Why Haven't The Jews Embraced Their Messiah?
Today in our RMM readings we encountered the difficult matter of the Jewish rejection of Jesus Christ. Paul is very troubled by this reality and it is a cause of concern for Christian people even to this day. So why is it that the people to whom these promises were originally given and with whom God had been so patient and gracious over the years should seem to find themselves on the outside looking in?
Paul recognizes the challenge that this strange state of affaires presents to the claims of the Christian Gospel but he wrestles with this challenge from a position of faith. He admits of no other way to peace with God than through the life and death of Jesus Christ. Paul envisions no "Jewish way" of salvation that would bypass the Jewish Messiah. Nor could he ever "write off" the Jewish people as far too many Christians have done over the centuries. Instead he tells the truth about how Israel stands presently with respect to the Gospel and he rejoices in what he sees as the great hope and future prospect of his people. His observations provide helpful counsel for those of us wondering how to understand the present state of Israel and how to pray for the conversion of the Jewish people. These verses also contain a warning for the very privileged and increasingly entitled Evangelical church in North America.
Paul begins with an honest appraisal of where the Jewish people stand presently with respect to the Gospel:
"What shall we say, then? That Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness have attained it, that is, a righteousness that is by faith; 31 but that Israel who pursued a law that would lead to righteousness did not succeed in reaching that law. 32 Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were based on works. They have stumbled over the stumbling stone" (Romans 9:30–32 ESV)
Israel Is Lost
Paul says that Israel has rejected the Gospel because they were offended at the suggestion that they needed to be saved. People of privilege have never enjoyed being told that they are sinners in need of salvation. That is why so many people today want to present the Gospel without first telling people that they are sinners. But the grace of God makes no sense unless we first confront the reality of God and the reality of human sinfulness. The Jews of Paul’s day wanted grace without guilt. In fact Stephen Westerholm, the New Testament scholar making a name for himself critiquing the so called “New Perspective on Paul” has written that the chief point of departure between the Apostle Paul and the Judaism of his day was the seriousness with which Paul viewed the sinfulness of sin. E.P. Sanders has correctly noted that in the Judaism of the time, grace and merit were not seen as incompatible. The Jews did not think of themselves as sinners in need of a Saviour. They saw themselves as people in need of deliverance – but they saw the enemy as external – Rome – Paul saw it as internal – sin. That was the point of departure and Paul understood that he had not won over the bulk of his countrymen to this Gospel conviction. Most Jews of his day did not know that they were lost and there is no one so lost as the person who does not know it.
Israel needs the Gospel!
Having rejected their Messiah, the Jews were now in the same boat as everyone else: they were people in need of the Gospel! In 10:12 he says:
"For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. 13 For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Romans 10:12–13 ESV)
The Apostle Paul looked at Israel in rejection of Christ and said: “These people need the Gospel!” That truth needs to be re-stated in the ecumenical church of today. Many denominations have decided that it is not proper to evangelize Jewish people. Many so called Evangelical Christians look at the Jewish people and say: “We Gentiles need the Gospel but the Jews can be saved by keeping the covenant that God gave to them.” Some in the hyper-dispensational crowd see such a distinction between Israel and the church that they manage to see two ways of salvation; one for Jews and one for Gentiles but Paul sees no such distinction. For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, for the same Lord is over all and whoever calls on the name of that Lord shall be saved.
Let me be very clear. If a Polish person wants to get saved, they must look to Jesus. If an Italian person wants to get saved, they must look to Jesus. If an Egyptian person wants to get saved, they must look to Jesus. And if a Jewish person wants to get saved THEY MUST LOOK TO JESUS. For there is no other name in heaven or on the earth by which men may be saved.
As in Paul’s do, so in ours.
According to the Apostle Paul Israel’s problem is urgent but it is not unique. The solution to this problem is simple:
Israel needs Gospel preaching from the Word of God
Paul says in Romans 10:14ff:
"How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? 15 And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” 16 But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” 17 So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ." (Romans 10:14–17 ESV)
I love that Paul does not conceive of a special solution for this special problem. No! He says, “this problem of lostness will be solved the same way every other problem of lostness will be solved. We will trust the word of God to do the work of God as ever we were called to do.” Would that the modern day church had the same unchanging game plan! Every time we see a new problem we invent a new solution. Every time we meet a lost person with a unique story we invent a new Gospel. Every time culture changes we invent new models for doing church in response. Paul says: NO!!! Gospel preaching from the Bible is still the answer.
I bet you that sounded dumb in his day. I know it sounds dumb in our day. Do you know how many times people have told me that you can’t get people today, whose brains have been all mushed by T.V. and video games to come and listen to a sermon where one guy talks and reads from an old book while everyone else sits quiet and listens? Do you know how many times I’ve been told that? And yet the longer our sermons have become, the more our church has grown. Why is that? Because the Word of God does GOSPEL WORK in the hearts of lost men and women and that’s been happening for a very long time.
