Romans 9:2-4 “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, those of my own race, the people of Israel.”
This is the very striking beginning of Romans chapter nine, Paul sharing his innermost feelings with the whole congregation in Rome. Why does he do this? There are a number of reasons.
1. PAUL IS EDUCATING THEM NOT ONLY ABOUT DOCTRINE AND ETHICS BUT IN THE LEGITIMACY AND NECESSITY OF GODLY FEELINGS.
In almost everyone of his letter Paul opens his heart to us; he tells us about himself, about his inmost feelings. We are often told as young preachers not to do that but talk about Jesus not ourselves. But Paul spoke often about the way he felt. He tells the Corinthians how he felt when he first had the call from God to evangelize their vast city. God set on his shoulder the obligation to take the gospel of Jesus Christ to everybody in the place and Paul tells them how he felt. “I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling” (I Cor. 2:3). “I was afraid,” he says, “that I would get it wrong, that I wouldn’t be faithful to the message God had given me, that I would waste this precious opportunity, that I might get intimidated. I was conscious of the forces of apathy and hatred facing me and that I would be overwhelmed and clam up.” Paul tells them that so that they wouldn’t think of him as a superman, that he could only get by as any of them or any of us get by in dependence on the Lord asking the Lord to give us strength and courage and wisdom.
So Paul told people about his inward feelings of nervousness and fear. He also told them about his feeling of grief and anguish. Again to the Corinthians he said, “For I wrote to you out of great distress and anguish of heart and with many tears” (2 Cor. 2:4). There had been a great sin in the congregation and part of putting things right was for them to know how he felt, because some of them were feeling the same and then thinking they shouldn’t, that they were sinning for not feeling good about themselves all the time. “Now I am happy all the day . . .” And they were not. Paul tells them of “great distress and anguish of heart and many tears.” That fall had really got through to him. He shared his deep heart feelings with them.
Here in our text Paul tells the Roman church, “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart” (v.2). He didn’t keep that fact hidden from them. It is essential to have deep feelings and to share them with others. F.F.Bruce was an evangelical professor of Biblical Studies at Manchester University and in his autobiography he wrote, “I don’t care to speak much, especially in public, about the things that mean most to me.” Then what do you write about, or preach about? And why bother to write for the world to read your own history? It’s bound to be rather dry and cerebral. We would be the very reverse; we’d ignore those things that don’t mean much to us but speak the things that mean the most.
What do you find in the New Testament? When a young Christian preacher named Stephen was killed by being stoned to death then the men of the church picked him up and carried him to his burial with great lamentation. When Jesus was at the graveyard in which Lazarus was newly buried he wept publicly alongside the dead man’s sisters. Wherever Jesus went and saw suffering and rejection he was filled with compassion – not anger or disgust or but the deepest sadness and sympathy. When Jerusalem was not only indifferent, but hostile to his preaching then he shed tears at their recalcitrance. They had rejected their promised Messiah whom God had sent to save them, and Jesus wept over them. They were fast bound for hell because they refused to come to him and hide under his wings. A cold heart is a sin. It speaks of unbelief. How can you consider the last day when all men will be judged by Jesus Christ, when many will hear him say, “Depart from me you wicked into everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels” and then remain blasé about the great separation, and just get on with something else? Isn’t the only Christian response to hell one of sorrow and anguish? If there is none compassion then do you truly believe what Jesus says is going to happen to the lost? I don’t think so. Godly feelings are vital. The book of psalms is full of godly feelings.
One of the great perils that face true biblical preachers is the problem of a hyper-intellectualism, that is, the constant danger of lapsing into a purely cerebral form of proclamation, which falls exclusively upon the intellect. Men become obsessed with doctrine and end up as brain-oriented preachers. There is consequently a fearful impoverishment in their hearers emotionally, devotionally, and practically. Such pastors are men of books and not men of people; they know the doctrines, but they know nothing of the emotional side of religion. They set little store upon experience or upon constant fellowship and interaction with almighty God. It is one thing to explain the truth of Christianity to men and women; it is another thing to feel the overwhelming power of the sheer loveliness and enthrallment of Jesus Christ and communicate that dynamically to the whole person who listens so that there is a change of such dimensions that he loves him with all his heart and soul and mind and strength. Does he and his congregation know the blessedness Jesus spoke about at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are they that mourn for they shall be comforted”? Strangers to grief are very cold fish indeed.
