“For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people, those of my own race, 4 the people of Israel.” – Rom. 9:3
I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that we in the church – and the Western world at large – really have little idea about what to do with the Apostle Paul’s words here….
First of all, the world hears Paul say this and says:
“Why are you so confident that the only way your race can be saved is through Jesus Christ? How arrogant!”
Then, much of the modern church hears Paul and cynically says:
“Is that misogynist Paul, who often tells us to ‘imitate him,’ perhaps trying too hard here to convince us how important his own race is to him? Insisting that he’d rather go to hell himself than have the whole lot of them go to hell? Should our love be so strong for our own race such that we should actually be glad to be damned eternally?”
And…now… what about this whole “race” thing? A few weeks ago we mentioned the topic of racism and how the definition has changed from it being a belief in the intrinsic superiority or greater value of one group over another to now, where it is something that is quite hidden and quite systemic and not necessarily about individuals and their attitudes.… Well, we can clearly see that issues of race are a big deal today, and so….
The world and much of the modern church hears Paul and says:
“Paul, are you perhaps you are putting a bit too much stock in your genetics, in your blood relationships or ‘kin’? Being a Christian, after all, is about faith, Paul… It is more an idea and has nothing to do with some kind of sacred blood…
So such concern with your own race, is, to say the least, problematic, given your privileges! True, in your day Jews were not at the top of the heap, but today, they are quite privileged… And you wouldn’t want to give encouragement to some of these German and Scandinavian-descent-folks here, for example, to show some racial pride! To push back against the righteous cause to eliminate the existing system of white supremacy by feeling free to utter a terrible expression like ‘It’s OK to be white’”… [i]
[yes, that is sarcasm… appropriate layer upon layer of it actually]
Well, yes, what are we to do with the Apostle Paul’s seemingly unhealthy passions here?
And, truly, what could be more volatile today than this issue of race?
But, you see, Paul does go there, and so somehow, if we are to really understand this text, we must also go there…
So Paul talks about “his race” What does he mean? We’ll get there in a second.
First, however, what do we mean? As I reflect on even my own education, after all, which largely took place in the 1980s, I very much remember hearing about how it was not long ago where it was still common to talk about the English, Chinese, or French race, for example….
Is this, perhaps, closer to what Paul means? I will say this: the Washington Post, who tweeted out the following last week, is definitely far away from what Paul means:
The @washingtonpost will also capitalize the “W” in White, citing that “White is a distinct cultural identity in the United States…” and is a “collective group that has had its own cultural and historical impact on the nation.”
Now, the Post was just responding to another phenomenon that has been occurring over the past several weeks among journalists – that is the capitalizing the “B” in Black to go along with the capital “L” in Latino and capital “N” and “A” in Native American, for example, but still, you might wonder: “How true to real life is all of this?”
In what sense after all, are all of these groups “collective groups”? I suppose years of Census taking and like things where we have checked off “white” or “Caucasian” may very well have made seem normal. Made this kind of thinking and language seem less simplistic and offensive than it is.
I know for me it always felt a bit weird: a lame denial of my real past and present (hey, I’m half Finnish and half German and, by the way, I want to just be an American!)….
In any case, I can fully understand the irritation shown by another commentator in Louisiana (Rod Dreher), who, reading this tweet, was prompted to reply:
“I would bet that I have at least as much in common culturally with a black person from Baton Rouge who went to LSU (like me) as I do with a white person from Boston who went to Harvard. But that commonality is erased by these ridiculous racial obsessives.”
Indeed, increasingly in our society today, it is as if “race” has become the “one ring to rule them all”. Sure, there is some ambiguity and fluidity about whether one is male or female – of course! – but we must have none of that when it comes to race: One is White, Black, American Indian, Latino, Asian, period – and now in capital letters mind you…
Pick you category, and, it increasingly seems, pick your side….
