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A Discussion of Messianic Judaism, the Emerging Messianic Jewish Paradigm, and Related Leadership Issues from the Preoccupied Mind of Rabbi Stuart Dauermann, PhD.

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Sunday, April 10, 2005

Has God Abandoned Israel as his ‘Plan A People’”?

(This is a teaching presented April 9, 2005 at Ahavat Zion Messianic Synagogue, Beverly Hills, California. )

The issue of whether God has bailed out on Israel, say, for their unbelief concerning Yeshua, was a real question for the believers in Rome to whom Paul wrote his letter. It remains a real issue today, as there are many who either teach or simply assume that this is the case. However, imbedded in this contention is the poisonous implication that God himself is fickle, and that he was either unable or unwilling to accomplish his saving promises and plan for Israel, attested to in the Older Testament, as we saw last week.

As we begin this lesson, I present two juicy quotations that foreshadow where we are heading today as we examine Romans chapter nine. (We will cover chapters ten and eleven next in the next week or two].

“Paul’s announced and defended conviction is that the word of God has not failed (9:6). In a remarkable rhetorical tour de force Paul writes the entire passage from 9:6 to 9:27 using nearly twenty active verbs depicting God’s action, but using only a few verbs, all passive, with respect to humanity. He thus makes the point absolutely clear, namely that the current ‘plight’ of Israel after the flesh is entirely the result of God’s decisions. Thus Lloyd Gaston rightly asks: ‘How is it that people can say that chapter 9 deals with the unbelief of Israel when it is never mentioned, and all human activity, whether doing or believing, whether Jewish or Gentile, is expressly excluded from consideration?’”

“[Is it not true that Romans 9 is about] God’s dealings with Israel, namely that God will remain faithful to Israel, despite the fact that the Gentiles [the non-Israel nations] now seem to be receiving God’s mercy while Israel does not? Further, [is it not true that] Paul insists that the current condition of Israel’s ‘hardening’ is entirely God’s doing, Israel’s actions and moral conditioning . . . do not enter the picture at all. . . . [Paul notes], with reference to Jacob and Esau, that’s God’s purpose was declared to Rebecca ‘before they had been born or had done anything good or bad’ (9:11). God’s choosing ‘the younger,’’ Jacob, is not injustice on God’s part precisely because the issue is not about moral success or failure [as to who is more deserving, remains deserving, or not] but about God’s mercy and hardening, enacted not with respect to a moral condition, but strictly with respect to a divine purpose that must be accomplished.” [Douglas Harink, in “Paul Among the Post Liberals”]

What is the main issue Paul is seeking to answer in Romans 9-11? To identify this underlying issue we must first remember that he is the apostle to the Gentiles, writing to a racially mixed, but mainly Gentile congregation. Second, we must seek to discern what might be on the minds of these congregants having already heard the first eight chapters of this book read to them. We must also remember that these people will all want to know about the security of their redemption in Messiah. But why might that security be an issue for them? This brings us to the heart of the matter. They will want to know, and Paul is seeking to address, this question: “How can we depend upon God’s faithfulness and unfailing love, when we consider that for the most part, the Jewish people, God’s chosen, seem to have been cast off to the side?” And the argument can also be made that there were those Gentiles in the Roman congregations who were already looking down their Roman noses at the Jews with whom they associated. [This is why he warns them in Romans 11 to not be arrogant toward the natural branches]. Paul may then be seeking to correct a growing Roman conviction that God has soured on the Jews and grown sweet on the Gentiles.

This would of course be a matter of concern to the Jewish believers in the church at Rome, but also a matter of pastoral concern for Paul, who knows that such an attitude about God’s turning from loving the Jews to instead loving the non-Jews, as ego-stroking as it might be for the Gentiles, also undermines the stability of the faith the Gentiles embrace, for if God could go sour on the Jews, he could do the same toward them. So if God is bailing out on the Jews, everyone loses, both the Jews and the Gentiles. Paul knows this, and in these chapters seeks to explain why he knows this to be not true. It is important for Paul to defend God’s faithfulness to the Jews, to demonsrate that, despite appearances, they have not been abandoned.

Romans 9-11 must be seen against the background of Romans 1-8, and especially the rousing ending to Romans 8: “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” [Romans 8:38-39]. To which the rejoinder might well be, “O yeah, Paul? What about the Jews? Are they not separated from the love of God in Messiah Yeshua our Lord? Has not the love of God for Israel reached a dead end due to Israel’s wholesale rejection of Yeshua [in the case of some], and ignoring of Yeshua [in many more cases]? How can you say that nothing in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God when it seems so clear to some of us at least that the Jewish people, apart from faith in Israel’s Messiah, have in some sense been separated from the love of God. And more to the point, when it seems clear that the love that God has for them as run out, and in a sense, failed, how can we have confidence in the love this God has for us? How can we have confidence in the triumphant love of God for us when God’s love for Israel, instead of ending in triumph appears to be ending in failure and abandonment?”

