Who is Israel?
The Letter to the Jews – part 1
When most people, who are well versed in the Letter to the Romans, are asked, what the subject matter of the letter is, they usually reply justification by faith or righteousness by faith. When asked what the key verse in Romans is, the usual reply is: “The just shall live by faith” (Rom. 1:17). However, if we ask another, deeper question: Why is the Letter to the Romans about righteousness by faith? – We find that this question usually goes unanswered.
Who is Paul addressing in this Letter?
It is always useful when analysing a letter, or any document, to know who the letter is addressed to. In this case Paul’s letter to the Roman’s is ostensibly addressed to the Romans, but who constituted the first Christian Church in Rome? The early church was very much a Jewish affair, and initially it was looked upon as just another sect inside Judaism (see Acts 24:5; 28:22). The Jewish Christians had all the leadership roles, and the membership was predominately Jewish. And of course Rome was no exception – when Paul wrote his letter to the Romans he knew he was writing almost exclusively to Jewish coverts to Christianity. This is why Paul, in the beginning of his letter says:
Now I would not have you ignorant, brethren, that oftentimes I purposed to come unto you, (but was let hitherto,) that I might have some fruit among you also, even as among other Gentiles. Rom. 1:13.
Paul (the apostle to the Gentiles) says that he regrets that he has been unable to visit the believers in Rome yet, and the reason he is regretful is because he wants to see some ‘fruit’ (coverts) from among the Gentiles. In other words, up to this point, there have been no converts (or very little) from the Gentiles at Rome.
When Paul begins his letter he addresses “the called of Jesus Christ” those “called to be saints” (Rom. 1:6, 7), in the second person. When he first mentions the Gentiles he refers to them in the third person (see 1:19 – 2:16). In other words, grammatically, Paul is speaking about the Gentiles, not to the Gentiles. The structure of Paul’s letter reveals that, he is aware that the congregation in Rome is almost exclusively Jewish. When Paul finally returns to the second person this is what he writes:
Behold, thou art called a Jew, and restest in the law… Rom. 1:17.
These citizens of Rome “the called of Jesus Christ” are also called Jews and they ‘restest in the law” – only the Jews rest in the law. Elsewhere in this same letter Paul says to his readers that they “know the law” (Rom. 7:1). Only the Jews “know the law.” There can be no doubt that Paul is writing to the Jews and this is why the letter to the Romans, could be well served, with a subtitle – ‘The letter to the Jews.’
The Jews do not understand Righteousness by Faith
Therefore, yes, Paul is writing to the Roman Christians, but these Christians at Rome are almost exclusively Jews. Therefore, this is the reason why Paul writes about righteousness by faith, because it is the Jews who do not understand righteousness by faith. The key verse of this letter is not “the just shall live by faith” it should be:
For they [the Jews] being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God. Rom. 10:3.
It was the Jews who were confused about salvation. They believed they were saved by their connection to Abraham and keeping the law. This is why Paul labours in this letter, with long lengthy arguments, contrasting law and grace. This is why he draws on Israelite/Jewish history as illustrations to prove his points, because he is writing to Jews – Jews who will be impressed by evidence from their own past, such as, even the revered Abraham being justified by faith/righteousness (see Rom. 4:1-5).
The reason why Paul begins this letter with a detailed argument for grace and righteousness by faith, is because, he is preparing the way for what he wants to say later in the letter. Paul is writing this letter to the Jews to explain why God has rejected the nation of Israel and the Jews, as His chosen people. Paul begins with grace and righteousness by faith, because it is these things that have caused the Jews to fail and be rejected. The lack of these things in their lives is simply another way of saying, that they did not allow their necks to be turned, or their hearts to be opened and allow the Holy Spirit to come in and teach them true righteousness.
We will also see that these Jews are a stumbling block to the success of the Gospel. Paul wants to see some fruit among the Gentiles in Rome, because up to the point of writing the letter, there have been no conversions of the Gentiles (or very little). And one of the main reasons why there is no fruit is because the Jewish Christians in receipt of this letter are one of the main reasons why there is no fruit. Their understanding of the Gospel is a stumbling block to the success of the Gospel. They need to be instructed about what constitutes true righteousness, they need to understand the changed status of the Jews, and they need to recognize that God’s grace is now extended to the Gentiles. When these things are understood, there will be fruit among the Gentiles. This is the purpose of the letter – to help Jews understand, so that both Jews and Gentiles can be saved.
