Commentary on Romans 9:1-5

Notes (NET Translation)

1 I am telling the truth in Christ (I am not lying!), for my conscience assures me in the Holy Spirit — 2 I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart.

The tour-de-force argument in chs. 9-11 begins abruptly with Paul swearing an oath. The rhetorically astute audience would recognize this as a prelude to a specific kind of argument, namely one having to do with a testimony of witnesses, Paul as witness and Scripture as witness, as well as God himself speaking through the divine Word.1

Paul asserts right from the beginning that he is telling the truth, and he seems to be suggesting that the rule of testimony by two witnesses has been met, because both he and his conscience attest that he is telling the truth, but he also affirms that the Holy Spirit is involved, so that what he says are Spirit-inspired words.2

The conscience, of course, is fallible and does not invariably judge matters aright (cf. 1 Cor. 8:7, 10, 12; 1 Tim. 4:2; Titus 1:15). Any notion that Paul’s conscience on this occasion is fallible is excluded since his conscience bears witness ἐν πνεύματι ἁγίῳ [en pneumati hagio, in the Holy Spirit]. In this instance his conscience has been informed by and is under the control of the Holy Spirit, so the Roman readers can be assured of the truthfulness of his assertion.3

What Paul affirms is that he has great sorrow and anguish over the many non-Christian Jews who reject the gospel/salvation (9:3; 10:1). The gospel was more readily accepted by Gentiles than Jews.

Why has Paul stressed so strongly the truth of his concern for Israel (v. 2)? Almost certainly because he knew that his passionate and well-known defense of the law-free Gentile mission had earned him the reputation–in Rome, as elsewhere–of being anti-Jewish. To the Jewish Christians in the church Paul therefore wants to make clear that his focus on the Gentile mission has by no means meant the abandonment of his concern for, and, indeed, plans for, the salvation of their fellow Jews. But he also wants to dispel any notion that he might have joined with the Gentile Christians in Rome in their sinful disdain for the Jewish people (cf. 11:13–24).4

Thomas Schreiner adds:

Alternatively, the pathos of the introduction signals the theological weight of the question he is about to tackle. Most probably Paul expresses such grief because the honor and faithfulness of God are inextricably intertwined with the fate of Israel. In Exod. 32–33 Moses interceded for Israel when God threatened to destroy them by reminding God that his name and honor were at stake in the fate of his people. Indeed, Paul’s lamentation is reminiscent of the OT prophets who expressed grief over the sin and exile of their people (cf. Jer. 4:19–21; 14:17–22; Dan. 9).5

3 For I could wish that I myself were accursed — cut off from Christ — for the sake of my people, my fellow countrymen, 4 who are Israelites. To them belong the adoption as sons, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the temple worship, and the promises.

Implicit in Paul’s wish/prayer is his belief that most of his fellow Israelites are accursed and cut off/separated from Christ because they have not embraced the gospel. To be accursed (anathema) is to be damned.

Paul’s prayer that he become anathema for the sake of his fellow Jews strikingly demonstrates his love for his own people. But it also creates a difficulty: Would Paul actually have prayed that he be eternally damned so that others could be saved? A few scholars, noting that Paul uses a Greek tense that usually denotes past action (the imperfect), think that Paul is describing only what “he used to pray.” But this is both contextually unlikely and grammatically unnecessary. I prefer, in agreement with most English translations, to ascribe a hypothetical nuance to the imperfect tense; as Cranfield paraphrases, “I would pray (were it permissible for me so to pray and if the fulfillment of such a prayer could benefit them).”6

And the wish cannot be fulfilled, for we have already seen that nothing can sever believers from Christ’s love (Rom. 8:35–39). Thus Paul expresses an impossible wish, for there is no such world in which believers can suffer banishment from Christ forever for the sake of others. This does not detract from the weightiness of the expression, for Paul signals the depth of his concern for his people with these words. In doing so he follows the path of Moses, who was willing to be blotted out of the book of life for Israel (Exod. 32:32–33), but this request was also not granted by God. The parallel with Moses also suggests that Paul himself never contemplated the possibility that his desire could become a reality, for he was too well aware of the precedent already established in which Moses’ request was not granted. In both cases the future of Israel depended on the covenantal promises of God, not on the immolation of God’s representative.7

