NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER ELEVEN (Lesson XXXIII)
Stern goes on to say that Paul is not focusing on a part but on the whole of Israel, except for the part that accepted Yeshua, as being affected by this partial stoniness. For, as the next two clauses show, it delays Israel’s national salvation. The stoniness is not total, because there are and always have been Jews who end up trusting Yeshua. It is also wrong to see in the term “partial stoniness” any veiled approval of non-Messianic Judaism as being superior to the “total stoniness” of paganism. That is the opposite of Paul’s point, which is, that rejection of Yeshua by people with so many advantages demonstrates irreversible stoniness.1 This is no new problem for the Jewish people – in the Tanakh God frequently called them stubborn and stiffnecked. The passage does not say that God caused the stoniness, as He hardened Pharaoh’s heart;2 it implies that God knew it would happen. Nevertheless, this does not provide an excuse for anyone to remain stonehearted3.4
Verses 28-29: Right now, many of the Jews are enemies of the Gospel. They hate it. But this has been a benefit to you, for it has resulted in God’s giving His gifts to you Gentiles. Yet the Jews are still beloved of God because of the Patriarch Abraham’s sake, for God’s gifts and His call can never be withdrawn; He will never go back on His promises.
Rather than seeing all this as a negative and bemoaning the fact that Jesus failed to persuade the chief priests and various factions of Judaism to accept Him as the Messiah, Paul looked at it from the positive side. That by becoming enemies of the Gospel, the Jews were doing the Gentiles a favor. In other words, as Jesus indicated, by the Jews considering Him a stumbling block it turned into a steppingstone for the Gentiles.5 This was the message that Paul and Barnabas gave to the Jews in Antioch in Pisidia.6 When they got to the cities of Iconium and Athens they ran into the identical Jewish opposition with the same Gentile opportunity.7 That’s why Paul shared his consternation with the Thessalonians: “It was the Jews who killed the Lord Jesus and the early preachers. The Jews made it hard for us and made us leave. They do not please God and are working against all men. They tried to keep us from preaching the Good News to the people who are not Jews. The Jews do not want them saved from the punishment of sin.”8
But out of this came the glorious realization that the Gentiles were not given the message of salvation by default, but on purpose. It was all part of God’s plan to populated His Kingdom by selection. That’s how Peter referred to them in his greeting: “You were chosen by God the Father long ago. He knew you were to become His children. You were set apart for holy living by the Holy Spirit. May you obey Jesus Christ and be made clean by His blood. May you be full of His loving-favor and peace.”9 This inclusion of the Gentiles into the family of God because of the action by the Jews was not a secret, it was prophesied all the way back to Jacob. In his dream he heard God say: “I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham, and the God of Isaac. I will give to you and your children after you the land where you are lying. They will be like the dust of the earth. You will spread out to the west and the east and the north and the south. Good will come to all the families of the earth because of you and your children.”10
Rabbi Avraham Saba has a very interesting commentary on this portion of Jacob’s dream when he saw angels ascending and descending on a ladder. As the messenger from God was speaking to Jacob about this promise of gathering all the families of the earth together. Rabbi Saba notes the words from the prophet Zephaniah where God says that when He decides to assemble all the nations and kingdoms of the earth together, He will change them so that their lips will become pure enough to call on ADONAI by name, and that they will all serve Him of one accord.11 Rabbi Saba emphasizes that these nations will be of such pure speech that they will call on the Lord by His actual name.12 For the most part, they substitute HaShem (“the name”) for YHWH (Yahweh). This is significant because up to this day the Jews refuse to call God by His name because they do not want to break the third commandment that says they should never use His name in vain. Could it be that the Holy Spirit was already revealing that one day Jews and Gentiles alike would call out to God by His name?13
But Paul did not want the Jews to forget the promises of God. That’s why Moses told the children of Israel: “Adonai your God is a merciful God. He will not fail you, destroy you, or forget the covenant with your ancestors which he swore to them.”14 Moses reiterated this commitment by God to His children by telling them: “You are a holy nation to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you out of all the nations on the earth, to be His own. The Lord did not give you His love and choose you because you were more people than any of the nations. For the number of your people was less than all nations. But it is because the Lord loves you and is keeping the promise He made to your fathers.”15
But Paul knew this promise came with a qualifier: “Remember the Lord your God. For it is He Who is giving you power to be well-off. By this He may keep His agreement which He promised to your fathers, as it is this day. If you ever forget the Lord your God and go to other gods to worship and work for them, I tell you today that you will be destroyed for sure.”16 Therefore, says Paul, God does not change His mind when He chooses people and gives them His gifts.
