Last week we established Israel’s uniqueness as the only people called “firstborn” among the nations in Scripture (Exodus 4:22). I’ve heard many rabbis observe: Being the chosen nation is not a point of privilege but of responsibility.
How true. Having been a firstborn son myself, I know the burden of going ahead of a younger sister and giving her an example of what to do (and not do) in order to honor our parents. With the Jewish people it’s much the same. All nations look to Israel’s story in the Bible, of striving with the heavenly Father (the very meaning of the word Israel), and those nations learn from Israel’s history. So, in light of the special status that Israel biblically possesses, we’ve shown how Paul (Shaul) answers questions that logically arise for his audience given everything God has revealed through the Roman epistle.
Individually some are chosen (elect) and some are not chosen within the chosen nation.
Significantly, if all are under condemnation, if all are justified only by faith, if by Messiah alone are all freed from the penalty of eternal death for violating the law, if nothing can separate us from the love of God when we are in Messiah, then what happens to God’s beloved Israel when they have largely rejected God in the flesh (Jesus/Yeshua)? After opening his discourse with sorrow for those in Israel who are rebellious towards God, yet defending that his people are still chosen (having the special possessions articulated in Romans 9:4–5), Paul answers the dilemma by stating that “they are not all Israel who are of Israel” (Romans 9:6). What does this mean? It does not mean that saved Gentiles are a new Israel. Rather, it means that individual Israelites can be cut off from the nation even though the nation itself will never end (Jeremiah 30:11; 46:28; Romans 11:1). In other words, individually some are chosen (elect) and some are not chosen within the chosen nation. This is the direction Paul’s discourse takes, a point on which we must elaborate.
Continuity Between the Old and New Testaments
What Paul is teaching is not new. Way back in the Old Testament, God “cut [(karath)] a covenant with Abram” (Genesis 15:18). The ancient ritual of cutting the animal pieces signified that any party to the covenant that violated the terms would be cut off from the benefits of the covenant, suffering the very fate of the animals in the ceremony! In the case of Abram and his descendants, this was tantamount to permanent death, being eternally cast out of God’s blessed presence forever. Mercifully, God put Abram to sleep and prevented his walking through the pieces, making the covenant binding on God and irrevocable for Israel. However, regarding the covenant’s sign, God warned that “any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant” (17:14). In other words, that individual was no longer considered an Israelite by God. Similarly, God said that intentionally rebelling against Him warranted both a native Israelite and a Gentile as being “completely cut off” (Numbers 15:30–31).
Another development came in Deuteronomy 10:16, where God admonished Israel that the outward sign in their flesh needed to match an inward change in heart: “Circumcise the foreskin of your heart, and be stiff-necked [rebellious] no longer.” Jeremiah 9:25–26 contains the same message to Israel prior to Paul’s in Romans, “‘Behold, the days are coming,’ says the Lᴏʀᴅ, ‘that I will punish all who are circumcised with the uncircumcised…. For all these nations are uncircumcised, and all the house of Israel are uncircumcised in the heart.’”
The rebellious, uncircumcised heart warrants eternal condemnation. Although many would like to believe that hell is not real, sadly it is. Being cut off from God and His community is a fact of permanence and torment. Isaiah proclaimed God’s followers would one day “look upon the corpses of the men who have transgressed against [the Lord]. For their worm does not die and their fire is not quenched. They shall be an abhorrence to all flesh” (Isaiah 66:24, emphasis added). Ezekiel 20:33–38 is even clearer, foretelling Israel’s regathering (v. 34) to God where He pleads His case “face to face” (v. 35), making Israel “pass under the rod” of judgment (v. 37). There, God says of Israel: “I will purge the rebels from among you, and those who transgress against Me; I will bring them out of the country where they dwell, but they shall not enter the land of Israel. Then you shall know that I am the Lᴏʀᴅ.”
There is no special treatment on Judgment Day for simply being a descendant of Abraham!
Why is God constantly declaring in the Old Testament that Israel will finally know who God is one day? Could it be because there is a claim on God’s identity (i.e. Jesus/Yeshua) that is being denied? Nevertheless, Ezekiel indicates that there will be a permanent separation between the righteous and the unrighteous within the house of Israel. There is no special treatment on Judgment Day for simply being a descendant of Abraham, actually greater responsibility!
From Moses to Paul
Like Moses and the prophets before him, John the Baptist made a point to declare to Israel that being a physical descendant of Abraham did not guarantee citizenship in the coming Kingdom of heaven on Earth. He told Israel to “bear fruits worthy of repentance, and do not think to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father . . . God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones” (Matthew 3:8–9). Jesus said, “If you were Abraham’s children, you would do the works of Abraham” (John 8:39). That brings us back to Paul, who establishes in Romans 9:7–13 that Isaac and Jacob were sons of promise, implying that Ishmael and Esau (both sons of Abraham) were not. His point: There is an “Israel of God” (cf. Galatians 6:16) within fleshly Israel where saving faith matters.
The chosen within the chosen is a concept that takes center stage throughout Romans 9 and 10. There, Paul (under divine inspiration) makes some of the most monumental statements of Scripture concerning Israel and the concept of chosenness (election). In Romans 9:14–23 we learn that God is just and not without purpose in sovereignly choosing. In Romans 9:24–29, Paul shows that the Old Testament (Hosea 1:9–10; 2:23; Isaiah 10:22–23 and 1:9) predicted Israel’s temporary and majority rejection of God. It also predicted the ongoing Israelite remnant following God now, as well as the future restoration of Israel!
God is just and not without purpose in sovereignly choosing.
In conclusion, Romans 9:30–10:4 addresses a subject that divides Jews and Christians to this day. How do people obtain righteousness? Paul summarizes the status quo of this age: Many Gentiles (and a remnant of Israel) are finding righteousness by faith in the only One who is righteous (the Divine Jewish Messiah), while Israel seeks a righteousness before God which cannot be obtained through works of the Torah (cf. Isaiah 64:6; 29:13). Paul speaks lovingly here as he wants Israel to be saved (Romans 10:1) and he acknowledges Israel’s zeal for God (v. 2); but he confesses that Israel has been ignorant of God’s personal righteousness and His standards. He laments that, in vain, Israel has sought to establish their own concept of righteousness in the hopes that it pleases God—an endeavor that has evolved into modern rabbinic Judaism. In Romans 10:4, Paul asserts that the whole point (chief end) of the Torah is Divine Righteousness, highlighting our human inability to measure up and escape judgment by our own righteousness. Next week, we will conclude our study of Paul’s treatise on Israel, examining God’s chosen nation further for both the present and future age.
If you missed Part 1 of this series, Click Here to read.