And He will lift up a standard for the nations, and will assemble the banished ones of Israel, and will gather the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth" (Isa. 11:11—12; cf. v. 16). Through Jeremiah He promised: "Then I Myself shall gather the remnant of My flock out of all the countries where I have driven them and shall bring them back to their pasture; and they will be fruitful and multiply" (Jer. 23:3; cf. Mic. 2:12; Zech. 8:11–12). And because "the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable" (Rom. 11:29), Israel has the divine guarantee that this remnant, representing the nation, will be saved. God's plan from eternity past has always been that Israel's rejection of Him would be both partial and temporary.
In those answers to fellow Jews, Paul also answered a question he knew would arise in the minds of many Gentile believers. "If God did not keep His promises to His chosen people Israel," they would wonder, "how can we expect Him to keep His promises to us as Gentile believers?" The problem, of course, is in the question. God did not fail in His promises to Israel or to individual Jews. His promises were given to faithful Israel and to faithful, believing Jews, to those who were spiritual, not simply physical, descendants of Abraham. Because he was such a model of faithfulness, Abraham not only was the father of the faithful who lived after him but, in a prevenient sense, the father even of the faithful who lived before him. Abraham's faith reached forward, as the Lord Jesus Christ Himself tells us that, "Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad" (John 8:56).
As we shall learn, these questions and many more are answered with profound wisdom and holy reason.
So overwhelmed is he with what the Lord has given him to write, Paul ends this three-chapter section on Israel (Romans 9–11) with a majestic, triumphant doxology of praise and thanksgiving to God: "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" (Rom. 11:33–36).
Excerpted from The MacArthur New Testament Commentary Romans 9-16 by John MacArthur, Anne Scherich. Copyright © 1994 John MacArthur. Excerpted by permission of Moody Publishers.
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