Preaching Romans 11: Israel and Promises
Last week I was in the beautiful (and hot) town of Alexandria, MN to be with the people of Zion Lutheran Church on Sunday and, following that, for a continuing education event on the “New Look on Paul.” Great time, great people, great group of pastors, great texts, and a 40-foot tall viking. What more could you want.
For the sessions we basically read through Galatians and Romans, focusing on themes like “the Gospel,” “Justification,” “the Righteousness of God,” “baptized into/buried with/in Christ” (better: “Messiah”), “Lord,” etc. Naturally, we had to consider Romans chaps. 9-11 and how those chapters fit into the overall argument of Romans. For the “Gospel of God” is the “power of God for salvation for all who believe” . . . but then we stop, don’t we. The sentence actually continues with “first for the Jew, then for the Greek.” You don’t see that stamped on the confirmation certificate booklet from your local publishing house, do you? We want to make Romans into a doctrinal treatise, abstracted from issues of Jew and Gentile and unity, but the text keeps annoying us. There it is again again in 2:9: tribulation and distress for Jew and Greek, and right away again in 2:10 glory, honor, and peace for Jew and Greek. It keeps coming — he addresses the “Jews” directly in 2:12-29, where you can’t avoid the issue of Jew/Gentile: Torah, circumcision, it’s all there. Then you get to chapter 3, and it kicks off what “What is the advantage of being a Jew?” Turns out some, but not much, for by 3:19 “the whole world” is liable to judgment and “no body (and I mean ‘no body’ = οὐ . . . πᾶσα σὰρξ) gets justified on the basis of keeping Torah.
What’s the answer? How does righteousness happen? One word: Christ, Messiah. Or better, two words: “in Christ, in Messiah” So, by the end of chapter 3 (and I know we like to stop at 3:28, but Paul keeps right on going with v. 29): “Or is he God of the Jews only? Is he not also [God] of the Gentiles? Indeed, of the Gentiles! Since God is one, who justifies the circumcision [people] by faith and the uncircumcsion [people] by faith.” And so, uncomfortably for us, Paul concludes, “we uphold the Torah.”
I could keep going through Romans. But to summarize, chap 4 is about the descendants of Abraham — Guess what? Father Abraham had many sons, many sons had father Abraham. I am one of them, and so are you. Chapters 5-8 focus next on this new life in Christ/Messiah, not lived on the basis of Torah but by the Spirit. Chapter 5: In Adam we have all been one, one huge rebellious man. But in Christ /Messiah we are one all, Jew and Gentile, one really, really huge righteous man. Chapter 6: How did all this happen? Baptism, buried with Christ, the new man rising daily to new life. Chapter 7: Sin exposed for what it is (death). And chapter 8: The spirit and the restoration of all creation. And so there is hope.
Now that Paul has cleared the table, now that everything is “in the Messiah,” now he can finally get to the main course, the meat (tough and chewy as we may think it is) in Romans: Has God failed? He gave Israel everything: the call, the promises, the inheritance, the covenant, the right worship, everthing. Through them comes the human line of the Messiah. But now the hard point: “Not all who are of Israel are Israel” (9:6). What? Did you read that part of the optional lectionary last week? Cuz ain’t nobody who’s flipped the channels on their cable remote that doesn’t know that Israel is over there in the Holy Land, being protected by God (and America, same thing for most people), waiting since 1948 for the full promises of God to come true, that someday all the Jews will get their get-out-of-jail-free card and get rid of the mosque on the Temple Mount and there is more about some red heifer or something but I can’t watch long enough to make sense of it without my brain blowing up. Israel is Israel is Israel. Plain, simple, English. The clear Word of God. The Bible. God said all Israel will be saved, and so all Israel will be saved, Jesus or not.
Problem is, Romans 9-11 comes after Romans 1-8. Paul just spent eight tightly-argued chapters explaining that no on is without excuse, everyone’s throats are open graves, all are condemned — except for those who are in Christ. Baptized. He can’t change his mind in chapters 9-11. “All Israel will be saved οὕτως/in this way, [notice the comma, there is wrongly a period stuck there in the NIV) just as it is written/καθὼς γέγραπται: ‘The deliverer will come from Zion'” and what will this deliverer do? “take away their sins.” How? Paul already told us, in Rom 1-8: By the Messiah, by being baptized into Christ.
Now, I know the lectionary people (they are just people, like you and me) don’t trust us to preach on 11:25-27. They don’t think your people will get it, and you apparently need to be protected from this text, this Messiah for all, Jew and Gentile. There are problems with this, of course. But you’re supposed to restart the reading, left off after v. 15(!), with a pronoun: “they.” Who are “they”? Well, you’ll have to figure out how to explain that “they” are Israel.
But then comes the verse that set me off last week while going through Romans in steamy Alexandria: “For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (Rom 11:29 ESV). Sounds like great Gospel, right? God says it, it happens. Problem is, your translators, here the ESV (the NIV does exactly the same thing with “irrevocable”) want you to think that God’s gifts and calling to “Israel” are “irrevocable.” He promised them that they would live in the land forever, and gosh darn it, if He said it, it’s gonna happen. They’re gonna live in New Jersey (same size, shape) FOREVER. It is IRREVOCABLE (all caps makes it really true).
