Paul’s letter to the Romans is held together by a prophetic narrative. God has made Jesus Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead, and he will one day rule the nations. This means that there will be “wrath” against the idolatrous civilisation of the Greeks, but since God’s own people have fallen a long way short of the standards set in the Law, there will first be wrath against the Jews, in the real world, in the course of history.
In all the tribulation and turmoil, the righteous will live by their faith, according to a template provided by Habakkuk 1-2. But this has had a consequence which Habakkuk did not foresee—the inclusion of believing Gentiles, who will inherit the age to come after wrath against the Greeks along with their Jewish brothers. In Paul’s view the hybridity is entirely fitting because it is a sign that the God of Israel is the God of the Gentiles also and will eventually be worshipped as such.
In the meantime, however, the unrepentant Torah communities in the synagogues are being superseded in this eschatological transition by a parallel network of Christ communities, which will serve their purpose only by participating actively in the sufferings, death, and resurrection of Christ. It is only those who suffer with Christ who will be glorified with him.
This is also Paul’s own deepest desire, the climax of his apostolic ambition (cf. Phil. 3:10; Col. 1:24), but in the next section he makes it clear just how painful this realistic identification with Christ is for him as a Jew.
The angry potter and the recalcitrant clay
The opening paragraph sharply states the dilemma for Paul. His people have received from God sonship, glory, covenants, Torah, cult worship, promises, and the patriarchs, and from them has come the Christ according to the flesh. But, as we recall from earlier sections, they now face the wrath of God, which in biblical terms means a national catastrophe—perhaps a “final” catastrophe, mat least in historical terms. In verse 5 Paul probably does not say that the Christ is “God over all,” but I could be wrong.
The solution to the dilemma is the emergence of an alternative “Israel,” which will inherit the promise or “word” of God, which has therefore not “failed.” By “not all from Israel are Israel” Paul means that not all descended from Jacob according to the flesh are Israel. Rather, the descendants of the promised Isaac, Jacob’s father, are Israel: “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named” (9:7; cf. Gen. 21:12). Just as the justification of Abraham by faith preceded the giving of the Law (4:9-13; cf. Gal. 3:17), so Isaac as the embodiment of the promise preceded Jacob, who became Israel.
Paul has clearly here reverted to his lively “dialogue with the Jews.” Has the word of God failed? Is there injustice on God’s part? Why does he still find fault? Paul’s defence of God is that it is not for people, not even for the Jews, to say how God should act. The potter has the right to determine the use to which a vessel is put, he has the right to consign worthless vessels—that is, national and diaspora Judaism—to destruction “in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory” (9:21-23; cf. Is. 29:13-16; Jer. 18:1-6, 11).
If God has determined to bring a people of mercy into existence, called not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles, that is his prerogative (9:24-26).
Paul quotes Isaiah: “Though the number of the sons of Israel be as the sand of the sea, only a remnant of them will be saved, for the Lord will carry out his sentence upon the [land] fully and without delay (9:27-28; cf. Hos. 1:10); and “If the Lord of hosts had not left us offspring, we would have been like Sodom and become like Gomorrah” (9:29). The Jews will suffer the wrath of God, a sentence upon the land, but a remnant will survive.
The problem is that the Jews have “stumbled over the stumbling stone” or “rock of offence” that has been placed by God in Zion. This is also drawn from Isaiah. When YHWH judges his people by a plumb line of righteousness, he will place “a stone, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone, of a sure foundation,” and “the one believing in it will not be put to shame” (Is. 28:16-17 LXX; cf. 8:14; Rom. 9:32-33). God is about to judge Israel and he has made Jesus both the stone of offence and the foundation for a new people.
The word of faith is near to you
Addressing his “brothers” in Rome, Paul expresses his fear that Israel will not be “saved” from the coming day of God’s wrath because, although intensely zealous for the Law of Moses, they are “ignorant of the righteousness of God.” They do not accept that the “end (telos) of the Law is Christ for righteousness for everyone who believes” (10:1-4*).
Paul makes his point rhetorically. Moses had said regarding the Law that it is neither too hard nor far off. The Jew does not need to ascend to heaven to bring the commandments down, nor travel beyond the sea to bring them back to Israel. Rather, “the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it” (Deut. 30:11-14).
