18 February 2014

Romans 9:1-13

“I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart” (v. 2)


Here, Paul begins a new section of his letter to the Romans, where he wrestles with the theological and pastoral difficulties arising from the unwillingness of many Jews to believe that Jesus was the Messiah. For many years, this part of the letter (chapters 9-11) was disregarded and seen as an irrelevant diversion, with the thrust of the letter understood to resume at chapter 12. New research in the late 1970s enabled scholars to understand Paul in his Jewish context much better, and now some would say that these chapters are central to the whole letter, the practical application of the theological position set out in the first eight chapters.

After the high-octane celebration of God's unfailing love in Christ (Romans 8:31-39), Paul's lament comes back down to earth with a bump. He could not express his grief and concern more strongly. Even though he has just said that nothing can divide us from God's love in Christ (Romans 8:39), he says he would be ready to be cut off from Christ if that would save his people. Paul did not think of himself as belonging to a different faith - the partings of the ways would come later in Jewish/Christian relations. He was a Jew, who believed that God had sent the Messiah in Jesus and thereby fulfilled the promises of Judaism. Yet he found himself struggling against the very people who were his brothers and sisters in faith.

His first argument points to the way God chose some and not others as bearers of the promise of salvation. Isaac, the promised child, was chosen and not Ishmael (verse 7; Genesis 17:20-21), Jacob and not Esau (verse 10; Genesis 27:27-29). Paul develops this second example, citing Malachi 1:2-3 and explaining that this decision is simply God's choice, made before the babies were born and therefore not dependent on their actions for good or bad (verse 11). God is the one who calls, and we cannot know the basis for these choices. Paul knew this from his own experience (eg Galatians 2:15). God called him despite his harsh persecution of the Christians as a zealous Jew - why had God chosen him and set him apart in this way, disregarding others?

God's actions are beyond our understanding. We have to trust that where God calls, the calling is based on God's wisdom and love.

To Ponder

  • Have you ever found yourself wondering why God has called someone - yourself, perhaps - to a particular task? To what extent does Paul's explanation here help you make sense of God's unexpected choices?
  • The promises of God play a big part in these verses. How far are you aware of the impact God's promises have on your life?

Bible notes author

The Revd Caroline Wickens

Caroline is a Methodist presbyter, currently serving as superintendent of the Dudley and Netherton Circuit just outside Wolverhampton. She is married to Andrew, an Anglican priest, and has two teenage children.