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July 1983    Vol. 12 No. 3    pp. 20–28 

Jews and Gentiles as People of the Covenant: The Background and Message of Romans 11

Gordon Zerbe

The central issue of Romans 11 concerns the status and future of the people of Israel. 1 The question of Israel was a significant issue in the early church and has been vigorously debated across the centuries. In this essay I attempt to understand Romans 11 in its setting and argue that Romans 11 was written primarily to unify partisan groups of Jews and Gentiles in the Roman churches.

THE CONTEXT OF ROMANS 11

The historical setting. When Paul wrote to the house churches in Rome from Corinth during the winter of 56-57, a number of issues occupied his mind. Facing west, he was confronted with the missionary challenge in that unevangelized area. Now that his work was completed in the east he was beginning to make plans to go to Spain via Rome (15:18-32). But facing east he pondered his imminent departure for Jerusalem to deliver a collection for the impoverished brethren there, and the uncertainty regarding his reception there was cause for much anxiety (15:30-31). When he reflected on Jerusalem and his own people, God’s people, he saw ominous signs on the horizon. While the mission work among the Gentiles continued to succeed, the mission to the Jews both in Palestine and the Diaspora was failing increasingly. Congregations of the Messiah 2 were becoming predominantly Gentile in composition, even though the Gentile congregations and the less numerous Jewish Christian congregations were still considered to be part of Judaism. This failure of the mission to his own people presented at least two problems. First, it did not accord with the eschatological hopes of early Jewish Christians who envisioned a restoration of Israel followed by an influx of Gentiles. Paul also held to this hope of imminent restoration and was so concerned about his own people that he preferred to be accursed rather than to see his people lost (9:1-3). Second, {21} Gentile congregations were in danger of being severed from their rootage in the people of God (Israel). Since the new eschatological community, through the Messiah, involved the extension to the Gentiles of God’s promises to Israel (and not a displacement of Israel by the Gentile church, nor an absorption of Israel into the church), it was exceedingly important that this connection with Israel not be broken. 3 Not only was the connection of the Gentiles to the historic people of God at stake, but the presence and status of the root itself was being undermined, raising fundamental questions about God’s reliability in fulfilling his promises.

A second disturbing sign was the growing divergence and conflict among congregations. The unity of a multi-cultural movement was at stake. This problem was evidently true of Christians in Rome, and the health of the church in this capital city was most probably of particular concern for Paul.

The Messianic congregations in Rome, therefore, were of significance to Paul as he faced both east and west. Paul required a solid base of operations for his further work in Spain. Moreover, the lack of unity between Jews and Gentiles in the Roman house-churches represented a crisis that could only become worse, as he faced east. The first Christians in Rome probably formed a synagogue community comprised of converted Jews and Gentile god-fearers. These functioned within the general framework of the loosely organized Jewish groups in the city. In A.D. 49, however, the entire Jewish community, which included Messianic (Christian) Jews, was expelled from Rome, a situation not unexpected given the turbulent history of Jews in Rome and the pervasive anti-Jewish sentiment. Under Nero (A.D. 54-68) the edict was later retracted and apparently the returning Jewish Christians joined existing Gentile-dominated house-churches, which union resulted ultimately in friction. Jewish Christians who were still careful to observe their strict lifestyle now found congregations considerably more ‘liberated’. Arguments about ethics and Christian status ensued, and it is likely that the Gentiles were not able to refrain from pervasive anti-Jewish sentiment. 4

The occasion and argument of Romans. The growing tendency in contemporary scholarship is to consider Romans as a pastoral missionary letter written not as a systematic theology but to solve problems in Jew-Gentile relations. It is against this background that the theological and practical discussions are to be understood. The pastoral message is expressly (though not exclusively) that Jewish and Gentile must learn to live together in unity (14:1, 19; 15:2, 7). The theological argument is also closely tied to this practical issue. In a concluding summary, for instance, the Messiah’s work is specifically applied to both Jews and Gentiles (15:7-12). The term ‘all’ is very prominent in the letter {22} and generally refers to Jew and Gentile: not only are all (Jew and Gentile) equally liable (3:19-23), but all have equal access to God’s covenant (1:16; 5:15-19; 11:32). Romans is thus a letter concerning God’s covenant-loyalty (= righteousness) to all peoples. While one key section is an argument especially devoted to Gentile inclusion and the extension of the covenant to them (3:21-31), 5 chapters 9-11 are an apology for the continued priority and role of Israel in the community of the Messiah. It is precisely to address the pastoral concern of ecclesiology (the interrelation of peoples in God’s community) that Paul in 9-11 (1) explains present Jewish unbelief and its purpose, (2) defends God’s faithfulness to his promises—questioned because Jewish unbelief means that these promises have not been realized and therefore appear invalid, and (3) outlines a new course of salvation history in which the ‘fullness’ or ‘whole’ of Israel will be included at the parousia. Chapters 9-11 are, then, by no means an irrelevant appendix nor are they easily severed from the core of the theme of Romans, but they lie at the very heart of Paul’s message.

