The Apostle Paul and the Jews

We who are Gentiles ought to learn the lesson, that if God did not spare the natural branches, there is no reason why He should spare the wild branches. This means that we are required to stand by faith (v.20) – to humbly trust the grace of God and to fear Him. Some have said that it is unworthy for Christians to fear God, but that is not what God says (see Heb.4:1). God is merciful and gracious, true, but He is also severe (Rom.11:22). He is gracious to sinners who repent, but severe towards those who do not. Complacency is the most dangerous spiritual attitude of all. What happened to Israel could happen to any Gentile church (vv.21-22b). 

Any Christian with a touch of sensitivity knows that it is difficult these days to respond to the Jews. We live in the aftermath of the Holocaust, and the collective Western guilt felt over the ill-treatment of the Jews down through the ages. It is fair to say that the prevailing response to such events is that the way of peace is served by not interfering with any other people’s belief system. In some politically correct circles, even to suggest evangelising Jews is to run the risk of being accused of advocating literal or cultural genocide. Scholars such as Rosemary Radford Ruether and Samuel Sandmel have even accused the New Testament of being anti-Semitic.[1]

Then we have the complicating factor of the re-establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. President Clinton himself – hardly a wild-eyed premillennial fundamentalist – declared in 1994 that ‘it is God’s will that Israel, the biblical home of the people of Israel, continue for ever and ever.’[2] Fundamentalist Christians, especially in the United States, often support Israel because they believe that Christ will come and reign literally from Jerusalem for a thousand years. And to top it all off, we have the interpretation of Romans 11 – does Paul teach that God will reclaim the people of Israel, that Jews in massive numbers will become Christians?

It is thus an apt time to ask: What was the attitude of the apostle Paul to the Jews? Jesus had said that the kingdom would be taken from the Jews and given to others (Matt.21:43). Because of the sin of rejecting their Messiah the Jews fell under the judgment of God. So Paul writes:

For you, brethren, became imitators of the churches of God which are in Judea in Christ Jesus. For you also suffered the same things from your own countrymen, just as they did from the Judeans, who killed both the Lord Jesus and their own prophets, and have persecuted us; and they do not please God and are contrary to all men, forbidding us to speak to the Gentiles that they may be saved, as always to fill up the measure of their sins; but wrath has come upon them to the uttermost (1 Thess. 2:14-16). 

A scholar as cautious and as generally conservative as F. F. Bruce winces at this, and declares such sentiments to be ‘incongruous’ and probably unauthentic. That conclusion is based on sentiment, not evidence. Granted its authenticity, do we then interpret Paul as an anti-Semite? By no means! The evidence is clear.

Paul Preached to the Jews First

It is common to think of Paul as the apostle to the Gentiles – rightly so (Acts 9:15; Gal.2:7-8; Eph.3:8) – but it is clear that he sought to reach the Jews first with the gospel. This was his declared aim (Rom.1:16). And this was his invariable practice as recorded in the book of Acts. Paul would go to the synagogue first, preach the gospel to the Jews, and when trouble came, as it invariably did, Paul would form a fledgling church which consisted largely of those members of the synagogue who had become convinced that Jesus of Nazareth is indeed the Messiah (Acts 13:14-15; 14:1; 16:13; 17:1, 10; 18:4; 19:8-9).

Only when the Jews as a whole rejected this message did Paul go to the Gentiles (Acts 13:46; 18:6). This was not just something which Paul thought was a good idea. He was divinely commissioned to go to the Jew first. Paul told the Jews at Pisidian Antioch: ‘It was necessary that the word of God should be spoken to you first’ (Acts 13:46). It was God’s plan that Paul go to the synagogue first, then the market-place or the philosophers’ hill. So for Paul there was a divine priority that the gospel go first to the people of the old covenant.  

Paul Preached That Jesus Fulfilled the Old Testament

To the Gentiles, Paul preached first that God is the creator, sustainer and judge of all the world, who has revealed Himself in the man Jesus whom He raised from the dead (Acts 17:22-34). To the Jews, Paul preached that Jesus fulfils the whole of the Old Testament. In the synagogue in Antioch ‘towards Pisidia’ Paul proclaimed that ‘God raised up for Israel a Saviour – Jesus’ (Acts 13:23). He identified with his fellow Jews but also challenged them: ‘Men and brethren, sons of the family of Abraham, and those among you who fear God, to you the word of this salvation has been sent. For those who dwell in Jerusalem, and their rulers, because they did not know Him, nor even the voices of the Prophets which are read every Sabbath, have fulfilled them in condemning Him’ (Acts 13:26-27). Paul cites Old Testament references to the coming Messiah (Acts 13:33-35). That is the pattern for preaching to the Jews. God has revealed Himself in the Old Testament. The man Jesus fulfils that Old Testament, and this proves that He is both Lord and Christ.