The Letter to the Jews
Paul starts getting into the issues by pointing out that “the just shall live by faith” (Rom. 1:17). Then he launches into a lengthy description of the terrible things that people do when they reject this faith (Rom. 1:18-32). He then begins to reprove his readers, because Paul is convinced that those who profess to belong to God can do the same evil things, by deceiving themselves with excuses:
Therefore thou art inexcusable, O man, whosoever thou art that judgest: for wherein thou judgest another, thou condemnest thyself; for thou that judgest doest the same things. Rom. 2:1.
This must have been disturbing news for these Jews – fancy being accused of doing the same things as the Gentiles – and there is more to come. Paul then takes the opposite tack and says that some Gentiles are even accepted by God, because they “do by nature the things contained in the law” (Rom. 2:14). Imagine that! Gentiles keeping the law! But there is even worse to come. Paul now moves in for the kill. These self-righteous Jews pride themselves on their perfect law keeping and they love to preach it to others. Paul totally deflates them by saying:
And art confident that thou thyself art a guide of the blind, a light of them which are in darkness, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, which hast the form of knowledge and of the truth in the law. Thou therefore which teachest another, teachest thou not thyself? thou that preachest a man should not steal, dost thou steal? Thou that sayest a man should not commit adultery, dost thou commit adultery? thou that abhorrest idols, dost thou commit sacrilege? Thou that makest thy boast of the law, through breaking the law dishonourest thou God? For the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles through you, as it is written. For circumcision verily profiteth, if thou keep the law: but if thou be a breaker of the law, thy circumcision is made uncircumcision. Rom. 2:19-25.
Later Paul would add, “there is none righteous, no, not one”…. “for all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:10; 23). But, what Paul has said so far is certainly sufficient to get the attention of these Jews. Paul is telling them that “the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles” because of the example the Jews were setting. This is why there is no fruit among the Gentiles. Paul accuses these Jews who pride themselves on keeping the law, of being law-breakers themselves. If this accusation that they themselves were law breakers did not stir them up, Paul’s notion that, the Gentiles would actually judge them, instead of the other way around surely would:
And shall not uncircumcision which is by nature, if it fulfil the law, judge thee, who by the letter and circumcision dost transgress the law? Rom. 2:27.
Now that Paul has their total attention, he concludes his argument, so far, and proceeds to make his main point, in this section of the letter:
For he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh: But he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God. Rom. 2:28, 29.
In other words, Paul is telling the Jews to forget their literalist attitude of trusting in the outward performance of rules and regulations, but concentrate on internalizing the law, as implanted by the Holy Spirit in the heart/mind. It is time to stop practicing a literal religion and start practicing a spiritual one.
Paul of course, was not only a master theologian he was also a master psychologist. Having brought his readers down, he now builds them up: “What advantage then hath the Jew? Or what profit is there in circumcision?” (Rom. 3:1). Paul answers these rhetorical questions by assuring the Jews that they have inherited a precious legacy – because the Word of God was committed into their care. However, after stripping away their self-righteousness, and comforting them somewhat, he now begins to explain to his readers what true righteousness is, as opposed to the false. This section of the letter covers six chapters, from three to eight. Paul’s argument is very simple: it is not the law that makes us righteous – it is trusting in the Lord Jesus Christ. Paul asks his Jewish readers:
Cometh this blessedness then upon the circumcision only, or upon the uncircumcision also? Rom. 4:9.
Paul answers his own question and points out that both Jew and Gentile believers are united in Abraham, because Abraham was made righteous with God, through faith, before he was circumcised. Therefore, “Abraham… is the father of us all” (Rom. 4:16). Abraham becomes the spiritual father of both Jew and Gentile. All who choose to exercise the same faith that Abraham had, become the spiritual children of Abraham, whether they are Jew or Gentile. In making this argument with Abraham, who is so revered by the Jews, Paul has cleverly tied the Jews and Gentiles together. He is preparing the way for further evidence that both Jew and Gentile were now brothers and sisters in Christ, in one Church.
