Romans 9–11 appears to some to be a stark and sudden shift from the previous section. Paul has just finished waxing eloquently about the deep love of God in Christ through the Holy Spirit that makes us more than conquerors and that connects us in an unfathomable and inseparable way even in the midst of our struggles and suffering. Now, Paul moves to speak about the separation that has taken place between this very same God and God’s people, the Israelites.
How do these two seemingly discordant accounts sit side by side? Is this God fickle? Has this God’s attention shifted from the Israelites to the Gentiles? The answer to these last two questions is of course . . . NO! This is not a matter of God choosing the Gentiles over the Israelites or vice versa. From Genesis forward, we see that Israel was God’s chosen people. But what were they chosen for? This is the question that must always be asked when we talk about “election” from a biblical perspective.
Throughout Scripture, God “chooses” or “elects” persons for a purpose. And a significant part of Abraham’s election, and through him Israel’s election, was to be a blessing to the nations drawing them to God (e.g., Gen 12:3; 22:18; 28:14; Isa 2:2-4; 25:6-8; 56:6-8; Ezek 39:7; Zech 8:20-23; Mic 4:1-3). From this, we can see that God’s desire was always for the whole of humanity to come to know God’s love, forgiveness, and acceptance. Paul understood that it was not God’s heart that shifted; it was Israel’s. Israel chose to disobey God multiple times throughout their history and now they had chosen to reject Christ as their Messiah.
However, so the Gentiles did not walk away thinking that they were more holy or righteous than Israel, Paul went on to remind them that just as God had grafted them into the olive tree because of their faith and obedience, God could also re-graft in the Jews if they discontinue in their unbelief (Rom 11:11-24). In other words, this God is just and righteous, loving us all equally and giving us each the same opportunity to choose relationship with this God.
In Romans 8, Paul highlighted how sin had caused a world-inclusive suffering (8:18), which resulted in the “groaning” of creation (8:22), of believers (8:23), and of the Holy Spirit (8:26) in anticipation of God’s eschatological deliverance, restoration, and renewal of all things. Through this illustration, Paul reminded his readers of how God comes along side of us in our suffering and cries out with us. Paul showed his readers the deep and intimate connection that took place between God and humanity through union with Christ and through the infilling of the Holy Spirit.
In Romans 9:1-5, Paul builds off Romans 8 in a somewhat unexpected way; Paul incarnates the heart of God by bearing his own. He reveals the “great sorrow” and “unceasing grief” he experiences for his people, the Jews. The connection between Paul and his people is so great that he actually wishes he could take the consequences of their unfaithfulness upon his shoulders, becoming “cursed.” The Greek word utilized here is anathema and refers to complete destruction. It is the same word he used to speak about those who were perverting the Gospel of Christ in Galatians 1:8-9. Paul is not just saying he would give his physical life; he’s saying he would give his spiritual life, would risk being cut off from Christ for all eternity.
Paul evidences a profound ability to empathize with his people in ways that reveal the very heart of God. This empathy is at least partially due to the fact that Paul himself once stood where they now stand. As such, he knew quite well the advantages afforded them as the people of God— “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 them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah” (9:4-5, NRSV). While Paul still valued his Jewish heritage, nevertheless, because of Christ, he came to view all things as loss, as rubbish (Phil 3:4-9).
It is this union with Christ, through the Holy Spirit that enabled Paul to empathize at such a deep level. A similarly profound statement is found in Philippians 3:10 when Paul claims to want to know the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings and to be conformed to Christ’s death. Paul’s identity was now shaped by the Cross and by the Kingdom and this enabled him to view the plight of others with a depth of compassion previously unknown to this zealous Jew. In essence, Paul was doing what the Holy Spirit was said to do in chapter 8, coming alongside the people of Israel and crying out with wordless groans on their behalf.
We as the Church must learn to empathize with others in ways that defy human understanding and capacity. The journey will begin similar to Paul’s in that we will come to a place in our relationship with Christ that we desire greater and greater intimacy, an intimacy that will draw us nearer to the cross and will ultimately give our lives a cruciform shape. It is from this place that we will be able to see the struggles of our neighbors anew and come alongside them and cry out with them and for them. It is from here that we will be able to learn to tangibly love the least of these and from here that our enemy will cease to be anything other than a brother or sister in need of Christ’s love and our embrace.
About the Contributor
Principal at Nazarene Theological College, Brisbane and Lecturer in Biblical Studies and Biblical Language