“What then shall we say? That the Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained it, a righteousness that is by faith; but the people of Israel, who pursued the law as the way of righteousness, have not attained their goal. Why not? Because they pursued it not by faith but as if it were by works. They stumbled over the stumbling stone.” (Rm 9:30-32)
Even though Paul was called to be an apostle to the Gentiles, he had never-ending concern in his heart for the Israelites. He understood the power of the gospel from experience and really wanted his own people to come to believe in Jesus.
The Jews had great privileges. Paul listed the 8 blessings they had in verses 4-5—adoption to sonship, the divine glory, the covenants, the law, the temple worship, the promises and the patriarchs of faith. Above all else, the Messiah himself was a Jew.
But, despite all these great spiritual blessings and privileges, they still rejected the Messiah. So, did God really abandon the Israelites He had originally chosen? What was God’s will toward them? That’s the main subject Paul discusses in chapter 9. Paul talks about this problem by answering 4 questions.
4 Questions About the Salvation of the Jews
1) Did God’s Word Fail?
The first question raised at that time was whether or not God’s word had failed. The Israelites, whom God had originally chosen and blessed, had failed to recognize and accept the Messiah. So, some people might have thought that God’s word had failed.
In response to this viewpoint, Paul said, “It is not as though God’s word had failed. For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel.” (Rom 9:6)
Paul said that even though many Israelites failed to believe in Jesus, it didn’t mean that God’s word failed because His promises and covenant were only for true descendants, not all of them.
“Nor because they are his descendants are they all Abraham’s children. On the contrary, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned. In other words, it is not the children by physical descent who are God’s children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham’s offspring.” (Rm 9:7-8)
Paul said that not all Israelites were true descendants of Abraham. There were true spiritual descendants as well as physical descendants. And, God’s promise was given only to true descendants.
To demonstrate this, Paul used two examples. First, even though Abraham had two sons, Ishmael and Isaac, only Isaac was reckoned as Abraham’s true son because God had promised him that he would have a son through Sarah, not anyone else.
Likewise, even though Isaac had twins with Rebekah—Esau and Jacob—God chose the younger brother even before they were born. Paul said that there was a reason God chose Jacob.
“Yet, before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad - in order that God’s purpose in election might stand: not by works but by him who calls - she was told, “The older will serve the younger. Just as it is written: “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated” (Rm 9:11-13)
Even though it’s hard to fully understand these verses, what Paul is trying to say is that not all physical descendants of Abraham were true descendants. And, God’s will and promises never fail but are fulfilled for the true, spiritual descendants of Abraham.
So, the fact that most of the Jews rejected the Messiah didn’t really mean that God’s word failed because it was still being achieved through true, spiritual descendants even though they were a minority compared to the rest of the Jewish community.
Paul already talked about this subject in Romans 2 when he explained circumcision.
He said, “A person is not a Jew who is one only outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a person’s praise is not from other people, but from God.” (Rm 2:28-29)
A Jew who is circumcised only outwardly and physically, not inwardly, can’t be regarded as a true descendant of Abraham. Only those whose hearts are circumcised can be reckoned as God’s true people.
2) Is God Unjust?
Paul said that God’s word didn’t fail because His promises were achieved through the true, spiritual descendants of Abraham as God chose Isaac, not Ishmael, and Jacob, not Esau.
This leads to the next question. Paul said, “What then shall we say? Is God unjust? Not at all!” (Rm 9:14)
Some people might have insisted that God was unjust in choosing who would become true descendants or not. If God’s promise is achieved only through His choice, does that make Him unjust?
Paul said, “not at all.” Paul proved that God is still just by declaring God’s mercy. He quoted what God told Moses.
“I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” (Rom 9:15)
With this quote, Paul concluded,
“Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.” (Rm 9:18)
These two verses are also hard to understand because it seems that God has mercy only on those whom He chose and hardens the rest.
But, the real point is not that God hardens people, but that He has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy. The fact that God has mercy on those whom He chooses doesn’t make Him unjust because as Paul said, all people are sinners before God and don’t deserve His salvation.
Because there’s no one who deserves His salvation, we can’t say that God is unjust in choosing His people and having mercy on them. What’s really surprising is not the fact that there are people who aren’t saved, but that there are people who are saved.
And, we also know that even though Paul describes God as the One who chooses His people and has mercy on them in order to emphasize His sovereignty in salvation, God actually opens the door to salvation to everyone.
The Apostle John said that God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son. The world includes all people on earth, not just some people. We also read that God wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. So, God is not unjust because He has mercy on those who deserve judgment.
3) Why Does God Blame us?
The second question leads to the third one. Paul said, “One of you will say to me: “Then why does God still blame us? For who is able to resist his will?” (Rm 9:19)
What they were asking was that if it’s God who chooses which people to have mercy on, God can’t blame those whom He doesn’t choose. By doing so, they tried to lay the blame on God for the failures of the Jews.
Paul’s answer is,
“But who are you, a human being, to talk back to God? “Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?” (Rm 9:20)
By emphasizing God’s sovereignty in creation, Paul said that there’s no one who can talk back to God. God is the Creator and we’re His creations. Because He is the Creator we can’t argue against His will.
After that Paul explains what God does for both the Jews and the Gentiles.
“What if God, although choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath - prepared for destruction? What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory - even us, whom he also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles?” (Rm 9:22-24)
Even though God shows His wrath, He also displays great patience. By doing so, God makes the riches of his glory known to His people. God prepared this not only for the Jews but also for the Gentiles. That’s what God does to save the world, and no one can argue with God about what He does.
4) What Then Shall We Say?
The last question is, “What then shall we say?” (Rm 9:30). What could they say about the fact “That the Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained it, a righteousness that is by faith; but the people of Israel, who pursued the law as the way of righteousness, have not attained their goal?” (Rm 9:30-31)
Now, Paul draws his conclusion about the salvation of Gentiles and the failures of the Jews.
“Why not? Because they pursued it not by faith but as if it were by works. They stumbled over the stumbling stone.” (Rm 9:32)
The reason they failed to be saved by believing in Jesus was that they relied on their works for salvation. Jesus showed plenty of proof that He was the Messiah, but they rejected Him and killed Him. They tried to obtain righteousness through their works, which was impossible.
Today, we talked about what Paul thought about the failures of the Jews in God’s salvation. It didn’t mean that God failed, because God still chose and saved true descendants of Abraham. God is not unjust in having mercy on those whom He chooses because no one deserves it to begin with.
We are God’s creation, and we cannot argue with our Creator. The only thing we can say in this matter is that only those who believe in God and rely on His salvation can be saved because no one can obtain perfect righteousness through their works.