The Letter to the Romans



29. Israel, My Brothers


Romans 9:1-5


In Romans 1 through 8, Paul has spelled out the nature of man, the need for salvation, the futility of trying to become righteous by keeping the law, and the reality of living by the Spirit. In Romans 9 he turns his attention to his Israelite brothers and expresses his grief over their unbelief, and he reminds us that God's promises to them are not annulled.

Paul understands their deep spiritual blindness; he himself had shared it as he raged through the countryside, persecuting Christ-followers prior to his startling conversion. He loves them and longs to help them "see". In verse 3-4a he says, "I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, those of my own race, the people of Israel."

The Greek word translated "cursed" is "anathema". It means "delivered over to the wrath of God for eternal destruction."

Paul is not the first person who expressed the desire to take God's curse in exchange for Israel. When Israel sinned by creating the golden calf while Moses was on Sinai receiving the law, God was angry. Moses pleaded with God to forgive them, "but if not," he said, "Then blot me out of the book you have written." (Exodus 32:31-32)

Paul uses the same word, "anathema" in a few other places. In 1 Corinthians he says no one who speaks by the Holy Spirit can say, "Jesus is cursed." Similarly, not one can declare Jesus is Lord unless he speaks by the Holy Spirit. (12:3) Later in the same letter Paul says, "If anyone does not love the Lord-a curse be on him." (16:22)

One other place Paul uses "anathema" is Galatians 1:8-9 when he says if anyone preaches another gospel than the one he himself preached-in other words, if anyone adds to or subtracts from the pure gospel of grace-let him be condemned.

If a person were to curse or reject Jesus or were to alter the gospel and lead others astray, those offenses would be worthy of eternal condemnation. Similarly, the Jews' rejection of Jesus was an eternal offense. The darkness that shrouded the nation during Jesus' day persisted past Pentecost. Although the first Christian converts were Jews and Christian Jews established the fledgling church, the greatest growth occurred among the Gentile nations as the years passed. Paul, who understood better than anyone how darkened the Jews' hearts were and how glorious is the revelation that Jesus had fulfilled all the law and the prophets, ached for his ethnic brothers. He loved them and desired their salvation enough that if it would have saved them, he would have been willing to take the eternal curse of God in their places, just as Moses would have been willing at Sinai.

Both at the institution of the old covenant at Sinai and at the institution of the new covenant, Israel rejected the provision of God and gave their allegiance to the powerless traditions of their recent past. In both cases the people to whom God entrusted the explanation and delivery of the covenant administration grieved to the point of offering to die if such a sacrifice could save the nation.


Who Is Israel?

Israel's repetitive rejection of God's provision was, actually, a playing-out of the heritage of their namesake, the patriarch Jacob who wrestled with God and received the new name Israel. From the time He promised progeny to Abraham, God had to deal with issues of faith and surrender in His people. Isaac, the son of promise born to Abraham, produced twin sons: Esau, the firstborn, and Jacob. Before their delivery, God told Rebekah, their mother, that the older son would serve the younger-an inversion of the typical cultural protocol in which the elder son received the birth right, or the largest inheritance and authority in the family. Esau was Isaac's favorite son; Rebekah favored Jacob, whose name meant "he deceives".

After a history of deceiving his father and stealing the birthright, Jacob fled for his life and eventually had to confront his brother. The night before his meeting with Esau, Jacob was alone by the river Jabbok. A man wrestled with him all night, and just before daybreak, the man dislocated Jacob's hip. Jacob realized, finally, that he was wrestling with God. He asked the Man to bless him, and God said, "Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome," and He blessed Jacob. (Genesis 32:22-30)

God's intervention in Jacob 's life changed him from "the deceiver" into "he struggles with God." Miraculously, when he met Esau later, Jacob/Israel discovered that his brother no longer held a grudge but was moved to tears to see him. God had not only been at work bringing Jacob into submission to Him, but He had also worked on Esau's heart so he no longer held a grudge.

