NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER NINE (Lesson II)
John Stott sees Paul’s opening here in light of its connection with the next two chapters. It all begins with Paul’s personal statement, identifying himself as a fellow Jew, and expressing his deep concern for their salvation. For Paul, Israel’s unbelief was more than just a spiritual headache. He describes the deep sorrow and grievous anguish he feels over the possibility of their missing the mark on accepting the Messiah.1 He also tells them of his prayerful longing that salvation will come to them soon.2 He also wants them to know that as far as he was concerned, although they had rejected the Messiah, God had not rejected them.3
Stott also sees Paul’s opening to this chapter having a strong threefold affirmation, intended to put his sincerity beyond question and to persuade his readers to believe he’s telling them the truth. First, Paul says he is speaking the truth in Christ. This was Paul’s way of saying that he was always conscious of his relationship to Christ who sees everything he is writing down. Secondly, he is emphatic about letting them know he is not lying, not even exaggerating. Thirdly, that he was unwilling to write any of this until it was confirmed by the Holy Spirit in his conscience. He knows how biased and prejudiced the human conscience can be. That’s why he wants them to know that what he is writing in this letter comes directly from the Spirit of Truth Himself.4
Then Jewish scholar David Stern makes note that since Paul’s ministry now was mainly to the Gentiles, perhaps some of his fellow Jews concluded that he would no longer be interested in them. Therefore, says Stern, in this verse he affirms the sincerity of his great grief over Israel’s failure, as a people, to honor their Messiah. Actually, even as an emissary to the Gentiles, whenever he came to a new municipality, he brought the Gospel to Jews first.5 We can only imagine each time Paul went into a new city and visited the synagogue, he was hoping and praying that they would rejoice that the Messiah had come, thereby, giving him an opportunity to introduce them to Jesus, the Son of God. It must have been heartbreaking when they threw him out as a heretic and told him not to come back. The pain was made even worse because Paul himself at one time was such a hardheaded unbeliever.
I would imagine that most of you readers grew up in a particular denomination or church and learned how it all began and who the founders were and what they taught. If, when you look today at your church organization as a family, knowing where that movement came from and what were its original standards and doctrines, could it be that you feel they have strayed from the primary principles upon which it was founded? Do they preach the same Gospel the old-time’s preached? Do the members live by the same principles that were the heart and soul of that church or movement in the beginning, or have they lost their first love?6 If you are concerned that both the leadership and membership of that denomination or church have lost their way and are no longer a light to this world as God intended them to be, then you may have the same feelings about them as Paul did about his fellow Jews.
Verses 2-3: I have great sorrow and always feel much sadness for my own people. They are my brothers and sisters, my earthly family. I wish I could help them. I would even wish a curse on me and cut myself off from Christ if that would help them.
Paul is simply using a hyperbole here to show how much he longs for his fellow Jews to accept the fact that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah. He realized that he could never die as a substitute for Jesus, that’s why he uses the word “wish.” Nevertheless, we can see what passion Paul had for the souls of his Jewish brethren. It should prompt us to examine our own desire to see our fellowman saved. How many are reluctant to give so little, and how few are willing to give so much? Yet, though we offer even as much as Paul, we have only reached the limit of man’s love.7 But while we were yet sinners – God-haters, blasphemers, slaves of the devil – Christ died for our wretched souls! What does that say about God’s love!
The heartbreak Paul felt for his fellow Jews is similar to that shared by the young Psalmist who wrote: “O Lord, rivers of tears flow down from my eyes, because they don’t obey your Torah.”8 And Jeremiah, known as the weeping prophet, lamented: “But if you will not hear this warning, I will weep secretly because of your pride; my eyes will weep bitterly, streaming with tears, because Adonai’s flock is carried away captive.”9 I’m sure we could compare Paul’s grief to that of a Christian brother who is heartbroken that his siblings and friends will not accept Christ as their Savior the way he did, and don’t even want to hear anything about it from him. But the Apostle goes one step further. He says that he is willing to take their place in hell just to see them get to heaven.
Paul also borrows from the example of Moses, who pleaded with God to forgive those who had worshiped the golden calf, and said to Him: “Now, if You will just forgive their sin! But if You won’t, then, I beg You, blot me out of Your book which You have written!”10 But it is interesting that Paul says he is willing to “have a curse,” placed on him. This is not to be understood in the sense of curses that are supposedly imposed using witchcraft and black magic. In Jewish thinking, being accursed meant suffering the consequences of punishment by death and missing out on the world-to-come.11 We see this expressed by Paul to the Galatians.12 The Greek word anathema Paul uses here, means to be doomed, separated from God without any possibility of redemption.