For our purposes, it is not necessary to examine all the content of chapters three to eight. These chapters are dealing with the role of righteousness by faith in the science of salvation, and contrasted with false understanding, such as righteousness by works. This is a crucial part of Paul’s argument, but it is also just an intermediatory stage, on the way to Paul’s goal – the rejection of the Jews.
The Rejection of the Jews
Leaving his readers thoroughly persuaded that we are all heirs of salvation through faith in Christ, and that we can have regeneration in our lives, through the power of the Holy Spirit, Paul is now able to take up the subject of the status of the Jews. He devotes three chapters to the subject (chapters nine to eleven), and indeed, it is fair to say that much of what Paul has already addressed in the letter is to prepare the ground for this controversial subject – controversial then, for the early Church, and even more controversial today.
What Paul concerns himself with, from chapter nine, through to eleven is this: Why is it, that the Jews, God’s chosen people, have so largely rejected the Gospel? If the Gospel brings sure salvation to God’s elect, why are His chosen people Israel, not found among the heirs of this salvation? If the good news of salvation is the fulfilment of the promises made to Israel, then surely it should meet with the approval of those for whom it was especially intended? But instead, it has stirred most of them up, to bitter opposition.
Paul has been preparing the way, for his discussion of this difficult and delicate question, by stressing the fact that, though the Gospel is for both Jew and Gentile, it is for the Jew first (see Rom. 1:16, 2:10). But he has also emphasized that God is no respecter of persons (see Rom. 2:11) and that the Jews especially have been guilty of sin (see Rom. 2:17-29). He has devoted a whole chapter to proving that the Gospel of salvation by faith is taught in, and well supported by the Old Testament (see chap. 4). In the beginning of chapter three, he even began to consider the problem (the current status of the Jews) directly, but his full discussion of the question has been reserved for chapters nine, ten and eleven. An outline of the three chapters is as follows:
9:1-3 Paul first affirms his love and sorrow for his own people.
9:6-13 He then declares that the cause of their rejection is not the failure of God’s promises to them.
9:14-29 Is there any injustice on the part of God in this matter?
9:30-10:21 The fault lies in their rejection of righteousness which is of faith.
11:1-10 But Paul does not describe their condition as hopeless. He goes on to speak of salvation of ‘a remnant.’
11:11-22 The Gentiles join the Jewish remnant.
11:33-36 All of which is evidence of the wisdom and glory of God.
Paul begins this discussion with a deep concern for his fellow Jews:
I say the truth in Christ, I lie not, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Ghost, That I have great heaviness and continual sorrow in my heart. For I could wish that myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh. Rom. 9:1-3.
Here we see that Paul is sorrowing because so few of his kinsmen have accepted Jesus as their Saviour. Notice how he distinguishes these people, from another group of Israelites that he is about to mention – these Israelites, these Jews, these descendants of Abraham are according to the ‘flesh.’ In other words, they do not possess, and they do not profess the same faith as Abraham. They are only his fleshly descendants, not his spiritual descendants.
Paul writes two verses about how these fleshly Jews had been blessed by God, then he continues:
Not as though the Word of God hath taken none effect. For they are not all Israel, which are of Israel. Rom. 9:6.
What is Paul saying here? He is saying: don’t think for a moment that just because the Jews have rejected Christ, that God’s revealed purpose has failed. Just because the present ‘so called Israelites’ have rejected Christ that does not necessarily mean that God’s promises to the fathers of the original Israelites have failed. Paul is saying, I want you to understand that those who were born Jews are not necessarily true Israelites at all. In other words, literal Israelites are not necessarily, true Israelites. And why are they not true Israelites? Because, Paul continues:
They which are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God: but the children of the promise are counted for the seed. Rom. 9:8.
