By Pastor Glenn Pease
A professor of math once said that if his life depended upon solving a problem in 15 minutes he would spend 10 minutes trying to understand the problem. Understanding is so essential if any problem is going to be brought to a satisfactory solution. Misunderstanding of a problem, or of a puzzling passage of Scripture, can be disastrous. This is illustrated in the story of Michael Trevanion by Mark Rutherford. Michael has an only son and he has set his heart on his boys salvation above all else. He is worried, however, and fears that he will fail to realize his supreme ambition because of Susan, who is the pretty girl his son Robert has come to love. Michael feels that her bewitching worldly ways will keep his son out of the kingdom, and he weeps with bitter anguish at the thought.
In his distress he turns to the Bible and opens it to Romans chapter 9. His eye falls upon verse 3: "I could wish that myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my kinsman according to the flesh." He reread it and wondered what Paul meant. Could he mean he was willing to be damned to save those whom he loved? Shall I not be willing also to be damned for the sake of my son Robert? He decided to do it. He reasoned that God would not damn Paul for no reason, and so Paul must have meant he would commit a horrible sin for the sake of saving his people. He plotted to do just that for the sake of his son. He first of all hinted to his son that Susan's history is besmirched with shame. Then he left on his desk a fragment of an old letter referring to the downfall of another girl named Susan. He knows it is a terrible deliberate sin, but like Paul he is willing to lose his own soul for the sake of his loved one.
When his son saw the letter he ran away from home, and Michael overwhelmed by his sin tried to drown himself. When he awakens on the bank Susan is bending over him, and he realizes that she is good and has more grace than himself. He finds his son and dies making his humiliating confession. He meant well and thought he had a biblical basis for his folly, but he had misunderstood Paul completely. The Bible misunderstood is a curse, and much of the evil of history has been due to man's misunderstanding of what was meant to be a blessing. Romans 9 had led men to conclude all kinds of terrible things such as, God hates Jews; that man is not free but a mere puppet of God; and that God predestines some to hell so they don't have a chance. All of these conclusions arise from misunderstanding and a failure to look carefully at exactly what is being said. If we are not willing to be accurate in our interpretation of the Bible, we are better off not interpreting it at all. It is our goal in the study of this chapter to understand it and to gain the truth God intended us to gain and so we will study it verse by verse.
VERSE 1. This verse makes it clear that Paul is on the defensive. He has some difficult questions to deal with, and he knows his testimony is suspect. It is perfectly normal for a person who forsakes one religion for another to despise the one he has left. Both Christians and Jews would just naturally suspect that Paul would be anti-Semitic. He forsook Judaism and put Christ above Moses, and grace above law. The Jews charged him with being a hater of the Jews. Much of the evidence would seem to support their charge, but the misunderstood Paul. He denies this charge and begins this chapter with the strongest possible statement of his love for Jews. Paul is not anti-Semitic. On the contrary, he is anti anti-Semitic, for he is opposed to the misunderstanding and prejudice that exists between the Jews and the Gentiles. That is one of the reasons for his writing of this chapter on the place of the Jews and Gentiles in God's plan.
Keep in mind that Paul is the Apostle to the Gentiles, and keep in mind that Gentiles were very anti-Semitic in those days. Most pagans despise the Jews, and it was these very pagans that Paul was winning to Christ. These Gentiles, who are now Christians, did not immediately lose their prejudice against the Jews. It is still true today that people can become Christians and carry their prejudices right into their Christian thinking. As an example of how prejudice can pervert the thinking of the finest Christians let me share a quote from John Chrysostom. He was one of the greatest and most famous preachers in the history of Christianity. He was called the golden mouth orator, and he could lead you into the very presence of God with his eloquence, but listen to this blast of the Jews he made in 387 A. D. "God hates them, and indeed has always hated them. It was of set purpose that He concentrated all their worship in Jerusalem that He more readily destroy it. It is childish in the face of their absolute rejection to imagine that God will ever allow the Jews to rebuild their temple or return to Jerusalem. When it is clear that God hates them, it is the duty of Christians to hate them too."
