My brothers [and sisters] the constant sentiment of my heart, [permanently] listed among my prayers to God, is for their rescue. For I can testify [in an ongoing way] that they have a zeal for God but it is not with [critical] comprehension. For being ignorant of God’s [way to] righteousness and seeking to establish their own, they [simply] do not submit to the righteousness of God. For [as a matter of fact] Christ is the complete fulfilment of the law in order that everyone who believes [should] stand righteous. Moses underlined that [by saying that] the person who will live will do so by [living] by the law.
So that the right-standing of faith will [lead us to] say this: Do not [continue to secretly] ponder in your heart about, “Who will go up to heaven?” This is [merely] to [try to] bring Christ down. Or “Who will be descending into the abyss?” which is to [presume to] raise Christ again from the grave. And what is it [positively] saying? “The word is right next to you, in your mouth, in your heart.” This then is the [very same] word of faith that we proclaim.
Howso? Well, because when you, with your mouth, are openly aligning yourself with the Lord Jesus, [and do so from] believing in your heart that God has raised Him from the grave you will [indeed] be rescued. For it is with the heart that one believes unto right-standing and with the mouth one confesses [faith] unto [your] rescue. For scripture [emphatically] states: “None believing in Him will be subject to disappointment.”
For [to reiterate] there is no difference between Jew and Greek. For the same Lord of all pours out His bounty upon all those who call out to Him. For everyone who calls out in the name of the Lord will [indeed] be rescued. [The issue is:] How can they [ever] call out in [the Name of] One in whom they don’t believe? Further, how can they believe in One of whom they have never heard? And still further, how shall they ever hear without a herald? How shall they herald [this news] if they be not sent? That is [to say again] what has been [truly] written: “How beautiful are the feet of those announcing [such truly] good things?”
But not all have obeyed this good news. For Isaiah says: “Lord, who has [ever] believed what they heard from us?” So, [that is to say] faith arises from hearing, and hearing comes by the message of Christ. But I say, “Have they not heard?” Without doubt. Their utterance has gone out to all the earth and their speaking to the ends of what has been cultivated. And so [again] I ask, “Did not Israel know?” For one thing, Moses says, “I will provoke you to [downright] covetousness by those who are [simply] no nation, by a [completely] foolish nation I will raise your anger [to boiling point].” Isaiah even dares to say: “I was discovered by those who sought me not. I was very evident to those who were not inquiring after me.” But [in directing his comments] to Israel, he says, “All day long I have stretched out my hands, pleading to [what is but] a rebellious and hostile people.”
So is Paul resentful? His discussion here suggests his awareness of being interpreted as an extremist, now as much opposed to Israel as he was to those who believed in Jesus before his turnaround. But he is no reactionary. He is not psychotic, suffering from some bi-polar religious syndrome that often afflicts those trapped by cults. As one who was “provoked to intense jealousy” by Stephen and the followers of Christ Jesus, he here develops an explanation of why Israel is permanently “listed” among his prayers to the Lord. Paul’s ongoing explanation involves his appeal to the Law and the prophets which will subsequently have him say that his aim in life, subject to the mercy of Christ, is to “intensely provoke” his fellow Israelites in order to rescue them (11:14). So this is an exposition of how scripture depicts God’s intense jealousy for those to whom He has “all day long” held out His promises. Paul has already told us that it is only in Christ that he really only ever began to plumb the depths of what the law declared (7:7-12). He might render the 10th commandment in these terms:
You shall not now live your life driven by intense jealously towards anything that I have brought into your life.
And indeed a connection is made to what the Lord said when He warned His people; the Lord anticipated that His long-suffering would actually bring forth their intense jealousy when He acted with mercy toward other “no nations”, to hopeless cot-cases among the peoples of the earth. Why? The Lord does not gather them into His family so that those already in His Fatherly embrace can preen themselves as better than all their new rivals, superior in status as “high value vases” over against these latter-day “bed pans” from the Gentiles. Not at all. Paul takes to heart the Lord God’s emphatic reminder to the people upon whom He has showered His promises that without Him they are indeed merely “cot cases”, “no people”.
Paul is overwhelmed by the way in which the Lord God, in Jesus Christ, has chosen to go in for comprehensive and indiscriminate adoption – those who call out to Him as their Heavenly Father, those who, on the basis of nothing other than His promise that He will be their Father and they will be His children, are warmly embraced in His Family, installed as citizens of His Kingdom. They henceforth find themselves surnamed with His name, the name He has made above all names, the name of the One to whom every knee shall bow.
No, Paul is not resentful. He is provoked by the Lord’s jealous desire that the people of His choice embrace Him as their Father. This is the message, the good news, the cracking good story. It has to be posted, published, told and re-told. It is comprehensive. It cannot be comprehended if one’s zeal for God makes this Messiah into a private tribal deity of a people who, by their presumptuous questions, simply give voice to their ignorance, in foolish and hostile lives arising from hearts persistently hardened against their Creator.
Admittedly, by reading Paul’s remonstrance in this way we will reject the interpretation provided by a hermeneutics of suspicion that Paul’s self-loathing is the true motivation of his alleged “glad tidings”. No what we have read is no cover for a deep psychosis, a resentment about himself and his background. On the contrary, this extended reflection may help us when we confront neighbours with whom we share a civil religious Christian heritage, a path we no longer wish to travel out of allegiance to Jesus Christ. Keeping those neighbours in mind, we take to heart Paul’s perpetual prayer for his own kin, even though he would have nothing to do with their spiritual compromise with the pagan idolatry of Rome’s imperial administration. Paul is aware of how zeal can avoid God’s mercy, having sought persistently to rescue himself by works of the law. To be on that path is to miss the right standing granted the One he had persecuted, God’s own elected One. It is to miss the right-standing we receive when we, in faith, stand with Him.