We have gotten very far away from the truth of what the words that Paul uses were originally meant to convey. The objectivity and utterly unbendable nature of one’s own family ties – one’s concrete mother, father, and relatives — is indeed sure and an important ground for life, but what of these categories?
They, in truth, are abstract and comfortless things that man has invented for his own purposes, and – truth be told – purposes that will certainly fail….
One can point out how it was indeed largely those of European and British descent who, in the process of doing their business in America and the Americas, made the bland categories “black” and “white” into a highly important thing… and things “progressed” further when the scientists got involved, what with “scientific” notions of race and racism and the like….
And now, it seems, the consequences have come home to roost, as aggressive and aggrieved identity increasingly takes center stage, becoming, for some, more or less all-encompassing…
So, that, I humbly suggest, is our context. What does all of this mean in Paul’s context?
So Paul is talking about his relatives by blood, his cousins, kinsfolk, broader tribe, and by extension, his fellow “countrymen…” Not “race” in the more abstract and again, comfortless, way people use it today.
And this then ties together with the idea of ethnicity. Biblically, earthly nations are inseparable from the biblical concept of “ethnos,” from which we get our word “ethnic,” and hence, talk about “ethnic groups” today.
In like fashion the word “genos” by itself – again, from where we get the word “genes” – can be translated as offspring, family, race, nation, kind, or even sex. We see that these terms involve notions of blood and parentage, even if “ethnos” is more closely connected than “genos” with our own modern notions of “culture” (we won’t get the meaning of culture today!!)
This all is important in the Bible because, ultimately, the Church is a new Nation, a new Ethnos, that re-unites, by faith in Christ, persons not just from this or that race, tribe, or nation, but from the entire human family – making one Nation, or, more accurately, Kingdom, to whom all the earthly nations will stream in the life to come, “Kingdom come”.
And hence, Christians are first and foremost citizens of heaven, not earth.
In, but not of the world, their “dual ethnicity” means that they belong first to the kingdom of heaven, and are members of “God’s chosen nation (or ethnos)” (I Peter 2:9). Though all are one “in Adam,” God has, post-fall and post-Tower of Babel, also ordained a diversity of nations (see Acts 17:26), from whom He will obtain worship (Rev. 7:9)…
So this, really, is what Paul is on about… and so, where is he going with this in Romans 9?
Well, first of all, it is abundantly clear that the election of Abraham’s natural descendants must be taken seriously…
Second, though: what Paul wants to communicate is this: While any Jew may rightly say “We are Abraham’s offspring” – descended from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob specifically – on the other hand, finally, it is faith which proves more critical than matters of blood.
So throughout Romans 9-11, we see that Paul is making a critical distinction: there is an Israel according to physical descent and an Israel according to faith in the promise…
These things are meant to go together, but at the same time, “not all receive the promise”, he says….
And saying “Jacob I loved, Esau I hated” by the way doesn’t mean that he was deciding to create an Israel who would be heaven-bound while also setting up Esau and all his descendants to go to hell…
It just means that the Promise given to Abraham – which eventually culminated in the “Seed” of the Messiah Himself, Jesus Christ, coming from His line! – went down through Abraham, to Isaac, and then to Jacob, and not Esau…
And faith simply recognizes and accepts this truth for its forgiveness, life, and salvation!
Jacob was chosen for these special purposes of God in a way that Esau was not – and not because of anything that he had done…. (in fact, the whole thing ran counter to Sarah’s efforts to do things on her own!)
And all of this was done in order that, in the fullness of time, the Gentiles, that is the “nations”…. the other members of humanity… would began to pour into God’s Holy Nation as well! And not only this, but in Romans 11 Paul goes on to say the following (it is long, but bear with me – the details are very important):
17 …if some of the branches [of the natural olive tree\ were broken off, and you, [a Gentile,] although a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing root[c] of the olive tree [that is Abraham’s line], 18 do not be arrogant toward the branches. If you are, remember it is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you. 19 Then you will say, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” 20 That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but fear. 21 For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you. 22 Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off. 23 And even they, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again. 24 For if you were cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these, the natural branches, be grafted back into their own olive tree.
