If you recall a year ago when we began the book of Romans I mentioned there are two places within this great letter where churches seem to lose people. The first is the end of chapter 1, where it not only states what sin is, but says God’s wrath is coming and will come onto those who do such things. In a day like ours, that is characterized by its eagerness to call good evil and evil good, Romans 1 has been criticized as ‘hate speech.’ Yet ironically, that so many think they know better than God about what sin is or is not proves Romans 1 all the more.
The second chapter where churches seem to lose people is chapter 9, where God’s absolute sovereignty in salvation is explained and defended. And as it is with chapter 1, so too it often is with chapter 9. We seem to have a natural allergy to the sovereignty of God, I think, because we have such a natural bent to proclaim our own sovereignty.
That this happens, that people leave churches, when Romans 1 and Romans 9 are preached and believed reveals much. It reveals how much the world has influenced the church in our doctrine and practice. It reveals how little honor and esteem we give to God’s Word and how greatly we honor own our opinions. It reveals how unwilling so many professing Christians are to stand with God when standing with Him means you’re in the minority. Church, this is God’s Word to us. Inspired, inerrant, infallible, given to us. Are we to believe only what we find suitable to our preferences? No indeed. God doesn’t just desire but commands us to embrace all of His Word. Which means it’s our highest duty and happiest delight to believe what the Bible teaches, not what we would like it to teach. If we find to be in disagreement with Scripture, which does happen from time to time, we must submit and whether we understand it or not, we must trust that God is wiser than we are.
So onward we go, into Romans 9.
As we enter it, think about where we’ve been. We’ve spent the past 10 weeks in Romans 8. Enjoying the precious promises of God held out to us in it. The way chapter 8 ends in v31-39 really does seem to be a fitting conclusion to Paul’s weighty doctrinal instruction. One might think as chapter 9 begins that Paul will now turn and begin applying all this truth to us and show us how the rubber meets the road. But he doesn’t do that, at least not here. He does begin doing this in chapter 12. So, what do we find in between there and here? A three chapter discussion about Israel and its place in the promises of God. Why does Paul do this? Think about it, didn’t Paul say the gospel was the “…power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, for the Jew first and then the Greek…”? Didn’t Paul say Israel was “…entrusted with the very oracles of God…”? Didn’t Paul go back to the OT time and time again to prove his teaching? Didn’t Paul reveal to us a God who strong and sovereign in His works, a God who never fails to achieve His purposes. Indeed he did! Paul said all these things and more. Since all these things are true, what then is the problem with Israel? Why have they rejected the Messiah? What does that mean about God’s promises to His people? Did they fail to come to pass?
Church, look at Romans 9:6, “…it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel…” In other words, just being an Israelite by birth doesn’t make one a true Israelite. God’s promises are certain and will always be certain to true Israel, to those who trust in God’s Son. This is why Romans 9-11 happens before chapter 12 to make that one point clear.
So now that we know where we’re going…let’s go there.
Paul’s Great Grief (v1-3)
“I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit—that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh.”
What a sharp contrast this is from how Romans 8 ended. Paul was filled up to overflowing in celebration, now he’s expressing a deep lamentation over his kinsmen according to the flesh, the Jews. Three times he expresses the truthfulness of his grief. First he says, “I am speaking the truth in Christ…”, second he says, “…I am not lying…”, and third he says, “…my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit.” Why does he state this same thing three times? Well, probably for the same reason Isaiah 6 doesn’t say God is the holiest of all. Remember to emphasize something in a Hebrew culture authors repeated their statement three times. So as Isaiah 6 says God is “Holy, holy, holy” so too Paul expresses the truthfulness of his grief three times to alert us to the fact that this is not him just having a rough day, or a few hard weeks, or a season of depression, no. Paul, the apostle who penned the most joyful and glad chapter in the Bible (Romans 8) also deeply, continually, and truly, and simultaneously felt grief over the Jews rejection of Christ.
Then we come to v3, a verse which perhaps is one of the most complex and difficult verses in the New Testament. “For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh.” Ok, wait a minute. This is the same Paul who just finished saying that nothing could ever separate us from the love of God in Christ, right? This is the same Paul who said he counts knowing Jesus as better than life itself, that all else is rubbish in comparison, and that to die and be with Christ is great gain? Yes, this is the same Paul, who now is saying in v3 that he desires to be accursed, to be condemned, to be cut off from Christ, for the sake of the Jews. Well, what is it? Does Paul desire to be with Jesus above all else, or does Paul desire to be cut off from Jesus for the sake of the Jews?
