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The Paradox of Israel

"What advantage then has the Jew?"

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Publish Date: 
Sat, 08/31/2013
The Paradox of Israel

For many Christians it's either all or nothing when it comes to the Jewish people. If you read Romans chapter 3, you might think the Apostle Paul was forgetful or confused. Twice within that chapter he asks the same question: Do the Jews still matter? And yet he responds each time in a different way – giving two answers that could not be farther from each other.

One question – two replies

At the start of this passage, Paul asks: “What advantage then has the Jew, or what is the value of circumcision?” (Romans 3:1) His answer is straightforward and absolutely positive: “Much in every way!” (Romans 3:2) Or as Robertson translates it, “much from every angle!” This is a strong affirmation for all friends of Israel. Yes, the Jewish people are still unique, they still matter to God, and it is worthwhile supporting them.

But than just eight verses later, Paul asks the same question again. “What then? Are we Jews then better off than the gentiles?” (Romans 3:9 ESV) The Greek text allows us to read it thus: “Do we Jews now have an advantage?”

Now you might be tempted to tell Paul that he just asked this question a few verses beforehand. Did he forget? Does he need to re-read his earlier words? Yet Paul’s answer here leaves the reader perplexed. He totally contradicts his previous statement with – again – a head-on reply: “No, not at all!”

“Much in every way!” ... “No, not at all!”

It is hard to disagree with oneself more than that. What happened to Paul between verse 1 and verse 9 that he changed his mind so quickly?

A Church divided

The truth is that these two disparate answers very much define the Church today when it comes to Israel. You can ask seminary professors, pastors and church-goers the question: “What is so special about Israel and the Jews?” The response you will hear today ranges from one pole to the other. Some will say: “Much in every way! Yes the church needs to support Israel!” Others will insist: “No, nothing at all! They need Jesus just like any other people do.”

There is hardly another topic on which the Church is more divided than on Israel. I experienced this just recently in a church in Europe.

As I arrived to do the Sunday sermon, the Israel-enthusiasts welcomed me warmly, saying: “We really hope our pastor will listen to you, as he does not understand Israel at all.”

A few minutes later the pastor greeted me. “Welcome to our church!” he said. Pointing to the group of Israel-enthusiasts, he added: “I don’t understand these people. They just don’t get it that the Jews are a normal people like everybody else who just need to get saved.”

Here it was again – “Much in every way!” and “No, not at all!” – sitting in the very same worship service. And these are found in countless churches all around the world. Both sides can quote Paul and both can give biblical reasoning for their stand. But who is right?

A coin with two sides

Both are right, and the problem arises only when believers choose one answer to the exclusion of the other. Many Christians friends of Israel know Romans 3:1-2 by heart, but they struggle to accept Paul’s second answer in verse nine. The other side full-heartedly agrees with Romans 3:9 but struggles with Paul’s answer in verse two.

The truth is that Paul does not contradict himself but offers two sides of the very same coin. Every Christian needs to consider both sides of this coin and be able to handle the paradox of Israel in both ways, as Paul did. Both answers do not contradict each other but rather complement one other.

‘Much in every way’

Paul’s initial question (“Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision?”) arises from his assertion in the preceding chapter that being Jewish is more a state of the heart than an ethnic identification (Romans 2:26-29). According to Paul, there are uncircumcised gentiles who live godly lives and appear to be more “Jewish” than some natural descendants of Abraham. If this is true the question indeed is: ‘Is there then an advantage in being Jewish?’ Some Christians today would flatly reject that, noting that Paul just stated there is no advantage whatsoever in being Jewish, since it is a matter of the heart.

But Paul’s answer strongly affirms the national calling of Israel and he stresses one particular facet of their calling: “Much in every way! Chiefly because to them were entrusted the oracles of God.” (Romans 3:2).

God’s private secretary

Paul then explains that there is indeed a national calling over the Jews which is different to any other people group. To the Jews were entrusted the “oracles of God”. The Bible is a very Jewish document. It was authored by Jews and it has been largely preserved by them in its original language. The writers were Hebrew prophets, kings, shepherds and priests. As they wrote down what God placed on their hearts they never could have imagined that they were writing the greatest bestseller of all times, which would eventually be translated into thousands of languages.

A striking example is Jeremiah. God prompts the prophet to write a message for Jehoiakim, King of Israel (Jeremiah 36). The prophet sends his servant Baruch to deliver the scroll. However, the king does not like the call to repentance from the bothersome seer and throws the scroll into the fire. As Baruch returns to Jeremiah he reports to his master that his message was not well received in the king’s palace and the scroll was destroyed.

Now Jeremiah might have felt disappointed, but God asked him to rewrite the message on a new parchment. Why? Because the message was not only for the King of Israel but also for the President of Russia, for the car salesman in Oklahoma, for the nurse in Berlin and for the law student in Manila. The Bible is a global message, which shows all humanity the way to God, and it was given to humanity through the Jewish people. Rev. Malcolm Hedding, the ICEJ’s former executive director, has often said Israel is “God’s private secretary”.

