THE HARDEST CHAPTER IN THE BIBLE
By Pastor Glenn Pease
At the Southern tip of England there is a well-known spot called Land's End. Fredrick Harris in his book Spires Of The Spirit says there is a house there on the edge of the cliff with a sign, which reads, "The last house and the first house in England." It is both at the same time. It is a paradox that is easily explained. If you are facing the sea this was the last house you would see before plunging down the rocky cliff being slapped by the water. However, if you were coming from the sea gazing up at the green and pleasant land, this was the first house to be seen. Depending on the perspective from which you looked at it, it was either the first or the last house in England. Most all paradoxes are resolved by recognizing the importance of perspective.
If you insist on looking from a point of view different from that of the author, you will be puzzled by inconsistencies and wonder confused through the clouds of obscurity and mystery. Truth can only be conveyed from one mind to another when both are looking from the same perspective. If you are standing on land looking out to sea past this last house in England you will feel obligated to call the man a liar and one who is perverting the truth who is saying from his ship at sea that he is looking at the first house in England. On this particular issue most people could quickly adjust and recognize the validity of another point of view, but not all issues are so simple as looking at a house from two different perspectives. Some issues get quite complicated, and you have to be aware that there is a Christian perspective, a Jewish perspective and a pagan perspective. On top of this, there may be several different perspectives within each of these major categories. The point is, you never really understand what a person is trying to communicate until you can see the matter from his particular perspective.
Nowhere is this so true as when we come to this chapter in Paul's letter to the Romans. In the series of volumes called Proclaiming The New Testament this 9th chapter of Romans is titled "The Hardest Chapter In The Bible." Alexander Maclaren, the great Baptist preacher of England, in his Expositions Of The Holy Scripture has 98 pages expounding Romans 8, but not a single page when he comes to chapter 9. Finding sermons on this chapter is like trying to find children who eat no candy on Halloween. They are rare. It is filled with too many puzzles and mysteries. It is one of those sections of Scripture that people hope will go away if they ignore it, but years of good solid neglect has not eliminated a word. Not even one of those harsh words that stun you into silence, or fill you with anger at the apparent tyranny of God because he treats men like lumps of worthless clay.
Nowhere in the Bible is there such a series of powerful and emotion packed words. This chapter is a vial of verbal violence. Without a proper perspective from which to view it you might conclude it is a language bomb planted in God's Word by a satanic saboteur designed to blow the consistency and unity of the Bible to bits. From the very start it is a mystery as Paul uses the strangest language to declare that he is not lying. It is as if everything he is going to say is being challenged as lies. Then in verse 2 the Apostle who urges us to rejoice always, and who has just finished writing one of the most optimist chapters in the Bible, says he is in great sorrow and unceasing anguish of heart, and could even wish himself cut off from Christ and be a victim of damnation if it would save his people the Jews. How can he love Christ if he is willing to go to hell and be cut off from Christ for the sake of his people? Is this not idolatry and the loving of men more than God? What is Paul trying to do here? Why does he picture God's sovereignty in such a way that it appears to deny man's free will?
Is Paul a fatalist?
It is well worth our time to try and unravel the mysteries of this chapter, for the problem Paul is wrestling with here is still a difficult but relevant problem today. The problem is the Jewish question, or the relationship of the Jews to the church and God's plan. Paul is caught up in the midst of this problem in a way that is unique. Paul is the great Apostle to the Gentiles, yet he is a Jew, and one with a great love for his people. This explains the deep emotion as he deals with the issue of their rejection of the Gospel. We must see this whole issue from Paul's perspective if we are to understand his solution to the difficult questions involved.
Paul has just finished saying in chapter 8 that nothing can separate us from the love of God, but the question immediately arises, how do you explain then that God's elect people have been cut off? How can you explain that those who were best prepared for the coming of the Messiah have rejected Him? How can it be that those who were the elect; who had all the promises of God; all the prophets; all the leading of God through history, have not welcomed their Messiah? These are serious questions, and the whole Gospel and assurance of the Christian faith is at stake in the answers to them. The Jews argued that the fact the majority of God's elect people did not accept Jesus as the Messiah proves that He could not have been the Messiah. On the other hand, if He was the Messiah, the Christians had to explain how it could be that God's promises to Israel could fail. For if God rejected His elect people once, what assurance is there that He will not do so again.
Paul has to answer these questions and defend the church as the New Israel. He has to justify God's dealing with Israel in cutting them off and grafting in the Gentiles. The Jews, of course, are calling Paul a traitor to his people and a heretic. It is a bitter controversy, but Paul does not hate his opponents. He deeply loves them. He wants to make this clear so that no one thinks that some of the harsh things he has to say is due to a hateful attitude toward the Jews. This chapter may sound anti-Semitic, but if seen from Paul's perspective it is just the opposite.
Just one example illustrates just how hot the issue was, and how controversial Paul was. Acts 21 tells of what happened when Paul came back to Jerusalem, and how even the Christians were worried. Many Jews who became Christians heard that Paul was telling Jews among the Gentiles to forsake Moses and to stop circumcision and observing other customs. The leaders asked Paul to go through a 7 day purification to prove that he was still an observer of the law. This was to satisfy the people. In verse 27 and following this is what happened: "When the 7 days were almost completed, the Jews from Asia who has seen him in the temple, stirred up all the crowd, and laid hands on him, crying out, 'Men of Israel, help! This is the man who is teaching men everywhere against the people and the law and this place; more over he also brought Greeks into the temple and he has defiled this holy place.' ......Then all the city was aroused, and the people ran together, they seized Paul and dragged him out of the temple, and at once the gates were shut. And as they were trying to kill him, word came to the tribune of the cohort that all Jerusalem was in confusion."
