THE PROBLEM OF JEWISH UNBELIEF
Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved. Romans 10:1
We have already seen in Romans that Paul was a praying person. It seems the thing he prayed for most was the salvation of his own people, the Jews. It was more than just a matter of prayer but it was his heart’s desire, his constant burden and his continuing sorrow. Paul’s great heartache was that his own people, who had watched and waited for many centuries for their promised Messiah, had somehow missed him when he finally came to them. How could the most religious people on earth miss their own Messiah?
Paul says of Israel: “For I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge” (10:2). Paul is a man speaking from personal experience. Paul, a Jew, once belonged to the Pharisees, a very zealous Jewish sect. In his earlier days when he was known as Saul of Tarsus he excelled his contemporaries with his zeal for the law. He says in Galatians 1:14, “I was advancing in Judaism beyond many Jews of my own age and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers.” Young Saul was so zealous that he went to great lengths to persecute the newly emerging Christian church. He not only placed Christian men and women in jail, but he journeyed to Damascus with special permission from the High Priest to persecute believers there (Acts 26:1-11). We also see that Paul was a party to the murder of Christianity’s first recorded martyr, the deacon Stephen (Acts 7:58).
Zeal is the one thing that really stands out about the Jews even today. On our many flights to and from Israel my wife and I have often admired the zeal and devotion of religious Jews. They always gather somewhere in the plane for their morning prayers and seem oblivious to everything else going on around them. They are a rebuke to us lazy Christians who may still be half asleep. On buses in Jerusalem it would be the exception not to find some Jewish people reading the Psalms or reciting from their prayer books. My wife and I were always amazed to watch Jewish people doing a total fast from food and water on the Day of Atonement. Because transportation is forbidden on that holy day many of them would walk for hours across Jerusalem in the hot sun in order to pray at the Western Wall.
Paul points out that the Jews indeed have zeal but that their zeal is not according to knowledge. The Greek word used here is epignōsis, which means “full, correct, vital, experiential knowledge.”1 Briscoe remarks that their zeal has the momentum of a freight train, but one that has run off the tracks. 2
THE DEAD-END STREET OF RIGHTEOUSNESS BY LAW
Since they did not know the righteousness that comes from God and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness.” Romans 10:3
Paul has diligently explained how both Jews and Gentiles are sinners. All through the Old Testament (Tanakh) God pointed out that there is none righteous on earth (Psa. 14:3) and that all of our supposed righteousness is like filthy rags (Isa. 64:6) in God’s sight.
The Jewish leaders in Paul’s day were no doubt taking pride in their position as God’s chosen people. They were busy establishing their own righteousness but were not submissive to God’s concept of righteousness. The sad thing was that God’s own righteousness was being offered to Gentiles and Jews alike as a free gift. It was told of the godly Presbyterian preacher, Robert Murray McCheyne, that he was once passing out tracts and handed one to a well-dressed lady. She gave the minister a haughty look and said, “Sir, you must not know who I am!” The kind minister replied, “Madam, there is coming a day of judgment, and on that day it will not make any difference who
you are!” 3
We remember what Jesus said to the Pharisees in John 5:40: “…you refuse to come to me to have life.” We also remember how Jesus wept as he looked at the city of Jerusalem. He cried in Matthew 23:37: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.”
Paul goes on to admonish Israel saying: “Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes” (10:4 ). “There has been a salvation-historical switch from the covenant of the law to the covenant of grace so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.” 4 The expression “the end of the law” has been discussed before and we want to remember this does not mean that Christ ended the law. We know in Matthew 5:17 how Jesus said: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” Christ is the fulfillment of the law in that he has brought an end to the law as a method of salvation for all those who believe, whether Jew or Gentile.
GOD’S SIMPLE WAY OF RIGHTEOUSNESS
Moses describes in this way the righteousness that is by the law: “The man who does these things will live by them.” Romans 10:5
Here Paul is referring to Leviticus 18:5. Clearly many Old Testament people thought they were supposed to live in the law and by the law. However, the law was really an impossible way of righteousness and over the many centuries the interpretation of the law became more and more complex. Because the law was perfect and humanity was imperfect it was impossible for anyone to do all the things required by the law. James 2:10 sums it up saying: “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.” We are reminded again that the main purpose of the law was not to make people righteous but to point out their sin. The Israelites were thus never able to live by the law and keep its many demands. As Moses was coming down the mountain with the holy tablets of the Ten Commandments, the people below him had just broken them all. 5 Moses in anger and disgust threw the tablets down and broke them as well.