Like the prophet Balaam, Paul wanted the Roman believers to know: “God is not a man, that He should lie. He is not a descendant of man, that He should be sorry for what He has said. Has He ever spoken, and will not do what He said? Has He ever spoken, and will He not keep His Word?”17 This then gives what God said through Malachi even more validity. God will do everything possible to save His chosen. Here is His promise: “For I, the Lord, do not change. So you, O children of Jacob, are not destroyed.”18 Bible scholar John Gill tells us that Rabbi Obadiah Sforno in his work, “Liber Cosri” wrote: “The holy blessed God, after, ‘that He hath given a gift, never takes it away from the receiver.’”19
No doubt, this was based on the story we find in the Talmud concerning a prayer by a poor Rabbi named Hanina, who ask God to supply their needs, which He did by filling a neighbor’s oven with loaves of bread. But the wife questioned how often this would continue to happen. Rabbi Hanina prayed again, and this time he received a vision that taught him that the pious would eat from a table with three gold-covered legs while the less pious would eat from a table with two gold-covered legs. In other words, be satisfied with what you have instead of desiring more just because others have more. So he asked his wife if she would be satisfied to eat whatever they have without desiring more. She agreed. So the Rabbis used this to a maxim: “The latter miracle was greater than the former; for there is a tradition that [even though] a thing may be given but once; it is never taken away again.”20
And, on another occasion the Rabbis spoke about what Rabbi Judah taught in speaking about the trial their forefathers went through at the crossing of the Red Sea. When they entered the Red Sea, the Prince of the Sea was told to cast them out on dry land. But the Prince of the Sea spoke back and asked: “Sovereign of the Universe, is there a slave to whom his master gives a gift and then takes it away from him again?”21 According to the legend, God told the Prince of the Sea not to worry, He would replace them one and a half times as many with the Egyptians. So we can see that in the Jewish mind, once God labeled them His people and promised them a place in the world-to-come, even though they may have wandered far from Him, and sometimes even tried to replace Him with idols, nevertheless He would keep His promise. But Paul was trying to tell them the same thing Noah told the people in his day, God wants to save you but you must board the ship in order to be saved.
Early church scholar Ambrosiaster continues to project the theory that when the Jews finally do turn and accept Jesus as their Messiah, they will do so with joy. No matter how seriously they may have sinned by rejecting the gift of God, and however worthy they may be of death, nevertheless, because they are the children of God, whose privileges and many benefits from God they have received, they will be reclaim with joy when they return to the faith, because God’s love for them is stirred up by the memory of their ancestors.22
Martin Luther makes the point that while the Jews are despised by God and the Apostles, it is not they who are hated but their rejection of the Gospel of the Messiah that is condemned. On the other side are those called the “beloved” because they have accepted and incorporated the Gospel into their faith and living. Therefore, Paul can declare that the calling God issued through Abraham to both Israel and Gentiles will not be invalidated. Luther asserts that God’s plan of election and salvation cannot be altered by a person’s merit or demerit. God never regrets His gifts and calling people to repentance. The Gentiles who were called were most unworthy, and the Jews who were called were called in spite of their proud self-righteous which made them worthy only in their eyes. God does not change His mind. That’s why the elect will surely be converted and come to the truth of faith – salvation without working for it.23 The reality is, that although God never takes back His promises, refusal to accept those promises through obedience disqualifies a person by their own will and choice.
1 See Romans 9:4-5
2 Ibid. 9:17-18
3 Ibid. 10:13
4 David H. Stern: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
5 See Matthew 21:43
6 Acts of the Apostles 13:45-46
7 Ibid., 14:1-2; 18:4-6
8 1 Thessalonians 2:15-16a
9 1 Peter 1:2
10 Genesis 28:13-14
11 Zephaniah 3:8-9
12 Tzror Hamor, op. cit., loc. cit., Vol. I, p 428
13 Romans 14:11; Philippians 2:10-11
14 Deuteronomy 4:31
15 Deuteronomy 7:6-8a
16 Deuteronomy 8:18-19
17 Numbers 23:19
18 Malachi 3:6
19 John Gill: On Romans, loc. cit.
20 Babylonian Talmud: Seder Mo’ed, Masekhet Ta’anith, folio 25a
21 Ibid. Seder Kodashim, Masekhet Arachin (Arakin), folio 15a
22 Ambrosiaster: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
23 Martin Luther: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., pp. 162-163