(from a transcript of a sermon preached on 12/7/03 at Sovereign Redeemer Assembly)
Please turn in your Bibles to Romans chapter 9. Let's read the entire chapter:
Romans 9: (1) I tell [the] truth in Christ, I do not lie, my conscience bearing witness with me in [the] Holy Spirit, (2) that my grief is great, and a never ceasing pain [is] in my heart, (3) for I myself was wishing to be a curse from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to flesh, (4) who are Israelites, whose [are] the adoption and the glory, and the covenants, and the Lawgiving, and the service, and the promises; (5) whose [are] the fathers, and from whom [is] the Christ according to flesh, He being God over all, blessed forever. Amen. (6) Not, however, that God's Word has failed. For not all those of Israel [are] Israel, (7) nor because they are Abraham's seed [are] all children, but "In Isaac a Seed shall be called to you." (8) That is: Not the children of flesh [are] children of God, but the children of the promise [are] counted for a seed. (9) For the Word of promise [is] this, "According to this time I will come, and a son will be to Sarah." (10) And not only so, but also Rebekah conceiving of one, our father Isaac, (11) for [the children] not yet being born, nor having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works, but of the [One] calling, (12) it was said to her, "The greater shall serve the lesser;" (13) even as it has been written, "I loved Jacob, and I hated Esau." (14) What then shall we say? [Is there] not unrighteousness with God? Let it not be! (15) For He said to Moses, "I will have mercy on whomever I will have mercy, and I will pity whomever I will pity." (16) So, then, [it is] not of the [one] willing, nor of the [one] running, but of the [One] showing mercy, of God. (17) For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, "For this very thing I raised you up, so that I might display My power in you, and so that My name might be publicized in all the earth." (18) So, then, to whom He desires, He shows mercy. And to whom He desires, He hardens. (19) You will then say to me, Why does He yet find fault? For who has resisted His will? (20) Yes, rather, O man, who are you answering against God? Shall the thing formed say to the [One] forming [it], Why did You make me like this? (21) Or does not the potter have authority over the clay, out of the one lump to make one vessel to honor, and one to dishonor? (22) But if God, desiring to demonstrate His wrath, and to make His power known, endured in much long-suffering vessels of wrath having been fitted out for destruction, (23) and that He make known the riches of His glory on vessels of mercy which He before prepared for glory, (24) whom He also called, not only us, of Jews, but also out of nations. (25) As also He says in Hosea, I will call those Not My people, My people! And those not beloved, Beloved! (26) "And it shall be, in the place where it was said to them, You are not My people, there they will be called, "Sons of the Living God." (27) But Isaiah cries on behalf of Israel, "If the number of the sons of Israel be as the sand of the sea, the remnant will be saved." (28) For [He is] bringing [the] matter to an end, and having been cut short "in righteousness," "because [the] Lord" "will do a thing cut short" "on the earth." (29) And as Isaiah has said before, "Except [the] Lord of hosts left a seed to us, we would have become as Sodom, and we would have become as Gomorrah." (30) What then shall we say? That [the] nations not following after righteousness have taken on righteousness, but a righteousness of faith; (31) but Israel following after a Law of righteousness did not arrive at a Law of righteousness? (32) Why? Because [it was] not of faith, but as of works of Law. For they stumbled at the Stone-of-stumbling, (33) as it has been written, "Behold, I place in" "Zion a Stone-of-stumbling," "and a Rock-of-offense," "and everyone believing on Him will not be shamed."
Let's now read the first paragraph of the chapter again, which is in verses 1 through 5:
Romans 9: (1) I tell [the] truth in Christ, I do not lie, my conscience bearing witness with me in [the] Holy Spirit, (2) that my grief is great, and a never ceasing pain [is] in my heart, (3) for I myself was wishing to be a curse from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to flesh, (4) who are Israelites, whose [are] the adoption and the glory, and the covenants, and the Lawgiving, and the service, and the promises; (5) whose [are] the fathers, and from whom [is] the Christ according to flesh, He being God over all, blessed forever. Amen.
