In Romans 9 -11, Paul goes back to Israel’s beginning and starts telling their story again. It is still told in the Adam-toChrist history, but this time Paul begins with Israel’s election in Abraham’s children. To the Hebrew reader, the story is very plain. Paul was speaking about the election of Adam in his commission to rule the world, being given to Israel in their election, for the purposes of reinstating God’s kingdom in the world. The “Greek reader” doesn’t pick up this story line, but to the Jew in Paul’s day, this story was being told everywhere Jews met together in synagogues, or in the desert places where the Essenes lived. Paul just told the story through Jesus Christ. Jesus was Israel’s fulfilment of their story.
In Romans 9 – 11, Paul tells the story of Israel’s election, their hardening and their restoration in the resurrection of Christ. It is a similar story to the one Paul told in Romans 5:12 -8. Paul begins with Isaac and Jacob, shares about Israel’s Exodus, but in this second story, Paul’s emphasis is not so much on Sinai and Israel entering the promised land, but rather on Israel’s later exile from the land and then their return to Jerusalem. Paul shows how Christ fulfilled Israel’s exile and return history, through his own crucifixion and resurrection. That is, in Christ, Israel have their true return to God’s land.
The purpose of Paul in tracing Israel’s election, to their fall and then to their restoration, was to show that this was how Israel fulfilled their calling to restore Adam. Adam was likewise elected, or chosen to rule the world, but he fell. So, Israel’s election, fall and restoration are the means by which God restored Adam’s fall and original election. It was by Israel, on the cross, that God dealt with Adam’s sin. By dealing with Adam’s sin, Adam’s image-bearing priesthood is restored. This traces Paul’s story right from Romans 1 through to Romans 11. By restoring Adam’s original commission, God restores the world. The purpose of Israel’s original election has therefore been fulfilled in the gospel of Christ. And what was Paul’s purpose in sharing this story to the Roman church? Paul’s point: gentile believers should not boast against Israel’s fall, but join one community in Christ to restore the world through emulating Christ’s faithfulness towards each other. Adam was not faithful. Israel was not faithful. But Christ was faithful and so he restored Israel, and this restored Adam, which includes the gentiles. Having destroyed the rule of the law in our hearts, we can now enter Christ’s faithfulness through grace and extend this gift by the giving of our own lives for one another, just as Christ did for us. This is faith-fulness. This fulfils the law. This heals the creation.It is in this context of the Jews and gentiles receiving each other through grace, that Paul takes up the discussion on election. He is showing that God receives us on the basis of a free gift alone, and not on our racial heritage, and so the Jews and the gentiles have no basis to reject one another. As said earlier, we receive the grace of God, by receiving our neighbour.
Adam’s election is assumed here as background knowledge among the Jews. Adam and Eve did nothing to earn their election. All they had was a gift in creation. They had done nothing for it. God called Israel on the same basis. They were slaves in Egypt. They were despised by the world, the least of all people. They had done nothing to earn God’s grace.
So it was with Israel’s original election. Isaac had done nothing but received his calling as a gift. It was the same with Jacob. (Romans 9:9-13) Pharaoh, on the other hand, boasted in his accomplishments and rejected or enslaved those he felt were inferior to himself. (Romans 9:17)
This is exactly what Paul said the Jews were thinking. Many believed that because of their tribal descent, they were superior to the gentiles. In holding to this belief, their hearts were becoming hardened, just like Pharaoh’s heart was hardened. Here it says that God hardens whom he wills, and he also gives grace to whom he wills. (Romans 9:18) This means that if people choose to reject God’s mercy and instead hold to their own pride, God will allow them to continue on their chosen path of destroying one another. But if they desire mercy, by showing mercy to others, God will always give them mercy.
The illustration here is that Israel, according to the flesh, have become Pharaoh. This means Israel trusted in their flesh and didn’t show mercy to gentile believers in Christ. They had become hardened, just like Pharaoh. (Romans 9:22-26) Here, Paul brings out God’s plan of salvation again. Just as through Pharaoh’s hardening, Israel were saved from Egypt, so too it was through Israel’s hardening that Christ was crucified and the true God was revealed to the world. This is what Paul was showing through Romans 5:12 -8.
So, Paul’s discussion on election wasn’t to show that God randomly chooses some to salvation while rejecting others, but to show that the basis upon which we receive God’s mercy is by showing mercy to others. If we reject our neighbour and our enemy, or those of other tribes, then we are producing a hostility in our land, a hardness in our heart and in relationships with others, that will ultimately destroy us, just like it was about to destroy Jerusalem at the time Paul was writing. The way to be saved from that destruction, and to build a land of peace that inherits God’s blessings, is through receiving and passing on God’s mercy to restore others.
