Paul here makes a bold claim about a central feature of his outlook. We can see from his words that he was a very emotional man, marked by great love for his fellow Israelites. Of course, it was not only Israelites that moved him emotionally. His writings reveal a man who often expressed himself through tears.
In Philippians 3:18-19, he describes how he felt about Gentiles who opposed his message: ‘For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.’ He reminded the Ephesians elders that when he was in Ephesus he had not ceased ‘night or day to admonish every one with tears’ (Acts 20:31). In 2 Corinthians 2:4, he describes how he wrote a previous letter to the church in Corinth: ‘For I wrote to you out of much affliction and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to cause you pain but to let you know the abundant love that I have for you.’
So we can see that Paul shed tears for a variety of people. So what can we say about his tears for the Israelites?
First, Paul here links his concern for the Israelites with an awareness of the security of God’s people. The apostle completed the previous chapter in Romans with an exceptionally strong affirmation of the impossibility of any Christian not experiencing the fullness of salvation. Yet the security did not make him selfish regarding those not yet converted. Instead it led to deep concern over them.
Second, it was likely that he expected some people would be surprised by his heartfelt concern for Israelites. The surprise was because of the way he had been treated by the Jews when he took the gospel to them. In many places they had opposed him strongly and indeed had often persecuted him physically and in other ways. What was his response? He wept over them.
Third, the apostle sought to ensure that his readers realised that his sorrow for the Israelites was mainly spiritual. There was an ethnic aspect to it because he and they were Jews. Yet what moved him to tears was their rejection of the blessings connected to their spiritual privileges, which he lists in this passage.
Fourth, Paul wanted his readers to know that his sorrow was serious, that he was prepared personally to be lost in hell if that would enable them to be saved. Paul knew that could not be the case, yet it was what he felt. His sorrow was certainly not merely skin-deep. He understood in a measure the reality of a lost eternity, yet such was his love for his people that he was willing to undergo hell if they could get to heaven. He was like Moses, who also had indicated that he was willing to be lost in order for his countrymen to be saved (Exod. 32:32).
Fifth, although Paul had this concern about his people, he also knew that many of them had become Christians. So he understood that conversions were possible from among them. Yet this grasp of things did not make Paul clinical or indifferent to their fate. Could it be that he realised that tears were an essential feature of the path to spiritual success in the evangelism of his people?
Sixth, Paul’s outlook for the Israelites was shared by God. We can see this detailed by Paul when he connects his outlook with his union with Christ and with the Holy Spirit. We know that Jesus wept over the city of Jerusalem.
So we can say that Paul’s attitude of sorrow and anguish was Christlike, controlled by the Spirit, willing to be condemned by God instead of the Jews being condemned, constant in its presence, and deep in its expression.