Almost everything I have heard or read about Romans 9 in theology classes, thick books, sermons, videos, talks, etc., seem to miss the main point. They focus on things that Paul himself was not focusing on. Paul has a main point and a very important sub-point to make in Romans 9-11. While many have “touched” on this, they still seem to fall back into explaining these verses based on their theological point of view and not on the context and what Paul has in mind. Paul has an important point to make about God’s plans for the Jews, but also underlines all this with how He deals with Gentiles.
Paul, an apostle to the Gentiles
Most of us know the basic outline of Romans. After greetings, Paul shares his purpose, his life calling, which is key to understanding the book: “14I am obligated both to Greeks and non-Greeks, both to the wise and the foolish. 15That is why I am so eager to preach the gospel also to you who are at Rome. 16I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. 17For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”
My message is for everyone. I am very concerned that my own people, the Jews, hear this Gospel , I hurt that so many reject it, but my main calling is for the Gentiles. Galatians 2:9: “James, Peter and John, those reputed to be pillars, gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship when they recognized the grace given to me. They agreed that we should go to the Gentiles, and they to the Jews.” Acts 9:15-16: “15But the Lord said to Ananias, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel. 16I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.” Acts 22:21: “Then the Lord said to me, ‘Go; I will send you far away to the Gentiles.’ ” Acts 26:17-18: “17I will rescue you from your own people and from the Gentiles. I am sending you to them 18to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’ Gal. 1:15-16: “15But when God, who set me apart from birth and called me by his grace, was pleased 16to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not consult any man.” There are many other similar verses, but suffice to say that God called Paul to preach to the Gentiles.
Jewish people are God’s chosen people, Gentiles are dogs
But as we know, the Jews had no dealing with Gentiles. John 4:9: The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.). But Jesus broke all those barriers, be it toward the “half-breed” Samaritans or the rest of the Gentiles, including the Good Samaritan, and the man with leprosy. And His final command to His disciples was: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8) To everyone!
Acts 10 and 11 share more about God working in the hearts of the new Jewish Jesus believers to let them know that He was calling Gentiles to salvation as well. God has to give a very dramatic vision to Peter to prepare him to accept the invitation to go to Cornelius’ house. Entering that house and eating with them was a big time violation of Jewish laws of the time. But he went, preached, and “while Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. 45The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. 46For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God. Then Peter said, 47“Can anyone keep these people from being baptized with water? They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” 48So he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked Peter to stay with them for a few days. (10:44-48). The Jewish folks with Peter could not believe God gave His Spirit to Gentiles!
Then in the following chapter Jewish Jesus followers were not happy with Peter for going to a Gentile’s house and eating, and Peter recounts the experience: “As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit came on them as he had come on us at the beginning. 16Then I remembered what the Lord had said: ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17So if God gave them the same gift as he gave us, who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could oppose God?” 18When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, “So then, God has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life.” (11:15-18).
He then repeats practically the same thing during a big conference in Jerusalem, in Acts 15, about what to do with all these Gentiles who are believing in Jesus. “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. 8God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. 9He made no distinction between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. 10Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear? 11No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.” 12The whole assembly became silent as they listened to Barnabas and Paul telling about the miraculous signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them.”(15:7b-12)
In Acts 21: 21 and following, Paul went to Jerusalem and met with the church leaders in Jerusalem. They thanked God for his ministry, but were concerned because many Jewish brethren had believed in Jesus and were still very zealous for the law, and had heard that Paul was teaching people that they did not need to follow the law of Moses, nor need to circumcise their children or follow other Jewish customs. They suggested Paul go to the temple and be part of a ceremony to show that he was living in obedience to the law. But this led to people trying to kill him because of his known relationships with Gentiles. The Romans ended up giving him permission to talk to the crowd to try and calm them down. He shared his testimony and it was going pretty well until he said, “Then the Lord said to me, ‘Go; I will send you far away to the Gentiles.” (22:21) How did the Jewish crowd react to this idea that God wants the Gentiles to hear His word? “The crowd listened to Paul until he said this. Then they raised their voices and shouted, “Rid the earth of him! Heʼs not fit to live!” As they were shouting and throwing off their cloaks and flinging dust into the air…..” (22:22-23)
Romans tells us God’s grace and salvation are for everyone, we all desperately need it
Back to Romans, as mentioned, Paul begins by talking about what he talks about in almost all his books. God/Jesus called me to preach to the Gentiles, and lots of them are believing through the preaching of the Gospel, through the power of God. He then begins at 1:18 to talk about how far from God and sinful the Gentiles are, and you can almost hear the Jewish people, Jesus believers or not, saying Amen! Then from 2:1-3:8 he shares how sinful his people, the Israelites are, and probably not getting as many Amens! from them for saying that. He then summarizes by saying no one is good, no, not one!
