Christians tend to have a bit of a wrong-headed view of the Jews. Throughout much of history (and even in some places today) Christians have viewed the Jews as enemies, as those who put Christ to death. Today we have mostly realized the sheer stupidity of this and have rejected it; however, many Christians today see Jews as somehow predecessors, proto-Christians. As though Christianity is the completion of Judaism; or, more precisely, as though Gentile Christianity is the thing God wanted to create, and Judaism was the egg in which it started. They see Judaism as the fetus, and Christianity as the child.
But as we shall see, that is not how Paul and the early Christians saw it at all. Gentile Christians might not like the following passages—but they are in the Scripture for a reason. The reason? They are truth.
I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit— that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh. They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen.
Paul expresses anguish here – even willing to give up his own justification for the sake of his kinsmen. Why? Not just out of ‘general love’. No, he is anguished because the Jews are the rightful adopted children of God. He says that the adoption, the glory of God, the covenants (including the New), the Law, the promises of God…these things are supposed to belong to them. They should, by all rights, belong to the Jews. They are the sons of the patriarchs, who believed God while our Gentile forefathers rejected him. Their forefathers built God a temple; our forefathers destroyed the Temple, desecrated it, raped the women, kidnapped the children, and killed the men. Their forefathers followed God into the land He promised them; our forefathers sacrificed children to the fire. Jesus was a Jew—not a Gentile.
The fact is that God set aside the Jews in all of history to be a special, sanctified group. A holy people, separated from the rabble by bloodline and belief. But there is one problem…they have failed under the Law. So He sent them the Christ, the Messiah…and most of them rejected Him, and they put Him to death. That is why Paul is anguished—because God wants to make Israel special, and Israel cannot get out of its own way.
God has provided the fulfillment of the promises to Abraham…and much of Israel is turning it down.
But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but "Through Isaac shall your offspring be named." This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring. For this is what the promise said: "About this time next year I will return, and Sarah shall have a son." And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls— she was told, "The older will serve the younger." As it is written, "Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated." What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, "I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion." So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, "For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth." So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills. You will say to me then, "Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?" But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, "Why have you made me like this?" Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory— even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles? As indeed he says in Hosea, "Those who were not my people I will call 'my people,' and her who was not beloved I will call 'beloved. And in the very place where it was said to them, 'You are not my people,' there they will be called 'sons of the living God.'" And Isaiah cries out concerning Israel: "Though the number of the sons of Israel be as the sand of the sea, only a remnant of them will be saved, for the Lord will carry out his sentence upon the earth fully and without delay." And as Isaiah predicted, "If the Lord of hosts had not left us offspring, we would have been like Sodom and become like Gomorrah." What shall we say, then? That Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness have attained it, that is, a righteousness that is by faith; but that Israel who pursued a law that would lead to righteousness did not succeed in reaching that law. Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were based on works. They have stumbled over the stumbling stone, as it is written, "Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense; and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame."
Paul knows well what the Jews must be feeling about his recent statements—he probably felt much the same way when he first heard Christians preaching. So he knows well what their objections will be, and he mentions two of them here.
The first concern that Paul addresses is that God’s word has failed. After all, they did say that Abraham’s offspring would be saved, and now Paul is saying that only those with faith in God’s Messiah are saved. So didn’t God break His promise? Paul says no. And he clarifies why—by pointing out that God’s promises are through Isaac, and not Ishmael. This might seem an odd defense to the modern Christian, and a bit of understanding of Jewish history is needed.
When God promised to Abraham that he would be a father, he and Sarah did not have patience to wait on God’s timing. Thus, Abraham impregnated a handmaiden, and his first son (Ishmael) was born. Later, the promised son—the one he was supposed to be waiting on, Isaac—was born. Now (at least according to first-century Jewish tradition), all of the Jews were descended from Isaac, and all of the Arabs were descended from Ishmael.
Despite the fact that Ishmael and Isaac were both sons of Abraham, first-century Jews did not think the Law or the Old Covenant applied to Ishmael. They saw Ishmael as the child of Abraham’s disbelief in God, and Isaac as the promised child. Thus, they applied God’s promises only to Isaac, and excluded Ishmael from the Old Covenant in their theology.