Paul was not the only Jewish writer to adapt this trope for his own purposes. It is applied to wisdom in Baruch 3:29-30, presupposing an identification of Torah and wisdom: “Who has gone up into the sky and taken her and brought her down from the clouds? Who has crossed over the sea and found her and will bring her in exchange for choice gold?” Philo also made good use of it (Post. 84–85; Mut. 236–37; Virt. 183; Praem. 80).
He has re-oriented it, however, along the axis of Jesus’ death and resurrection: there is no need to bring Jesus either down from heaven or up from the dead, figuratively speaking. The word of faith is immediately accessible—as indeed the Law was. Instead of ascending into heaven to bring the risen Lord down, a person confesses with the mouth that Jesus is Lord. Instead of going down into the abyss to bring Christ up from the dead, a person believes in the heart that “God raised him from the dead” (10:6-9).
In other words, confessing Jesus as Lord should be no more difficult for the Jews than hearing the commandment and doing it.
Why the Gentiles have been allowed to gatecrash the party
Messengers have been sent to proclaim the word of faith, the good news about Jesus, but the outcome has been—paradoxically, controversially, and no doubt problematically—the disbelief of most Jews and the belief of a growing number of Greeks.
This has to be explained. It’s a surprising development, but Paul finds the logic already anticipated in the scriptures.
1. For a long time, God has held out his hands to a “disobedient and contrary people” (10:21; Is. 65:2).
2. God has not rejected his people (Paul himself is still an “Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin”) but has kept for himself a faithful “remnant, chosen by grace” (11:1-5). It’s what happens when a prophet “appeals to God against Israel” (11:2; cf. 1 Kgs. 19:10-18).
3. Believing Gentiles are classified as an alternative people, a nation not previously called by God’s name, who have found God by accident almost, without looking for him (10:20; cf. Is. 65:1).
4. This alternative people are the “foolish nation,” by which God will make Israel jealous and angry (10:19; cf. Deut. 32:21).
So most Jews have stubbornly refused to believe the good news about the Son of God and his future glory, but their stumbling may yet end well. In the first place, “through their trespass salvation has come to the Gentiles” (11:11). The outcome of Paul’s preaching in the synagogue in Pisidian Antioch illustrates the point:
And Paul and Barnabas spoke out boldly, saying, “It was necessary that the word of God be spoken first to you. Since you thrust it aside and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we are turning to the Gentiles. (Acts 13:46)
This will have far-reaching social-religious implications for the Greek world. But there is the further possibility that the inclusion of Gentiles will “make Israel jealous” and bring about a change of heart, and in that case the law of how-much-more again applies: “if their trespass means riches for the world, and if their failure means riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their full inclusion mean!” (11:12).
Paul tells the Gentiles a parable about an olive tree
Paul now for the first time explicitly addresses the Gentiles. He has made it a key part of his strategy to “glorify” or promote his apostleship to the Gentiles in order to provoke his fellow Jews to jealousy, and he has seen some “saved” as a result. Surely, if all Jews were to react in this way, it would be a “life from the dead” experience along the lines of Ezekiel’s vision of the revivification of the dry bones of the house of Israel (11:15; Ezek. 37:1-14).
He explains what is happening by means of two metaphors. The whole lump of dough is holy because the firstfruits is holy, the whole tree is holy because the root is holy.
The first metaphor may look back to the distinction between the remnant and the “fullness” of Israel (11:12), the second more certainly pictures the relationship between the patriarchs and Israel as a historical community, parallel to the later statement that rebellious Israel remains “beloved for the sake of their forefathers” (11:28).
Some of the branches of the cultivated olive tree of Israel have been broken off, and wild olive shoots have been grafted in among the original branches and have become sharers of “the root, of the oiliness of the olive tree” (11:17*). These ingrafted branches are Gentile believers in Jesus, and Paul warns them against arrogance, because they could just as easily be broken off if they do not “stand fast through faith” (11:18-22).
That was a matter, perhaps, of pastoral concern, but the more important point is that the severed branches of Israel will be reattached to the tree “if they do not continue in their unbelief” (11:23-25).
