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Bible Commentaries

Barclay's Daily Study Bible

Romans 10

Verses 1-21

Chapter 10

THE MISTAKEN ZEAL ( Romans 10:1-13 )

10:1-13 Brothers, the desire of my heart for the Jews and my prayer to God for them is that they may be saved. I do say this for them--that they do have a zeal for God, but it is not a zeal which is based on a real knowledge. For they do not realize that a man can only achieve the status of righteousness by God's gift, and they seek to establish their own status, and so they have not submitted themselves to that power of God which alone can make them righteous in his sight. For Christ is the end of the whole system of law. for he came to bring everyone who believes and trusts into a right relationship with God. Moses writes that the man who works at the righteousness which comes from the law shall live by it. But the righteousness which stems from faith speaks like this--"Do not say in your heart, 'Who shall go up into heaven?' (that is, to bring Christ down), or, 'Who shall go down into the deep abyss?' (that is, to bring Christ again from among the dead)." But what does it say? "The word is near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart." And that word is the message of faith which we proclaim. This word of faith is our message, that, if you acknowledge with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and if you believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For belief with the heart is the way to a right relationship with God, and confession with the mouth is the way to salvation, For scripture says, "Every one who believes in him will not be put to shame," for there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord over all, and he has ample resources for all who call upon him. For "every one who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved."

Paul has been saying some hard things about the Jews. He has been telling them truths which were difficult for them to hear and bear. The whole passage Romans 9:1-33; Romans 10:1-21; Romans 11:1-36 is a condemnation of the Jewish attitude to religion. Yet from beginning to end there is no anger in it; there is nothing but wistful longing and heartfelt yearning. It is Paul's one desire that the Jews may be saved.

If ever we are to bring men to the Christian faith, our attitude must be the same. Great preachers have known this. "Don't scold," said one. "Always remember to keep your voice down," said another. A great present-day preacher called preaching "pleading with men." Jesus wept over Jerusalem. There is a preaching which blasts the sinner with tempestuously angry words; but always Paul speaks the truth in love.

Paul was entirely ready to admit that the Jews were zealous for God; but he also saw that their zeal was a misdirected thing. Jewish religion was based on meticulous obedience to the law. Now it is clear that that obedience could be given only by a man who was desperately in earnest about his religion. It was not an easy thing; it must often have been made extremely inconvenient; and it must often have made life very uncomfortable.

Take the Sabbath law. It was laid down exactly how far a man could walk on the Sabbath. It was laid down that he must lift no burden which weighed more than two dried figs. It was laid down that no food must be cooked on the Sabbath. It was laid down that, in the event of sickness, measures might be taken to keep the patient from becoming worse, but not to make him better. To this day there are strict orthodox Jews in this country who will not poke or mend a fire on the Sabbath or switch on a light. If a fire has to be poked a Gentile is employed to do it. If a Jew is wealthy enough he will sometimes install a time switch to switch on the lights at dusk on Sabbath without his doing so himself.

This is not something to smile at, but to admire. The way of the law was not easy. No one would undertake it at all unless he was supremely in earnest. Zealous the Jews were and are. Paul had no difficulty in granting that, but the zeal was misdirected and misapplied.

In the Fourth Book of Maccabees there is an amazing incident. Eleazar the priest was brought before Antiochus Epiphanes whose aim was to stamp out Jewish religion. Antiochus ordered him to eat pork. The old man refused. "No, not if you pluck out my eyes, and consume my bowels in the fire. We, O Antiochus," he said, "who live under a divine law, consider no compulsion to be so forcible as obedience to our law." If he had to die, his fathers would receive him "holy and pure." He was ordered to be beaten. "His flesh was torn off by the whips, and he streamed down with blood, and his flanks were laid open by wounds." He fell and a soldier kicked him. In the end the soldiers so pitied him that they brought him dressed meat, which was not pork, and told him to eat it and say that he had eaten pork. He refused. He was in the end killed. "I am dying by fiery torments for thy law's sake," he prayed to God. "He resisted," says the writer, "even to the agonies of death, for the law's sake."

And what was all this about? It was about eating pork. It seems incredible that a man should die like that for a law like that. But the Jews did so die. Truly they had a zeal for the law. No man can say that they were not desperately in earnest about their service to God.

