Commentary on Romans 10:14-21

Notes (NET Translation)

14 How are they to call on one they have not believed in? And how are they to believe in one they have not heard of? And how are they to hear without someone preaching to them?

Paul in v. 13 has asserted a universally applicable principle: that salvation is granted to all who call on the Lord. But people cannot call on the Lord if they do not believe in him. They cannot believe in him if they do not hear the word that proclaims Christ. And that word will not be heard unless someone preaches it. But a preacher is nothing more than a herald, a person entrusted by another with a message. Thus preaching, finally, cannot transpire unless someone sends the preachers.1

Some commentators think the Jews are the implicit subject of the verbs in vv. 14-15a while others think the Gentiles are the implicit subject. Since vv. 11-13 emphasize that “all”, including both Jews and Gentiles (v. 12), who call on the Lord will be saved we should not limit the verbs to either the Jews or Gentiles. The steps outlined in vv. 14-15a must be fulfilled for any people to call on the Lord. Nonetheless, Paul is thinking especially of the application of these points to Israel.

15 And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How timely is the arrival of those who proclaim the good news.”

To be ‘sent’ here denotes being sent with a commission. Paul himself was sent and commissioned by Christ (1:4-5), and here he implies that all preachers of the gospel should be sent by Christ.2

The quotation is from the prophecy in Isa. 52:7 (the wording is closer to Isa. 52:7 than to Nahum 2:1) declaring the end of the Babylonian exile and the return to Zion.

Although ὡραῖοι (hōraioi) usually means “timely”, the dependence on the MT suggests that here it means “beautiful,” which is what the Hebrew word נָּאווּ (nāʾwû) means in Isa. 52:7. This meaning is also attested in Sir. 26:18 (cf. also Gen. 2:9 LXX; Acts 3:10; Barn. 11:10).3

If the ‘feet’ of those who brought the message of the return from the exile were beautiful, how much more beautiful, Paul implies, are the ‘feet’ of those who proclaim the gospel of Christ.4

The quotation of Isa. 52:7 at the end of v. 15 serves two functions. First, it provides scriptural confirmation of the necessary role of preaching. Second, however, it implicitly suggests that the last condition for salvation listed by Paul in vv. 14-15a has been met: God has sent preachers. Significant for this latter point is the use of the verb “preach good news” in the Isaiah text. Paul’s use of this passage would inevitably suggest an allusion to the preaching of the gospel by himself and other “authorized messengers” sent out by God (e.g., apostles)–especially since the passage was widely viewed as prophetic of the messianic age.5

16 But not all have obeyed the good news, for Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed our report?”

The disbelief of the Jews of Paul’s day now enters the picture. If disbelief occurred in Isaiah’s day (Isa. 53:1) it should not be surprising that it recurred in Paul’s day.

It is likely that the larger context is in Paul’s mind here, for he has already cited Isa. 52:7 in verse 15. Isaiah 52:13-15 proclaims that Gentiles will see and understand the message about the suffering servant of the Lord. Paul would have related this to the success of the Gentile mission, in which many accepted the message of the crucified Christ. But the Jews stumbled–as Paul did before his conversion–at the message of a crucified Messiah (cf. 1 Cor. 1:23), concluding that it was scandalous to identify one cursed of God as the Messiah (Deut. 21:23). Thus they did not believe the report of the apostolic preaching. I should also mention here the inseparable relationship between faith and obedience, a relationship that I noted with the phrase “obedience of faith” in Rom. 1:5. This is communicated in 10:16 with the parallelism between ὑπήκουσαν and ἐπίστευσεν (episteusen, he believed), demonstrating that the Pauline concept of faith always involves commitment and submission to the lordship of Jesus (cf. 10:9). For Paul faith is not merely verbal assent but entails a wholehearted commitment to God.6

17 Consequently faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the preached word of Christ.

We should understand the preached word to be about Christ: “the message whose content is the lordship and resurrection of Christ (see 10:8-9).”7

18 But I ask, have they not heard? Yes, they have: Their voice has gone out to all the earth, and their words to the ends of the world.

Paul quotes Ps. 18:5 LXX [19:4] (“Their voice has gone out to all the earth, and their words to the ends of the world”) which speaks of the revelation of God through creation. The preceding context, however, indicates that Paul is speaking of the hearing of the gospel. Ignorance is not the reason the Jews reject the gospel.

