NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER ELEVEN (Lesson XVI)
F. F. Bruce adds his inspired understanding to what is being said about Paul’s effort to convince the Gentiles to support the outreach to his fellow Jews. This is a personal message Paul is inscribing for his Gentile readers. He may have been told of a situation in the Roman church which called for such an admonition. In any case, Gentile Christians, upon hearing his argument, might so far be inclined to think condescendingly of their Jewish fellow-believers as asylum seekers fleeing the impending doom about to overtake their apostate nation, which would put beyond the limits any possibility that the majority of their nation might yet be saved.
Although he was a Jew by birth, Paul tells them he is first and foremost a Christian Apostle to the Gentiles, and esteemed it an honor to be commissioned to such a very high position. He explains that he was not only carrying the Gospel to the Gentiles, but also to his Jewish brethren as well. He wanted to motivate them to follow the Gentile’s example, as they see them entering into the full enjoyment of the Gospel’s blessings. He wanted to have them ask, “Why should the Gentiles have all these blessings? Why should we not have an equal share in them?” Well, it would be good if they did say so, for these blessings are the fulfillment of their own ancestral hope and promises. They have been waiting for their Messiah to come because that was their greatest expectation. And when the time does come for Israel to claim the same Messiah the Gentiles have embraced with all the blessing He brings, words cannot begin to describe the impact that Israel’s restoration will have on the world.1
John Stott offers some insight on what Paul means when he stated that he “glorifies” (Greek – doxazō) his ministry, devoting himself to it with so much energy and perseverance. It’s all because of what he hopes it will achieve. This is a remarkable statement of his ministerial goals on several counts. First, to characterize his ministry to his own people in terms of making them envious, and to encourage them to come to Christ as a result of such envy. This sounds like stirring up dishonorable motives in both him and them for a good purpose. But this is not so. Not all envy is tainted with selfishness because it is not always a case of stingy discontent or sinful greed, but a desire to improve.
At its base, envy is the desire to claim for oneself something possessed by another, and whether envy is good or bad depends on whether the person has any right to have it and whether they have any right to want it. If what they desire is something evil in itself, or if it belongs to somebody else and they have no right to it, such as another person’s spouse, then the envy is sinful. But if the something longed for is in itself good, a blessing from God, which He intends for all His people to enjoy, then to covet it and to envy those who have it is not at all unworthy. This kind of desire is right in itself, and to arouse it can be a realistic motive in ministry2.3
Douglas Moo points out that while God’s original call to Paul may not have included ministry to both Jews and Gentiles, as “the Apostle to the Gentiles” he became God’s “point man” in opening up the Gentile world to the Gospel. One can, therefore, imagine Gentile Christians citing Paul’s own focus on them as further evidence that God has turned his back on Israel. That’s why Paul makes clear that his ministry to Gentiles does not mean that he is unconcerned about his own people. His ultimate purpose in bringing the Gospel to Gentiles is to arouse Israel to jealousy so that in the end some of them might yet be saved.4
Jewish theologian David Stern gives his thoughts on the subject. He hears Paul saying, “I, Paul, make a point of letting Jewish people know about my ministry, in the hope that somehow I may make some of my own people jealous of saved Gentiles, and by this roundabout method, as an indirect byproduct of my ministry to Gentiles, save some of them too.”5 Stern goes on to note that Paul is not saying that he can by himself save anyone, for Yeshua the Messiah does that. Rather, Paul, by obeying God, is participating in God’s work to save everyone He can. One hears little these days about this principle of evangelism.
Most Christians do not have a ministry to Jewish people, so they suppose that they have no particular responsibility toward them. They are rarely encouraged to make their ministry to Gentiles known among Jews as a way of provoking them to jealousy, the way Paul is doing. Paul is very discreet about what he hopes to accomplish — he has the hope that somehow he may make all of them envious so that some of them might be saved. Actually, he spent considerable time among Jews and in at least one instance, in Rome, the very city to which this letter was written, he seems to have had, a few years later, a notable evangelistic success with them6.7
Another Jewish writer adds that Paul is making it clear that his ministry is within the context of the faith of Israel and comes from concerns for the Jewish community. The jealousy and imitation he speaks of, is not of Jews being jealous of the salvation of Gentiles, but of his ministry to the Gentiles. Their envy must not be based on any of the following:
There is every reason that the Jews should be jealous of any other faith (conversion) issues outside of the Torah-based faith of Israel.