THE MESSAGE OF ROMANS 11

Paul’s address and argument tell us that the primary occasion for chapter 11 was an actual problem in the congregations of Rome. In v. 13 Paul makes a very specific address, “But I am speaking to you who are Gentiles,” and the implication is that what was just said and what will be said have special application to them. He follows this with two strong commands: “Stop being arrogant toward the branches (Jews),” and “Stop being conceited, but fear” (vv. 18,20). Then he articulates the mystery of the interdependence of Israel and the Gentiles in salvation history to prevent Gentile brethren from becoming wise in their own estimation” (v. 25). So Romans 11 was written with the explicit purpose of convincing the Gentile segment of the Roman churches of their conceit, ignorance, and possibly even anti-Jewish sentiment. The chapter was not written simply to give information for an eschatological time-chart, and to understand it from the latter perspective is to miss the point.

One can, therefore, summarize the content of Romans 11 by three interrelated assertions, all responses to the problem of Israel’s present unbelief/disobedience: (1) God has not rejected his people, (2) there is a profound purpose behind this unbelief and an unfolding eschatological mystery which unites Israel and the Gentiles, and (3) Israel’s future restoration (as an ethnic totality) is certain because God is faithful to his covenantal promises.

The non-rejection of Israel. The rhetorical question which opens the chapter dismisses the possibility that Israel is rejected. The question refers back to the preceding discussion of Israel’s advantages {23} (3:1-3; 9:1-5), of the intended composition of Messiah’s people as including the Jewish and Gentile peoples (9:23-29), and of Israel’s failure (9:30-10:21). In particular, Paul makes certain that no one has read ‘rejection’ into the scriptural citations (10:16-21) regarding Israel’s disobedience. Paul strongly contends that in spite of indications to the contrary, God’s people 6 has not been rejected. If there has been a stumbling, it is certainly not an irreparable fall (11:11).

God has not rejected Israel. The first proof of that is Paul’s own inclusion as a Jew in Messiah’s people (v. 1b). Paul never considered himself as having ceased to be a Jew, nor as having moved into a new religion, nor did he ever denigrate his Jewish pedigree. The Messianic confession of Jesus was for Paul the full expression of Judaism. 7 Later (11:13-14) Paul will add that, in spite of his calling as apostle to the Gentiles, the ultimate motive and orientation of his ministry are directed toward the salvation of his fellow kinsmen (cf. 10:1).

The second proof pertains to the presence of a remnant. This is not an insignificant argument. In accord with the Old Testament notion of the remnant, the argument presupposes that a remnant has representative value and efficacy. It is impossible that Israel is rejected because there is a remnant to represent it.

Many commentaries find the key to Romans 11 in contrasting Israel’s present rejection to its future restoration, suggesting the following outline: (1) Israel’s rejection is partial (11:1-10), and (2) Israel’s rejection is temporary (11:11-32). 8 This is certainly misleading because Paul’s point is expressly that Israel has not been rejected, nor will it be. Paul speaks of Israel’s disobedience, of its hostility toward the gospel, of God’s hardening of the Jew, and of their ensuing failure and lostness, but never of Israel’s rejection by God. 9

The mystery. Paul is also careful to note that the unbelief of Israel has not undermined God’s purpose in history. On the contrary, divine hardening (11:7-10,25) has been operative. While this fact is inexplicable, and parallel to the historical overview of 9:6-20, it does imply an overall purpose (cf. 9:22-23). The unbelief, or rather the hardening has been the occasion for the salvation of the Gentiles, which in turn will be the occasion for the salvation of Israel. This interdependence of Israel and the Gentiles, whereby the mediation of each group from disobedience to salvation occurs through the other, is the essence of the mystery. 10 God’s dealings with Israel and the Gentiles make them interdependent, and this fact should minimize Gentile pride and independence.