The honest and somewhat puzzling answer is ‘Yes.’ What do we make of this? I don’t want to downplay any of the complexity here, not at all. We should try to wrap our minds and hearts around this. That Paul says ‘wish’ here is telling. He wishes this were true. Which implies, he knows it isn’t possible. But the desire remains. Ok, what then do we make of this desire? I think we get the gist of what he’s saying. Out of a great love for his kinsmen, Paul desires to be the one who is cut off and cursed so that they won’t be. This is great love.
Think of Moses. While he’s up on the mountain with God, taking a lot longer than Israel thought he would, the people out of great anxiety take matters into their own hands and convince Aaron to fashion for them a golden calf that they can worship and praise for saving them from Egypt. Aaron agrees, makes it for them, the people worshiped the calf, and all seemed to be well with the Israelites. God, of course, knows what’s happening, tells Moses to go down to them to stop them, he does, he hears loud singing and rejoicing, and when he saw their joy as they worshiped the calf Moses threw down the tablets of stone (breaking them), took the calf, ground it to dust, and made the people drink it. After a few more disastrous events among the people, Moses’ heart grows soft for Israel and he says he will go back up to the LORD to perhaps make atonement for them. He does, and in Exodus 32:31 he says to God, “Alas, this people has sinned a great sin. They have made for themselves gods of gold. But now, if You will forgive their sin – but if not, please blot me out of Your book that You have written.” See Moses’ heart for the people there? In great love for them he pleads with God that he himself, not the people, would bear the punishment for their sin.
Church, Paul is feeling and saying the same thing here in v3. Even though Paul has been preached to the Jews, even though Paul entered the Jewish synagogue first as he came to a new city to share the gospel with them, and even though Paul was almost entirely rejected by the Jews and thought of as a traitor for his embrace of and preaching of the gospel, he still loves them and desires for them to be saved. Moses’ love and Paul’s love for the Jews is a love patterned after the love of Christ, who willingly and joyfully embraced the curse we deserved on the cross so that we could be saved. That’s what v3 is all about. Paul is deeply grieved how the Jews have rejected Christ and truly wishes he could do such the Christ like thing for his kinsmen according to the flesh.
We’ll pull out some thoughts in a moment about how we ought to be of the same posture toward the world today, but for now notice…all of this leads to the question of why. Why did Paul feel such sorrow? Was it just that they rejected Christ? That’s it in a nutshell, but can we get more detailed reasoning as to what led Paul to such unceasing anguish in his soul over the lost souls of the Jews? Yes we can, and that’s what comes next in v4-5…
The Reason for Paul’s Grief (v4-5)
“They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen.”
Paul’s sorrow for Israel was because they rejected the gospel and rejected Christ. But not only so, v4-5 tell us Paul’s sorrow was so unceasing because Israel rejected the gospel despite the many privileges they enjoyed throughout the ages. What privileges? Paul lists them here.
First, Israelites. The very name Israelites brings us back to the moment in Genesis 32 when God confronted and wrestled prideful Jacob, turning him into humbled Israel. From him would come the people we know as the Israelites. This name marked them out from this moment onward as distinct, the people of God’s own possession.
Second, adoption. So prized was Israel in God’s sight He didn’t just call them His own people, He referred to them as His son. In Ex. 4:22 God tells Moses, “Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the LORD, Israel is My firstborn son, and I say to you, let My son go that he may serve Me.’”
Third, glory. In their adoption and in their own name we see something of glory. That God would come and make them His own is stunning. But this was not all their glory, for the Israelites beheld the glory of the Lord multiple times. The parting of the sea, the cloud by day, the pillar of fire by night, the shaking of Mt. Sinai, the filling the tabernacle. The glory of God was the very sign of God’s presence with them which confirmed that God dwelt among them.
Fourth, the covenants. From Adam and Eve in the garden, to Noah, Abraham, Moses, and to David. Covenants refers to all these moments when God willingly entered into a sacred bond uniting Israel to Himself. No other nation enjoyed this privilege of having God Himself be their covenant King, yet Israel did.
Fifth, the Law. Not only did God bind Himself to His people in covenant, but that covenant came with the stipulations of the Law. And through the Law God, in His grace, was re-shaping the lives of His people to make them distinct and different from the rest of the nations. Through their obedience to the Law they were to be lights shining in the darkness.
