NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER ELEVEN (Lesson XXXI)
It is clear that the Apostle Paul knew that he might experience a strong push-back from the orthodox Jewish converts in Rome because they had been taught from their youth: “The fire of Gehenna (Hell) has no power over sinners in Israel.”1 This resulted from the argument that while all mankind passes through the valley of transgression, for the wicked heathen the road leads to Gehenna while for the righteous Jew it leads to Paradise. This same teaching was repeated by Rabbi Resh2 Lakish and used the golden altar as an example. He was talking about the altar in the Temple that was covered with gold.3 He stated, “Even though the gold on that altar is only as thick as a dinar,4 it will not wear off after years and years of enduring the fire. So, the same is true of the transgressors of Israel who are as full of good deeds and acts of devotion as a pomegranate is full of seeds.”5
And in reference to Paul’s choice here of the words in Isaiah6 related to Jesus being the Redeemer and Messiah, one Jewish writer observed that the prophet truly did not indicate that the Messiah will turn Jacob’s descendants away from ungodly living, but as a Redeemer will come to Zion and receive those who turn themselves away from their transgressions.7 In other words, the idea that Jesus came to seek and to save that which was lost did not mean that the children of Abraham would then be saved with no decision on their part because they were already righteous. Rather, that they must be willing to turn to Him and accept Him as their Lord and Savior. This should help us understand why the Jewish leaders were so opposed to both John the Baptizer and Jesus of Nazareth’s message of repentance for salvation sake.
When it comes to understanding the mystery concerning God’s estrangement from the Jews and His engagement to the Gentiles that Paul speaks of here, one early church scholar envisions that as the number of Gentiles that God is courting comes to Him through faith in Christ, the rest of the Jewish people will be stirred by jealousy and a desire to follow suit so that by believing in Christ they too will be saved. But in the meantime, the Apostle ranks the Gentiles ahead of the Jews in faith for the reason that even if some of the Jews believed in Christ, they still followed the precepts of the Law of Moses. But afterward, they also followed the example of the Gentiles and began to maintain the Christian faith in its fullness.8 While this was Paul’s hope and dream, yet it is said with a look to the future when Israel as a nation will finally declare Jesus Christ is Lord.
As it relates to the Deliverer coming from Zion, early church Bishop Diodore asks: “What does it mean to say that all Israel will be saved?” If it is said, “the whole world will see,” it doesn’t mean that every single person on earth will see, or, “all nations will hear,” doesn’t imply that every individual in the world will be able to hear. What it really means is that no matter where people live on this planet or in what nation they abide, there will be at least one person from their area who will see, or some inhabitant of every nation on earth will hear about those who are turning to the Lord and believing in Yeshua as the Messiah. So when Paul says that all Israel will be saved, he only means that every tribe of Israel will be represented in the number who finally turn to Jesus as the Lord and King.9
Early church scholar Pelagius sees it the same way. He notes that some interpreters of Scripture, that he has read, regard all these events as in the future. So this means that this prophecy must still take place, and Christ will still need to come again to set them free.10 And Bishop Cyril adds that although the Jews have momentarily fallen out of God’s favor, they will one day be brought back into the fold as believers in Christ. Paul confirms this by quoting Isaiah.11 Israel will be saved in its own time and will finally be elected after the calling of the Gentiles comes to an end.12
The eventual salvation of Israel is seen as the fulfillment of the covenant God made with Abraham. So it does not depend on the Jews to orchestrate this, it is God’s to complete. Ambrosiaster is sure that the covenant God made with Abraham will be valid no matter how long it takes for them to believe. This is God’s promise to keep. It is not for us to determine if and when it will happen, all we must do is be ready for Christ’s return. In the meantime, every day the call goes out to whosoever will may come to the Lord Jesus for the forgiveness of sins. Although God condemns unbelievers as soon as they sin, He still waits before punishing them knowing that one day they might come to the knowledge salvation.13
Then Chrysostom tells us that God will stand by His covenant and promises to the end. We cannot postpone it nor expedite it. It will happen in God’s appointed time. But there is one thing of which we can be sure and that is our sins must be forgiven and we must be living with Christ in us as our Lord and Savior. God is faithful in fulfilling His promises. And since we can be sure Christ’s second coming has not yet happened, we can nevertheless be certain that it will one day come to pass.14
Martin Luther says that while the general consensus is that the Jews will be converted to Christ in the end, it is still too obscure a passage to convince everyone, even with the endorsement of Augustine, Chrysostom, and Theodoret. Luther is certain that the Jews who are still unbelievers will be converted and saved once the fullness of the Gentile elect is completed. They will not remain outside forever, but in their own time they will be converted.15 We are told that although Luther seemed unsure at first whether all Jews would be saved rather than an elect few, he did finally accept the opinion of early church scholars that just as those among the Gentiles will be the chosen so the same among the Jews.
