A Heart Aflame Romans 9:1-5
When I accepted Christ as my Savior while a university freshman, I wondered if I were the only Jewish person who had ever made this decision. In due course, while reading the New Testament, I discovered that the first-century Church was almost exclusively Jewish. Its members were Jewish. Its faith was in the Jewish Messiah. It believed a message that was preached in the Jewish land. It looked to the Old Testament Scriptures for spiritual understanding of New Testament truth.
In the early days of the Church, Jewish people were very responsive to the message of Jesus Christ. On the day of its birth at Pentecost, 3,000 Jews were saved (Acts 2:41). Soon after that, thousands more received Christ (Acts 4:4). Surely, it was only a matter of time before the entire nation of Israel would repent and believe the gospel. But corrupt leadership opposed the gospel, and the tide turned. Stephen, a great man of faith, was martyred, a great persecution arose; believers were forced to scatter over the Roman Empire (Acts 8), and Jewish people were suddenly no longer being swept into God’s kingdom in large numbers. Instead, many Jews became the most bitter opponents to Christianity, while multitudes of Gentiles turned to Christ for salvation.
This strange turn of events puzzled first-century Jewish Christians. They were aware that the Old Testament Scriptures taught that with the coming of the Messiah, Israel would be saved, blessed, and many wonderful promises would be fulfilled. However, Jesus the Messiah had now come and, nationally, Israel had rejected Him. What would happen to the promises God gave to Israel? Would God go back on His word? Would Israel be cast aside in favor of a largely Gentile Church? These were logical questions being raised by Jewish Christians everywhere and especially at Rome.
The letter to the Romans is a full explanation of the gospel of Jesus Christ. In preaching the gospel and its implications, Paul focused on the righteousness of God. In the first three chapters, he put Gentiles and Jews on trial and proved that both are guilty before a holy God and in need of divine righteousness. In the next few chapters, he presented Jesus Christ as the only provision of God’s righteousness. Through faith in Jesus Christ, a person is legally declared righteous and, therefore, the recipient of a present peace and a future glory (Rom. 5:1-5).
In Romans chapter eight, Paul expanded on this concept of future glory by teaching that salvation in Christ Jesus is complete and will take us all the way to Heaven. He began the chapter by stating that there is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus (v. 1), and he closed the chapter by declaring that nothing shall separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord (v. 39). Everything in between these magnificent statements is designed to give assurance that believers are safe and secure in Christ. Jewish believers in Rome, listening to Paul’s words of security for Christ’s Church, questioned its validity because they wondered about God’s security for Israel. As the Hebrew Christian looked around his assembly meeting and saw a predominantly Gentile Church (Rom. 11:13), he wondered if God was through with Israel and was replacing her with the Church. If He was, then it meant that God hadn’t kept His Old Testament promises to Israel, and if God was unfaithful to Israel, then He could not be trusted to keep His word to the Church.
The message of Romans 9, 10 and 11 is not a side issue to Paul’s presentation of God’s righteousness as revealed in the gospel. It is not intended to be a parenthesis in his letter. Instead, it is central to his argument, for if God had been unfaithful in His dealings with Israel, then He could not be counted upon to be faithful in His dealings with the Church. If God had permanently cast away Israel, then His promise of security for the Church meant nothing. If God had treated Israel unrighteously, then how could the righteousness of God be revealed in the gospel (Rom. 1:16-17)? The integrity of God was at stake! Before Paul could call the Church to demonstrate a righteous lifestyle (Rom. 12-16), he first had to establish that God was not guilty of any unrighteousness in His dealings with Israel. The truths of these three chapters vindicate God of any wrongdoing with His chosen nation and substantiate that the gospel sets forth the righteousness of God.
PAUL’S PASSION FOR ISRAEL
Before Paul defended the righteousness of God, however, he first expressed his great love for Israel. Paul was considered a traitor to the Jewish people. He was looked upon as the Judas of Judaism. After being Israel’s greatest champion for Judaism (Acts 8-9), Paul became a believer in Jesus the Messiah (Acts 9:4-6), apostle to the Gentiles (Rom. 11:13) and a teacher of salvation by grace (Rom. 4). From the perspective of the Jewish people, Paul was their enemy. How wrong they were. Paul loved his people with the deepest of passions. But now he was about to address Israel’s unbelief and rejection of the Messiah, and he didn’t want to be misunderstood. He didn’t want anyone saying, I told you so. Paul hates us. Look how he delights in our spiritual dilemma.
With this in mind, before he even mentioned the shame, failure and unbelief of Israel, he first affirmed his love for his kinsmen. He wrote, “I say the truth in Christ, I lie not, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Spirit, That I have great heaviness and continual sorrow in my heart” (vv. 1-2). Paul wanted every Jewish person to be assured that he was grief stricken over the spiritual condition of Israel. His conscience supported him in this, and the Holy Spirit confirmed the genuineness of his anguish. Here was a man whose heart broke for the nation of Israel.
It isn’t uncommon to hear godly Christians refer to their love for the Jewish people. Paul’s love, though, was so intense and so earnest that he was willing to go to Hell for eternity if it would result in the salvation of the Jewish people. He wrote, “For I could wish that I myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh” (v. 3). The term “accursed” is the Greek word anathema meaning to hand someone over to God for judgment. The same thought is conveyed by the word “damnation.” Paul’s love for his people consumed him to the degree that, if it were possible, he would have been willing to be damned to Hell if they could be saved in his place.