After Paul reached the climax of the first half of his letter to the Romans, summing up the believer's sure and certain salvation in Christ Jesus, he switches gears, if you will, to the lost state of the Jews. To some, on the surface, there seems to be a big disconnect between what Paul just said prior to Romans 9 and what he begins Romans 9 with. Why this sudden turn to the lost state of the Jews? Well, for one thing, this paragraph is a preface of what is to come, which is a discourse on God's election of the true Israel of God. But he is also answering an objection that might arise after he has talked about God's promise of salvation to all in Christ. And that objection is: What about the Jews? Didn't God promise salvation to the Jews? Now Paul addressed this back at the end of chapter 2 in which he said that the true Jew is a SPIRITUAL Jew, where circumcision is of the heart, not the letter, and the praise is not from men, but from God. He goes on in chapter 3 to talk about the advantages of the Jews but then to also say that both Jews and Gentiles do not have a righteousness that answers the demands of God's law and justice, and the only way anyone is saved, whether Jew or Gentile, is by the atoning blood and imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ, by grace through faith in Christ. And there is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Jesus Christ. So Paul address the Jewish question again in the first part of chapter 9. As we go through chapter 9, I think you'll see how it all fits in together.
But let's now just focus on Paul's attitude toward the Jews. We can see in verse 3 who exactly he's talking about. He's talking about his "brothers," his "kinsmen according to flesh." The apostle Paul was, by nationality, a Jew. He was from the nation of Israel. So when he talks about his "brothers" and "kinsmen" in this context, he is talking about those who are national Israelites. He makes sure to specify that these are his "brothers" and "kinsmen" according to FLESH, which means that these are his NATURAL kinsmen, his BLOOD kinsmen, NOT his SPIRITUAL brothers or kinsmen. He is talking about a purely natural, flesh-and-blood relationship. He and his brothers according to the flesh were NATURAL children of Abraham. Now we know that not only was Paul a national Israelite, He was raised in the Jewish religion. Nation and religion were connected, as we see clearly in the Old Testament. In fact, it was more than just a CONNECTION; it was a UNITY in the Old Testament. If you were part of the Jewish NATION, you were part of the Jewish RELIGION. Now I'm not saying that everyone who was part of the Jewish RELIGION was a believer. But those in that NATION were PARTAKERS of the Jewish religion, which was the TRUE religion at that time. However, when Jesus Christ came, there were national, natural Jews who believed in Him, and there were national, natural Jews who did NOT believe in Him. When Christ came and completed His work, there was no longer a natural NATION that was the keeper of the true religion. I plan to reiterate this when we go over verses 6 and 7. But what I want to emphasize now is that, even though NATIONALITY and RELIGION were CONNECTED with Paul in his upbringing and into part of his adult life, Paul is ONLY talking about the NATURAL connection when he calls the Israelites his brothers and kinsmen. If he were talking about the RELIGIOUS connection, he would have been saying that he was of the SAME RELIGION as his brothers and kinsmen, which is obviously not the case. And he makes sure to make that distinction when he says "according to flesh." And the way this distinction can be made is because Christ came and SEPARATED nationality and religion and BROUGHT IN the Gentiles into the true religion. This is one of the things that made Jesus and the early Christians so hated by the Jews. And Paul, when he was Saul of Tarsus, was one of those Jews who hated Christians. And when God saved Saul, and Saul became Paul, he became one of the hated.
I just want to make a brief comment on some of those who connect this passage to the issue of speaking peace. People sometimes accuse us of judging everyone lost who calls an unregenerate person a "brother," and they use Paul to say that we can call unregenerate people "brothers." First of all, we've never judged anyone lost who merely calls an unregenerate person his "brother." That would be ridiculous. I have two natural brothers whom I still call "brothers," and that doesn't mean I'm speaking peace to them. Calling someone a "brother" does not necessarily mean one is saying that the "brother" is saved. However, if you call someone a "brother IN CHRIST" who confesses a false gospel, then you are speaking peace to that person. You are saying that that person is saved. You are saying that you have a SPIRITUAL kinship with him, that you have the same spiritual FATHER. Paul MAKES SURE that EVERYONE knows that he is NOT talking about spiritual kinship or spiritual brotherhood. It's really something that jumps out at you. He could have just said "my brothers," but he WENT OUT OF HIS WAY to say that this relationship was NOT a spiritual one but a FLESHLY, NATURAL one. THAT'S how concerned Paul was to MAKE SURE his readers knew he was not speaking peace to them or calling them brothers in Christ. It's something we should really take note of.