This qualification seems to me crucial for understanding what Paul is saying in the next paragraph.
In this way all Israel will be saved
He must have encountered some expressions of Gentile-Christian scorn or disregard towards the Jews on account of their rejection of the gospel, so he warns them not to be wise in their own sight (11:25). A “stubbornness” or “hardening” in part has come upon Israel “until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in.”
There has been much debate about the meaning of this clause. I presume it is a reference to the number of Gentiles who will have entered into the promise by the time of the day of God’s wrath against his people, but significantly this is not then explained in terms of the jealousy motif. Instead, Paul invokes a narrative of judgment from Isaiah, which makes me wonder if there isn’t more to the incursion of the nations than the inclusion of believers in Jesus in the reform movement. Anyway, Paul quotes the prophet Isaiah:
as it is written, “The Deliverer will come from Zion, he will banish ungodliness from Jacob”; “and this will be my covenant with them when I take away their sins.” (Rom. 11:26-27)
Isaiah has described the moral collapse of the Jews (Is. 59:9-14). There is no justice. Their transgressions are multiplied before YHWH, their sins testify against them. Truth is lacking. Anyone who departs from evil becomes victim to the violent and wicked. YHWH sees that there is no one in Israel capable of putting things right, so he must intervene himself. He puts on the armour of righteousness, deliverance, vengeance, and zeal. He comes as a warrior. He will repay his enemies; he will punish the wicked according to their deeds; and the nations will hear of this shocking intervention and will “fear the name of the Lord” (59:15-19).
So when YHWH comes as “redeemer” to Zion, it is to bring judgment and to deliver his people from their inveterate wickedness. Indeed, this is one of the passages that was cited in the indictment of persistently unrighteous Israel in Romans 3:10-18.
Paul has changed “to Zion” to “from Zion,” but I would argue all the same that he is thinking of a future coming of God, on a day of wrath, to banish or drive away “ungodliness from Jacob” and establish a new covenant in the Spirit (cf. Is. 59:21) with his people as Israel. Psalm 14:7, which has the thought of salvation coming “out of Zion,” presupposes judgment and the removal of the wicked in Israel who exploit the righteous poor—another throw back to the indictment of Romans 3:10-18.
The removal of their sins is not a reference back to the death of Jesus as an atonement for the “former sins” of those Jews such as Paul who have now been forgiven. Rather, it looks ahead to a future day when the concrete social-religious sins of Israel will be forcibly blotted out.
This last thought appears to have been drawn from Isaiah 27:9 LXX: “Because of this the lawlessness of Jacob will be removed. And this is his blessing, when I remove his sin….”
What will remove (LXX) or “atone for” (MT) the lawlessness of Jacob is the whole saga of foreign invasion, destruction “with a spirit of wrath,” and exile (27:8).
“Will the guilt of Jacob be expiated?” The question asks whether this will, in fact, remove the accumulated guilt of Israel’s sins. Is it possible that all of this, i.e., the two centuries of almost constant foreign harassment and invasion from the time of Uzziah through the exile, is due to God’s removal of the sins of Israel? In answer the witnesses point to the stark evidence left by the desolation. That altars were crushed at least means that idolatry has ceased.1
So from Paul’s point of view there are two ways in which things could work out well for his people.
Ideally, they would be made jealous by the inclusion of Gentiles and would repent en masse in the near future, obviating the need for a divine judge and deliverer to come, whether to or from Zion, to punish and reform the nation.
Failing that, they would suffer the catastrophe of the wrath of God but would repent afterwards and then enter into a new covenant with YHWH, as envisaged by Isaiah.
At the time of his writing in the mid-50s, it was already looking unlikely that the catastrophe of God’s wrath would be averted. So the only realistic prospect was that “all Israel” would repent of their unbelief and be grafted back into the root of the patriarchs after judgment and the eradication of ungodliness.
So Paul can still reasonably assert that the current generation of Israel remains “beloved for the sake of their forefathers,” that the “gifts and calling of God” are not (yet) “regretted” (ametamelēta)—not “irrevocable” (11:28-29).2 God may yet have mercy on his people. But I assume that it remains conditional upon them not continuing in their unbelief (11:23).