The Letter to the Romans
COLLEEN MOORE TINKER
36. Found By Those Not Looking
Paul is carefully explaining from the Old Testament how God had always promised that He would release His people from the bondage brought about by their apostasy. He is showing how these prophecies have been ultimately fulfilled in the gospel. Now he commences to show from the prophets that God had foretold that Israel would fail to embrace the gospel and that Gentiles would embrace it.
Paul quotes Isaiah 53:1 in verse 16: "Who has believed our message, and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?" The message to which Isaiah was referring was God's repeated promise of His saving Israel from their captivity. In the chapter preceding this quote in Isaiah, the prophet wrote those evocative words, "How beautiful upon the mountain are the feet of those who bring good news." Those beautiful feet also brought messengers proclaiming peace and the tidings of salvation, and they also proclaimed, "Your God reigns" (Isaiah 52:7).
When Isaiah spoke for God in these and other similar instances, he was specifically referring to God's bringing Israel back from captivity in Babylon. Even though Israel would have understood these prophecies to refer to their immediate bondage in pagan nations, however, they foreshadowed God's ultimate release of His people from their enslavement to sin. Isaiah clearly proclaimed their salvation and declared God's sovereign rule over the world: "Your God reigns!"
When Isaiah said, "Who has believed our message, and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed," he was commenting on Israel's failure to take God's promises of release from bondage seriously. They were so stuck in the physical reality around them that they refused to "see" the bigger, deeper claims of God's absolute power and loyalty.
Paul picks up Isaiah's prophetic declarations and shows that Israel's blindness persisted to the coming of Jesus. When the reality of God's promised Redeemer arrived, Israel still didn't recognize Him. They rejected Jesus and His promises just as they had ignored God and His promises during the days of their captivity.
In the temple Jesus read Isaiah 61:1-2 to the Jews gathered for worship: "The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor" (Luke 4:18-19). Then Jesus revealed the fulfillment of this passage which his hearers knew well: "Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing" (v. 21).
All the prophetic passages of God's deliverance of Israel from bondage and slavery and of restoration and healing were fulfilled in Jesus. He was the promised Redeemer, Healer, Liberator-in Him resided all the hope of Israel. Yet Israel failed to recognize Him.
John 12:30-36 records Jesus telling the Jews that He would be "lifted up". The crowd remonstrated with Him, asking how such a thing could happen if He was the Christ. Jesus responded by telling them to walk in the light before darkness overtook them, that they might become sons of light. Verse 37 records that even after all His miraculous signs and direct appeals, "they still would not believe in him."
Then John reveals how this hard-heartedness was the fulfillment of prophecy. "This was to fulfill the word of Isaiah the prophet: 'Lord, who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?'" and "'He has blinded their eyes and deadened their hearts, so they can neither see with their eyes, nor understand with their hearts, nor turn-and I would heal them'" (vs. 38-40, quoting Isaiah 53:1 and Isaiah 6:10).
Jesus Himself showed Israel that He was the fulfillment of the prophecies they believed promised them a brilliant, victorious future. They failed to see that God's promises to them were never for the purpose of their own aggrandizement; they were for the purposes of God making them new creations in Him.
The author of Hebrews refers to historic Israel when he says, "For we [those reading his epistle] also have had the gospel preached to us, just as they[ancient Israel] did; but the message they heard was of no value to them, because those who heard did not combine it with faith" (Hebrews 4:2). The prophecies and the law foretold the good news of a coming Redeemer. Israel heard "the gospel", but they heard those promises with a self-centered focus. They failed to enter His rest because they did not hear the promises with faith that God would glorify Himself; instead they believed God was in the business of glorifying them.
