Dr. Robert R. Seyda



Reformer Martin Luther sees Paul’s motive quite differently than these early church writers. He believes that Paul is trying to win back the confidence of his fellow Jews. As far as they were concerned, Paul’s actions and message since his conversion gave them no reason to believe that he had any interest in their salvation. In fact, the Gospel he preached seemed to be an attempt to destroy their faith and salvation in keeping the Law. Since none of this was true, it caused Paul great sorrow and he wanted them to know how he really felt. However, their stubbornness and unwillingness to change confirmed what he already knew as a former Jew himself. They were convinced that righteousness will be given as a prize to the one that runs the race. They don’t see it as a merciful gift from God; a person is more than capable of earning their salvation.1 It doesn’t surprise Luther that Paul wished he could give up his life for his people, it goes with what he told the Corinthians: “As for me, I will most gladly spend everything I have and be spent myself for your sakes. If I love you more, are you going to love me less for doing so?23

John Calvin says that what bothered Paul the most was their hell-bent attitude on not changing and giving up good works and seizing faith as the way to salvation. This caused him great anguish and he wanted to express that to them. Yet, Paul had to admit that this was all planned by God. This teaches us that we can be obedient to being what God wants us to be, but it shouldn’t prevent us from grieving for those who are lost, especially our own family or nation. Although we know they are doomed by God’s fair and equal justice, still, we should not give up on trying to win them to His saving grace.

We must never forget that the mind and will of any person can still be influenced by two things. First, when we look at the lost and know that it is their lot to be judged as sinners, in the end, we can console ourselves because it is God’s decision. But secondly, when we look at the evil they are in we can empathize with the heartache and sorrow they are going through. Calvin echoes what Martin Luther had to say about Paul’s perceived attitude here: “Whoever laughs at his neighbor’s loss and delights in it, while saying that he loves him, adds to their envy a lie.”4 Calvin feels that people are deceived when they say that the godly should have no compassion and be calloused toward those who are bound for destruction so that they will not be in danger of going against God’s will.5

But Calvin was not finished. As he sees it, Paul could not have presented a greater expression of true love than by what he did here. It is surely perfect love that causes anyone to give up their life for a friend. But to this Paul adds another word, “anathema,” which means being denounced and have the most abhorrent and disgraceful evil wished upon you. This not only speaks about dying at a young age with swift sentencing to eternal punishment. And for Paul, nothing could be worse or carry out such anathema than to be forever separated from Christ.

Once one is separated from Christ, they are then permanently excluded from the hope of salvation. This was certainly proof of Paul’s ardent love for his fellow Jews. But here is what hurt the most, what they may wish upon him as anathema, was already something coming their way. And Paul only considered taking their anathema upon himself was that he might thereby deliver them from their destiny of everlasting punishment into everlasting life. We should not object to Paul’s willingness to say these things even though he knew that his salvation was secure in being chosen by God. That meant his salvation could not fail. It also did not mean that his passion and love for his fellow Jews was something said in haste and that he did not really mean it.6

In response to Paul’s confession of the heaviness of heart over the plight of the Jews, John Bengel remarked that when it comes to spiritual things, the deepest grief and highest joy may coexist in the same heart. Paul was sure that his fellow Jews were excluding themselves from the many blessings he had already spoken of. At the same time, he made it clear that what he was saying about their lost state was not done in a spirit of hostility.7 Ministers and teachers will often find that when they must call sin for what it is and make clear what the punishment will be, while they speak with a sense of authority, they do so with the voice of compassion, not condemnation.

Bengel then goes on to say that sometimes words can not fully express the emotions we hold within us. That’s because we often have mixed emotions. There are times when the most dedicated servant of God can pray a prayer such as Paul does here. But those who are still young in faith and immature in the ways of the Spirit would find it impossible to do the same. When we look back on Moses and Paul, it’s not easy to estimate the measure of love they had for those around them. It certainly showed in what they were willing to do on their behalf of they fellowman. For those of us with limited powers of reason, it’s hard to grasp, as a child cannot fully comprehend, the courage of such heroes. What makes Moses and Paul so extraordinary is that there were able to perform such acts as these at any time they chose.8 No doubt this is why Jesus told His disciples to go back to Jerusalem and wait until they were endued with power from on high, for He knew they couldn’t do what He was asking them to do without the help of the Spirit.9

Adam Clarke touches on the difficulty of understanding what Paul says here. He admits that there are very few passages in the New Testament that have puzzled critics and commentators more than this. When taken in the literal sense, Paul wishing for anathema to come on him was absurd. No person in their right mind would ever contemplate such a thought. Who could themselves to be eternally damned in order to save those who might not want to be saved at all? And to think that such an illogical and atrocious thing could be brought about by the sacrifice of one man was equally as ludicrous and laughable. Paul was only mentioning what had passed through his mind as the length to which he might go to if it were at all possible. After he was filled with God’s love, he saw, as a Jew, how wrong his rejection of Christ really was. The same can be said of people today. Once they are born again they can see more clearly what a miserable sinner they were. No wonder they have such compassion for the family and friends to be saved.

