Thursday, June 10, 2010

Distinguished Israel: The "Stumbling Stone" of Romans 11, Part II: Future Hope for Israel

In my last post, I stated Marten H. Woudstra’s argument for continuity between Israel and the church. I also pointed out that contextually, Romans 9-11 refutes Woudstra’s view of a “spiritual Israel,” since Paul makes statements like “my kinsmen (countrymen) according to the flesh” and “those of my flesh,” etc. In addition, with the analogy of the vine and the branches and the broken-off branches, we learned that the broken-off branches were severed from the vine because of unbelief. These branches can also be grafted in again, because God can graft them in again should they cease to persist in their unbelief and begin to believe once more (Rom. 11:23).

Now, someone may say, what about the continuity of Israel and the church? Woudstra is not entirely wrong in his argument. Paul does talk about all the branches, both Jewish and Gentile, being grafted into the same vine (Rom. 11:17, 24). However, Paul’s discussion throughout Romans 9-11 has not been primarily concerned with the believing Jewish remnant. Paul mentions this remnant once in Romans 11:5, and basically says that this remnant is a sign of God’s promise to save Israel to the full (“how much more their fullness!”, verse 12).

The idea of the Jewish remnant in Romans 11:5 poses an interesting question: for what do we do with Paul’s words in verse 7?

“What then? ISRAEL has not obtained what it seeks; but THE ELECT have obtained it, and the rest were blinded” (Rom. 11:7, NKJV).

Notice that “Israel” is being placed in contrast to “the elect,” and this statement comes right after Paul’s mention of a Jewish believing remnant (11:5).

Throughout these first verses of Romans 11, Paul has been consumed with the people of God, that is, national Israel. But here in verse 7, Paul distinguishes between two groups of Israel: the elect (those who believe, Romans 10:9-13), and “the rest,” those who do not believe.

Do u see the words of Romans 11:7?

“The elect have obtained it, and THE REST WERE BLINDED.”

Since the elect refers to the believing remnant (11:5), “the rest” refers to unbelieving national Israel; this means, therefore, that the rest (unbelieving Israel) were blinded. The words of verse 7 meet their match in verse 25:
“I do not desire, brethren, that you should be ignorant of this mystery...that BLINDNESS IN PART HAS HAPPENED TO ISRAEL until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in.”

Here is where Marten Woudstra says, “See, Israel will be saved (v. 26) by the inclusion of the Gentiles...thus creating a spiritual Israel.” While the inclusion of the Gentiles does mean that they are grafted into the “cultivated olive tree” of God’s people (“spiritual Israel”), this does not take away from Paul’s words of future hope for the nation of Israel. In verse 24, Paul talks about the “natural branches” being grafted back into “their own olive tree,” meaning that the branches will be grafted in once more (v.26). The Gentiles, labeled “wild olive trees” (v.17), cannot turn around and be the “natural branches” of the cultivated olive tree. This is also why Paul uses the phrase “contrary to nature” (v.24) to describe the Gentile inclusion into the people of God (the vine). Paul writes this way to make it clear that, while both Israel and Gentiles will partake of the vine together, such communion of spiritual blessings DOES NOT nullify the promises of God to national Israel. Israel then, is represented by the “natural branches,” while the Gentiles are represented by the “wild olive” branches. It is natural for the Jews to be part of the cultivated olive tree, but UNNATURAL for the Gentiles (wild olive branches) to become part of the natural olive tree. If God has such mercy on a people who do not belong to the vine, then surely, He will have mercy on those who BELONG TO THE VINE by nature (Rom. 11:24)!

In verses 26-27, we find that Israel’s salvation is certain because God Himself declared it to His people in the Old Testament:

“And so all Israel will be saved, AS IT IS WRITTEN:
‘The Deliver will come out of Zion, and He will turn away ungodliness from Jacob; for this is My covenant with them, when I take away their sins’” (11:26-27; referencing Isa. 59:20, 21).

