NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER TEN (Lesson XXVIII)
One Jewish scholar gives us his view of how this subject of the message going out to all the world applied to the Jews. He sees as a pretend debate between Paul and an imagined opponent who raises the question about Paul’s contention that Israel should have listened to the messengers who were sent with the Good News about the Messiah and how salvation can come only in His name. The opponent readily admits, for argument’s sake, that people were sent to proclaim the Gospel. However, that’s not the problem. It isn’t that Israel didn’t hear, it’s the fact that they never got the whole message.
But Paul has his answer ready. “Yes they did get the whole message,” Paul exclaims. I can prove it to you from Psalms where it says the message went out to everyone in the world, including the Gentiles.1 It isn’t that Israel didn’t get the message, it’s that they didn’t listen.2 As an educator, I was often surprised when on a test a student would claim that the reason they missed the question is that it was never taught in class. But when they were shown the lesson they saw that the information had been shared. It’s just that they weren’t listening. This is the point Paul is trying to make about the Jews
So the point here is that if any heathen can look up into the heavens and see the splendor of creation and admire the complexity of the flora and fauna that surrounds them, and this leads them to believe that there is a higher power, how much more should the Jews, who saw the power of God displayed in Egypt to free them, – a cloud by day and pillar of fire by night in the Sinai wilderness to lead and protect them, and drink water from a rock, not believe the message of God sent them through the prophets, and now through His Son, along with signs and wonders. Truth is, they have no excuse.
Verse 19: Again I ask, “Did the people of Israel not understand?” Yes, they did understand. First, Moses says this for God: “I will use those who are not really a nation to make you jealous. I will use a foolish nation to make you angry.”3
Now that Paul, with the help of Isaiah and David, has shown that the word about God has gone out for Jews everywhere to hear that the Messiah had come and brought with Him God’s final covenant of salvation by faith, the next question is obvious: Did they understand what they heard? To answer his own question, Paul said yes, they did understand what was being preached to them. So what did God think when the whole nation of Israel did not respond and accept Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah? Paul now turns to Moses to present his case on what happened when the Jews turned down a golden opportunity to become the first partakers of the final covenant.
God decided to make the same offer to the Gentiles in hopes that it would make Israel jealous. But He didn’t choose the Gentiles because He had been courting them all along. In fact, not only did they know nothing about Him, they weren’t even the descendants of Abraham through Isaac. We know that for a long time, up until recently, it was considered unacceptable for a man or woman to marry outside the ethnic, cultural, and religious circle they were born and raised in. When I was younger, a biracial marriage was considered out of bounds and their children usually bore the brunt of the discrimination and ridicule. Of all people, for a Jew to marry a Gentile was an abomination.
Augustine is sure he knows why Paul called the Gentiles a “foolish nation.” Augustine believes it was because those who are really not God’s people should not only be called foolish but should not even be called a nation. Today we might parse these words so that the term “people” would indicate a civilized group, and the word “nation,” would mean a nation-state with Laws, boundaries, functioning government, who believe in God. No wonder the Jewish people would be angered if God exchanged their place in the covenant with Abraham with a heathen group without any real identity as a nation.
How could God give something so precious away to such a worthless group? But Paul’s point is, God didn’t give it away. The Jews threw it away when they rejected the gift of His Son, so He didn’t want to see that go to waste. Yes, the Gentiles were idol worshipers. But at one time or another Israel had worshiped idols as well. No, Gentiles didn’t have the Law of Moses, but they did have the Laws of nature and of conscience. Strangely enough, God had more faith that they would accept the Gospel and put away their idols and worship Him than He did the Jews. Did not Paul say earlier: “If a man who is uncircumcised keeps the precepts of the Law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision?’4 It was that God was out to get rid of and destroy the descendants of Abraham, He was only trying to make them jealous.5 After all, God had a right to choose whom He wanted to be His children.6
Ambrosiaster feels that the Jews flew into a rage when they were told that a people, which had lived without God as barbarians, now claimed Yahweh as their own and would receive promises which had originally been made to them through Abraham. No doubt that’s why they treated Paul with such disrespect and disdain when he came to their synagogues with the message that he, a Jew, a Pharisee, had been handpicked by God to take the message of His love to the Gentiles. It’s no wonder they became jealous. Nothing destroys a person like jealousy. Still, even jealousy did not drive them back into the arms of God.7
Pelagius has a similar view as to why Israel did not comprehend that the Gentiles were to be called to faith in God. Paul lists Moses first because the prophets after him spoke of the salvation of the Gentiles. It is same as someone who has a disobedient son and in order to help him appreciate what was coming to him, decided to give half of his inheritance to his slave. That way, if the son repents at least he will appreciate what he receives. And if the son does not repent, some of the inheritance will not be wasted.8 This same thought is illustrated in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son.9
Martin Luther sees God using Isaiah to tell the people of Israel that if they provoke Him by choosing another god to worship, He in turn will provoke them by choosing a different nation to bless with all the promises He gave to Abraham. As such, this would be His form of punishment for what they did in forsaking the One who brought them into existence. For Luther, these are actually words of grace because as he sees it: “God saves only sinners, makes wise only the foolish and the weak, enriches only the poor, and makes alive on the dead.”
