Romans 10:5–21 (ESV)✞: The Message of Salvation to All
In the last passage Paul wrote about Israel’s unbelief—that is, the unbelief of his fellow Jews at that time—and the fact that their core problem (just like everyone else in the world) was trying to trust in their own works rather than trusting in God’s righteousness. The last verse of that passage indicates why Christianity is different from the religions of the world:
For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.
In this passage he talks about how people get to that place and how we, as Christians, can spread the Word to help others not fall into that same situation.
First off, Paul acknowledges that, yes, this is something new; this isn’t something that the Old Testament Israelites could have fully figured out on their own.
5 For Moses writes about the righteousness that is based on the law, that the person who does the commandments shall live by them. 6 But the righteousness based on faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (that is, to bring Christ down) 7 “or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). 8 But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); 9 because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. 11 For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.”
So what is all this “ascending to heaven” and “descending into the abyss” stuff? Actually, that’s a quote from Deuteronomy 30✞; it’s worth reading the whole chapter to really get the context but in essence Moses is telling the Israelites that when they sin they can always come back to God, who will forgive and restore them. They have God’s commands; if they live by those commands they’ll be blessed and if they disobey they’ll be cursed. And in the middle of that he says:
11 “For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. 12 It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ 13 Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ 14 But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.”
Deuteronomy 30:11–14 (ESV)✞, emphasis added
But here’s the thing: Could they do it? Were they able? Romans 10:5 above quotes Leviticus 18:5✞, saying that the one who obeys the Law lives by it; those who keep the law will obtain life. However, he has also showed, in great detail in 1:18–3:20, that nobody has done this! As the ESV Study Bible puts it, “But as Paul has already shown, life will not come this way since all violate the law.”
And so, in 6–8, he shows that these statements from Moses—about ascending to heaven or going beyond the sea (descending to the abyss)—have been fulfilled in Jesus.
What does this mean? It means that I, a Christian, am treated by God as if I’d obeyed the Law perfectly; as if I’d lived a perfect life. I’m justified, not by what I’ve done, but by faith in Jesus and what He has done. What Moses was saying could have been true of the Israelites but never was—not even for Moses himself—is now true of me, and anyone else who believes in Jesus.
And this is true of me because I believed, even though I wasn’t one of the original Chosen People:
12 For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. 13 For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
This is all well and good, but one cannot believe in Jesus if one has never heard of Him; we need to spread the Word!
14 How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? 15 And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!”
Now, as we’ll see, this passage is being taken slightly out of context; Paul isn’t talking about evangelising to the entire world, he’s actually still talking about getting the message to the Jews. However, I do think it’s valid to extend the point beyond the Jews, to all people, because the same point will apply to them: they can’t have faith in Jesus if they’re unaware of him.
So bringing it back to the Jews, in particular, Paul, in his day, was seeing that not all of his fellow Jews were believing. As we’ll see from all of the Old Testament quotations that come in the rest of this section (as with the majority of Paul’s writings), he doesn’t view this as unexpected.
16 But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” 17 So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.
But Paul is not saying that none of the Jews have heard:
But I ask, have they not heard? Indeed they have, for
“Their voice has gone out to all the earth,
and their words to the ends of the world.”
Here, Paul is quoting Psalm 19:4✞, which is actually about the word of God going to all nations, and re-applying it to refer just to his fellow Jews – in fact, Paul is doing the opposite of what I did above! In verses 14–15 he’s talking about getting the good news to the Jews (which we often apply to getting the Word out to all people), and here he quotes a Psalm talking about getting the good news to all people (which he applies just to it getting to the Jews).
The main point, however, is that a lot of Jews of Paul’s day must have heard at least part of the Gospel, because it was spreading like wildfire among the Gentiles, which could not possibly have escaped the notice of the Jews.
19 But I ask, did Israel not understand? First Moses says,
“I will make you jealous of those who are not a nation;
with a foolish nation I will make you angry.”
20 Then Isaiah is so bold as to say,
“I have been found by those who did not seek me;
I have shown myself to those who did not ask for me.”
21 But of Israel he says, “All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and contrary people.”
The general picture is one of the Jews hearing of the Gospel, getting jealous of the Gentiles becoming children of God, but stubbornly refusing to believe themselves.
