Israel and the Divine Purpose
—Present And Future
In addition to his Bible teaching at Believers Chapel in Dallas, Texas, Dr. S. Lewis Johnson, Jr. is a visiting professor at Grace Theological Seminary, Winona Lake, Indiana, and Tyndale Theological Seminary, Amsterdam, Holland.
This is Dr. Johnson’s fourth article in his series of detailed studies on Romans 11.
The Gentiles Warned
Temple University’s Paul van Buren has said Christians should thank God that the Jews have said, “No,” to the church and faith in Christ, for “if there were no more Jewish people, we would have lost the most enduring sign of God’s faithfulness.”1 Van Buren’s views are far from Paul’s (cf. Rom. 9:3; 10:1), but in one respect he has highlighted a genuine point. The remnant of Israel in the church, brought to grace by the Holy Spirit, is an enduring proof God has not cast away His people.
Paul has made a startling point in verses eleven through fifteen. The fall of the mass of Israel will result in their ultimate blessing through Gentile salvation. World-wide blessing is the final end of the divine purpose, or such a thing as “life from the dead” (cf. v. 15).
On what basis can we hope for Israel’s return? Paul turns to that question in verses sixteen through twenty-four. The promises made to Abraham centuries ago are the key, promises centering finally in Christ, the Divine Seed of the patriarch (cf. Gal. 3:16). He will demonstrate his point by an illustration, the figure of the olive tree (vv. 16-24).
Edith Schaeffer has written a book with the intriguing title, Christianity Is Jewish. And Paul Achtemeier in a recent commentary on Romans has said that, if we wish to share in God’s blessing for all peoples, then “we are going to have to get it through Abraham or we will not get it at all.”2 Paul will endorse these views.
He will also show that, although there is a legitimate distinction between Israel and the church, those who speak of the two entities as having separate new covenants, separate promises, and separate destinies have missed the continuity of the divine purpose in the one people of God.
The Fundamental Principle of History
The figure of the firstfruits and the lump. In our last study we pointed out that verse sixteen gives the reason for the expectation of Jewish restoration to divine favor. Under two figures, that of the first-fruits and the lump and the root and the branches, the apostle contends that the unconditional Abrahamic Covenant promises belong to Israel, God’s elect nation. The figure of the firstfruits and the lump, derived from the Old Testament (cf. Num. 15:17-21), represents Abraham, the patriarchs, and their descendants. The figure of the root and the branches refers to the same entities (cf. v. 28; 9:5; Jer. 11:16; Hos. 14:6). Paul’s point is clear: The election of Abraham and the patriarchs makes them and their descendants the natural branches, “holy” in the sense of consecrated to God’s purposes. God’s sovereign good pleasure in giving them His covenant is the basis of the hope of their restoration (cf. Deut. 7:8-9; Luke 1:55). Individuals, of course, share in the covenant only if they believe in the patriarch’s Redeemer and Messiah, the Seed, the Lord Jesus Christ (cf. Rom. 4:11-12; 9:6-8).
An Admonitory Perspective on History
Warning against boasting over God’s covenantal love (17-18). To clarify and expound more fully his point Paul uses the second figure of verse sixteen, that of the root and branches, since it permits a distinction to be made between branches, collectively or individually, between believers and unbelievers, between Jews and Gentiles. In the exposition that follows there is a warning to Gentiles (vv. 17-22) and a fresh argument for Jewish restoration (vv. 23-24; cf. vv. 11, 15).
The figure of the olive tree represents the Abrahamic Covenant in its origin, development, and fulfillment at the end of the Times of the Gentiles in the Advent of the Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ (cf. v. 28). It will, therefore, be helpful to recall the nature, the terms, and the sacrifice of the covenant, so beautifully described in Genesis 12:1-3 and 15:7-21.
In Genesis 12:1-3 Moses describes the promises of the covenant in personal, national, and universal terms. There were personal promises to Abraham, guaranteeing him a great name (cf. v. 2). There has been a remarkable fulfillment of this promise, for Abraham’s name is great in the three influential religions of the world: Judaism, Islam, Christianity.