If you want to read on you will see a picture of mob violence and police conflict. Paul was rescued, but he also loved that mob in spite of their hatred for him. You can see why Paul has to take a hard line in his argument here in Romans. He is facing opponents whose stubborn resistance is unmatched. Paul is not picturing God as a tyrant in this chapter, but rather, he is trying to make it clear that man cannot tyrannize God. Man cannot bend and manipulate Him. They cannot shut Him up in their system of theology. God is absolutely free in His sovereignty, and He is not bound to Israel as the Jews claim. They said that they alone were the elect people of God, and if they did not accept Jesus as Messiah, then He was not the Messiah, and the church is not Israel, but a group of heretics. They said that God is bound to the Jews through eternal covenants, and nothing can separate them from being the people of God. As we move through Paul's argument to this charge we will see more clearly why he has to state matters the way he does.
To help us see the whole issue from Paul's perspective we want to devote the rest of the introductory sermon to a brief review of the history of Jewish and Christian conflict. Contemporary Jews have the same stand as the Jews who oppose Paul. Dr. Kaufmann Kohler writes, "The doctrine that God chose Israel as His people is the central point of Jewish theology and the key to an understanding of the nature of Judaism." Jews recognized that their God is the God of all men, but they still assert that He is uniquely related to Israel alone. S. Schechter in "Some Aspects Of Rabbinc Theology," states, "He is their God, their Father, their strength, their shepherd, their hope, their salvation, their safety, their heart; they are His people, His children, His first-born son, His treasure, dedicated to His name, which is sacrilege to profane. In a word, there is not a single endearing epithet in the language, such as brother, sister, bride, mother, lamb, or eye, which is not, according to the Rabbis, applied by the Scriptures to express this intimate relation between God and His people."
This unique relationship of God and Israel has been challenged by pagans many times. In 300 B. C. a Greek living in Egypt, whose name was Hecataeus, said that the Jews were descendants of Egyptians outcasts. Josephus, the Jewish historian of Paul's day, said that Manetho and Egyptian priests also expounded the theory, and they claimed that the Exodus was an expulsion of a rebellious group of lepers and criminals. Cicero in 59 B. C. said that the fall of Jerusalem to the Romans proved that the Jews were rejected by the immortal gods. Roman Satirists scorned the Jewish claim to be God's chosen people. The pagans rejected Israel's election as matter of nationalistic presumption. The Christians, however, had a completely different approach. They did not deny that Israel was elect, but said, as Paul does in Romans 9, that not all Israel is Israel. The church said that many Jews are not any longer God's elect, for they failed to fulfill the purpose of their election. The result is that God has cut them off and made the church the new and true Israel.
From the Jewish point of view Baron writes of the early Christian Jews: "They (the Jews) had to deal with an internal enemy who, even after the separation of appropriated the entire realm of Jewish history as it s own and increasing denied it to the Jewish people itself." The Christians took the Jews Bible and the great heroes of Israel as their own. They reinterpreted the history of Israel in the light of Christ, and they left the Jews on a sidetrack as they went rushing down the main track as the New Israel.
The Epistle of Barnabas was written about 130 A. D., and 5 chapters in it developed the theme that Christians and not Jews are the heirs of the covenant, and the Christians are the people to whom the patriarchs and prophets directed their promises. Also from the second century in the Dialogue of Justin Martyr with Trypho, about one third of which deals with the question of Israel's election. Justin argues, "Those who have followed and will follow Christ are the True Israel, the children of the promise, the true successors of those Jews who found justification in times past." Trypho is shocked at Christians claiming to be Israel, but Justin concludes, "Christ is the Israel and the Jacob, even so we, who have been quarried out from the bowels of Christ, are the true Israelite race."
How did the Jews take this? Not by lying down, for this was blasphemy, and well on into the 5th century there was a bitter struggle for religious supremacy between Judaism and Christianity. Christianity finally became dominate, but the argument has never ceased. Hans Joachim Schoeps wrote a book called The Jewish-Christian Argument. It was suppressed in Germany in 1937 as dangerous. His father died in a concentration camp in 1942, and in 1944 his mother was gassed at Auschuwitz with several million other Jews. He has studied Christianity and knows it well, but has said no to Christ and has written his book to justify that no. He is still convinced the Jews only are the true Israel of God. For anyone involved in the relationship of Jews and Christians Paul's arguments here are vital, and the most relevant material we have in the Bible.
You might say, so what? What do we care about Jews and God's plan for them? As Christians we should be concerned about all of God's Word, and not just the easy comforting parts but the hard and difficult parts, which demand discipline of thought. For those who prefer to wade in the shallow water of clear and simple revelation this study will be hard, but for those who are eager to launch out into the deep and wrestle with the waves of obscure and profound revelation, this study will be an adventure. Even this hardest chapter in the Bible is packed with potential blessings for those who are willing to love God with all their minds. If this is the kind of Christian you aim to be, I challenge you to read this chapter and study it, and ask questions you seek to find answers for. Those who will do this will eventually discover that Rom. 9 will no longer be the hardest chapter in the Bible.