Romans isn’t an ordo salutis with eschatological (chapters 9—11) and practical (Romans 12—15) appendixes. When we read Romans as a mini-systematic theology, we’re liable to read even chapters 9—11 as a theological treatise about predestination or divine sovereignty, supported by biblical citations.
That gets things backwards. Paul isn’t using Scripture to illustrate or prove theological points. He’s demonstrating the justice of God’s dealings in redemptive history, expounding the theo-logic of the events of Israel’s history. In Ephesians, Paul calls the union of Jews and Gentiles in Christ a “mystery.” The point of Romans, and of Romans 9—11 specifically, is to demonstrate the coherence of that mystery. As Richard Hays puts it, he’s narrating Gentiles into Israel’s story.
From early in Romans, Paul has been concerned not only to explain how a just God can justify sinners. He’s been showing how God keeps His promise to save the world through Israel. The problem Romans addresses isn’t merely, How can sinners be saved? It is, How can the God of Israel be faithful to His promises when Israel has been unfaithful to its mission? The good news is that Israel’s failures aren’t an obstacle to the Lord’s plan. He proves true though all men are liars.
That thread of Romans comes to a head in chapters 9—11. Pau’s argument, N.T. Wright has pointed out, moves move like a Psalm, from lament to doxology, through a chiastic labyrinth:
A. Paul’s lament for Israel, 9:1-5 (lament, ends with doxology)
B. Yahweh’s choice in Israel’s history, 9:6-29 (3 movements)
C. Ways of justice, 9:30—10:21
a. Gentile inclusion, Jewish incomprehension, 9:30-33
b. Israel’s unknowing zeal, 10:1-4
c. Fulfillment of Deut 30 in Christ, 10:5-13
b’. Paul’s mission to gentiles, 10:14-17
a’. Gentile inclusion, Jewish resistance, 10:18-21
B’. God hasn’t rejected Israel, 11:1-32
A’. Praise of His wisdom, 11:33-36 (doxology)
Paul’s lament at the beginning of Romans 9 is a shock. Not only does it follow a passage of resounding confidence, but it seems to undo precisely what Paul said so resoundingly only a few verses before. Romans 8 ends with the claim that “nothing can separate us from the love of God.” Romans 9 begins with Paul’s lament that the Jews have been separated from God’s love.
The situation Paul reacts to is clear enough. Israel waited centuries to see the promise to Abraham fulfilled. They’ve been waiting for a son of David to be installed and proclaimed Son of God (Romans 1:1-4). Yet, when that promise is finally fulfilled in Jesus, many Jews reject Him. Instead of worshiping their king, they put Him on a cross and persecute His followers.
This raises questions of theology proper: What kind of God is this? Can He be a just God if He fails to keep His promises to His own people? How can the gospel reveal the justice of God if Israel falls? In the face of Jewish unbelief, can He still save the world through the Jews, as He said He would?
It also raises a practical question. How can we really trust the assurances of chapter 8 if the Jews are separated?
Paul perhaps has a specific pastoral situation in mind. At some point in his reign (there’s no consensus on the exact timing), the emperor Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome. As Paul writes Romans early in the reign of Nero, Jews are returning. In the meantime, the churches in Rome have been predominantly Gentile communities. Paul wants the Gentile disciples to receive their Jewish brothers back, and not treat them as outcasts.
Further, Paul’s entire ministry is overshadowed by the looming threat of the Olivet Discourse. Before the apostolic generation passes, the temple will be destroyed and the powers of heaven will be shaken. Paul knows the earthquake centered in Jerusalem will have aftershocks in Rome. He wants to prepare the church at Rome to face the imminent judgment, as well as the final judgment.
This section of Romans has to do with events of the first century. Paul laments the unbelief of his contemporaries, his brothers according to the flesh. He sees his own ministry as part of the solution to the dilemma: As he brings the gospel to Gentiles, he provokes Jews to jealousy (11:13-14).
Many think Paul’s answer is to hold out the promise of a distant future restoration of Israel. Postmillennialists have often said these chapters promise a future mass conversion of Jews. Many have linked Paul’s argument to the founding of the state of Israel in the mid-20th century.
It’s possible that millennia separate the first-century problem from the still-future solution, but such a temporal gap would have to be shown within the text. I’m convinced there’s no gap, and in the following essays on these chapters I’ll argue that Paul offers a first-century solution to a first-century problem.
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