Now Paul, as Jesus did, applies Isaiah's words to the Jews alive in the first century: "Not all the Israelites accepted the good news," he says. The Jews rejected Jesus, the living Redeemer for Whom all of their history had prepared them. Because he was not offering them a spectacular political and social vindication but was, rather, ushering in a way for them to be reconciled to God in order that God would be glorified through them, they rejected His message and called him a blasphemer. Just as ancient Israel interpreted God's favor as honoring them instead of honoring Himself, so Paul's contemporaries also missed the revelation of Jesus, God incarnate.
Paul will continue in this passage to demonstrate that God finally revealed Himself to the Gentiles since Israel had hardened themselves to Him. God's personal revelation of Himself does not depend upon man's natural gifting or inheritance, it depends solely upon God's sovereign choice and call. To his Gentile brothers and sisters in Thessalonica, Paul wrote, "From the beginning God chose you to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth. He called you to this through our gospel, that you might share in the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ" (2 Thessalonians 2:13).
In spite of hearing the message, Israel failed to recognize the One who fulfilled all their hopes. Just as their historical self-centeredness kept them from honoring God, so that same self-centeredness stood between them and faith in the One Whom God had promised. God can reveal Himself personally to people, but if they fail to respond to His truth and transcendence in favor of indulging themselves, they will miss the unparalleled privilege of God glorifying Himself through them.
Hearing the Word
After noting that not all of Israel accepted the good news nor believed the message, Paul says, "Faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ" (v. 17). Paul's emphasis on "hearing" the message echoes Jesus' repeated emphasis on "hearing".
In Galatians Paul asks the Christ-followers who are being seduced by the Judaizers whether they received the Spirit by following the law or by believing what they heard (Galatians 3:2). He repeats this theme by asking if God gives them the Spirit and works miracles among them because they observed the law or because they believed what they heard (verse 5), and then he announces that all those who rely on obeying the law are under a curse (verse 10).
Paul's emphasis on hearing the message is significant. In the first place, printed Bibles were unavailable. While the Old Testament Scriptures existed, they were hand-copied and stored mostly in the Jewish synagogues where God-fearing Gentiles went to hear them read. The message of the New Covenant was literally preached by eyewitnesses to the risen Christ and by those apostles' disciples. People had to hear, literally, the words of the gospel in order to be able to believe in Jesus.
Jesus repeatedly ended his declarations by saying, "He who has ears, let him hear." In Matthew 11 He taught his followers that the law and the prophets prophesied until John the Baptist, but since John's ministry began the kingdom of Heaven had been forcibly advancing. Then he announced that John the Baptist was the Elijah who was prophesied to appear announcing the Lord. Following this revolutionary interpretation of the prophesies the Jews knew so well, Jesus said, "He who has ears, let him hear" (Matthew 11:12-15). Again in Matthew 13, when Jesus gave the parable of the sower and the seeds that feel on various kinds of soil, he ended the parable and also the explanation of it with the words, "He who has ears, let him hear."
Mark records Jesus using the metaphor of hiding a lamp under a bushel and then saying whatever is hidden is meant to be revealed (referring to Himself and His identity). Then came the words: "If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear." Again in Luke Jesus says that anyone who can't give up everything to follow Him can't be His disciple, following this declaration by saying salt without its savor is fit only to be thrown out and trampled-and then added: "He who has ears to hear, let him hear" (Luke 15:31-34).
The last book of the Bible has this same admonition in the second chapter. Jesus is speaking to the seven churches and He says, "He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches" (Revelation 2:7).
In these instances, Jesus is not referring to the literal ability to hear sound waves. In fact, He spoke in parables in order to obscure the truth from the Pharisees who had credited His miracles to Beelzebub. Because of their blasphemy, Jesus began speaking in parables to them instead of with straightforward exposition. His comments about hearing were referring to spiritual insight. Spiritual insight comes from the Spirit of God, and those who refuse to be open to the truth as the Spirit presents it eventually shut down their ability to hear it as truth. (See 1 Corinthians 2:12-14.)