The whole Jewish approach was that by this kind of obedience to the law a man earned credit with God. Nothing shows better the Jewish attitude than the three classes into which they divided mankind. There were those who were good, whose balance was on the right side; there were those who were bad, whose balance was on the debit side; there were those who were in between, who, by doing one more good work, could become good. It was all a matter of law and achievement. To this Paul answers: "Christ is the end of the law." What he meant was: "Christ is the end of legalism." The relationship between God and man is no longer the relationship between a creditor and a debtor, between an earner and an assessor, between a judge and a man standing at the bar of judgment. Because of Jesus Christ, man is no longer faced with the task of satisfying God's justice; he need only accept his love. He has no longer to win God's favour; he need simply take the grace and love and mercy which he freely offers.

To make his point Paul uses two Old Testament quotations. First, he quotes Leviticus 18:5 where it says that, if a man meticulously obeys the commandments of the law, he will find life. That is true--but no one ever has. Then he quotes Deuteronomy 30:12-13. Moses is saying that God's law is not inaccessible and impossible; it is there in a man's mouth and life and heart. Paul allegorizes that passage. It was not our effort which brought Christ into the world or raised him from the dead. It is not our effort which wins us goodness. The thing is done for us, and we have only to accept.

Romans 10:9-10 are of prime importance. They give us the basis of the first Christian creed.

(i) A man must say Jesus Christ is Lord. The word for Lord is kurios ( G2962) . This is the key word of early Christianity. It has four stages of meaning. (a) It is the normal title of respect like the English sir, the French monsieur, the German herr. (b) It is the normal title of the Roman Emperors. (c) It is the normal title of the Greek gods, prefaced before the god's name. Kurios Serapis is Lord Serapis. (d) In the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures it is the regular translation of the divine name, Jahveh or Jehovah. So, then, if a man called Jesus kurios ( G2962) he was ranking him with the Emperor and with God; he was giving him the supreme place in his life; he was pledging him implicit obedience and reverent worship. To call Jesus kurios ( G2962) was to count him unique. First, then, a man to be a Christian must have a sense of the utter uniqueness of Jesus Christ.

(ii) A man must believe that Jesus is risen from the dead. The resurrection was an essential of Christian belief. The Christian must believe not only that Jesus lived, but also that he lives. He must not only know about Christ: he must know him. He is not studying an historical personage, however great; he is living with a real presence. He must know not only Christ the martyr: he must know Christ the victor, too.

(iii) But a man must not only believe in his heart; he must confess with his lips. Christianity is belief plus confession; it involves witness before men. Not only God, but also our fellow men, must know what side we are on.

A Jew would find it hard to believe that the way to God was not through the law; this way of trust and of acceptance was shatteringly and incredibly new to him. Further, he would have real difficulty in believing that the way to God was open to everybody. The Gentiles did not seem to him to be in the same position as the Jews at all. So Paul concludes his argument by citing two Old Testament texts to prove his case. First, he cites Isaiah 28:16: "Every one who believes in him will not be put to shame." There is nothing about law there; it is all based on faith. Second, he cites Joel 2:32: "All who call upon the name of the Lord shall be delivered." There is no limitation there; the promise is to everyone; therefore, there is no difference between Jew and Greek.

In essence this passage is an appeal to the Jews to abandon the way of legalism and accept the way of grace. It is an appeal to them to see that their zeal is misplaced. It is an appeal to listen to the prophets who long ago declared that faith is the only way to God, and that that way is open to every man.


10:14-21 How are they to call on him on whom they have not believed? How are they to believe in him of whom they have not heard? How are they to hear without someone to proclaim the good news to them? How are they to proclaim the good news unless they are sent to do so? But this is the very thing that has happened, as it stands written: "How beautiful are the feet of those who bring the good news of good things."

But all have not obeyed the good news. That is quite true, because Isaiah says: "Lord, who has believed what they heard from us?" So, then, faith comes from hearing, and hearing comes from the word which comes from Christ and which tells of him. But, suppose I still say: "Can it be that they have not heard?" Indeed they have. "Their voice is gone out to all the earth, and their words to the boundaries of the inhabited world." Well, then, suppose I say: "Did Israel not understand?" First, Moses says: "I will make you jealous of a nation which is no nation. I will make you angry with a nation that has no understanding." Then Isaiah says, greatly daring: "I was found by those who did not seek me. I appeared plainly to those who did not enquire after me." And he says to Israel: "All the day I have stretched out my hands to a people who are disobedient and contrary."

It is agreed by all commentators that this is one of the most difficult and obscure passages in the letter to the Romans. It seems to us that what we have here is not so much a finished passage as summary notes. There is a kind of telegraphic quality about the writing. It may well be that what we have here is the notes of some address which Paul was in the habit of making to the Jews to convince them of their error.

