NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER ELEVEN (Lesson I)
Verse 1: In that case, I ask, “Did God force His people to leave Him?” Of course not. I myself am an Israelite. I am from the family of Abraham,1 from the tribe of Benjamin.
With pain for his people still in his heart, Paul continues his plea to his fellow Jews but now turns from a philosophical approach to make his point a logical one. Today we would call it the process of elimination, or deductive thinking. In this case, Paul asks if what happened to the Jews being pushed aside in favor of the Gentiles so that they might hear the Gospel, a bullying act on God’s part? The obvious answer was, “Of course not!” It was already in His plans.
Early church scholar Ambrosiaster sees Paul using himself as an example to show that he was once part of the Israelites who rejected the Messiah, Yeshua of Nazareth. But after he became a believer he realized that, unbeknownst to him, he had been chosen to receive salvation through Christ and become a spokesman for his new Master. However, there were others who were not convinced or convicted by Paul’s conversion, and they chose to remain part of those who were headed for judgment and punishment because of unbelief. Yet he never gave up on their being saved just as he was.2
Early church teacher Pelagius believes that by this time in his letter Paul had convinced his audience to the degree that he could start encouraging them, as a good teacher would, to seek further knowledge on this subject. He did not want to continue his criticism so as not to provoke them into throwing up their hands and walking away. After all, God had not yet rejected them, nor would He. Only those who chose not to believe had rejected God. And since God was the only One who could save them, they had also rejected their salvation. Paul could speak to this with authority since, as an unbelieving Jew, God did not reject him but led him to repentance. So if God could do it for him, He could do it for them.3
For early church Bishop Theodoret, Paul could have used the example of the 3,000 unbelieving Jews who were converted to Christ on the Day of Pentecost, as well as to the many thousands spoken of by the Apostle James,4 not to mention all those Jews who left their homeland to settle in other parts of the world who believed the message. But instead, he chose to use himself since he was the one writing the letter.5 This is an example of how a personal testimony is much more convincing than telling a story about someone else’s experience.
In this opening verse, Reformer Martin Luther sees a continuation of Paul’s insistence that God had never given up on the Jews. To prove this we can look back to what Paul said in Chapter 3:3: “It is true that because some Jews were not faithful to God it will that stop God from doing what He promised?” And then in Chapter 9:6: “It’s not as though God failed to keep His promise to the Jewish people.” As Luther sees it, in spite of the Jews’ arrogance Paul appeals to God’s faithfulness in keeping a promise. He does so by arguing from the smaller to the greater. In other words, had God rejected all His people at any time, Paul would have been included. However, in spite of his being one of Jesus’ greatest opponents, Jesus met him personally on the road to Damascus to announced that he had been chosen for a special task.
If you think that Paul, when he was a Pharisee, hated Jesus and His followers, he probably despised the Gentiles even more. But our Lord had other plans. He could call Paul to be a Christian to take the Gospel to the Gentiles. By using himself as an example, Paul not only shows how wide God spreads His arms in love but how firm and gracious is God’s purpose of predestination and election to completing His plans. Not even the most desperate circumstances could derail God’s plan of salvation. The cross and the grave certainly didn’t sabotage God’s plans for His Son, how much less for one who called himself the least of God’s servants and the biggest of sinners6.7
Fellow Reformer John Calvin has a similar impression of what Paul is wanting to say here. In Calvin’s mind, what Paul said up to this point about the blindness and stubbornness of the Jews, might seem to imply that when Christ came and was rejected by the Jews, He merely redistributed God’s promises to the Gentiles, thus depriving them of any hope for salvation. Paul wants the Jews to know that God’s promise to Abraham had not been abolished; God had not forgotten what He said and thereby denied all Jews entrance into His kingdom, as the Gentiles were before Christ arrived. But the question is not whether God had justly or unjustly rejected His people. As proven before, when the people, through false zeal and lack of knowledge had rejected the righteousness of God, they suffered a just punishment for their stubbornness. They were deservedly blinded and denied access to the promises of God’s covenant with Abraham.
