How Great Is the Honor of Israel?
I am telling the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience testifies with me in the Holy Spirit, 2 that I have great sorrow and unceasing grief in my heart. 3 For I could wish that I myself were accursed, separated from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh, 4 who are Israelites, to whom belongs the adoption as sons, and the glory and the covenants and the giving of the Law and the temple service and the promises, 5 whose are the fathers, and from whom is the Christ according to the flesh, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen.
I hope to remind you again and again in the coming months that the very practical chapters, Romans 12-14, are coming and that you should read them now. They begin with "Therefore" and are built on Romans 9-11 and 1-8. This makes clear that what these practical chapters are built on is the mercy of God in Romans 1-11. "Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God . . ." (Rom. 12:1). There it is. All his practical teachings in chapters 12-14 about spiritual gifts and love and forgiveness and service and zeal and hope and suffering and prayer and hospitality and sympathy and humility and peace and vengeance and civil authority and drunkenness and sexual immorality and quarrelling and jealousy and many more – all of this is built on Romans 1-8 and 9-11, and especially on God’s mercy. "Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God . . ."
Therefore keep your eyes open for mercy. Almost certainly it will not come in the way you expect. But you will see it clearly, even here in Romans 9. Verse 15: "For he says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.’" And again in verse 18: "So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills." And again in verses 22-23: "What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, 23 in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory."
So three times already in chapter nine Paul trumpets the mercy of God – that is, the utterly undeserved goodness of God to those whom he chooses. And this is the mercy behind the Romans 12:1, "Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God . . ." In other words, all the weighty doctrine of Romans 9-11 is foundation for practical application.
When the pastoral staff met for 16 hours of prayer and discussion on Monday and Tuesday this week, some of our most burdened hours were spent wrestling with how this church can be devoted more zealously and corporately to ministries of mercy – ministry to the truly poor and the sick and the dying and the disabled and the homeless and the orphans and those who seem trapped in a spiral of family and social dysfunction. We reminded ourselves that this is not icing on the cake of doctrine; this is fruit on the tree of doctrine. And where there is no fruit, there is no life, and the tree will be cut down sooner or later.
William Wilberforce 200+ years ago traced racism and the casual tolerance of the African Slave trade in Britain straight back to doctrinal indifference. He said:
The fatal habit of considering Christian morals as distinct from Christian doctrines insensibly gained strength. Thus the peculiar doctrines of Christianity went more and more out of sight, and as might naturally have been expected, the moral system itself also began to wither and decay, being robbed of that which should have supplied it with life and nutriment.
In his view, the red-blooded, unshakable, solid doctrines of Christianity gave life and nutriment to the moral system of mercy and justice. I think that is exactly what St. Paul is saying when he begins his practical, ethical section with the words, "Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God . . ." Therefore, now that you see God and see Christ and see history and see human nature and see Israel and see mercy and justice and faith for what they really are – now with this root, bear the fruit of mercy and justice in your life.
So when you go home each week from these messages, be stunned that you are a beneficiary of mercy – be reminded and stunned that you and I deserve nothing but wrath from God, and in Christ receive nothing but mercy from him. Be stunned. And then pray that God would make you merciful to the undeserving. Oh, how sweet marriages would be if we stopped thinking about what we deserve and thought more about how to show more mercy – how to do more undeserved good to each other. Oh, how sweet would be the fellowship of the church if we all really felt undeserving of any good and lavished with God’s mercy. And, oh, how bright the gospel would shine if we touched the poor with Christ-exalting mercy. May God raise up many who will build, with joy, ministries of mercy to the city and the nations.
To that end we turn now to Romans 9:4-5. Here Paul lists nine privileges of Israel. "[They] are Israelites, to whom belongs the adoption as sons, and the glory and the covenants and the giving of the Law and the temple service and the promises, 5 whose are the fathers, and from whom is the Christ according to the flesh, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen." Why does he do this? There is a main reason – a main point – and three subordinate implications for each of these nine privileges.