And we need to say one more thing regarding the people about whom Paul is talking here. I know this is obvious, but it still needs to be stated. There were some NATIONAL, NATURAL Israelites who were TRUE BELIEVERS. There were some of Jewish descent who were CHRISTIANS. Paul and the apostles are examples of this. So when Paul talks here of his brothers and kinsmen according to the flesh, even though he is talking about national, natural Jews, he is NOT talking about the national, natural Jews who have already been saved. So he is NOT talking about all national, natural Israelites without exception. He's only talking about the LOST ones, as is plain from what we will see. We also see this in Romans 10:1 where Paul says that his heart's pleasure and supplication to God is for Israel TO BE SAVED. If that is his desire and prayer, then obviously, they are NOT CURRENTLY SAVED. Are we clear on that?
Okay, having said that, now let's go into Paul's attitude toward his unsaved brothers, his unregenerate kinsmen according to flesh.
The first thing Paul does is to affirm his sincerity. Look at verse 1:
Romans 9: (1) I tell [the] truth in Christ, I do not lie, my conscience bearing witness with me in [the] Holy Spirit,
He says three things about his sincerity. The first two things he says are actually two different ways of saying the same thing - one positively, and one negatively. He states that he is telling the truth and that he is not lying. Now why would he say this? Isn't it obvious that he is telling the truth and not lying? Of course it is. But he emphasizes this because of what his enemies think of him. Just think of what Paul's enemies thought of him. Paul went from hating and persecuting the Christians to being one of them. There's no doubt that his enemies accused him of hating the Jews and wishing for their destruction and damnation and rejoicing at their demise. They thought he reveled in being mean. Isn't it that way today? We tell someone that he is lost, that he hates God, that his deeds are evil, and he automatically assumes that we hate him and take pleasure in calling him lost, that we love being mean, and even that we love condemning him to hell. We're told that when we say that some of the so-called "fathers of the faith" were actually unregenerate, it must mean that we're happy to judge them lost and to condemn them to hell. Well, for one thing, we have to tell people time and time again that we're not condemning anyone to hell, since we don't know who among the unregenerate are elect or reprobate, so we're not saying that any particular lost person is going to be in hell. But we ARE saying that they are lost and their deeds are evil and that they hate the true and living God. And this sounds mean and unloving to the unregenerate. It sounds like we rejoice at their lost state and don't want them to be saved. But this couldn't be further from the truth. We TELL THE TRUTH, we are NOT LYING, that we desire to see them saved. That's what Paul is saying here. He's saying that IN SPITE of the accusations of his enemies, what he says about his desire to see his lost brothers saved is TRUE and UNFEIGNED. This is NOT an oath, as some commentators think. This is just an emphatic affirmation in light of the accusations of his enemies. And we certainly know what that's all about, don't we?
There's one more thing about the first thing he says that is noteworthy. He says that he tells the truth IN CHRIST. This also is used by some to say that this is an oath. But what this means is that he is telling the truth as one who is in Christ. Those who are in Christ are truth-tellers. He is saying that as a Christian, I am telling the truth, I am not lying.
The third phrase is "my conscience bearing witness with me in the Holy Spirit." The believer's conscience is directed by the Holy Spirit and is a witness of the truth of what is being confessed. This is another testimony to his sincerity. If he were insincere, if he were lying, then his conscience would be a witness AGAINST him, not FOR him. But the Holy Spirit witnesses with his spirit that he is telling the truth.
Now let's get into what Paul actually says about the lost Jews in verses 2 and 3. As we go through these things, we need to think about OUR attitude toward the lost. Paul's attitude should be a model for our attitude.
He first says that his grief is great. The Greek word for "great" is MEG-as, from which we get the prefix "mega." It means "very large,""exceedingly great." The Greek word for "grief" is LOO-pay, which means, "heaviness." Paul is expressing a large heaviness over the lost state of his kinsmen. He next says that a never ceasing pain is in his heart. The Greek word for "never ceasing" is ah-dee-AL-ipe-tose, which means "continual," "uninterrupted," or "permanent." The Greek word for "pain" is oh-DOO-nay, which means "sorrow" or "sadness" or "anguish." Paul is expressing a continual sorrow in his heart over the lost state of his kinsmen. Taken together, he is expressing a deep heaviness and sadness of heart over the lost state of his kinsmen. This isn't just some superficial boo-hooing; this is a great SORROW and ANGUISH over lost souls. Think about it. Is this your attitude toward the unregenerate? Do you truly mourn for lost souls? Is your heart heavy over their lost condition? And we can apply this to our own brothers and relatives according to the flesh. Do you sorrow over your brothers and sisters, your mother and father, your sons and daughters, your grandparents? Do you desire to see them saved? Do you pray that God will open their eyes? My brothers and sisters in Christ, we need to have a heart for the lost. Yes, we are angered with a holy anger at their immorality and false religion; yes, we tell them that they are God-haters and they are wicked and evil; but we also need to MOURN over them. We need to be SADDENED by their wicked state. The lost Jews were people who hated Paul and the apostles and sought to kill and imprison them. But Paul and the apostles didn't have the same attitude toward them. They LOVED them and SORROWED over them. So, too, we need to love and sorrow over the lost, especially our kinsmen according to flesh.