Many before and after him have felt the same, and so you can see why Paul has to take a triple oath here that his love for the Jews is real and authentic. He says that it is in Christ that he speaks the truth, and that the Holy Spirit bears witness with his conscience. He makes it clear that he speaks from a committed Christian perspective, but that this in no way suggests anti-Semitic attitude. On the contrary, because he is Christ centered he loves them with a Christ like love, which knows no limit of sacrifice.
The key value of these first few verses is that they demolish all basis for Christian anti-Semitism, and they make it clear that Christians are to oppose anti-Semitism in love for the Jews. Christians are to be anti anti-Semitic. Paul did not love the Jews less because he came to love the Gentiles more. Christ never diminishes our love for anyone. If you love others to come to Christ, you will love those you left with a greater maturity knowing that Christ loves them and has made adequate provision for their salvation. Paul, therefore, makes it clear to all from the start that he loves all men, and that includes those who rejected Christ, because Christ still loves them and still has a plan for them. Today a person might express it, "I swear on a stack of Bible and cross my heart and point to God and hope to die if I lie." No person ought ever to doubt that anti-Semitism is contrary to the spirit of Christ.
VERSE 2. Paul here reveals the paradox of life in the emotional realm. He rejoices always in Christ, and he is filled with gratitude for his salvation. Never the less, he has great sorrow and unceasing anguish in his heart. This is not a contradiction, but it is an experience of life common to all of us if we give it some thought. You can be happy over some aspects of life while sad over others at the same time. If you look at the positive your emotions are positive, and if you look at the negatives your emotions are negative. Both are always present and you select which one you want to come to the surface and control your emotions. Your perspective determines your emotions.
At this point Paul is deliberately looking at the discouraging fact of Israel's rejection of Christ, and so he expresses the negative emotions that this arouses. You can do the same. Just begin to think deeply of a loved one who is unsaved and you can feel sad and even weep for them. This does not mean you are not joyful in the Lord, in fact your sorrow over a loved one makes you all the more aware of the joy of salvation. Paul's joy and gratitude to God is not lessened because his heart is bursting with grief over the lost condition of his people. Paul's experience is perfectly consistent with what we know to be true of human emotions. Someone has suggested that the original manuscript probably had tearstains on it. With an awareness of the deep emotional state Paul is in we look at the next verse.
VERSE 3. Note carefully that Paul does not say, "I wish to be accursed," or, "I pray that I will be cursed." He simply says, "I could wish that I were if it would help save the Jews." Paul is speaking hypothetically here. He is expressing the depth of his concern with a strong emotional statement. This is not a cool and systematic formulation of a theological statement. He is not laying down a principle for conduct. He is simply expressing a deep love and conviction.
If a person watching the election returns would say, "I would give my right arm to see so and so win," you would not interpret this to mean that the man was persuaded that the sacrifice of his right arm could in some way determine the election. You would take it for what it is, which is a statement of deep concern and desire to help. Paul likewise did not think that his going to hell could save a single Jew. Paul knew that Jesus had paid all the sacrifice necessary for the salvation of the Jews and all others. It is foolish to read into this verse anything but the deep emotions of Paul in relation to his people the Jews.
Spurgeon said, "Such a text as this must be fired off red-hot, it spoils if it cools. It is a heart business, not a head business." To try and dissect it for theological implications about eternal security, for example, is to miss the point completely. This is like trying to analyze a man's emotion packed words as he expresses his love to his wife. He maybe thrilled with her beauty, and express it by saying to her, "You are so delicious I could eat you." It may be a silly thing to say, but not half as silly as the attempt to analyze his words and try to determine if he has cannibalistic tendencies, or hallucinations in which his wife appears to be a hot dish, or a real tomato. The context tells you that the words are an expression of emotion and deep love, and so it is with the words of Paul. Meyer in his poem Saint Paul put it-
Then with a thrill the intolerable craving,
Shivers throughout me like a trumpet call;
O to save these, to perish for their saving-
Die for their life, be offered for them all.
