In the 1980’s, while pastoring a small church in Florence, Alabama, I was invited to hear Benjamin Netanyahu lecture at a college near my home.
He is currently Prime Minister of Israel but at the time was Israeli ambassador to the United Nations. I went and listened to him talk about the history and struggles of the Jewish State and what life was like in the modern state of Israel.
As the lecture ended, I made my way to the front of the auditorium and managed to introduce myself to Mr. Netanyahu before he left the campus. “Mr. Ambassador, my name is Naphtali (my Hebrew name). I am Jewish, and I met the Mashiach (Messiah), Yeshua” (the Hebrew name for Jesus) I said. Without hesitation, Mr. Netanyahu looked at me and said, “You’re a traitor, and you’re not welcome in Israel.” With that, his security team whisked him away.
Not long ago, I shared this story with a couple of Israeli friends who run one of the kiosks in our local mall. They were fascinated with the story and to this day one of them, whenever he sees me at the mall, grabs his friends and makes me tell the story of what Bebe (Netanyahu’s nickname) said.
With just a few days left before leaving for my third trip to Israel, I have been thinking again of that story. Some Christians have recently assured me that the Prime Minister would respond to me differently today, given his exposure to the support American churches have given to the nation of Israel over the years. While it is true he has often spoken in American churches over the last thirty years and has seen firsthand the love of the body of Christ for Israel; I have no doubt he would respond to me now as he did in that first encounter. That’s because while he expects Gentiles to believe in Jesus, for me to believe is to reject my Jewish heritage. The fact is, today, a person can believe in Buddha and still be considered a Jew or even be an atheist and be a Jew. But according to most Jews, one cannot believe in Jesus and still be considered to be a Jew.
The sad reality is, most Jews, down through the centuries, have rejected the Messiahship of Jesus. This is the tragedy of all tragedies: that when God sent the Messiah to Israel, most Israelites rejected Him and continue to do so to this day. But while this is tragic, it is not unforeseen—it is according to divine plan!
This is behind Paul’s statement “but it is not as though the word of God is failed” (Romans 9:6). He is referring to the fact that God promised to save Israel when Messiah came. Yet when he appeared, the majority of Israelites rejected Him. So at least on the surface, it seems as if the word of promise that Israel would be saved by the Messiah has failed.
How does Paul answer this dilemma? It is very important that we carefully pay attention to how he deals with it because it becomes the interpretive key to these three chapters. Failure to recognize this will ensure we distort the teaching of these chapters. He says, “For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel” (9:7). In other words, Paul no longer defines Israel as an ethnic people living in the Mideast but as those who believe the promise and were saved. He doesn’t deny there are still physical Jews in the earth; Paul preached to them regularly in the synagogues he visited. But the true Israel, which God promised to save at the appearing of the Messiah, is comprised of those Jews chosen by God’s grace.
Paul insists that this is not something new. He immediately refers to Abraham and the fact that while he had two sons, only one (Isaac) was chosen according to promise (9:7). Some of his readers may have rejected that argument since the two sons of Abraham each had different mothers; one through Sarah and the other through Hagar. So Paul goes on to refer next to the two sons of Isaac, Jacob and Esau, who each were born with the same mother, which Paul is careful to point out when he says they were both born “by one man” (9:10). And God made a choice of Jacob over Esau, even before they were born:
“though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls—she was told, The older will serve the younger As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated” (9;11-13).
There is no way to understand this section of Scripture without coming to terms with the fact that for Paul, the true Israel is the chosen remnant—those Jews God called in the first century and continues to call in every generation including ours today. All through this section, he echoes that theme: