Sunday Night Bible Study — Romans 9:4-5, “Paul’s Anguish Over His People, Part 2”

24 Sep


Romans 9:4-5

Paul’s Anguish for His People, Part Two


Last week we saw the transition from Romans 8 to Romans 9, from overwhelming victory to overwhelming anguish. Paul was rejoicing in the overcoming love of Christ in one sentence and weeping over the unbelief of his fellow Jews in the next. We can identify with this if we are Christians, for we see treasure in following Jesus but all around us, sometimes even in our own family, see people reject Jesus. For Paul, there was an added sadness, because his kinsmen according to the flesh were Jews, men and women who should have recognized their Messiah when he came, people who should have seen Jesus as the Savior, the fulfillment of God’s promises to His covenant people, the Jews. But many did not see. So Paul is heartbroken. We looked at his great sorrow and his unceasing anguish last week. Now this week we get into the core reason for this sorrow and then we may get just a little into Paul’s explanation of Israel’s rejection.

Verses 1-5 really highlight Paul’s anguish over the Jewish rejection of Jesus and then from verse 6 forward Paul is really explaining the why of their rejection. But it is very interesting what he chooses to focus on as he explains their rejection. But that will be for us to see as we go on, so let’s get started.


Let’s begin by reading together verses 4-5 . . .

 4 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.

Let’s begin with verses 4 and 5, which really give us a further explanation of Paul’s anguish than what we would have in verses 1-3 alone. It is tragic enough when one we love rejects Jesus. But when that person has been surrounded by every spiritual support and all the advantages of spiritual life and still turns away from the Lord, that is an even deeper tragedy. This was the case for the people of Israel, the Jews. They had every advantage, yet rejected Jesus. That is what Paul is laying out for us in verses 4 and 5 . . .

 They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises.

So now in verse four Paul names his people according to the flesh. They are Israelites.

It is interesting that Paul uses this term. The people of God in the Old Testament were called by three main names. They were called at times Hebrews, a reference to their language and culture. In their later history they became known as Jews, a shortened for of the tribe of Judah, which along with the tribe of Benjamin made up the only part of the nation of Israel to survive the captivity in Babylon, the other 10 tribes having been dispersed by the Assyrians around 700 BC. But Paul doesn’t choose here to call his people Jews or Hebrews. He calls them Israelites. This name goes all the way back to Jacob, one of the fathers of the nation, whose name was changed to Israel (“He struggles with God”). This name change was a recognition of Jacob wrestling with the angel of the Lord in Genesis and not letting go until he was blessed. It was the name into which the nation entered into covenant with God at Mt. Sinai. It was to this nation that all the promises in verses 4 and 5 flowed down.

First, there is the adoption. Now this adoption can not be the same adoption that we saw in Romans 8 where through the Spirit we receive the adoption as sons, in other words, where we are brought into God’s family and given eternal life. Why can this not be the same adoption? (If it were, then Paul’s anguish in verses 1-3 would make no sense). So this must be a different kind of adoption. And it must be a kind of adoption that does not lead to eternal life, otherwise Paul would have had no reason to feel as he felt about the Jews. In other words, this adoption can not refer to the idea of the Jews being saved in some different way.

This idea of adoption is present in the Old Testament, so we can learn from there what Paul means when he speaks of adoption. In Hosea 11:1 Israel is called God’s “son.” In Exodus 4:22 God speaks of Israel as his son and in Exodus 19:5 his “peculiar treasure.” We see the adoption of Israel through the choice of Abraham. One man chosen to begin a nation God set apart as His own, not for eternal life but for a display of his glory to the nations of the earth and as a vehicle for the coming of the Savior, the Messiah, the Lord Jesus.

 So this adoption is a kind of setting apart, a marking off of one nation to be God’s instrument in the fulfillment of His plan for the whole world.

 With this adoption came many privileges. First of all, with the adoption there is “glory.” This glory was shown visibly in the Temple and the tabernacle as God’s presence came down. It was seen in the wilderness as the pillar of cloud and pillar of fire guided Israel. Israel was a people marked by glory. God’s glorious works of salvation for them, His miraculous provision, the grandeur of the temple all were testimony to the glory of God in their midst.

 Along with this adoption came also the covenants. This is plural not referring to just one covenant, like the covenant with Abraham, but to all the covenants God had made. God entered into a commitment to Israel over and over. As His adopted people, God made promises to them and was deeply committed to them. One of the questions we will be exploring in the coming weeks is whether those commitments have changed in any way with the coming of Jesus. Is there any sense in which Israel is still chosen by God and is there any sense in which they still have a place in God’s plan?

 The covenants culminate in the giving of the law, the ultimate commitment of God in the Old Testament, His setting down of truth for His people to follow. God did not just adopt Israel, He opened His heart to them, He loved them, He gave them commands, each command being an expression of His character and a pathway for their good.

 But it was not a cold hearted, “do this, don’t do this” thing. God invited Israel to worship Him and laid down the ground rules of worship so that they would know how to approach their almighty God. The worship here may refer to the temple service of the priests, in which case again God would be pointing out the special blessings He had given to this nation, as He called some from among it to serve Him in worship at the temple.

And God gave them the promises. Distinct from the covenants, God not only agreed to act in concert with Israel’s obedience and to punish their disobedience, He made many promises geared toward their good as a pure gift of His grace. These promises of course, culminate in the Messiah and His new covenant, which is going to be inward and transformative. Whereas the covenants required commitment, the promises will require faith. And this will be the dividing line between the saved Israelite and the lost Israelite.  

 Verse five turns from a listing of God’s blessings to Israel to an overall picture of His blessings, culminating in His greatest blessing.

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 points back to Israelite heritage. Theirs are the fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. And through their race came Christ. So this is a kind of overview verse. From beginning to end God has been with the people of Israel and has fulfilled his promises to them and to the world through them by sending Jesus.

 The “fathers” here refers clearly to those first patriarchs, not to all the descendants of Israel. This is why the ESV uses the word “patriarchs.” Paul is not talking about every ancestor of Israel. I say that because the examples he gives in the next few verses are about the patriarchs and because as you get into the history of Israel it seems to me that there would be less and less for the Israelites of Paul’s day to rejoice over as it relates to their leaders.

 When Paul says, “from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ” he means of course that Jesus’ physical lineage was as an Israelite. In the Greek the word “Christ” is  at the front of the phrase as a way to emphasize the great gift of Christ that came to the people of Israel.

 So we come to the end of verse 5 and find the greatest reason why Paul has such deep emotion over his people’s rejection of Jesus. It is because Jesus is God over all, blessed forever. In other words, God came to Israel and Israel said no thanks. Even worse, as the early preaching of the apostles in the book of Acts tells us, the Israelites were instrumental in crucifying the Lord of glory.

 Now this is a point of contention in the translation. Because the Greek text does not use punctuation, it is possible that there should be a hard stop and the phrase should read, “from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is over all. God be praised forever. Amen.” Or it could even read, “from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ. God who is over all be praised forever. Amen.” Now how do we know which option is right? Any of the three are grammatically possible. So which is it? Let me ask first, why does it matter which of these three it is? (This is a strong affirmation of Jesus’ identity as God). But we don’t want to force that interpretation. I don’t want to ever be guilty of trying to shape the Scriptures so that they fit my preconceived ideas. Of course, I believe in the unity of the Bible since it is inspired by God, so I don’t think the Bible will contradict itself but I still want to be very careful about building cases where the Bible does not really give me leeway to do so. So it is here. I don’t want to say this verse is another which calls Jesus God just because I think that belief is right biblically. The blessing in this particular case though is that I can confirm with a great degree of certainty that this verse is making a very specific claim that Jesus is God, one of Paul’s most specific claims.

 Here are a few reasons why this verse almost certainly ought to be translated in a way that reflects the idea that Jesus is God. First, the phrase “according to the flesh” anticipates a contrast. He was of the Israelites according to the flesh, but He is God over all. So the context makes good sense. The phrase “who” in Greek is most often referring to that which came right before it. Third, look at Romans 1:25. Here we have the same structure as our present passage. Also the word “blessed” would normally come before the word “God” if it were a doxology to God. But here it comes after the word “God,” which means it more than likely modifies “Christ.” Finally, the logic of the passage is best understood by this being a picture of Christ as God rather than of the praise of God.

 This does not seem to be a good place for Paul to praise the Father. Paul has been expressing grief. It would seem strange for him to break out in praise to God here, especially with what he is about to say.

 Instead, what I believe we have here is the climax of God’s blessings to Israel, namely that Christ, who is God himself and rules over all, has come to them. God blessed Israel so much that He came to them in flesh, descended from their race. 

 This dividing line between the flesh and God will be a key part of Paul’s argument going forward, even as it has been already in Romans. We have seen in several places right? By works of the flesh no one will be justified. The Spirit gives life whereas the flesh ends in wretchedness. And in the case of Jesus, He has come in the flesh and is the Messiah of the Jews according to the flesh. But He is also God over all, Savior of Jew and Gentile alike who trust in Him. Jesus is the Israelite Messiah but only according to the flesh. We see a strong parallel to this idea in the very beginning of the book, in 1:3-4, “concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord,”

So the rest of these chapters from 9-11 is going to work all this out. How is it that God chose Israel? And are there two kinds of Israel? And how does all this relate to the character of God? Has God’s righteousness been compromised by the rejection He has faced from His own people and by His seeming rejection of them? Has God been true to His covenants and promises? Of course the answer will be yes, but Paul will get there in some ways we don’t expect and we must be open to His answers, even if they don’t fit our preconceived notions, because he is writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

 The big thing to recognize as we close from this section is that Paul was not just motivated to anguish over the Jews because they were his kinsmen according to the flesh. This was certainly part of it. But even deeper we see in verses 4 and 5 that there is in Paul a deep sadness for all the Israelites had wasted from what they’d been given. We’ll see the beginnings of Paul’s explanation for how this could be next week.

















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