It might suggest to the Jews that they are no longer the people of God unless they convert to a new (Gentile) religion.
It does not reflect the view of Jewish prophetic promises being fulfilled, and, therefore, will not achieve Paul’s intended goal.
What Paul is hoping for is that these Jews will be jealous of his ministry bringing Gentiles in great numbers into the faith of Israel, as foretold by the prophets. The turning of Gentiles from paganism to the faith of Israel would be cause for celebration, as this would be a Messianic fulfillment of prophecy.8 Paul’s letter becomes very focused toward the Gentiles in the congregation from this point forward. The above verse is overlooked when people speak of “Paul being the Apostle to the Gentiles.” Here, Paul makes clear that he regards his ministry to the Gentiles to be in the service of Israel’s redemption. Israel is still the chief goal of God’s will for salvation. The underlying message is that the Gentiles should view their mission in a similar fashion.9
Verse 15: Furthermore, if by throwing the Jews aside means that God became friends with the other people in the world, how much more will their accepting Him mean. It will be like bringing people to life after death.
The best friends, sometimes, are those that were once enemies. Paul sees the same truth operating here. By the Jews belligerently sticking to Law and works to gain salvation instead of taking God’s offer of grace and mercy, they forced the Most High to go looking for others who might be interested in becoming part of His Kingdom. Therefore, God became friends with the Gentiles. But Paul’s conjecture here is this: If God can love and care for those who were outside the family of Abraham, how much more would He be willing to love and care for those inside the family of Abraham who would come back and say, “Lord, I’m sorry?” Just as any father would be pleased if children from another family took his advice on how to conduct themselves while eating out at a restaurant, how much more pleased will he be if his own children take the same advice.
So Paul is teaching that God is in the reconciling business. First, reconciling with the world, and then with His people the Jews. Paul explains this to the Corinthians when he told them: “God is the One Who brought us to Himself when we hated Him. He did this through Christ. Then He gave us the work of bringing others to Him. God was in Christ. He was working through Christ to bring the whole world back to Himself. God no longer wanted to hold men’s sins against them. And He gave us the work of telling and showing men this.”10
He wrote a similar message to the Ephesians: “Everything in heaven and on earth can come to God because of Christ’s death on the cross. Christ’s blood has made peace. At one time you were strangers to God and your minds were at war with Him. Your thoughts and actions were wrong. But Christ has brought you back to God by His death on the cross.”11 But I have a feeling that when Paul wrote this his mind was not only on the non-Jews who had come to know Christ as their Savior but also with a deep longing that many of his fellow Jews would also come to Him and find peace for their souls.
We see what all of this means to early church scholars if Paul is able to persuade his fellow Jews to join him in his Christian faith. For instance, Ambrosiaster sees this from a purely spiritual perspective. He believes Paul worked hard for the conversion of his fellow Jews because, if for nothing else, it would remove the handicap of their spiritual blindness. Of course, once that was removed they could see that their sins were forgiven by the free grace of God.12 And Pelagius offers something to think about. He asks rhetorically, “What was the occasion for the reception of the Gentiles into the family of God except that they came to life because of the removal of the Jews?”
On the other hand, it may mean from among all those of the Jewish nation that were removed, Christ and the Apostles where chosen to bring the message of eternal life to the Gentiles. Or possibly it may mean that those Christ set free from sin and death served as an example for us to have life in Him.13 Then Bishop Theodoret offers his insight. He asks us to note how diplomatically Paul phrases his statements. On the one hand he teaches those who already believed and received salvation through repentance not to think too highly of themselves, and on the other hand he extends a hand to those Jews who had not yet believed and received salvation through repentance not to think too lowly of themselves.14
1 F. F. Bruce, On Romans, Vol. 6, p. 212
2 Psalm 37:4; 1 Corinthians 12:31; 14:1, 39; Philippians 2:13
3 John Stott: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
4 Douglas Moo: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
5 David H. Stern: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
6 Acts of the Apostles 28:24-25
7 Stern: ibid.
8 Zechariah 8:23; Isaiah 54:2-3
9 Messianic Bible: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
10 2 Corinthians 5:18-19
11 Colossians 1:20-22
12 Ambrosiaster: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
13 Pelagius: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
14 Theodoret of Cyr: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.