“He declares His word to Jacob, His statutes and His judgments to Israel. He has not dealt thus with any nation.” (Psalm 147:19-20) Indeed, no other nation has had this privilege. And for that alone, Israel deserves our enduring respect.

A Jewish Messiah

Yet not only the written word of God came from the Jewish people, but also the “word which became flesh” (John 1:14), and the One who is called “the Word of God” (Revelation 19:13). Jesus was a Jew!

I well remember the brother in Bavaria who came to me after one Sunday service. “I agree that Jesus was born to a Jewish mother. While Jesus was on earth he was fully a Jew,” he conceded. “But Brother Jürgen, you forgot that Jesus after his resurrection received a glorified body. With this glorified body he sits now in heaven as the race-less, universal brother of all mankind.”

I must confess it sounded impressive to think about a “race-less universal brother in heaven.” But that is not biblical. The very last words of Jesus in the Bible are: “I, Jesus, ...I am the Root and the Offspring of David, the Bright and Morning Star.” (Revelation 22:16)

Isn’t it amazing that right up to the very last pages of the Bible, Jesus still affirms that even in heaven, with a glorified body, he remains the Lion of the Tribe of Judah (Revelation 5:5), the descendant of a Jewish King from Jerusalem? This, too, deserves our abiding gratitude.

An irrevocable calling

From the very beginning, God defined the DNA of Israel’s calling to Abraham. “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:3)

That is why God chose the Jewish people, not for themselves but to be a blessing for the whole world. Because of this unique calling, Paul affirms that there is an advantage to being a Jew in the flesh - “much in every way!”

But he also realises that people will immediately challenge him with a counter argument: “But Paul you have forgotten, that the Jews did not accept their Messiah.” Paul confronts exactly this contention in the following verse: “For what if some did not believe? Will their unbelief make the faithfulness of God without effect? (Romans 3:3)” Will Israel’s unfaithfulness annul God’s covenant with her? Has their rejection of the Messiah made God change His mind about Israel? And because of their rebellion, has the Church replaced Israel as the people of God?

Paul again does not mince words. “Certainly not! Indeed, let God be true but every man a liar …” (Romans 3:4)

God never changed His mind with regards to Israel. Even if they should become persecutors of the Church and “enemies of the Gospel”, God still considers them “beloved for the sake of the fathers. For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable”. (Romans 11:28-29)

No doubt, God is a covenant-keeping God!

‘Not at all’

Yet after all this, how could Paul then come to his answer in verse nine: “No, not at all”?

When Paul replies to his first question so positively, he is referencing the national calling over the Jewish people. When Paul poses the question a second time, he has another perspective in mind – that of the individual.

The question could be formulated: “Recognising the national and irrevocable calling of Israel, does this give a Jewish person an advantage before God?” Or, “Will Jews automatically go to heaven simply because they are natural descendants of Abraham?” Paul’s answer is again straightforward: “Not at all. For we have previously charged both Jews and Greeks that they are all under sin.” (Romans 3:9)

The German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently said in an address before pastors and Christian leaders: “Before God I am not the Chancellor, but a human.” This is what Paul says regarding the Jewish people. Regardless of their unique and privileged collective calling, before God the individual Jew stands on an equal level like any other person in this world.

‘All have sinned’

Paul proves this case by using a long selection of Jewish scriptures. The most powerful statement he finds in the Book of Psalms from the greatest King that Israel ever had: “The Lord has looked down from heaven upon the sons of men, to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God. They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; There is no one who does good, not even one.” (Psalm 14:2-3)

With this in mind, Paul then arrives at the climax of his argument and the very core of the Gospel message: “For there is no difference; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith…” (Romans 3:22-25)

Being Jewish, therefore, does not bring you automatically to heaven but requires forgiveness of sin just like any other person.

A key for blessing

Therefore to the question “What is the advantage of the Jews?”, both answers are right. “Much in every way,” because of the unique national calling which God placed upon His people. They were irrevocably called to bless humanity with the word of God and the Messiah, and the gentile Church needs to consider themselves as debtors to the Jews and must bless them in return (Romans 15:27). But then with regards to personal salvation, it also true what the pastor said to me that Sunday morning: “Jews are a normal people like everybody else who need to get saved.”

Paul, therefore, did not contradict himself but gives us a balanced perspective to a complex subject and we all should strive to follow and understand his viewpoint. If we succeed in this, the Church will not be so divided into two camps of the “much in every way-ers” and the “not at all-ers!” If we embrace both sides of the coin, it can become a much needed step to bring the two groups together with a common confession. This will not only be a huge blessing for Israel but for the Church as well.

May God help us in this!