How Will Israel Be Saved?
Scripture: Romans 9:1–5
1 I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit— 2 that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. 3 For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh. 4 They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. 5 To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen.
As we concluded our study of Romans 8, we were encouraged by the reality of the gospel for our daily lives. Because of the gospel promise, Christians have the assurance of the love of God, the assurance they need to be able to face any day and any circumstance with the confidence that God is for us, that he has given to us not only his Son, but with him, everything. Christians, like all human beings, need hope. But we need real and solid hope, a firm foundation on which to stand. When it comes to the Christian faith and the hope it gives us, we need to consider whether this hope is solid. Are we hoping in what is true? Are we hoping in the true God? Do we really know who he is and do we know why we can trust him and his promises?
Paul’s letter to the Romans has this as its thesis statement: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Rom 1:16). Now what does that last phrase mean? What does it mean that the gospel is “to the Jew first”? Paul takes the next three chapters in this letter to address this part of this thesis statement in detail, and the reason he does this is because Christian assurance and hope depends upon seeing how God has kept his promise to Israel, to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
So has he? Are you sure? There is reason to doubt this. And Paul knows that if his gospel is going to explode into the world then we’re going to have to confront the question. So let’s see here the problem of Israel, then join Paul in his sadness for Israel so that we might grasp the hope that remains for Israel.
Seeing the Problem of Israel
Let’s begin our study with a bit of a wide-angle lens on these chapters. If you’re reading along in Romans and you move from chapter 8 to chapter 9, you will notice the dramatic shift in tone that takes place in the transition. From the celebratory words of chapter 8, we come to the sad and melancholy words—to the jarring words—of chapter 9. And it has the effect of making us wonder what is going on here, why this chapter, and the next two after it, occur right here in this letter. Romans 9-11 are a clear unit, but what are these chapters about and why is this subject important? We need to see the problem that Paul is dealing with. And we need to see why it is a problem for the gospel he preaches.
Accursed and Cut Off from Christ
It takes a few verses to find out what it is that has saddened Paul, and even then we have to read somewhat between the lines. In verse 3 he says, somewhat strangely, “For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh.” We’ll look more closely at Paul’s wish a bit later, but we simply note here that what he says he could wish for himself is what has saddened him about his fellow Jews, at least he must mean a great many of them, probably the vast majority of them. They are cut off from the Messiah. They are accursed.
Now what does that mean? The word accursed is the Greek word anathema. It is used five other times in the New Testament, but in the Greek translation of the Old Testament it shows up 20 times, translating a Hebrew word which refers to something that has been banned from ordinary use and is marked for destruction. You’ll remember that when Israel conquered Jericho, God said that there was a ban on everything in the city; all of it was to “be devoted to the LORD for destruction” (Josh 6:17). Paul is using the word this way. He is sad because he sees so many of his fellow Jews as under the ban and marked for the judicial wrath of God.
But the reason this is so is because they are currently “cut off from Christ,” that is, from the Messiah. They are severed and separated from the Savior and that is why they are doomed for destruction.
In the next chapter, Paul tells us his “heart’s desire and prayer to God for [Israel] is that they may be saved” (Rom 10:1). So Paul does not think the situation is beyond hope. He does not think the story of Israel is over just yet. Indeed, he will go on to demonstrate in what way “all Israel will be saved,” according to Romans 11:26, and he will end again with a celebratory tone and doxology (Rom 11:33-36). But there will be much ground to cover in-between 9:1 and 11:33-36, and there’s a reason why we need to sit with Paul in this problem for a bit.
What About the Promise?
You see, the problem of the unbelief of so many of his fellow Jews has raised a bigger question. Has the issue of Jewish rejection of the Messiah meant that God’s word, his promise, has failed? Paul’s answer throughout is to prove that it has not, but we need to feel the weight of the question for a moment. Paul has already touched on this question earlier, back in Romans 3:1-8. But he did so ever so briefly, and he now must take up the question more fully. The word of God, here taken to mean the promise of God in the Old Testament, specifically the promise God made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, was a promise to bless their descendants and then, through them, to bring God’s blessing to the entire world (Gen 12:2-3). This is the great biblical story, all pointing to and climaxing in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. So far, so good.
