Israel and the Divine Purpose—Present and Future (Part 1)

Israel and the Divine Purpose
—Present and Future
Part 1

S. Lewis Johnson, Jr.

Is There Jewish Christianity Today?


The question of Israel’s place in the divine purpose has rarely been as relevant to life on this planet as it is today. Standing at the critical center of the political and military uncertainties and anxieties of the nations is the nation Israel.

Theologians of different persuasions recognize this fact. Professor G.C. Berkouwer, one of the really notable Christian theologians of the twentieth century, in his book, The Return of Christ, although denying in it that Israel the nation has an ethnic future, yet feels it necessary to explain why he must devote a chapter to the nation in his work. He finds justification for discussing Israel and the future in two things, the renewed attention given to Israel on account of the “tragic outbursts of antisemitism in our age,”1 and the rise of the Jewish state in the land of Palestine.

The issue of Israel rises constantly in our newspapers as they seek to report the life of the globe. When President Reagan visits an unde-Nazified German cemetery in a state that is not now the state of Hitler (Hitlerism abounds in our world by another name, Communism), the issue of Israel is again highlighted before the Western world as we reflect upon the demonic evil of the Holocaust.

For the study of the divine purpose and Israel in the New Testament revelation one must first and foremost consider Paul’s great chapters in Romans. It is in this letter alone that the apostle discusses thematically the future of Israel. The discussion is found in Romans nine through eleven, and the reason for it is found in the subject matter of Romans one through eight. While the entire epistle is an exposition of the gospel, chapters one through eight form the doctrinal heart of the soteriology of Paul.

The theme of the epistle is found in Romans 1:16-17, highlighted in the citation of Habakkuk 2:4, “The just shall live by faith.” In other words, righteousness is the gift of God through the objective merits of the saving cross of the Lord Jesus Christ, appropriated by the exercise of faith.

Romans one through eight, developing the details of the theme, set forth an elect group, justified by faith in the Lord Jesus. A Jewish reader, however, familiar with the Old Testament revelation, would have noticed a seeming unusual thing: Israel appears to be missing from the elect group. While there is a brief mention of the problem of Israel in 3:1-8, otherwise the nation apparently has been neglected by Paul in Romans. Was not Israel God’s elect people, recipients of the covenants and promises? How can any teaching have divine approval that does not reserve for Israel a preeminent place?

To the Jew the issue would seem to be this: Either Paul’s gospel is true and the covenantal promises are nullified (an answer offered by a number of otherwise orthodox Christian interpreters today), or Paul’s gospel is false, with Christ an imposter, and the promises still remain to be fulfilled. The apostle, as we shall see, has a surprising solution: The gospel he preaches is true AND the promises will be fulfilled. Both/and, and not either/or, is his answer to the problem.

Paul makes three points in Romans nine through eleven. First in chapters nine through ten, expounding divine sovereignty and human responsibility in Israel’s history, he makes the point that Israel’s failure was caused by spiritual pride and self-sufficiency. In chapter eleven, verses one through ten, Paul makes the point that Israel’s failure is not total. The doctrine of the remnant makes that clear. And, third, by the skillful use of Scripture, supported by example and logic, he claims that the failure of national and ethnic Israel is not final. This is his point in verses eleven through twenty-seven.

The conclusion was foregone from his earlier intimations (cf. 3:1-4). There is coming a time when all Israel shall be saved. The glorious promises of the Old Testament regarding her destiny shall have their brilliant fulfillment.

Robert Louis Stevenson once wrote of those who see no real fulfillment of the great national promises, “I cannot understand how you theologians and preachers can apply to the Church—or multiplicity of churches—Scripture promises which, in their plain meaning apply to God’s chosen people, Israel, and to Palestine; and which consequently must be still future … The prophetic books are full of teachings which, if they are interpreted literally, would be inspiring, and a magnificent assurance of a great and glorious future; but which, as they are spiritualized, become farcical—as applied to the Church they are a comedy.”2

What it ultimately comes down to is the faithfulness of a sovereign God to the promises and affirmations of His Word. Isaiah says it forcefully and beautifully in words given him by “the Lord, “My counsel shall stand, and I will do all my pleasure” (cf. Isa. 46:10) .

