NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER NINE (Lesson IV)
Bible teacher H. A. Ironside takes note that there are differences of opinion among theologians and scholars as to the exact meaning of verse 3. Did Paul really mean to say that there were times when he had actually wished, if possible, to be separated from Christ if it meant he could have saved the unbelieving Jews from their fate of eternal alienation from God? Are we to believe that he would have really gone through with it? Or should we take this as Paul’s way of saying that he empathizes with those Jews who are earnestly seeking the truth, but in the process have mistakenly rejected Jesus of Nazareth as the true Messiah?
Paul should know, for at one time he himself thought and believed the way the Jews did. So back then, it didn’t matter that Christians believed that the curse of his unbelief had separated him from Christ. If we were to accept this view, we can see Paul expressing here the intensity of his compassion for the unconverted Jews. However, if we take the previously stated opinion of it being only an impossible wish, that would put Paul on the same level with Moses, who cried: “If you will only forgive their sin – but if not, then erase my name from the record you have written!”1 But in the end, whichever view we subscribe to, it should give us a deep sense of Paul’s painful heartbreak for his fellow Jews who would be forever lost.2
Charles Hodge says that the common interpretation given to this verse, which seems most natural, is this: I am deeply grieved in my heart for my fellow Jews. If I could wish anything, my desire would be that I myself could be made a curse and separated from Christ if it helped them to believe. Yes, I would be willing to be regarded and treated as nonredeemable. That is, someone has a curse placed on them that could not be removed just for their sake. Hodge believes that this should be agreed to among most scholars as the logical way to interpret what Paul says here. The only objection that might be valid is that such a desire to be made a curse is inconsistent and incompatible with the Apostle’s character.3
Let’s put this in modern language. If you saw your daughter lying on the ground after jumping from the window of a 40 story building, you might say to the person next to you, “If I could, I’d go up there right now and jump in her place so she comes back alive and continues to live.” Both you and the person you are speaking to know that doesn’t make sense. You are only wishing for something impossible to become possible. This was what Paul was doing. He knew that there was really nothing that could do to save his fellow Jews unless the Holy Spirit brought them to Jesus Christ.
In his sermon on this subject, Charles Spurgeon advises his listeners that they must not measure these words of Paul by any exact grammatical rule. They must be understood as being spoken out of the depths of a grieving, loving heart. Furthermore, when Paul speaks of having such a bereaved heart, it must not be evaluated by the laws of human logic. Such grief-stricken hearts have immeasurable feelings. His anguish overseeing his fellow countrymen facing eternal separation from God, made him wish there was a way he could take that curse upon him if it meant the whole nation of Israel could be saved. In other words, his love for them was modeled after Christ’s love for this world.
Of course, that was impossible. No one understood that better than Paul. There could be only one Substitute and one Sacrifice for sinners, and His name was Jesus. He only mentioned this impossible task as a way of showing how dearly he loved his fellow Jews. It was on their account he carried such heaviness and continual sorrow in his heart. So Spurgeon asked his congregation if they felt that same concern for the lost citizens of their country? If they are not yet saved, do they wonder if there is anything they can do to bring them to salvation? Are they concerned enough about them to do what it takes to get the Gospel to them? He is convinced that once their hearts are brought to this same level of agony about their souls, such love may soon be the reason that those they grieve for are saved.4
Spurgeon believes that many Jews hated Paul intensely because, in their eyes, he was an apostate from the true faith in that he became a follower of Jesus of Nazareth, the false Messiah. Yet, in spite of their feelings toward him, Paul was still willing, as it were, to put his own salvation on hold if by so doing so the Jews might come to their senses and accept Jesus as their Savior and Messiah. We should not be surprised that Paul would express such an impracticable task to help his fellow Jews. After all, we have at one time or another said to a neighbor or friend, “I’ll do anything you want, there’s nothing I won’t do to help you out. Just give me a call, day or night.” We know it’s not possible even as we say it. But we are only trying to express the depth of our concern for them. That’s what Paul was doing here.
F. F. Bruce believes that the situation in the church in Rome requires us to put this statement in context. The first set of believers in Rome were most likely Jews converted while in exile due to emperor Claudius’ expelling them from Rome. Once they returned, the church begins to grow and now they were becoming outnumbered by Gentile members. It is possible that there was a tendency among the Gentiles to regard their Jewish brethren as having been mercifully rescued from a backslidden nation that was still stuck in an outdated religion practicing outmoded customs. On the other hand, it may also have been that some of the Jewish converts grew to resent Gentile slurs made against them.