I once taught English at a high school, and there was a Jewish woman on staff. One day she gave me a lift into Sydney University, and on the way, I asked her what she made of Isaiah 53. At first she said that it could have referred to Jeremiah who suffered greatly. When I raised my eyebrows, and pointed out that Jeremiah could not be said to bear the iniquity of us all, she finally admitted that the passage fitted Jesus of Nazareth better than anybody else. However, she was quick to add: ‘But I don’t like to think about it.’ She made it clear that the conversation was thereby ended. Towards the end of the year 2000, I was talking to a converted Jew, and he said that as a Jew he refused to even look at the New Testament, but as he was reading the Old Testament, he came to Isaiah 53. This chapter gripped him, and he became a Christian. 

The Old Testament is not the holy book of Judaism. The Old Testament, rightly understood, is a Christian book – it points infallibly to Jesus as the Christ (Luke 24:25-27, 44). Paul knew this, and used the Jewish holy book in the way it was meant to be used – to proclaim the Messiah. Christianity is the fulfilment of Judaism; a true Jew is a Christian.

Paul Loved the Jews

We often miss out here; we do not love as we should. Paul longed to see Israel saved (Rom.9:1-2; 10:1). Paul is very solemn here and eager that people believe him. He speaks the truth in Christ and in the Holy Spirit. He is deeply sorrowful because, for the most part, Israel does not believe in Jesus as the Messiah. People talk about having a burden for the lost, but few have equalled the intensity of Paul. In fact, Paul uttered the extraordinary declaration: ‘I could wish that I myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh’ (Rom.9:3). Martin Luther comments that this is ‘the strongest and utmost kind of love: utter self-hatred becomes the sign of the highest love for another.’ Many people think that Paul was a hard-hearted man who only preached judgment and hellfire, and delighted in such a message. Not so – Paul knew what he was saying here. Paul was saying that he was prepared to be accursed from Christ or ‘anathema’ (‘forever damned’ – Living Bible) provided that Israel was saved. Paul knew what the word ‘anathema’ meant (he uses it in 1 Corinthians 12:3; 16:22; Galatians 1:8-9).

Paul also knew that it could not happen (he had just written Romans 8:38-39). To that extent, what he said was hypothetical. But it shows us the heart of a man who loved his people (see Gen. 44:33; Ex.32:31-32; 2 Sam.18:33). So great was Paul’s love that he was prepared to forfeit his own salvation for the sake of his fellow-countrymen. Compared to Paul, we are so cold in our evangelism. It is such a burden to us. We hardly appreciate what it means to be saved and what it means to be lost. At the very least, we must say with Robert Haldane that ‘No man can be a Christian who is unconcerned for the salvation of others.’ Edward Elton put it more strongly in 1653: ‘we are bound to love and honour the Jews, as being the ancient people of God, to wish them well, and to be earnest in prayer to God for their conversion’.[3]

To evangelise the Jews is not to be anti-Semitic. Paul stood firmly against the Judaizers who distorted the gospel of free grace (the ‘dogs’ of Philippians 3:2, the ‘mutilators’ of Galatians 5:12), but it is clear that the great apostle, ‘a Hebrew of the Hebrews’, as he called himself (Phil.3:5), loved the Jewish people intensely. It is noteworthy that the Galatian churches which were embracing a Judaizing gospel were originally Gentiles (Gal.4:8-9). In opposing the Judaizers, Paul was, in Galatia at least, opposing Gentiles who wanted to be more Jewish than the Jews!

Precisely because of this intense, self-sacrificing love, Paul could be very flexible on secondary issues – hence Paul circumcised Timothy in order that he might proclaim Christ to the Jews (Acts 16:1-3). He sought to present the whole counsel of God, without any compromise, in a way that did not needlessly offend any, Jew or Gentile (cf. 1 Cor. 9:19-23; 10:32-33). He was flexible without compromising, and intelligent without relying on his own wisdom. To keep the peace at Jerusalem, Paul was prepared to enter the temple to make sacrifices for four men who had taken vows (Acts 21:23-26; see too Acts 18:18). As F. F. Bruce comments on Paul: ‘Where the principles of the gospel were not at stake he was the most conciliatory of men.’[4]

The Church at her best loves the Jews. Handley Moule referred to Charles Simeon’s work for the Jews as ‘perhaps the warmest interest of his life’.[5] On behalf of the Jews, Simeon visited the Continent twice – Holland in 1818 and France in 1822. Even as he lay dying in 1836, Simeon dictated a paper on the conversion of the Jews. In 1838-9 Robert Murray M’Cheyne and three other Church of Scotland ministers visited Palestine. Early in his career, ‘Rabbi’ Duncan worked as a missionary amongst the Jews at Budapest. 