But there is hope! 3:21-24: “21But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. 22This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, 23for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” All can be freely justified by grace through Jesus, Jews and Gentiles. So Paul continues the book talking about what Jesus has done for us all, that salvation is a gift from God, and focuses on the Holy Spirit renewing us and God’s unconditional love for all, Jews and Gentiles. Then we come to chapter 9.
Chapter 9: Jews are rejecting the Gospel, God is showing grace to the Gentiles
Here Paul begins by sharing his deep longing that His Jewish people accept this Gospel, this free gift of grace and salvation through Jesus that he has been talking about the whole book, and also shares his heartbreak that so many are currently rejecting it. Yes, I am called to the Gentiles, but much of my opposition comes from the Jews, even so-called Jewish Jesus believers. It pains him to see his people so opposed to the Gospel, but he mostly understands since he used to be the same way. They need God’s Spirit to remove the veil, to break down the barriers of unbelief, to soften their hard hearts. He says he would even give his life, if by doing that more of his people might be saved. He has hope because God gave them His promises and God always keeps His promises.
In verse 8 Paul begins making the bridge between the salvation God offers to the Jews and also to non-Jews, saying: “In other words, it is not the natural children who are Godʼs children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abrahamʼs offspring.” Jewish people who have the faith of Abraham, which he talked about in chapter four and other books, will be saved. People who are not necessarily circumcised physically but in the heart, a mark showing they are God’s people, a new creation. This is the main point of all of Paul’s preaching here and elsewhere. Gentiles can also be saved, grafted in, become Abraham’s children, because it is all about Jesus!
From this point on, Paul begins using some examples, like Jacob and Esau, and even Pharaoh to show that God can make salvation available to anyone He wants. Some people will have soft hearts, others hard hearts. A lot of doctrines have come from the following verses, but let me state before I go further what I think the point is. God can and will do as He wants. He can offer salvation to one and not to another. God is perfectly just to make the offer of grace and salvation available to the Gentiles. I am a God of love. Yes, I want my chosen people to come to Me, but I also want the Gentiles to come to Me. And if by lavishing grace on them, that helps the Jews to understand My grace, so much the better!
I (God) can have compassion and offer salvation to the Gentiles, I can love them just as much as I have loved you Jewish people
Vs. 15 is another verse which is taken out of this context: “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” Sounds like election and predestination, right? No one has any choice. It might sound like that if you filter it through some theological persuasion, but if you read it in context, it means,
I (God) can have compassion and offer salvation to the Gentiles, I can love them just as much as I have loved you Jewish people. I can have mercy on them, give them the Holy Spirit, use them for My glory, just as I have Peter, John, Paul and the other Jewish people.
It is hard for us to understand how this “reckless” offer by God of salvation to the Gentiles, of putting them on equal footing with the Jews, would fly in the face of the Jews of that time. I have prefaced what I am saying here with verses in the Bible of how radical this idea of Gentiles being saved, and having intimate fellowship between them and the Jewish people is. These dirty, evil pagans having fellowship with us, receiving the same promises as us, being saved by grace without even following all our Jewish laws? Impossible! But in Romans 9 Paul is stating that it is not only possible, but it has happened!
Verse 16: “It does not, therefore, depend on manʼs desire or effort, but on Godʼs mercy.” Again, God is a God of mercy and if He wants to save the Gentiles, who cares what you and I think about it. He will do it. This verse, at least in Paul’s mind, does not refer to God just choosing who will be saved and who will not. It means God freely offers salvation to the wretched Gentiles, not because they deserved it, quite the contrary, but because of Who He is.
