The key to understanding Paul’s wrestling with the “what about Israel?” question in the Book of Romans is to recognize that he concludes with a strong affirmation of God’s saving intentions.
In their failure to embrace Jesus as God’s definitive revelation, Paul’s fellow Israelites “stumbled” but did not “fall” (11:11). In doing so, they actually helped with God’s healing work by contributing to the spread of the “riches” of Jesus’s message to the world.
Yet, the ultimate inclusion of Israel will result in even more riches (11:12)! The point is not who loses out but how God works all things for good to bless all the families of the Earth.
There is no competition here, as if God wants insiders and outsiders and has only changed the identity of the insiders from Jews to Gentiles. The opposite is the case. God uses the “stumbling” in order to do away with the “dividing wall” altogether (Eph. 2:14). The ultimate outcome is that not only will all Israel be saved (11:26) but that God will “be merciful to all” (11:32) —Gentile and Jew alike.
One of the most important implications of Paul’s argument here is that he now turns the same argument he used in chapter 2 against the boasting of Jews such as himself toward newly “grafted on” Gentiles. “Do not boast over the branches” (11:18) he warns — that is to say, do not keep the insider/outsider dynamic going.
One of the greatest tragedies in history is how Christianity has made this kind of boasting all too common — both in its anti-Judaism and in its smugness about possessing the truth over against non-Christians.
One of Paul’s central concerns in Romans is to present the gospel of Jesus as a proclamation of God’s boundary-shattering generosity. Jews, such as Paul was before he met Jesus, need this message. But so too do all Christians since, who tend to boast about the gospel in a way that serves self-righteousness and oppressive exclusion.
Writing this letter to the Romans, Paul ultimately cares most about how his readers will live. The reason they should reorient their theology and embrace Jesus’ gospel is to find healing in all their relationships and to witness to the ends of the Earth of God’s healing love.
In chapters 12 and 13, Paul wraps up his argument with a call to commitment: Offer yourselves as a living sacrifice to God. Note that godly sacrifice is about a life committed to the way of love, not about death. It is a sacrifice that leads to a refusal to conform to this world.
Remember that “world” in this letter alludes to the Roman Empire. Don’t conform to the ways of empire that focus on division, domination, disrespect and power over others. None of these has anything to do with the mercies of God.
Romans 13 is misused as a basis for conformity to political power. “Obey your government,” a mistranslation of 13:1, flies in the face of the beginning and ending of this section, which runs from 12:1 to 13:14.
And it ignores the entire book prior to chapter 12. The first 11 chapters present a powerful portrayal of God’s saving love, focused on God’s enemies (5:10).
The seven verses from Romans 13 that matter the most are not 13:1-7 but 13:8-14. What could be more clear: “The one who loves fulfills the law” — not the one who obeys the state, not the one who lords it over “unbelieving outsiders.” Paul advises: “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ” (13:14) — that is, follow his way in all your relationships at all times.
Ted Grimsrud is senior professor of peace theology at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va.