Back in 1967, Nelson Bell, the editor of Christianity Today and father-in-Law of Billy Graham, wrote in an editorial for the journal,
“For the first time in more than 2,000 years Jerusalem is now completely in the hands of the Jews gives a student of the Bible a thrill and a renewed faith in the accuracy and validity of the Bible.”
Eleven years on, in 1978, President Jimmy Carter, claimed,
“The establishment of the nation of Israel is the fulfilment of biblical prophecy and the very essence of its fulfilment.”
45 years on, that seems increasingly hard to defend when Israel is acknowledged by many human rights organisations to be an ethno-nationalist apartheid state. This week, the US/Canadian denomination, the Disciples of Christ, became the latest to adopt a resolution naming Israeli apartheid, acknowledging that “many of the laws, policies and practices of the State of Israel meet the definition of apartheid as defined in international law.”
How does this relate to our reading from Romans 9? In my view the Apostle Paul could easily be writing about contemporary Zionism, the political foundation of the present State of Israel. Because like 1st Century Judaism, Zionists want the kingdom without the King. Then as now they want sovereignty over the land and are willing to use force to take it, just like the Zealots tried when they rose up against the Roman empire.
But before we examine these verses, it is important to observe the context – since a text without a context is a pretext. The context is both what comes before in chapters 1-8 (which is assumed), and then what follows in chapters 9-11 (where Paul builds his argument begun in 9:1-5).
Bishop Tom Wright observes wryly, “Romans 9-11 is as full of problems as a hedgehog is full of prickles.” So, with that advice, let’s tread carefully then in observing the context… Although in Romans 9:1, the Apostle Paul refers to “my people, those of my own race, the people of Israel.” he has earlier refuted the notion that Jewishness may be defined solely by ethnicity or by adherence to the Law of Moses. In Romans 2, for example, we learn:
“A person is not a Jew who is one only outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a person’s praise is not from other people, but from God.” (Romans 2:28-29).
And immediately after today’s reading, in Romans 9:6, the text goes on to say,
“For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. Nor because they are his descendants are they all Abraham’s children. On the contrary, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned. In other words, it is not the natural children who are God’s children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham’s offspring.” (Romans 9:6-8)
This then is the context for Romans 9:1-5 – Paul means us to understand that when he uses the terms Jew and Israel he is referring to Jews and Gentiles who have come to recognise Jesus as their Messiah, their Lord and Saviour.
If you would like to explore in more detail the relationship between Israel and the Church, I recommend my book, Zion’s Christian Soldiers published by Wipf & Stock and the various resources available from my website. Enough of the context. Let us now explore Romans 9:1-5 under three headings: Paul’s Grief (9:1-3); Israel’s Privileges (9:4-5a); and the Messiah’s Divinity (9:5b).
Paul’s Grief and Empathy
“I speak the truth in Christ—I am not lying, my conscience confirms it through the Holy Spirit— I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people, those of my own race, the people of Israel. (Romans 9:1-3)
Reading the Acts of the Apostles you realise how frequently Paul was persecuted by the Jewish leaders, hounded from city to city across the Roman Empire. He is not exaggerating when he summarises his trials in 2 Corinthians 11.
“I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews…” (2 Corinthians 11:23-26)
And yet instead of bitterness or resentment, Paul describes his ‘great sorrow and unceasing anguish’ for his people the Jews. Although they had rejected Christ, he nevertheless still loves them. I wonder how you feel about the Jewish people? Is there ‘great sorrow and unceasing anguish in your heart’ for those who have never heard about Jesus? For those who have rejected him? Let me be clear. There is absolutely no justification for racism or antisemitism. Christian nationalism or Ethnonationalism that regards one race or ethnic group as superior to others is abhorrent. In my book Zion’s Christian Soldiers, I insist,
“It is true that at various times in the past, churches and church leaders have tolerated or incited anti-Semitism and even attacks on Jewish people. Racism is a sin and without excuse. Anti-Semitism must be repudiated unequivocally. However, we must not confuse apples and oranges. Anti-Zionism is not the same thing as anti-Semitism despite attempts to broaden the definition. Criticising a political system as racist is not necessarily racist. Judaism is a religious system. Israel is a sovereign nation. Zionism is a political system. These three are not synonymous. I respect Judaism, repudiate anti-Semitism, encourage interfaith dialogue and defend Israel’s right to exist within borders recognised by the international community and agreed with her neighbours.”
John Stott is quite right to insist,
“Away then with anti-Semitism! It has been an appalling scandal in the history of Europe, and even the Christian church has been implicated. Christians should be ‘Pro-Semitic’, in the sense that we recognise how the people of Israel have been highly favoured by God. We gentiles are their debtors, Paul wrote (Romans 15:27). We owe them a huge spiritual debt, especially in their bequest to the world of both the Scriptures and the Christ.”