The word we are to "hear" with our spiritual ears is the Word of Christ. For those who received Paul's letters, the hearing of the word of Christ came first by preaching and second by Paul's letters and the encouragement of other fellow laborers. Today we hear the Word through our primary source: the Bible, or through someone telling us the good news. All we who hear and believe have an obligation to share the good news of Christ with others, and thus the gospel progresses.
Hearing doesn't mean perceiving words and rationalizing them. It means hearing the truth and allowing it to plant itself deeply into our spirits and to transform us.
The message we hear is the words of Christ. All His teachings -which include the Old Testament and their fulfillment in Him-transform us when we allow them "to dwell in [us] richly." Paul wrote to the Colossians, "Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God"(Colossians 3:16). The word of Christ is what Israel as a whole refused to accept, and by that refusal, they refused the faith that would have revealed the fulfillment of all their centuries of hopes and dreams: Jesus.
Heard to the ends of the earth
In verse 18 Paul again uses an Old Testament text to show that Israel had, indeed, had more than adequate chances to hear the saving message. In answer to the implied question about whether or not the Israelites had actually had a chance to hear the word, Paul responded, "Of course they did," and then quotes Psalm 19:4 as proof: "Their voice has gone out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world."
In its original context, Psalms 19:4 refers to the heavens which, by their mystery and precision, reveal God and His divinity. Romans 1:18-20 further describes the "voice" of creation by saying that God's divine nature and eternal power can be understood by contemplating "what has been made". This revelation is so clear and compelling that, Paul further states, "all men are without excuse."
Paul uses the words of Psalm 19 now to describe the words of the gospel preachers who have been taking the message to the ends of the earth ever since Jesus ascended. His choice of words is deliberate; just as the stars are visible and proclaim the eternal power of God to the whole world, so the word of Christ has gone (and is going) to the ends of the earth.
Jesus told His disciples just before His ascension that the gospel of His kingdom would be preached to the whole world as a testimony to the nations, and then the end would come (Matthew 24:14). Paul confirms this divinely-appointed spread of the gospel when he wrote to the Colossians saying the gospel was growing all over the world and bearing fruit-just as it had grown among them after they first heard it (Colossians 1:6, 23b). Paul confirmed to the Thessalonians that their faith 1 Thessalonians 1:8).
Paul's point is not complicated; he is merely showing that Israel, whom he loves, had rejected the message of Christ not because they didn't understand it or hear it explained. Rather, they had had more than enough opportunity to respond to the gospel, but they refused. The good news of Jesus was even then spreading rapidly throughout the civilized world, but those who had held the revelation of God among themselves for centuries failed to recognize the fulfillment of their prophecies when He came.
Moreover, Paul is suggesting that even creation whispered the truth of God's eternal power to bring life out of nothing. Even the stars proclaimed the mystery of divine love and eternal life. By failing to honor Jesus, Israel was also failing to accept God's general revelation of Himself through creation-a revelation that suggested authority and power and the source of life. They rejected the fulfillment of all that God had entrusted to them.
"Not a nation"
Israel's refusal to embrace the message was not because they didn't understand it. Paul now quotes Deuteronomy 32:21 to help explain the dynamics of Israel's apostasy: "I will make you envious by those who are not a nation; I will make you angry by a nation that has no understanding."
Deuteronomy 32:21 actually contains not only God's statement that He would make them envious of people who didn't have the blessings of Israel but also leads into this declaration with God's lament that Israel had made Him jealous and angry by their worthless idols.
The people whom God promised to use to make Israel jealous were the Gentiles, the "common" people of the world not set apart to be a holy people for God. The chosen ones had taken their calling lightly and had persisted in turning away from loyalty to God. God, therefore, announced long before Jesus came that He would one day bless the Gentiles who were "not a nation", and this blessing would be so great it would make Israel envious.
