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Israel in the New Testament
To make sense of New Testament prophecies concerning Israel, it is necessary to understand why God's chosen people didn't choose to follow Him.

Behind these chapters, and indeed the whole letter, lies the fact of a radical ethnic shift in the early Church. The first apostles and members were all Jewish. After all, Jesus was the Jewish Messiah. But Paul had been commissioned to take the Gospel to the Gentiles. Though he always announced it to the Jews "first" (1:16), their rejection drove him to "turn to the Gentiles" (Acts13:46;15:17; 28:28).

… wrong conclusions were drawn. The removal of many hostile … Jews, was seen as a sign of divine displeasure toward the whole race.

So successful was this strategy that the number of Gentiles believing in the Jewish "Christ" (the Greek for "Messiah" with the same meaning of "anointed one") greatly increased and the proportion of Jewish believers sharply decreased.

The Church in Rome was probably the first to be entirely Gentile. Jewish hostility, amounting to civil disturbance, led the emperor Claudius to banish all Jews from Rome in AD 49, including the minority of believers like Aquila and Priscilla (see Acts 18:2).

It is understandable, if inexcusable, that wrong conclusions were drawn. The removal of the many hostile, and even the few sympathetic Jews, was seen as a sign of divine displeasure toward the whole race. His chosen people, having rejected the Son, had now been rejected by the Father.

The seeds of later Christian anti-Semitism and so-called "Replacement" theology were being sown. Paul had to nip this in the bud, even before he was able to get there personally, not least to help the Jewish believers, when all Jews were allowed to return to Rome under Nero some years later, to be welcomed back and re-integrated. But his major concern was to avoid the Church splitting into two denominations (Jewish and Gentile, Petrine and Pauline; see Galatians 2:7).

History's greatest irony

Paul begins by sharing his own personal agony over history's greatest irony—that God's chosen people chose not to follow their own Messiah.

They were as a result, accursed (see 9:3), lost (see 10:1) and even godless (see 11:26). So great was Paul's pain, he would have changed places with them, gone to hell if it would get them to heaven. But while his Lord could and did do this, Paul could only reflect his compassion.

The irony was all the greater in the light of their privileges—adopted sonship, divine glory, gracious covenants, received law, temple worship, noble patriarchs and above all, the human Messiah who was also divine (the list in 9:4-5 is not exhaustive, not mentioning Scriptures, kings, prophets or the land).

Had all this investment over the centuries in this one people been a huge mistake, a terrible waste? While they had, as a whole, failed God, was it not also a reflection on Him? Had He not also failed to keep His word, His promises to them?

While Paul is totally open and honest about the sins of his "brothers … My own race … The people of Israel," he will not hear any implied criticism of his people's God.

They may be in the wrong but He is always in the right. Paul springs to His defence in what we call a "theodicy," a justification of God's ways and wisdom.

A sovereign, selective God

The issue has clearly been a mental as well as an emotional problem for Paul himself and it was resolved when he realised that the divine identity of Israel was with the physical descendants of Jacob (the first to bear the name Israel).

Indeed, the same was true of his father and grandfather. Abraham had eight sons. One was illegitimate (Ishmael, father of today's Arabs), six were by his second wife but only one was a miraculous conception, the result of a divine promise, Isaac. That choice of him for the godly line was not a question of motherhood is clear from the next generation where of twins by the same father (Isaac) and mother, one is selected to continue the godly line and nothing to do with later merit, or demerit. In both generations God chose the younger, the elder being the natural deserving heir.

God's freedom in selecting some and not others has always been ground for accusing Him of injustice …

The stark quotation from Malachi ("Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated") needs to be seen against two qualifying thoughts. First, that divine love and hate are initiatory actions of the will rather than involuntary emotions of the heart (cf. Deuteronomy 7:8; Luke 14:26). Second, that Malachi, writing centuries later, refers to peoples rather than individual ancestors, whose godly and ungodly character had become only too obvious.

Divine injustice?

God's freedom in selecting some and not others has always been ground for accusing Him of injustice, the assumption that if any have such a right, then all have. Paul answers this by pointing out that it is not a question of merit (and therefore justice) at all but mercy. Anyone exercising mercy is totally free to choose its recipients (quoting Exodus 33:19; cf Matthew 20:15).

Since all have sinned, as Paul has already demonstrated (see chs. 1-3), God is within His rights to show mercy to some. On the negative side, He is also free to treat others harshly, hardening their hearts (against Himself!).

Those eager to find fault with God (and to justify themselves) will respond to this approach with a further charge of injustice. Assuming that Paul implies that we are mere puppets in God's hands and our characters, good or bad, the result of His arbitrary whims, how can He have the nerve to judge us? If He is responsible for softening or hardening us, how can He hold us to account?

Paul deals with the attitude behind the accusation before giving an answer. His response is: Who do you think you are? (and, by implication: Who do you think God is?). He is the creator, you are a creature. You are accountable to Him, not He to you.