We must therefore care for Jewish people and seek their best interests if we have any hope or expectation that they will come to recognise the Lord Jesus as their Messiah. People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. And what about your own people? Your relatives, your friends, your nation? Is there ‘great sorrow and unceasing anguish in your heart’ for them as well? Can you relate to Paul’s anguish for his own people? Are you ready to sacrifice your life for the sake of the gospel if God calls you too? May God give us his heart for those who have not heard. And for those who have heard and yet presently reject our Lord and Saviour. Paul’s Grief and Empathy.
Israel’s Privileges and Responsibility
“Theirs is the adoption to sonship; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises. Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of the Messiah…” (Romans 9:4-5a)
With privilege come responsibility. John Stott makes this helpful observation,
“The dominant theme is Jewish unbelief, together with the problems which it raised. How could the privileged people of God have failed to recognize their Messiah?… If the good news was truly God’s saving power ‘first for the Jew’ (1:16) why were they not the first to accept it? How could their unresponsiveness be reconciled with God’s covenant and promises?
“The Apostle Paul lists 8 privileges that distinguish the people of Israel. We are talking about Israel in the past and her distinct privileges as the holy nation of God.
Romans 9, verse 4. They are Israelites and to them belong the following 8 things:
1. The sonship, because God adopted the nation to be His son.
2. The glory – the shining symbol of God’s presence in the temple.
3. The covenants by which He pledged Himself to be their God.
4. The giving of the law, also called the oracles of God, because in the law He reveals His will.
5. The worship – both the sacrifices that preceded the Lord Jesus and the Psalter which we use in our worship today.
6. The promises, especially of the coming kingdom of the Messiah.
7. The patriarchs whose stories are recorded in the book of Genesis for our instruction.
8. Above all is stressed the human ancestry of Jesus Christ, who is the amazing expression of God over all, blessed forever.
Do you wonder that Paul says at the beginning of this chapter in verse 1, that he has great sorrow and unceasing anguish in his heart for Israel according to the flesh, because with all these eight privileges, they did not recognize Jesus as their Messiah. Paul said he could wish that he could even be cursed and be cut off from Christ for the sake of his countrymen if only thereby they could be saved. You get a sense of his passionate love for the people of Israel.”
“One would think that Israel, favoured with these eight blessings, prepared and educated for centuries for the arrival of her Messiah, would recognise and welcome him when he came. How then can one reconcile Israel’s privileges with her prejudices? How can one explain her ‘hardening’’ (11:25)? Paul now addresses himself to this mystery…” in Romans 9, Romans 10 and Romans 11.
- Israel’s fall (9:1-33): God’s purpose of election.
- Israel’s fault (10:1-21): God’s dismay over her disobedience.
- Israel’s future (11:1-32): God’s long-term design
- Doxology (11:33-36): God’s wisdom and generosity
What do we learn from this list of Israel’s privileges? Privilege can lead to arrogance, complacency, spiritual pride and spiritual blindness. These verses should also cause us to reflect on how privileged we are. Have you eaten today? Then you are privileged. Have you food in your fridge or freezer for the week ahead? Then you are privileged. You own a Bible? More than one? In your own heart language? Then you are privileged. But do you read it? Regularly? Daily? And do you ever experience hostility or persecution for your faith? Then you are privileged. Do you see these privileges as responsibilities too?
Look at the list again because they could easily be referring to our privileges as children of God, just as much as they did to our predecessors. Sonship – if you have received Jesus as your Lord and Saviour you are an adopted chosen child of God. The glory – the glory of God’s Spirit indwells you because you are the temple of God. The patriarchs, the Law, the promises, the Gospel – you have them all in scripture revealed fully and finally in Jesus. Do you realise that like Israel, you are truly blessed and privileged. But instead of leading to feelings of superiority or complacency, do you long to share these privileges of the gospel with others? Do you take opportunities God gives you to share the good news with others? Perhaps like Israel, we are just a tad guilty of taking our privileges for granted also.
We have observed first, Paul’s Grief and Empathy. Second, Israel’s Privileges and Responsibility. Third,
Messiah’s Divinity and Praise
“the Messiah, who is God over all, forever praised! Amen.” (Romans 9:5b)
Now there is some debate as to whether the text is referring to Jesus or to God as there are no punctuation marks in the original Greek. However, it is not necessary to choose since in other texts, Jesus is given the divine title ‘Lord’ (Romans 10:9), ‘Lord of both the living and the dead’ (Romans 14:9), affirms his pre-existence (Galatians 4:4); having ‘equality with God’ (Philippians 2:6) and that in Jesus ‘all the fullness of the deity lives in bodily form’ (Colossians 2:9). Charles Cranfield therefore insists,
“There is … no good ground for denying that Paul here affirms that Christ, who in so far as his human existence is concerned, is of Jewish race, is also Lord over all things and by nature God blessed for ever.”