Paul was only expressing the same emotion that his Lord expressed when He came to face the fact of Israel's rejection. Jesus looked at Jerusalem and burst into tears because He came unto His own and His own received Him not. He saw that the wrath of God would now have to fall upon them.
Alas for thee, Jerusalem! How cold thy heart to me!
How often in these arms of love would I have gathered thee.
My sheltering wing had been thy shield, my love thy happy lot.
I would it had been thus with thee! I would, but ye would not.
Jesus did what Paul says he could wish to do. Jesus was accursed. He bore the curse of the cross and was cut off from God and endured hell for the sake of Israel and all people. Paul would be glad to follow Christ even to this extent if it would save the Jews, but of course, he knew it couldn't. Paul does not think he can make a sacrifice more worthy than that of Christ. Everything has been done, and yet the Jews will not respond. Fred Smith says that as Paul wrote he was, "A man whose heart was pumping blood through the point of his pen."
Failure to be filled with Spirit, which Paul had by imitating Christ, and being filled with the love of Christ, has led to a history of horrible anti-Semitism based on a perversion of Scripture. Christians have called Jews Christ-killers through the centuries. The result is that Jews have become scapegoats for the wrath of anyone who wants someone to blame for their troubles. When the Nazis initiated their measures against the Jews in 1933, Julius Streicher, their propagandist identified what was the curing as Jewish punishment for Golgatha. In other words, they justified anti-Semitism in the name of Christ. Many Christians were brain washed to the point of acceptance of this evil. Listen to Hermann Diem describe the situation:
"When the sentiment, 'His blood be on us and our children,' through which the Jews had allegedly prearranged a future divine judgment upon themselves! -was presented in the form of a watch ward to the German people, Christian circles 'were thrown into such confusion that any effective resistance to the anti-Jewish measures was rendered impossible. For it was with precisely the same watch ward that the church over a period of 1900 years had not only rationalized and justified, but also advanced the hatred of Jews.....The seed which we ourselves had sown had sprung up, and we stood uncomprehending before its terrible fruits."
The Nazis were clever enough to base their anti-Semitism on the Bible, and thereby leave Christians in a state of confusion. Had Christians not misunderstood their Bible they would not have been such dupes. They were blind to the fact that anti-Semitism is a subtle form of hatred for Christ. That the Savior of the world was a Jew was a truth despised by the world. To lash out at the Jews, and to seek to destroy them is to reenact the crucifixion of the Savior. Sigmund Freud concluded from his study of the psychology of anti-Semitism that, "The hatred of Judaism is at bottom hatred for Christianity." Franz Rosenzweig wrote, "Whenever the pagan within the Christian soul rises in revolt against the yoke of the cross, he vents his fury on the Jew."
To be anti-Semitic is to be anti-Christ, and so those who would be truly Christ like must be anti anti-Semitic. Paul goes on in verse 4 to list all the blessings and advantages that God has given to the Jews. They are not a people to be despised. We are to recognize that they are the source of our great heritage as Christians. Whittier saw this and wrote,
Who taught you tender Bible tales
Of honey lands, of milk and wine?
Of happy, peaceful Palestine? Of Jordan's holy harvest vales?
Who gave the patient Christ? I say,
Who gave your Christian creed? Yea, Yea!
Who gave your very God to you?
Your Jew! Your Jew! You hated Jew.
There are many harsh truths Paul has to write concerning the Jews, and the Bible is filled with words of criticism for this stiff-necked, hard-hearted people. Never the less, none of this is to be construed as a basis for anti-Semitism. If this strong emotional language of Paul conveys nothing else, it is establishes forever the fact that the person truly filled with the love of Christ will love the Jews and be anti anti-Semitic.