Jacob eventually fathered twelve sons whose offspring became the twelve tribes of Israel. His descendants became known as Israelites, and from their patriarch's two names the nation inherited its own characterization. They struggled with God (signified by the name Israel) and also with men (signified by the name Jacob) and overcame. From the beginning of the nation, Israel repeatedly struggled to trust and honor God, fighting for its own comfort and power instead of yielding to God's sovereign will and receiving His provision for them.

God confirmed Jacob's name change in Genesis 35:10 and renewed the promise to Abraham of inheriting the land and fathering many descendants. The words of God's covenant renewal also echoed God's blessing on man at the creation of Adam (Genesis 1:28) and after the flood (Genesis 9:1, 7) By the time of the judges, as God was fighting Israel's battles and moving them into Canaan, the nation was known widely as "Israel" (judges 5:7).

After Israel became a monarchy and God made eternal promises to David regarding his descendant always sitting on the throne of Israel, Solomon, David's son and successor, became corrupt. God selected a young man from the tribe of Ephraim, Jeroboam, and told him he would become king of ten of the tribes. Solomon and his son had become unscrupulous, and God would allow the kingdom to be divided. Solomon's son, God said, would retain the tribe of Judah and his throne in Jerusalem, but the rest of the nation would split away and be under Jeroboam's rule.

After Solomon's death, Rehoboam, his son, cruelly insisted on raising Israel's taxes. The people revolted, called for Jeroboam, and crowned him king. Only the tribes of Judah and part of the tribe of Benjamin remained loyal to Rehoboam, David's descendant. God forbade Rehoboam to fight against Jeroboam and told him and his army to go home. The ten tribes north of Judah under the leadership of Jeroboam became known as Israel, while the two southern tribes still under the leadership of David's descendants were known as Judah.

This split in the kingdom was God's punishment for Solomon's idolatary and for his breaching the covenant with God. The northern tribes began to stray from true worship of God, and eventually the Israelites in the northern kingdoms intermarried with the local pagans and produced the much-hated Samaritans.

Israel's entire history was marked with periods of deep rebellion and struggle against as well as with God. Their struggles and times of repentance, however, built an intimacy between them and God that differed from any other nation's relationship with the Lord. They were God's chosen, specially created people, and they depended upon their history as God's people even more than they valued the relationship with God their history should have facilitated.


Adoption, glory, and covenants

"Theirs is the adoption as sons," Paul says in verse 4. Earlier he discussed the fact that all we who are in Christ are God's adopted sons. Here he states that Israel had received the adoption as sons. The children of Israel were the first people to be called God's children. They were the children of promise, the nation God formed through His sovereign choice of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

When God sent Moses back to Egypt to plead for the Israelites' release, He gave him an overview of what he would need to tell Pharaoh. He told Moses that He would harden Pharaoh's heart and that ultimately he would have to deliver the news that God said Israel was His firstborn son (Exodus 4:22-23), and because he had not released them, God would kill Egypt's firstborn sons. After Moses' arrival in Egypt, he spoke to the discouraged Israelites at God's command. He told them that God would redeem them and would take them as His own people and be their God. (Exodus 6:6-7) Deuteronomy 7:6 also records Moses telling the Israelites that they were "holy people to the Lord". God had chosen them out of all peoples on earth to be His treasured possession.

Jeremiah records God saying He is Israel's Father (Jeremiah 31:9), and Hosea quotes God as saying, "When Israel was a child I loved him; out of Egypt have I called my son." (Hosea 11:1)

Israel was the first group of people God identified as His own. They were not merely a random nation among many; rather, God planned them, sovereignly chose Abraham and Jacob to be their ancestors, and miraculously arranged the birth of their forefather Isaac. They were the people He taught and blessed in order that He would be able to begin to make Himself and His redemptive love known to the world through them. They were God's people, and He was their Father. Yet Paul refers to them as adopted.