Besides the interdependence of Israel and the Gentiles, what is especially startling is the magnitude of the future hope. The ‘fullness’ of both Israel (11:12) and the Gentiles (11:25) will occur at the parousia. {24}

Paul asserts that “God has shut up all in disobedience that he might show mercy to all” (11:32). In none of these instances is Paul talking to numbers of individuals; rather, in accord with his Hebraic collective consciousness, he is thinking in terms of the full complement represented from both peoples at the end of time.

The restoration of Israel. In 11:25-27 Paul clinches his argument regarding the future restoration of Israel with a citation from Scripture. ‘All Israel’ refers to ethnic Israel as a whole in the collective, representative, and eschatological sense without consideration for individual members and obvious exceptions. The spiritual interpretation associated with ‘covenant theology’ which takes ‘all Israel’ to be the full complement of the church of Jews and Gentiles can be dismissed. This view is problematic because it forces ‘Israel’ to have different meanings in vv. 25 and 26, and does not take into account the fact that the sustained contrast in 9-11 is between Israel and the Gentiles. Finally, it should be noted that the New Testament reserves the special term ‘Israel’ for reference to the Jewish people. 11 The restrictive view which identifies ‘all Israel’ as the sum total of elect Jews who believe in the gospel is also inadequate. This view would make the pronouncement a complete anticlimax by claiming that a ‘remnant’ will be saved. That is already a given. The whole point of the pronouncement is that there will be a restoration so mighty that the distinction between the ‘remnant’ and the ‘rest’ will disappear. The theocratic/nationalistic view of dispensationalism which refers this phrase to the Millennium is also certainly inadequate. While this view correctly appreciates Paul’s positive assessment of the future of Israel, it reads much more into that hope (namely, a theocratic restoration in the land of Palestine) than is warranted. 12

The question regarding the extent of the salvation proclaimed is closely tied to the issue of the nature and manner of the salvation. The scriptural citation in v. 26 clearly identifies this as a removal of ungodliness and sin. A supposed restoration of the land or of the nation is not referred to here and is possibly deliberately downplayed. 13 In any case, such a concern was simply not an issue for Paul, and to read it out of the text is to impose our twentieth century concerns upon Paul.

The means of the salvation is two-fold. On the one hand, it is mediated through the Gentile salvation and the ‘emulation principle’—the bringing to jealousy (10:19; 11:11, 13). The scriptural citation, however, points to the realization of the restoration through a mighty act of God. It is God himself who will be the ultimate cause and agent for Israel’s restoration. 14

The certainty and basis of Israel’s restoration arises from a theological premise—God’s faithfulness to his covenant promises. God’s continued loyalty to his promises necessarily means the restoration of Israel. {25}

God’s covenant faithfulness is expressed by three sets of ideas in the text. First, covenantal motifs are particularly prominent in this section with reference to Israel. Most significant is the chesed concept. Translated in our text by ‘to have mercy on’ (11:30-32), it is one of the central Hebrew concepts to describe the bond and dynamics of covenantal solidarity. Closely related are the concepts ‘covenant’ (v. 27), ‘election’ (v. 28), ‘foreknowledge’ (v. 2), ‘the fathers’ (v. 28; cf. 15:8), and ‘the irrevocable gifts and calling of God’ (v. 29). Second, Paul affirms that Israel, both past and present, is holy (v. 16). Gentiles can be reminded that they have no standing in God’s people apart from their being grafted into the rich root of Israel (v. 17). Third, while the efficacy of God’s faithfulness is contingent on human faithfulness (11:22-24), it can never be altogether nullified or rendered ineffective by human faithlessness (cf. 3:1-3). God’s agency in the course of salvation history is stressed. All is by God’s choice and design. Thus, the reverse side to human disobedience is God’s mysterious choosing/hardening and having-mercy/having-no-mercy (9:6-18; 11:5-6) in directing the course of salvation history. God’s choice is responsible both for the remnant (11:5-7) and the fullness (11:28). While this may appear arbitrary, unjust, and a minimizing of human choice, it is affirmed as a way to understand the mysterious but purposeful flow of history and to depress human complacency, presumption, and merit (cf. 9:16-22). This inexplicable revelation regarding God’s plan in history, especially Israel’s future restoration, is what causes Paul to break out in his most theocentric doxology (11:33-36).