But the problem is that most of Israel, most of the descendants of the patriarchs, had, at this point, rejected Jesus as the Messiah. Even if God had demonstrated his own faithfulness in Jesus, the promise seems to be on the verge of failing because Israel had, by and large, remained unfaithful to God by rejecting the Messiah. It will not do to say, “Well, God tried to fulfill his promise, but Israel wouldn’t let him do it. The problem is theirs. God is off the hook.” No, because God’s promise to Abraham was not conditional. It is up to God to bring it to fruition, whatever the obstacles. So again, the greater problem here is the question of whether God can—or will—fulfill his promise.
A Firm Foundation
You can see why, then, the problem here is one that must be solved for anyone who looks to the Bible to find any real hope. The promise of God in the Bible depends upon the salvation of Israel. So if, in fact, God has not kept his promise to Israel, then how, pray tell, can you be sure God will keep his promise to you, Christian? How can you be sure that nothing will separate you from the love of God in Christ—as Romans 8:39 says—if this is a God who has not been faithful to the very people he first entered into covenant with?
Hope is powerful, or perhaps we should say it the other way: the lack of hope is dreadful—and deadly. And while false hope might suffice for a while, real hope needs a firm foundation to rest on. And that’s why Paul has to address this problem right here in his letter to the Romans.
Feeling the Problem of Israel
Ok, so now, if you can see the problem that Paul is dealing with in these chapters, then we who believe the Bible and are looking for real hope in the biblical story cannot just hold the problem at arms’ length. This problem is one you can’t just see if you’re a Christian. It is one you have to feel. This is a problem that hits us in the heart.
Again, we note the emotional way Paul writes here. Verses 1-3 are the kinds of words that, coming from someone’s mouth, would make us all uncomfortable. Paul is not giving lip-service to the sad state of Israel. He has been in agony about it all. He has laid awake at night, undoubtedly weeping. And his tears are the tears, not just of someone who is sad, but of someone who is confused. He is not just mourning over the situation. He is troubled by it. “Great sorrow and unceasing anguish.” Why does he feel this way, and how might we enter into the sadness with him?
Love of Countrymen
It would be easy to suppose that Paul’s grief is explained by the fact that he shares ethnicity with the unbelieving Jews. When Paul speaks in verse 3 of his “brothers,” his “kinsmen according to the flesh,” and then says in verse 4, “They are Israelites,” it is clear that he means ethnic Jews. The issue throughout these chapters is, “What about the unbelief of, by and large, God’s own elect people, the Jewish people?” For Paul, these are “his people,” we might say, and so, naturally, Paul is concerned for them. I am sure there is a truth to this, and we would not begrudge Paul for feeling this way.
But for us who are not Jews—and Paul’s original audience for Romans were probably mostly Gentiles, by the way—we are going to miss the point if we stop right there and try to make that the point of application. If we see Romans 9–11 as primarily meaning we, as Americans, should be heartbroken like this for the state of the United States, like Paul, as an Israelite, was heartbroken for the state of Israel. If you’re looking for biblical warrant for a sense of “God and country,” you’ve come to the wrong text. God has not promised the United States what he has promised to Israel.
Love of the Lost
We make a similar mistake in the opposite direction when we take these chapters to mean essentially that this is how we ought to feel about the general lostness of the world, both in our homeland as well as in any other place. That is also true, of course; Paul cannot be accused of being a universalist when we see here that he believes that anyone who rejects the gospel he preaches has no hope of finding some other way into the eternal kingdom of God.
But Paul’s concern is not so much for any unbelieving person as for an entire race of unbelieving people. He calls them his “brothers” because he shares their ethnicity, but he calls them his “kinsmen according to the flesh” to distinguish them from his Jewish and Gentile siblings in Christ. He is not speaking of all unbelieving people, but of unbelieving Jews. It is their unbelief that is causing Paul so much agony.
