Sunday School Notes: Romans 10:14-19
14 How, therefore, will they call upon [one] in whom they do not believe? And how will they believe in whom they haven’t heard? And how will they hear apart from one preaching? 15 And how will they preach unless they are sent? Just as it is written, ‘How pleasant [or 'timely'] are the feet of the one proclaiming good news [about] good things!’ 16 But not all obeyed the good news. For Isaiah says, ‘Lord, who has believed our report?’ 17 Therefore, faith [is] from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ. 18 But, I say, they haven’t heard, have they? Rather, ‘Unto all the earth their voice went out, and their words unto the ends of the world.’ 19 But, I say, surely Israel didn’t know? Moses first says, ‘I shall provoke you to jealousy by a non-nation; by a nation without understanding I will make you angry.’
Since verses 14 and 15 are often used today in the context of missions, we started out this week with a brief discussion of what it means to be a missionary. Some who had been on the mission field, either short-term or long-term, shared a little of their experiences, and how it affected them to see cultures who have so little materially, but love God and seem to be spiritually wealthy. We took this a step further and considered what it means to be a missionary, not just in the “world missions” sense, but in the sense of the mission field where we are. We may not feel called to pack up and go to another country, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t called to the mission field of our home, our work, our neighborhood. And while we would take the time to prepare to go on a foreign mission by learning about the culture and values of the people in that country, we often don’t take the same time with regard to those in our home, our work, or our neighborhood. Do we understand our co-worker’s value system? Do we know what our neighbor’s spiritual beliefs are? Do we feel equipped to respond to their questions, or to challenge their worldview? These are questions I think worth contemplating, and perhaps acting upon.
In verse 13, Paul quotes Joel 2:32, “For all who call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” He uses the term “call upon” (Greek: epikaleô) as his launching point for verses 14 and 15. “Call upon” here is meant in the sense of “appeal to,” as in for salvation–not simply calling out the Lord’s name. I believe these series of questions are meant to be an objection to what Paul has been saying previously about the clarity and pervasiveness of the gospel proclamation. The Jews (and Gentiles, too) have heard the gospel. It’s not something they have to hunt around to find. Jesus came down in the incarnation, was risen from the dead, and the apostles have been about the business of spreading the good news. The objection is that for people (particularly Israel) to call upon the Lord (in this context, Christ), they need to believe in him, and to do that they need hear about him, and hence they need to be told, and for that to happen people need to be sent out.
Paul’s response in verse 15 is with Isaiah 52:7. To begin with, even quoting the Old Testament is Paul’s way of saying “this is not news to you–this has been in your Scriptures for centuries!” I noted in the translation that the word commonly rendered “beautiful” or “pleasant” can also be translated “timely” in both Greek and Hebrew (Greek: hôraioi; Hebrew: nâ’wu). I think Paul’s use of this verse is to point to the fact that there have been messengers sent with the good news already. If we accept the translation “timely,” this underscores the point even more: at the right time, the messengers came–and they come today in the form of missionaries. It follows, then, that if the messengers have been sent, then the message has been preached, the people have heard, and it is now incumbent upon them to believe and call upon the Lord. Interestingly, Paul doesn’t finish the quote from Isaiah 52:7, which one would think he might since the complete quotation speaks of the proclamation of salvation–something very relevant to Paul’s point. Why is this? Perhaps Paul intended to focus on the point that messengers have been sent. Or perhaps Paul was using a popular rabbinic teaching technique of quoting part of a verse intending the hearers to fill in the rest of the verse or passage. Indeed, his Jewish audience ought to have known this passage, and would have likely been able to fill in the rest.
But not all–i.e., “a few” (Paul seems to be making use of British understatement here!)–have obeyed. It’s important to note that Paul doesn’t use the Greek verb akouô, meaning “to hear,” at this point. In the previous section, he did speak of the need for people to hear the message. Now, however, he uses the verb hupakouô, which means to obey, to submit, or to follow. If they ought to have obeyed, this implies they have already heard the message. The people who did not obey failed not because they hadn’t heard, but in rebellion to the clear proclamation of the gospel message. Paul quotes Isaiah 53:1 to emphasize the point, and, again, to demonstrate that what he says has been a part of Jewish teaching for a long, long time.
Verse 17 is a recap and a return to the point: faith comes by hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ. That is, through the word about Christ, i.e., the gospel. This might also be a reference to the fact that the word preached is the word that Christ preached originally to the disciples, which they now pass on.
We’ve seen so far in Romans how much Paul likes to use questions from hypothetical opponents to help make his argument (e.g., “What shall we say, then? Shall we sin that grace may abound?”). Here we have a series of questions starting with “But, I say…” (Greek: alla legô), that serve the same function. “But, I say, they [i.e., the Jews] haven’t heard, have they?” The hypothetical questioner doubts that Israel really has heard the gospel message. Paul responds with Psalm 19:4. In context, this psalm is talking about how the glory of God is manifest throughout the world–indeed, the universe. The heavens declare God’s glory to the ends of the earth. Paul seems to be saying that just as the voice of proclamation went out over the earth declaring God’s glory, so a voice of proclamation has also gone out, declaring God’s glory in terms of salvation for all who believe, to the ends of the earth. But how could the gospel have gone out to “the ends of the earth” at this time (around 56 or 57 AD)? We know missionary activity hadn’t really gone much beyond the Roman Empire as it was at that time (and perhaps not even to all places within Roman reach).
The key to understanding Paul’s use of this passage is the Greek word oikoumenê. This word has a broad range of meanings, but the main idea behind it is one of organization, arrangement, or planning. It’s the word from which we get the English word “economy.” It can refer to how a household is structured, or even how the Godhead (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) works together. In this context, it refers to an organization of cities, regions, countries, or even the universe. So where the psalmist may use it in the sense of the world, Paul may use it in the sense of the Roman Empire, or a great number of countries therein.
As a point of interest, Paul doesn’t introduce this passage by saying “Scripture says,” so it’s possible he’s not intending a literal understanding of it. He may well be using an Old Testament passage his audience would know in order to help make his point, that the gospel message has indeed gone out far and wide. That is, it’s possible he’s using familiar words, but he’s not really concerned with how much they relate to the original psalm.
In verse 19 we have another “But, I say…” objection: surely Israel didn’t know? And Paul responds by quoting Deuteronomy 32:21. Paul has been making much use of Deuteronomy, which may be deliberate. Since these Jewish Christians put so much stock in the Law, he’s using that same Law to support what he’s saying, which further underlines the point that these are all things they’ve known since the beginning!
We didn’t get very far into verse 19, so this is where we’ll pick up next time.