Paui knew that he could not be damned to Hell. He had just finished teaching the truth that nothing “shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus, our Lord” (Rom. 8:39), Paul also knew that Israel could never be saved by him being lost This was the language of passion — not logic. He was communicating the great yearning he had for his kinsmen’s salvation, and this yearning was so deep that he was willing to be lost forever if it could be fulfilled. But just because Paul’s wish could not become a reality, we are not to take his words lightly. Even though the apostle knew his yearning was a theological impossibility, he still meant it. This is why Paul called upon Christ, his conscience and the Holy Spirit to verify the depth of his love for Israel (Rom. 9:1-2). Very few believers can relate to this depth of love. There are people for whom we would be willing to die, but would we be willing to spend eternity in Hell for them? It was Paul’s love that dominated his missionary zeal. He was heartbroken over Israel’s failure to embrace Christ. Perhaps that is the difference between the Apostle Paul and today’s Christian. To us, Hell is a category of theology, an academic subject to be discussed. But Paul’s response to lost people was an anguish of heart that would have led him to Hell if it were possible. Paul’s anguish of heart was reminiscent of Christ’s weeping over the city of Jerusalem (Mt. 23:37) and then suffering judgment for its sin.
I once heard a story about a church that dismissed its pastor because he kept telling them that they were going to Hell. Surprisingly, though, the man they called to be their new pastor also told them they were bound for Hell, but they did not have a problem with him. When someone questioned a church member regarding the difference between the two pastors, the church member replied, “The difference is that when the first pastor told us we were going to Hell, he sounded like he was glad about it, but when the new pastor says it, he sounds like it breaks his heart.” It ought to break our hearts that people are lost, It should especially break our hearts because Israel is lost.
THE PRIVILEGES OF ISRAEL
Why should we grieve over the lost condition of the Jewish people any more than that of other people? It isn’t because their souls are more important, but because they were given unique privileges from which they never benefited. No other nation has ever been blessed like Israel, yet she reaped nothing from the spiritual advantages. Paul’s sorrow was over a nation who, in spite of her privileges, had rejected the Messiah.
In verses 4 and 5, Paul listed eight unique privileges given to those who are Israelites:
1. Adoption As Sons
God chose to adopt the Jewish people as a nation. This does not mean that every individual Jewish person was His child but that Israel, as a collective nation, had a special relationship with God, Moses wrote in Deuteronomy 7:6, “For thou art an holy people unto the LORD thy God; the LORD thy God hath chosen thee to be a special people unto himself, above all people who are upon the face of the earth.” In Hosea 11:1, God calls Israel His son. Through adoption, Israel became the recipients of God’s special favor.
2. The Glory
Paul was referring to the “shekinah,” the presence of God in visible manifestation. Concerning this glory, Exodus 40:34-38 says, “Then a cloud covered the tent of the congregation, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. And Moses was not able to enter into the tent of the congregation, because the cloud abode thereon, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. And when the cloud was taken up from over the tabernacle, the children of Israel went onward in all their journeys; But if the cloud were not taken up, then they journeyed not till the day that it was taken up. For the cloud of the LORD was upon the tabernacle by day, and fire was on it by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel, throughout all their journeys.” No other nation but Israel had the inestimable privilege of God’s visible presence guiding them, protecting them and assuring them.
3. The Covenants
God made agreements with Israel through its leaders, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses and David. He committed Himself to do certain things for Israel which He will never do for any other nation.
4. The Giving Of The Law
As Christians, we read the Law of Moses, but it was specifically given only to Israel. Some of the laws of the United States are based upon the Law of God, but God never gave any other nation but Israel His legal code.
5. The Temple Service
Only Israel was given the privilege of serving the Lord in the Tabernacle and Temple. The entire system required for acceptable worship uniquely belonged to the Jewish nation.
6. The Promises
God gave to Israel the promise of the Messiah’s reign and the blessings that flowed from that reign. No other nation ever has been given these promises. All the other nations receive their blessings through Israel and Israel s King.
7. The Fathers
The nations of the world can read in the Bible about Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but only Israel can claim them as ancestors and the holy roots of its nation.
8. The Messiah
Only of Israel can it be said, “of whom, as concerning the flesh, Christ came” (v. 5). The greatest honor and blessing ever given to the nation of Israel was that, from its loins, came Jesus the Messiah. Jesus was a Jewish man, but since He was also God, Paul added, “who is over all, God blessed forever” (v. 5).
No nation has ever been blessed like Israel. No people has ever been as privileged as the Jewish people. Yet, in spite of her privileges, she officially rejected Jesus the Messiah. When Christ came to her, she did not want Him (Jn. 1:11). The tragedy of Israel is that even though she possessed unique spiritual privileges, without possessing a personal relationship with Christ her privileges cannot come to fruition. It is this tragedy of Israel’s failure to enter into her inheritance, to take advantage of her unique position, which broke the Apostle Paul’s heart. It will also break the heart of every believer who is walking to his Lord’s cadence.
Having forcefully expressed his passion for his kinsmen, the Apostle Paul was ready to launch into a defense of God’s righteousness in His dealings with Israel. In the next article, it will be shown how Paul reached back into Israel’s history to prove that the lack of present-day Jewish responsiveness to the gospel is consistent with God s past; dealings with the Jewish people and with His Old Testament promises to the nation.