So Paul builds upon that theology. He points out that Israel already understands that God’s promise was for the child born in faithfulness—Isaac—not all of Abraham’s children. Using the same logic that the Jews were already using to explain the exclusion of the Arabs from their faith, Paul expands the argument. Since God’s promise only applies to the children of faith, then only those who have faith in God’s plan for justification—the Christ—can achieve it.
So God’s word has not failed, Paul argues. But just as it did with Abraham’s offspring, the fulfillment of the promise was not quite as one might have first expected. (Though as Paul quotes at the end of this passage, the Prophets did foretell the events of the New Covenant, so it need not come as a complete surprise.)
The second objection that Paul expects is that God was unjust, by choosing to have mercy on those who did not deserve it (i.e., the Gentiles). People today often accuse God of being unjust as well. And Paul’s answer is a tough one to swallow, either for the ancient Jews or modern Christians. His answer is essentially the same that God gave Job—who are we to question God’s plans? Paul says that we are all made by God into what we were meant to be, so how can we then complain that it is unfair? We would not exist without Him creating us, so how then can we say that the way in which we were made was not fair? The very fact that we can complain about His plans is based upon His grace in having made us and given us freedom of will…so what right have we then to complain about how we were made? If I paint a picture, how can the picture complain about the manner in which I chose to paint it?
I am not going to say that I particularly like this answer. I didn’t really like it at the end of Job. I don’t really like it here. There is something cold and harsh and distant about asking, “God, why?” and hearing, “I am God. I make the choices.” But I think that if I am honest with myself, the reason that this feels uncomfortable is because it makes me not-God. It puts me in my proper place. I think that we still find ourselves tempted by that same sin that Lucifer spread in the Garden of Eden—that since we are in God’s image, we are somehow “like” him. That is, we are more or less His equals.
Sure, we all say we are not His equals. But we like to think of it kind of like our boss at work—he is in charge, but we are all colleagues. We are more or less equally important, but he is just the leader. That is how we like to think of God—that we are more or less His equal, and even though He is in charge, we still have the right to be considered important and to even argue with Him if needed.
That is a natural thought. And a dangerous one. Because if God is who the Bible says He is, then He is most definitely not our equal. He is no more our equal than you are equal to a fleck of dirt. And if a fleck of dirt were to question why you bumped him out of the way for being unclean, would you need to bend down and answer him? Would you owe that to him? Of course not. Likewise, God does not owe it to us to answer a single thing. He is our creator. If He chose to create every one of us as evil and banish us to Hell for eternity, He would not have done a thing wrong. But thank God He did not do that. He chose to save us, even though we do not deserve it. And (unfortunately, in the mind of many first century Jews) He chose to apply His promises to all who had faith in Him, not just those who lived by His laws.
The danger of hearing this answer is that people will say, “I can’t worship a God who creates someone that He knows will one day go to Hell—even if it was their choice.” I understand the concern. But this is not a question of preference, it is a question of fact. Choose not to worship God because you do not believe He exists; but do not choose to reject Him because you to not like His plan. What you like really has nothing to do with it – He either exists or He doesn’t. If He exists, and He provides one path to heaven and one path to Hell, then the logical person does everything in his power to get on the former path. Only the fool goes down the latter path because he doesn’t like how God drew the map.
Regardless, Paul’s key point here is this: God is the Creator, and He chose that anyone He created could have access to Abraham’s promise, if they had faith in Him. There is nothing unjust in His doing so.
Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved. For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes. For Moses writes about the righteousness that is based on the law, that the person who does the commandments shall live by them. But the righteousness based on faith says, "Do not say in your heart, 'Who will ascend into heaven?'" (that is, to bring Christ down) or "'Who will descend into the abyss?'" (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? "The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart" (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. For the Scripture says, "Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame." For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. For "everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved."
Paul says that the Jews are admirable for their zeal for God – and anyone who understands the requirements of being an orthodox Jew must agree with this. No people throughout history have led, on widespread scale, the kind of ascetic lifestyle and dealt with the self-sacrifice that the Jews have done. But Paul says that Christ is the “end of the law” for the believer—the completion of the Law, which nullifies its demand on our lives by offering us grace by faith instead.