RELATED ISSUES

A. It is often mentioned by commentators that in Romans 9-11 Paul is dealing with the relationship of the church and Israel, or Israel’s reconciliation with the church. Such a view, however, is anachronistic and reflects our agenda now that Israel and the church have, in fact, gone their separate ways. Strictly speaking, the chapters discuss the interrelationship of the Jewish and Gentile peoples in God’s community, the church. Paul envisions the Messianic community as an extension of the covenantal promises of Israel to the Gentiles. The new community is not seen as a displacement of Israel, nor as an absorption of Israel into the church. Neither is Israel dichotomized from the church. Thus both dispensationalism, which posits a fundamental division between Israel and the church, and covenant theology, which merges the two by displacement or absorption and dissolves the notion of peoplehood with its individualizing and spiritualizing perspective, do not properly reflect Paul’s thought.

B. The previous paragraph, however, raises the question regarding the New Testament perspective concerning Israel. Even though {26} this is a complex topic, 15 it is extremely important to appreciate the diversity of the New Testament on this theme and its historical setting. Paul speaks as an insider on behalf of Israel, and, of all New Testament writers, is the most positive and the most passionately concerned with Israel.

Later writings 16 reflect a very different setting in which the church has become the successor to Israel and is identified as the ‘New Israel’. The Christian community a few years after Paul needed to articulate a new identity apart from Judaism. It was also forced to react to Judaism’s negative evaluation and persecution of the church. In addition, the growing Gentile church was not immune from anti-Jewish sentiments and finally became what Paul feared might happen—a movement alienated from its source. Finally, in the time of Barnabas (A.D. 130) and Justin Martyr (A.D. 150), the term ‘Israel’ was directly applied to the church and the church began to see itself as having taken over the special privileges formerly ascribed to the people of Israel.

C. It must also be asked whether Paul’s bold assertions regarding the priority of Israel and its eventual restoration are consistent with the proclamation of universal salvation to all who believe, without regard for a distinction of peoples. Specifically, it must be asked whether Paul in Romans 11 reintroduced an ethnic dimension into Christianity which earlier had been dismissed outright. Paul himself is aware of such ambiguities and tensions. In rabbinic fashion, he ends with a paradox grounded ultimately in the grace of God: “. . . in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek and yet a continued place for the Jewish people as such.” 17 P. Minear sums up the problem well:

What are we to believe? Was Paul’s position permeated with hopeless inconsistencies, stemming from his emotional attachment to Israel? Or was his position based on logical inferences from the gospel which both then and now defy partisan logic, whether by Jew or Gentile? I believe the latter to be nearer the truth. But the fact that Paul has not been able to convince even the best of modern scholarship of that truth should make us aware that he faced even greater difficulties in convincing the deeply involved partisans in Rome. 18

ROMANS 11 TODAY

Romans 11 has a very powerful and relevant message for us today. If one were to preach from this text, three important points could be highlighted. (A) God is faithful to his covenantal promises to all people(s)—even wayward people(s). God will never rescind his merciful covenant loyalty and will never give up on people (s). But exactly when {27} and how these promises will be realized is beyond our knowledge.

(B) Paul’s primary burden was not with eschatological speculation but with right relationships between groups of people at odds with one another. Paul’s vision of God’s future faithfulness to Israel is used specifically to deal with concrete crises in relationships and not as an end in itself. The future hope of a broadening inclusion, as opposed to a narrowing focus, becomes an argument in the present for harmony and peace, and militates against conceit and prejudice.

In this light, it is also important to note Paul’s positive attitude, as a member of a fringe group, toward the larger entity. Perhaps the Mennonite Brethren Church has something to learn from this fact. Such a positive attitude does not mean that we surrender our distinctives, but rather that we foster dialogue with the hope of eventual solidarity with the larger people of God (or Mennonite brotherhood).

(C) The end takes the form of God’s mighty victory, in which his persistent mercy will miraculously overcome human disobedience. While it is proper to affirm with Paul that all Israel (and if all Israel, the fullness of the Gentile world) will be saved by a mighty act of God in the end, any further speculation on eschatology is misplaced. Unfortunately, in our day the Christian public voraciously consumes books on speculative eschatology. These divert believers from the central focus of the gospel. Romans 11 and the rest of the New Testament give no grounds for political support of the present nation of Israel. Such concerns with the secular nation of Israel distract us from the major truth that the end is essentially God’s mighty victory in which his persistent mercy will miraculously overcome human disobedience.

O depth of wealth, wisdom, and knowledge in God!

