27 March 2012

Romans 9:19-33

"Those who were not my people I will call 'my people'." (v. 25)


This difficult passage follows Paul's reference in verses 6 to 18 to God's choice of choosing Isaac rather than Ishmael and Jacob rather than Esau, and in the Exodus story the hardening of Pharaoh's heart in the process of rescuing the Israelites from Egypt. Throughout chapters 9 to 11 Paul is wrestling with this question: why have the Jewish people, in the main, not believed in Jesus Christ?

It is helpful in thinking about it to keep in mind what Paul takes for granted:

  • All human beings, Jew and non-Jew alike, have sinned and come short of God's glory, and stand condemned for it (seeRomans chapters 1 to 3).
  • God has sent Jesus, the promised Messiah, to restore all humanity, both Jew and Gentile (non-Jew).
  • The key to our relationship with God is, and always has been, faith or trust. Such faith leads to obedience, but obedience without faith is putting the cart before the horse. This, in Paul's view, is where his compatriots have gone astray.
  • Nevertheless God has called the Jews to be God's own people and cannot go back on that commitment.
  • While we remain responsible for our behaviour, it is unthinkable that anything could happen outside God's will and purpose.

The key word in the passage is "mercy" (v. 23). All need mercy for all have sinned (Romans 3:23). In mercy God has sent Jesus (hinted at in verse 33: the "stone" is a person). The Old Testament illustrates how from the beginning God has selected some and bypassed others. Being an Israelite by birth does not guarantee salvation. What counts is faith - trusting in the mercy of God.

We may think God arbitrary and unjust (verse 19) but for Paul it is not for mere mortals to question God's ways. In any case it is not arbitrary: the method is justified by the purpose, mercy ultimately offered to all (see  chapter 11).


To Ponder

How far do you think Paul adequately answers the objection he quotes in verse 19?

Paul is thinking here on the large scale of nations and peoples. Does it have any bearing on the question why some individuals believe and others do not? Why?

To what extent do you think it is true that nothing happens outside God's will and purpose?

Bible notes author

The Revd Brian Beck

Brian Beck is a Methodist minister, now retired, and a former president and secretary of the Methodist Conference. A large part of his ministry has been spent in theological education, both in Limuru, Kenya, and in Cambridge, England..