Again, we’re talking about the overwhelming unbelief of Jews in his day that Jesus of Nazareth was their promised Messiah. Like ancient Israel shunning God as their true king and preferring Saul as king instead, Paul is alarmed at how much opposition his loyalty to Jesus is bringing from his own people. This is shocking and troublesome to him, as it ought to be for us, because the gospel Paul preaches is not some new and strange religion. It is Jewish through and through. It is in line with Israel’s story in the Old Testament and how it is that in Jesus, Israel’s story has come to its long awaited fulfillment.
Thus, Paul reflects, in verses 4-5, on many of Israel’s great privileges that, by their rejection of Messiah, they are in danger of throwing away. Just consider what God had given to Israel. Verse 4 mentions six things and verse 5 adds two more.
The six in verse 4 appear to be chosen intentionally, with an eye to grammatical and conceptual structure. That is to say, the sounds at the end of the first three words correspond to the sounds at the end of the last three, suggesting that Paul has given us here two couplets of three. We will consider them together. The first set corresponds to the second set.
It was Israel as a people that God had given “the adoption” and “the giving of the law.” The adoption refers to God choosing the nation of Israel to be his own, his “firstborn son” is what he tells Moses to call them to Pharaoh (Exod 4:22). It is in that familial context that God had given Israel his law, meant to be a guide, the fatherly discipline of his children, to raise them up in the way God wanted his family to go. The expectation of God’s law, should his people be disciplined and shaped by it, was that the people looking in at Israel would say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people” (Deut 4:6). After all, Moses pointed out:
What great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the LORD our God is to us, whenever we call upon him? And what great nation is there, that has statutes and rules so righteous as all this law that I set before you today? (Deut 4:7-8)
So Israel was privileged to be chosen to be in God’s family, the most enviable family there could ever be.
The next couplet is “the glory” and “the worship.” The glory calls to mind the visible sign of God’s presence in the Old Testament, like a pillar of cloud or fire, what the Rabbis would later call the “Shekinah.” Israel’s possession of the Shekinah was the objective evidence that God was present with them, dwelling in their midst, in his temple. Thus, “the worship” denotes the entire Temple service, the true worship of the true God that was a stark contrast to the idolatrous practices of pagan worship. So, Israel was privileged to have the true God with them and to have access to him and to enjoy communion and fellowship with him, again the envy of the nations whose gods regularly and spectacularly failed and disappointed them.
Then, we find linked together the privileges of Israel’s possession of “the covenants” and “the promises.” These two words interpret each other: the various covenants God gave to Israel—the Abrahamic, Mosaic, and Davidic covenants, plus the prophesied new covenant—contained spectacular, almost unbelievable promises. And as we see them being fulfilled in biblical history, it is clear that these people who received the promises of God are as privileged and blessed as anyone could possibly be.
The Tragedy of Israel
But of course, these privileges also serve to highlight the tragedy that Paul feels in Israel’s story. Verse 5 adds that “to them belong the patriarchs,” meaning in particular Abraham, Isaac, Jacob. How the descendants of these three men are privilege is spelled out at the end of this section, in Romans 11:28, where Paul says that ethnic Israel is “beloved for the sake of their forefathers.” The privilege of being an Israelite is the privilege of being part of a people—the people of Israel—to whom the Old Testament had guaranteed salvation. And this “salvation” means not just “heaven” when a person died but even more so, it meant resurrection of the body to live eternally on earth.
That’s quite a promise, but it becomes more visible once we see who Israel’s Messiah is. At the end of verse 5, Paul adds that it was “from their race, according to the flesh,” that the Christ would come. The Messiah, the Savior of the world, would himself be a Jew, an Israelite, a descendent of the patriarchs, a kinsman according to the flesh of every Jewish person.
