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Romans 9-11 Revisited

By December 16, 2007 No Comments
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The question won’t go away: How do Christians and Jews relate? Has Judaism been superseded by the Christian faith? Are Christians now God’s chosen people? In 1965 the Roman Catholic Church at the Second Vatican Council redefined its relationship to the Jewish people. The Jews, it recognized, continue to be God’s chosen people. Their religion remains for them a source of divine grace. The Christian’s task is to engage them in conversation and not to proselytize them. Many of the Western churches affiliated with the World Council of Churches have adopted similar positions.

At first glance, this seems like a new teaching. Hasn’t the Church always taught that God has rejected Israel? Hasn’t the Church always held that Israel’s religion was no longer a source of salvation and that it was the task of the church to preach Jesus Christ to the Jewish people? So what accounts for this change of position? The obvious answer is the catastrophe of the Holocaust. The realization that Auschwitz would not have been possible without a generally shared view that God had rejected the Jews made the Church rethink its position. In the years after World War II, both Catholics and Protestants began reading the New Testament with a new set of questions–questions like these:

  • Haven’t Christians with their long history of contempt for the Jews, and with their complicity in the Holocaust, denied Jesus Christ as much as the Jews ever have?
  • Why were Catholics and Protestants alike part of a deafening silence that assured the Nazi regime that it could carry out its slaughter of the Jews with impunity?
  • Is it possible to believe the New Testament in a way that honors and makes room for the Jewish people?
  • Isn’t a breach with the Jewish people a breaking away from God’s plan for the fullness of time to reunify all of humanity?

Considering these and related questions led to a new awareness that what the church had been teaching all these many years about the Jews was wrongheaded.

One biblical passage that played a central role in this awareness was Romans 9-11. In these chapters the Apostle Paul deals with the election and eventual salvation of Israel. From the beginning of the Church’s history, however, these chapters had been deprived of their full force. To the church fathers, they were above all an occasion to discuss election, predestination, and free will in regard to individuals. The fathers narrowed their focus to such texts as “I have loved Jacob, but I have hated Esau” (9:13) and “So then he has mercy on whomever he chooses, and he hardens the heart of whomever he chooses” (9:18) to the neglect of their wider context. This way of interpreting chapters 9-11 of Romans, persisting through the Middle Ages and almost to our own century, has greatly obscured their broader significance. Not until after the Holocaust did the opinion become widely accepted that these chapters deal not first of all with the predestination of individual believers to glory but with the role of Israel in history.

At first reading, Romans 9-11 strikes the reader as almost anticlimactic. These chapters come right after Romans 8, a favorite chapter of many Christians that reaches its climax in the words: “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? … No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (8:35, 37). What could be more profoundly comforting? The surprising answer is this: what Paul says in the three following chapters, in Romans 9-11.

To grasp what these long-neglected and often misinterpreted chapters are about, recall the major theme of Romans: God’s unending faithfulness to his promises. God is faithful to us in spite of our unfaithfulness to him. While we still were sinners, Christ died for us. While we still were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son (5:8-10).   Unless God proves faithful to disobedient Israel, what reason is there to believe that God will be faithful to the disobedient Gentiles? The God who rejects the disobedient people he once chose and then instead chooses another people is not the kind of God who will save a disobedient world.   But, Paul now asks, what about unfaithful Israel? Does Israel’s unfaithfulness mean that Israel has dropped out of God’s plan? Does it mean that God has rejected Israel as the people through whom he will bless the world? Has the word of God failed? Else how can it be that the very people whose entire history had been looking forward to the Messiah’s coming have now rejected him? Paul’s answer is this: Not so. God’s promises to Israel once made are not retracted under the impact of Israel’s rejection of the Messiah. God has not rejected Israel, nor will God ever do so. The Jews continue to be God’s chosen people and to play a role in his plan to save the world.

Paul has no explanation for the hardening that has come over Israel. He doesn’t understand why it came about. Israel’s No to Jesus is a mystery. Israel’s No, writes Jurgen Moltmann,

is not the same as the No of unbelievers, which is to be found everywhere. It is a special No and must be respected as such. In his Israel chapters, Romans 9 to 11, Paul saw God’s will in Israel’s No. It is not because it says No that Israel’s heart has been hardened. It is because God hardened its heart that it cannot do anything but say No. Hardness of heart is not the same thing as rejection…. It is an act for a particular purpose (The Christian Century, 7 November 1990, 1023).

