This is the second in a series of posts delving into the enigmatic Chapter 9 of Paul’s letter to the church in Rome. In the first post, I talked about a couple of threshold interpretational issues: (1) that the chapter consists of an extended argument (or series of arguments) by Paul and (2) that, in constructing those arguments, Paul was trying to make sense. I then set out what I think is a fairly straightforward high-level outline of the chapter.
In this post, we’ll start digging into Paul’s argument by looking at the first six verses of the chapter, covering this portion of the outline:
I. Paul has “great sorrow and unceasing anguish.” (verse 1)
A. The implicit reason for Paul’s anguish: the Israelites, his kinsmen according to the flesh, are accursed and cut off from Christ. (verses 2-5)
B. It’s implicit because Paul talks about himself — he “could wish” that he himself was accursed and cut off from Christ for their sake. (verse 3)
II. The word of God hasn’t failed. (verse 6)
A. Because not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel. (verse 6)
In these verses, Paul sets up the problem that needs to be addressed, lays out his overarching thesis statement in response to that problem, and begins with the first major argument in support of his thesis.
As he begins Chapter 9, Paul has just finished talking in Chapter 8 about the glories of our inheritance in Christ, including that there is now “no condemnation” for those who are in Christ and, as a result, “all things” work together for our good. (Rom. 8:1, 28). Because of the security of God’s call, no one can be against us, bring any charge against us or condemn us. (Rom. 8:31, 33-34). Absolutely nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ. (Rom. 8:35-39).
So it’s a bit jarring when Paul begins Chapter 9 by talking about the “great sorrow and unceasing anguish” in his heart. The reason is clear: Israel (Paul’s kinsmen of the flesh) is accursed and cut off from Christ, and, if it were possible, he wishes he could take his brothers’ place. (Rom. 9:3-5).
Still, it’s not immediately apparent how this comes up, at least until we see his response in verse 6: “But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel.” (Rom. 9:6). In verses one through five, Paul sets up a huge problem: the majority of God’s chosen people have rejected Christ and are perishing. So what about God’s promises to Israel??
Paul addresses that problem with his overarching thesis statement (i.e., the reason he’s writing the chapter) — he wants to convince the church in Rome that God’s word has not failed. In light of that purpose, the relation to Chapter 8 makes sense. Paul just laid out a number of grand, sweeping promises of God for his church. An astute listener might have thought, “But wait, how are we supposed to have any confidence in those promises when God reneged on the promises he made to Israel?” In other words, Paul knows that our confidence in God’s faithfulness to his promises to Israel is foundational for our confidence in his promises to us. If God’s word to Israel has failed, we have no warrant to think it won’t fail for us, too.
Paul’s First Argument
Having set out his thesis in the first half of verse six that God’s word has not failed even though so many of his chosen people are perishing, Paul adds the first argument in support of his thesis in the second half of verse six: “[f]or not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel.” (Rom. 9:6). The word “for” signals the relation of the second half of the verse to the first half — the second half is an argument in support of the first.
So what exactly is Paul’s argument? In short, it’s that God’s word (his promises to Israel) has not failed because the “Israel” to whom God made his promises is not the same as all of ethnic Israel. There is an “Israel” made up of those who descended from Israel (Jacob) — that is, what we would consider ethnic Israel. But there is another “Israel” to which only some of ethnic Israel belong — for ease of reference, I’ll call this “spiritual Israel.” In other words, the fact that the majority of ethnic Israel in Paul’s day had rejected Christ did not indicate that God’s promise to Israel had failed because God’s promise was to spiritual Israel, and not all ethnic Israel belonged to spiritual Israel.
We’ll save the discussion about the implications of Paul’s argument until we’ve fleshed it out a bit more. Next time, we’ll look at Paul’s second major argument in support of his thesis (which is more of a restatement and fuller explanation of his first argument).