Monday, October 3, 2016

Some Thoughts on the Context of Romans 9-11 (Part 3 of 4)

An Inclusive Israel

          Near the end of chapter 11, Paul reaches the climax of his discussion of Israel and what truly defines the chosen people of God. For the last time in his letter, he asks a question to be immediately followed by, “May it never be!” Israel has stumbled over the stumbling stone, Jesus the messiah. Is this a fall beyond recovery? Absolutely not! Instead, this stumbling has become the means by which salvation has come to non-Jews. At the same time, the gift of salvation to non-Jews causes the Jews to be envious of God’s blessing, giving them a strong incentive also to turn to God’s messiah in faith (11:11; cf. 10:19). The general failure of the Jews to accept Jesus as their messiah is the express means by which non-Jews could find salvation (11:12). This idea goes back to what Paul stated in the beginning of the letter—that the gospel of Jesus Christ is “first for the Jew; then for the Gentile” (cf. 1:16). Since the people of Israel were the chosen means by which God would bring to the world the Savior, it was only right that they should be the ones first exposed to the gospel. Their rejection of the message, however, meant that the missionaries were free to turn to non-Jews with the message. This is exactly how Paul conducted his missionary tours in Asia and Greece. His “custom” was always first to go to the synagogue (Ac. 14:1; 17:2), but if/when the synagogue Jews rejected his words about Jesus, he turned to the non-Jews (cf. Ac. 13:44-46; 18:4-6; 19:8-10; 28:24-28). Still, this means of reaching out to Gentiles did not close the door to Jewish salvation, and in fact, Paul anticipates a “fullness” for the Jewish community as well. By fullness Paul probably intends the full number of the Jews who would turn to Christ Jesus for salvation, since he later will use the very same expression to refer to the full number of Gentiles who turn to Christ for salvation (cf. 11:25).

          Paul especially targets his words to his non-Jewish readers, since his calling as an apostle was specifically to reach Gentiles (11:13; cf. Ac. 9:15; 15:12-18; 22:21; 26:17-20; Ga.2:7-9). He wants them to understand that God’s eternal purposes are not to exclude Jews from salvation. Hence, Gentiles must not suppose that they now have some sort of priority. Instead, the extension of the gospel to the non-Jews works as an incentive for Jews to accept Jesus as the messiah, too (11:14). That God has turned away from the Jewish nation as a whole has been the means for inviting the whole world to become part of his intimate family, and by the same token, when Jewish folk realize what has happened and turn to God’s messiah, it will be like they were raised from the dead (11:15)!

          If Paul’s discussion has anything at all to do with the tension between Jews returning to Rome after the death of Claudius Caesar to a Roman church that was now largely Gentile, it may well have been the case that some Gentile believers resented the return of these Jewish Christians. Paul anticipates this resentment, and he urges his Gentile readers not to throw over their Jewish brothers and sisters.


  1. Wonderful to see the resumption of postings to this blog.

  2. It seems to me that the Christ-believers' identification as "Israel" is historically rooted rather than metaphorical or indicative of any theology of replacement. The path of the Gentile mission followed the path of the Jewish diaspora throughout Syria, Asia Minor, and into Europe (as articulated by Harnack in his Mission and Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries over a century ago). This is precisely how Paul implemented his "Jews first" missionary strategy according to the book of Acts. The earliest non-Palestinian Christ-believers were among the Jews and Gentile God-fearers (like Cornelius in Acts 10) who gathered in the diaspora Jewish synagogues scattered throughout the cities of the Roman empire.

    Early Gentile Christ-believers were often described (or described themselves) as "Israel" because this is exactly what they understood themselves to be. God's "age to come" was breaking into the present through the words and works of Jesus and the prophesied ingathering of Gentiles into God's "Israel" had begun. These non-Jewish Christ-believers understood themselves as the "nations who come to Zion" - embracing and embraced by the God of Israel as the fulfillment of his ultimate purpose. Following the guidance of the Hebrew prophets, they sent gifts to Jerusalem (the gifts of the Magi and Paul's collection) in gratitude for their inclusion in God's people.

    So it is altogether unsurprising to me that these Christ-believing Gentiles were drawn to Jewish synagogues or when forced to assemble in houses or tenement buildings, organized their worship along the Jewish pattern and called their gatherings "synagogues" (James 2:2).

    The challenge in reading Romans 9-11 (especially 11) is Paul's multi-dimensional use of the term "Israel" - sometimes as an ethnic and at other times as a religious/spiritual designation.

    Like the word "law," one has to decode Paul's meaning of "Israel" in different passages. The best rule thumb is to read Paul's use of "Israel" as ethnic Israel unless the clear intent of the passage is obviously otherwise.