Who is Israel? Part 1: Romans 9-11

[Photo by nour tayeh on Unsplash]

Who is God's "Israel?" The identity of the Chosen People in the Hebrew Bible is pretty obvious. God chooses Abraham and his descendants to serve as part of his plan and remedy for the problem of human sin. God reveals his laws to this family and their job is to represent him to the nations, to attract them to God's ways by living an exemplary lifestyle (Genesis 12:1-3, 15:1-21, 22:15-28; Deuteronomy 4:1-14).

But when the New Testament rolls around, books like Acts, Romans, Galatians, and others make it very clear that there are tensions between the original and predominantly Jewish followers of Jesus and the sudden influx of non-Jewish (Gentile) people into the church. In Galatians, for example, the big debate is whether or not non-Jewish men who convert to Christianity are obligated to become ethnically identified with Judaism by being circumcised. Other discussions about food purity and holy days come about precisely because of cultural conflicts.

But this dilemma did, in fact, go two ways. In Romans 11, Paul has to address a question that would have been floating in the air for many of the Gentile (non-Jewish) church members in Rome: "I ask, then, has God rejected his own people, the nation of Israel?" His answer to this rhetorical question is crucial for us if we are to understand the New Testament concept of Israel correctly: "Of course not! I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham and a member of the tribe of Benjamin." (Romans 11:1 NLT)

Paul's own personal connection to the nation of Israel was very important to him. This whole section of Romans - starting in chapter 9 and going to the end of chapter 11 - explores how Paul as a Jewish Christian reconciles himself with the fact that many of his fellow Jews did not accept Jesus as the prophesied Messiah. Rather than adopting an attitude that says "Well, God is just done with Israel now," or perhaps "God has replaced Israel with the Church," Paul clarifies and redefines what it means to be a part of "Israel." As he puts it in one verse, "For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel." (Romans 9:6 NIV)

Or, to get more context:

2 My heart is filled with bitter sorrow and unending grief 3 for my people, my Jewish brothers and sisters. I would be willing to be forever cursed—cut off from Christ!—if that would save them. 4 They are the people of Israel, chosen to be God’s adopted children. God revealed his glory to them. He made covenants with them and gave them his law. He gave them the privilege of worshiping him and receiving his wonderful promises. 5 Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are their ancestors, and Christ himself was an Israelite as far as his human nature is concerned. And he is God, the one who rules over everything and is worthy of eternal praise! Amen.

6 Well then, has God failed to fulfill his promise to Israel? No, for not all who are born into the nation of Israel are truly members of God’s people! 7 Being descendants of Abraham doesn’t make them truly Abraham’s children. For the Scriptures say, “Isaac is the son through whom your descendants will be counted,” though Abraham had other children, too. 8 This means that Abraham’s physical descendants are not necessarily children of God. Only the children of the promise are considered to be Abraham’s children. (Romans 9:1-8 NLT)

As a side note, the New Living Translation does an excellent job translating these three chapters in a way that is readable and makes the logic easy to follow, which isn't always the case in some translations. I highly recommend reading through all three chapters in the NLT if you have the time.

For Paul, being a descendant of Abraham is about having the same kind of faith and trust in God as Abraham did (Romans 4:9-17), and not necessarily only about being physically descended from Abraham. After all, the Edomites (descendants of Esau) also traced their lineage back to Abraham, but they were not the chosen ones. At the same time, though, the Torah gave the Israelites instructions like this:

"7 “Do not detest the Edomites or the Egyptians, because the Edomites are your relatives and you lived as foreigners among the Egyptians.8 The third generation of Edomites and Egyptians may enter the assembly of the Lord." (Deuteronomy 23:7-8 NLT)

The New Testament is in fact full of references to Jesus choosing to minister to people and places who had been historical enemies of Israel in previous times. Jesus speaks in indirectly positive ways about Tyre and Sidon (Matt 11:22), ministers to Syrians (Matthew 4:24) and Syro-Phoenicians (Mark 7:26), Samaritans (John 4), and even Romans (Luke 7:1-10). For Paul, "there is no distinction:23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, (Romans 3:22-23 NIV). To be one of God's chosen people is not necessarily about ethnicity, but about faith.

This also makes sense of some of the language in the prophet Hosea and other prophets in the Hebrew Bible who speak of God divorcing Israel leading up to the exile in Babylon. Because Israel had broken faith with God by violating the terms of the covenant, they had demonstrated that they were not really "his people" (Hosea 1:2-11, note especially verses 9-11). But Hosea also speaks of God restoring his relationship with Israel, as well as saying that "not my people" could become "my people."