If we use Paul’s discussion on election to enhance our superiority over others today, then we are falling into the same error as many of the Jews did then, who boasted in their own flesh. The text isn’t saying that God hasn’t chosen Ishmael. Ishmael’s mother, Hagar, experienced a theophany.
God appeared to her in the flesh. God chose her for the same reason he chose Sarah, because she was despised for her weakness and rejected and gossiped about by others. God chooses on the basis of compassion and he chooses us because we are weak, so we might be like him and have compassion on others who are crippled by sin and life. If we despise our enemies today, then God chooses them.
Israel’s election wasn’t to an exclusive salvation, but to serve others. If they didn’t believe their own witness, which was a call to the world to serve others in grace, then they wouldn’t be saved. They were called to witness, but they had to believe their witness to partake in its blessings. There is a great grace privilege in having Israel’s call to witness for the one true God, but there was no partiality in it. (Romans 9:1-5) They were called to serve the least, and if they didn’t do this, their calling would be null and void, at least for those among them who rejected it. They would cancel themselves out, by cancelling grace out of their own hearts. They would reject the one thing that could heal and set them free.
Romans chapter 9 isn’t a discussion about God saving some by election, but rather it is about God calling us to show grace to others, as God has shown grace to every one of us. Taking this text as a way of assuring ourselves we have salvation when others do not, is the problem Paul was addressing in the letter of Romans: the inclination of humanity to twist the law to our own advantage, so we don’t have to serve the plight of the poor.
Although the pot has no right of appeal over the Potter, this does not mean God has been unrighteous. (Romans 9:21) He has determined that we reap what we sow. If we sow mercy we reap mercy. The pot has no right of appeal concerning this.
Then Paul shows how God has revealed his salvation through Israel’s hardening. He showed patience to their hardness in order to reveal his mercy through their execution of Christ. (Romans 9:23) This mercy was revealed for the benefit of all, Jew and gentile. (Romans 9:24)
The gentiles become righteous by receiving the mercy of God and passing that mercy onto others. This achieved righteousness, meaning this love they received and shared, fulfilled the shema law of God. But Israel, in attempting to fulfil the law in their pride, fell short of that law by rejecting, rather than serving those in need. (Romans 9:30-31) This is also the basic commentary of Jesus that we see in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
The “stumbling stone” means the poor and weak one that they killed, the Messiah… and therefore the weak, despised, the scapegoat becomes the foundation stone of God’s new kingdom in the earth. (Romans 9:33) Their pride, stirred up by the law, made them ashamed on the carpenter, but Paul was not ashamed that accepting such is the foundation stone of eternal life. In receiving and caring for the weak and poor, the gentile and stranger, believers are now fulfilling the law.
“Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offence; and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.” (Romans 9:33) This is called the “scandal of the victim.” “We preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews…” (NIV) “When we preach that Christ was crucified, the Jews are offended…” (NLT) (1 Corinthians 1:23)
To those under the law, the victim, the sick one is seen as cursed. They are rejected as a scapegoat, “to satisfy God’s wrath.” But to the one who walks in shema, the cursed one is taken in for care and nurture. Those under the law fail to fulfil the law. Those free from the law, free from its condemning power, receive and care for others. This is what Jesus came to do: to overthrow the law that leads to accusation, the casting out of the needy one. He came so that we might bring in the sick, the other tribe, the enemy, and heal them.
This is exactly how Jesus taught faith. He told the Pharisees not to reject the sick on the sabbath, or the person with unwashed hands from their table. He wasn’t arguing about faith verses legalism, to get to heaven. He was saying they had used the law to prevent the law’s real purpose: service. This service is what answers the prayer, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.” This is what faithfulness is about. “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive the sins of others.” We receive mercy as we show mercy to those in need.
This renews our land.
To turn these passages into some discussion of Paul on our private faith, overthrows the meaning of the whole text. To take “faith” out of Paul’s context and apply it just to our own salvation, makes it mean something completely different to what Paul was speaking about. And to understand what Paul was saying in his letters, makes his teachings align exactly with Jesus’ teachings. They were both teaching about the faithfulness of neighbour love.
But we have also privatised the teachings of Jesus. Jesus taught that whoever believes in him, out of their belly shall flow rivers of life, which is the Spirit of God who fills our new hearts through faith. Jesus taught he is the bread of life. We have taken these as affirmations of a private faith for everyone who believes.
But the river of life and the bread of life are that which we share with one another, and this sharing makes all things new.
This was never meant to be understood in a non-community sense. It’s always the faith of faithfulness, which the Spirit of grace brings into our lives. If “the work of God is to believe on him whom God has sent,” then this belief brings us into a grace of rebuilding our communities that law could not do. (John 6:29)
If we have a privatised faith, then our faith isn’t much different to that of the Pharisees. It was their privatisation of the faith that was the number one critique of Jesus. If we have just changed the language a bit, moved a few commas, Christianised the wording, then nothing much has changed.