NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER ELEVEN (Lesson VIII)
You can sense the disappointment and ache in the Lord’s heart as the people He saved from endless slavery drifted away from His love when He said to the prophet Isaiah, “These people approach Me with empty words, and the honor they bestow on Me is mere lip-service; while in fact, they have distanced their hearts from Me, their worship of Me is worth nothing. They follow the doctrines made by humans.”1 Anyone reading this without knowing that it came from the quill of Isaiah some 2,800 years ago, could think that God was describing some churches today. But praise God that He was not finished with them yet because He then tells Isaiah: “But look, I will once again do great things with these people, great and wonderful things.”2 Perhaps it was this promise that Paul had in mind for the revival of his fellow Jews and their acceptance of Jesus as the Messiah. But Paul is not through, he has more condemnation for those who continued to reject the Messiahship of Jesus of Nazareth.
One early church scholar clearly puts the blame squarely on the Jews for any failure in God’s efforts to bring them salvation through grace. After all, the promises were made to the Jews that Christ would come to save them from their sins, but since He came and they did not believe, Paul says that the fact Israel failed to obtain salvation is their own fault.3 Then Pelagius adds his insights to this loss of God’s promise. He contends that Israel as a whole did not acquire righteousness because it did not seek it by faith but thought that justification came solely by works demanded by the Law. That is why our Savior said that in their efforts to keep from being contaminated by immoral deeds, they were straining out mistakes as small as a gnat while swallowing sins as big as a camel4.5 And another early church scholar from Egypt observes that while many in Israel mistakenly tried to obtain righteousness by using the Law, there were others who were elected and sealed did receive it on account of their belief, being justified by their faith. The rest were blinded, being hardened and rebellious.6
On Paul’s quote from the writings in the First Covenant, early church scholar Origen confesses that he had never been able to find the source of this quotation. So he asks that if someone who consults holy Scripture more thoroughly than he had done and finds it, let him know.7 I’m willing to believe that after reading this, some good friend contacted Origen and told him that it was a combined paraphrase of Deuteronomy 29:4 and Isaiah 29:10. This is why a cross-reference Bible is so valuable to a student of God’s Word. Obviously, there were none available in 200 AD.
But when it came to the purpose for which Paul made this quote, Ambrosiaster believes that these are the carnal Israelites who thought they were justified by the law and did not realize that they were actually justified by faith in Christ. In fact, their justification through the law still left them all guilty. The problem was, they blinded and unable to see the way of truth because they had rejected the Gospel which made their coming to salvation by grace impossible.
The examples taken from the prophets reveal that there are two kinds of blind people. The first type consists of those who are blinded forever, who will never be saved. These people are so closed-minded that they keep saying back to God and His prophets, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” The second type involves those who, although they try to live according to the law, do not accept what Christ did on the cross as necessary for their being right with God. These people are not doing this by virtue of a stubborn will, but by imitating a tradition of righteousness by works started by their ancestors. They have, therefore, become blind to the great works of Christ which cannot be ignored. They have decided to follow human opinion instead of instruction from God.8
Martin Luther does not take Paul’s quote here from Deuteronomy: “God has given them a spirit of dullness — eyes that do not see and ears that do not hear,”9 to mean that God created or infused a spirit that was placed in people’s minds. Rather, that the hardness of their mind and resistance of their will are being described this way.10 In other words, because they would not listen and would not consider what God was saying, there rose a spirit of obstinance within them against God’s message because it was impossible to think that intelligent human beings could not live and act that way on their own strength and wisdom.
John Calvin sees Paul laboring here to prove that the blindness caused by their wickedness that made them deserving of being rejected was an accident. God knew of this rejection before the foundation of the world. Calvin says there is a way we can solve the following riddle: how did the origin of mankind’s self-righteousness, which provokes God’s displeasure, become the unruliness of human nature when forsaken by God. Paul, therefore, while speaking of eternal rejection, has not, without reason, referred to those things which carry on from it, as fruit from a tree or a river from a spring.