How unsearchable his judgements,
how untraceable his ways!

Who knows the mind of the Lord?

Who has ever been his counselor?

Who has ever made a gift to him,
to receive a gift in return?

Source, Guide, and Goal of all this is—
to him be glory forever! Amen. (11:33-36 NEB)

REFERENCES

  1. ‘People’ is singular in this essay, since it is conceptualized biblically as a corporate entity and not as an aggregate of individuals.
  2. This designation is used in order to avoid the historical bias that ‘Christian church’ might imply and to stress the connection with or context within Judaism. We are talking about communities of people who believe in Jesus as Messiah and Lord.
  3. J. C. Beker, Paul the Apostle (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1980), p. 331. {28}
  4. For similar reconstructions and the view that Romans was addressed to a specific situation in Rome, see P. S. Minear, The Obedience of Faith (Naperville: Alec R. Allenson, Inc., 1971); W. Wiefel, “The Jewish Community in Ancient Rome and the Origins of Roman Christianity,” K. P. Donfried, “False Presuppositions in the Study of Romans,” both in The Romans Debate (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1977); H. W. Bartsch, “The Historical Situation of Romans,” Encounter 33(1972): 329-339; J. Wood, “The Purpose of Romans,” Evangelical Quarterly 40(1968): 211-219; P. R. Williams, “Paul’s Purpose in Writing Romans,” Bibliotheca Sacra 128(1971): 62-67; J. C. Beker, Paul the Apostle, pp. 59-61, 69-71; E. Kasemann, Commentary on Romans (Grand Rapids, MI.: Eerdmans, 1980), pp. 402-406.
  5. G. Howard, “Romans 3:21-31 and the Inclusion of the Gentiles,” Harvard Theological Review 63(1970):223-233.
  6. ‘His people’ in 11:1 obviously refers to Israel ‘according to the flesh’ (9:3). The designation ‘people of God’ is reserved in Paul to refer to Israel. N. A. Dahl, “The Future of Israel,” Studies in Paul (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1977), p. 146; P. Richardson, Israel in the Apostolic Church (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969), pp. 70ff.
  7. See the excellent article by W. D. Davies, “Paul and the People of Israel,” New Testament Studies 24(1977):4-39.
  8. So W. Sanday and A. C. Headlam, The Epistle to the Romans (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1896), pp. 309ff., and others following them.
  9. Lexical evidence and the context of this text would favor the translation ‘loss’ for apobole (v. 15) and ‘hostility’ for echthroi (v. 28).
  10. It has been suggested that the ‘mystery’ refers to either Israel’s partial hardening, the Gentile salvation, or Israel’s salvation. More likely, however, is the view, for example, of J. C. Beker, Paul the Apostle, p. 334, that “the mystery is the surprising wavelike or undulating dynamic of God’s salvation-history, the ‘interdependence’ of God’s dealings with Gentiles and Jews.”
  11. See P. Richardson, Israel in the Apostolic Church.
  12. See A.M. Hunter, Paul and His Predecessors (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1961), pp. 98-107; W. D. Davies, Paul and Rabbinic Judaism, p. 297.
  13. The shift in the citation of Isa. 59:20-21 (conflated with Isa. 27:9) in v. 26 from ‘to’ (MT) or ‘for’ (Septuangint) to ‘from Zion’ (cf. Pss. 14:7; 53:6; 130:6-8), namely, the heavenly Jerusalem, may imply a denial of physical geography as being important. Had Paul wanted to stress the idea of land, he could have used Isa. 27:6 or 27:12-13 or some other prophetic text that is explicit about the land.
  14. According to E. Ellis, Paul’s Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1957), p. 140, Paul ‘deliberately’ used the Septuagint text here which stresses God’s activity in faithfulness bringing to pass the removal of sin, in contrast to the Massoretic text which stresses the people actualizing the right condition for the removal of sin. Whether ‘redeemer’ is to be identified with the Messiah or God himself is not clear.
  15. For a full discussion, see P. Richardson, Israel in the Apostolic Church.
  16. For example John, Matthew, Luke-Acts.
  17. W. D. Davies, “Paul and the People of Israel,” p. 33.
  18. P. Minear, The Obedience of Faith, p. 81.
Gordon Zerbe is an instructor in the area of biblical studies at Columbia Bible Institute, Clearbrook, British Columbia. Gordon, a graduate of the Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary, is making his debut with Direction in this article.

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