Paul declares that God wrote it in His Old Testament Scriptures that national Israel would be saved. And then comes the reference from Isaiah 59:20-21.

It is at this time that I would ask covenantal theologians, “Do these verses pertain to national Israel in the Old Testament, or to the church in the New Testament, or to both?” If I’ve done my reading correctly, covenantal theologians will respond, “to the church.” But to think this way would be to overlook the context of the Old Testament itself. Let’s return to Isaiah 59:20-21 to see who receives God’s promise there. First, let’s see what Isa. 59:20-21 says:

“The Redeemer will come to Zion, AND TO THOSE WHO TURN FROM TRANSGRESSION IN JACOB, says the LORD. ‘As for Me,’ says the LORD, ‘THIS IS MY COVENANT WITH THEM: My Spirit who is upon you, and My words which I have put in your mouth, shall not depart from your mouth, nor from the mouth of your descendants...from this time and forevermore.”

Who is Isaiah told to speak this to---the Gentiles? No. Instead, we find that Isaiah is given these words to national Israel herself: in Isaiah 58:1, Isaiah speaks to “the house of Jacob.” Jacob was renamed Israel, through whom the twelve sons (tribes) came forth. This, then, refers to national Israel. To deny that the house of Jacob refers to Israel would be costly---for it would mean denying things like the Red Sea Experience of Exodus, or the fact that the nation of Israel physically entered the Promised Land, which was a physical territory!

So when God makes this covenant, He does so with the “house of Jacob,” referring to national Israel.

Verse 26 distinguishes between national Israel and spiritual Israel (i.e., the Gentiles): “concerning the gospel they are enemies for your sake, but concerning the election they are beloved for the sake of the fathers.” Here we find that Israel and the church are chosen according to two different things: National Israel is chosen according to an unconditional election, while national Edom (Gentile nations) are chosen according to a conditional election, namely, election by faith (Rom. 11:20-22). Individual Jews and Gentiles are elect by faith as well, but nationally, Israel has an unconditional election given by God that will never be done away with. Why is this the case? “for the gifts and the calling of God are IRREVOCABLE” (v.29).

Because God called Israel and unconditionally elected her, she as a nation will be elect REGARDLESS! This is the nature of “unconditional”---that Israel cannot be cast away, no matter how unbelieving she may be.

In verses 30-31, Paul writes that both the Gentile nations and national Israel have been given the same mercy by God: “For as you were once DISOBEDIENT to God, yet have now obtained MERCY through their DISOBEDIENCE, even so these also have now been DISOBEDIENT, that through the mercy shown you they also may obtain mercy.” The Gentiles were once estranged from God and have now been brought near; in the same way, the Jews, once near God, have “fallen”---but in her fallenness, God is willing to grant her mercy again.

Now, there is one more question that I’d like to address: “Who is the “you” and “these” and “they” of verses 30-31? The “you” refers to the Gentiles, since Paul wrote in verse 13, “For I speak to you Gentiles...” The “these” of verse 31 refers to unbelieving national Israel. The “they” of verse 31 refers to the same unbelieving Israel.

If Paul was only concerned with the Jewish believers and Gentile believers (“spiritual Israel”), why then, does he spend one verse on the Jewish believers (11:5), but the rest of the chapter (the next 25 verses or so) on the unbelieving nation of Israel as well as the believing Gentiles? As context has demonstrated, Paul’s major concern was for national Israel to be saved. This makes sense of the “great sorrow and continual grief” in Paul’s heart for Israel (Rom. 9:1-3). Believing Gentiles are discussed in this section, but only because of their view of the Jews. The Gentile opinion gives Paul a reason to write “I do not desire, brethren, should be wise in your own opinion...” (11:25) The fact that most of chapter 11 encompasses unbelieving national Israel testifies to the progressive dispensationalist view that God still has a place for national Israel, while also making room for the Gentile nations. According to election, Israel (Jacob) is chosen; according to the gospel, the Gentiles (Edom) are chosen.

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