Today’s note is on Romans 9:30-33, supplemental to the series on Paul’s View of the Law (in Romans). Verses 30-33 represent the last of three rhetorical questions in chapter 9 (vv. 14ff, 19ff, 30ff); it begins, as in v. 14: ti/ ou@n e)rou=men; “What then shall we declare (i.e. say about this?)” The answer to the first question in v. 14 was decisively negative: “there is not injustice alongside God (is there)?”—answer: “may it not come to be (so)!” (mh\ ge/noito). The question in vv. 30-31 has two parts:
- “that the nations, the (one)s not pursuing justice/righteousness, took down [i.e. took hold of] justice/righteousness?” (v. 30)
- “but (that) Israel, pursuing (the) Law of justice/righteousness, did not reach/arrive (first) unto (this) Law?” (v. 31)
Based on previous such questions, one might expect another negative response; however, Paul here responds with an implicit affirmation. The verbs used are worth considering:
- diw/kw “set in motion”, especially in the sense of “set out after”, i.e. pursue after. It is often used in a negative sense—to pursue with hostile intent, sometimes translated as “persecute”. Here Paul means it in a positive sense, as in Rom 12:13; 14:19; 1 Cor 14:1; Phil 3:12, 14; 1 Thess 5:15—seeking after something (of value) with the hope of obtaining it.
- katalamba/nw, lit. “take down”, generally meaning “take hold of”, “seize, grasp”, etc., but also “overtake”; it can also mean “apprehend” or “comprehend” in a metaphorical/intellectual sense. Elsewhere (1 Cor 9:24; Phil 3:12-13), Paul’s uses it in the context of a race, where the runner seeks to overtake his opponent and obtain the prize.
- fqa/nw, “to be (or do) first”, i.e. to arrive at or reach a goal before someone else, again in the context of a race.
The idea seems to be that Israel, following the Law (Torah), should have reached the goal (that is, the end of the “race”) before the Gentiles. According to Paul, Christ is the end (te/lo$) of the race, and the goal to which the Law pointed, cf. Rom 10:4; and yet, Gentiles have reached (and taken hold) of the prize ahead of many Israelites. The goal was reached by responding to the Gospel that was proclaimed to them, and trusting in Christ. Paul discusses Israel’s response to the Gospel specifically in chapter 10. Many of the Gentiles who came to faith in Christ were “sinners” (1 Cor 6:11), and, as such, were not “pursuing justice and righteousness”—certainly not in the traditional religious or moral sense of the term. Through trust (faith), they obtained the justice/righteousness (of God) that is made manifest in Christ (cf. Rom 3:21ff; 1 Cor 1:30, etc). This Paul explains in vv. 32-33 (dia\ ti/ “through what [i.e. why]?”):
“…(in) that [i.e. because] (it was) not out of trust [e)k pi/stew$], but as out of works [e)c e&rgwn]”
Paul here, yet again, contrasts trust in Christ with observance of the Law (Torah), understood specifically as deeds, doing, i.e. “works”. The use of the particle w($ (“how, as, as if”) is interesting; he is perhaps emphasizing the mode or manner of pursuit. The (failed) result of Israel’s pursuit Paul expounds figuratively: “they struck against the stone of striking-against [i.e. the stone that one strikes against]”. The verb prosko/ptw means to strike [lit. cut] toward [i.e. against] something, often with the image of striking one’s foot against a rock (so as to fall); the noun pro/skomma is often used in sense of something which causes one to stumble and fall, either literally or figuratively. Paul’s use of these two words here anticipates his citation of Isa 28:16 (combined with Isa 8:14), a passage quoted also in 1 Peter 2:6-8 (and cf. Matt 21:42; Luke 20:17; Eph 2:20). This very application of Isa 28:16 says something significant about the early Christian view of the Law: the foundation or cornerstone of the Temple site is Jesus Christ and the Gospel message about him. This is one of several key examples in the New Testament where Jesus himself is seen as taking the place of the forms and elements of the old covenant.