Paul essentially goes on to say that God is saying this to the Gentiles:
“I am choosing for my purposes, I am having mercy on you and preferring you now…. in order to make Israel jealous, that they might hear and believe…”
Why? He explains more at the end of chapter 11:
“As regards the gospel, [the Jews are] enemies for your sake. But as regards election, they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers. 29 For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.”
“For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.” Now perhaps we can understand better Paul’s “great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart”….
Do you see what matters here? The Promise is all about those who believe this message, and yet – and yet – physical lineage matters because family connections matter…
Romans 9-11 is teaching us that despite Israel’s unbelief and disobedience, God’s promises to her are still valid….
Through the work of Jesus Christ who its leaders killed, they – even though they have fallen away and fallen away hard! – can still be grafted into God’s purposes now, and become God’s “Israel” again for now and eternity!
And there is no reason for God’s true Israel – made up of believing Jews and Gentiles! – to not grow together as one in Jesus Christ!
So… “hated” ones like Esau and all other Gentiles – let the full measure of God’s people come in! And pray that the Jews would share the joy!
By the way, we have a similar thing that can happen today…. Despite the unbelief and disobedience we see in many quarters of the church, God’s promises to her are still valid….
The one who is baptized and fallen away, for example – even fallen away quite dramatically – may have lost the practice of faith, but that does not mean that their baptism is not valid…
They too, can return to the Lord Jesus Christ, and be grafted in again….
Well, now let’s get really controversial…
In the passage from Romans 11 we read above, it said this:
“18 do not be arrogant toward the branches. If you are, remember it is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you….”
How should we better understand this? Well, in another day – a saner day – we might have done it by drawing the analogy with having “citizenship” in a certain nation here on earth…
People who come to this or any other nation are grafted into it….
In the past, most all would have said they were being integrated, assimilated, naturalized… they would learn the culture… become a part of the nation…
Now, why would that be so important? Well, I recently read the talk of a controversial U.S. Senator who was speaking about the issue of immigration, and he gives us a clue as to why these kinds of things are so important…
“Prior to those stirring passages about “unalienable Rights” and “Nature’s God,” in the Declaration’s very first sentence in fact, the Founders say it has become “necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands” that tie them to another—one people, not all people, not citizens of the world, but actual people who make up actual colonies. The Founders frequently use the words we and us throughout the Declaration to describe that people…
“Perhaps most notably, the Founders explain towards the end of the Declaration that they had appealed not only to King George for redress, but also to their fellow British citizens, yet those fellow citizens had been “deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity.” Consanguinity!—blood ties! That’s pretty much the opposite of being a citizen of the world….”
But… to talk like this. We feel we dare not go there… especially in our current context. How could this ever help?
Many in the West in general, and in America in particular, are haunted by images and/or stories of what their ancestors – or at least their countrymen – perpetrated vs. Indians. And vs. African men and women kidnapped from their homes and sold into bondage. And so, they have actually fallen off the other side of the horse…
Now… as if to make it up… virtually no one will any longer defend a national identity, heritage, inheritance… Even defending a notion of one in public may seem perilous… at least in this or that locale…
“How could I have pride in such things? Even if I didn’t have to be reminded of the evils of the past, isn’t pride in such a thing necessarily hatred for others? Xenophobia? Idolatry?
I mean, it is OK when the Marvel Super-Hero the Black Panther has pride regarding His people of Wakanda, but look at them… they were a much better and noble people than we….”
And yet, how many of us would quickly disown our family members – or even neighbors we have come to deeply know and love — if someone began dredging up horrible past sins they had committed and started calling them and us terrible names? (before you answer this, please read this).
I doubt it any of us would do this, because love makes a difference….
Perhaps some of us might do this… even as we would also feel great shame and guilt about that later as well!
Again we wouldn’t do this because love matters. Love – expressed in shared language, culture, and custom – matters.
