I have been always fascinated with Romans. Part of it is the thrill of unraveling the mysteries from the Old Testament era. Paul helps us understand the prophecies and symbols that were present in the Torah. It is another thing to read through Paul’s writings to understand what it meant to the Christian’s in the first century. And finally, how it all applies to us today.
I see Romans as three sections. Chapters 1-8, 9-11, and 12-16; not considering greetings as a separate section. The first section talks about the Christian theology in detail, deals with the difficult subjects like sin, judgment, redemption, faith, righteousness, salvation - all the keywords a Christian should know. The last section is about practicing Christianity. In between, there is this section, which spans three chapters, ending with a praise.
Chapter 9 starts on a personal note. Earlier chapters were more instructional, but this chapter starts quite differently. Paul, though known as the apostle to the Gentiles, identifies himself as a Jew, and clearly expresses his concern over the people of Israel. In fact, he is on to explaining the story of Israel in the next few chapters.
Let us try to understand who this Israel is. The people of Israel are adopted as sons, inherited the divine glory, received the covenants, law, promises and right to worship (9:4). More than anything Christ was born among them. But Paul then attempts to redefine the people of Israel. I sometimes refer it as the concept of Israel. He brings God’s perspective on who Israel is. According to man’s perspective Israel are the descendants of Abraham. But in God’s perspective Israel is the children of the promise (9:8). He talks about an election in the Old Testament era. Isaac vs. Ishmael, Jacob vs. Esau, even Moses vs. Pharaoh. Now we do not understand his sovereign will fully. Paul let that remain a mystery with the question - “Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use?” (9:21)
Before we go further, let us also note that Paul was expressing an unstoppable grief about the people of Israel. He is even wishing that he could save them, even if it costs his eternal life (9:3). Paul has not explained the reason why, yet.
Now we see that, much clearly, towards the end of Chapter 9 and beginning of Chapter 10. Israel who pursued a law of righteousness has not attained it, while the Gentiles - who did not pursue - have obtained it (9:30-31). Israelites were zealous, in their own way (10:2). Though Christ was revealed through Scriptures, they failed to recognize him. Paul’s anguish now becomes clearer. He goes on to establish Christ is the savior (10:13-15). After that he comes back to his concern for Israelites.
Before we go into the final part, let us try to understand how Paul is using the Scriptures. The references from Old Testament are probably not much in the context of his arguments. That posed a big problem for me initially, until I came to accept the mystery factor. As I understand there are multiple meanings to a text or a narrative from Old Testament. Contextual yet prophetic, literal and symbolic, clear but hidden. In that sense, Paul is exploring the Old Testament, and revealing the hidden symbols and their meanings that lead us to Christ. Thus Sarah and Hagar come to represent law and grace, man’s efforts and God’s promise (Galatians 4:24). Some symbols and meanings are not readily perceivable. Some lies mysteriously like a buried gem, until we find it.
In Chapter 11, Paul is connecting the dots. He started the section with the glorious past of Israel in Chapter 9, went on to explain their unbelief in Chapter 10, and Chapter 11 is the bridge between the two. It starts with the question - “Did God reject his people?” And to ascertain the link, Paul now identifies strongly as an Israelite.
It is important to understand Chapter 11 in the context of the earlier two chapters. Everything that Paul talks in this chapter can be traced to an argument or a reference in earlier chapters. Israelites rejected Christ, with unbelief and ignorance. But God did not reject the Israelites altogether. He kept a remnant (11:5, 9:27). Chosen by grace (11:6), not by works (10:6). Israel was earnestly seeking God in and through the law, but it became a stumbling block for them (11:7-10, 9:33).
Further verses are usually interpreted from the perspective of Gentiles. Some translations even put a sub-heading “Ingrafted Branches”. Let us not change the focus on Israelites - I would rather call it “Broken off Branches”. Paul’s concern is clearly for the Israelites (11:14, see 10:19 too).
Israelites were broken off from the promise by their transgression, out of their unbelief and ignorance. God then extends his promise to Gentiles (11:11, 10:20). Much like the way branches are grafted on to an olive tree, Gentiles are grafted. Into the tree which was grown through God’s covenants and promises, into the tree where the patriarchs and the prophets form the trunk, into the tree whose root is holy, originating from God. That’s God’s perspective.
And, God does not leave the broken off branches hopeless. If they do not persist in unbelief, they will be grafted in (11:23). If Israel turns to the deliverer who comes from Zion, they will be saved. Through the new covenant, their sins will be taken away (11:26, 27).
Here is the most beautiful part of Israel’s story. Gentiles were not chosen, and they were disobedient. Israelites were chosen, but they too were disobedient. Both are now under God’s mercy. And his promises still stand, to his children - not according to man’s perspective, but in the perspective of the one who made the promises.
That leads us to the praise. Paul after explaining Israel’s story is now looking at God. The wisdom and knowledge of God - he wonders, the sovereignty of God - he is puzzled, the mercy of God - he sings praise.