2. PAUL IS ANXIOUS FOR THESE ROMAN GENTILE CHRISTIANS TO KNOW OF HIS GRIEF AT THE JEWS’ REJECTION OF THEIR MESSIAH.
You see how he refers to them, not ‘Jesus haters,’ or ‘Christ-crucifiers,’ but “my brothers, those of my own race, the people of Israel” (v.4). You consider the gospel; it is the great declaration of the Christian faith, that the Creator God has sent his own Son into the world, that he has lived the righteous life of obedience to the Creator’s law for his creatures – the laws that we’ve failed to keep. He died by divine appointment as the Lamb of God making rec
onciliation for us with a sin-hating God as our substitute – as the hymn says it well, “In my place condemned he stood.” He appeased the wrath of God towards all for whom he died, and then on the third day he rose from the dead and after 40 days he ascended into heaven from whence he will come to judge the living and the dead. All who put their trust in him will not go to hell but will have eternal life. That is the good news of the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ.
That is the message we preach because Paul and the apostles of Jesus Christ preached it. That is the foundation of every gospel church. He told the Jews in their synagogues in different countries in the Mediterranean basin that the seed of Eve had come, as God had promised he would, and that by his life and death he had bruised the serpent’s head defeating him absolutely. The promised descendant of Abraham, through whom all the nations of the earth are going to be blessed, had come and by the spread of the gospel the nations were knowing the blessings of Jesus. The virgin-born suffering Servant of God, spoken of by Isaiah, had arrived and his atonement was being preached to them all. The Son of Man, whom Daniel saw coming in the clouds of glory, had turned up. and now he had all authority in heaven and earth. Paul told them lucidly and passionately of the remarkable teaching and life of Jesus of Nazareth, all that, and yet the reality was this, the vast majority of the Jews did not believe it. They were not persuaded that Jesus was in fact the Messiah. They stuck to their contempt for Jesus for forty years after his resurrection until in A.D. 70 their temple and the city of Jerusalem were torn to the ground and they were taken into slavery. They had said to Paul, “Lies. All you preach is lies. Jesus told lies, and you are a liar following a liar,” and they tried to kill him. Some of them even took a vow that they wouldn’t eat a morsel of food before they had stabbed Paul to death.
What more could Jesus have done to show that he was the promised one? What prophecies about the coming Messiah did he fail to fulfil? The nineteenth century Oxford scholar Henry Liddon traced no fewer than 332 Old Testament prophecies that were fulfilled in the Lord Jesus. These prophecies covered his family’s social status, his life-style, his general demeanor, his teaching and his extraordinary powers. They included minute details concerning the events of his death, such prophecies as that he would be forsaken by his followers, betrayed for thirty pieces of silver (which would then be used to purchase a potter’s field), he would be wrongly accused, and he would be tortured and humiliated (but he would not retaliate). He would be executed alongside common criminals and put to death by crucifixion. He would pray for his executioners, none of his bones would be broken, his body would be pierced and men would cast lots to see who got his clothing. He fulfilled every single one of those prophecies, and yet those Jews who rejected Christ could only shout at Paul – “lies and falsehoods!” It is very similar to the situation that we are facing today, isn’t it? Here is the magnificent life of the Lord Jesus Christ. Here is our humble testimony to the world that he was the incarnate God, and yet one thing people say to us, “If that were true then why is it that only one person in twenty goes to any kind of church, and in a sub-continent like India one in a hundred? If it were true why doesn’t everyone believe it?”