Stephen Motyer observes,
“Paul’s final thought in this opening paragraph is the final twist of the knife in his heart. Jesus, the Christ, the centre of all God’s purposes for the world, was born of the stock of Israel (v.5). Paul magnifies the greatness of this privilege by taking the step of actually calling Christ ‘God’… but if Christ really is God… can that rejection be the last word? Would God be God if that were so? Perhaps Paul is dropping a hint here. In the long run, can we really believe that the Messiah – who is God! – failed completely in his mission to his people?
The answer is obviously ‘no’ and Romans 9-11 confirms that. How do we know? How does Paul respond to his people’s failure to recognise their Messiah? In the same way we should – in praise and adoration because, in God’s sovereign purposes, He has not given up on the Jewish people, or given up on our people, even if they had given up on him. That is why Paul begins and ends Romans 9-11 in praise and adoration for God’s sovereign grace and mercy.
In these opening verses we have considered, Paul’s Grief (9:1-3); Israel’s Privileges (9:4-5a); and the Messiah’s Divinity. Although we have only just begun to understand the mystery of Israel revealed in Romans 9-11, we too, like Paul, can reflect in wonder and praise at all that God has, all that God is and all that God will do to save not just the Jewish people but to save the whole world.
“Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!“Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counsellor?” “Who has ever given to God, that God should repay them?”For from him and through him and for him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen.” (Romans 11:33-36)
It is important to observe not just what the text says but also what the text does not say. Sometimes silence in scripture can be deafening. First, observe that Israel is not referred to as the “chosen people” While it is an unspoken assumption in many church circles, encouraged by biblically illiterate Christian Zionists, that Israel remains God’s “chosen people”, the New Testament never uses the term ‘chosen’ to describe the Jewish people. It is used exclusively of followers of Jesus Christ – both Jews and Gentiles. Indeed, in his letter to the Philippians, Paul explicitly identifies the Church as the true circumcision.
“For it is we who are the circumcision, we who serve God by his Spirit, who boast in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh.” (Philippians 3:3).
This is entirely consistent with the Old Testament, where citizenship of Israel was open to all ‘those who acknowledge me’ (Psalm 87:4). There is a second omission in these verses that directly speaks into the contemporary situation in Palestine today. Look at verse 4 and observe what is missing:
“Theirs is the adoption to sonship; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises.” (Romans 9:4)
What is missing? The Land! The very aspect so central to Zionism today (and Christian Zionism especially) – witnessed in the inexorable drive to occupy, annexe, and colonise Palestine, subjugating or expelling its Palestinian inhabitants. Why does Paul leave out Israel’s inheritance from this list of blessings? Because contrary to popular assumption, the Scriptures repeatedly insist that the land belongs to God and that residence was always conditional. For example, God said to his people,
“‘The land must not be sold permanently, because the land is mine and you reside in my land as foreigners and strangers.” (Leviticus 25:23).
God gave his people temporary residence rights – at best leasehold but never freehold. And residence was open to all God’s people on the basis of faith not race. Indeed, the writer to Hebrews explains that the land was never their ultimate desire or inheritance, but a temporary residence until the coming of Jesus Christ. Referring to the Abraham, Hebrews 11 says,
“By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God…
All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country – a heavenly one…
These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.” (Hebrews 11:9-10; 13-16, 39-40)
Notice that the writer says “only together with us would they be made perfect.” This is because the Old Testament saints, saved by faith as we are, could only hope for their salvation. They could not experience their inheritance in its fullest sense until the Lord Jesus had died in their place and the dead in Christ are raised (1 Thessalonians 4:16). Then, and only then will, “we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.” (1 Thessalonians 4:17). Notice here, Paul uses the expression “together with them.” This is why Jesus could say, “Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad.” (John 8:56).
The Church of Jesus Christ therefore brings ‘together’ in a unity of faith and love his children under the Old and New Covenants, Jews and Gentiles who trust and believe in Jesus – the one looking forward, the other looking back to his first coming and upward for his second.
 Speech by President Jimmy Carter on 1 May 1978, Department of State Bulletin, vol. 78, No. 2015, (1978).
 Tom Wright, cited in John Stott, The Message of Romans, p. 261.
 Stephen Sizer, Zion’s Christian Soldiers, p.15.
 John Stott, ‘The Place of Israel’. A previously unpublished sermon included in Stephen Sizer, Zion’s Christian Soldiers, p. 167.
 John Stott, ‘The Place of Israel’. A previously unpublished sermon included in Stephen Sizer, Zion’s Christian Soldiers, pp. 164-172
 John Stott, The Message of Romans, p. 262
 Cited in John Stott, The Message of Romans, p. 266.
 Stephen Motyer, Israel in the Plan of God, p.37.
 Stephen Sizer, Zion’s Christian Soldiers, pp. 70-71.