Abraham was also given national promises. He was promised a land and a believing ethnic seed through whom Abraham would become the root and centre of the future history of the world (12:1; 13:14-17; 17:8).3 The great promise of the Redeemer in Genesis 3:15 receives here further delineation, and the New Testament will identify the seed as Jesus Christ (Gal. 3:16).
And, finally, Abraham was given universal promises. His seed through Christ will encompass Gentiles as well, in fact, in Moses’ words, “all the families of the earth.” Christ is, of course, the “in these,” in whom all the families of the earth are blessed.
The ratification of the covenantal promises is described by Moses in Genesis 15:7-21. It is a most striking event, pointing unmistakably to the unilateral nature of the covenant. Three features stand out: (1) the delay and the discipline of it (vv. 11-12), suggestive of delay in God’s fulfillment of the conditions and of a consummation in the teeth of opposition (satanic? cf. Matt. 13:32). (2) The terror and great darkness (v. 12), perhaps the product of a nightmare and adding a sense of gloom to the scene, suggestive, some think, of Messiah’s death, the true Servant of the Lord. Only through Him is there any deliverance, and then necessarily by judgment. (3) The theophany is the third feature and surely the most important, providing Abraham with a symbol of the glory of God for the first time since Eden (cf. vv. 11-12; Exod. 13:11-12). The darkness made the phenomena that much more distinct by the contrast. The “smoking oven” was a cylindrical fire-pot, such as was used in the house of the Eastern people. A brilliant flame, something like a fiery torch, streamed forth from the furnace. We may assume that the pieces of dead animals represented the seed of Abraham, utterly impotent in themselves, but nevertheless the objects of the divine purposes of life and blessing through the Mediator’s sufferings.
The covenantal promise is given in verses 18-21, and there is total confusion without this. Yahweh is ratifying a covenant, the visible features being symbolical of the spiritual. The ancient ceremony used by the Lord here was one to which allusion may be made in Jeremiah 34:18-20, where the prophet speaks of the ratification of a covenant by cutting a calf in two and passing between its parts (cf. v. 18).
And in history outside of the Scriptures there is an interesting example of the same custom. Immediately after the death of Alexander the Great, a dispute concerning succession to him arose. The horseguards and the rest of the cavalry under Perdiccas made up one party, while the infantry under Meleager made up the other. The dispute and strife became so fierce that it seemed that only warfare could possibly settle the matter. Finally a compromise was agreed upon, and a dog was cut in two, with the whole army passing between the pieces in vivid picture of its reunion.
The custom has also left its mark upon the Hebrew, Greek, and Mari languages. In Hebrew the phrase signifying the making of a covenant is to cut a covenant, while in Greek it is literally to cut oaths. In Mari the expression, “to slay an ass,” was idiomatic for entering into a compact.
The most important feature of Moses’ account in Genesis fifteen is the peculiar action of God. In other covenants both parties walk between the pieces of the animals. In this instance, however, God symbolically walks between the pieces, and Abraham is not invited to follow! The meaning is clear: This covenant is not a conditional covenant in which certain duties must be fulfilled by man. It is one in which God undertakes to fulfill the conditions Himself, thus guaranteeing by the divine fidelity to His Word and by His power the accomplishment of the covenantal promises.
The fact that God alone passed between the pieces of the animals meant that God was binding only Himself to give to Abraham and His seed the promises He had made to him. One striking thing about this is that both liberal and orthodox commentators have seen this. It is not often that one can find the two viewpoints uniting in interpretation, but here they do. For example, the German liberal commentator, Grehard von Rad notes, “The ceremony proceeded completely without words and with the complete passivity of the human partner.”4 On the other hand, Herman Ridderbos, an orthodox commentator, writes, “Abraham is deliberately excluded —he is the astonished spectator.”5
To sum up, then, the Abrahamic Covenant is an unconditional covenant, depending for its fulfillment entirely upon God’s fidelity to His Word. The absence of any stated conditions in the context confirms this. What marvellous comfort that brings to believers!
Paul’s figure is a parable from horticulture, but it is governed by grace (cf. v. 24).6 In nature itself it is the practice to graft a cultivated scion on a wild stock.