With that text ringing in our minds let us turn to the text of Romans eleven, considering first the opening six verses under the title, “Is There Jewish Christianity Today?”

The Pauline Question

Its source in the context (10:21; 11: la, 2a). The question that opens the chapter is a very natural one in the light of the context. The apostle has just concluded chapter ten by saying, “But to Israel He saith, All day long I have stretched forth my hands unto a disobedient and gainsaying people” (10:21). The words are a citation from Isaiah 65:2, and the reference, of course, is to the longsuffering patience of God with His rebellious elect people.

The condition that characterized the people in Isaiah’s day still persists in Paul’s day. What more natural question to ask at this point than, “I say, then, God has not cast away His people, has He?”

The connection made by Paul is important for the ensuing discussion. First, the inferential conjunction “then” makes it plain that the question arises out of the statement in 10:21. That fact is of further importance, for it clearly indicates that the sense of the word “people” in Isaiah 65:2 and Romans 10:21 is the sense that the same word must be given in Romans 11:1-2. And the sense of the term is plainly ethnic Israel. Thus, the opening words of Paul give his readers the intimation of the major point of the following argumentation. God has not cast off His elect people, although the mass of them are at the moment abiding in unbelief. That which is suggested by the question is stated directly and positively in the words that open verse two, “God has not cast away His people whom He foreknew.”

Its roots in the Old Testament. A final point should be made here also. The expression, “His people,” lets the perceptive reader know what kind of reply the apostle expects. When God takes a people to Himself, it is forever. He would not call Israel “His people” in the present age, if He had indeed cast them off. And if anyone should call for further evidence, let him know that what Paul anticipates in his question, namely, that God will not cast away His people, is stated without qualification three times in the Old Testament as a fact (cf. 1 Sam. 12:22; Psa. 94:14; 95:4).3

The Pauline Answer

Direct denial (1b). The explicit answer of the apostle to his question is now given. As is customary with him, his opening rebuttal is a flat and emphatic denial, “God forbid” (cf. 3:3; 6:2, 15; 9:6). If God were to forsake His people, then He would become a liar, a covenant breaker. Can the only One who is absolutely honest and true be that?

There may have been changes in the divine economy at particular times—there are no longer blood sacrifices, the Levitical cultus, and temple worship—but there are none in the promises.

The case of Paul (1b-2a). The apostle further explains why God has not cast away His people, the “for” introducing his second answer, his own salvation. God’s trustworthiness and faithfulness to His promises is proved by the Damascus Road experience. And, one might add, if God had cast away Israel, would He have chosen one of them to be His special apostle to the Gentiles?4

Paul also mentions his membership in the tribe of Benjamin, a tribe of which one scholar says, “The Benjamites were the Israelite ‘aristocracy’.”5 Benjamin did not follow the defection of the ten northern tribes after Solomon’s death in the setting up of the schismatic altars, the alien priesthood, and the temples of Bethel and Gilgal. “Little Benjamin,” as David described the tribe (cf. Psa. 68:27), was given one of the most spiritual of blessings by Moses in his song, “The beloved of the Lord shall dwell in safety by Him; and the Lord shall cover him all the day long, and he shall dwell between His shoulders” (cf. Deut. 33:12). After the Exile, Benjamin with Judah constituted the theocratic people.

What Paul indicates by his own salvation is stated categorically in the opening sentence of verse two. The further description of God’s people, “whom He foreknew,” is of considerable interest doctrinally. Practically all of the sound and recent commentators on the Greek text affirm that the verb, to foreknow, is used in the Semitic sense of to choose in advance (cf. Jer. 1:5; Am. 3:2; Hos. 13:5). If the word meant simply to know beforehand, in the sense of knowing beforehand that they would eventually believe, then the question, “Has God cast off His people?,” could not arise. “Of course,” one could say, “they are not cast off, for He knows they shall believe.” If, however, the word means to choose in advance, then the question could arise. The matter could be put this way: Yes, God did elect Israel, but Israel has fallen into unbelief. It would be natural for one to ask, “Are not the promises, then, cancelled?” It is plain, then, that to foreknow here means to foreknow in the Semitic sense of entering into intimate relations with beforehand, or to choose in love.