Verse. 18 is similar to verse 16: “Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.” He hardened Pharaoh’s heart, many Jews and, yes, Gentiles too, who are very much opposed to the Gospel. Paul explains this somewhat in 2 Cor. 2:15-16: “15For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. 16To the one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life. And who is equal to such a task?” Verse 18 is not some decision that God made in ages past to save some and damn others according to His predestination. It is simply stating the fact that God is now offering His salvation, His mercy and grace to Gentiles in particular, and, as Paul has witnessed over and over, and may even still be somewhat amazed, by seeing Gentiles bowing at the feet of Jesus while his beloved Jewish people not only reject it, but even try to kill him for preaching it.
Verses 19-21 continues in the same vein. God is the potter and we are the clay. How dare we question His calling and acceptance of “pagan” Gentiles who come to the faith? It also deals with the difficult concept of, as I just mentioned, Paul seeing Gentiles accept and Jews reject the grace of God. What is going on?
“Objects of His wrath” become a light to the Jewish people
Verses 22-24 make it even more clear that what I am proposing as Paul’s main point here. “22What if God, choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath—prepared for destruction? 23What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory— 24even us, whom he also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles?”
Sounds complicated, but it really isn’t. Throughout the Old Testament, it seems that God loves the Jewish people and hates the Gentiles. Who can forget the OT passages about wiping out entire Gentile towns, even killing women and babies? But from here until well into chapter 11, Paul shows that God does not hate the Gentiles. He has always had a special place in His heart for them, and a plan to save many of them. The “objects of wrath” in verse 22 undoubtedly refers to the Gentiles, showing them great patience. In spite of not giving them any direct promises, of them not being his “chosen people”, despite them being pagans and doing almost everything contrary to His will, He is saving them!
Verse 23 gives us one of His main reasons for this. This is key and one of his main points. God not only loves everyone, but He is also using this boundless grace towards the Gentiles to teach the Jews (the objects of His mercy) a lesson, to show everyone, especially the Jews, how wide, deep and endless is the grace of God. He wants them to think: “Wow, if God can show grace and save these awful Gentiles, then He can surely save us through Jesus. What a wonderful, loving, great God He is!” This is the response from the Jews that God is seeking! God did this throughout the Old Testament, using Gentiles to teach the Jewish people lessons. In this case He wants to provoke their jealousy. Look at this amazing grace the Gentiles are receiving. You Jews need to accept it too!
Verse 24 says that this limitless grace is a sign for not only Jews, but for Gentiles as well. God offers salvation to both of them, and they should be convinced to accept it because of this incredible grace offered to them.
Look closely at the Old Testament: God loves Gentiles
Then verses 25-26: “25As he says in Hosea: “I will call them ‘my people’ who are not my people; and I will call her ‘my loved one’ who is not my loved one,” 26and, “It will happen that in the very place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ they will be called ‘sons of the living God.’ ” This and quite a number of other verses here and near the end chapter 10 explain that God has always had a plan for the Gentiles. They used to be “objects of wrath”, they were not My people, but the time will come when they will be My people. I will love them, they will be called My children, My people. For the Jews of Paul’s time, they would have called this heresy, except that God Himself said it!
After talking again about the remnant and again, how sad it is that so many Jews are rejecting the Gospel, Paul ends the chapter as he continues talking about God’s plan for the Gentiles: “30What then shall we say? That the Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained it, a righteousness that is by faith; 31but Israel, who pursued a law of righteousness, has not attained it. 32Why not? Because they pursued it not by faith but as if it were by works. They stumbled over the “stumbling stone.” He again states the theme of chapter 9. What he has been talking about this whole chapter. That the undeserving Gentiles have obtained a righteousness by faith, that is, many have received grace and been saved by putting their faith in Jesus. But the Jews, who keep thinking that they can be saved by trying to keep the law, who are rejecting this offer of limitless grace from God, are not being saved. They are having a hard time, stumbling over the fact that Jesus saves, not some robotic allegiance to their own laws, many of which were now more their own bad interpretation of the actual Mosaic law.