The warning to the Gentile believers begins in verse seventeen with the conjunctive particle, “Now” (AV, “and”; NASB, “but”). The “some” on the context refers to the mass of the nation (cf. vv. 7, 12, 14, 15). The process described is unnatural horticulturally, and that is the point he wishes to stress.7 There are two very important expressions in the verse, which have significant bearing on the relation of the covenantal promises to Israel and the church. The expressions are the prepositional phrase, “among them,” and the words, “with them partakest” (lit., fellowpartaker). The expressions make it very plain that Paul believes that the Gentiles in the church share in the blessings of the Abrahamic Covenant with Israel, although they remain Gentiles (cf. Gal, 3:16, 29; Heb. 2:16).
This passage makes it very difficult to maintain, as some attempt to do, that there are separate promises and destinies for Israel and the church of Jesus Christ. In fact, this text is the Achilles heel of the view that there is extreme discontinuity between Israel and the church. It suggests one body of Messianic promises for one people of God composed of two separate and distinct national entities.
In verse eighteen the apostle warns the Gentiles, for he is addressing them (cf. v. 13), against boasting over the branches that have been broken off, that is, the mass of Israel. He reminds them, the Gentile believers, that they are not self-sustaining. It is the root, the Abrahamic covenantal promises, that bears them. Incidentally, the text is a strong warning against any form of Christian anti-Semitism, something not unknown in history.
Warning against pride of electing grace (19-22). In a kind of diatribe-like reply the Gentile is described as replying, “Branches were broken off that I (emphatic in the original text) might be grafted in.” To which Paul replies, “That is true” (lit., well), for he is thinking of the ultimate purpose of Gentile salvation (cf. vv. 11-15). He reminds his Gentile readers, however, that the Jews have fallen by reason of unbelief, and that they, the Gentiles, stand simply upon the ground of faith.
And he again warned them against arrogance and pride, for faith is not self-originated, but the gift of a gracious God (cf. Phil. 1:29; 1 Cor. 4:7; 12:3; Eph. 2:8-9).
In verse twenty-one Paul gives the reason why they, the Gentiles, should not presume upon their spiritual election. If He has not spared the natural branches, God surely will not fail to judge the unnatural branches. We see here one of the answers to the common question of those who find the doctrines of election and perseverance unpleasant. “Are there not many passages that warn of failure?,” they say. That is true. The children of God are warned against falling away as one of the means of preventing falling away. And the professing believer who has no godly fear and presumes upon his election in pride is in danger of failure. Thus, the promise of the Word of God is, “I will put my fear in their hearts, in order that they may not depart from me” (cf. Jer. 32:40).8
Verse twenty-two is a deduction from the preceding discussion. Upon the generation that rejected the Messiah has come the severity of God in divine judgment, but upon the believing Gentiles His goodness. Paul, however, cannot continue without a final admonition. It is goodness for them, if they continue in His goodness. Otherwise they expose themselves to a cutting off from the tree.
It should, of course, be obvious from the chapter that Paul has in mind the Jews and Gentiles collectively. He is not seeking to suggest to individual believers that they are unjustified in possessing assurance of salvation (cf. 2 Tim. 1:12). At the same time Murray is right, “The conditional clause in this verse, ‘if thou continue in his goodness,’ is a reminder that there is no security in the bond of the gospel apart from perseverance. There is no such thing as continuance in the favour of God in spite of apostasy; God’s saving embrace and endurance are correlative .”9
The Proviso and the Probability of Israel’s Restoration
The proviso (23). The argument for Israel’s restoration, based on the figure of the olive tree, begins here. Their rejection is not final! In fact, according to Paul the only thing hindering their entrance into the covenantal blessing is their present unbelief. “And they also, if they abide not still in unbelief,” he says, “shall be grafted in: for God is able to graft them in again.” Of course, we are speaking of things from the human standpoint. On the divine plane of things there is the purpose of God to consider, and to the moment it has been His purpose to keep the door open for Gentiles in their full number to enter in. The adverb, “again,” should be noted, referring to the national reintroduction into blessing (cf. Matt. 21:43; Acts 3:19-21; 2 Cor. 3:16). He cannot only restore Israel if they believe, He can remove their unbelief itself!10
The probability (24). The “for” introducing the twenty-fourth verse gives the ground for the apostle’s confidence of Israel’s restoration. He regards it as an easier process than that which has already occurred, the calling of the Gentiles. It is, thus, a more probable event. Israel is represented in his figure as the natural branches. They had the adoption, the glory, the covenants and all other things mentioned earlier in chapter nine, verses four and five. In particular and supremely they have the Messiah, God over all and blessed forever. The Gentiles, on the other hand, had only a dim vestige of the existence of God and a fallible conscience that generally accused them (cf. 1:18-2:16). How much more likely, then, that the natural branches would be regrafted into the tree than that the Gentiles would ever be called? It is another of Paul’s a fortiori arguments.