Arthur S. Way, the great classical scholar, who translated so many of the classic Greek and Latin works into English, translated the Epistles of Paul and Hebrews, too. At this point his translation practically equates the word foreknow with one of Paul’s other words of election, to foreordain. He renders the last clause, “…whom He marked out for His own so long ago.”6 Cf. 8:29.

God, then, is not fickle, although He has had a plan within a plan. He intends to bring Israel to her promises, but the way includes the present time of Gentile blessing also (cf. vv. 11-15).

The parallel with Elijah’s day (2b-4). As Luethi suggests, someone might say of the citing of the salvation of just one man, Paul, “One swallow does not make a summer.”7 So Paul continues his argument with an illustration from Elijah’s life and times. In his day, a day of Israel’s backsliding like the present time, apostasy was general, but not universal (cf. 1 Kings 19:10-18). That is the case today. While the prophet thought he was alone in his faith, God reminded him vividly that He had reserved for Himself 7,000 who had not bowed the knee to Baal.

The words, “I have left for myself,” must not be overlooked. It plainly indicates that the ground for the existence of the believing remnant in Elijah’s day is “the initiative of the divine grace, God’s gracious election, and not human merit.”8 Thus, just as the existence of a remnant, the product of divine grace, indicated to Elijah that God was still active in the nation’s behalf, so in Paul’s day the body of believing Jews was a pledge of God’s continuing commitment to His ancient promises of elective grace.

The Pauline Conclusion

The conclusion stated (5). “Even so then” (NASB, “In the same way”) introduces the conclusion of the paragraph. Paul, admitting that general apostasy exists in his day, still argues from the existence of a remnant of Israelite believers for God’s continued committal to them. The unbelief of the mass does not annul His faithfulness to His Messianic promises (cf. 9:4-5), and the existence of a remnant is a testimony to His continued activity in Israel’s behalf. And the fact that it is a remnant that exists by divine grace proves the point.

The “remnant” in verse five corresponds to the 7,000 of Elijah’s day. The word in the original text was suggested by the expression, “I have reserved,” in verse four. It comes from the same Greek root.

In Galatians 6:18 Paul refers again to the remnant of Jewish believers in the present age, using the words, “the Israel of God.” In fact, “the Israel of God” still exists today in the Christian church in the form of Jewish believers in the Lord Jesus Christ as the Messiah. In theological seminary I was taught Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic, in addition to the exegesis of the Hebrew text of the Old Testament by Dr. Charles L. Feinberg, the well-known Bible teacher and scholar and fervent believer in our Lord as Israel’s Messiah. I have had the privilege of teaching one of his sons in seminary and then serving with him and his brother on the faculty of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois. They belong to “the Israel of God,” true “Jews for Jesus.” Cf. Acts. 21:20.

When Paul says the remnant is the result of the election of grace, he has in mind the heretical viewpoint that one may stand before God by another standard, namely, by the keeping of the Law of Moses. Paul has strongly denied this way (cf. 3:19, 27-31; 4:1-8; 7:1-12; 8:1-4; 9:30-33; 10:5-13). The principles of law and works are diametrically opposed to the way of grace and faith. The former principles contend that man can by his deeds win a just reward for them from God.

The idea of grace, however, is that God initiates the saving activity within His own divine being of love and mercy, and that He consummates the work of salvation in our hearts by effectual grace, regeneration, and faith, grounded in the merits of our Lord through His atoning work on the cross. The two ideas of law and grace, or works and faith, cannot be harmonized with the biblical teaching that, as the psalmist and Jonah affirmed centuries ago under divine inspiration, “Salvation is of the Lord” (cf. Jon. 2:9). The ultimate decision that issues in our salvation comes from the heart of God, as a thoughtful consideration of such passages as 1 Corinthians 2:14 and Romans 8:7-8 will show.