The Israelites had privileges and so their failure is theologically significant because it calls into question the faithfulness of God (9:6). They were adopted as sons by being set aside by God for blessing and service. The “glory” is the glory of God’s divine presence.8 The “covenants” would include (but not be restricted to) those with Abraham, the Israelites at Sinai, and David. By “the giving of the law” Paul probably means the possession of the law by Israel. The Greek text merely mentions “worship” (service), not “temple worship”. The OT sacrificial system, which foreshadowed the sacrifice of Christ, is part of the worship in view. The “promises” are those contained in the covenants.

The covenantal promises include the pledge of salvation, as Rom. 11:26–29 demonstrates, for there the “covenant” involves the taking away of sins. Indeed, 11:29 indicates that the saving promises in the covenant must be fulfilled, “for the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable.” The list in 9:4, then, culminates with the promises of eschatological blessing for Israel.

We must understand the relationship between the past blessings of Israel recounted in 9:4 and the future promises. It is not as if gifts in the past actually contain the promise of future blessing. The point is that the people upon whom God has lavished his favor in the past have also received saving promises with respect to the future. Thus the former gifts are not mere historical relics, for there is continuity between the past and the future. The God who chose Israel to be his children, gave them the law, manifested his glory among them, and to whom they had access in the cult promised them future salvation. Paul’s sorrow over his people, therefore, cannot be ascribed merely to a keen sense of ethnic identity with his people. He grieves because ethnic Israel has been the beneficiary of God’s goodness in the past and was promised a glorious future. These promises have not come to pass and thus they call into question God’s righteousness. To see these privileges as passed on to the church badly misconstrues Paul’s argument since his grief is due to the promises made to ethnic Israel. The present tense verb εἰσιν (eisin, they are) indicates that the Jews still “are” Israelites and that all the blessings named still belong to them. It does not follow that all ethnic Jews without exception are saved because of the privileges itemized. Paul agonizes because many of his contemporaries are unsaved, even though God made saving promises to the nation as a whole.9

5 To them belong the patriarchs, and from them, by human descent, came the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever! Amen.

The patriarchs/fathers are Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Rom. 9:10; 11:28; 15:28). They are valuable to the Israelites because God gave promises to them and their descendants (Gen. 12:1-3; 18:18; 22:17-18; 26:3-4; 28:13-14; 35:11-12). The saving of Israel is the fulfillment of the promises first made to the patriarchs.

The last privilege mentioned by Paul not only occupies its own clause but is introduced in a different construction. Rather than “belonging” to the Israelites, the Messiah “is from” them. The shift is significant, suggesting, as do vv. 2–3, that the Israelites, for all the privileges they enjoy, have not, as a group, come into genuine relationship with God’s Messiah and the salvation that he has brought. As Paul qualified the meaning of his own relationship to the Jewish people (“kindred according to the flesh,” v. 3), so he now qualifies in the same way the descent of the Messiah from the Israelites. The Messiah, Paul is pointing out, comes from the people of Israel “only in respect to that relationship which is strictly and narrowly human.” “Flesh,” then, while it is basically “neutral” in meaning here, carries with it that nuance of “this-worldliness,” with implicit contrast with “the world to come,” which is rarely absent from the word in Paul’s usage.10

The earliest manuscripts lack systematic punctuation and so there is debate over whether Paul intends to affirm the deity of Christ. Douglas Moo gives the two basic options:

(1) A comma could be placed after “flesh,” meaning that the words following the comma would modify “Messiah.” The words following “Messiah” can then be punctuated in two different ways:

a. “. . . from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen” (NRSV; cf. also KJV; JB; NASB).

b. “. . . from them is traced the human ancestry of Christ, who is God over all, forever praised! Amen” (NIV).