This is what gave Paul such insight into their condition and why their future in eternity was so hopeless unless they were changed by the power of the Gospel. Paul said all of this out of love, not boasting. It was meant to show his humility, not his pride. He does not mention that he had any divine inspiration to make such a wish. All he was doing was trying to show how unreasonable and preposterous it might become for the Jews to accept Jesus as the Messiah and be saved.10 In other words, Paul was only expressing a thought that he knew beforehand was unfeasible, but one that even Moses had entertained when he saw these people’s forefathers turn their backs on God.11

Robert Haldane thinks that to understand the real meaning of this passage, there are three things of importance we must look at. In the first place, Paul is speaking in the past tense, not the present tense. This is seen in the original Greek. That should require the English translation to read: “I was wishing,” or “I did wish,” instead of “I wish.” Haldane sees this wish as referring to the Apostle’s state before his conversion. The second thing to notice is that the verb which the King James Version translated as “wish,” would have been more correctly rendered as “boast.” In other words, Paul was saying that it would be nice if he could boast about being separated from Christ on their behalf. Such a rendering of Paul’s words makes Paul’s statement much clearer, we have the most unquestionable authority. And the third thing Haldane points out is that in the first part of the 3rd verse, it should include in parenthesis the words: “I have great heaviness and continual sorrow in my heart (for I myself made it my boast to be separated from Christ) for my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh.12 The Complete Jewish Bible renders it this way: “I could wish myself actually under God’s curse and separated from the Messiah if it would help my brothers, my own flesh and blood.”

Albert Barnes also notes that this passage has been greatly misconstrued by many interpreters. Some proposed it should be translated, “I did wish,” as referring to Paul’s former state as an unbelieving Jew, when he renounced who Christ was, and sought with fervor to eradicate this heretical sect in loyalty to his Jewish religion and culture. But such an interpretation presents insurmountable objections. Paul had no intentions of trying to describe what he felt before, but what he was feeling now about how he felt about his fellow countrymen who were lost without Christ. He suffered little for them back then. He wanted them to know what he was willing to suffer now. Barnes says that the proper grammatical construction of the word used here is not “I did wish,” but “I would have desired.” That is if the thing were possible. In other words, it is not something Paul had wished for, or even wished for now. Paul wanted them to know that if it were even possible, he would do whatever he could to save them from ruin and apostasy.13

Noting that many interpreters of Scripture have wrestled with Paul’s meaning of wanting to be cut off from Christ, Henry Alford brings up the point that there should be no effort in pressing the Apostle Paul into admitting that he is being inconsistent by saying that he loves his nation more than his Savior. What we have here is the expression of an affectionate and self-denying heart. It comes from someone who is willing to surrender whatever it takes, even if it meant losing eternal glory itself in order to obtain those blessings of the Gospel which he now enjoys for his beloved people, but from which they will be excluded unless they repent and believe. But it must be remembered that Paul does not want anyone to believe that such a fatal wish would ever be made. His intent was to show the inconceivable limit to which, if admissible, his self-devotion would take him. Alford acknowledges that while others may express their love by professing themselves ready to give their life for their friends, Paul declares an intensity of affection that made even the spiritual life he now enjoyed not too great a price to pay if it might purchase their salvation. And what greater example could Paul be thinking of than Jesus Christ his Lord and Savior?14

1 See verse 16

2 2 Corinthians 12:15

3 Martin Luther: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 136

4 Ibid.

5 John Calvin: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.

6 Calvin: ibid.

7 John Bengel: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 305

8 Bengel: Ibid

9 Luke 24:49

10 Adam Clarke: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 174

11 See Exodus 32:32

12 Robert Haldane: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 442

13 Albert Barnes: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.

14 Henry Alford: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 79

About drbob76

Retired missionary, pastor, seminary professor, Board Certified Chaplain and American Cancer Society Hope Lodge Director.
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