“…do not be arrogant toward the branches. If you are, remember it is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you….”
Do not be arrogant toward the branches because, in a sense, life is all about the love that we first learn about in family trees and this can’t be avoided… When in Rome do as the Romans do because it is good for the Romans to honor their ancestors and uphold their way of life….
We should learn from God’s people, the Jewish nation. The concept of nation cannot – and therefore should not – be separated from realities of heritage, ethnicity, and blood.
Even pagan authors like Cicero and Epictetus could see that “Nature produces a special love of offspring,” and “Natural affection is a thing right according to Nature,” respectively (Lewis, 96, 99).
Again, there is a very, very good reason the Apostle Paul speaks so strongly about his “kinsmen according to the flesh, (see Rom. 9:1-5)….
So, how do all of us balance and think about all these things? When the Apostle Paul says “Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” and “Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers” what should this mean for us as his people today?
What we see today is confusion, even among those who seem to understand the complexity of these issues the best…
And many see no way to get a “win-win” here. They see no exit.
[Explained following cartoon…]
And our struggles here…. our imperfect and flawed ways of trying to get our bearings and figuring out what to do …should only drive us closer, nor futher, to Him…..
“O God, I want to love my nation…and yet I know you show no favoritism…”
“O God, I think I should want to be colorblind…”
“O God, they now tell me being colorblind is racist…Help me see the truth…”
“O God, I don’t want to deny the value and importance of any persons’ heritage…”
“O God, I don’t care if people mistakenly call me racist, but just let me be able to keep a job where I can provide for my family and more!”
It should all only drive us closer to Him…..
I hope you do feel a bit desperate when you think about these things. Because that, of course, drives us to God.
The God who, in the course Romans 9-11, deals with the answers that we need.
Nations will rise and nations will fall (and we pray ours doesn’t fall and fight that it doesn’t)… And yet the doctrine of predestination, like justification…. is the teaching that He is the One who will pull His people out of the messes that we create…. Not by our works like Sarah and Esau, but by His grace….
On the one hand, perhaps much like a nation’s immigration system, we shouldn’t ask question of God when He shows particular favor to some and not others, perhaps accusing Him of unfairness or favoritism….. In Romans 9-11, Paul is saying just that: “You have no business doing that, you clay pot… You are the clay and He is the Potter…”
At the same time, even as He speaks to us the way He does in those chapters, we should not assume this means that this is about Him desiring or intending to eternally exclude or condemn anyone! Unlike what the Calvinists have said His blood is indeed shed for all people and He means it!
Even Pharaoh – who Scripture famously says was hardened in order to accomplish God’s purposes for Israel who was His glory and to give glory to Him? I need to presume so… and note that this is not the only place God insists on talking like this…
The point is that God has noble purposes and common purposes, and both need to get done…
And what are we told, at the end of chapter 11, are his highest purposes?:
“For God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.”
That sounds quite curious, but strangely applicable….
And during such crazy times as these, it is nice to know that God has sent us men who not only have our back, but are willing to give up far more than the shirts on their backs….
Hence Paul in our text today, crying out for his people.
Hence Moses in Exodus 32:32, when he says to God about his own people: “But now, please forgive their sin—but if not, then blot me out of the book you have written.”
And hence Jesus. Of whom we might say this:
God so loved the world, that He becomes one of us, physically, first as regards the Jew, and then as regards the Gentile….
And then… for the joy set before Him, endured the cross for our sakes, to unite all peoples in Him.
So that in the end of the trials we have in this vale of tears, we will indeed have a home where such troubles are known no more….
Thank you dear Heavenly Father, for sending us the authors of Scripture, who not only are right but who are the only voices we can listen to for true hope….
[i] https://reason.com/2019/11/04/its-ok-to-be-white-flyers-lead-to-promise-of-severest-disciplinary-action-by-western-conn-state-u/ One might think it would be OK for a white supremacist nation like ours to say that without it causing an incident every time someone utters it, right?