Thursday, December 11, 2003

The Jews and the Gospel

This is essay #2 in a series that explores the place of the Jews in the age of the gospel.. To start at the beginning, click here.

Paul begins his main points in his letter to the Christians in Rome with these words:

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. (Romans 1:16)

I can remember to this day the first time that I read, "to the Jew first and also to the Greek." This was such a strange phrase for my young Presbyterian mind to read. Did Jesus not start the Christian church? Why would Paul mention the Jews? Why would he suggest some form of pre-eminence for them? Were they not the ones who rejected their Messiah? 

It was years before I realized that Paul really meant what he said. There was and is still a great privilege to being a Jew, to be part of the lineage through which God has blessed mankind. As Paul also wrote in Romans:

Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the benefit of circumcision? Great in every respect. First of all, that they were entrusted with the oracles of God. (Romans 3:1-2)

Nevertheless, it is also true that the Jews in the first century did not all flock to the good news that Jesus the Messiah brought to them. On the other hand, it is often forgotten that for some fifteen years after the resurrection of Jesus, Christianity was predominantly Jewish. The first century Messianic Jews were concerned for their recalcitrant brothers and sisters. Indeed much of the book of Hebrews pleads with fellow Jews not to reject this latest Word from God.

In Romans 9, 10, and 11, Paul expresses his feelings about his people and the rejection by many of the Gospel. In these chapters, he comes to terms with the theological implications and what the future will hold. In the course of his teaching, he advises Gentiles to not be conceited, but to understand that they are not as natural a fit into the plans of God as the Jews are.

Paul begins with an outburst of sorrow:

I am telling the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience testifies with me in the Holy Spirit, that I have great sorrow and unceasing grief in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed, separated from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh, who are Israelites, to whom belongs the adoption as sons, and the glory and the covenants and the giving of the Law and the temple service and the promises, whose are the fathers, and from whom is the Christ according to the flesh, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen. (Romans 9:1-5)

Is there any hint, in Paul's words here, that God intends to abandon the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob-Israel?

  • The adoption as sons belongs to them.
  • As does the glory of God
  • And the covenants: the Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, and Davidic
  • And the Torah, Prophets, and Writings
  • And the temple service
  • And the promises
  • And being the people from whom Messiah came.

This is a great privilege and according to Paul, these things belong to them. 

So what is the cause of Paul's sorrow to the point of wishing himself eternally cursed? It is because time after time many, if not most, Israelites in Paul's day were rejecting the message about Jesus. It was Paul's practice during his missionary journeys to enter the local synagogue and proclaim the gospel there. Often the synagogue would not hear the message and a church, separate from the synagogue, formed in the community. Some Jews and many of the righteous Gentiles formed the core of the new fellowship. 

I do not know about Paul's day, but when Christianity became dominated by the Gentiles, it became standard Doctrine that God abandoned the Jews because the Jews rejected Him. However, a careful reading of this section of Paul's letter to the Romans, shows this to be false.

The first point that Paul makes is that being part of God's covenant with Abraham has never been a birthright. It has always been a matter of God's grace and choosing:

But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel; nor are they all children because they are Abraham’s descendants, but: “through Isaac your descendants will be named.” That is, it is not the children of the flesh who are children of God, but the children of the promise are regarded as descendants. For this is the word of promise: “At this time I will come, and Sarah shall have a son.” And not only this, but there was Rebekah also, when she had conceived twins by one man, our father Isaac; for though the twins were not yet born and had not done anything good or bad, so that God’s purpose according to His choice would stand, not because of works but because of Him who calls, it was said to her, “The older will serve the younger.” Just as it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” (Romans 9:6-13)

Paul is observing here that Abraham had two sons. Ishmael was not a child of the covenant, but Isaac was. And Isaac had two sons. Esau was not a child of the covenant, but Jacob was. Paul further observes that it was by God's command and decree that the covenant flowed from Abraham to Isaac to Jacob. Indeed it is interesting to note that Abraham would have chosen Ishmael (Gen. 17:18) and Isaac would have chosen Esau (Gen. 27:4) Now this is a great passage for Calvinists, but Paul's primary teaching is not election as much as it is to state that each generation of descendants from Abraham to Paul's day and beyond would have similar sovereign choice. Some Israelites would be part of the covenant flow and others would not. 

According to Paul, even the current rejection is somehow part of God's sovereign choosing. And with that statement, Paul has raised a thorny issue, still argued to this day, and must leave his concern for his people and wrestle with the issue of God's sovereignty and election. Since it is part of Paul's argument, I will cover it as well. But as I do so, I will ask you to remember the context of this passage and its place in the overall structure of the Roman letter.

Before I leave, permit me to also begin developing the practical side of this subject. It is a bit of foreshadowing about what is to come later in this series of lessons, but it is important enough to sketch early. Let me start by placing a few verses side by side.

“But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies , then recognize that her desolation is near.  

Then those who are in Judea must flee to the mountains, and those who are in the midst of the city must leave, and those who are in the country must not enter the city; because these are days of vengeance, so that all things which are written will be fulfilled. 

Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing babies in those days; for there will be great distress upon the land and wrath to this people; and they will fall by the edge of the sword, and will be led captive into all the nations; and Jerusalem will be trampled under foot by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled. (Luke 21:20-24)

For I do not want you, brethren, to be uninformed of this mystery—so that you will not be wise in your own estimation—that a partial hardening has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in; and so all Israel will be saved; just as it is written, “The Deliverer will come from Zion, He will remove ungodliness from Jacob.” “This is My covenant with them, When I take away their sins.” (Romans 11:25-27)

Can you see the connection between Jesus' words, "until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled" and Paul's words, "until the fulness of the Gentiles has come in?" Now here is an interesting co-incidence. In 1967, you could have searched the world over and found few if any Messianic Jewish congregations. In June of 1967, the Jews took possession of  a section of Jerusalem for the first time since 70 AD. Shortly after 1967, young Jews began becoming believers and started forming Messianic Jewish congregations and these have spread all over the world.

Israel finds nationhood in a moment by the vote of the UN (Isaiah 66:8) in 1948. In 1967, she has part of Jerusalem. Since that time thousands of Jews have come to believe in the Name of Yeshua--as Jews not as Hebrew Christians. More Jews have been saved in the last 30 years than in the 1900 or so years before.

And so our modern world has a mix very similar to the world of Paul's day. Believing Jews and believing Gentiles. What are we to make of this? Does my systematic theology allow for these events? If preterist view that God ended the Jewish Age in a past Great Tribulation, then is this movement among the Jews even valid?

Whoa. This is getting long. More tomorrow.

Friday: God's Sovereign Choices

<>< Test everything. Cling to what is good. ><>


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