NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER NINE (Lesson XXXIII)
The concept that God offered His saving grace to more Gentiles than Jews, who became the majority in the early ages of the Church, must be understood as an act of God’s sovereign goodness. But the fact that the Jews were cut off and perished, is to be taken as a result of their own unbelief. This proves true of every sinner who must look into their own heart and at their personal conduct as grounds for their condemnation. They need not fear that this is some secret plan of God to send them to hell. The worst error that leads to destruction is being self-dependent on working out one’s own salvation. This requires full reliance on one’s selfish powers to qualify without help. What makes this so fatal is that it will not be accepted by God as being superior to what Christ provided for sinners on the cross.1
Professor F. F. Bruce provides an excellent context in which to understand what Paul says here. He notes that in Isaiah, the prophet foretold how the Assyrians would invade Israel, sweeping over the land like a tidal wave. However, there would be one place of refuge to save them from the overwhelming hostile flood: God Himself will provide that sanctuary, a Rock, to all who put their trust in Him, a Rock on which they can stand secure. However, everyone who does not put their confidence in the Rock to save them, but entrusts themselves to other powers or resources will be swept against this Rock, like a rudderless ship washed ashore. As a result, it will bring grief and sorrow to their hearts and minds. So instead of the Rock being a place of refuge for the Jews, it proved to be a dangerous obstacle – a stone of offense and a rock of stumbling.2
This passage is quoted later by the Apostle Peter to make the same point. He refers to Christ as, “A Stone that will make men stumble, a Rock over which they will trip.”3 And why did the Jews stumble? What tripped them up? Instead of seeing Christ as a stepping-stone to salvation, they saw Him as an obstacle in the way of their getting right with God on their own. Did our Lord make them trip-up on purpose? No! They tripped on their own accord. When they took the Word sent to them from God and pushed Him aside, then attempted to go their way they stumbled over Him and have never been able to recover.4
John Stott makes the case of way, for some, the proclamation of Christ crucified became a skandalon (“stumbling-block”) to the Jews,5 and the cross became a skandalon (“offence”) to them as well.6 The Greek word skandalon, to most of those who are English speakers, sounds very much like the word “scandalous.” But when we look at how it was understood by the Greeks, it has two main meanings. First, it represents any object, such as a trap or impediment, that lies in a person’s pathway. Secondly, it can also be used to describe any object or thing by which a person becomes trapped by their own mistake. So the English word scandal would more easily fall into the second definition. But Christ’s crucifixion and the cross fit better into the first definition.
So the next question is this: Why do people stumble over the cross? For one thing, it undermines their confidence in self-righteousness. This is not a small thing. If attaining a right standing with God could be established because of what a person could do on their own, then Paul rightly says that Christ died for nothing.7 Not only that, but if we could gain a righteous standing before God by our own obedience to the laws, catechisms, ordinances, rites, rituals, ceremonies, and holy days prescribed by the church, then Christ’s work on the cross would become pointless and meaningless. It goes without saying, if we can save ourselves, there is no reason for Christ to have died. His death would be an excessive and wasted act of mercy. That’s why it must be understood that by Christ dying for our sins it is proof positive that we cannot save ourselves. But for many, such a humiliating confession is an intolerable insult to their egotistical religious pride. When we are unable or unwilling to swallow our useless self-admiration, everything that God went through so much trouble to bring about to pass ends up causing people to fall over Christ’s work on the cross as stumbling-stone.8
Douglas Moo sees another factor in Judah and Israel’s failure to attain the level of righteousness that God intended for them to reach. As he sees it, Paul may be suggesting that the law of Moses, when rightly interpreted, calls for faith, not only for works. The problem with the people of Israel is that they were so preoccupied with works they completely missed the requirement for faith. Paul consistently restricts his use of the Greek word nomos,9 to mean the commands God gave Israel through Moses, not just the Ten Commandments. The Pentateuch as a whole calls for faith, but not the commandments. They demand works. So that’s why Paul talks about the “law of righteousness” in an attempt to make two points at once. They are: Israel pursued righteousness but failed to obtain it, that’s because by so doing they elevated nomos above faith as their primary concern. What makes it even more puzzling, is that they were so narrowly focused on what works the law demanded, that they missed the much larger sign God gave them to focus on. That was His promise that faith can do so much more than works. That’s why they failed to obtain righteousness on their own.10
Verse 33: The Scriptures talk about that Stone: “Look, I put in Zion a Stone that will make people stumble. It is a Rock that will make people fall. But anyone who trusts in Him will never be disappointed.”11