(2) The second general approach to the punctuation of these words places a period after “Messiah” and takes what follows as an independent ascription of praise to God. Again, two possible translations result, depending on the punctuation adopted within the clause.

a. “. . . of their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ. God who is over all be blessed for ever. Amen” (RSV; cf. also NEB; TEV).
b. “. . . from them, in natural descent, sprang the Messiah. May God, supreme over all, be blessed for ever! Amen” (NEB; cf. also TEV).11

The first option is supported by the following arguments:

  1. The phrase “the one who is” is most naturally taken as a relative clause modifying a word in the previous context.
  2. No other Pauline doxology lacks ties to the preceding context (Rom. 1:25; 11:36; 2 Cor. 11:31; Gal. 1:5; Eph. 3:21; Phil. 4:20; 1 Tim. 1:17; 2 Tim. 4:18; see also Heb. 13:21; 1 Pet. 4:11; 2 Pet. 3:18).
  3. With the exception of Ps. 67:19-20 LXX, the word “blessed” is always the first word of an independent blessing of God in the LXX and NT. Thomas Schreiner notes that it is doubtful even Ps. 67:19-20 is a legitimate exception. Bruce Metzger adds that Semitic inscriptions follow this rule too.12
  4. The “qualifying phrase ‘according to the flesh’ implies an antithesis; and Paul usually supplies the antithetical element in such cases, rather than allowing the reader simply to assume it. In other words, we would expect, after a description of what the Messiah is from a ‘fleshly’ or ‘this-worldly’ standpoint, a description of what he is from a ‘spiritual’ or ‘otherworldly’ standpoint; see especially Rom. 1:3–4.”13
  5. “In the light of the context, in which Paul speaks of his sorrow over Israel’s unbelief, there seems to be no psychological explanation to account for the introduction of a doxology at this point.”14
  6. The Church Fathers were almost unanimous in understanding the passage to refer to Christ as God.

The second option is supported by the following arguments:

  1. Eulogetos (blessed) is always used in reference to God in the NT (Mark 14:61; Luke 1:68; Rom. 1:25; 2 Cor. 1:3; 11:31; Eph. 1:3; 1 Pet. 1:3).
  2. Nowhere else does Paul refer to Christ as God.
  3. The abnormal word order, with eulogetos (blessed) following theos (God), is due to Paul emphasizing God’s lordship over all (Ps. 67:19-20 LXX).
  4. No doxologies to Christ exist in the undisputed Pauline epistles.
  5. Eph. 4:6 provides the closest parallel to this verse and it says the Father is the one who is over all.
  6. The doxology in Rom. 11:33-36 does not refer to Christ, suggesting the same is true of 9:5.

The main objection to the first option is that Paul would not call Christ “God”. This objection is not as strong as it may first appear. I quote a few scholars at length stating why they find the first option preferable (as I do).

Ben Witherington III says:

In fact, the one real objection to Christ being called God here is that Paul supposedly does not do so elsewhere. But this is not true. He does do so in equivalent terms in Phil. 2.5-11, and furthermore when he calls Christ “Lord,” he is predicating of Jesus the divine name used for God over and over in the LXX. We find Jesus called divine Lord, indeed confessed as such in Rom. 10.9, and then an OT passage (Joel 3.5 LXX) in which God is called “Lord” is applied to Jesus at 10.13. Paul has christologically redefined how he understands monotheism, and 9.5 is just further evidence of the fact.15

Thomas Schreiner writes:

That Paul would call Christ “God” is also credible given Phil. 2:6, where Jesus is said to be “in the form of God” (ἐν μορϕῇ θεοῦ, en morphē theou) and “equal to God” (ἴσα θεῷ, isa theō); Col. 1:15, where he is “the image of the invisible God” (εἰκὼν τοῦ θεοῦ τοῦ ἀοράτου, eikōn tou theou tou aoratou; cf. also 1 Cor. 8:6; Col. 1:19; 2:9); and the application to Christ of OT texts that refer to “Yahweh” (cf. Rom. 10:13; Phil. 2:10–11). Although the authenticity of the Pastorals is debated, as is the meaning of Titus 2:13, it is quite probable that the letters are genuine and that Paul refers to Christ as “God” there as well. The notion that the ascription of θεός to Christ is incompatible with Pauline thought should therefore be rejected. I should note that Paul does not say that Christ is θεός in an exhaustive sense, for the distinction between Christ and the Father must also be maintained (1 Cor. 15:28). The implication here is that Christ shares the divine nature with the Father.