In John Calvin’s mind, the reason for their rejection by God is not what’s under consideration by Paul. It’s the dispute concerning something else: If the original covenant which God made with their forefathers had been discarded, then they certainly deserved such punishment from God. However, the idea that it became inoperable through their disloyalty, is totally unreasonable. Paul held the following as a fixed principle: Since adoption is by grace and based on God’s mercy alone, and not on mankind, it stands firm and inviolable no matter how great the unfaithfulness of mankind may be. That by itself cannot abolish it. It was necessary for Paul to point this out to the Jews so that the truth and election of God not be thought of as being dependent on the worthiness of individuals.8
Bible scholar John Bengel combines Judges 6:13, where Gideon tells the angel that the people feel that God has abandoned them, with Psalm 94:14, where the Psalmist says that Adonai will never desert His people nor abandoned their descendants. to prove the point that even though God has manifested His grace toward the Gentiles in the face of the rebellion of the Jews, it is still not over between them. Bengel has Paul saying: “Far be it from us to say that God has rejected His people, when the very title ‘His people,’ contains the reason for denying it.”9
I find the paraphrase of this verse by John Taylor more appealing than that of John Locke. As Taylor puts it, “But what I [Paul] have argued concerning the present exclusion of the Jews, must not be understood as if God had absolutely, universally, and forever thrust His people Israel away from Him.”10 Both scholars see this as the beginning of Paul’s prophetic work related to the future of the Jews and Gentile with respect to the spread of Christianity. With the Jews rejection of Jesus as the Messiah, the door had been opened to the Gentiles for centuries to come. But God is not finished with the Jews, a remnant of which will still be brought back into the kingdom. But Paul’s message to the Gentiles includes a warning not to take their current alienation with God as a reason to brag, and in the process consider the Jews a lost cause. Their weeping may endure for a night, but joy will come in the morning when they return to God with a harvest of souls in their hands11.12
Adam Clarke sees Paul making the point that this rejection of the Jews is neither universal nor final. Paul could not have put it better: I am also an Israelite – I am a true descendant of Abraham through Israel to Jacob, then by his son Benjamin. So it is with Christian Jews who can say they stand both in the grace of God and in God’s covenant with Abraham. Rejection is only for the stubborn and disobedient. But for those who believe in Christ will remain a part of Christ’s Body.13 In this sense, Paul is drawing a distinction between the Jews in the body of Christ with those on the outside to show that God’s grace has proven itself sufficient for the task of saving those who believe from being rejected by God.
Robert Haldane sees a clear reason why the Apostle Paul included himself in this argument. In so doing Paul does something here that few people appreciate. Besides claiming to be an Israelite, Paul also states that he was a pure descendant of Abraham. So why claim in the second part what is obvious in the first part? If he is truly an Israelite, surely then he is a descendant of Abraham. But this should not be taken as needless repetitiveness. A charge is often made against repetitive thinking, which is called “tautology.” Rather, think of this as a needed reiteration of an important truth.
This is done to give what is said doubled force and meaning. That’s why, in addition to declaring himself an Israelite, he adds that he was a direct descendant of Abraham. In other words, he was not an impostor or someone who got in through conversion or marriage. For Paul, this was no ordinary fact, but an important truth on which he placed great emphasis. He will carry this over to show that just because a person says they are a Christian, it does not mean that they are automatically then a follower of Christ. But to say I am a Christian and a follower of Christ gives it more emphasis.
Paul’s reason for doing this is to impress on the minds of his readers a sense of what is called intrinsic importance. That means, whatever is being said has a built-in factor that makes it important. By not only claiming to be an Israelite but also a descendant of Abraham, Paul is revealing the intrinsic value of God’s covenant with Abraham and all the promises made to him respecting his descendants. Paul did this to show that God had not rejected the children of Abraham who was called the friend of God.14
Furthermore, Paul added that he was of the tribe of Benjamin. This was not a particular honor seeing how they acted in the Book of Judges and the episode in 1 Samuel. You see, the first king of Israel, Saul, was a Benjaminite. But even though King David came from the tribe of Judah, when the 10 tribes of Israel formed their own kingdom, the tribe of Benjamin joined Judah who would then become the Jewish people. That’s why when Paul wrote this letter to the Christian Jews in Rome, it gave him more credibility by noting that he was a Jew by way of Benjamin. Had Paul been a Gentile, who claimed to be a student of Judaism, speaking to the congregation in Rome, the Jews would have dismissed him right away. But by proving that he was a Jew by birth, education, practicing Pharisee, but now a dedicated Christian, they had to listen to what he said. 15
1 2 Chronicles 20:7; Psalm 105:8
2 Ambrosiaster: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
3 Pelagius: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
4 Acts of the Apostles 21:20
5 Theodore of Mopsuestia: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
6 1 Timothy 1:15
7 Martin Luther: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., pp. 155-156
8 John Calvin: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
9 John Bengel: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., pp. 327-328
10 John Taylor: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 212
11 Psalm 30:5
12 John Locke: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 351
13 Adam Clarke: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 214
14 2 Chronicles 20:7; Isaiah 41:8; James 2:23
15 Robert Haldane: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 523