The main reason for saying how privileged Israel is, is to show how tragic her condition is as accursed and cut off from Christ. You remember that in verse 3 Paul said indirectly that Israel, his kinsmen, were lost. "For I could wish that I myself were accursed, separated from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh." What makes that so terrible is not merely that they are his kinsmen but that they are "Israelites," with all that implies. So Paul now spells out what that implies. And his main reason is to show how tragically huge is the problem he is about to tackle in these three chapters. Israel is God’s chosen people, with unparalleled privileges, and yet they are accursed and cut off from Christ. How can this be if God is faithful?
The solution to this problem takes Paul three chapters to explain. So his main purpose in verses 4-5 is to agree with his critics: Yes, Israel is God’s people, and Yes, they are overwhelmingly honored and privileged, even with promises of salvation. That is what verses 4 and 5 are meant to show, so that everyone could see that Paul’s anguish was not only because the perishing Jews are his kinsmen, but that they are Israelites, with all that implies, and this creates a crisis in embracing God’s faithfulness.
That’s the main reason for telling us these nine privileges of Israel. But I said there are three subordinate implications. I’ll sum them up and then take each of these privileges briefly.
These privileges belong fully and savingly to an elect remnant of Israel now.
First, all these privileges are even now savingly still valid for an elect remnant in Israel. When Paul begins to explain how so man Israelites can be lost, and yet the word of God not fail, he says in verse 6, "But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel." In other words his explanation is that not all of the Israel of his day was Israel. Not all ethnic Israel is true, spiritual Israel. "They are not all Israel who are descended from Israel." So the first subordinate implication of verses 4-5 is that the full meaning of these privileges, while not applying to every individual Israelite, do apply to an elect remnant. As Romans 11:7 says, "Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking. The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened."
These privileges will belong fully and savingly to all ethnic Israel at some future time.
The second implication of these nine privileges is that they will someday apply in a full and saving way to all ethnic Israel – not every Jewish person who has ever lived, but the whole ethnic people of Israel at some future time. I say this for two reasons. One is that Paul speaks here in the present tense: "They are Israelites," and therefore have now all the benefits that go with that; not: they were Israelites and had all these privileges. I take this to mean that he is talking generally over the people as a whole. And this is confirmed in chapter 11:26 where he says, "and so all Israel will be saved." In other words, there is coming a day when the veil will be lifted (2 Corinthians 3:14) and the hardening will be taken away (Romans 11:25) and Israel as a whole will repent and believe in Christ and be grafted back into the tree of promise along with all the believing Gentiles.
These privileges belong to all Gentiles who trust Christ and are grafted into the true Israel by faith.
Which leads to the third implication of these nine privileges in verses 4-5: Gentiles who trust in Christ, the Jewish Messiah, the son of Abraham, are grafted into the tree of true Israel and become fellow heirs of all these privileges. Paul makes this explicit in chapter 11:17ff where he pictures true Israel as an olive tree with national branches that are broken off – referring to unbelieving Israelites – and wild branches that are grafted in – the Gentiles who have trusted the Messiah, Jesus. So if you are a believer in Christ this morning, Jew or Gentile, these nine privileges are yours.
So, in sum, the main point is that these nine privileges underline the tragedy and crisis of so many individual Jews being accursed and cut off from Christ because of unbelief. But the three subordinate points are that
- these nine privileges belong fully and savingly to an elect remnant of Israel now;
- they will belong fully and savingly to all ethnic Israel at some future time; and
- they belong to all Gentiles who trust Christ and are grafted into the true Israel by faith.
Nine Privileges of Israel That Show the Tragedy of Israel
Now a brief look at each privilege. And I think the application you should make of each one of them is this: If you do not trust Christ, you lose this privilege. If you do trust Christ, you gain it. Therefore, if you want it for yourself – and surely you do – then trust Jesus the Messiah with your life. And if you want it for a Jewish friend – and I hope you do – pray and love and speak the gospel like Paul.
"Who are Israelites…"
This is the first and all-encompassing designation. It comes first in the list because it carries in it all the other benefits. To be an Israelite is to have all these privileges. It is to be God’s people with all that implies. In Romans 11:1 Paul says, "God has not rejected His people, has He? May it never be! For I too am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham." In other words, a true Israelite belongs to God’s people and is an heir of Abraham. And the spectacular news for us Gentiles is Galatians 3:7, "It is those who are of faith who are sons of Abraham." If you have the faith of Abraham, you are a child of Abraham and belong to true Israel. You are grafted into the tree of true Israel and are a beneficiary of all the rest of these privileges.
