It has been over thirty years since I visited the land of Israel. The first time I went was in 1975, and I traveled on the same plane as Kathryn Kuhlman.
I remember meeting her at the Copenhagen airport. She seemed to glow just standing next to her I felt the presence of God. On that trip, I did the traditional tour of the land.
In 1985, I went back with two friends, and we mainly stayed in and near Jerusalem. We got to hang out with a precious Israeli family of believers. We split up in the Judean wilderness, and I spent hours screaming at the top of my lungs what John the Baptist declared in the very same spot two thousand years before: “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.” I will not forget the afternoon I spent alone in prayer on a mountain overlooking the Sea of Galilee. Knowing that the Lord probably spent time two thousand years before in the same spot while seeking the face of his Father greatly enhanced my experience of his presence.
But after that second visit in 1985, I have had little desire to return—that is, until recently. In the last three months, I have had a growing desire to return to the land for the opportunity to connect with believers in the land. And I had begun praying for an opportunity to return. I reminded the Lord that I did not have the money to go and that he would have to supply.
A couple of weeks after I was feeling an inclination to return to the land and praying for provision, a friend of mine, who used to go to our church but has since moved to Dallas sent me a Facebook message. He said it was a long shot but wanted to know if I would be interested in accompanying a group to the land and teach in various places in the land. He told me that if I were willing to teach, he would pay my entire way. I thanked him for his generous offer and asked for time to pray and seek the mind of the Lord about. After several weeks of prayer and some minor adjustments to my schedule, I called him and told him I would go.
In preparation for my trip to Israel, I have begun rereading the 9-11th chapters of Romans. In this blog along with others that I write from Israel to not only recount the trip but share with you from these chapters. They are a critical part of the Roman letter, although there is not a consensus on whether or not this section is merely a parenthesis or the main focus of the letter. What most people are unaware of though is that Paul’s letters were written in some historical and social context. He did not appear to write books for the sake of putting his thoughts down for future generations to read and ponder.
That is important because it turns out that this letter may have been written about the time that the Jews returned to Rome after being expelled by Emperor Claudius (see Acts 18:1-2). Why is that important? Well, for one, with all the Jews gone from Rome due to Claudius’ edict, it meant the church at Rome was now comprised almost entirely of Gentiles. Because of this, it would have been easy for them (Gentiles) to conclude that God was done with Israel since there was no longer any Jews left in the church. But sometime later (some even suggest about the time that Paul wrote Romans) the Jews were allowed to return. Imagine the effect that might have had on Gentile believers who had concluded God was finished with the Jewish people and was no longer offering them salvation through Messiah.
That this is the case seems evident by a careful reading of Romans 9-11. In this section, Paul has to deal with the arrogance of the Gentiles who have (wrongly) concluded that God is no longer saving Israelites (Romans 11:18). That is Paul’s entire point in these three chapters—God, in every generation, is still saving Israelites! Though the majority of Jews have been blinded so as not to see (11:8-10), there is a remnant of Jews God saved in Paul’s day (9:27). And he will continue to do so.
This helps adjust two theological viewpoints we see in the Church today. Time will only allow me to deal in this blog with one. It is the extreme dispensational view that posits the idea because Israel is already in covenant with God, they have no need to believe the Gospel in order to be saved. This is wrong on so many levels, but largely because it is at variance with the clear teaching of the apostle in Romans 9-11. Paul would have the churches imitate his burden for the Jewish people that “they may be saved” (9:1). Even though he is the apostle to the Gentiles, he still longs for the salvation of his people.
The truth is, Jews, like Gentiles, will perish if they do not believe the Gospel. Though Israel was given many privileges that Paul readily acknowledges (9:4-5), he nowhere suggests that they can relate to God apart from the Gospel. The Gospel is the “power of God for salvation, for the Jew first and also for the Greek” (1:16). It is the Gospel and only the Gospel that saves both Jew and Gentile.
That is what informed Paul’s prayer in Romans 9:1. He longed for the salvation of his people. How could he have done that if he already believed that his people were in right standing with God? The truth is, he knew they were not and therefore prayed earnestly for their salvation.
One of my goals in this and the upcoming blogs from Israel is to create in those who read them the burden of Paul for Israel. “Oh that the salvation of Israel would come out of Zion” (Psalm 14:7).