But this is where the tragedy is felt the most. Because whatever Israel’s sordid past may have been, the idea that they would turn against their own Messiah would be the worst possible thing they could do. Why? Because for Israel to reject their Messiah would not simply be a matter of rejecting a human being sent by God to be their Savior. If the Messiah is indeed Jesus of Nazareth, then Israel’s rejection of Jesus is, more importantly, a rejection of their own God. Yes, verse 5 says it quite explicitly. The Messiah—the Christ—is not just one who is ethnically related to Israel. He is also the embodiment of Israel’s God, the “God over all,” Jew and Gentile alike. For Israel to reject their own Messiah is tantamount to saying they have rejected their own God, who happens to be the only true God, and to put unbelieving Israel in the same fate as the pagan nations around them.
Holding Hope for Israel
So this is a tragedy we should not only be able to see but also to feel. And yet, it is a tragedy that simply must be resolved. God simply has to keep his promise to Israel or there is no sure foundation for any of us. Romans 9–11 is written to help us hold on to hope for the salvation of Israel. These chapters show us how it will be that “all Israel will be saved” (Rom 11:26). And our passage this morning suggests the solution to which we are heading.
Some want to suggest that what God has done is to essentially replace Israel with the church. This replacement theology explains, at least, in part why Christians could become complicit in anti-Semitic hostilities. And while it is true that Paul has already demonstrated that the many privileges of Israel now belong to all those who are “in the Messiah” regardless of their ethnicity, this is not the solution we are looking for. As we’ve already suggested, if this is all that God has done, then we are on shaky ground since we in the church are still awaiting the fulfillment of all that God has promised to us. The church has its own problems which look eerily similar to Israel’s dabbling in idolatry. How can we assume that God would not also take away his promises from us, if that is in fact what we think he did with Israel?
We should note here that many more recent Christians have come up with a different solution to the problem of Israel’s unbelief. Many of us were taught a view that Israel and the church are just on separate tracks, and that once the church is raptured out of the earth, then some great revival will take place among ethnic Israel. The problem here is not just that this is not the solution Paul gives in these chapters, but also that it undermines the greater theme in Romans of Jewish-Gentile unity by keeping the two groups so distinct in the present age.
Remnant and Hope
What, then, is the solution Paul sees? We’ll have to wait to see it unfold, of course, but it is not wrong to see, at the greatest evidence of Israel’s tragedy in verse 5, the seeds of hope.
The Messiah that Israel has rejected just so happens to be the God of all, blessed forever, Amen. The moment of tragedy has been met with a hint of doxology, of praise. In other words, Israel’s rejection of Messiah, we are set up to consider, may in fact be the necessary point we needed to get to in order for the promise to finally come about.
How so? Remember what Paul has told us in verse 3? As he peers into the shock and horror of Israel’s rejection of their own God, he sounds a lot like Moses when he saw Israel worshiping a golden calf following their exodus from Egypt. He begged God to forgive their sin, saying that if God would not do so, then “please blot me out of your book that you have written” (Exod 32:32). Why would Moses say this? Because he knows the only hope he has is in this God whose own honor was at stake in the fate of Israel. If this God could not come through with his promise even though his own people had turned their back on him, then there is no hope for anyone.
And this is where the gospel of Jesus shines the brightest to you and me. The gospel promise is the promise that God made to Israel. It is the promise that even if death comes, God will come through for his people, resurrecting their dead bodies to inherit a new world, a new creation. This is the hope that we Christians ought to be known for believing.
Furthermore, this is a God who offers hope when it appears there simply is no hope left. God must come through for his people, and he will, even at the moment when there seems there is no hope left. The God of the Bible is the God who excels at precisely that moment.
 Johannes Behm, “ἀνατίθημι,” in Gerhard Kittel and Gerhard Friedrich, eds., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley, (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1964), 1:354.
 N. T. Wright, “The Letter to the Romans,” in Acts, Introduction to Epistolary Literature, Romans, 1 Corinthians, The New Interpreter’s Bible 10 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002), 631.
 Ibid., 628.
 John Piper, The Justification of God: An Exegetical and Theological Study of Romans 9:1-23, 2nd. ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 41.
 Wright, “Letter to the Romans,” 629.
 Ibid., 631.