". . . to whom belongs the adoption as sons."
The Greek word for this phrases (huiothesia) is used only by Paul in the New Testament. It is never used in the Old Testament. It was used a few verses earlier in Romans 8:15 (and 23). "You did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’" ( Romans 8:15). The "you" in this verse is simply Christians – Jews or Gentiles. Those who "have the Spirit of Christ" and belong to him (Romans 8:9). The true Israel, including Jews and Gentiles, are the sons of God. He has adopted us through Christ.
". . . and the glory . . ."
This glory is not mainly the Shekinah glory that filled the Old Testament tabernacle. Paul uses the word glory mainly to refer to what is coming for the people of God – especially the children (sons) of God! "I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God" (Romans 8:18-19). The sonship and the glory go together. And it is no mere past glory. It is the glory of God revealed to us and for our everlasting joy in the age to come. And Jesus himself is the fullness of it because Simeon said when he saw the baby Jesus, "[I have seen a] light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel" (Luke 2:32).
". . . and the covenants . . . the promises"
Take "the covenants" together with "the promises" later in the verse. The plural "covenants" and "promises" is probably Paul’s way of summing up all of them. All the covenants that God made and all the promises that God made belong to you: you elect remnant of Israel; you future ethnic Israel as a whole, and you Gentiles who trust the Messiah and are grafted into the tree of covenant and promise. How can this be? Because the new covenant that brings all other covenants to completion is purchased by the blood of Christ for all who believe (Luke 22:20), and because "all the promises of God are yes in Christ" (2 Corinthians 1:20).
". . . and the giving of the Law . . ."
The law was given to Israel for the sake of the nations – and for you. Romans 3:19, "Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God." And not only held accountable but pointed to the goal of the law found in Romans 10:4, "The goal of the law is Christ for righteousness to everyone who believes." The long-term aim of the law was not condemnation but salvation. And if we are trusting the Messiah for our righteousness, the law has become for us what it was given for: a servant to lead us to Christ.
". . . and the temple service . . ."
The word here refers to the ministry of the priests in offering sacrifices to make atonement for sins (Leviticus 4:20, 26, 31) and gain acceptance with God (Exodus 28:38). The supreme "temple service" was the Passover (Exodus 12:25-27) and Paul says in 1 Corinthians 5:7, "Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed." In other words, Christ has performed the final and decisive atoning "temple service" on the cross. And when we say that the "temple service" belongs to true Israel, we mean in the fullest, saving way: our sins are forgiven and God welcomes us into his fellowship.
". . . whose are the fathers . . ."
The implication of this is stated in Romans 11:28, "As regards the gospel, they [the Jews] are enemies of God for your [the Gentiles’] sake. But as regards election, they are beloved for the sake of the fathers." In other words, God freely chose Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, and promised that their descendants would be heirs of God. And what we are seeing is that this was meant in three ways:
- there is an elect remnant of Israel, there always was and always will be;
- there is a promise that all ethnic Israel will be saved at some future time; and
- Gentiles who trust in the Messiah become sons of the fathers with the same blessings as the natural children. Everything promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is yours in the Messiah, Jesus Christ.
". . . and from whom is the Christ according to the flesh, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen."
What a privilege to Israel that the Messiah and Savior of the world should be born Jewish according to the flesh! But what a tragedy that he came to his own and his own received him not. But it holds true here as in John 1:12, "To as many as received him to them gave he power to become the children of God."
And most wonderful of all, when you receive Jesus the Messiah, you receive the One who is over all, God, blessed forever. The deepest tragedy is to fail to see that the Messiah Jesus is God; and the highest privilege is to know God incarnate and spend an eternity seeing so many new and wonderful things about him that you will never cease to bless him. That is why Paul says he is "blessed forever." Our eyes will never stop seeing new glories in Christ. Our hearts will never weary of savoring what we see. And our mouths will never tire of singing what we savor.
So, don’t walk away from him this morning. Come to him. Receive him. Trust him. Amen.