Paul continues: “But the righteousness that is by faith says: ‘Do not say in your heart, Who will ascend into heaven?’ (that is, to bring Christ down) or ‘Who will descend into the deep?’ (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead)” (10:6-7). This section of Romans has been a little difficult for interpreters over the centuries. It seems that this quote is taken in a rather free fashion from Deuteronomy 30:12-14. It is of interest to us that this passage of scripture was handled rather freely in Jewish tradition and it seems that Paul is continuing on with this approach. 6
Robertson the Greek scholar tries to trace out Paul’s thought here. Paul is saying that there is no need to try to bring Christ down from heaven to earth since that has already happened in the incarnation. Neither is there a need to try to bring him up from the abyss (abusson). Likely the apostle is referring here to Hades or Sheol, the abode of the dead, where Jesus preached after his death. Jesus was gloriously resurrected from this realm. Thus, both the incarnation and resurrection have already happened. 7
There is nothing we can add to the gospel. We cannot do deep research into mysteries, or take long journeys across the seas to try to find the truth. There is no need to look into the profound mysteries of the high heavens or the deep abyss. The truth of the gospel is plainly set before all people and can now be easily understood.
“But what does it say? ‘The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart,’ that is, the word of faith we are proclaiming” (10:8). Paul is still making use of Deuteronomy 30:14 here. He seems to be saying that the saving word was present in Israel. It was in their language, and in their mouths; in their common conversation day by day. How much more is this true with us today since the Bible, God’s saving word, is the world’s most published book and is found in most US households. A lot of households have numerous copies. In addition, the saving gospel can now be accessed by internet from almost any place on earth and in all the major languages of earth.
Now Paul gives the simple plan whereby we can be saved. Here it is in a nutshell and we don’t want to miss it: “That if you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (10:9). To confess in this usage means to profess and to proclaim Christ as Messiah.
Anyone from a child to a backward tribesman can follow this easy plan of salvation. We notice here that confession is listed before faith and not after it. This may have some significance and even Calvin puzzled over it. He cautions us that we must be careful not to assign salvation to confession itself. 8 The construction and usage here reveals that “confession” has to do with “calling on the name of the Lord.”9 Other passages where confession is mentioned with a similar usage are Philippians 2:11 and Hebrews 13:15. In both cases, that which is confessed is the name of Jesus and his lordship. Thomas Edgar adds: “The gospel requires belief in the Lord Jesus Christ, and belief alone, in order for us to be saved. Salvation is by grace (a gift) through faith.”10 This reminds us of two of the pillars of the great Reformation. These were sola fide (faith alone) and sola gratia
The gospel is so simple and yet we have spent twenty centuries trying to complicate it. He who confesses Jesus as Lord with his mouth and believes in his heart is saved. This is why the gospel means “good news.” The world is filled with “works” religions and none of them are ever called “good news.” Baptism as we said earlier is extremely important and some try to tie it in as a part of the salvation process but this would amount to another “work” of salvation. A life of good deeds and holiness, walking in the Spirit, witnessing, obedience, and so-forth are all critically important but they are not part of the saving process, only the result of it. Salvation comes by grace and through faith. Not even faith is a “work” because it is really part of God’s gift package. We remember what the Lord says in Ephesians 2:8-9: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.”
After a person is saved by faith, Paul spells out his responsibilities in the next verse of Ephesians: “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (v. 10). Once we are saved God asks us as his sons and daughters to work in his vineyard. But even this was something he planned and ordained somewhere back in eternity.
Barclay remarks that these verses are of prime importance in that they give us evidence of the first Christian creed. The new convert must be willing to declare “Jesus Christ is Lord.”11 This public confession or profession was no small matter in New Testament times. For the pagan to make such a confession openly in the Roman world was to risk a serious conflict with the authorities. There was a very strong tendency among Roman rulers to require worship of the emperor as well as to have themselves referred to as “lord” (kurios). In later times many Christians gave up their lives because they wouldn’t make such a declaration and neither would they sacrifice to the emperor. The matter was even worse for the Jew. For him to make such a confession, meant that he would also likely be cut off from family, friends and from his ancestral faith. In the Septuagint the word Kurios was commonly used of God. Thus such a confession for a Jew would be considered blasphemous by other Jews.
Today in the Middle East and throughout the world for that matter we have a thing reminding us of the Christian public confession of Jesus as Lord. Hundreds of millions of Moslems confess five times each day in an open and public manner (many times through loudspeakers) that their god Allah is supreme. We can understand by this how extremely important it is for Christians to make this profession openly and publicly.
“For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved” (10:10). The belief that brings salvation is not a mere intellectual belief with the mind but it is a belief with the heart, or the whole person. The Bible tells us that even devils believe intellectually and they shudder (Jas. 2:18). The faith expressed in Jesus as Lord must be sincere. What is believed in the heart must be confessed with the mouth. Jesus says in Matthew 10:32, “Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father in heaven.”