The last words of the verse, “their own olive tree,” emphatic in the original, are quite important. It recalls 3:1-2, where Paul makes the point that Israel still has an “advantage,” in that the nation possesses the Messianic promises of God. Murray comments, “The patriarchal root is never uprooted to give place to another planting.”11 The phrase underlines the fact that the Abrahamic Covenant promises are unconditional, certain to be fulfilled to elect Israel and elect Gentiles through the Seed, the Son of David and Abraham, the Lord Jesus Christ. Let us never forget that it is THEIR olive tree: we Gentiles share in THEIR covenantal blessing.
As we observe the human scene today, there is every indication that Paul’s words are receiving vindication. In the first place, there is hardly any question that modern Judaism is spiritually bankrupt. It is basically an ethical system with no real redemptive program for lost sinners. Some years ago Time carried an article on Judaism, and in it was this description of its state, “For Judaism is a this-worldly rather than an otherworldly religion; its basis is action rather than dogma. Obedience to the law is far more important than belief. For the Law is truth set forth in terms of action.”12
Ze’ev Chafets has just written a book about Israel with the engaging title, Heroes and Hustlers, Hard Hats and Holy Men. Mr. Chafets was an American born in Pontiac, Michigan, but he is now an Israeli after almost twenty years in Israel. He speaks in the opening pages of his first trip to Israel, when he had no real notion of the nature of the country for which he was bound. “In Pontiac, Michigan, where I was born and raised,” he says, “we belonged to a Stevensonian Reform temple whose primary religious doctrines consisted of ‘Be a good person,’ and ‘Don’t forget to say hello to Aunt Mae after services.’”13 Sad to say, that is also theology typical of perhaps the majority of Protestant churches today. Paul would have been quite unhappy with that analysis of the Law of Moses and salvation.
Mr. Chafets also makes a statement concerning the land in the early pages of his book with which, I believe, the biblical writers would have expressed profound disagreement. He calls the place “a country like any other.”14 It is true that the country possesses a uniquely evocative geography and history. It also, however, is the theme of thrilling prophecies written by holy men who by the moving of God the Spirit dipped their pens in a rainbow to record them. That land is not like any other on the face of the globe, and logic, as Paul spells it out in Romans eleven, covenantal history, and prophecy argue with divine compulsion for its future glory. We Gentiles, too, who have in grace embraced the Messiah, look forward to the day of its coming.
1 The Christian Century, January 1-8, 1986, p. 10.
2 Paul J. Achtemeier, Romans. Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Atlanta: John Knox Press,1985), p. 79.
3 Arthur W. Pink, The Divine Covenants (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1973), p. 115.
4 Gerhard von Rad, Genesis: a Commentary, rev. ed. (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1972), p. 188.
5 Herman N. Ridderbos, The Epistle of Paul to the Churches of Galatia (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1953), p. 131.
6 It is true that the engrafting of a fresh cutting from a wild tree into an olive tree for purposes of reinvigorating is not unknown, but Paul’s word that he is arguing contrary to nature seems to settle the issue (cf. v. 24). For other comments see Barrett, p. 217; Black, p. 145); Bruce, pp. 217-20; Cranfield, II, 571-72: Murray, 11, p. 86.
7 Sanday & Headlam, p. 328.
8 Cf. Shedd, p. 341.
9 Murray, II, 88.
10 Gifford, p. 197.
11 Murray, II, 90.
12 Time, October 15, 1951, p. 57.
13 Ze’ev Chafets, Heroes and Hustlers, Hard Hats and Holy Men (New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1986), p. 11.
14 Ibid., p. 8.