The question we are asking the apostle now is, “Why is it, Paul, that Israel has, by and large, rejected this Messiah, the one you claim to be the Christ sent by God to Israel? Why is it that, by and large, Paul, your kinsmen according to the flesh are not embracing Jesus as their Redeemer in their droves? Why is it that there is not a mighty revival going on in Jerusalem during these years? Why the hatred and the persecution and the chants of “Lies, lies, lies,” when Christian preachers preach to them? Why is it Paul that there are more Gentiles responding to your gospel than the people who’ve been looking forward for centuries to their promised Messiah coming?
The reason for the rejection is not that the evidence we have that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, is inadequate. The New Testament is magnificently persuasive. If any one of you reads it desiring to know the truth I assure you that you will find the truth of Jesus Christ there. Again our response is not that it has everything to do with the sovereignty of God, and that God has decreed that multitudes should not believe. No. We believe that God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked and that he desires that all should turn from their sins and believe in his Son, and to that end he sends his disciples into all the world with the gospel as if God through them were urging and beseeching everyone to be saved. Obey your sovereign Lord.
What then is our response to the fact of the wholesale unbelief of our fellow students and countrymen? Can they all be wrong, and just a little group like us be right? Paul’s response to that question is actually going to take the rest of this chapter, but his first response to the fact of the universal rejection of Christ is indispensable and also quite magnificent. He says quietly and soberly, “I know . . .” And he shakes his head in pain. There is a lump in his throat. He is so serious. “Alas,” he says, “It’s absolutely true what you are saying, that so few of my family, my neighbours, my fellow countrymen believe in Jesus Christ. It tears me apart,” and his eyes fill with tears and he confesses to you softly, “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart” (v.2). Those feelings of grief are the God-fearing response to unbelief. That is the response of true Christian faith, of mighty faith. He could have added, “But the Lord Jesus told us that that would be the case. He prepared us for a situation like this when he said we’d be a pinch of salt, or a little torchlight in a black and rotting world. “For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” (Matt. 7:13&14). But Paul wept over that.
3. PAUL WANTED THEM TO KNOW THAT IT WAS INWARD FEELINGS OF ANGUISH DRIVING HIM TO WORK FOR MEN’S SALVATION.
Of course Paul did not merely grieve, he also worked. Who ever laboured like him? He was steadfast, unmovable and a
lways abounding in the work of the Lord. Though despised and rejected by his fellow countrymen he never became angry with them. He never stopped loving them and trying to reach them with the message of the Lord Jesus. Doesn’t he have much to teach us? At one point in the Old Testament, the people of God were in a deep recession made worse by a bitter and costly war against Syria. When the nation’s capital, Samaria, was under siege, and the situation seemed hopeless some lepers from the city decided to creep out of the city and cross no man’s land and go to the enemy’s camp besieging them and cast themselves on the mercy of the Syrians hoping that they would be given some food. What did they have to lose? If they stayed in the city they would die of hunger, and the worst that could happen to them would be to be killed by the Syrians. When they got to the camp, to their amazement they found it had been abandoned, left quite deserted and all the belongings of the Syrian army were still there, tents were full of food; there was as much water as would quench the thirst of 5000 men. The lepers dived in ransacking tent after tent, burying gold and silver, gorging themselves on food and wine, until finally utterly satiated with all this excess they became a little ashamed. One said these notable words to the others, “We’re not doing right. This is a day of good news and we are keeping it to ourselves . . . Let’s go at once and report this to the royal palace” (2 Kings 7:9), and they did go with the wonderful news of deliverance to their fellow country men. Many Christians are acting like those lepers, feeding themselves with the promises of God and the blessings of Christian fellowship and fine preaching, but keeping it to themselves. They have discovered the good news of the gospel but they are failing to share it with those in need all around them.
4. PAUL WANTED THE ROMANS TO KNOW HOW MUCH HE LONGED FOR THE JEWS TO BE SAVED.
In our text is this striking phrase that I am sure you have been thinking about where Paul says these words; “For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers” (v.3). A five year old girl living 18 miles away was abducted and murdered this past week. The girl has lived 100 yards from the home of our friend and brother Richard Davies. The mother appealed on TV for anyone to give any information as to where her daughter could be, and she sobbed throughout her whole appeal, crying out – “she’s only five!”. When such a nightmare takes place you can imagine how you’d feel as the mother. If it were your child you’d do anything to find her and save her, wouldn’t you? She’s in danger and any mother’s gut instinct is to want to change places with her daughter, to give your life for hers, to tell the world, “I’d rather it be me than her.”
