In Romans 9:1-5 the Apostle Paul expresses a powerful sentiment of his willingness to sacrifice himself for the sake of his own people, Israel. "I am speaking the truth in Christ-- I am not lying; my conscience confirms it by the Holy Spirit-- I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh."
Incredible words indeed. Paul is willing to stand in the place of judgment for his own people, Israel if it will redeem them. What kind of courage is required for such sacrifice? Why is it that Paul feels such passion for his kinfolk by flesh—by race?
In order to understand Paul's anguish, it must be remembered that the central question Paul is attempting to answer in Romans is "Can God be trusted to keep God's promises?" Can God be trusted to keep God's promises to his chosen people Israel? If God cannot be trusted to keep his promises, how can we be sure that God will keep his promises to the Gentiles who now by faith have come to believe in Jesus?
Paul's decisive answer to that question by the end of chapter eight is "Yes! God can be trusted." But there's a problem that has been swirling in the background in the first eight chapters and now it rears its head in chapters nine through eleven. The problem is that God's chosen people Israel, chosen by grace, have for the most part not believed in Jesus the Messiah; and Paul deeply believes that Jesus is the Messiah, the fulfillment of Israel’s Scriptures (the Old Testament) and the saving hope for Israel and all the world. Paul believed that Christianity was the way God intended Judaism to go. Can God be trusted to keep God's promises to Israel, even though they have not believed? If God does not keep his promises to Israel, does that mean God is fickle? And if God is fickle with Israel, will be eventually abandon the Gentiles as well? This concern was not irrelevant to Paul and it is not irrelevant today for Gentile believers in the first quarter of the twenty-first century.
We must never forget something that Christians today sometimes brush away as irrelevant-- Israel is God's chosen people. If Israel is not chosen of God then Jesus cannot be the Messiah. If Jesus isn't the Messiah, we are in trouble. That chosenness began with Abraham and Sarah and it was nothing earned on their part; it was a result of God's grace. It was God’s grace and God’s grace alone; it was God's choice of Israel that would lead to God's choice that the covenant would become universal, offered to all regardless of nation or place. It was that same grace that Paul speaks of in Romans.
But Paul faces the great dilemma of having just argued that nothing can separate us from God's love when apparently Israel's unbelief in Jesus is separating them from God, at least for the moment. Does that mean that the fate of God's chosen people is to remain separate even though salvation for all has come through them in Jesus?
Paul is not only kinfolk with his fellow Jews by race, but also by grace. Paul knows that without Israel, salvation in Jesus is not possible, as he states in the first five verses of chapter nine. Israel is God's chosen people through adoption, covenants, law, worship, promises, and patriarchs and matriarchs. Israel in its chosenness has enjoyed the privileges and responsibilities of God's choice and since God can be trusted, God will make a way for God’s people. But in the meantime, if not, Paul will gladly stand in Israel’s place if it means their salvation in the future.
What kind of love and commitment is necessary to be willing to give of oneself for her or his people? We gather each week as the people of God the church, those who have received the inheritance of salvation that has come through the promises God has made to Israel. We have been included in what God had planned when he called Abraham and Sarah four thousand years ago. What kind of love and commitment are we willing to extend for the sake of our kinfolk by grace-- the church of Jesus Christ?
How often we the church speak of being a family, and yet the only word that describes our family is dysfunctional? When I was in college my pastor was fond of saying that the Christian army is the only army in the world that finishes off its own wounded. Is it possible for us to gain such a love and passion for our sisters and brothers in Christ that with conviction we can say like Paul, "I am not lying; my conscience confirms it by the Holy Spirit." I would give anything for the sake of my kinfolk by faith."
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