For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first, and also for the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “The just shall live by faith”.
But Paul’s statement in Romans 1:16 leaves us with one perplexing question that apparently undermines his initial assertion. If the gospel really is “the power of God unto salvation … for the Jew first”, why Israel’s large-scale apostasy and unbelief? Paul addresses this dilemma by teaching that God allowed Israel as a whole to reject the gospel in order that the Gentiles might hear and be saved (11:11). Nevertheless, God did not forsake ancient Israel, but simply allowed them to be hardened in part (11:25), leaving “a remnant according to the election of grace”, those who believe the gospel (11:5). But this is not the end of the matter, for at some point the Jewish nation as a whole will turn back to its Messiah in faith (11:12,15,26). So Paul resolves the mystery of Israel (11:5,25-26) and, in so doing, completely vindicates his initial statement.
What does Paul mean by “Israel” in Romans 9-11?
“Israel” can mean several things in Scripture. How, then, do we determine what Paul means by “Israel” in Romans 9-11? Addressing the issue of the meaning of words in the Bible, the respected theologian Louis Berkhof has written, “… the essential point is that of their particular sense in the connection in which they occur”. Therefore we will determine what Paul means by “Israel” in Romans 9-11 by observing his definition and the “particular sense” in which he uses “Israel” in the context of these chapters.
This is not difficult to do, for Paul defines his term at the outset in Romans 9:3-4, “my brethren, my countrymen according to the flesh, who are Israelites”. Then, through the rest of these chapters, Paul makes what John Murray describes as a “sustained contrast between Israel and the Gentiles”. So in Romans 9-11, when Paul speaks of “Israel”, he has defined the word as meaning ethnic Israel or the Jewish people, who were scattered throughout the Graeco-Roman world of that generation, just as they are scattered throughout the whole world today. Paul underscores this meaning by his repeated references to “Israel”, or the Jews, in contrast to the Gentiles (9:24, 30-31; 11:7-15, 25-26). At just one point, he clearly shifts to a narrower definition of Israel (in 9:6) when he says, “For they are not all Israel who are of Israel”. Here he is answering the question of why so many in the nation have rejected the gospel, explaining that there is a remnant chosen to salvation (9:15-18), “according to the election of grace” (11:5). To suggest that Paul extends the term “Israel” in verse 6 to include believing Gentiles would be to undermine Paul’s logic that not all of ethnic Israel is saved, for salvation belongs only to the elect within Israel.
Does God still have a special love and care for the Jewish people?
All too often the answer of Christians and professed Christians to this question is, “No!” God, they argue, rejected the Jewish people when they rejected Jesus. Yet such a view is untenable in the light of Romans 11:28, which speaks of Israel as “beloved for the sake of the fathers”, namely, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. So some of us may surely be forgiven for feeling disturbed when our fellow believers are either indifferent to or hostile towards the Jewish people. Our point is that if God still loves them, then so must we who claim to love God.
Are the Jewish people still a chosen nation today?
This is a natural sequel to the previous question, though taking the previous points somewhat further. It is often said that, “the Jews are no longer God’s chosen people in the sense in which they were from the call of Abraham to the coming of Christ”. This would seem to be the plain implication of Hebrews 8:13, where we learn that the old or first covenant has been superseded by the New Covenant:
In that he says, “A new covenant”, he has made the first obsolete. Now what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.
From this we might be tempted to conclude that the very covenant which constituted the Jewish people as a chosen nation before God is no longer in force. But again, context must determine interpretation. In context, Hebrews 8:13 is dealing with the passing of the Mosaic Covenant or era in relation to the New Covenant. This however still leaves the Abrahamic Covenant which preceded Moses intact, this being the covenant by which God constituted the Jewish people as a chosen nation (Genesis 12:1-3; 22:15-18). Indeed, in Galatians 3:16-29, Paul states explicitly that the Mosaic Covenant did not annul the Abrahamic Covenant.
Turning to Romans 11:1-2, Paul’s own answer to his question is unequivocal, “Has God cast away his people? . . . God has not cast away his people whom he foreknew”. Paul goes on, in 11:28-29, to speak of Israel’s “election” and to insist that its “calling” as a nation is “irrevocable”. What is more, Paul wrote this around 57-58 AD when the New Covenant was already fully established. So the Jewish nation continues to be an elect, chosen nation before God, as promised in the Abrahamic Covenant and subsequently reaffirmed with the patriarchs. “God has not cast away his people whom he foreknew”. As Dr Lloyd-Jones has pointed out, the Greek word translated here as “foreknew”, is translated as “foreordained” in 1 Peter 1:20. So David Stern is justified when, in his Jewish New Testament, he translates Romans 11:2, “God has not repudiated his people, whom he chose in advance”. The context of Romans 11 confirms this, as Paul speaks of Israel’s “election” by God.
Why is it inconceivable to think of God casting off the Jewish nation? Because God not only made his covenant with Israel, but subsequently promised that he could never break his covenant by casting them away (Leviticus 26:44-45). Paul would have been aware of such passages and also promises such as the one found in Jeremiah 31:35-37:
Thus says the LORD, who gives the sun for a light by day, and the ordinances of the moon and the stars for a light by night . . . “If those ordinances depart from before me”, says the LORD, “then the seed of Israel shall also cease from being a nation before me for ever. . . If heaven above can be measured, and the foundations of the earth searched out beneath, I will also cast off the seed of Israel for all that they have done,” says the LORD.
Have the sun and moon departed? Has man yet measured the heavens? Most certainly not – not even today! Therefore, Paul concludes, God has not cast away his people Israel.
If Israel is an elect nation, does this mean that all Jewish people will come to salvation, or that they will automatically be saved simply by being Jewish?
From these chapters in Romans it is very clear that whatever Israel’s election means, it does not mean that they will all be saved, or that they will be saved as Jews by their own covenant. So what exactly does Israel’s election mean? The problem is that many Christians think of election as meaning simply the election of individuals to salvation. But as Louis Berkhof notes, “the Bible speaks of election in more than one sense”. As to the Jewish nation, Berkhof explains that there is “the election of Israel as a people for special privileges and for special service”.
What are these special privileges to which Israel was elected?
Israel was elected to be a kingdom of priests (Exodus 19:6) and a means of blessing to the other nations (Genesis 12:1-3).
Israel was elected to be a nation under God’s special protection (Genesis 12:3), as evidenced by their survival in the face of enemies such as Pharaoh, Haman, the Romans and, in our own time, the Nazis.
Israel’s national election encompasses the individual election of some Jewish people to personal salvation through the gospel (Romans 11:5). Not only that, but it also includes the promise of the nation’s future salvation through their Messiah (Romans 11:12, 15, 26-27).
Finally, Israel’s election means that when the nation finally turns en-masse to God through Messiah, this will result in blessing for the Gentiles (Romans 11:11-12, 15).
What sort of response to the gospel can we expect from the Jewish people today?
Outreach to the Jewish people is unique in that no other gospel work has such definite promises of success attached to it. The fact is that “God has not cast away his people whom he foreknew”, that “at this present time there is a remnant according to the election of grace”, and that at a future time known only to God “all Israel will be saved”! So we are encouraged to go on sharing the gospel with our Jewish friends in the knowledge that God will bless our witness to them, both now and in the future. The calling of Gentile believers, according to Paul, is to provoke Jewish people to jealousy by our lives and witness, so that they too may come to faith in their Messiah.
This article, which appeared in the Spring 2009 edition of the Herald, is an edited version of a piece which was first published in the Spring 2005 issue of Foundations.