We need to note Paul’s very clear statement, ‘the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God.’ This statement is just as relevant today as it was in the days when Paul wrote it. The Jew living today, who claims the blessing of God, because of his fleshly descent from Abraham, is just another sinner in need of Jesus. Even though he is a Jew he has no special privileges. All mankind can only be saved in God’s appointed manner:
For there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved. Acts 4:12.
These people who are not the children of God, are contrasted with a group of people who are the children of God. The people who are the children of God, are called, ‘the children of the promise.’ What is this promise?
This is the word of promise, at this time will I come and Sarah shall have a son. Rom. 9:9.
In Romans 9:8, Paul is quoting from Genesis 18:10, 14. This promised son is referring to the long awaited Isaac. What was so important about Isaac? If we go back to Genesis we will see that God promised Abraham that he would have a son, but the son never seemed to come. Abraham and Sarah grew older and older, and they began to reason that God must need some help, so they resorted to the devices of men, and procured Ishmael, according to the ‘flesh’ through Hagar, Sarah’s maid. God allowed all this to happen, and He simply said, No! This is not the son – Sarah will have a son.
Finally, in their old age Sarah and Abraham had a son, according to the promise – God’s promise. The arrival of Isaac, in Sarah and Abraham’s old age made him a miracle child. And God said to Abraham, “In Isaac shall thy seed be called” (Gen.21:12). That is, the descendants of Isaac would be the true children of God and not the descendants of Ishmael!
Is it therefore the seed (descendants) of Abraham that are important here? No! it is the seed (descendants) of Isaac that are the true Israel of God:
They which are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God: but the children of the promise are counted for the seed. Rom. 9:8.
Ishmael’s descendants are thus excluded, (this does not mean that they cannot be saved). Thus, the true descendants are according to the promise (God’s works), as opposed to the descendants of the flesh (Abraham’s works).
What is the point that Paul is trying to make here? Paul is using the story of Isaac’s birth as an illustration. If it had not been for the divine promise and the intervention of God, Isaac would not have been born. This is consistent with the New Testament principle of being born again. Just as Isaac was a miracle child, because of the intervention of God, in like manner, we too, are miracle children being born again because of the intervention of the Holy Spirit.
Because it took God’s intervention to procure the miracle child, Paul continues to deduce the principle that a mere connection with the Jewish race ‘according to the flesh’ does not necessarily imply a share in the promise any more than it did in the days of Isaac and Ishmael.
In verses 10-13, Paul gives a still clearer illustration of the same principle. It might be objected that the election of Isaac and the rejection of Ishmael are easily understood on the basis that Sarah was Abraham’s wife, whereas Hagar was but a bondwoman. But the choice of Jacob over Esau could not be explained this way, for their origins were identical. The twins had for their father Isaac, one of the patriarchs of the chosen people. Esau was the first-born of the two, but it was Jacob who was chosen to be the progenitor of the nation through which God planned to fulfil His divine plan:
And not only this; but when Rebecca also had conceived by one, even by our father Isaac; (for the children being not yet born, neither having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works, but of him that calleth;) it was said unto her, The elder shall serve the younger. As it is written, Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated. Rom. 9:10-13.
By mentioning, yet again, another illustration from Jewish history, Paul is emphasizing again to the Jews the vital fact, that mere works and mere physical membership in the chosen nation do not bind or oblige God, to bless with favour and privilege. It was necessary for Paul to emphasize this point strongly because the Jews had misunderstood and abused their covenant relationship with God. By referring to the history of the patriarchs Paul shows that God’s choice of spiritual Israel, in view of the failure of the Jews (literal Israel0 to fulfil the divine purpose, is fully consistent with His past dealings. God is not being untrue or unfair to any. In calling upon the Christian church to accomplish His purposes for the world, God is following the same principle He originally employed when He selected the Israelites and rejected the Edomites (Esau’s descendants) and when he chose Isaac and not Ishmael.
In both illustrations employed by Paul there is a first born and a second born. Esau and Ishmael were the first-born but the inheritance did not go to them. In both cases the rights of the first-born were overridden by a higher purpose. Paul’s point is that the same thing has happened in the transition from the Jewish Church to the Christian Church. The first-born church – the Israelite/Jewish Church, has lost the ‘birth right’ to the second-born Church – the Christian Church.