Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Romans chapter 11 : Is God through with the Jews?

I am presently teaching the book of Romans at a Bible college in the Rift Valley in Kenya. This is the fifth time I've taught the book of Romans. What an incredible book! What great good news.

The first two times, I taught the view, which I think is the majority view amongst evangelical Christians, that Romans 11 teaches a future revival amongst the Jews. This scheme interprets what Paul says in Romans 11 in terms of distinct historical events (and in particular an "end-time" event). It goes like this:
  • Paul's day: Jews hardened. Salvation comes to Gentiles.
  • From Paul's day until the end of the present age: Salvation continues to come to the Gentiles.
  • Right at the end of the present age: A huge awakening amongst the Jews, which then brings immense blessing to the whole world.
This view, then, looks at verse 12, "Now if their fall is riches for the world, and their failure riches for the Gentiles, how much more their fulness", and takes "their fulness" to mean "their recovery through a great final awakening."

Since then, I've believed and taught the alternative view, which I think is more accurate to the passage and to Scripture as a whole: that Romans 11 describes the salvation of the remnant amongst the Jews, from Paul's time and downwards. In other words, what Paul says in Romans 11 is about an ongoing historical process. This then goes like this:
  • Paul's day: Jews hardened. Salvation comes to Gentiles. A remnant of chosen Jews are stirred up to jealousy, and come to faith, bringing immense blessing to the world (Paul being one such).
  • From Paul's day until the end of the present age: A remnant of chosen Jews are stirred up to jealousy, and come to faith, bringing immense blessing to the world.
  • Right at the end of the present age: This question is not directly addressed by Romans 11, and different ideas can be harmonised with it.
This view looks at verse 12 and takes "their fall" to be referring to the the unbelief of the majority of the nation, and "their fulness" to be the saved remnant of believing Jews such as Paul and other Jewish converts, in his day and since (pointing to verses 13 and 14, and Paul's desire to accomplish precisely this, rather than referring to something many centuries away).

My reasons for changing their mind have as much to do with harmonising Romans 11 with the rest of Scripture as with the study of Romans 11 itself. I think that both views can have a very plausible prima facie case made from Romans 11, though I think ultimately the second view has the stronger case both within and without. I tried to explain a little here as to why I think the context in Romans 9-11 as a whole leads to this conclusion. The expositions I've read of the "end-time historical event" view contradict what Paul has said about the identity of the authentic, God-favoured Israel in chapter 9. They end up saying that ethnic Israel really is special after all and that's why God will send a great awakening amongst them at last, after Paul's laboured the point again and again (as in the rest of the New Testament) to explain the precise opposite.

But within Romans 11 itself, I think that the "end-time historical event" view contains a fundamental self-contradiction. It rests upon when this event is supposed to happen, as described in verse 25:
" ... hardening in part has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in."
So under this scheme, we have this calendar:
  • Paul's day: Majority unbelieving, remnant saved.
  • Since then until the end: The "times of the Gentiles", gospel advances amongst nations, whilst Jews mostly remain hardened in unbelief.
  • When the fulness of the Gentiles has come in, then there's a great Jewish awakening.
  • Then this brings brings even greater blessing to the Gentiles and "riches for the world", verse 12. Their fall brought riches - how much more their restoration! The awakening spreads from Jews to the nations.
But that's incoherent. The "fulness" of the Gentiles comes in, but later, there's a vast awakening bringing unprecedented blessing to the Gentiles. Which means that their fulness in fact hadn't come in, because what happens afterwards is greater than what came before. It doesn't scan. The view that Paul is describing an ongoing process which continues until the end doesn't face this difficulty.

Some teachers answer this objection by saying that the greater blessing which comes to the world is the resurrection - the return of Christ is then immediately ushered in. They say that this is in verse 15 - "life from the dead". In other words, "life from the dead" is a code phrase, referring to the resurrection. But verse 15 begins with the word "for"; it explains verse 14. In other words, it's something that Paul himself hoped to achieve through seeing Jews saved in his own day. Moreover, there is nowhere else in Scripture where Paul uses a "code phrase" for the resurrection, or this phrase in particular. This seems to be using something dark and hidden as the key to control the interpretation of the whole passage, which isn't the right way to do Bible interpretation. Paul never mentions the resurrection elsewhere in the passage. And again, in particular, from verse 12, it is riches "for the Gentiles" that Paul anticipates - it is the Gentiles who receive this "life from the dead". But the resurrection is an event for both Jews and Gentiles, not Gentiles specifically.

To my mind these ad hoc modifications which have to be brought in to save the scheme after you've observed the fundamental contradiction in it, are harder to swallow than the alternative interpretation. As I've already said, I think the alternative interpretation dovetails much more closely with what is outside Romans 11. Hence I don't believe that this historical sequence of a last-days Jewish revival is taught in Scripture.

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