Wednesday, February 14, 2018
The People of God Pt. 7: Rom. 10:16-21
As a professor, I am always looking for ways to help my students succeed in my courses. Some of the ways that I do this involve providing and sticking to an assignment schedule so that there is no question as to when things are due. Additionally, I make announcements in class or through email to remind people about upcoming quizzes and papers. Rubrics are clearly written and provided so that no one has to wonder what is expected, and I even have on occasion offered extra credit. All of this I give in an effort to help the students do well in the course. That said, I’m always amazed that in spite of all of this—the flow of information, the presentation of requirements/deadlines, etc.— some still fail the course! Why is this? Is it that the syllabus isn’t compelling? Is it that I’m not communicating things clearly enough? Is it that the students don’t understand what is expected? Or, might there be something else at play?
Paul runs into similar questions when he considers the failure of many Jews to accept the message of the gospel. In Romans 10:16-21 we are going to observe FOUR REALITIES connected to the offering of the gospel in an effort to: 1) learn who/what is to blame for refusing God’s revelation, and 2) check ourselves to see if this might be true in our own lives.
a) A Missed Opportunity-10:16-17
The real tragedy surrounding the proliferation, scope, and spread of the gospel (that has been discussed in Romans 10:1-15) is introduced in Romans 10:16—“However, they did not all heed the good news.” Many do not pay attention to and/or respond to the wondrous message of God’s grace as found in Jesus Christ. This was true, especially among the Jews, in Paul’s day. Instead, many were paying attention to tired old programs of salvation by works or relationship with God through the law. Those outside the Jewish community were buying into other messages altogether. Everything from pagan religions to the idea that salvation came from the state—Rome and her emperor—were being broadcast in the brave new world into which Paul was writing. In this competition for air time, the gospel was being ignored and, as a result, not embraced.
However, this is not to suggest that there was (or is) something deficient about the message itself. How could anything be wrong with the message when it is about a perfect God sending his perfect Son to perfectly fulfill His ministry of reconciliation for all who believe? No, the deficit lies with those who fail to believe—“for Isaiah says, ‘Lord, who has believed our report? . . .” (Rom. 10:16). Here, Paul quotes Isaiah 53:1 in which the prophet agonizes over the fact that in spite of his faithful preaching, many had not believed him. Both Isaiah and Paul look around them and, like many today, wonder who is believing their report? (or, put another way, why are so many NOT believing).
After all, as Paul states in verse 17—“Faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ,…”(10:17). One translation puts it this way: “Faith is awakened by the message” (NEB). “Although it is true that faith is our response to the gospel, it is also true that the message (of the gospel) itself awakens and makes faith possible” (Mounce, Romans, 212). In other words, one must hear the word of Christ, not ignore it or resign it to mere background noise, and in response embrace it. Why is the “word of Christ” (the gospel) capable of inspiring faith and salvation? Because it is “Christ himself who speaks when the gospel is proclaimed” (Mounce, Romans, 212).
Karl Barth even went so far as to say the following: “It is not the function of the preacher to reveal God or to act as his intermediary. When the Gospel is preached God speaks there is no question of the preacher revealing anything or of a revelation being conveyed through him . . . Revelation is a closed system in which God is the subject, the object and the middle term . . . Preaching is `God's own Word', that is to say, through the activity of preaching, God himself speaks.” (Preaching and Prayer, Ch. 5).
“Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ”—that is the word from Christ (gen. of source), the word that is about Christ (objective gen.), and the word that is Christ (gen. of apposition). Inasmuch as Christ is the message, brings the message, and instigated the message, it contains the power necessary to awaken the dead in sin to life in Him. This would suggest that the problem Paul recognizes in verse 16—a lack of belief—is not the fault of the message itself.
b) A Shared Message-10:18
So, if the problem is not the efficacy of the message, perhaps the problem in Paul’s day was that the amazing revelation of the gospel had not been made known. This appears to be what Paul wonders in verse 18, “but I say, surely they have never heard, have they?...”. After all, who could refuse so great a message upon hearing it? There must be a problem with transmission.
But surprisingly, Paul answers his own question by saying “Indeed they have; ‘there voice has gone out into all the earth, and their words to the ends of the world’…” (10:18b). Therefore, the problem is neither the quality of the message nor is it that the message hasn’t been proclaimed. The report, as Paul put it in verse 16, has, in fact, been reported. However, this has not led to belief. The same proved true for many of the Old Testament prophets. In fact, God Himself knew that this would be the case when he called Isaiah into the ministry.
Isaiah 6:8b-10-“I said: ‘Here I am. Send me.’ And He replied: ‘Go! Say to these people: “Keep listening, but do not understand; keep looking, but do not perceive. Dull the minds of these people; deafen their ears and blind their eyes; otherwise they might see with their eyes and hear with their ears, understand with their minds, turn back, and be healed”’.”
This is not unique to Isaiah. Just listen to what God asks Jeremiah:
Jeremiah 6:10-“To whom shall I speak and give warning That they may hear? Behold, their ears are closed And they cannot listen Behold, the word of the LORD has become a reproach to them; They have no delight in it.”