The Apostle Paul says, “the present state of Israel is that they are lost. The solution is Gospel preaching from the word of God.” Amen. He turns his attention now to Israel’s future.
The first thing he says is that:
Israel’s temporary blindness with respect to the Gospel serves the end of evangelism among the Gentiles
Consider Romans 11:25:
"I do not want you to be unaware of this mystery, brothers: a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in." (Romans 11:25 ESV)
Bible writers use ‘mystery’ to talk about things that are there in plain sight but that require Holy Spirit illumination to understand. Paul is saying that what seems confusing to us is actually clear in the Word of God for those with eyes to see. The remnant of the old is always the nucleus of the new. That was the case in the OT; a remnant of Israel went into exile in Babylon and later came back under Ezra and Nehemiah to form the reborn people of God. So here, Paul says! The remnant of the old Israel has indeed been saved, the small inside the large, and it is this remnant that has been the nucleus of the new community of God that has grown to encompass people from diverse tribes, tongues and nations. It will keep growing until Gentiles from every tribe, tongue and nation are brought to it - thanks be to God!
Paul goes on to say that in some way, the hardness of the Jews towards the Gospel, for now, serves the end of global evangelization. He does not say precisely how but it may well be that had the church stayed predominantly Jewish it would have been less portable and less adaptable across ethnolinguistic boundaries. Gentiles might have felt like perpetual late comers and second class citizens. That may be it, it works that way in other religions. You don’t meet a lot of Mexican Hindus do you? You don’t meet many Scandinavian Sikhs. Religions that are associated almost exclusively with one ethnicity tend not to grow beyond that ethnicity.
Whatever the reason, Paul says that this blindness is only temporary and it has never been total. There have been and always will be a salting of Jews among the Gentiles that make up the Israel of God.
Finally, Paul goes on to say in Romans 11:26 that:
All Israel will be saved
"And in this way all Israel will be saved" (Romans 11:26 ESV)
What does he mean by "all"? He has already told us that they are not all Israel who are of Israel (9:6) so what exactly does he mean here by "all"? There are three main suggestions:
1. He means that the full elect, Jew and Gentile, will all be gathered in according to God’s perfect will.
That was the position of John Calvin and has had a great deal of support throughout Christian history. I haven’t counted, but it appears to me that this has been the majority interpretation for most of our history. Paul has made a full circle. Not all who are of Israel are truly Israel but, in the end all Israel will be saved, meaning, all the elect of God according to the promise will be gathered in, Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female. God knows those who are his and he will get them all.
2. He means that all the elect from ethnic Israel will be gathered in.
Many scholars throughout the centuries have taught this as well. Paul is thus saying that just as the fullness of the Gentiles will come in – which doesn’t mean every Gentile will be saved, but rather all the elect from among the Gentiles will be saved, so also all the elect from within ethnic Israel will be saved. Many people have taught that too.
The third option seems to have been the hope of some of our Puritan grandparents and may have been the hope cherished by William Carey – the father of modern missions:
3. He means that shortly before the return of Jesus the Jewish people en mass will turn to Christ
The Bible does seem to suggest in other places, namely Zechariah 12 -14 that there will be a great future harvest among the Jewish people and so this may indeed be what Paul is saying here. The point we can all agree on is that whoever it is that gets saved, they all get saved in exactly the same way. The key words in verse 26 are not really “all Israel”, theologically speaking, the key words are “and in this way” which are a translation of the Greek words kai houtos which means “in just such a manner”. The real point is that in just such a manner as the Gentiles will get saved – by hearing the Gospel in the preaching of the Word of God – so too will come the salvation of the Israel of God, however you wish to define that.
There is only one way of salvation, for Jews, for Gentiles, for Italians, for Mexicans and for Canadians. We are all equal with respect to the Gospel.
Somewhere between the heretical dualism of the extreme dispensationalists and the judgmental paralysis of the hyper reformed there is a place where we pray, preach, watch and wait for the future conversion of Israel. It is strange to us – exceedingly strange – that the people who should have been best positioned to recognize God at work in the person of Jesus Christ have thus far not done so. It is strange, it is sad and it is cause for silence before the majesty and mystery of God’s Providence. Paul found it so:
"Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” “Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?” For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen. (Romans 11:33–36 ESV)
God’s ways are higher than our ways. He knows what he is doing. What we should be doing is made clear in the text. We should pray. Pray for a softening in the hearts of Jewish people toward the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We should preach. Damn the tongues that would soften or silence the Gospel in this present age of need! God is still holy, people are still sinful and grace is still our only hope of salvation! Let the Gospel RING OUT in our pulpits as in days of old.
People come to faith ultimately because of the Sovereign Election of God - Paul said as much in Romans 9 - but they also come to faith because of prayer and preaching. Sometimes you have not because you ask not. Sometimes people don't believe because they have not heard. As with the Gentiles, so with the Jews.
Therefore, how beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news.