Delimiting the Text
1 I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit—
2 that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart.
3 For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh.
4 They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises.
5 To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen.
The sub-issue of Romans 9 is the faithfulness of God to his word. Paul asserts in Romans 9:6 that the word of God has not failed. To understand that, we must understand how the word of God has been called into question, which is the place of Romans 9:1-5 in the argument. Verses 1-5 serves as the build up to verse 6 (“But it is not as though the word of God has failed”). Here, the Apostle Paul reviews the case of the unbelief of Israel that will lead us to understand why God’s word is impugned in verse 6.
We see that Paul here has “great sorrow” and “unceasing anguish” in his heart over the unbelief of Israel. But Paul does not merely content to say that he is speaking the truth, but adds that does so in union with Christ. His emotions are moved because of his union with Christ, it is not merely a personal anguish that he feels over the loss of friends and fellow countrymen, but a great sorrow over the unbelief and rejection of an entire nation.
Paul enumerates the distinguishing privileges of Israel: to them belong the adoption as sons of God (Exodus 4:22-23). To them were given the theophanies (Exodus 24) and the privileges of the personal revelation of God. To them were promised the covenants – here, Paul does not specify which covenants, but it is reasonable to assume that he has in view the covenants that have marked Israel as distinct in regards to identity and purpose, such as the Abrahamic, the Mosaic, and the Davidic covenants, among others. To them were given the law and the worship at Sinai and beyond. And to them God had made promises, of which the one of salvation stands in greatest peril. There is a definite overlap in this list, but as Piper summarizes, “Paul is not assembling in Rom 9:4,5 a set of precisely distinct prerogatives of Israel but rather is piling up overlapping privileges all of which point to the surety of Israel’s salvation and together create a total impact which puts the condemnation of Paul’s kinsmen into a very paradoxical perspective”.
It should be noted that Paul makes special mention that the patriarchs belong to the nation of Israel, and at the climax of his list, he counts the heritage of Christ, who is the God over all. It is not a trivial fact that the nation of Israel has historically played a central role in the revelation of God, and from them has come the Son who has made God known (John 1:18). To suggest that Paul has in view only the true and spiritual Israel (that he defines later in Romans 9:6) is to ignore the fact that Israel as a nation is indeed beloved for the sake of their forefathers (Romans 11:28). Paul is indeed speaking of his “kinsmen according to the flesh”.
We must also take notice that in the present tense, the Israelite’s are owners of the adoption, the glory, the covenants, etc. These are not merely temporary blessings to be later revoked by God, they are blessings that the Israelites currently have. And this serves to make the reality of Israel’s unbelief even more perplexing and urgent.
Though the word salvation is not explicitly mentioned, the momentum of Paul’s train of thought demands that Paul’s concern be more than just for the theological and historical privileges of Israel. He desires to swap places with his kinsmen, that he may be accursed and cut off from Christ so that a nation may be saved. We must be careful that we draw the inference from the text the right way – Israel is not guaranteed salvation because the gifts of the past contain the promise of salvation in the future. Rather, we must understand that Israel was the beneficiary of the promises of God, which included both gifts in the past and a glorious future (Schreiner 1998, 485).
Paul is most definitely moved by the issue, for he would hypothetically wish himself to be cut off from God if it would mean the salvation of his kinsmen. But he also recognizes that the issue will not be decided by the sincerity of his emotions, but by the faithfulness of God to his word.