To further boost his case and to better understand what Paul is trying to say, we must also look at chapters 10 and 11, for the same theme is found in them. He begins again by saying his beloved Jewish people keep rejecting this grace he has talked about in all the previous chapters, and keep trying to be right before God by keeping the law. In doing so they are thumbing their noses at His free gift of grace through Jesus. Romans 8:33b-34: “It is God who justifies. 34Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus, who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.” As he puts it so beautifully in 10:8b-13: “that is, the word of faith we are proclaiming: 9That 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. 10For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved. 11As the Scripture says, “Anyone who trusts in him will never be put to shame.” 12For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, 13for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
Everyone. You Jews need Him, not the law, to be right with God. So do the Gentiles. Whoever trusts in Him will not be put to shame.
His lavish grace toward Gentiles should lead many Jews to accept His grace
He continues insisting that all people need to hear this message of grace. Both Jews and Gentiles. Someone has to go and tell them all! As we saw in Galatians 2: 9, Paul and his group would focus on the Gentiles, and Peter, John and their group on the Jews. Paul, who is so concerned with the Gentiles, and doing what God wants, keeps talking about the Gentiles here in Romans. He wants all to know, especially the Jews, the heart of God. He ends chapter ten with verses from the OT about Jewish people rejecting God’s message and “20I was found by those who did not seek me; I revealed myself to those who did not ask for me”, referring to the Gentiles.
In the first ten verses of chapter 11 again Paul laments that so many Jews, not only now, but in the past, have rejected this offer from God of love and grace. So many miss the point and are still trying to save themselves through the law. Then beginning in verse 11, he talks about the grafting. Again, the same point he has been making and focusing on since 9:1. God is grafting Gentiles in with the Jews, He is making a bunch of them His people. He offers His grace and salvation to the whole world, to everyone, to whoever. While it pains Paul when Gentiles reject the Gospel, it pains him much more when his Jewish people do.
He continues to make the main argument that while God is saving Gentiles because that is Who He is, He is also saving these Gentiles in a very public way to try and convince the Jewish people that He is a God of grace, that He saves people through Jesus, and that the Jewish people need to stop trusting in their own obedience to the law to save them, but accept His grace.
He ends chapter 11 as he started. God gave the Jewish people His promises, and He always keeps His promises. Therefore He will continue to work in their lives, move in ways they do not understand, and they will one day be saved. This is Paul’s great hope. That they will accept God’s grace the same way as so many Gentiles have. For if God can show such marvelous grace and save Gentiles, He can surely save the Jewish people, the people of His promise. But in the meantime, Jewish brethren, know that God has given His grace to the Gentiles, as He pleased, as He determined, and want to do the same thing to you! He is using the grace given to Gentiles to try and convince you to accept it to. This undeserving grace is the message of not only Romans 9, nor even just 9-11, but basically everything that Paul teaches.
I hope this attempt to put Romans 9 in context helps you to better understand it, and when you see these hard verses, like God loving and having mercy on whom He wants, lavishing grace on those you would least expect it, that you will remember that it ultimately refers to Him being perfectly just to offer salvation to the Gentiles, to show them compassion, just as He has shown grace to the Jews since the time of Abraham. And in His divine way, make the Jewish people jealous for the same amazing grace!
I will end with yet another passage that gives us a lot of insight into Paul’s heart, for both his own people and the Gentiles. It covers most of the issues in Romans 9-11. In Acts 28 many Jewish people met together with Paul in Rome to find more about him and his message. He shares the Gospel with them. Some believe but many do not. He hurts for those who do not, that they are turning their backs on God’s plan for salvation, but says that, while most of his own people reject Jesus, many Gentiles are hearing and believing. As you read this passage, please think of it in the context of what he is saying in Romans 9-11. They arranged to meet Paul on a certain day, and came in even larger numbers to the place where he was staying. From morning till evening he explained and declared to them the kingdom of God and tried to convince them about Jesus from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets. Some were convinced by what he said, but others would not believe. They disagreed among themselves and began to leave after Paul had made this final statement: “The Holy Spirit spoke the truth to your forefathers when he said through Isaiah the prophet: “ ‘Go to this people and say, “You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.” For this peopleʼs heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.’ “Therefore I want you to know that Godʼs salvation has been sent to the Gentiles, and they will listen!” (Acts 28:23-28)