When Israel declared its independence in 1948 and the Jews established a state in the region of its beginnings under Abraham and the Patriarchs, a new interest on the role of Israel, and its continuing function in God’s plan, was reignited. Some saw this as merely a practical move to avoid the horrors of another holocaust in Europe. Others saw this as a sure sign of the coming of end-time events. Either way you look at it, the events of the last 70 years have provoked curiosity and debate about its meaning in world history, as well as the greater interests of God’s purposes.
As we move further into Romans chapter nine, we discover this debate is not unique to our own time. In many ways, the debate went dormant for centuries of Christian history; but with the advent of a new Israeli state, old questions and puzzles have come back to the surface and need to be addressed again. What is one to make of the modern Israeli state, and the status of the Jewish people as a whole, as they relate to God and his covenant?
Last week, in 9:1-5, we saw Paul make one of the more shocking statements of the New Testament. He wished that he might be cut off from his covenant with Christ, if only the people of his heritage — that is, his fellow Israelites — could receive the blessings of Christ and his salvation. The implication of his statement, of course, is that they were not in covenant relationship with God because they had rejected their own Messiah that God had sent as their representative. This wasn’t true of all of them, of course; it was not a blanket condemnation. But it was true of enough of them as individuals that Paul felt like he could make a generalized statement. Paul felt the awful irony of this, as the very people whom God had called to bring forth the Messiah and his salvation were the first to reject that very same salvation. Their interests were caught up in nationalistic pursuits, rather than the greater purposes of God. So with the implication being made in 9:1-5 that Israel as a whole is no longer in covenant relationship with God, Paul now anticipates some questions and objections to the negative conclusion he has made.
The first question really serves to underline the rest of the discussion in chapters 9-11. “Has God’s word failed?” To expand this question a bit so that we see what he is asking, we could state it like this: “Has God’s promises to the people of Israel failed?” The implication is, “Since Israel has rejected their Messiah, and therefore the salvation that he brings, has God failed the people of Israel?” Paul’s answer to that implied question is a definitive “no!” God’s promises have not failed. But it’s very interesting to note why Paul thinks as much.
In 9:7-13, Paul goes on to argue that it was never simply a matter of being a physical descendant of Abraham that made one right with God. In his own words, “not all Israel is truly Israel” (9:6). He uses two examples to prove his point. Ishmael was a descendant of Abraham. As a matter of fact, he came before Isaac. But Isaac was the one who carried the promise forward, not Ishmael. In another example, he points towards Isaac’s two sons. Once again, there were two male descendants, Esau and Jacob. Esau was the first born while Jacob was second. But the promise carried through Jacob’s line, and not through Esau’s, even though both were children of Isaac, and physical heirs of Abraham.
Paul is trying to make a specific point. Being in covenant relationship with God was never simply a matter of ethnic heritage. God has always made choices among the children of Abraham, and he continues to do so to this day. But ultimately that will not be the point. The conclusion that Paul will direct all this toward is what constitutes a real heir of Abraham. He already taught us as much back in Romans 4. The real heir of Abraham is the person of faith. Ethnic heritage means nothing in terms of covenant. Faith and obedience to Christ are everything. It was so when Paul wrote Romans…and it remains so today.
(Don’t forget to join me for A Message From the Heart radio program Sunday evening at 8:00pm on KJAK 92.7FM, or streaming live at www.kjak.com)
Write to: P.O. Box 157, Slaton, TX 79364