This question about the dependability, sufficiency, and longevity of God’s electing grace foundational to these chapters.

I want to suggest that Paul’s response to all of this is to emphasize the following:

1. God’s love for Israel has not failed nor faltered;
2. Israel’s status with him remains secure;
3. The faltering of Israel, their stumbling, is itself part of the Divine plan and thus no reason for God to withdraw his mercy to them as a people, nor for us to doubt that mercy, although;
4. Faltering in faith does bring negative consequences for the time being
      a. For the Jews, natural branches being broken off
      b. And again, for the Jews, some generations suffering the consequences of living out that partial hardening, but even        this suffering is part of God’s redemptive purpose through Israel;
      c. For the Gentiles, faltering in faith is also something to avoid, (11:2) "For if God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either.”
5. Since God’s loving election of Israel remains secure, the Gentiles can have faith in the stability of His love and purpose for them,
6. They need not worry that God’s love for them will be falter or be withdrawn. However- -
7. Neither should any of these Gentiles be arrogant toward Israel as if they are God’s new favorites;
8. The salvation of all, Jew and Gentile, is by electing grace,
9. All should seek to live lives worthy of that love and divine favor
10. And the Gentiles should seek to play their part in hastening that day when
11. The manifest pleasure of God will again rest upon Israel, when all Israel will be saved, resulting in the consummating redemption of the cosmos.

It may help here to reinforce our conviction about what Paul is up to here. If we accept as a fact that Paul is seeking to reassure his largely Gentile audience, how would it be of comfort to them to know that God had abandoned Israel because of their unbelief? It would be of no comfort at all, because any perceptive Roman recipient of the letter would say, “What is to keep God from abandoning us if we too fall into unbelief?” And, reading between the lines of his letter, it appears that there is some tension between the Jews and Gentiles in the Roman congregations, with the latter beginning to feel superior to the former. How would a message about God’s turning away from Israel his people resolve that tension? Not at all! No, he is not focusing on Israel’s abandonment, God forbid, but on God’s elegant and sovereign electing mercy to Israel and to all.

The way Paul reassures his recipients is by pointing out the following:
      • God has been faithful in all his dealings with Israel
      • Their faithlessness and stumbling is part of the will of God. . .something He engineered, something for which they were also chosen, is for the benefit of the Gentile
      • In his faithfulness, God will once again restore Israel to glory
      • Therefore, be assured that God will prove faithful to you Gentiles
      • And avoid ever being self-congratulatory concerning your own chosenness status—you were chosen only because God exercised his freedom in extending mercy to you, just as Israel has been chosen the same way.

Excellent Christian theologian, Douglas Harink, thinks clearly on these matters, and ably refutes the false presuppositions many hold concerning the writings of Paul and what hel supposedly alleges about God and the Jewish people. One of those parties whom Harink critiques is the famous British theologian N.T. Wright. Here is part of what Harink says about why Wright is wrong!

“Paul thus becomes in Wright’s hands an evangelical theologian of individual sin, repentance, conversion and acceptance of Jesus Christ as personal Lord and Savior through faith, upon receiving an offer of salvation. We might also note how voluntary and self-moved all of this appears in Wright’s construal. It is individual Jews, now as generic human beings [rather than as members of a covenant people] no different from Gentiles, who, in response to the new possibility of salvation in Christ, ‘see ‘ what God is doing to Israel, ‘abandon’ their ethnic covenant status, ‘come to faith in,’ ‘grasp in faith,’ or ‘embrace’ Jesus Christ, in so doing, ‘regain’ their covenant status—individual Jews on the proverbial sawdust trail. Perhaps Wright hardly intends it, but in his hands the biblical understanding of the chosen people of Israel is reduced to Jews (with Gentiles) as individual seekers and choosers of Christianity, who participate in the new movement primarily through self-moved individual faith rather than through election into a specific corporate body. While this fits nicely the idea of becoming Christian in the tradition of evangelicalism and revivalism, it is, as we have seen, a long distance from the way in which Paul renders the logic of his gospel—God setting his heart upon and sovereignly electing (and hardening and showing mercy to) and destining for salvation one fleshly people out of all the nations of earth and saving the nations by grafting them into this people” [Dougla Harink, "Paul Among the Post-Liberals"].

