Romans 9-11 is one of the most difficult passages to interpret in Paul’s letters, if not the entire Bible. And yet, it plays a key role in Paul’s argument in Romans. Today, I’d like to talk about both why it’s difficult and why it’s important.
There are several reasons why Romans 9-11 is a difficult passage to interpret.
First, the social situation in Paul’s day was different than ours. Today, we distinguish Judaism and Christianity as two separate religions. In Paul’s day, however, the distinction was not clear. Jesus, the apostles, the first Christians, and Paul himself were Jews. And they viewed their religion as the fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham and his descendants. But while Jews continued to convert to Christianity throughout the first century, by the mid-60s, Gentiles were quickly becoming the majority of Jesus’ followers. The success of the Gentile mission prompted a lot of debates about the relationship of the Old Testament to the New, how kosher Jews and non-kosher Gentiles could attend church together, and about whether God had kept his promises to Israel. These debates are no longer live questions for us. Our social situation is almost entirely Gentile, which makes it difficult for us to appreciate how emotionally wrenching these issues were for Paul and other Jewish Christians.
Second, the theological argument Paul makes regarding the social situation of the early church is hard to grasp. Although many Gentiles but few Jews were accepting Christ in Paul’s day, Paul nevertheless argued in Romans 9.6: “It is not as though God’s word had failed.” God was faithful to Israel and kept his promises, even though many Jews in Paul’s day rejected Christ. The burden of Paul’s argument in Romans 9-11 is explaining how this is possible. Along the way, Paul uses theological concepts such as election, the remnant of Israel, the ingrafting of the Gentiles, and the inscrutability of God. Romans 9-11 is theologically deep water, and if we want to even begin to understand it, we’re going to have to swim hard.
Third, after the Holocaust, we have become very sensitive about the way Christians speak of Jews. Although Paul did not intend his letter to be used in anti-Semitic ways, the unfortunate fact of the matter is that over the centuries, it has been. Wrong-headed Christians have misinterpreted Paul’s statements about the Jews’ rejection of Christ as a pretext for persecuting Jews. In the 1930s and 40s, Nazis were able to incorporate these misinterpretations into their genocidal program. As Christians, it is our responsibility to make sure that no one is able to misuse our Bible in that way again.
If Romans 9-11 is so difficult to interpret, then why bother with it at all? For a simple reason: It vindicates the integrity of God. When God makes a promise, he keeps it. He is a God whose word can be trusted. That’s the basic message of Romans 9-11. And what is his promise? According to Romans 10.13, simply this: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” That promise is true for Jews and Gentiles, whether in Paul’s day or our own.
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