Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Does Paul Redefine Israel?

Reading: Romans 9, 10  

Did Paul believe the definition of Israel had changed? Does the New Testament teach that Israel has changed from a naturally defined people to a spiritually defined people? That depends on what you mean by changed!

Romans 9 begins with Paul defining terms. He begins talking about Israel in terms of race, or natural decent.

3For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, those of my own race, 4the people of Israel. Theirs is the adoption as sons; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises. 5Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of Christ, who is God over all, forever praised! Amen. (Romans 9:3-5)

Where the NIV has, “those of my own race,” other translations read more literally like the ESV, “my kinsmen according to the flesh.” In other words, he is speaking of Israel as defined the same way I might say I am part Italian, or a large part Czech, etc. I've never been to Italy, or the Czech Republic; I don't know the languages or customs; in fact, no one there would recognize anything about me as being Czech or Italian. I am really American. But that is what I am according to the flesh. Paul begins Romans 9 defining Israel as those who are related according to the flesh.
But then, in verse six, he introduces another definition of Israel—a contrasting definition.
6It is not as though God's word had failed. For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. 7Nor because they are his descendants are they all Abraham's children.  On the contrary, "It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned."  8In other words, it is not the natural children who are God's children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham's offspring. (Romans 9:6-8)
By way of contrast, Paul now posits another definition of Israel: not those who are naturally descended from Abraham, or even Israel (Jacob and his twelve sons), but those who are the children of promise.
Who are these children of promise?
Paul's example of Isaac's birth (Romans 9:9) indicates those of a supernatural birth. They are further defined as the recipients of God's sovereign mercy (Romans 9:15-18). This is further described in vs. 23-24:
23What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory— 24even us, whom he also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles?
So in this second definition, Israel is defined as the objects of His mercy, those whom He also called from both Jew and Gentile. When reading Romans 9-11 is it very important to keep both these definitions in mind, because Paul alternates between them.
Is Paul teaching a new definition of Israel?
Is Paul teaching that the definition of Israel has changed? Where does Paul go to prove his case? Is it not to the Old Testament itself? He quotes the Old Testament voraciously throughout this section as the evidence for this alternate, abiding definition of who makes up the people of God. So I suggest that Paul isn't changing the definition from Israel defined according to the flesh to Israel defined by promise, but rather is pointing out that Israel, according to promise, has always been the primary definition of who makes up the people of God!
Likewise, as you read chapter 10, notice that Paul's source for arguing for how we are saved, by trusting in Christ, comes from the Old Testament. Paul is not arguing for a different means of salvation than what the Old Testament taught, but for the real means of salvation which it taught rather than the substitute means which had been construed from it by those who did not submit to God's righteousness (Romans 10:3). Paul's proof for salvation by faith comes from Isaiah 28:16 (Romans 10:11).
In one sense, the Gospel is not a radical change in what we have in the Old Testament, but the original intention which was hidden in it all along. Of course, in other ways we could speak of it as a radical change, for it upended all their expectations.

Love the Gospel, Live the Gospel, Advance the Gospel,

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