Paul’s lament at the beginning of Romans 9 is a shock: “I have great sorrow and unceasing grief in my heart . . . for my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh.” It seems to undo the resounding confidence Paul expressed just a few verses earlier. Romans 8 concludes that “nothing can separate us from the love of God.” Romans 9 begins with mourning that the Jews have been separated from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus.
The cause of Paul’s lament is clear enough. Israel waited centuries for the fulfillment of the Abrahamic promise, a son of David installed as king and proclaimed Son of God. When, as Paul believes, that promise is finally fulfilled in Jesus, many Jews reject him. Instead of honoring their king, they put him on a cross and persecute his followers.
This raises questions of theology proper: What kind of God is this? Can he be just if he fails to keep faith with his own people? If Jews stumble over the Messiah, is it still true that “salvation is of the Jews”? It also raises a practical question: How can anyone trust the assurances of chapter 8 if the Jews are in fact separated?
Paul poses the question again two chapters later: Has Israel stumbled so as to fall? His answer is: Not at all (Rom. 11:1, 11). God has preserved a remnant of Jews, as he did in the days of Elijah and Ahab. More important, Israel’s stumbling is oriented toward her ultimate restoration. The Lord welcomes Gentiles to provoke Israel to jealousy and repentance. God broke off Jewish branches from the tree of Israel to make room for Gentiles, but he will graft natural branches back in.
Even this doesn’t get to the depth of God’s labyrinthine wisdom. By his grace, the Jews’ stumbling becomes a means for standing. God uses Israel’s very failure to reconcile the nations. This is the first moment in the cruciform history of first-century Judaism. Israel’s story is conformed to that of the Jewish Messiah. Jesus saves by being rejected; Israel saves by rejecting.
But if Israel is conformed to the Messiah’s death, Israel will also share his resurrection. The rejection of Christ was the reconciliation of the world, and his acceptance is “life from the dead” (11:15). So it is for Israel. Their rejection made room for Gentiles, but the inflow of Gentiles provokes Jews to return, which brings a fresh surge of life to the nations. As N. T. Wright puts it, God orchestrates the histories of Gentile and Jew so each serves the good of the other. Jews are cast out so Gentiles can come in. Gentiles come in so Jews might return. Jews return to give life to the world. Jews aren’t lost for themselves, any more than Jesus was cast out for his own sake. Jews aren’t restored for themselves, any more than Jesus’s resurrection was for himself alone. Gentiles, in turn, exist for the sake of the Jews. As Gentiles are reconciled, they become a means for Israel’s reconciliation.
Jew and Gentile are thus knit together as the new Messianic humanity, brought alive by the Spirit to be life to one another, and so life to the world. Jews can’t escape their destiny, even by rejecting their king. No matter what Israel does, the Lord uses her to fulfill his promise to bless the nations through Abraham’s seed. No matter how far she stumbles, the Lord molds her history into a Christic shape. Salvation is of the Jews, full stop. No wonder Paul’s lament gives way to ecstasy (Rom. 1:1-3; 11:33-36).
Many Christians think Paul expects a restoration of Jews in the distant future, and some have seen the modern state of Israel as a fulfillment of Romans 9–11. I disagree. Paul views his own ministry to Gentiles as a means for provoking and reconciling “all Israel” (Rom. 11:26). In the Old Testament, the returned exiles are called “all Israel” (Ezra 2:70; 6:17; 8:25; Neh 7:73; 12:47), even though many remained scattered throughout the Mediterranean world. The “all Israel” that brings new life to the world is the company of thousands of Jews who follow the Messiah Jesus because of the apostles’ preaching. Paul offers a first-century answer to a first-century dilemma.
Yet Romans 9–11 isn’t a bit of ancient theological punditry. It describes a recurring pattern of the church’s history. Jews didn’t exist for themselves but for the nations. Gentiles weren’t saved simply for themselves but for the sake of Jews. So within Christendom, peoples and tribes are saved to become agents for the salvation of other nations and tongues. The Irish received Jesus, then launched a mission to the Continent and distant islands of the sea. European Jesuits evangelized South America and Japan. England was a Christian nation, then spread the gospel to Africa and China. South Koreans converted, then scattered missionaries throughout Asia. It’s a fundamental truth of any genuinely Christian politics: No Christian people exists for itself alone. Negatively stated: Any people that retreats into self-isolation has ceased to be Christian.
Paul holds out hope for regions of Christendom that now seem moribund. Has Europe stumbled so as to fall? I suspect Paul would say no. He would point to the vast European remnant and remind us of the riches the world has inherited from Europe’s Messianic death. He might even encourage us to expect the good news to flow back to its European source. If the evangelization of Nigeria sparks a revival in the Netherlands, if millions of Belgians are converted by Brazilian missionaries, we’d feel the force of Paul’s outburst: “Oh, the depths of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and unfathomable his ways!”
Peter J. Leithart is president of the Theopolis Institute.
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