Lastly, let's look at a very interesting thing Paul says in verse 3. He says he was wishing to be a curse from Christ. That's some strong language, isn't it? What does it mean? Well, as you probably already have guessed, there has been a lot of controversy about this passage and thus a lot of different interpretations. And I must admit, I've had a hard time with this phrase. Does it mean that Paul wished he could be damned so the lost Jews would be saved? It couldn't be. How could a believer wish to be apart from Christ for any reason? And some think that he wished to be a sort of atonement, whereby Paul's damnation atoned for the sins of the Jews. This couldn't be what Paul was wishing for. So what was Paul wishing for? Well, I've found an explanation that I think best explains Paul's meaning here, and it's from Haldane's commentary on Romans. I also found Gill's commentary to be good when talking about the fact that Paul cannot mean that he wished to be damned. So I'd like to read some excerpts from them. Now I want to preface this by saying that I am not endorsing or promoting either of these men, and I am not making a commentary on their spiritual state when I read from them. But I think these men have said some things that we could benefit from.
The first quote I'm going to read is from Gill, who says what it cannot mean, especially in light of what Paul just said at the end of the previous chapter. Here's Gill:
"Many have thought that his meaning is, that he had so great a value for them, that he could even wish himself, and be content to be eternally separated from Christ, everlastingly banished from his presence, never to enjoy communion more with him, or in other words, to be eternally damned, that they might be saved. But this is what could never be, and which he knew, was impossible to be done, and was contrary to that strong persuasion he had just expressed in the close of the foregoing chapter. Nor is it consistent with his love to Christ, to wish any thing of this kind; it would make him to love the Jews much better than Christ; since, according to this sense, he must wish to be parted from him, that they might be saved, and consequently must love them more than Christ: nor is it consistent with, but even contrary both to the principles of nature and grace; it is contrary to the principles of nature, for a man to desire his own damnation upon any consideration whatever; and it is contrary to the principle of grace, which always strongly inclines to be with Christ, and not separated from him; in a word, to be accursed from Christ in this sense, could be no proper means of the salvation of the Jews, and therefore it cannot be thought to be desirable, or wished for. Some things are said indeed for the qualifying of this sense of the words, as that the apostle said this inconsiderately, when he was scarcely himself, through an ecstasy of mind, and intemperate zeal, and an overflow of affection for his nation; but this is highly to reflect upon the apostle, and to represent him in a very unworthy manner, when it is certain he said this with the greatest deliberation and seriousness; he introduces it in the most solemn manner, with an appeal to Christ, the Holy Spirit, and his own conscience, and therefore it could never drop from him through incogitancy, and an overheated affection."
I'd like to add that if it were the case that Paul is here being intemperately zealous, then you'd have to conclude that the Holy Spirit inspired Paul to write something sinful, which could never be. It reminds me of the people who say that David and the other Psalm-writers expressed sinful thoughts in the Psalms. That means that the Holy Spirit inspired them to write something sinful, which could never be.
So now for the interpretation from Haldane:
"Many interpretations have been given of this passage. Calvin supposes that Paul, actually in 'a state of ecstasy,' wished himself condemned in the place of his countrymen. 'The additional sentence,' he says, 'proves the Apostle to be speaking not of temporal, but eternal death; and when he says from Christ, an allusion is made to the Greek word anathema, which means a separation from anything. Does not separation from Christ mean, being excluded from all hopes of salvation?' Such a thing is impossible, and would be highly improper. This would do more than fulfill the demands of the law, -- it would utterly go beyond the law, and would therefore be sinful; for all our affections ought to be regulated by the law of God. Some understand it of excommunication. But the Apostle could not be excommunicated by Christ, except for a cause which would exclude him from heaven, as well as from the church on earth. He could not be excommunicated without being guilty of some sin that manifested him to be an unbeliever. It is not possible that one speaking in the Holy Ghost could wish to be in such a state. Paul's affection for his countrymen is here indeed expressed in very strong terms, but the meaning often ascribed to it is not for a moment to be admitted. That any one should desire to be eternally separated from Christ, and consequently punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, is impossible. The law commands us to love our neighbor as ourselves, but not more than ourselves, which would be the case, if to promote his temporal or spiritual benefit we desired to be eternally miserable. It should also be recollected, that it is not only everlasting misery, but desperate and final enmity against God, that is comprised in Paul's wish as it is generally understood. It represents him as loving the creature more than the Creator. But who could ever imagine that the desire of being eternally wicked, and of indulging everlasting hatred to God, could proceed from love to Christ, and be a proper manner of expressing zeal for His glory? It would be strange indeed if Paul, who had just been affirming, in a tone so triumphant, the impossibility of the combined efforts of creation to separate him from the love of Christ, should, the moment after, solemnly desire that this separation should take place, for the sake of any creature, however beloved.
