As it pertains to Christian theology, the importance of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans has not been understated in church history. However, that has not prevented confusion over Paul’s defense of Israel in chapters 9—11. Therefore, it would be helpful to carefully examine these three chapters in order to rightly divide the Bible’s position on Israel for the present age.
If you have ever sought to understand the letter to the Romans, upon arriving at chapter 9 you might have found yourself asking, “What does the Jewish nation of Israel have to do with my salvation in Christ?” You wouldn’t be the first person to ask this question in one form or another because, for many, it often seems that Paul has abruptly changed the subject after chapter 8. But has he?
Much of the confusion in the modern church begins with just how understated the long, unique, dramatic, and rich history of God’s relationship with Israel really is—the history contained in the perpetually relevant Old Testament (Hebrew: Tanakh). Modern Christians simply don’t know how important Israel is to God. Remember what David contemplated long ago in 2 Samuel 7:23–24 when he asked, “And who is like Your people, like Israel, the one nation on the earth whom God went to redeem for Himself as a people, to make for Himself a name—and to do for Yourself great and awesome deeds for Your land—before Your people whom You redeemed for Yourself from Egypt, the nations, and their gods? For You have made Your people Israel Your very own people forever; and You, Lᴏʀᴅ, have become their God” (emphasis added). In other words, no other nation in the world has had the privilege that Israel possesses: “to be a people for Himself, a special treasure above all the peoples on the face of the earth” (Dt. 7:6).
No other nation in the world has had the privilege that Israel possesses: “to be a people for Himself, a special treasure above all the peoples on the face of the earth.”
Paul’s audience in the first century, both Jews and Gentiles, understood Israel’s unique status before God very well. So imagine their surprise when Paul explains in Romans 1—3 that all people, whether Jewish or Gentile, are under condemnation! Imagine their surprise when Paul looks back at Abraham and reveals to them in Romans 3—5 that Jews are justified in the same way as Gentiles, which is by faith (Romans 3:28; 4:16; 5:1) and not by works of the Law (Romans 3:20). Let’s marvel with the first century audience as we find in Romans 6—8 that Jews and Gentiles alike can be freed from the consequences of violating the Law (Torah)! How? By being joined to the Messiah who was raised from the dead after dying for our violations of that very Law (7:4), allowing us to be sanctified, not by the Law, but by the Spirit (v. 6).
In summary, Paul begins rejoicing in chapter 8 over the fact that, despite the condemnation of both Jews and Gentiles articulated way back in Romans 1, God has made a way for all people to be reconciled. Since we are justified by God, and not by our own deeds, Paul asks: “Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen?” (8:33, NIV). This prompts Paul to proclaim in Romans 8:39 that basically nothing “can separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Israel’s Irrevocable Calling
Romans 8:39, then, is where the subject of Israel looms large in the audience’s mind. If Paul has just said that nothing can separate us from the love of God, then the challenge Paul anticipates from his readers can be worded like this: “Hasn’t Israel been separated from God for their rejection of Him in the form of their Messiah?” In his three-chapters-long discourse, Paul will emphatically answer “no” to this question. However, this discourse comes with warnings. No individual, whether Jew or Gentile, will be spared if they reject God the Son. This causes Paul, in his defense of Israel, to begin with the attitude that we should possess for everyone who is currently rejecting God: sorrow. Paul’s love for his Israelite family is so great that he wishes he himself could be cursed in place of those in Israel who reject the Messiah (9:1–3).
Even so, the fact that Israel is largely in unbelief towards Jesus (Yeshua) compels Paul to reassert the Old Testament truth that Israel’s national calling is “irrevocable” (11:29). Beginning in Romans 9:4, Paul articulates six irrevocable possessions belonging to the Jewish people: “the adoption as sons . . . the glory, the covenants, the giving of the Law, the temple service, and the promises” (NASB). In 9:5, he adds two more elements to remind us of Israel’s unchangeable heritage in stating that to them “belong the patriarchs, and from them, the Messiah descended, who is God over all, the one who is forever blessed. Amen” (ISV). I’ll briefly explain these first six elements from Paul’s list one by one.
Israel’s Eternal Promises
First, the “adoption as sons” reminds us of Moses’ warning from God to Pharaoh way back in Exodus 4:22–23: “Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the Lᴏʀᴅ: “Israel is My son, My firstborn. So I say to you, let My son go that he may serve Me. But if you refuse to let him go, indeed I will kill your son, your firstborn.” Sadly, many do not hear Israel being spoken of as the firstborn nation today.
Second, when Paul says that to Israel belongs “the glory” (Hebrew, shekinah), we are being reminded of how the glory of God dwelt among and led Israel in a cloud of smoke and fire. Recall Exodus 16:10: “Now it came to pass, as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the children of Israel, that they looked toward the wilderness, and behold, the glory of the Lᴏʀᴅ appeared in the cloud” (cf. Exodus 13:21). This is the same Glory Cloud that rested over the Tabernacle of Meeting (Exodus 40:34) and later, the Temple (1 Kings 8:10–11). When the Messiah (Mashiach, Greek: Christos) arrived, He selectively revealed His glory (Matthew 17). But when He returns, the whole world will behold His glory (Daniel 7:13–14; Matthew 24:29–31; Revelation 1:5–8). He will be enthroned in glory at the Millennial Temple in Jerusalem (Ezekiel 43:2–7; Matthew 25:31).
Third, when Paul says that to Israel belong “the covenants,” we are being reminded that God made covenants that call for Israel to be the conduit of blessing to the entire world. They are the Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic, and New Covenants.
God has made a way for all people to be reconciled.
Fourth, Israel was similarly given the Law at Sinai. This Law articulated for Israel exactly how God was to be worshiped in the presence of His glory, which Paul calls the “Temple-Service” (NASB) or “worship” (NIV).
The Temple-Service, the fifth irrevocable possession, is one part of Israel’s heritage that has been temporarily suspended in this age but will be transformed by the Messiah to be seen in greater detail in the Millennial Kingdom of Christ where Jesus will reign from Jerusalem (Ezekiel 37:24–28; 43:1–7; Zechariah 2:10–13, Revelation 20:4–10).
In conclusion, the sixth of Israel’s perpetual possessions that Paul enumerates would be “the Promises,” which can be summarized as the hope (tikvah) of the Davidic Kingdom’s restoration. This kingdom-hope is littered throughout the Old Testament (Tanakh), and in the New Testament Jesus affirmed its reality for Israel at a time in the future known only to God the Father (Acts 1:6–7).
Nevertheless, after declaring that these possessions still belong to Israel, Paul has more to say with regard to personal and corporate election to salvation before his famous doxology to God that concludes his treatise on the Jewish nation (Romans 11:33–36). We’ll address more of this in parts 2 and 3 of this series.