The conclusion explained (6). The sixth verse explains the negative implications of verse five. If the remnant has come into existence by elective grace, then it follows that it has not come into existence from the sinless obedience of human works, as the Law requires. If election were based upon obedience, then God’s grace would no longer be unmerited favor, but justice. Who would desire to attempt to stand under that standard? What hope, then, would exist for sinners? Augustine was right in once saying, “Gratia, nisi gratis sit, non est gratia,” or, “Grace, unless it should be free, is not grace.” Our election and salvation, then, is not based upon works, nor even foreseen faith or works produced by us, but upon the sovereign good pleasure of God. Paul makes that clear in Ephesians 1:3-6 (cf. 2 Tim. 1:9). Otherwise grace is no longer grace, and it is by grace that we are saved.

Paul’s appeal to sovereign grace as the source of all our spiritual blessings from God is not popular in our time, and unfortunately it is inadequately treated in evangelical churches. The aversion of the age to rigorous thinking, evident in so many areas of modern Western society, has found a ready ally in Christian congregations, where the shallow has replaced the substantial in the ministry of the Word.

It is not uncommon to hear believers affirm that Pauline doctrine is a bit too heavy for our day. Paul “heavy” and “unintelligible”? Listen to the sturdy Scot, James Denney, “To say that Paul is unintelligible, or that he presents Christianity in a way which does it every kind of injustice and is finally unacceptable to us, is to fly in the face of history and experience. There have always been people who found Paul intelligible and accepted the gospel as he preached. There are such people still, if not in theological classrooms, then in mission halls, at street corners, in lonely rooms. It is not historical scholarship that is wanted for the understanding of him, and neither is it the insight of genius: it is despair (boldface type mine). Paul did not preach for philosophers; he preached for sinners. He had no gospel except for men whose mouths were stopped, and who were standing condemned at the bar of God. They understood him, and they find him eminently intelligible still. When a man has the simplicity to say, with Dr. Chalmers, ‘What could I do if God did not justify the ungodly?’ he has the key to the Pauline gospel of reconciliation in his hand.”9

In conclusion, then, what can we say to our question, “Is There Jewish Christianity Today?” The answer is plain and Pauline, “Yes.” And the existence of a number of Jewish believers today argues for God’s determination to fulfill the ancient national promises made to the nation. We might add, this Israel of God professes the same faith that we Gentiles profess, and they have no difficulty, but rather joy and pleasure, in singing.

“Could my tears forever flow,
Could my zeal no languor know,
These for sin could not atone;
Thou must save, and Thou alone:
In my hands no price I bring,
Simply to Thy cross I cling.”

Or, perhaps they would rather affirm their hope in their own traditional language, “My soul shall make her boast in the Lord: the humble shall hear thereof, and be glad” (Psa. 34:2). We Gentiles, who have been saved by sovereign grace, love that, too.

1 G.C. Berkouwer, The Return of Christ, trans. by James Van Oossterom and ed. by Marlin J. Van Elderen (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1972), pp. 323-58.

2 Frank E. Gaebelein, The Servant and the Dove (New York: Our Hope Press, 1946), p. 33, citing “Tusitala,” The Atlantic Monthly, 131:344-53.

3 The Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, uses the same terminology Paul uses, suggesting that Paul was relying upon scriptural phraseology in his argument.

4 C.E.B. Cranfield, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark Limited, 1983), II, 643.

5 Matthew Black, Romans (London: Marshall, Morgan and Scott, 1973), p. 141.

6 Arthur S. Way, The Letters of St. Paul (London, 1935), p. 135.

7 Walter Luethi, The Letter to the Romans: An Exposition, trans. by Kurt Schoenenberger (Richmond: John Knox Press, 1961), p. 151.

8 Cranfield, II, 548.

9 James Denney, The Christian Doctrine of Reconcilliation (London, 1917), pp. 179-80.