"To understand the meaning of this passage, there are three observations to which it is of importance to attend. In the first place, it is the past, and not the present tense, which is employed in the original. What is rendered 'I could wish,' should be read in the past tense, 'I was wishing, or did wish,' referring to the Apostle's state before his conversion. The second observation is, that the verb which in our version is translated 'wish,' would have been more correctly rendered in this place boast; 'for I myself boasted, or made it my boast, to be separated from Christ.' For this translation, which makes the Apostle's meaning far more explicit, there is the most unquestionable authority. The third observation is, that the first part of the 3rd verse should be read in a parenthesis, as follows: 'I have great heaviness and continual sorrow in my heart (for I myself made it my boast to be separated from Christ) for my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh.' By the usual interpretation, the Apostle is understood to say, 'I have great heaviness and continual sorrow in my heart,' and without stating for whom or for what, to add, 'I could wish that myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren.' But it appears evident that these words, for my brethren, form the conclusion of the above expression, I have great heaviness and continual sorrow in my heart. Paul had himself formerly made it his boast to be separated from Christ, rejecting Him as the Messiah; and to prove how much he sympathized with the situation of his countrymen, in the bosom of his lamentation over their fallen state, he appeals to his former experience, when, before his conversion, he had been in the same unbelief, and personally knew their deplorable condition. He also intimates his sorrow in such a manner as to show that he is far from glorying over them, having been himself as deeply guilty as they were; while, according to the doctrine he was inculcating, it was in no respect to be ascribed to his own merits that he was happily delivered from that awful condemnation in which, with grief, he beheld them now standing."
This is, I believe, the most plausible explanation of what Paul is saying here.
Now let's consider all three verses as a unit. Is there any more love, more sorrow over the lost, more desire to see them saved, than what we see here? And what a change was wrought in the former Saul of Tarsus! In Acts 9:1, we see Saul "breathing threats and murder toward the disciples of the Lord." In Acts 22:4, Paul said that when he was the unregenerate Saul, he persecuted Christians "as far as death, binding and delivering up both men and women to prisons." In Acts 26:10-11, he said, "I also shut up many saints in prisons, receiving authority from the chief priests; and they being put to death, I cast a vote. And often punishing them through all the synagogues, I compelled them to blaspheme. And being exceedingly furious against them, I even persecuted as far as the outside cities." In Philippians 3:6, Paul said that according to zeal, he persecuted the Assembly. Then, after God miraculously regenerated and converted him, he changed from being a persecutor of Christians to being one of the Christians that was being persecuted. But instead of breathing out threats and murder toward the unregenerate Jews, he sorrowed over their lost condition and preached the gospel to them. Instead of being unloving and mean and vindictive, he had a great heaviness of heart for them, a great anguish for them, a great desire to see them saved. And this is the attitude Christians should have toward the God-haters. We are to mourn for lost souls. We are to be saddened by their wicked state. Our hearts are to be heavy over their lost condition. We are to desire to see them saved. We are to pray that God will open their eyes. We need to be SADDENED by their wicked state. And we need to love them enough to do what Paul did, which is to tell them the truth which is that they are lost, that they hate the true and living God, that even their best deeds of morality and religion are wicked and evil, and that the only hope of salvation is in the work of Jesus Christ alone. They will hate us and persecute us for it, but we are to love them and desire their salvation in return. We are to proclaim the gospel to them - the good news of God's promise to save His people conditioned on the atoning blood and imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ alone. And we know that when we do this, God's will is accomplished in both the salvation of His elect and the hardening of the reprobate. Let us say with Paul, that our grief is great, and a never ceasing pain is in our heart for our brothers, our kinsmen according to flesh, and that truly our heart's pleasure and desire to God on behalf of them is that they be saved. Amen.