Pastoral Q&A – Israel, the Jews, and Romans 11

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QUESTION 1: Are the Jews still a special/favored people in the eyes of God? And what are the implications for the geographical city of Jerusalem and those who dwell there?

ANSWER

The New Testament is clear that in Christ “there is neither Jew nor Greek” (Gal. 3:27, Rom. 10:12, 1 Cor. 12:13), and that in regards to God’s kingdom and everlasting covenant, it is faith alone and not one’s nation, bloodline, or ethnicity, that makes someone a child of Abraham (Gal. 3:7). So the “people of God” (1 Peter 2:10) is now the Christian Church, which is composed of both Jew and Gentile. Gentiles have not replaced the Jews. And the church has not replaced the Jews. The Church is rather the consummation and fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham, and Jew and Gentile are together the one new man in Christ (Eph. 2:14-16). There is “one body, one Spirit and one baptism” (Eph. 4:4-6) which constitutes the New and Heavenly Jerusalem (Heb. 12:22, Gal. 4:26). Any other covenantal arrangement with God outside of Jesus Christ is a covenant of bondage (Gal. 4:24-31), for “cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them” (Gal. 3:10). This includes any living person today who self-identifies as a religious “Jew” or “Israelite” and would seek to be made righteous through the law and not through faith in Christ. Far from being especially favored, they are in danger of becoming especially disfavored, for they “search the Scriptures” but do not recognize “that they testify of me” (John 5:38-40, Rom. 2:8-9).

Furthermore, Paul says in Romans 2:28 that “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.” So even under the Old Covenant, a true Jew was someone who was not just from the bloodline of Abraham and circumcised, but a true Jew was someone whose heart had been circumcised and therefore loved God and looked to the promised Messiah for salvation. At the same time, Paul speaks of those who are “kinsmen according to the flesh, who are Israelites” (Rom. 9:3-6). He then goes on to make a distinction between Israelites who are “children of the promise” and Israelites who are “children of the flesh.” So to summarize, the Bible speaks of Jews and Israelites in multiple senses:

Outward Jews/Israelites – This category includes:
1) those who are fleshly descendants of Abraham and who accept Jesus as the Messiah (i.e. Jewish Christians like Paul, Peter, John, etc.).
2) those who are fleshly descendants of Abraham but who reject Jesus as the Messiah (i.e. Apostate Jews like some of the Pharisees, Sadducees, Judaizers etc.).

Inward Jews/Israelites – This category includes only:
1) those who are fleshly descendants of Abraham and who accept Jesus as the Messiah (i.e. Jewish Christians like Paul, Peter, John, etc.).

Romans 11

This brings us to Romans 11 which is where there is a difference of opinion amongst interpreters.

Option 1
One position on Romans 11 is that it prophesies of a time in our future, when ethnic/religious/fleshly Jews have a massive conversion to Christianity. Under this interpretation, those who identify themselves as Jews today have been “blinded and hardened…until the fulness of the Gentiles comes in” (Rom. 11:25). So Jews are not really specially favored (they are under the covenant of works which leads to death), but God still has a plan for their conversion because, “as touching the election, they are beloved for the fathers’ sakes. For the gifts and calling of God are without repentance” (Rom. 11:28-29). This is a common and well-respected position amongst the Reformed, but I don’t find it totally persuasive.

A Problem: No More Tribal Identity For Modern Jews
One problem with Option 1 is that there is no longer any verifiable tribal identify for modern Jews. Paul begins Romans 11 by using himself as proof that God’s promises to Israel have not been forgotten. He says, “Hath God cast away his people? God forbid. For I also am an Israelite, of the seed of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin. God hath not cast away his people which he foreknew” (Rom. 11:1-2). Notice that while there were many religious Jews all across the Roman empire who had an additional national identity due to the diaspora of the Assyrian and Babylonian exiles (Acts 2:5-11), Paul was one of those special Jews who could still trace his tribal lineage back to Benjamin. He was what we would call a “pureblood Jew.” So Paul himself was living proof that God had not totally cast off His people, but rather, Paul (and the other disciples of Jesus) were like the “seven thousand men, who have not bowed the knee to Baal” (Rom. 11:4). During the Roman-Jewish War (66-73 AD) that culminated in the temple’s destruction, the genealogical and tribal records were destroyed, and today there is basically no way for someone to identify which Hebrew tribe of Israel they are from. This means that any future conversion of the Jews must be on the basis of a religious conversion from “Hagar to Sarah” (Gal. 4:24-31) and from Torah to Christ (Rom. 10:4), and not on the basis of any fleshly lineage to Abraham. While I believe that a future religious conversion shall indeed take place, I do not believe that is what Romans 11 is referring to. The entire argument of Romans 9-11 is based on whether God’s promises to Israel according to the flesh (Rom. 9:1-5) have been forgotten or not. If we cannot know who Israel according to the flesh is anymore, then Romans 11:25-26 must refer to 1st century Jews/Israelites, and not a future to us group of people who identify themselves as such.