John Calvin believes that Paul is making a point for the Gentile believers not to become so high-minded that they are blinded to the mystery of God’s plan for Israel. It was necessary for Paul to do so in order to prevent the Jewish believers among them to the despair, thinking all was lost. Calvin sees the same thing as useful for us in our day, so that we may know that the salvation of the remnant, whom the Lord will at length gather to Himself, is signed, and irrevocable, as it were, by the Almighty God’s seal. It has also been hidden away so the enemy cannot break in and steal it.
And whenever there is a long delay and we are tempted to become despondent, let us remember this is still a mystery to us since God has given no one to know the exact time it will take place until He gives His approval for it to happen. And then it will take place in a moment, faster than we can blink an eye. It is also called a mystery because it will be incomprehensible until the time of its revelation. It is, however, made known to us, as it was to the Romans, that our faith may be content with the Word, and support us with hope, until the event itself come to light.16
John Locke takes the phrase, “shall be saved,” and renders it, “shall be converted.” Locke is aware that among English speaking believers the word, “saved” is a synonym for conversion. So if we are saved, we must be saved from something. In the first stage of our salvation, we are saved from the bondage of sin. But there is another stage, that’s at the end when we are saved from this world to live in the world-to-come with our Lord. So Locke believes that Paul is talking about the first stage here on earth. That’s why Paul cannot talk about the eternal destiny of the Jews unless he shows that they were converted to Christ and made ready for eternal life.17
Daniel Whitby sees this verse as another part of Paul’s argument for the general conversion of the Jews. This is not to those who were hardened and unresponsive to the Gospel, but to those who had been blinded by doubt and uncertainty about the Gospel and Yeshua the Messiah. So it must not be understood as encompassing all Jews regardless of their unbelief. God plans to take away their blindness by sending a Deliverer out of Zion to procure the pardon for them, and since this pardon can only be given through faith in Christ, this deliverer must Yeshua who wants to save His own people from their sins. So just as such blindness was removed for many Jews when Jesus came the first time, so will the blindness be removed in the last days just before His coming the second time to set up the Kingdom here on earth they were looking for.18
John Bengel also warns against trying to understand this mystery, that Paul speaks of here, out of curiosity or with limited interest. It must be done with humility. After all, since it is a mystery, then Paul had to treat the Jews with patience for not recognizing quicker. The same should be said of us who are hoping that in time all will recognize it. Although many Jews were converted in Paul’s day, and there are some even in this day that are becoming Christians, the mystery that Paul was talking about would come when the right time arrived for it to occur and the remnant will be chosen and saved.19
Puritan preacher Jonathan Edwards believes that Paul is talking here about what will take place during the Great Tribulation in the end times. He feels that this is what the prophet Jeremiah was referring to.20 This will include not only the literal Jewish nation but the spiritual nation of Israel as well.21 Edwards notes that it is so out of the ordinary that the Jewish people have continued in their denial of the Messiah for so many centuries and yet their ultimate salvation is spoken of here with great certainty. The Apostle Paul illustrates this so beautifully in his letter to the Corinthians: “Today, whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their heart. ‘But,’ says the Torah, ‘whenever someone turns to Adonai, the veil is taken away.’ Now, ‘Adonai’ in this text means the ‘Spirit.’ And where the Spirit of Adonai is there is freedom. So all of us, with faces unveiled, see as in a mirror the glory of the Lord; and we are being changed into His very image, from one degree of glory to the next, by Adonai the Spirit.”22
1 Babylonian Talmud: Seder Mo’ed, Masekhet Erubin, folio 19a
2 Resh is the twentieth letter of the Hebrew alphabet and means “head” and “man” as well as “chief,” “top,” “beginning,” and “first,” each of which are the “head” of something.
3 1 Kings 6:21-22
4 About 4 millimeters, or as thin as today’s dime.
5 Babylonian Talmud: Seder Mo’ed, Masekhet Chagigah, folio 27a
6 Isaiah 59:20 + 27:9a
7 Rabbi Isaac ben Abraham of Troki, Chizzuk Emuna (Faith Strengthened), par. 2. c. 81.
8 [Pseudo-]Constantius: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
9 Diodore: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
10 Pelagius: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
11 Isaiah 59:20
12 Cyril of Alexandria: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
13 Ambrosiaster: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
14 Chrysostom: Homilies on Romans 19
15 Martin Luther: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., pp. 161-162
16 John Calvin: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
17 John Locke: On Romans, op. cit., loc., cit. p. 357
18 Daniel Whitby: On Romans, op., cit., loc., cit., pp. 65-66
19 John Bengel: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., pp. 333-335
20 Jeremiah 30:7
21 Daniel 12:1-3
22 2 Corinthians 3:15-18 – Complete Jewish Bible