What a simple gospel! Clarke speaks of this gospel saying “it is simple, and very unlike the law, which was full of rites, ordinances, ceremonies, perfectly fulfilled.”12 In the account of the Philippian jailer’s conversion (Acts 16:30-31) Paul and Silas seem to further simplify the salvation process. The jailer asked the question: “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” They replied to him, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.” He believed, was saved, and began to immediately exhibit the good fruits of salvation. Obviously there are many things which accompany salvation. Yes, there is repentance or an inward decision to change one’s course in life. Yes, there is confession before other people, but primarily there is the great grace of God and the small faith of ours which is helped and increased as a part of God’s gift package. We remember how one poor and needy man cried out to Jesus, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mk. 9:24). Jesus immediately honored his weak faith and healed his son.
What security and blessing salvation brings. “As the Scripture says, ‘Anyone who trusts in him will never be put to shame’” (10:11). Here Paul repeats an important quotation from Isaiah 28:16 that he has previously used in 9:33. We note that the prophet Isaiah makes a similar statement in Isaiah 49:23: “those who hope in me will not be disappointed.” Other translations of Isaiah 28:16 use such expressions as: “Will not panic,” “will not stumble,” or “will not act hastily.”
“For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’” (10:12-13). In matters of God’s covenants there is a big difference between Jews and Gentiles, as we have seen, but in matters of salvation there is no difference at all. All people are saved the same way, by the great grace of God and by calling on his name in sincere faith. Here Joel 2:32 is quoted in much the same way that Peter used it as he preached his great Pentecost sermon of Acts 2:21. The simple gospel truth is that everyone who calls on Jesus the Lord will be saved. Again, that most famous passage of John 3:16 sums it up beautifully: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
THE NEED OF A PREACHER
How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? Romans 10:14
God often does his great work in a very simple and unsophisticated manner. He has decreed to have his saving gospel distributed through preaching. In 1 Corinthians 1:21 we read: “For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.” The Greek word “preach” (kēryssō) simply means to “herald” or to “announce” something.
Although the proclamation of the gospel message seems very simple, we must realize all the salvation history that underlies the proclamation. Christianity is a faith that is grounded in history, literally thousands of years of history. It is not just a feeling or an emotional experience that is entirely subjective. Stedman describes the conversion experience like turning on a light switch. Suddenly there is light and power. However, behind that power is a very complicated process that includes dams, power plants, generators, substations, transmission lines, and a host of other infrastructures. 13 God has been working over many centuries and in many ways to make the good news available for us today.
From the beginning, preaching or proclamation was at the heart of the gospel and the commission of Jesus. Paul says: “…I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” (1 Cor. 9:16). It is sad that our “enlightened” generation, perhaps more than any generation before it, has despised and loathed preachers and their preaching. It is even sadder to say that some preachers thoroughly deserve this loathing. In the early years of American history preachers were held in much higher esteem.
Michael Brown tells of the visit of the famous minister George Whitefield to Middletown, Connecticut in the year 1740. He relates how Nathan Cole, a farmer living some 12 miles out in the country, heard from a passing rider of Whitefield’s visit. He immediately put his wife on the horse with him and they rode like they were fleeing for their lives. When the horse grew tired Cole would run on foot until he was out of breath. They rode past farms that were already emptied of their people. As they arrived in the Middletown area it seemed to be covered with fog and they heard what sounded like thunder. Soon they saw that it was due to the great masses of horses and people that were assembled. They arrived in time to see Whitefield mount the stage. Cole described him as looking angelic, and appearing like a man clothed with authority from the great God. After that sermon Cole, who had previously believed in a works salvation, was stricken with an intense conviction of sin that lasted for two years. After that time Cole was wonderfully born
from above. 14
“And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’” (10:15). This passage is a quote from Isaiah 52:7, a scripture that was understood as a messianic one in Jesus’ time. 15 The original scripture probably spoke of the exiles as they returned from their captivity in Babylon, but it certainly has to do with their second return in this day. The large western suburb of Jerusalem with over 20,000 inhabitants is named from Isaiah 52:7 and is called Mevasaret Zion. In the Hebrew of Isaiah 52 mevaser means to preach or herald good tidings. Thus the meaning is to herald good tidings to Zion. Interestingly, today many evangelical Christians choose to live in these western outskirts of Jerusalem and they are messengers bringing good tidings of God’s favor to the city. Messengers are said to have beautiful feet. May our feet be seen as beautiful today.
Messengers, apostles and preachers must be sent out from God with his message and his authorization to deliver it. In older days everyone knew that a preacher had to have a “call” from God to be in the ministry. Calvin states: “The gospel does not fall like rain from the clouds, but is brought by the hands of men wherever it is sent from above.”16 May we be willing to say with Isaiah of long ago, “Here am I. Send me!” (Isa. 6:8).