Sixth, worship. God saved them, God bound Himself to them in covenant; God gave them the Law to order their disordered lives, so that God would be worshiped by them. This worship of God was to be the fountainhead of all Israelite life, and God even gave instructions on how to do it. Not like the nations around them, who so often worshipped creation and created things, Israel was to worship the God over all things, who made heaven and earth.
Seventh, promises. In their rich history God was to His people a God who not only made promises, but a God who keeps them. That even though they would be a rebellious people to Him, He would always be a gracious God to them. Drawing them back home to Himself time and time again.
And lastly, look at v5. “To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen.” Here the great list of privileges reaches its climax in the One who was promised to one day come and change everything. Many spoke of His arrival and when He came onto the scene He proclaimed Himself to be the long awaiting descendant of the patriarch Abraham, who is called the Christ, the Messiah, who is God over all, blessed forever! Who would bring rescue and redemption to God’s people once and for all. The One in whom all the promises of God find their fulfillment!
Yet, see the grief here. Despite all these privileges, despite all these blessings, and despite all of this positional status with God, Israel by and large rejected the Lord Jesus and together with the Romans killed Him, by hanging Him on the cross. Can you understand Paul’s sorrow now? Knowing how great Israel’s privileged position was and knowing how they turned their back on God, led Paul to an unceasing anguish.
Romans 9 then, the chapter so famous for its teaching on predestination begins with the apostle’s grieving heart for those who reject the gospel.
The big question we must face now is this: do we know something of this great love, of this sorrow and anguish over lost souls? Before we ever move on to the great doctrinal discussion ahead in the rest of the chapter we must ask ourselves…when I think on Christ being rejected by members of my own family, our own nation, and so much of the world today, am I filled with grief? Martyn Lloyd-Jones put it like this, “There is no better test of our spiritual state and condition than our missionary zeal, our concern for lost souls. That is always the thing that divides people who are just theoretical and intellectual Christians from those who have a living and vital spiritual life.”
Paul’s grief here instructs us. Paul was a Jew, was raised by Jews, and was very well known as a rising star in Judaism. But the gospel came, and it divided them and Paul out of great love preached the gospel to them time and time again. The majority Jewish response to Paul’s preaching was not favorable, they tried to kill him, time and time again. Yet, how does Paul treat the Jews here in v1-5? After being so treated, Paul doesn’t have a hostile attitude toward them, he doesn’t denounce them, attack them, he doesn’t even mention any irritation with them. What does he do instead? He desires their salvation, and more so, he desires to do anything he can do so that they would be saved!
How in the world can Paul have such a loving heart toward them? Well, it certainly wasn’t easy. We know that. We’ve been hurt by people, and we know how deep the pain can go. But have we forgotten that we were once just like those who have hurt us? Have we forgotten how patient and loving God was to us when we were in that condition? How could Paul love them so much? He knew that he used to be just like them, and now, only by God’s grace, has he been changed.
Church, Christians have no right to distance themselves from those who need the gospel, regardless what they’ve done (or will do) to us. Paul wasn’t best friends with the Jews, but he didn’t entirely remove himself from them either. He loved Jesus Christ, which led him to share Christ with others, which led him to be hurt by those who rejected Christ, which led him to grieve over that rejection. Such love is Christ like love.
The words of the hymn How Sweet and Awful is the Place? capture this spirit well…
While all our hearts and all our songs
Join to admire the feast,
Each of us cry, with thankful tongues,
‘Lord, why was I a guest?’
Why was I made to hear Thy voice,
And enter while there’s room,
When thousands make a wretched choice,
And rather starve than come?
Twas the same love that spread the feast
That sweetly drew us in;
Else we had still refused to taste,
And perished in our sin.
Pity the nations, O our God!
Constrain the earth to come;
Send Thy victorious Word abroad,
And bring the strangers home.
We long to see Thy churches full,
That all the chosen race
May with one voice, and heart and soul,
Sing Thy redeeming grace.”
May such love abound in us!
 R.C. Sproul, Romans, St. Andrew’s Expositional Commentary (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2009), 304.
 Douglas Moo, Romans, NICNT (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2018), 569.
 John Murray, Romans – vol. 2, NICNT (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1968), xiv.
 Moo, Romans, 576.
 J. V. Fesko, Romans (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Reformation Heritage Books, 2018), 247.
 Murray, Romans, 5.
 Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Romans – God’s Sovereign Purpose (Carlisle, Pennsylvania: Banner of Truth, 1985), 31–37.
 Ibid., 31.