Having concluded that the reference is to Christ, should we understand the verse to say that Christ “is over all, God blessed forever,” or that Christ “is God over all, blessed forever”? The latter option is less likely since it could imply that Christ exercises universal sovereignty even over the Father. Thus one should prefer the former option, which speaks of the universal sovereignty of Christ as Lord (cf. Rom. 1:3–4; 10:12; 14:9; Eph. 1:20–23; Phil. 2:9–11; Col. 1:15, 17–18). The idea communicated is one of universal sovereignty over all things, not merely his lordship over history or over other creatures. Indeed, given the argument of Romans, “all” especially includes the Gentiles. The Messiah from Israel is the God over all, both Jews and Gentiles. He is not merely the God of the Jews; he is also the God of the Gentiles (Rom. 3:29–30). The paragraph concludes by highlighting the stunning nature of the Jews’ rejection of Jesus as Messiah, for the Jews are separated “from the Messiah” (9:3), who is not merely ethnically descended from them but also the Lord of all and who even shares the divine nature.16

Finally, Douglas Moo opines:

The theological issue boils down to the insistence that Paul does not elsewhere call Jesus “God” and that, considering his Jewish monotheistic background, it is very unlikely that he would have done so. But this objection cannot stand. First, Paul almost certainly does call Jesus “God” in one other text (Tit. 2:13). Second, the exalted language Paul uses to describe Jesus as well as the activities Paul ascribes to him clearly attest Paul’s belief in the full deity of Christ. The argument from context is that it would be inconceivable for Paul to describe Christ as God in a passage in which he is trying to create common ground with his unbelieving “kindred.” However, as we have noted, Paul’s shift in construction when introducing the Messiah implies already a certain “distance” between unbelieving Jews and the reality of Jesus the Messiah. And this fits naturally into Paul’s overall perspective, accenting his grief at Jewish unbelief by highlighting the divine status of the Messiah whom his fellow Jews have rejected.

Connecting “God” to “Christ” is therefore exegetically preferable, theologically unobjectionable, and contextually appropriate. Paul here calls the Messiah, Jesus, “God,” attributing to him full divine status. The frequent association of God with “blessed” makes it likely that these should be kept together, and the whole taken in apposition to “the one who is over all”: “Christ, who is supreme over all things, God blessed forever” (thus, essentially, option 1.a above).17

Bibliography

Kruse, Colin G. Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Kindle Edition. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014.

Metzger, Bruce M., ed. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. Second Edition. Hendrickson Pub, 2005.

Moo, Douglas J. The Epistle to the Romans. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996.

Schreiner, Thomas R. Romans. Kindle Edition. Baker Academic, 1998.

Witherington III, Ben, and Darlene Hyatt. Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Kindle Edition. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2004.


  1. Witherington III 2004, 249 
  2. Witherington III 2004, 250 
  3. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 9510-9513 
  4. Moo 1996, 556 
  5. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 9516-9520 
  6. Moo 1996, 558 
  7. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 9534-9541 
  8. Ex. 16:10; 24:15-17; 29:42-43; 40:34-35; Lev. 9:6, 23; Num. 14:10; 16:19, 42; 20:6; Deut. 5:24; 1 Kgs. 8:11; 2 Chr. 5:13-14; 7:1-3; Zech. 2:5; Isa. 60:19; Ezek. 10:4, 18-19; 11:22-23; 43:2, 3-4; 44:4; 11QT 29:8 
  9. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 9620-9634 
  10. Moo 1996, 565 
  11. Moo 1996, 566 
  12. Metzger 2005, 461 
  13. Moo 1996, 567 
  14. Metzger 2005, 461 
  15. Witherington III 2004, 251-252 
  16. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 9689-9707 
  17. Moo 1996, 567–568 
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