And here Paul gets down to the process of salvation. He says that belief in your heart in Jesus’ resurrection leads to justification, and confession that Jesus is Lord leads to salvation. To be clear on this point, let us look at the Greek terms. By “justified” (dikaiosyne) Paul means that man is made righteous, returned to the condition in which he ought to be; this happens by “confession” (homologeo) of Jesus as Lord, the public profession of a statement. So Paul is saying that we are made right with God when we publicly declare that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah. Further, Paul says that we gain “salvation” (soteria) when we “believe” (pisteuo) in Christ. Soteria in the Biblical sense means that we are delivered from judgment, and this comes through our faith or belief in Christ. This term for faith (pisteuo or pistis) indicates more than just intellectual acceptance that Christ was resurrected—it also implies a loyalty to that fact. We will be discussing Biblical faith in a future post.
But there you have the basis of the New Covenant: you must believe that Jesus was resurrected, and be willing to state in public (not just private) that you believe Jesus is the Christ. When you have that faith, God imparts upon you righteousness (forgiving your sins and treating you as holy), and therefore you are saved from the results of your post-death judgment. So faith in Christ leads to imparted righteousness, and that righteousness saves you at the judgment.
How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, "How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!" But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, "Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?" So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ. But I ask, have they not heard? Indeed they have, for "Their voice has gone out to all the earth, and their words to the ends of the world." But I ask, did Israel not understand? First Moses says, "I will make you jealous of those who are not a nation; with a foolish nation I will make you angry." Then Isaiah is so bold as to say, "I have been found by those who did not seek me; I have shown myself to those who did not ask for me." But of Israel he says, "All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and contrary people." I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! For I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. Do you not know what the Scripture says of Elijah, how he appeals to God against Israel? "Lord, they have killed your prophets, they have demolished your altars, and I alone am left, and they seek my life." But what is God’s reply to him? "I have kept for myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal." So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace. But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.
Taken out of context (as it often is), people want to apply this to the fate of those who have not heard the Gospel of Christ. But in reality and in context, this clearly is written only to the Jews. Having addressed prior objections, Paul now addresses the objection that they cannot be expected to accept the Gospel when they have not heard it. Paul’s response is that the Old Testament makes it clear that Israel was not living up to its requirements, and that God was going to choose a remnant based upon grace. He quotes Moses, Elijah, and Isaiah as proofs.
One of my favorite quotes of the New Testament: “If [salvation] is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.”
What then? Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking. The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened, as it is written, "God gave them a spirit of stupor, eyes that would not see and ears that would not hear, down to this very day." And David says, "Let their table become a snare and a trap, a stumbling block and a retribution for them; let their eyes be darkened so that they cannot see, and bend their backs forever." So I ask, did they stumble in order that they might fall? By no means! Rather through their trespass salvation has come to the Gentiles, so as to make Israel jealous. Now if their trespass means riches for the world, and if their failure means riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their full inclusion mean!
This is a summary and conclusion to the section on Jewish objections. In these two chapters, Paul has addressed several Jewish objections to the Gospel:
• The word of God failed, because the offspring of Abraham were supposed to be the Chosen people. (Paul demonstrates that God’s grace belongs to children of the promise, which is based upon faith, not bloodline.)
• God was unjust by having mercy on the heathens. (Paul argues that mercy is God’s to give to whom He pleases, and the creation has no right to complain about how the Creator made them.)
• God has rejected Israel without the Jews hearing about their disobedience/failure to live up to it. (Paul points out that God has routinely reminded them through the prophets of their disobedience. He also says that God has not rejected all of Israel, but the elect remnant of believers He foreknew are still receiving the full promise.)
Having answered those objections, Paul summarizes in his concluding statement. In this statement he says that Israel failed to achieve its goal of righteousness. God gave them a formula to achieve it (the Law), and Israel failed. Those who had faith in the Christ (the elect) did obtain this righteousness through their faith (not their works). But God used their rejection to spread salvation into the whole world, to the Gentiles too.
Paul ends on a ‘high note’, though—if the Jewish failure to the Law has led to such great mercy for the rest of the world, imagine how much greater God is glorified if the Chosen people return to him!