Such willingness to offer oneself to an irredeemable and unalterable state on behalf their own people was once expressed by Rabbi Ishmael with regard to those stricken by the incurable disease of leprosy. He said, “May I make atonement for them,”13 or, “May I be their atonement.”14 It is hard to find the fragment in his commentary on the Mishnah, but Rabbi Moses Maimonides understood Rabbi Ishmael as saying this: “I will take it on myself, in order to atone for them.”15 In as much as it was understood that all Israelites were brethren, it became a saying among them that it was worth anything to save just one.16 It is clear from what Paul says next that this was also his thinking.
Early church scholar Ambrosiaster believes that since Paul earlier was speaking in his letter against the Jews, who thought that they were justified by the law, he now shows his desire and love for them and says that his conscience bears witness in Christ Jesus and in the Holy Spirit that what he was telling them came from his heart out of love, not criticism.17 Pelagius sees it the same way by saying that Paul intended to show the Jews that they had the wrong idea about the last covenant God made with His people through Christ. But he would do so without prejudice or hatred. He came in peace and out of love for their souls. It pained him that they refused to accept Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah. Didn’t they realize He came to save them first?18
And when it comes to Paul’s commitment of getting the truth to his fellow Jews no matter what the cost, early church scholar Origen says that nobody should be surprised that Paul was willing to be cursed for the sake of his fellow Jews. Not when he knew that Jesus who was in the form of God emptied Himself and took on the form of a servant and was made a curse for us?19 So why should anyone be surprised that if Christ did it for him, why would he not be willing to do the same for them?20
But early church preacher Chrysostom has some questions. He wants to know if Paul is really aware of what he is saying? Did he really want to be cut off from Christ, the One who loved him and gave His life for him? The one of whom Paul himself said that neither heaven nor hell, nor things visible nor invisible, nor another world as great would separate them? How could Paul want to be cursed by Him? Maybe Paul needed to think this through. He needed to find out if he had somehow changed, had lost his first love for the Master. Chrysostom was sure Paul would have replied to these questions by telling him not to worry! That on the contrary, it had made his love for Christ even more intense.21
Then we find that both early church scholars Pelagius and Constantius agree on one thing. Pelagius believes that before Paul became a follower of Christ he had great hopes and aspirations that his fellow Jews would be the complete and only recipients of God’s promise to Abraham. He had no interest in being part of this Jesus or His church. But once he was shown the truth, he decided to let his fellow Jews go their own way since they had no intention of repenting.22
Then Constantius adds that no one should think that Paul is contradicting here what he said earlier.23 What he means by this is that Paul is not choosing now to be accursed and cut off from Christ. He chose to do that when he persecuted Christ and His church. He wanted to be faithful to his Jewish faith by obeying the will of his brethren and relatives. Now he confesses that since he has been given the grace and high honor of being called an Apostle, let them continue in the same ignorance he once walked in and be deprived of all the promise brought into this world by Jesus the Messiah.24
It is quite difficult to agree with such an interpretation of what Paul says here. That’s why most Bible scholars see it the other way. Paul only realized how lost he was without Christ once he met the Master on the road to Damascus. Now his heart bleeds for all his fellow Jews who are still in that same condition. So he almost wishes he could go back and take their curse upon himself so that they could go free. That is futile, he cannot even come close to doing more than what Christ has already done. If they are to be free, they must go through the same experience he had of meeting Christ personally.
1 Acts of the Apostles 9:1ff
4 John Stott: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
5 David H. Stern: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
6 Revelation 2:4
7 Cf. John 15:13
8 Psalm 119:136
9 Jeremiah 13:17 – Complete Jewish Bible
10 Exodus 32:32
11 See Deuteronomy 21:23; Joshua 6:17,18; 1 Samuel 14:24,44
12 Galatians 3:13
13 Mishnah, Sixth Division: Tohoroth, Tractate Negaim, Ch. 2:1
14 Ibid. Sefaria edition
15 John Gill: Commentary on the Bible, loc. cit.\
16 The Chronicles of Jerahmeel, XCV (3)
17 See Ambrosiaster: On Paul’s Epistles, op. cit., loc. cit.
18 Pelagius: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
19 Philippians 2:6-8
20 Origen: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
21 Chrysostom: Homilies on Romans 16
22 Pelagius: On Romans, ibid.
23 See Romans 8:35
24 [Pseudo-]Constantius: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.