Is this a valid picture? It’s a hard question to answer, having not been around 2,000 years ago when Paul wrote this letter, but it feels like Paul is purposely stating things strongly to make his point. We’ve already seen, in previous passages, the anguish he’s feeling that more of his fellow Jews aren’t believing, so we can’t possibly read this as him hating his fellow Jews! He wants nothing more than for more and more of them to come to faith, just as he did!
What does the modern, 21st Century Christian do with a passage like this? I have a few thoughts on that.
This shouldn’t need to be said but I think it does regardless: Neither this passage of Scripture nor any other is teaching us that we should be against, or hate, the Jews. There is no passage of Scripture anywhere, from Genesis through Revelation, that should lead Christians into hating anyone. And yet, for some reason, there are a lot of Christians, all over the world, who really hate the Jews. I’m going to guess they use this passage to try to back up those beliefs, as well as any other New Testament passages where the Jews are specifically discussed, as a reason to look down on or sneer at or even hate the Jews.
If you buy in to any of the many, many, many conspiracy theories in which the Jews are… I don’t know, doing whatever it is that evil people are supposed to do, it says a lot more about what you’re afraid of than it does about Jewish people. It is not just un-Christian it is anti-Christian to hate the Jews. I’m not saying you can’t be a Christian if you hate the Jews, there aren’t any sins that can prevent God from saving you in faith, but I am saying that I doubt your faith, and you should too, until you can get a handle on where that hate is coming from and seek the Holy Spirit’s help in rooting it out of your life.
Evangelising to the Jews
My first point, since Paul is specifically writing about Jews, is that we who are not Jews should be treating the Jews much as Paul did: wanting desperately for them to come to faith – just as we want all peoples to come to faith!
Paul was trying to come to terms with the state of his people, as it was 2,000 years ago. Is the state the same now? Has it changed and evolved? Probably the latter, so we should meet them where they are (not where they were 2,000 years ago). If we’re going to talk about “the Jews” we should do it in the same vein as Paul did: how do we love them, and, therefore, preach the Gospel to them in a way that they’ll be able to hear? (Again, just as we would any other group of people.)
This passage is absolutely soaked in Old Testament Scripture references; Paul knew his Scriptures and that’s how he talked to his fellow Jews. Perhaps we, as Christians, should also be getting up to speed with the latest Jewish thinking and writings, to see where they’re really coming from. (Those of us who have a special heart for the Jews should definitely be doing that!) There is very often a kind of Christian arrogance, believing that we know the Old Testament Scriptures better than the Jews do, which, if I’m honest, I don’t buy into. Do we have a new understanding of what those Scriptures mean in light of the work of Jesus? Yes. Do we know the actual Old Testament Scriptures as well as Jewish scholars – or even Jewish laypeople? I’m guessing the answer to that is usually “no.” Coming to any group of people and saying, “we know your sacred texts better than you do, so let us explain to you how it really works,” is probably the worst way to evangelise to any group of people.
Who are the groups you care about?
Speaking of which, that brings me to my second point: Paul himself had a special heart for the Jews because he was a Jew. Many—most?—Christians find ourselves in the same position, coming from a people with its own special needs, attitudes, beliefs, and traditions. How we preach to that group of people might be very different from how we preach to any other group. We should be thinking deeply about the best way to spread the Word to these peoples, just as Paul did.
Are the Jews “special?”
And the last point that comes to mind is that, even with all of this in mind, it still feels like the Jews are different from other groups of people; they were the chosen people of God. There are Christians who believe they still are, though their relationship with Him has changed, and there are those who tie Jews coming to Christ with end times prophecies. Some of this is based on a large house of cards built on very shaky foundations—however strong the beliefs might be they’re not built on a solid grounding of the Scriptures—but a lot of people believe it anyway.
So what do we do with that? Aside from what I’ve just written, about how to evangelise etc., in a sense, I’m advocating we do nothing. Let’s say the crackpots are right, and there really are end times consequences attached to mass groups of Jews coming to Christ, or to a Temple being rebuilt in Jerusalem, or whatever. Then… so be it! When God is ready to come, I’m more than ready to be with Him! He’s in control, and He understands all of this stuff; I believe in Him—have faith in Him—so I know that one of two things will happen:
- He’ll come back, while I’m still alive, and I’ll be with Him, or
- He won’t come back in my lifetime, but I’ll die and be with Him
That’s all I need to know, when it comes to end times and God’s special relationship with the Jews (past or present).