So when it comes down to Paul's discussion with the Romans, he already has a lot of material to draw on. God has, after all, appointed Paul to be the apostle to the Gentiles (Acts 22:21), and Paul knows both the history of his people, their back-and-forth relationship with God, and the promise that Abraham's descendants will be as numerous as the sand on the seashore and the stars in the sky, while also bringing God's blessings to the whole world.

And so, for Paul, Israel is defined as those who believe God and believe in the way that God provided for people to be in a relationship with him. God does not categorically reject the nation of Israel - his selection of them as the chosen people still holds for the sake of his promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob - but he does reveal that his definition of "Israelite" is broad enough to include non-Jewish people who have a full and true faith in God, which is brought about through the message of Jesus.

"28 Many of the people of Israel are now enemies of the Good News, and this benefits you Gentiles. Yet they are still the people he loves because he chose their ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.29 For God’s gifts and his call can never be withdrawn." (Romans 11:28-29 NLT)

Paul does, however, believe that one day many people physically descended from Abraham and Jacob will come to believe in the gospel. The time in-between has been opened up for Gentiles to be brought into the family, but Paul declares that someday, when the full possible number of Gentiles come into the faith, many Jewish people will also come to accept the gospel. How this is going to happen, Paul doesn't say, but leaves up to the sovereignty and wisdom of God.

25 I want you to understand this mystery, dear brothers and sisters, so that you will not feel proud about yourselves. Some of the people of Israel have hard hearts, but this will last only until the full number of Gentiles comes to Christ.26 And so all Israel will be saved. (Romans 11:25-26 NLT)

I would encourage you, having read this article so far, to read through all of Romans 9-11 with this background information in mind. It makes it all the more impactful when Paul finally arrives from his sorrowful and bitter introduction (Romans 9:1-2) to his triumphant and awe-filled declarations at the end:

33 Oh, how great are God’s riches and wisdom and knowledge! How impossible it is for us to understand his decisions and his ways!

34 For who can know the Lord’s thoughts?
   Who knows enough to give him advice?
35 And who has given him so much
   that he needs to pay it back?

36 For everything comes from him and exists by his power and is intended for his glory. All glory to him forever! Amen. (Romans 11:33-36 NLT)

It is extremely important to note, though, one of the unavoidable implications of this: there is not a separate plan of salvation for Jewish people than there is for Gentiles. God's plan was the Messiah, Jesus. God does not have a separate plan to save Jewish people that involves bringing them back to the Promised Land, or re-instituting the sacrificial system of the Temple. That theology, commonly known as Dispensationalism, has led to a significant misunderstanding of the scriptures for many Christians, and in some cases contributes to serious political problems in the world.

We will touch more next week on the way that our understanding of Biblical Israel, the Church, and Modern Israel, affects not just our own understanding of the Bible, but also the way we will understand events in our world today.

For now, please do take the time to read or listen to Romans 9-11 and think about the expansiveness and complexity of God's plan to save all people, regardless of the national or ethnic background.

Study Questions:

  • Keeping in mind everything you have read above, read through Romans 9-11 and reflect carefully on what problem Paul is trying to solve. Think of the following:

  • What are the implications of the gospel message for discussions of racism, ethnocentrism, nationalism, and so on?

  • What do you think of the concept of Christian anti-semitism? Why does it not make sense for Christians to hate or discriminate against Jewish people?

  • How often have you thought about the implications of the gospel for Jewish people? Is it something you have thought a lot about or no? Are there things you read in Romans 9-11 that you think might come across offensive to Jewish people?

  • What does this passage clarify (or not clarify) about the relationship between the law, works, faith, and righteousness?

  • Do you feel that your own relationship with God is based more on your good works and deeds, or simply on your trust in God?

  • Do you think that God seems inclusive or exclusive in these three chapters? Is it a mix of both? What in the passage makes you feel this way?

  • In chapter 10, Paul has a lot to say about mission, preaching, and evangelism. Do any of these quotes give you a sense of urgency about mission?

  • What do you find interesting, if anything, about the way Paul uses quotes from the Hebrew Bible? Do most of them make sense to you? Try finding the references and go back to read those passages. What further insights can you get?

  • What do you make of Paul's statement that God is "both kind and severe" in 11:22? Does that seem like a contradiction, or do you think there's a way to make sense of it? What do you think Paul himself means by saying that?

  • In the story of the Hebrew Bible, the Israelites come into the Promised Land and conquered many of the local people, because God directly told them to do so. In later history, other people groups have adopted a similar mindset - believing that their national or ethnic group is "God's chosen people" and using this as a justification for commiting acts of violence, displacement, and even genocide against others. The Manifest Destiny in 18th century America is one prominent example of this. Given what you have read about God's inclusion of all people in his plan of salvation through the Messiah, how likely is it that - in the time since Jesus died - God has commanded one "chosen people" to wipe out another group of people? Can such an idea be reconciled with the gospel?

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