One should observe . . . that Ps. 19 refers to both general revelation (vv. 1-6) and special revelation (vv. 7-14). Paul perceives that the progress and the course of the gospel is such that it now extends over the whole earth, so that the proclamation of the gospel is now comparable to the all-encompassing reach of general revelation. One of the remarkable features of the new age inaugurated by Christ is that the saving message is no longer restricted to Israel but encompasses the whole world.8

How could Paul assert, in A.D. 57, that the gospel has been proclaimed “to the whole earth”? Two implicit qualifications of Paul’s language are frequently noted. First, as the word oikoumenē in the second line of the quotation might suggest, Paul may be thinking in terms of the Roman Empire of his day rather than of the entire globe. Second, Paul’s focus might be corporate rather than individualistic: he asserts not that the gospel has been preached to every person but to every nation, and especially to both Jews and Gentiles. Both these considerations may well be relevant. But perhaps it would be simpler to think that Paul engages in hyperbole, using the language of the Psalm to assert that very many people by the time Paul writes Romans have had opportunity to hear.9

19 But again I ask, didn’t Israel understand? First Moses says, “I will make you jealous by those who are not a nation; with a senseless nation I will provoke you to anger.”

What is the content of the knowledge that Israel received? Most commentators imply that what Israel knew is the message of the gospel, and on this reading verse 19 reiterates the thesis of verse 18. But the citations in verses 19-21 suggest a different interpretation. What Israel knew from the OT was that the Gentiles would be included within the circle of God’s saving purposes and that Israel would resist his saving work. Thus the Jews can level no objection against Paul’s gospel because it is more successful among Gentiles than Jews. Paul insists that this state of affairs was predicted in the OT and was known to the Jews.10

The quotation is from Deut 32:21. Gentiles are characterized as not being a nation and as lacking understanding.

The quotation is from the Song of Moses (Deut 32:1-43) in which Moses recounts the many blessings the Lord bestowed upon the people of Israel and rebukes them for turning to foreign gods. The people of Israel made the Lord jealous by turning to what was no god, and angered him with their idols; therefore, when the Lord brings judgment upon them, he will make them jealous by those who are not a people and make them angry by ‘a people that have no understanding’. Those who are ‘no people’ and ‘a people without understanding’ are the Gentiles through whom the Lord will punish Israel. Then, languishing under foreign domination, the people of Israel will become envious as they remember the blessings they have lost, and become angry towards those who have vanquished them. By citing this text Paul seems to be implying that the failure of the Jewish people of his own day to understand the gospel they have heard is evidence of God’s judgment upon them.11

20 And Isaiah is even bold enough to say, “I was found by those who did not seek me; I became well known to those who did not ask for me.”

The quotation is from Isa. 65:1. The gospel was accepted more readily among the Gentiles, who did not seek God, than among the Jews.

In Isa. 65 the words are a judgment addressed to apostate Israel, and again the suitability of the prophecy for Paul’s purpose is evident since he considers the majority of Israel to be apostate. Most commentators agree that in the original context of Isaiah both 65:1 and 65:2 were addressed to Israel, and that Paul has split up the prophecy by applying 65:1 to the Gentiles (perhaps under the influence of ἔθνει [ethnei, nation] in v. 1) and 65:2 to Israel. If this is the case, then Paul discerned in the verse a principle that applied to the Gentiles, even though the verse related originally to the Jews. It is also possible that even in Isaiah verse 1a referred to the Gentiles, and that we have in Paul an accurate interpretation of the original meaning of the verse. In any case, the wording of the verse is reminiscent of Rom. 9:30, which states that the Gentiles have obtained righteousness even though they did not pursue it. In 10:20 the point is that God has revealed himself to those who did not seek him or ask for him. In both 9:30 and 10:20 the electing work of God is the decisive reason for the inclusion of Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness, seek for God, or inquire after him. It would, then, be a profound mistake to conclude that the strong emphasis on election in chapter 9 is jettisoned in chapter 10.

Paul’s purpose in citing Isa. 65:1 is to verify what he already said in Rom. 10:19: Israel knew from the OT Scriptures that they would sin and fall away from God, and they also knew that the Gentiles would inherit the blessings of the people of God.12

21 But about Israel he says, “All day long I held out my hands to this disobedient and stubborn people!”

Paul continues by quoting Isa. 65:2. Holding out hands is a gesture of welcome and friendship. That God does this “all day long” expresses his steadfast mercy.

Paul implies that the problem with many of the Jews in his own day was not a failure to understand the gospel but an obstinate refusal to obey it. In 10:3 he said that, being ignorant of the righteousness that comes from God and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to the righteousness of God. Here in 10:21 he implies that their ignorance was culpable — they were ‘a disobedient and obstinate people’. Here it is certainly not a case of God rejecting his people — he held out his hands to them all day long — but of God’s people rejecting him.13

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. Moo 1996, 663 
  2. Kruse 2014, 417 
  3. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 11118-11121 
  4. Kruse 2014, 417 
  5. Moo 1996, 663-664 
  6. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 11143-11151 
  7. Moo 1996, 666 
  8. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 11179-11182 
  9. Moo 1996, 667 
  10. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 11202-11207 
  11. Kruse 2014, 419-420 
  12. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 11222-11233 
  13. Kruse 2014, 420-421 
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