There is no debate over the fact that the Gentiles were not God’s chosen people. Their way of life and idolatry made them a foolish nation indeed. But God’s love was such that he chose them that He might save them by His grace instead of waiting on the Jews to acquire salvation by good works. But instead of becoming jealous and humbling themselves, the Jews became angry and murmured when they saw how others were given so freely and without their merit what they had worked for so hard and with such zeal. Luther concludes that had they really sought God, they would have been glad that others were saved, and would not have been enraged at the conversion of the Gentiles.10
John Calvin notes that Paul had argued from the beginning that Gentiles were not to be excluded from getting to know God better, even though up until now God had depended on His creative powers to woo them to Himself. But what can we say about Israel, asks Calvin? Another way to put this would be, “What excuse does Israel have for not recognizing that the hour of salvation had come?” They certainly had more than creation to convince them. They had Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses and the Prophets. Like the pillar of light in the wilderness, they had been led by God to the safety of the Promised Land. What can you say about people who had been illuminated by a far different light of truth than the rest of the world? Why is it that aliens and complete strangers would run to a light they could barely see from far away when the people of God had that same light within arms reach?
So is it reasonable then to ask, why those who followed the Law and were bathed in such light of God’s presence did not immediately discern the story of Jesus as being that of the Messiah? Why did those who were so highly favored of the LORD fall out of favor so quickly? Was it because they just didn’t see the truth? No! It was because they didn’t want to accept the truth.11 It is easy to see how this same dilemma can be attributed to our world today. We certainly can understand why people in some far off land where the Bible has not yet been translated might be given some extra leniency for not having yet embraced the Gospel. However, what about those who live where TV and radio stations broadcast religious content on an hourly basis? We certainly would expect God to have more tolerance for those who’ve never heard than for those who choose not to listen.
Robert Haldane questions why Israel did not accept the fact that they already knew about what was coming with regard to the Gentiles. It is clear that such an event was already recorded in the sacred texts. If they would just read Deuteronomy, Chapter 32 , they would see that this outcome was foretold by Moses long ago. In fact, Moses introduces it in such a way that it was sure to get their attention.
Listen to these words: “Hear, oh heavens, as I speak! Listen, earth, to the words from my mouth!” In verse 5, Moses declares the ingratitude and unbelief of Israel. ‘God is not the One who is corrupt; the defect is in His children. They are an evil and sinful people.” But Moses is not through. He continues his complaint to verse 20. This is where he pronounces what God said would happen to them because of their ungrateful disobedience: “I will hide My face from them. Let’s see what will happen to them. They are nothing more than a sinful and untrustworthy group of children.”
Then in verse 21 comes the chilling words that Paul uses here: “They have made Me jealous by worshiping something that is a non-god. Yes, they have made Me angry with their foolish religion. So I will make them jealous with a non-group. I will make them angry with a disorganized band of humans. How could any astute Jewish scholar miss this in their study of the Torah? But what they surely would have missed was that this prophecy would be fulfilled with the conversion of the Gentiles by the Gospel of Jesus Christ. No doubt that is what Paul was trying to say all along.12
1 Psalm 19:1–4 (19:2-5 in the Jewish Version)
2 David H. Stern: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
3 Deuteronomy 32:21
4 Romans 2:26
5 See 1 Corinthians 12:2; 1 Thessalonians 1:9
6 Augustine: On Romans 68
7 Ambrosiaster: On Paul’s Epistles, op. cit., loc. cit.
8 Pelagius: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
9 Luke 15:11-32
10 Martin Luther: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 152
11 John Calvin: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
12 Robert Haldane: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., pp. 515-516