Their "adoption" simply indicates that they were not of God's own substance. They were human, not God; therefore God's paternity of them did not mean that He had physically conceived them as He had Jesus. Rather, He had supernaturally brought about their lineage, and he extended to them the full rights of sons even though they had not descended from Him physically. Jesus was the only one of whom it could be said, He was God's "only begotten son" (John 3:16).

Paul also stresses that the Israelites were blessed with the literal presence of God's glory. God's glory appeared before Israel in the miraculous cloud that led Israel through the desert after they left Egypt. When He announced the quail and the manna He would send in response to their complaining about their food, God's glory appeared in the cloud. (Exodus 16:6-7, 10) His glory permanently rested over the atonement cover, or mercy seat, on the ark of the covenant in the Most Holy Place (Leviticus 16:2), and God's voice spoke to Moses from between the cherubim which overshadowed the mercy seat (Numbers 7:89).

When Levites Dathan, Abiram, and Korah rebelled against Aaron and Moses and tried to usurp priestly duties for themselves, the glory of the Lord appeared before Israel when God announced that He would destroy them and their families. Following the three households' being swallowed alive by the earth, the people of Israel stormed Moses and Aaron and accused them of killing God's people. God's glory again appeared over the tent of meeting before the people, and he told Aaron to take his incense censer among the people and intercede a for them, because plague had broken out among them because of their insurrection. God stopped the plague when Aaron's intercession beganbut not before 14,700 people died. (Numbers 16) Finally, Hebrews 9:5 describes the ark of the old covenant. The author explains that cherubim "of the Glory" overshadowed the atonement cover, or mercy seat.

The word "Glory" here describes God's attribute. His very presence among Israel was unique. No other nation housed the literal presence of the almighty God among them. He was not merely represented among them by symbols and shadows, but His personal glory rested in their temple and showed itself to the people when God had important communications for them. Although they could not "see" Him and visually encompass His person and form, still they could see the holiness and transcendent quality of Him in their assembly. They had what no other people had: the literal presence of God among them.

Israel alone had been the recipients of God's covenants. While He had made promises to other nations, He had only made a personal, covenantal relationship with Israel. In order to people from other nations to become partakers of God's covenants, they had to become Israelites and accept the sign of circumcision.

The covenants which God made with Israel began with Abraham. God put Abraham to sleep and unilaterally ratified his covenant to give his descendants the land of Canaan. (Genesis 15:17-21) He confirmed His covenant with him subsequently by giving him the sign of circumcision. All males in Abraham's household and among his offspring had to receive the sign of circumcision in order to be part of God's covenant people. (Genesis 17:1-11)

When the children if Israel left Egypt over 400 years after God's call and covenant with Abraham, he gave them a new covenant in the desert. He promised they would be His treasured possession. He established their national laws and practices and gave them the ceremonies that prefigured the coming Messiah. This covenant He gave them through Moses on Mt Sinai, and it is known as the Mosaic Covenant. (Exodus 19:3-8) It includes the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17) which were the words of the covenant written on stone by God Himself (Deuteronomy 4:13) Exodus 24:1-4 records God confirming this covenant and then calling Moses to enter the cloud with Him at the top of the mountain. Moses stayed within the cloud for 40 days and 40 nights, and when he emerged, he carried with him the tables of stone inscribed with the words of the covenant: the 10 Commandments. (Ex. 24:12-14)

Later, after Israel had wandered in the wilderness for 40 years while those in rebellion against Moses and God died, God renewed His covenant with a new generation. He gave additional terms to the Mosaic covenant, and He reminded them how they had suffered in the wilderness because of disobedience. God further reminded them to stay faithful in order to avoid having God banish them and destroy the land. (Deuteronomy 29:1-21)

