What to think about Israel? That’s a very prominent question in our culture today – secular and religious. This is especially true with the current struggles in Gaza and the somewhat related activities of ISIS. It seems there is more and more blog posts and news clips about this question – what to think about Israel – than in recent past years. What is especially interesting to me is how the church will respond, especially the Neo-reformed / Neo-Calvinist camp. Historically, those that hold strong reformed views have NOT held to strong Israel views (at least not ethnic Israel views).
At this point, I don’t have an extremely solid view on the issue, but in studying Romans 9 for a sermon on Unconditional Election / Divine Predestination, a few thoughts come to mind. These are seeds for now. How they will flourish in the coming months for me in this area I’m not sure, but they are worth me jotting down:
(1) Romans 9-11 was not written directly to answer the issue of divine sovereignty in salvation. It was written to answer the apparent failure of the nation of Israel to find faith in Jesus, and therefore, the assumption that God’s word / promises had failed.
“For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh. They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen. But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel,” (Romans 9:3–6, ESV)
Therefore, it’s wrong exegesis, or at least incomplete exegesis, to interpret these chapters solely with a view for the individual and ignore the issue of the nation of Israel.
(2) Having said #1 above, clearly within these chapters Paul is addressing an issue that direct impacts, primary impacts, individuals and their salvation. I think if it’s wrong exegesis to understand Romans 9-11 without a view on ethnic Israel as a nation, it’s doubly wrong to exegete these chapters thinking Paul is only talking about nations. Even in the thickest parts that deals with Israel as a nation, Paul is thinking about grace / election / predestination in regards to the salvation of individuals:
“Now I am speaking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch then as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I magnify my ministry in order somehow to make my fellow Jews jealous, and thus save some of them.” (Romans 11:13–14, ESV)
(3) Not all of Israel is God’s people (at least not in the sense of divine election and eternal salvation):
“But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.”” (Romans 9:6–7, ESV)
At Paul’s time, Israel was in one sense God’s chosen people wholesale, but that did not mean they were all saved, elected, intended to be saved, God’s people spiritually. It is not derogatory, nor is it replacement theology, to believe in a “spiritual Israel” within a national ethnic Israel. Paul clearly describes a subgroup here, a true subgroup.
(4) Despite their general unbelief, Paul doesn’t seem to believe that God was done with His special purpose in working through a specific ethnic nation – Israel:
“I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! For I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. Do you not know what the Scripture says of Elijah, how he appeals to God against Israel? “Lord, they have killed your prophets, they have demolished your altars, and I alone am left, and they seek my life.” But what is God’s reply to him? “I have kept for myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal.” So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace.” (Romans 11:1–5, ESV)
What is the purpose of a “remnant”? It’s purpose is to refer to the fact that though wholesale failure seems to be the case, still, there is a pocket of God’s purpose still alive, vitally alive. This idea of a remnant only makes sense (in my view – as DA Carson always says) when talking about ethnic national Israel. It makes no sense in regards to “spiritual Israel”. Meaning Paul, as he thinks about the nation of Israel, sees God’s divine sovereign electing hand still at work through this ethnic people. A remnant. Even in Paul’s day. In fact, Paul was part of that remnant!
All this to say, it seems to me that Paul has a nuance here that I don’t see often. He did not hold a view of Israel in such a way that portrays they have special access to God nor special love from God outside of Jesus (that would go against everything he’s written in the first 8 chapters of Romans), but neither does he lose sight of God’s intention to use ethnic national Israel for His own redemptive purposes. A remnant is the key I think.
(5) Because of #4 above, Paul will follow this with warnings to the Gentile believers:
“do not be arrogant toward the branches. If you are, remember it is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you. Then you will say, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.”” (Romans 11:18–19, ESV)
“Lest you be wise in your own sight, I do not want you to be unaware of this mystery, brothers: a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in.” (Romans 11:25, ESV)
Paul seems clear in his warning, one that every Gentile believer (reformed, non-reformed, dispensational, covenantal .. etc) should hold closely: do not be arrogant and wise in your own sight against ethnic Israel. And then he gives a corresponding exhortation:
“As regards the gospel, they are enemies for your sake. But as regards election, they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers.” (Romans 11:28, ESV)
Key phrases for me there:
- They are enemies in regards to the gospel: meaning, don’t take their theology, don’t take their path and example, don’t think what they hold to is compatible with the gospel laid out in chapters 1-11. They are not. They are enemies, on the opposite side “in regards to the gospel” (ie. theologically). “Enemies” has a scope here for Paul – “in regards to the gospel”. Paul clearly loved his kinsmen, but he opposed them “theologically”. He did not excuse their unbelief. He did not love Israel for the Old Covenant in such a way that made him blind to their rejection of the gospel of the New Covenant. There’s no glazing over this truth for Paul.
- They are beloved in regards to election: meaning, the same ones that are enemies theologically in the gospel, Paul says are beloved in election. The big question is what does this mean in terms of Israel as a nation? What does it mean that “all of Israel will be saved” in Romans 11:26? Has God elected “all” ethnic Jew so that “all” ethnic Jew will be saved when he grafts them back in (Romans 11:23-24). As one that holds to God’s perogative to divine election, He can do that if He wants. I’m just not sure that’s what the “all” there means. It may or may not (more studying needed). But regardless of the size and scope of “all”, clearly Paul – rooted in a firm belief of election – views the theolgoical enemies of the gospel with an effection of “beloved”. I love it! The hope and comfort of sovereign grace. That’s the whole context of Romans 9-11, understanding election / predestination in light of Israel’s current state. So he loves them with eyes wide open here.
At the end of the day, this is my take away:
Israel must come to faith in Jesus like every Gentile. In that sense, they are not different or special in any sense. I should love them as a nation just like any other nation. At the same time, it seems clear to me that God’s dealing with them, God’s intention and purpose in redemptive history for Israel as a nation and ethnic people is not done, and in that sense, it’s right to think of them with feelings that accord with the word “beloved”.
Paul’s conclusion as he thinks about Israel (ethnic national Israel in my view) :
“For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.” (Romans 11:29, ESV)