Basically the scheme is this--in the previous passage Paul has been saying that the way to God is not that of works and of legalism, but of faith and trust. The objection is: But what if the Jews never heard of that? It is with that objection Paul deals; and, as he deals with it in its various forms, on each occasion he clinches his answer with a text from scripture.

Let us take the objections and the answering scripture texts one by one.

(i) The first objection is: "You cannot call on God unless you believe in him. You cannot believe in him unless you hear about him. You cannot hear about him unless there is someone to proclaim the good news. There can be no one to proclaim the good news unless God commissions someone to do so." Paul deals with that objection by quoting Isaiah 52:7. There the prophet points out how welcome those are who bring the good news of good things. So Paul's first answer is: "You cannot say there was no messenger; Isaiah describes these very messengers; and Isaiah lived long ago."

(ii) The second objection is: "But, in point of fact, Israel did not obey the good news, even if your argument is true. What have you to say to that?" Paul's answer is: "Israel's disbelief was only to be expected, for, long ago, Isaiah was moved to say in despair: 'Lord, who has believed what we have heard?'" ( Isaiah 53:1.) It is true that Israel did not accept the good news from God, and in their refusal they were simply running true to form; history was repeating itself.

(iii) The third objection is a restatement of the first: But, what if I insist that they never got the chance to hear? This time Paul quotes Psalms 19:4: "Their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world." His answer is: "You cannot say that Israel never got the chance to hear; for scripture plainly says that God's message has gone out to all the world."

(iv) The fourth objection is: "But what if Israel did not understand?" Apparently the meaning is: "What if the message was so difficult to grasp that even when Israel did hear it they were unable to grasp its significance?" Here is where the passage becomes really difficult. But Paul's answer is: "Israel may have failed to understand; but the Gentiles did not. They grasped the meaning of this offer all right, when it came to them unexpectedly and unsought." To prove this point Paul quotes two passages. One is from Deuteronomy 32:21 where God says that, because of Israel's disobedience and rebellion, he will transfer his favour to another people, and they will be forced to become jealous of a nation which has no nation. The second passage is from Isaiah 65:1 where God says that, in a strange way, he has been found by a people who were not looking for him at all.

Finally, Paul insists that, all through history, God has been stretching out hands of appeal to Israel, and Israel has always been disobedient and perverse.

A passage like this may seem strange to us and unconvincing; and it may seem that some at least of the texts Paul quotes have been wrenched out of their context and made to mean what they were never intended to mean. Nevertheless there is in this passage something of permanent value. Beneath it there runs the conviction that there are certain kinds of ignorance which are inexcusable.

(i) There is the ignorance which comes from neglect of knowledge. There is a legal maxim which says that genuine ignorance may be a defence, but neglect of knowledge never is. A man cannot be blamed for not knowing what he never had a chance to know; but he can be blamed for neglecting to know that which was always open to him. For instance, if a man signs a contract without having read the conditions, he cannot complain if afterwards he finds out that the conditions are very different from what he thought they were. If we fail to equip ourselves for a task when every chance is given to us to equip ourselves adequately for it, we must stand condemned. A man is responsible for failing to know what he might have known.

(ii) There is the ignorance which comes from wilful blindness. Men have an infinite and fatal capacity for shutting their minds to what they do not wish to see, and stopping their ears to what they do not wish to hear. A man may be well aware that some habit, some indulgence, some way of life, some friendship, some association must have disastrous results; but he may simply refuse to look at the facts. To turn a blind eye may be in some few cases a virtue; in most cases it is folly.

(iii) There is the ignorance which is in essence a lie. The things about which we are in doubt are far fewer than we would like to think. There are in reality very few times when we can honestly say: "I never knew that things would turn out like this." God gave us conscience and the guidance of his Holy Spirit; and often we plead ignorance, when, if we were honest, we would have to admit that in our heart of hearts we knew the truth.

One thing remains to be said of this passage. In the argument so far as it has gone there is a paradox. All through this section Paul has been driving home the personal responsibility of the Jews. They ought to have known better: they had every chance to know better; but they rejected the appeal of God. Now he began the argument by saying that everything was of God and that men had no more to do with it than the clay had to do with the work of the potter. He has set two things side by side; everything is of God, and everything is of human choice. Paul makes no attempt to resolve this dilemma; and the fact is that there is no resolution of it. It is a dilemma of human experience. We know that God is behind everything; and yet, at the same time, we know that we have free will and can accept or reject God's offer. It is the paradox of the human situation that God is in control and yet the human will is free.

-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)

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Bibliographical Information
Barclay, William. "Commentary on Romans 10". "William Barclay's Daily Study Bible". 1956-1959.