ISRAEL MISSES OUT
But not all the Israelites accepted the good news. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed our message?” Romans 10:16
Long ago the prophet Isaiah predicted that Israel would not listen to the message of salvation. He cried out: “Who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?” (Isa. 53:1). It is clear that the precious remnant of Israel believed—a few simple fishermen around the Sea of Galilee and some waiting and watching souls in Jerusalem like Simeon and Anna (Lk. 2:25-38).
“Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ” (10:17). In Bible times it was not possible for people to possess a written copy of the scriptures. That would have cost them quite a fortune. Instead, when people came together to worship, the Bible was read out loud. We see some instances in scripture where it was read for hours at a time. So, it was important that people be good hearers of the word.
There is a great truth of scripture related to us here. We learn that faith is based on the word of God; upon hearing that word. Salvation comes to us when we lay hold on the word of God and simply believe it. A lot of other blessings can come to us the same way, by just believing what God has said and acting upon it.
Paul continues: “But I ask: Did they not hear? Of course they did: “Their voice has gone out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world” (10:18). Here Paul is probably referring to Psalm 19:4. Earlier we discussed General Revelation and how the knowledge of the true God has been seen in creation throughout all times and in all places. Obviously the Special Revelation of the gospel has not been heard literally in all the world even to this day. Bruce speaks of this scripture as a case of “representative universalism” (cf. Col. 1:23). His idea is that wherever there was a Jewish community the gospel in a sense had been preached there. 17
Well, of course, in spite of a universal preaching there is not in any sense a universal surrender to the gospel. If God is so interested in showing forth his General Revelation in earth and heavens he must be even more anxious for the Special Revelation of his saving grace to be universal too. In Mark 13:10 we see that the gospel must be preached to all nations before the Lord’s return.
“Again I ask: Did Israel not understand? First, Moses says, ‘I will make you envious by those who are not a nation; I will make you angry by a nation that has no understanding’” (10:19). This section of Romans is loaded with many Old Testament quotations. Here Paul is dealing with Deuteronomy 32:21. It is good for us to quote this passage and examine it closely: “They made me jealous by what is no god and angered me with their worthless idols. I will make them envious by those who are not a people; I will make them angry by a nation that has no understanding” (Deut. 32:21). In the Hebrew it reads that they have made God jealous by what is not a god (lo-el) and God will make them jealous by what is not a people (lo-am). 18 God is also saying that because they angered him with vain things he will anger them with vain people.
As Gentile people it seems that there are two ways we can affect Israel. We can either make Israel jealous or we can make Israel angry. Actually, the church has done a pretty thorough job of making Israel angry over the centuries. This was done through subtle and sometimes even outright persecution, often resulting in Jewish deaths. The Jews are very angry that Christians were indirectly responsible for the loss of six million of their people in the Holocaust. Still today Christians go to Israel and end up offending the Jewish people by their haughtiness or by their ignorance. But there are other Christians today who make Israel jealous with a good jealousy and envy. These Gentile Christians have often laid down their lives for Israel and have loved and served Israel with a true and gentle love. Often their contributions bring tears of thanksgiving to Jewish eyes.
An author friend of ours, Marilynn Ahlin, relates an instance of making the Jewish people jealous. Some years ago in Israel there was an evangelical Christian performance called Ha Brit or The Covenant. This was a large stage production with about seventy performers and musicians including our friend. Marilynn tells us how this performance was presented in Hebrew on eighteen occasions throughout the land of Israel. She tells of Israeli audiences that were actually brought to tears and how on one occasion some 3000 Israeli soldiers whooped and threw their hats into the air in their wild approval. She told us of a Colonel in the Israel Defense Force who was the manager of the kibbutz where they were staying. After the performance he said to her: “You know Marilynn, you people, you Christians, are making me very jealous.” Marilynn asked what he meant by his statement. He replied “Well, you are doing such a wonderful thing for Israel, creating this beautiful story of our whole history, but why haven’t we Jews done that. You Christians are doing what we should have done, and it’s beautiful.”
Well, Paul goes on to quote Isaiah 65:1, saying: “And Isaiah boldly says, ‘I was found by those who did not seek me; I revealed myself to those who did not ask for me’” (10:20). Once again the apostle points out that the Gentiles were not seeking God and yet he revealed himself to them. He is talking here about us Gentile Christians. Paul is still focusing on the great grace of God who has made himself known to unworthy people the world over.
But what does God say concerning Israel his beloved and chosen? “But concerning Israel he says, ‘All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and obstinate people’” (10:21). God is pictured as very patient, reaching out his hands all day long.
Wuest remarks here: “The word ‘disobedience’ is apeitheō… ‘not to allow one’s self to be persuaded.’ It speaks of Israel as…a people stiff-necked…‘Gainsaying’ [obstinate] is antilegō…‘to oppose one’s self to one, decline to obey him, declare one’s self against him, refuse to have anything to do with him.’”19 Unfortunately, this condition continues on in much of Israel to this day.