‘Israel’ According to Paul

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It is often said that if you want to understand a clear distinction in Israel and Church terminology Pauline letters are a wonderful insight, particularly Romans. When I first came across the Covenantal idea of Church and Israel, I was bewildered by the fact that this idea would affect not just new testament reading, but Old testament reading. And I came about reading Romans 11, and that was the final knell to my struggle in understanding this issue. I do not know how any scholar would come to the conclusion that the Church is equal to Israel after reading this chapter. Let me go through short and small interpretive insights that help us to understand this ever-debated issue. Grammatical structure is so clear in this chapter that there is no other way to understand this chapter differently. I will not be going into big commentary since this topic is huge to deal with in the blog. I am considering few linch-pin clauses to latch onto,

1] Romans 11:1 – ‘I say I too am Israelite’!. 

What does this phrase stand for? Paul answers that, ‘a descendant of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin’. (Even Covenantals agree that simple hermeneutic here means Paul is talking about Jewishness), well someone who says, In the New Covenant this definition is abrogated, but wait a minute. Paul maintains his position throughout the whole chapter.

2] Paul contrasts his point about being Jew with Gentiles –

 Verse 11, Salvation has come to “Gentiles”, to make “them” jealous. Question: Who are “them”, that Paul is contrasting with? 

ESV : So I ask, did they stumble in order that they might fall? By no means! Rather, through their trespass salvation has come to the Gentiles, so as to make Israel jealous.  (Romans 11:11, ESV)

Clearly, Gentiles are contrasted with Jews. The same line of contrasting continues throughout the whole chapter. 

3] Verse 13 Now I am speaking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch then as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I magnify my ministry, (verse 14) in order somehow to make my fellow Jews jealous, and thus save some of them. (Romans 11:13-14, ESV)

Major translation contrasts Jews with Gentiles here, we see, Instead of writing Israel, Paul here writes ‘my own flesh’. (My own flesh can also be taken as ‘Paul himself’, but there is a reason why translators have chosen instead ‘my own people’ or ‘Jews’ in order to maintain contrast that Paul is trying to build up in the whole chapter with Gentiles.). 

4] What does Paul again mean, “you, being a wild olive” were grafted in and became parttaker? The term will only make sense, if we connect the term with ‘natural branches’ of 21th verse. Both terminology must be in contrast to each other, than only Paul’s argument makes sense. 

If we try to understand the contrast of wild olive and natural branches, we once again understand Paul’s original contrast between ‘Israel and Gentiles’. 

5] Paul is hammering down the point that, God is able to restore Jews to him back even though they have been ‘stiff-necked’ people. That is answered by Paul in verse 24 For if you were cut off from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and contrary to nature were grafted into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these who are the natural branches be grafted into their own olive tree?”

6] Ultimate objection that Paul raises to distinguish between Gentile believers and Jews is that in verse 25.

25 “partial hardening has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in” (If we fail to read the little word ‘until’ we miss the point of Paul- There is a time when a full number of Gentiles will come in, and Jews(Israel) will be hardened until that time. The distinction can not be more clear than this. 

BY, this terminology it is impossible to mix ‘Jews and Gentiles’ or Israel and Gentiles together. To that conclusion, Paul says, “all Israel will be saved”. Most people start from verse 25 and try to prove that “Israel is same as Gentiles”, but that is simply neglecting the whole argument of Paul from verse 1. If we look at the consistency of Paul’s point, He maintains a distinction between Jews and Gentiles and never mixes them. Even when he says, ‘All Israel will be saved’, it is in the context of the same distinction he has built up in earlier verses about Gentile believers who were grafted in, and Jews who were obstinate and will one day be grafted in.

IF, Paul labors this entire chapter in order to identify, How Israel as in Jews who will be saved apart from Gentile’s inclusion, do we seriously think that Galatians 3:27 and other passages of the scripture just neglects this whole distinction and rips it off in order to mix Israel and Gentile believers? Not at all, for that would mean Paul’s whole argument is against other portions of scripture. I would end with mostly drawn argument from Galatians 3:27, that Salvation Unity is different than Ethnic Unity. There is no Jew and Gentile in Christ, we are all one in Salvation. There is no partiality and no difference in Justification, that is Salvation Unity. But that does not violate Ethnic roles. Jews are still Jews, and Gentiles are still Gentiles, even after coming to Christ. We are not saved by ethnicity but that does not mean, God has abrogated all ethnic roles in scripture between Church and Israel. Just as man and woman are equal in their legal standing before God, still have different gender roles. So it is true with God’s natural branches and olive branches distinction. Just because olive branches are allowed to be grafted in, Paul does not mix it in with natural branches. So many may want to mix agricultural idea of mixing both as one branch but Paul does not mix them until the end of the Chapter.


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