God holds no punches when he describes his people later in Zechariah:
Zechariah 7:11-“But they refused to pay attention and turned a stubborn shoulder and stopped their ears from hearing.”
In each of these epochs and in Paul’s day, it is the failure of the people to receive God’s message, not the message itself, thereby leaving people in the darkness of their sin. Did people, especially the Jews have an opportunity to hear the message of the gospel? Of course they did!
The same is true today.
Colossians 1:25-26-“I have become its minister, according to God’s administration that was given to me for you, to make God’s message fully known, the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to His saints.”
Though the gospel is going forth in many channels—missionaries, churches, pastors, evangelists, individual witnesses, radio and TV—one might be left asking the same thing that Paul does here—“who is believing it?” The answer: the saints who hear it and embrace it—not those who grow faint of it and ignore it.
c) A Peculiar People-10:19-20
If there isn’t a problem with the message itself and there isn’t a problem with the transmission of the message around the known world, perhaps the Jews didn’t understand it—“but I say, surely Israel did not know, did they?...” (10:19a). The verb for “know” hear means “to come to an understanding as the result of ability to experience and learn” (Louw and Nida). Maybe, as Paul suggests here, the Jews just didn’t get it.
However, Paul sharply dismisses this saying “For Moses says, ‘I will make you jealous by that which is not a nation, By a nation without understanding I will anger you.’…” (10:19b). In other words Israel should have understood what God was doing in Christ, for he had predicted it in the Old Testament! Paul suggests that “if unenlightened people outside of the covenant and nation of Israel could understand the gospel, then certainly a religiously gifted and highly favored group like the Jews had no grounds for claiming that it was beyond their understanding (Mounce, Romans, 213). Drawing from Deuteronomy 32 (particular verse 21), Paul states that like in the Old Testament, the Gentile nations were once again upsetting the “chosen” people by their reception of the good news of Christ that the Jews chose to ignore.
Isaiah echoes the same sentiment when he says “…’I was found by those who did not seek Me, I became manifest to those who did not ask for Me.’…” (10:20). As with the Deuteronomy 32 quote, this reference to Isaiah 65:1-2 is found in a context of holy indignation against God’s people. Because of the Jews’ failure and subsequent ignorance to the things of God, God gave understanding to those outside of the Jewish nation and pursued those who weren’t even looking for God in the first place. What Paul presents here is an argument from the greater to the lesser (or lesser to the greater depending on how you look at it). If the gentiles had/have the ability to understand and respond to the gospel, how much more do the Jews? They were the first to hear of it and so many things were provided to help them understand it.
d) A Stubborn Nation-10:21
The final presentation Paul provides in this passage is of a stubborn nation. It is an unfortunate concluding reflection provided after all of the excuses and objections in this passage are answered. At the end of the day “as for Israel He (God) says, ‘All the day long I have stretched out my hand,…” (10:21). Time and time again God reached into the lives of the people of Abraham so as to bring them to a right understanding of God and his Christ. He made many promises (to Abraham, Moses, David, etc.), provided many blessings (deliverance from slavery, manna from heaven, water from the rock, a Promised Land, powerful nation, freedom from exile), demonstrated many wonders (fire from heaven, clouds, victories in battle), and spoke through many prophets (Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, etc.). These copious overtures of love and affection were extended (undeserved and unmerited) to what would have otherwise been an obscure tribe.
However, the recipients of these gifts proved to be “a disobedient and obstinate people…” (10:21b). Israel’s rejection of the word of Christ (the gospel) had nothing to do with the quality of the message, the transmission of the message, or even a lack of understanding the message. At the end of the day their failure to be transformed by the word of Christ “rested solely upon the nation’s willful disobedience. . . They insisted on personal merit based on works to gain God’s approval.” This they did even though they had been told differently and knew better—that God’s requirement for righteousness is faith. One commentator has said that God’s outstretched arms were “the symbol of that incessant pleading love which Israel through all its history has consistently despised” (Denney, “Romans,” 2:675).
Unfortunately, the same sad situation is witnessed among many in our world today. Why do many reject the gospel? It is not necessarily because they have not heard or do not understand. Maybe, “they find it hard to see, in a man who has hanged, the master-clue to the riddle of the world” (Hunter, Romans, 98). The failure of today’s world to, in mass, ignore or resign the word of Christ to the periphery is not because the gospel is not compelling or because it is not being disseminated, it is because people are willfully refusing to embrace God’s overtures of love. Calvin writes, “God stretches forth His hands to us exactly as a father stretches forth his arms, ready to receive his son lovingly into his bosom” (Romans, 236-37). This God did by sending his son to stretch out his arms on the cross in the greatest display of divine love ever witnessed. In this act Jesus paved a way for sinners to have reconciliation with their heavenly Father who loves them more than any other created thing. By responding to God’s open arms with a faith-full embrace, people can know salvation.
Hear the word of Christ and do not ignore it. Choose this day to be a peculiar people who hear this and respond accordingly, not an obstinate nation who believes it knows better and trusts in something else or its own strength to get them through.