Paul could look at his fellow countrymen whom he loved. He could see the Sea of Galilee and its fishing boats, the city of Jerusalem on its hills, the old women sitting and talking together, the children playing their games, the Sabbath day and walking to the synagogues, the psalms they sang together, the sound of the Aramaic language in which they spoke to one another, and his heart swelled with love for them. He wanted them to be saved from their unbelief; he wanted them delivered from the consequences of considering Christ a lying blasphemer who got what he deserved. He wanted them rescued from hell by the same grace of God that had delivered him.
But Paul’s love for his Jewish brothers went beyond that kind of affection that we feel for our green and pleasant land. Grace had intensified his love for them making it as yearning as a mother’s love for her abducted child. He actually wrote, “For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers” (v.3). In the heart of Paul there is an echo of what Moses experienced at Mount Sinai. You will remember how, after receiving the Ten Commandment, he came down the mountain to find the people worshipping a golden calf. Naked men were dancing around the statue of a cow and singing that this was the god who had brought them out of Egypt. What an outrageous sin these people had committed: it would be like finding your wife in bed with the best man on your wedding day. Moses has been on the mountain, signing the register; God has entered into covenant with his people; but when he comes down from that trysting place of a blessed relationship where heaven’s love and justice had met, the people who had been sprinkled with the blood of the lamb – those very people at the foot of the mountain were committing spiritual adultery. That is the nature of sin, of course: it is not simply a case of breaking a few rules; it is breaking God’s heart, trampling upon God’s love.
Then we read of one of the sublime acts of man. On the next day Moses decided to start back up the mountain away from the idol of the cow of gold in order to speak to the Lord and find mercy for them; “Moses said to the people, ‘You have committed a great sin. But now I will go up to the LORD; perhaps I can make atonement for your sin’ So Moses went back to the Lord and said, ‘Oh, what a great sin these people have committed! They have made themselves gods of gold. But now, please forgive their sin – but if not, then blot me out of the book you have written’” (Exodus 32:30-32). The original Hebrew is most poignant; it is a sigh, a groan, a cry. You see the sentence that has no ending – “please forgive their sin -” Then there’s a hyphen for its punctuation. It’s a sentence spoken to God, but cut short, strangled in the middle with the sobs of a man. He needed to take some deep breaths to ask for an impossible act to be done to him by Jehovah, to ask God to send him to hell, if only the people might be spared the righteous judgment of God for what they’d done. The just wrath of a sin-hating God was hanging over the people, and Moses interposed himself between them and God, so that Moses might be the one making atonement for them, and so he gains some composure and he cries, “Blot me out of the book you have written,” longing that judgment might be averted from them – Moses was actually prepared to receive it in their place. He was willing to swap places with these people.
Now we know that Moses was neither permitted nor able to do that, but the Lord Christ actually did that. At the cross Jesus took the place of sinners. Paul says he was made sin for us (2 Corinthians 5:21). You name it, he became it: everything that shocks us; everything we recoil from; everything that horrifies us; everything we would be so ashamed for anyone to know about – he became it, he took it all upon himself. Without becoming a sinner himself, he became sin. He was made sin for us. He literally went through hell for us. God covered Golgotha in darkness. Paul says Jehovah Jesus was made a curse for us, for “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree” (Galatians 3:13).