Option 2
My position is that Romans 11 was fulfilled in the 1st century and its fulfillment is described (at least in part) in Acts and Revelation. Many Jews rejected Christ as the messiah, but not all of them. This fulfills what Paul says in Romans 11:25 that, “blindness in part is happened to Israel, until the fulness of the Gentiles be come in.” This “fullness of the Gentiles” is not referring to the complete discipling of all nations as spoken of in the Great Commission (Matt. 28:18-20), instead it refers to the fulfillment of Jesus’ prophecy in the Olivet Discourse that “the gospel must first be published among all nations” (Mark 13:10), and “this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come” (Matt. 24:14). A few verses later Jesus gives a definitive timeframe for when this gospel publishing shall be completed, “This generation shall not pass away, till all be fulfilled.” Paul himself, writing around 60 AD, says in Colossians 1:23 that already the gospel “was preached to every creature which is under heaven,” and it was “bearing fruit in all the world” (Col. 1:5-6). So because of this partial hardening on Israel, the disciples were scattered to the farthest reaches of the world (Acts 8:1, Acts 28), and it was this scattering that brought in not only the fullness of the Gentiles, but all the scattered Jews/Israelites who had not yet heard the gospel. Just as God brought salvation to the world through the death of Christ, so also he brings salvation to “all Israel” through the partial hardening and persecution of obstinate Jews/Israelites. This is what causes Paul to say, “O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God!” (Rom. 11:33-36). The long desired return from exile happened as the Jews according to the flesh embraced Jesus Christ.

Revelation 7 confirms this reading when it speaks of 144,000 Israelites (12,000 from each tribe) who were saved and sealed by God. It then speaks of a “a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues” (Rev. 7:9). These are not identical groups viewed from two different aspects. They are two distinct groups, Israelites and Gentiles. This is God making good on His promise to gather in both “all Israel” (Rom. 11:26) and the “fullness of the Gentiles” (Rom. 11:25). As the book of Revelation goes on, we see this “one new man in Christ” suffers martyrdom, but because the saints are in Christ, they are eventually resurrected to sit and reign for 1,000 years (the present church age).

Conclusion

So my position is that modern Jews (whether by nation or religion) have no special or favored covenantal relationship with God. As stated above, the only covenant outside of Christ is the covenant of works which leads to death. This means the everlasting promises in Genesis 17 are true for the Church and Christians, and not for anyone else. So I take those adherents of modern religious Judaism to be in need of evangelization. And I take the secular state of Israel/Jews to be just another nation like all the rest, needing to be converted to Christ (Ps. 2, Ps. 110).

As to the actual geographic city of Jerusalem, Jesus is clear in John 4 that the time has now come when those who worship God will worship him in Spirit and in truth, and not on any special holy mountain. The Christian Church is the New Jerusalem, we are the holy sanctuary, and those who “pray for the peace of Jerusalem” (Ps. 122) ought to be praying for the Church, not literal Jerusalem. Those who bless the church in Christ, the true seed of Abraham, will be prospered and blessed.

QUESTION 2: Should we align ourselves with Israel because of their standing with God?

ANSWER

Here we would want to make a few distinctions. If by “we” you mean “we Christians,” then yes, we should be aligned with all those who are baptized and standing with God, for they are our spiritual kin. But Israel as a nation is certainly not Christian, and so we have no alliance with them until they convert.

If by “we” you mean “we Americans,” then it is a different question altogether regarding foreign policy, and that is way outside my expertise. As Christians and Americans, we should want to be aligned with those who are acting justly and righteously, and against those who are wicked. Sadly as Americans, our nation and government is frequently on the wicked side of things. In the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine for example, our alignment as Christians should be first with those who are Christians on both sides of that conflict (we pray for their protection), and then we can have secondary discussions about which foreign government has a just cause for war, and whether or not America should help one side or the other. And that is also a question outside my expertise.

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