Problem is, this chapter is not about Israel, it not is it about “irrevocable” promises. This chapter is about God. And how he dealt with human sin in the Messiah. In Christ. There is no other name. No other way. Even for Israel. And so Israel are those who are in “Israel reduced to one,” Jesus, the Messiah, the Christ.
The King James, fondly remembered in this its 400th anniversary year, gets this one right: “For the gifts and calling of God are without repentance” Without repentance. That is to say, without regret. God is not sorry that he called Israel. He doesn’t wish he had gone with another nation — one more prosperous or numerous. No, God’s plan, all along, was that through through Israel, through Abraham, would come the seed that would bring life. God does not regret calling Israel, he calls her still–in Christ.
The Greek word there (ἀμεταμέλητος) is not a common one; It is used in the NT only here in Rom 11:29 and 2 Cor. 7:10, which reads (using again the ESV, which gets it right here): “For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret (ἀμεταμέλητον), whereas worldly grief produces death.” This is Paul’s point in Rom 11: God isn’t repenting, he is sticking to his plan: One people, Jew and Greek, in Christ.
So what do you preach, if you’re crazy enough to try to take on Rom 11? Stuff about Israel? No. What do you preach? Christ, and him crucified. It’s not that hard after all.
Nathan Esala August 10, 2011
Thanks for this post. I’ve been thinking about Romans 11 because of its presence in the lectionary reading and the fact that our translation team is drafting Romans right now! I appreciate the simple summary of the larger points you discern in chapters 4-8 and how the discourse flows then into 9-11.
Jeff Kloha August 10, 2011
Since you’re in the translation business, Nathan, what is your thinking about the therm “Israel”? How will people that you are translating for hear that? Would rendering it with something like “God’s chosen people” or some descriptor like that be clearer and less confusing?
Nathan Esala August 11, 2011
We often describe Israel as ‘God’s people of Israel’. That gets a bit clunky to do over and over again. For us that has more often gotten reduced to people of Israel which is problematic in Galatians 6.16 where we interpret it as a reference to the church (Jew and Gentile) in Christ subversively called ‘the Israel of God’. There we put, “God’s peace and mercy to all who follow my teaching, especially you who are God’s Israel people.” We debated putting in ‘God’s true Israel people’ but that did not win the day. That is also your argument here in Romans. You can resort to a footnote to describe Paul’s intention of combining Jew and Gentile into one term Israel to show they are all God’s chosen people in Christ. Removing Israel from the text also perhaps reduces the irony or subversive use that Paul intends by using Israel with a different referent than is normally expected. The problem for us is that people usually miss the irony and don’t always read the footnotes. I like your idea of saying ‘God’s people’ but that still may not be understood as including Jew and Gentile.
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Mark Opheim February 23, 2015
Chapters 9-11 are about Israel. That’s why he is taking a break to talk about this after dealing with all the boiler plate stuff in 1-8. then he resumes with practical stuff in the rest of romans.
Peter November 14, 2017
I still think Israel is in reference to Israelites in Romans 11 . We read of Israel and Gentiles and grafting etc
peter November 15, 2017
“Romans 11–12: “trespass of Israel”— “salvation for the Gentiles”— “their fullness”
v. 15: “their rejection”— “reconciliation of the world”— “their acceptance”
vv. 17–23: “natural branches broken off”—“wild shoots grafted in”—“natural branches” grafted back in
vv. 25–26: “hardening of Israel”—“fullness of Gentiles”— “all Israel will be saved”
vv. 30–31: disobedience of Israel—mercy for Gentiles— mercy to Israel”
“The relationship between Israel and the church in the New Testament is not always easy to discern, but it can be understood if we remember the differences between national Israel and true Israel in both the Old Testament and the New, and if we keep in mind what Paul teaches in Romans 11. Israel’s present hardening has a purpose in God’s plan, but this hardening is not permanent. The future restoration of the nation of Israel will involve their re-grafting into the olive tree, the one people of God. The restoration of Israel will mean their becoming part of the “true Israel” by faith in Jesus Christ the Messiah”
David C. Russell August 20, 2019
I want to thank you for your post concerning Romans and in particular chapters 9 through 11. My awareness of Romans 11 was enlivened some time ago when reading, “Our Father Abraham” by Marvin Wilson of Gordon Seminary in Boston. He asserts as do proponents of what is termed Olive Tree Theology, that by faith believers in Jesus, Yeshua, are grafted into the commonwealth of Israel as Spiritual citizens. We owe a big debt of gratitude to God and the Jewish people for our faith heritage and need to say thank you! I have on occasion and it has been heard.
Lutherans seem to like to dismiss any affiliation whatsoever with the Jewish people and excuse my analogy, Ask the girl to dance, escort her to the floor, then return to being a wall flower with all its unique intricacies. Your spokesperson, NT Wright does this too in his writings that are outwardly sympathetic but inwardly dismissive. Israel is Israel is Israel, period, stop there. I commend you for being one of the first Lutherans I know of to ever broach this subject! You pay homage to Jesus’s Jewishness from Dec. 24 to Jan. 6, and then head off to be Catholic light for the rest of the church year. It’s a near travesty IMHO.
David C. Russell, Author
“Waiting For Messiah” 2017, http://www.smashwords.com