We would do well to realize that many times we operate on the false assumption that God deals with us and everyone else as individuals as part of an undifferentiated humanity, and that ethnic origins mean nothing to God. [In fact, some theologians lean in this direction!]. This would be so were it not for the fact established throughout the warp and woof of the Bible, and taught on last week, that, for the sake of the salvation of all, God has worked uniquely among the people of Israel. In fact, this special chosenness of Israel is the foundation upon which Paul builds his entire argument in Romans 9-11, because before he says anything else, he says this about the Jewish people: “Theirs is the adoption as sons; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises. 5 Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of Messiah, who is God over all, forever praised! Amen.”

With all of the foregoing in mind, let us quickly survey the argument in Romans 9-10.

9:1 I speak the truth in Messiah - I am not lying, my conscience confirms it in the Holy Spirit - 2 I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. 3 For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Messiah for the sake of my brothers, those of my own race, 4 the people of Israel. Theirs is the adoption as sons; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises. 5 Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of Messiah, who is God over all, forever praised! Amen.

Why does Paul have unceasing grief and anguish in his heart? It must certainly be because those Jewish people who have not found what he has found, who have not been drawn as he has been drawn, are missing out on something. In fact they are missing out on something that the Gentiles have entered into. Let’s hold on to that thought and return to it later.

6 It is not as though God's word had failed. For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. 7 Nor because they are his descendants are they all Abraham's children. On the contrary, "It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned." 8 In other words, it is not the natural children who are God's children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham's offspring. 9 For this was how the promise was stated: "At the appointed time I will return, and Sarah will have a son." 10 Not only that, but Rebekah's children had one and the same father, our father Isaac. 11 Yet, before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad - in order that God's purpose in election might stand: 12 not by works but by him who calls - she was told, "The older will serve the younger." 13 Just as it is written: "Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated."

It is crucial to see, perhaps for the first time for some of us, what Paul attributes as the cause of Israel’s “missing out” status. Once we look at this carefully the answer is clear. The Israel of Paul’s day and largely of our own is missing out because of the operations of God’s electing purpose. He specifically says that this missing out has nothing to do with Israel’s no longer deserving God’s favor. Using the example of Jacob and Esau, he points out how one was chosen and the other “before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad - in order that God's purpose in election might stand: not by works but by him who calls.” So, according to Paul here, what is the cause of Israel’s stumbling, of Israel’s “not getting it,” of Israel’s “missing out”? It is the electing purposes of God. Paul will have more to say about this as we go along. His argument broadens and continues:

14 What then shall we say? Is God unjust? Not at all! 15 For he says to Moses, "I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion." 16 It does not, therefore, depend on man's desire or effort, but on God's mercy. 17 For the Scripture says to Pharaoh: "I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth." 18 Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden. 14 What then shall we say? Is God unjust? Not at all! 15 For he says to Moses, "I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion." 16 It does not, therefore, depend on man's desire or effort, but on God's mercy. 17 For the Scripture says to Pharaoh: "I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth." 18 Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.

In verses 14-18, Paul deals with part of the crux of the matter as far as the Romans are concerned: the dependability, faithfulness and honorableness of God. Paul expresses their rhetorical question: ”What shall we say? Is God unjust? Not at all!!” This is the big question: is God undependable and is God unjust, because upon the answer to this question lays the entire burden of whether they [and we] can feel safe with God and confident of his continued support and love. The current translation uses the phrase, “not at all.” This is “mei genoito” in the Greek. It is the strongest possible disavowal, which is why some translate it as “God forbid.” You might as well translate it “Not on your life” or “No, no, a thousand times no.” Paul uses this phrase to totally and sharply refute a suggestion which he cannot allow to go unrefuted. Here, his point is that it is totally untrue that God is unjust to choose whom he will and not others. He refutes this through reference to the Torah, quoting Exodus 33:19 (“I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion),” and 9:16, ("I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth"). Paul draws the clincher for us, stating clearly the principle he is getting at: “God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.”

We need to see these statements within the context of what Paul is trying to do: defend the faithfulness of God and the sufficiency of his gracious election. We can readily see how the statements made above about how God having mercy on whomever he chooses would be of some comfort to the Romans. If God wants to have mercy on them, then that settles it. As Romans 8:33-34 puts it, “Who can lay any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is he that condemns? Messiah Yeshua, who died, more than that, who was raised from the dead, is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.” So again, we see that the sovereign choosing of God, his electing mercy upon Israel, is a comfort to Paul’s mixed audience of mostly Gentiles and some Jews. And this mercy to Israel is not theirs alone. It is also extended toward the Church from among the nations,

Recognize of course that if Paul’s argument was about God abandoning Israel due to Israel’s failure, this would be of no comfort to the Roman believers. They would have to live out the rest of their days worrying if they were next to be dropped off of God’s A-list.