Now look at our text. Do you see what is happening here in these opening verses of Romans 9? The Spirit of Jesus is in Paul yearning over the lost sheep of the house of Israel. He is wis
hing that the judgment that hangs over defiant Jesus-hating Jews could fall on him. He longs that they be spared by his being made sin and the curse – in their place. Paul knew that that could not be for Moses; the great patriarchal leader could not become their substitute, and he knows that he cannot die for them either. Neither Moses nor Paul could be the Saviour of mankind because they were both nothing more than fallen men. Moses was a sinner; in fact he was a killer. God had delivered the Ten Commandments into this world by the hands of a man who had shed blood. Paul was also a sinner, and he too had been party to taking human life. Neither of them could die in the place of others for they both needed atonement for their own sins. Both men knew that only through a sinless substitute, holy, harmless, undefiled and separate from sinners, could they be pardoned. There is only one name under heaven given amongst men whereby we must be saved. Only one way to God; no one goes to the Father pardoned and healed and reconciled except by him. The sinless Son of God alone is eligible and qualified to die for others. What love for his fellow countrymen Paul had. They needed pardon and forgiveness. They had rejected the Messiah. Was there anyone else who could pay the price they would have to pay? “Could it be me?” he thinks. “I wish it could be me.” That is how he says it. “I wish I could be cut off in their place.” That is the tenderness of a true evangelist. Romans chapter 9 is considered to be a passage that speaks of the sovereignty of God exclusively, but it begins with this ache in the heart of a loving man who would lay down his life that others might live. It is a glorious insight into the most complete evangelist that the world has ever known.
The key to a real God-blessed evangelist is preeminently what he is, not what he says and certainly not what methods he employs. What is he as a man, as a follower of Jesus, as one who loves the people to whom he speaks? What is he in his heart? What is he on his knees before God, where that holy One who blesses by accompanying his word with saving power alone can see him? Is he full of tenderness and yearning compassion and longing that people should be saved from hell? Ray Steadman once asked a congregation why they’d got rid of their pastor. “Well”, they said, “he kept telling us that we were going to hell.” “But doesn’t your new pastor tell you that?” asked Steadman. “Oh yes, he tells us that, but when he speaks to us it sounds like it breaks his heart. He’s not glad about it.” Let me ask you this. When you think of your nearest and dearest, those closest to you who are rejecting the Lordship of Jesus over them, does it break your heart? What a burden that people who are bound to us by close ties are lost.
Hudson Taylor, the missionary to China, returned on a visit to the U.K. and he spoke at a vast missionary convention in Edinburgh. He was describing the moral situation in China in the mid 19th century, and he illustrated it by telling the congregation about waiting for a ferry to take him across a river. While they were standing on the river bank waiting for the boat a man fell into the torrent. No one did a thing. Some didn’t stop talking to other folk. Others just remained where they were; not one person attempted to help the man at all. They were absolutely indifferent to his cries. He drowned before their eyes. The Scottish audience was silenced at such a lack of compassion, and then Hudson Taylor cried to them, “You are upset with those people in China refusing to try to rescue a man from physical death, but what are you doing for the thousands of people around you and across in China who are spiritually dying year after year without ever hearing of the Lord Jesus Christ?” And us? Are we asking God to soften our hearts? Are we imploring God to give us more and more of his compassion? Are we repenting of our professionalism?
When Paul thought about his fellow countrymen, it filled him with profound personal pain; it drove him to his knees. That is the way that Romans chapter 9 begins. He opens up this theme (which declare that God is in charge of the destinies of all men) with his heart burdened by the unbelief of his fellow Jews, willing to swap places with them if that were possible, taking their judgment so that they might be saved. Some people come to this chapter spoiling for a fight; but that is not the spirit in which Paul writes it. He is not looking for an argument; he is agonizing over his own kinsfolk, so privileged but so opposed to Jesus. The Messiah has come but they don’t want to know him, and he is heart-broken.