Israel’s No to the gospel is actually God’s own doing. It serves the spread of the gospel among the Gentile nations. Despite its No, Israel remains God’s beloved on account of the promises God made to the patriarchs (Romans 11:1).

The heart of Romans 9-11 is Paul’s metaphor of the olive tree (11:16-24). The tree, both roots and branches, is Israel. The broken-off branches are the Jews who have rejected the gospel of Jesus Christ. Their rejection is not permanent but temporary. God in his good time will graft the natural, broken-off branches back into “their own olive tree” (11:24). The grafted branches are the gentiles who have accepted the gospel. Gentiles who believe in Jesus become part of Israel, part of its roots and stem. God invites the Gentiles to enter into the ancient relationship between him and Israel. Why is the tree not cut down and a new one planted? Answer: So that the Gentiles “do not become proud, but stand in awe” (11:20). So that the Gentiles who believe the gospel may never forget that the Jews who reject the gospel continue to be the people of God.

Paul closes his discussion in Romans 9-11 by calling the whole matter a mystery (11:25). “A hardening has come upon [the unbelieving] part of Israel, until the full number of the Gentiles has come in.” The No of the unbelieving part of Israel is the means by which salvation comes to the gentiles. Their No “is the reconciliation of the world” (11:15). Their hardening will continue “until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved” (11:25-26).

For many centuries the Church has been contemptuous of the Jews, claiming that God rejected the Jews and replaced them with the Church. This contempt derailed the Church’s thinking about God. Its thinking was this: because Israel rejected Jesus the Messiah, God rejected Israel. But that line of thinking leads to a blind alley. Unless God proves faithful to disobedient Israel, what reason is there to believe that God will be faithful to the disobedient Gentiles? The God who rejects the disobedient people he once chose and then instead chooses another people is not the kind of God who will save a disobedient world.

As Paul sees it, God works his will in the midst of Jewish rejection of Jesus the Messiah. This rejection causes Paul “great sorrow and unceasing anguish” (9:2). But it also gives him reason to rejoice, for God is now reaping a worldwide harvest among the Gentiles (11:12).

As postwar Christians began reading Romans 9-11 in context, many for the first time began to see the Jewish people the way Paul describes them in Romans 9:4-5.

  • They are Israelites. Paul does not write “they were Israelites” or “they will be Israelites.” They are what they have always been, the people of God (11:1).
  • To them belongs the adoption. Adoption is not the natural process of having a child. It involves a deliberate choice. It involves election.
  • To them belongs the glory. The word glory refers to the “glory of the Lord” and recalls God’s many epiphanies to Israel throughout its history. It means that God is ever present to Israel.
  • To them belong the covenants. The covenants with Noah, with Abraham, with Israel at Sinai, with David–all these covenants represent both gift and call, and “the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (11:29).
  • To them belongs the giving of the law. This law, the law of Moses, was a gracious gift from God, one that made the psalmist sing, “Oh, how I love our law! It is my meditation all day long” (Psalm 119:97).
  • To them belongs the worship. The worship makes possible the forgiveness of Israel’s sins.
  • To them belong the promises. Among these promises is the one that Israel will be “a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isaiah 49:6).

Paul saw in his day that the Church was increasingly becoming gentile and that the Church and the Synagogue were going their separate ways. To him, this development was a great mystery, for he believed that it was God’s plan for the fullness of time to unite both Jews and Gentiles. Why, then, did Israel go its separate way? Was Israel disengaging from God’s election? But was it possible for Israel to walk away from its election? Could it unilaterally terminate its election and mission to be a light to the nations?

Paul concludes Israel does not have this option. Israel’s refusal to recognize Jesus as the Messiah is a mystery, a mystery guided by God and met by an even greater mystery. And that greater mystery is the mystery of God’s faithfulness in spite of Israel’s unfaithfulness. It is the mystery of God imprisoning all people, Gentiles and Jews, in disobedience, so that God may be merciful to all (11:32).

John Timmer is a retired pastor of the Christian Reformed Church, having served as a CRC missionary to Japan for fourteen years and then as a pastor in New Jersey and in Grand Rapids, Michigan.