Verse 19 quotes God saying he would make Israel envious and angry "by a nation that has no understanding." The Gentiles had no direct revelation from God. They did not have His law or the ceremonial services God gave Israel. They had the general revelation of creation, and they had consciences that instructed them in basic morality (see Romans 2:14-15), but they did not have God's promises of redemption and forgiveness that He gave Israel.
In spite of their not being formed and chosen as a nation as Israel was, many Gentiles nevertheless honored God's law from the conviction of their consciences (Romans 2:14-15). Paul said that those who kept the law without having the law would be treated as if they were circumcised-in other words, they would be treated as God's covenant people because they were honoring God. These obedient Gentiles, he further said, would condemn the Jews who had the law but did not honor it, because what counts is not the physical circumcision that signified being part of God's covenant with Israel, but the circumcision by the Holy Spirit which makes the heart responsive to God (Romans 2:26-29).
Abraham had a righteousness that came by faith while he was still uncircumcised (Romans 4:11); likewise the Gentiles who responded to God's invisible qualities of His divine nature and eternal power revealed through what has been made (Romans 1:18-20) were also counted righteous.
Because of Israel's unbelief in spite of centuries of revelation from God, He brought salvation to the Gentiles. God's bringing the good news to the Gentiles was not an act of replacement of Israel. Romans 11:11 tells us that God's blessing of the Gentiles after Christ's death and resurrection serves the purpose making Israel envious so they will be drawn to return to god and enjoy His blessings again also. In keeping with God's covenant with them, they are experiencing dispersion as a people, and as a people they are not living in the blessings God promised for obedience.
This fall from grace, however, is not beyond recovery. God's plan is to humble their pride by blessing those who did not spurn His revelation to them and thus draw Israel back to Himself. Paul said he made much of his mission to the Gentiles in the hope that he could arouse some of the Jews to envy and thus save them. (Romans 11:14).
God used the Gentiles' willingness to recognize and accept Jesus as the tool to make Israel envious. He used their responsiveness to Him to put to shame the attitude of entitlement the Jews had developed by the time of Christ.
God's love for Israel, however, has not changed, and He will awaken them again to be able to choose Jesus with clear understanding.
Gentiles receive God's revelation
Paul continues to show that Israel had had ample warning that God would bestow His blessing on a different nation if they persisted in refusing to obey Him. After quoting Deuteronomy where God told Israel that He would make them envious "by those who are not a nation", Paul next quotes Isaiah who recorded God's words: "I was found by those who did not seek me; I revealed myself to those who did not ask for me" (v.20).
When Israel first delivered this message from God, they likely would have understood it to mean God was speaking of them, the arrogant, stubborn people who refused to honor God and to be loyal to Him. These words come at the beginning of God's answer to Isaiah's prayer pleading with God to redeem Israel. "You, O lord, you are our Father," Isaiah cries in 64:8; "we are the work of your hand. Do not be angry beyond measure, O Lord; do not remember our sins foreverall that we treasured lies in ruins. After all this, O Lord, will you hold yourself back? Will you keep silent and punish us beyond measure?
God's answer was the declaration: "I revealed myself to those who did not ask for me; I was found by those who did not seek me. To a nation that did not call on my name, I said, 'Here am I, here am I.' "
When Israel first received this message from God, they would have understood it to refer to themselves. God was taking responsibility for being faithful to Israel even though Israel had been unfaithful to Him. He indeed held out His hands to them, stubborn and obstinate as they were.
In Romans 10:21, however, Paul explains that this promise of God has a broader application than merely His faithfulness to the nation of Israel. He shows that while He was holding out his hands to a stubborn, obstinate Israel, He revealed Himself to the Gentiles who did not seek Him. They did not know Him nor have a covenant relationship with God as did Israel. Yet after Jesus provided the blood of the eternal covenant for humanity, the Gentiles-unprepared and unschooled in the promises of God-responded with open hearts when they heard the message of Jesus.