Such talk is impious and impudent. But Paul does not leave it there, though some Christians (ultra-Calvinist) have done so. Overlooking the facts that God's choice of Israel was as a people rather than individual persons and for service rather than salvation, they teach a double predestination (to be saved or lost) based on an arbitrary (to us) choice or at least on inscrutable reasons of His own, ignoring Paul's qualifications of human responsibility (see ch.10) and divine intention to extend mercy to all (see ch.11).

The classic case of hardening being Pharoah's heart, Paul reminds his readers that God showed great patience first, giving time for him to repent and receive mercy. Only after Pharoah repeatedly hardened his own heart did God push him down the path he had chosen. Though the potter has the right to mould the clay in whatever way he chooses, the divine potter responds to the response of the clay in His hands (as Jeremiah 18 makes clear).

Not only did God have a reason which justified Pharoah's hardening; He also had a purpose for doing it, namely, to show the people He was rescuing from Pharoah His power, which they would both trust and respect. There is nothing arbitrary or capricious in a God of justice and mercy.

Many Gentiles, few Jews

Having dealt with these objections, Paul returns to the main issue: the disproportion of Jewish to Gentile believers in the Church of the Jewish Messiah. So far he has shown that God is not dependant on numbers to fulfil His purpose (as Gideon found out). A minority plus God is a majority. God did not need all Israel, though it was vital to have some. In fact, He anticipated having many Gentiles, as the prophet Hosea predicted (see 2:23;1:10) and few Jews, as the prophet Isaiah admitted (see 10:22-23;1:9).

The Jews got one thing absolutely right. … They also got one thing terribly wrong.

But the question remains—why so many Gentiles (today millions) have become disciples of the Jewish Jesus and so few Jews (today thousands), especially when the Jews were so zealous for God while Gentiles have hardly bothered. The answer is in one word: righteousness.

The Jews got one thing absolutely right. God was righteous and needed a righteous people to represent and reveal Him on earth. They also got one thing terribly wrong. They assumed righteousness was a long way off, requiring a lifetime of intense effort to pursue it.

The two ways

There are, however, two ways to be righteous, one of which fails while the other succeeds.

The Mosaic way is a long road, to be travelled by trying hard to keep all God's laws (not just the ten commandments but 603 others!) for a whole lifetime. Even partial achievement, which is all most Jews manage, produces a self-righteous pride that is more obnoxious than humbling failure.

The Messianic way is a large Rock in the middle of the road (not "it," but He—the Messiah Himself). Those running after righteousness will fall over this stumbling block, but those standing on this stepping stone will immediately be within reach of God's righteousness given to all who believe in His Son.

Here then are the two ways to become righteous: trying or trusting; works of law or words of faith; a long (never-ending) road or a large (personal) Rock; a righteousness beyond reach (in practice as distant as the realms of angels or the dead) or as near as one's mouth or heart; and as simple as a cry for help from one through the other.

A worldwide Gospel

Such saving words are not spoken until the good news of this new way have been heard. So preachers (literally announcers—news reporters) have to be sent, and have been sent into the whole world. Gentiles have readily, even eagerly, accepted and applied the message. Jews have been reluctant and even resistant.

Have they any excuse? Perhaps they haven't heard? Oh yes they have. Both in their own land and throughout the diaspora (dispersed among other nations) they are aware of Jesus' claim to be their redeemer/Saviour. Perhaps they haven't understood? If non-Jews so easily grasp such a simple Gospel, Jews surely can!

The truth is they have heard and understood, as their own prophets foretold they would, but they recognised the profound challenge to their traditional practice of their religion, which had now been short-circuited, even rendered obsolete (cf. Hebrews 8:13).

The real reason was spiritual pride leading to a wilful refusal to do what they were being told and an obstinate unwillingness to change their ways. It is both hard and humbling to repent of good deeds as well as bad deeds, to turn from self-righteousness as well as self-indulgence.

So what will God do with them now that they have rejected His offer …

That is why their Messiah found it easier to make friends with sinners than Pharisees. Such stubbornness was nothing new. It had dogged their history. God had pleaded with them for centuries to go His way rather than their own (Isaiah 65:1-2). What He looked and longed for was simple trust leading to obedience.

Paul is clearly under no illusions about the majority of his fellow countrymen, Israel as a whole. So what will God do with them now that they have rejected His offer of righteousness through His own Son, their own Messiah?

The natural conclusion would be that He would reject them as they had rejected Him, that He would write them off and choose a new people (a new Israel) to fulfil His purpose—albeit incorporating in this new body the minority of Jews who had learned to share Abraham's faith rather than trusting in his flesh.

But God is full of surprises, as we shall see when we finally reach the 11th chapter of Romans.

This is the second in a four part series.

Related article

Israel and the Bible

David Pawson has a B.Sc. in Agriculture and an M.A. in Theology from Cambridge. He was a Chaplain in the RAF for three years and went on to become pastor of two Baptist Churches (Gold Hill in Buckinghamshire and the Millmead Centre in Guildford).

Originally published in Israel and Christians Today, Spring/Summer 2003.




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