For Calvin, the ungodly are indeed bound to incur God’s judgment of spiritual blindness. But if we go back to the source of what caused their ruin, we will discover this: their staying away from God can only lead to all their good deeds, rites, rituals, and ceremonies earning them nothing but eternal torment. Yet the cause of eternal rejection is so hidden from us, that nothing remains for us to do but stand in awe of God’s incomprehensible purpose for His creation. But there are some who come up with the absurd idea that, in spite of being told about the ultimate end, we should still attempt to present evidence that nothing can be done about this because it has been God’s plan from the beginning. In fact, God had already decided what He was going to do with the whole human race before the fall of Adam. Their sin did not catch Him off guard.11
To put what Calvin is saying here in another light, look at it this way: A gardener puts insecticides and pesticides in his garden knowing that if the insects or pests eat the poison instead of the fruit they will surely die. In other words, their predestined death was determined before they ate the poison, not after. Yet, the area where the gardener placed the poison required the insects and pests to actively go in search of it. This is what happened in the Garden of Eden, and as a result of Adam and Eve’s sin, all future generations of mankind were under the curse of death. And since so many died of sin’s poison, God sent a Messenger into the world to make everyone aware that there was a cure for the poison that causes sin. This was made possible by His dying on the cross so that His blood would contain the antidote for sin. But even though this Gospel is preached, there are many who still shut their eyes and close their hearts to the light and are thus blinded and numbed to the truth. So it must be concluded that while such blind obstinance is indeed due to an act of God, it is mankind’s fault for not receiving the cure for what is killing them.
John Locke’s paraphrase of these two verses helps us see what he saw. I have toned down some of the old English to make it more understandable. He wrote, “How is this possible? Although many of the Jews failed to find what they were looking for, yet some were chosen to become part of God’s Elect. So why is it that the rest of them remained blind to what was going on? The fact is, they lost interest in what God was doing and fell asleep. So with their eyes closed, they couldn’t see, and with their ears shut they couldn’t hear, and they have remained that way to this day.” He notes that the righteousness which the Jews were seeking is explained back in chapter 9, verse 31. This meant that anyone who had been chosen to be a part of this remnant was to consider it a privilege, not a right. Likewise, the Gentiles who would be joined with them into one body of believers must recognize that they are all now the possession of the One True God and part of one kingdom setup under His Son. Therefore, they owed it all to their having been elected by God’s grace.12
John Bengel has an interesting concept here of how those who heard the Word ended up slumbering through the message because of their sinful stupor. He points to Peter’s message on the Day of Pentecost and his plea with those who heard him to accept what was being said and be baptized for the forgiveness of their sin. “Change your hearts and lives!” Peter called out.13 Luke tells us: “He [Peter] pressed his case with many other arguments and kept pleading with them, ‘Save yourselves from this perverse generation!’”14 Yet, in spite of his pleading, not everyone who heard his message responded to receive salvation. Says Bengel that the word “slumber” used here, “Denotes suffering from frequent pricking, which terminates in a stupor.”15 Referencing back to Acts 2:37, where the Complete Jewish Bible renders it: “On hearing this, they were stung in their hearts,” Bengel then points to where Paul used it the same concept when he said: “What is more, their minds were made stone-like; for to this day the same veil remains over them when they read the Old Covenant.”16
John Taylor says that Paul has his eye on the remnant of the Jews who embraced the Gospel that he just mentioned in Verse 5. So Paul now interjects this verse to show that their standing in the Church had no relationship to, or dependence upon, their past status as Jews or on their observance of the Law. Their standing in the Church and Covenant was according to the election of grace received by faith. That was the only ground upon which they could now build their lives as believers and children of God through Christ. Taylor is insistent that no one should ever suppose that this was some special grace that God created just for the remnant. It was and is the same grace by which all of His children would be chosen. If thought of as something special for each group, then Jesus would have had to die once for the Jews, and then again for the Gentiles.17
That would be like saying today that if a person who has been raised in the world is reached by the Good News and chosen, that this is a different form of grace than that which is given to people raised in the church. No, it takes the same grace for all. There is only one Savior, who died on one cross, and shed one type of blood as the remedy for all sin and all sinners. So just because a person is raised in a Christian and knows all about the Bible, prayer, and worship, that does not mean they only need half-cleansing. Whether you get sick laying in a hospital or laying on a dump heap, you need the same medicine for the same sickness.
1 Isaiah 29:13
2 Ibid. 29:14
3 [Pseudo-]Constantius: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
4 See Matthew 23:24
5 Pelagius: On Romans: op. cit., loc. cit.
6 Cyril of Alexandria: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
7 Origen: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
8 Ambrosiaster: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
9 Complete Jewish Bible
10 Martin Luther: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 157
11 John Calvin: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
12 John Locke: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit, p. 353
13 Acts of the Apostles 2:38
14 Ibid 2:40
15 John Bengel: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 330
16 2 Corinthians 2:14
17 John Taylor: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., pp. 341-342