Once again, Paul calls on the words of the prophet Isaiah to make the case his Jewish readers will easily understand. The prophet was being used by God to make the children of Israel aware that because of their own failures, they would miss out on everything God had prepared and promised to them. But there was this expectancy just when everyone thought all hope was lost: “On that day the Lord Almighty Himself will be their crowning glory, the diadem of beauty to His people who are left.”12 The prophet goes on to give the Lord’s message: “See, I am placing a Foundation Stone in Zion – a firm, tested, precious Cornerstone that is safe to build on. He who believes need never run away again.”13
The Psalmist makes note of what happened when some did not believe and even pushed aside the Cornerstone that God had prepared. As Isaiah reported,14 “The very rock that the builders rejected has now become the cornerstone!”15 This, of course, was verified by Jesus Himself who asked the Jewish leaders: “Didn’t you ever read in the Scriptures: ‘The stone rejected by the builders has been made the honored cornerstone; how remarkable! what an amazing thing the Lord has done’? What I mean is that the Kingdom of God shall be taken away from you, and given to a nation that will give God His share of the crop. [Whoever falls on this stone will be broken in pieces; but if it falls on him, he will be crushed to powder!]”16
So in Paul’s mind, this was a clear picture for the Jewish leaders of the congregation in Rome to look at before contemplating any objection to Gentiles joining the body of believers. After all, didn’t David pray: “None of those who have faith in God will ever be disgraced for trusting Him. But all who harm the innocent shall be defeated.”17 Paul did not want anyone to be ashamed that they came to believe in Jesus the Christ as their Savior. As he told them in his opening: “For I am not ashamed of this Good News about Christ. It is God’s powerful method of bringing all who believe it to heaven. This message was preached first to the Jews alone, but now everyone is invited to come to God in this same way.”18
Being that Paul was mainly addressing the Jewish leaders in the congregation at this point, no doubt he was also aware that among Jewish scholars it was not allowed for a person to skip from one verse to another, like putting a chain or necklace together, to make their point, even though as he had just done that with Isaiah’s writings. But being a scholar of Jewish literature himself, Paul also knew what the Talmud had to say: “The reader may skip [from verse to verse] in a prophet but not in the Torah.”19 In fact, the great scholar Moses Maimonides touched on this subject by saying: “A person reading from the prophets may read three verses to the translator at one time, and the translator translates them one after another. If the three verses are three separate passages, [the reader] should read them to the translator only one at a time.”20
When it comes to the stone being a metaphor for Christ, Ambrosiaster notes there are many passages of Scripture where Christ is portrayed as a Rock or a Stone. The prophet Daniel saw this Stone as it separated itself without the help of human hands from the mountain. As it broke loose it rolled down the mountain and crashed into a huge statue Daniel saw that had a head made of fine gold, its chest and arms of silver, its trunk and thighs of bronze, its legs of iron, and its feet partly of iron and partly of clay. When it smashed into this statue’s feet, they broke into pieces so small it reminded Daniel of the chaff on a threshing floor in the summer. Then another miracle happened. The stone begin to grow into a mountain so tall it could be seen from far, far away.21
For most Bible scholars, this Stone clearly refers to Christ. And the Apostle Peter says told the Jews: “This is the stone which the builders rejected.”22 The Jews knew that if they compared Christ’s words with His miracles, they would be pressured to recognize that He was not out of line to claim that He had been sent down from heaven. For Ambrosiaster, the rock was undoubtedly the human flesh of the Savior. It detached itself without hands, because it was made of a virgin by the Holy Spirit without the participation of a male.23 Others may see the mountain as the law, from which the Word Himself becomes independent and the power of His Gospel would be enough to become a driving forces in nations around the world. In any case, it was a clear signal to the Jews that the Gospel would prevail over the law as the fountain of living water for all who come to it for salvation.
1 Charles Hodge: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., pp. 514-515
2 Isaiah 8:13-15
3 1 Peter 2:8
4 F. F. Bruce: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., Vol. 6, p. 197
5 1 Corinthians 1:23
6 Galatians 5:11
7 Ibid. 2:21
8 John Stott: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
9 Nomos is Greek for the word “Law.”
10 Douglas Moo: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
11 Isaiah 28:16
12 Ibid. 28:5
13 Ibid. 28:16
14 Ibid. 8:14-15
15 Psalm 118:22 – The Living Bible & Complete Jewish Bible, cf. 1 Peter 2:7-8
16 Matthew 21:42-44 – CJB
17 Psalm 25:3
18 See Romans 1:16
19 Babylonian Talmud: Seder Mo’ed, Masekhet Megillah, folio 24a; Cf., Ibid., Masekhet Yoma, folio 69b
20 Moses Maimonides: Mishneh Torah, Sefer Ahavah, Tefilah and Birkat Kohanim, Ch. 12:14
21 See Daniel 2:31-45
22 Psalm 118:22; Acts 4:11
23 Ambrosiaster: On Paul’s Epistles, op. cit., loc. cit.