The Gentiles didn't become the object of God's revelation because they begged to be included or because they tried to please God. On the contrary, their reception of God's grace was entirely an act of God's mercy. As Paul already said in Romans 9:15 & 19, knowing God doesn't depend upon man's desire or effort but on God's mercy. He has mercy on whom He wishes to have mercy, and He hardens whom He wishes to harden.
The Jews, on the other hand, had every advantage the Gentiles lacked. God created them to be His people, and for centuries He had blessed with them and disciplined them to bring them into a faithful relationship with Him. In spite of His sovereign calling of them, however, they were never consistently faithful. Isaiah spoke for God, calling Israel obstinate, willfully walking in "ways not good", pursuing their own imaginings instead of God's revelations; they offered sacrifices to pagan gods and refused to keep the ceremonial laws God gave them (Isaiah 6:1-4).
Jeremiah quoted God saying Israel refused to listen and answer when He called to them (Jeremiah 35:17). Paul summarized Israel's history by saying that because of their stubbornness and unrepentant hearts, they were storing up wrath against themselves (Romans 2:5). They had the law and considered themselves superior to the Gentiles around them. They used their law to teach others how to live, yet they were guilty of breaking the very laws they demanded of others. Paul drove home his point by quoting Isaiah 52:5: "God's name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you" (Romans 2:24).
Unlike the stubborn and arrogant nation of Israel, the Gentiles received righteousness that comes by faith without pursuing it. The Jews, who pursued righteousness by works of the law, did not find it. The reason for this paradoxical outcome was one profound truth: the Jews stumbled over the stumbling stone: Jesus. The Gentiles did not stumble over Him; they received Him and accepted Him. The Jews, who had every spiritual advantage including the prophecies of Jesus' coming, refused to accept Him when He came. The Gentiles recognized their hope, and they embraced the gospel when they heard it.
Jesus is calling you to be one of those who does not stumble over Him. In His sovereignty He has awakened your heart to recognize His call to you. He is asking you to surrender to Him the things in your life that stand between you and faith.
It is almost never a lack of knowledge that prevents a person from experiencing the grace of God. Rather, it is more likely that fear, stubbornness or arrogance stand in the way. Like the Jews, we who have Biblical knowledge often prize our personal interpretation and understandings. We interpret the Bible to support the worldview we prefer.
The bottom line in our relationship with God is the willingness to surrender the core of our identity and control to Jesus. When God awakens our hearts, we begin to see a great gulf between God's desire for us and our own methods of managing our lives. Our own methods are familiar and comfortable-even if they don't work very well-and we rebel at the thought of surrendering our autonomy to a Savior we must trust by faith.
Trusting by faith, however, is what God asks of us, and that trust requires us to surrender to His truth and to His saving love and discipline.
God is asking you to give up your pride, your fear, your arrogance, and your illusions. He is asking you to honestly seek His will and to allow Him to teach you truth as it is revealed in Scripture. God is even asking you to give up your idolatry of Bible study if the focus of it is not surrender to His Spirit and His will.
The righteousness which the Gentiles experienced but which Israel failed to find came from their willingness to give up what they believed was truth and to be taught the reality of Jesus.
You may argue that you are a Christian, that you study the Bible regularly; that you know God's will. A real, saving relationship with Jesus, however, is not a product merely of knowledge. Saving faith in Jesus results from the total surrender of one's biases and control to the sovereign love and reality of Jesus. This surrender is not blind; it is grounded in God's revelation of Himself through creation and through His word. It is the surrender of both our minds and our hearts so we can worship Him in spirit and in truth.
Praise the Holy Spirit for softening your heart to desire to know Jesus. Praise Jesus for opening a new and living way to the Father that allows you to directly approach Him without a human mediator. Praise the Father for adopting you as His child and for disciplining you heal your natural stubbornness and fear.
Praise Father, Son and Holy Spirit for making you completely new through
faith in Jesus!
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CA USA. All rights reserved. Posted June 21, 2006.