In order for the Jewish members of the church to stress the need for solidarity with their fellow Gentile believers, they tried to get them to understand the special place they held in the church as authentic children of Abraham. In fact, they may have gone so far as to underestimate those particular features of Christian faith alone which should forge a faith alliance between all believers. They failed to consider these bonds as something stronger that bound them in faith to their Gentile brethren in the spirit, than the connection they had with their Jewish brethren in the flesh. Paul tried to use his wisdom in showing both sides the parts played by both Jews and Gentiles in the saving purpose of God.5
One Messianic Jewish scholar looks at Paul’s situation and believes that Paul still considered most Jews who had not yet accepted Yeshua as Messiah as his brethren in the flesh. There were, after all, God’s chosen people even if they continued in unbelief. The writer also points out that the Torah is mentioned in a positive light as a gift from God to Israel. Paul did not fail to reiterate that Yeshua the Messiah was a Jew, promised to the Jews. Paul rooted such comments in the writing of the Prophets which make clear that Israel will always remain God’s chosen people.6 Then, Paul’s words about being put under a curse for the sake of his fellow Jews might be compared to those of Moses. It was Moses who prayed for Israel after they had grievously sinned against God, and wished himself to be made a curse if God did not let them repent7.8
Verses 4-5: They are the people of Israel, God’s adopted children. The Shekinah glory has been with them, the covenants are theirs, the giving of the Law of Moses, the Temple worship, and His promises; the great Patriarchs are theirs; and out from them, as far as the earthly family is concerned, came the Messiah, who is over all things. Praise the LORD forever! Amen.
It is clear that Paul did not turn his back on his people, only their corrupt views of what God actually said to them through Moses, the prophets, and finally through His Son. He echoed what the Psalmist said: “How good God is to Israel.”9 And just like the Psalmist, Paul too felt the Jews had lost their balance and were on the edge of the cliff that spelled eternal doom. It was so sad, because as God told them through Isaiah: “But as for you, O Israel, you are mine, my chosen ones; for you are Abraham’s family, and he was my friend.”10 It seems they were unconcerned that God had once said: “Listen to me, all Israel who are left; I have created you and cared for you since you were born. I will be your God through all your lifetime, yes, even when your hair is white with age. I made you and I will care for you. I will carry you along and be your Savior.”11 And although the Savior had come, they turned away and rejected Him. How sad!
It is necessary at this point to chronicle the relationship between the children of Israel and God as their heavenly Father. We know that Abraham was a Chaldean, a race tied to Noah’s son, Shem. Rabbi Judah ben Bezalel Löw, who was also known as Maharal of Prague (1520–1609) explains that the Chaldeans were mostly descendants of Assur (a son of Shem, see Genesis 10:22) but were called “Chaldeans” because the descendants of Kesed conquered them.12 It was through Abraham’s son Isaac that Jacob was born. Jacob received Isaac’s blessing, although by false means, but it was Jacob who wrestled with the angel and his name was changed to Israel. So Jacob’s son’s were the ones who went into Egypt to avoid the famine in the land of Canaan where they were living. It was there that God raised up a deliverer named Moses, who would return to lead them out of their bondage, back to the land they came from, which God had promised to Abraham. That’s why it is called the Promised Land.
To the Egyptians, these Hebrews, an Aramaic term meaning, “wanderers” were immigrants who had once achieved a high status under Joseph’s leadership, but had fallen back to being an underclass of slaves. But when Moses was sent by God back to lead them to freedom, He told Moses to deliver this final warning to Pharaoh: “You are to tell Pharaoh: ‘Adonai says, “Isra’el is my firstborn son.”’”13 Israel was God’s son, not by birth, but by adoption. That’s the way Paul describes them here in this verse. Calling Israel His firstborn son was repeated to the prophet Jeremiah.14 Then later on, through the prophet Hosea, God said: “When Isra’el was a child, I loved him; and out of Egypt I called my son.”15 It is also noted, that after Joseph and Mary escaped to Egypt to avoid the murdering of the innocents by King Herod. When Matthew’s Gospel was written, as this story of their escape is told, Matthew quotes this verse in Hosea as also applying to Jesus.16
1 Exodus 32:32
2 H. A. Ironside: On Romans, op. cit., loc cit.
3 Charles Hodge: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 461
4 Charles Spurgeon: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
5 F. F. Bruce: op. cit., loc. cit., Vol. 6, p. 183
6 1 Samuel 12:20-23
7 Exodus 32:31-32
8 Messianic Bible: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
9 Psalm 73:1
10 Isaiah 41:8
11 Ibid. 46:3-4
12 Abraham’s Chaldean Origins and the Chaldee Language: by Reuven Chaim (Rudolph) Klein, from Lashon HaKodesh: History, Holiness, & Hebrew (English, Hebrew and Aramaic Edition), 2014
13 Exodus 4:22 – Complete Jewish Bible
14 Jeremiah 31:9
15 Hosea 11:1 – Complete Jewish Bible
16 Matthew 2:15