As Anti-Semitism gained an increasing hold over much of Europe in the latter part of the nineteenth century, Franz Delitzsch produced a Hebrew translation of the New Testament, and declared that ‘those who do not show love to the People who gave birth to Him have no true love for Jesus himself.’[6] When this Anti-Semitism took hold in Germany, in the midst of the terrible battle with Nazism and the Nazified German Christians, Dietrich Bonhoeffer spoke up: ‘No one has the right to sing the Gregorian chants unless by the same voice he shouts for the Jews.’[7] Salvation is of the Jews, says the Lord Himself (John 4:22).

Paul Preached One Gospel and One Church for All  

We have seen that Paul’s heart desire and prayer for Israel was that they would be saved (Rom.10:1). In Christ, there is neither Jew nor Greek (Gal.3:28). Anti-Semitism was far removed from Paul’s character; Paul was in fact one of the most passionate lovers of the Jewish people that history has ever seen. In this he revealed the heart and mind of Christ who wept over Jerusalem, and yearned that God’s ancient people might know the salvation to be wrought by their Messiah (Matt.23:37-39; Luke 19:41-44).

Because there is one God, one Christ, and one gospel, there is but one body of Christ. (Ephesians 2:14-18). There cannot be one church for Gentiles and another church for Jews (Eph.3:6). To have two churches would ultimately mean to have two gospels, and imply two Christs. That cannot be, so Paul is adamant on this point. The reconciliation is not only with God but between His people, all those who have repented of sin and put their whole-hearted trust in Christ. The Church is therefore the Israel of God (Gal.6:16). There is not one covenant with Israel and one with the Church. There is one new covenant which fulfils all that the old covenant promised. And there is one new covenant people of God, not two or more.  

Paul Expected That God Would Turn Many Jews to the Messiah

Tom Wright says: ‘Romans 9-11 is as full of problems as a hedgehog is of prickles.’[8] True enough, but for all that, there is no need to invent problems, as Wright is prone to do. Romans 9-11 raises the questions: Where does Israel stand in relation to God? And how is God faithful when His people have fallen away? God is one who cannot lie, and who must keep His covenant promises, so how do we explain the sad spiritual condition of Israel?

Salvation is of the Jews (John 4:22), and Israel possessed God’s covenant privileges (Rom.9:4-5). But where did Israel stand before God in the New Testament period? From Romans 9:30-10:21 one might draw the conclusion that God is finished with Israel. God has not failed Israel, but Israel has failed God. Yet this is not the end of the story. Hence Romans 11:1a: ‘I say then, has God cast away His people? Certainly not!’ Paul is very decided in his answer – God has not rejected Israel completely. God is by no means finished with Israel. Paul begins then to unfold the mystery of Israel.

a. Paul the Israelite, and the Situation in Elijah’s Day

Paul’s point in 11:1b is that if God were finished with Israel, Paul himself would not be an apostle. The New Testament tells us that most Jews rejected Jesus as the Christ, but it also tells us that much of the early Church was made up of Jews. All of the apostles, for example, were Jews. Paul, the great apostle to the Gentiles, had impeccable Jewish credentials, and that shows that Israel was not completely rejected (note 2 Cor.11:21-22; Phil.3:3-8).

Paul then goes on to give a history lesson (vv.2-4). ‘His people’ here are not the foreknown and predestined elect of Romans 8:29 but the covenant people of God. The story is found back in 1 Kings 19. Elijah was emotionally drained and depressed. He was not thinking too clearly, and he convinced himself that he was the only faithful person left – an easy trap to fall into in times of declension. But God corrected him: ‘Elijah, there are 7,000 men who have not bowed the knee to Baal.’ With women and children, there may have been a remnant of about 25,000 – not a huge number but a lot more than what Elijah thought. God will never allow His cause to sink without a trace. There will always be a remnant who are close to His heart and who belong to Him. That was true of Israel in Elijah’s day and it was true also in Paul’s day.

b. Salvation Is by the Election of Grace, Not of Works

This is stated in Romans 11:5-6. In Paul’s day there was a remnant according to the election of grace. God chose a remnant and kept them to the end. If it were of works, then grace would not be grace. If it is of our works, we would be our own saviours and salvation would not be of grace. Here the contrast with works is not faith – as it is in Romans 3-4 – but election.

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