vessels of wrath and vessels of mercy
What if God,
wanting to show His wrath and to make His power known,
endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath prepared for destruction,
and that He might make known the riches of His glory on the vessels of mercy,
which He had prepared beforehand for glory,
even us whom He called,
not of the Jews only,
but also of the Gentiles?
In the preceding passage (Romans 9:14-21), Pharaoh and Israel were likened to clay vessels formed from the same lump. They were both stubborn and stiff-necked, but God used them for different purposes. God used Pharaoh’s stubbornness to show His power and make His name known, and used Israel’s stiff-necked nature to show the greatness of His mercy. Pharaoh was a vessel of dishonor, Israel was a vessel of honor. This passage now introduces vessels of wrath and vessels of mercy. For the first few lines, it is natural to assume that the vessels of wrath correspond to Pharaoh and the Egyptians, and the vessels of mercy represent the Jews. However, it appears Paul used a literary sleight of hand, revealing in the last line that it is the Gentile believers who are the vessels of mercy and the Jews who are the vessels of wrath. It is a brilliantly performed reversal designed to astonish the reader and show the exceeding greatness of God’s wisdom in His work with the Jews. Let us look again at the passage in this light.
The passage shows God’s purpose by asking a long question, which we shall break into parts. What if God wanted the world to know of His wrath toward sin and power for judgment? Surely no one could fault God for giving a demonstration. What if His demonstration extended over centuries as He endured the ungodly rebellion of the Jewish people? Surely no one could fault God for being long-suffering. What if He did this so that repentant Gentiles may know the great magnitude of God’s mercy toward sinners?
God’s purpose in making the Jews His people was to demonstrate His wrath, power, and mercy. It is clear that His strategy was effective because, to this day, believing Gentiles learn of God’s wrath toward sin and His power to judge by looking at passages similar to the following verses.
As He says also in Hosea:
“I will call them My people, who were not My people,
And her beloved, who was not beloved.”
“And it shall come to pass in the place where it was said to them,
‘You are not My people,’
There they shall be called sons of the living God.”
Isaiah also cries out concerning Israel:
“Though the number of the children of Israel be as the sand of the sea,
The remnant will be saved.
For He will finish the work and cut it short in righteousness,
Because the Lord will make a short work upon the earth.”
And as Isaiah said before:
“Unless the Lord of Sabaoth had left us a seed,
We would have become like Sodom,
And we would have been made like Gomorrah.”
If God’s judgment on His people is this severe, what kind of judgment is reserved for the Gentiles? Believing Gentiles see this and realize God has shown them immeasurable mercy!
What shall we say then? That Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have attained to righteousness, even the righteousness of faith; but Israel, pursuing the law of righteousness, has not attained to the law of righteousness.
This begins the conclusion of the matter. Heathen Gentiles have received the righteousness of God through faith which is to all and on all who believe (Romans 3:21-22). But the nation of Isreal, the people of God, have not obtained this righteousness.
Recall how the chapter began by mourning how Israel, the people of God, have fallen outside the grace in Christ. It then raised the question of how the people of God could be outside the grace of God. Before answering this question, the chapter showed that the people of God were not His people because of their faithfulness to God. God made them His people despite their unfaithfulness to demonstrate certain of His attributes, namely, His wrath and power (along with His mercy). With that background, the passage finally answers the question of why Isreal has fallen outside God’s grace: it is because they have not attained the righteousness that the Gentiles received.
Why? Because they did not seek it by faith, but as it were, by the works of the law. For they stumbled at that stumbling stone. As it is written:
“Behold, I lay in Zion a stumbling stone and rock of offense,
And whoever believes on Him will not be put to shame.”
Why has Israel not received the righteousness in Christ? The answer is crystal clear. It is because they didn’t believe in Christ. They pursued righteousness through keeping the Law instead of receiving it by faith. For that reason, the people of God fell from grace.
I suppose at this juncture, some would ask, Why didn’t they have faith? Was it withheld from them? Thankfully, Paul answers this question in Romans 10…