However, the recipients still know that despite election, God still holds us responsible for our actions and our unbelief, (and yes that is paradoxical). So Paul, being a well-trained Roman rhetorician, expresses the unspoken question of his recipients. He also answers their question with some questions of his own and again strongly reinforces his main message: the free choice electing love of God.

19 One of you will say to me: "Then why does God still blame us? For who resists his will?" [This is their unspoken question about human responsibility and how unfair it is that God holds us responsible, while saving some and not others] 20 But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? "Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, 'Why did you make me like this?'" 21 Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use? 22 What if God, choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath - prepared for destruction? 23 What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory - 24 even us, whom he also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles?

25 As he says in Hosea: "I will call them 'my people' who are not my people; and I will call her 'my loved one' who is not my loved one," 26 and, "It will happen that in the very place where it was said to them, 'You are not my people,' they will be called 'sons of the living God.'" 27 Isaiah cries out concerning Israel: "Though the number of the Israelites be like the sand by the sea, only the remnant will be saved. 28 For the Lord will carry out his sentence on earth with speed and finality." 29 It is just as Isaiah said previously: "Unless the Lord Almighty had left us descendants, we would have become like Sodom, we would have been like Gomorrah."

Notice especially this final quotation from Isaiah which acknowledges that it is only because of the mercy of God that any of us are saved at all. This being the case, we have no grounds to complain about whom God saves and whom he does not, and whom he is working with at this time and whom he is not working with at this time. It is all God’s unmerited favor, his free-choice mercy. Under such mercy we can be comforted, but not self-congratulatory. And we must continue seeking to live as to deserve the grace we have freely received.

Paul next brings in a statement that would seem to place the responsibility for Israel’s failure, for her stumbling, her “missing out,” squarely on the shoulders of the Jewish people, who pursued “a law of righteousness” and did not attain to the righteous standing they sought “Because they pursued it not by faith but as if it were by works.” Here indeed Israel is portrayed as having missed out due to having not understood how God was at work: They pursued it not by faith but as if it were by works” which it was not. According to some scholars, the problem was that Israel, still assuming that salvation was entirely a Jewish possession, and that keeping Torah, Jewish status, and salvation were synonymous, did not understand that all along God had planned to bring the Gentiles in on this as Gentiles, apart from obedience to Torah but through Messiah. In other words, the Jewish people were out of step with what God was doing, and thus, being out of step, stumbled.

But the unspoken question is, “Does Israel’s failure therefore cancel the nation’s hopes of being in the end recipients of his mercy?” To answer this correctly we must not miss the fact that Paul says it was God who tripped them up. They stumbled over the stumbling stone. This is part of the electing purposes of God: their stumbling over the stone was for the sake of the progress of God’s plans in the midst of the earth. It was for the sake of the salvation of the Gentiles. So their stumbling, as tragic as it was, was no surprise to God, nor was it out of his gracious plans. Later on, Paul will again shout "mei genoito" over the idea that Israel stumbled so as to fall beyond recovery [see Chapter 11]. Paul is not confused, although many others are: the Jewish people have stumbled, but they are not out of the race, and they will reach the finish line!

Of course, the Gentiles getting in on the blessings with the chosen people on the outside looking in is still a cause for some amazement and concern. Paul expresses for them their chagrin at this, and reiterates his point, adding a description of how and why for the time being and for the sake of the salvation of the nations Israel stumbled over the stumbling stone God has placed in their way,

30 What then shall we say? That the Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained it, a righteousness that is by faith; 31 but Israel, who pursued a law of righteousness, has not attained it. 32 Why not? Because they pursued it not by faith but as if it were by works. They stumbled over the "stumbling stone." 33 As it is written: "See, I lay in Zion a stone that causes men to stumble and a rock that makes them fall, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame."

It is helpful to note the totality of this quotation in verse 33: we must never forget that the rock over which Israel stumbled was the rock of salvation. And as we will see later, it is through their stumbling over this rock, that the Gentiles found the salvation the rock provides. Even the stumbling was redemptive and purposeful. And in the end, the people of Israel will fully embrace that rock as their own.

Conclusion [for the time being]!]:

As we will be seeing more fully in the next session or two, Paul is working with certain issues held in tension. Among these is what is happening for the time being and what will ultimately be true—for the time being Israel has stumbled and the Gentiles are to the fore, but ultimately, all Israel will be saved. And, as we will see in our discussion of Romans 11, he also deals with the tension between what God is doing among the Remnant and his electing purposes as well for the Rest who have been hardened. In both cases, the challenge is to not mistake current appearances for ultimate realities.