Leonard Ravenhill once told the story of Charlie Peace, a notorious nineteenth-century murderer who was condemned to death and executed in Leeds Jail. It was the custom, on a prisoner’s last walk to the gallows, for the prison chaplain to walk ahead of him, reading out a particular order of service. Ravenhill describes how the chaplain walked ahead of this prisoner, and in the most peremptory way he was reading some Bible verses. Charlie Peace spoke to him, “What are you reading?” and he was told, “I am reading the consolations of religion.” Despising him at the fearfully formal way that he was reading about hell and eternity, the prisoner preached to the chaplain what Ravenhill called his ‘on the eve of hell sermon.’ “Sir” he said to the vicar, “If I believed what you and the Church of England claim you believe about the mercy of God through Christ, then if England were covered with broken glass from coast to coast, I would still walk over it bare foot from Suffolk to Wales, preaching that truth. And I would consider all the pain would have been worthwhile if just one soul were saved hell.” Ravenhill asked his hearers: “How could a man be so unmoved under the very shadow of the scaffold, that he oculd lead a fellow human-being to his death, and dry-eyed, read of a pit that has no bottom into which this man must fall? Could this chaplain believe the words of Jesus that there is an eternal fire that never wholly consumes its victims, while slipping over the phrase without a lump in his throat and tears on his cheek? Is a man human, let alone Christian, who can say with no agony of heart, ‘Before you is eternal death, but alas with none of the relief that physical death brings’?”
Let me say one thing more, lest you think that the only application of this willingness to die for your brethren is something that a preacher or evangelist or missionary should feel. What does John say in his first epistle? In the other famous ‘3:16’ “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers” (I Jn. 3:16). This is normal Christian living and loving, that if necessary we would die for our brothers. It is the most searching test of whether the love of Jesus Christ truly dwells in our lives. That leads to my final point.
5. PAUL’S GRIEF CHALLENGES US AS TO WHETHER WE TRULY BELIEVE WHAT JESUS TAUGHT ABOUT THE FATE OF THE WICKED.
One of the most painful failures of the Christian is his inability to feel any grief over the multitude of unbelievers around him. For Paul his belief in the lostness of men was matched by his zeal in reaching out to save them. Brothers, We Are Not Professionals is the title of a book of John Pip
er and I found some parts helpful. The verse we are looking at is supremely focused on me. It is my condemnation for having a cold and cowardly heart, but then I must apply it to us all that all of us be true servants of the Good Shepherd, and grieve over the straying lambs, and cry to the wild goats “Come to the Master!” There are three consequences I see from the grief of Paul . . .
i] I must feel the truth of hell—that it exists and is terrible and horrible beyond imaginings for ever and ever. Jesus said these words, “These will go away into eternal punishment” (Matt. 25:46). Even if I try to make the “lake of fire” (Rev. 20:15) or the “fiery furnace” (Matt. 13:42) symbols, I am confronted with the terrifying thought that symbols are not overstatements but understatements of reality. Jesus did not choose these pictures to tell us that the punishment of hell is easier than burning.
ii] I must feel the truth that I was once as close to hell as I now am to this pulpit, or as close as the back of the pew in front of you is to you – even closer. Consider it the door to hell and that you are as near to hell as that pew, and a little movement will open it and you will be through for ever. That prison would then be yours for eternity, with you present in its darkness, a darkness which has already entered your soul and which is always luring you to come through. The voices of hell cry, “Come for our views are your views. You belong to us. You are a child of hell. Come home, a child of your father the Devil, come home to father! You belong to the viper’s brood so come and join the company of the worm that does not die, where all live without hope and without God. Come now!” You see that door of wood in front of you. That’s the door to hell. Just a little touch and it will swing open and you will be through. Just as a rock climber, having slipped, hangs onto the deadly cliff by his fingertips, so you are hanging over hell; you are a heartbeat away from eternal torment. I say it slowly, eternal torment! God’s wrath is on your head. His face is against you. He hates you in your sins. His curse and fury are your portion. Hell was not forced on God by Satan. It was his design and appointment for people like you.
iii] I must feel in my heart that all the righteousness in the universe is on the side of God and against me. In the balances of justice, you are lighter than air. You don’t possess one fraction of a right to appeal against the just and divine sentence of condemnation. Your mouth is stopped and when God gives you permission to speak all you can say is, “I wish it wasn’t me.” Every imagination of the thoughts of your heart is only evil continually, and God is perfectly righteous in his sentence. Then I must know tonight that I am in Christ. That is the safest place in all of heaven and earth and I must cry to God that he will join me to his Son for the Bible tells me this, that there is no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus. May that be me! May I be in him and give God no rest until I know I am.
7th October 2012 GEOFF THOMAS