Paul’s argument in Romans 9 begins from a fact: Israel didn’t receive the Messiah. That fact provokes an anguished question, Is there a scriptural way to make sense of that reality? How can God save through Israel when Israel fails in her mission?
Paul begins his answer by noting a recurring pattern in Israel’s history: The fleshly children are narrowed to a “seed” that bears the promise. Not all Israel is Israel: So much is evident from Genesis on.
But Paul turns a corner in 9:23-24, when he speaks of the vessels of mercy – the redeemed exiles – as a new people that was once not a people, a people constituted by the union of Jews and Gentiles. Paul hints at what he develops in chapter 11: Perhaps Israel’s stumbling is part of the plan. Perhaps salvation is of the stumbling Jews.
At the end of chapter 9, he says that the Gentiles found what they weren’t looking for, which is the same thing that Jews pursued but didn’t achieve (vv. 30-33). Namely, righteousness (vv. 30-33). The different outcome has to do with the difference between faith and works. Chapter 10 elaborates the contrast.
Once again Paul laments (10:1), this time for the ignorance of Israel’s zeal. They’re ignorant about Jesus, ignorant about the way of God’s justice. They treated their covenant status and possession of Torah as a protection against wrath. Paul has already made clear that this is an illusion: The doers of the law, not the possessors, are justified.
God’s justice comes by faith, not by the work of Torah. As throughout Romans, the contrast isn’t between subjective, individual actions; he’s not opposing belief and moral effort. Rather, Paul contrasts two objective principles that operate within redemptive history.
On the one hand, there is the “work of Torah” that brings death. Paul has already shown why in chapter 7: The fault isn’t in the Torah but in the fleshliness of Israel. When spiritual law meets fleshly Israel, it kills him, dividing him in two like a sacrifice.
On the other hand, there is “faith.” This isn’t belief but Jesus’ pistis, perhaps Jesus Himself as the embodiment of loyal allegiance. Because Gentile are loyal to Jesus, they attain the justice of God, because the justice of God is born out of (ek) the faith of Christ (9:30).
In short, the Jews miss God’s justice because they miss Jesus, the telos of the law (10:4), that is, the one whom Torah figured, the one whose life embodied Torah-keeping, the one in whom the Torah is fulfilled and transformed. If the Jews want to attain the justice of God, they must confess Jesus.
Paul makes this point with an odd allegorization of Deuteronomy 30. In its original context, Deuteronomy 30 is a warning to Israel. They shouldn’t say the law is too hard or remote. Rather, the law is in their mouth and heart.
The passage stretches into a prophecy of exile and return. Yahweh will scatter and regather, and at the regathering He will circumcise the hearts of Israel, so that they will do what Torah requires and enjoy Yahweh’s blessing.
Paul turns this warning-turned-prophecy into a type of the new covenant. This is what the justice of faith speaks, the justice born from (ek) the faithful Jesus (10:6). He is the Word Israel is to obey, the Word that descends from heaven. If they confess Him (putting this Word in their mouths) and believe (putting this Word in their hearts), they will be saved.
It’s clear that for Paul there’s only one path to salvation and the justice of God. Jews don’t have a special path, and there’s no basis for a two-covenant theology. Like Gentiles, Jews attain the justice they seek only by confessing Jesus and being loyal to Him from the heart.
So long as they rely on the working of Torah, or their own obedience to Torah, they will stumble. Whatever else Paul goes on to say, his message to his brothers is clear: Come to Jesus.
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