Early in his leadership as Moses' successor, Joshua gathered Israel at Mt. Ebal and built an altar at the same place Abraham had sacrificed to the Lord centuries before. Joshua read the book of the law to Israel and renewed the covenant God had made with Israel. (J9shua 8:30-35) Again at the end of his life Joshua called Israel together at Shechem. He recited the history of Israel and told them that they would not be able to serve God. The people remonstrated and said they would, but Joshua reiterated the consequences of their potential disobedience. He wrote down laws and decrees for them, renewing their covenant with God, and he erected a stone monument to remind them that they were covenanted with God to be His people and to live for Him. (Joshua 24:1-33)

God made other covenants with and within Israel as well. Numbers 25:6-13 records God making a covenant with the household of Phineas, promising that his descendants would be priests forever, because Phineas killed the Israelite and his Midianite girlfriend whom he had been sneaking into his tent, thereby bringing God's judgment on the people. 2 Samuel 7:1-17 records God's covenant with the house of David that established his throne forever. Jeremiah 33:19-22, Psalm 89:3-4, 28-29, and 132:11-12 reiterate this covenant. Malachi 2:1-4 warns the priests of Israel that they will be cut off for breaking God's covenant with Levi. Unless they repent of their disobedience, they will be cut off from the promised blessing of God.

Finally, God promised to make a new covenant with Israel, a covenant in which He would put His law in their minds and hearts, and He would be their God, and they would be His people forever. (Jeremiah 31:31-40)


Significance of Law and Temple

Psalm 147:19-20 tells us that God revealed His word and His law to Israel, and He gave no other nation such a revelation of Himself. Hebrews 9:1-10 explains that the temple ceremonies and the priests demonstrated that the way had not yet been opened to the Most Holy Place. The high priest, Hebrews explains, entered the Most Holy Place once a year bearing blood to atone for himself and for "the sins the people had committed in ignorance." (v. 7) The fact that he had to go through this ceremony every year showed that the gifts and sacrifices couldn't clear the people's consciences; they were "external regulation applying until the time of the new order."

The law and the temple ceremonies demonstrated clearly that people were intractably sinful and needed atonement. They further showed that a mediator could present God with sacrificial blood and thus atone for the people's sins. Yet this yearly ritual could not cleanse the people; they were still hopelessly sinful and needed repeated atonement before God.

The fact that God gave Israel the covenants, the glory of His personal presence, and called them His sons explains why the temple service and the law were significant for them. Without the personal revelation and presence of God, the law and the sacrifices would have been meaningless. They would have looked like just one more hopeless pagan ritual to appease a God who was capricious and unknowable.

Since they saw God's glory in their midst, since God directly communicated to them through his chosen prophets and leaders, they knew He was personal and real, and He loved them and dwelt with them. No other nation had a god who revealed himself and loved people with the integrity and consistency of Yaweh. God's personal presence made the law meaningful. They understood that the God who lived among them had asked these things of them. They also understood that the personal God who chose them, covenanted with them, and revealed Himself gave them the ceremonies of yearly atonement and mediation. They knew that God would forgive them if their sins were atoned. They also knew that God had promised to send a deliverer to them.

The law and ceremonies would have been meaningless to the Israelites if God had not personally revealed himself to them and given them His continuous presence. They would have seemed like abstract demands without the context of a relationship. Since God lived among them, however, and revealed His presence in the cloud of glory and through the mediation of the high priest, the law and the ceremonies had significance as part of their relationship with the personal, loving God they worshiped. They knew that God demanded obedience, and they knew He was forgiving. The law and the sacrifices made sense in the context of God's knowing and choosing them. They laws were not arbitrary; they outlined the people's responsibilities of their covenant with God.

Along with the shadows and promises implicit in the temple ceremonies and the law, God made explicit promises to Israel. He promised Abraham that he would have unnumbered descendants who would inherit the entire land of Canaan (Genesis 12:7, 13:14-17; 17:4-8). He promised on Himself that because Abraham had trusted Him and had not held back from offering His son, God would bless him and make his descendants as numerous as the stars or the sand (Genesis 22:15-18). He promised David that he would make his throne and his royal line eternal, that one of his descendants would always sit on the throne and establish a covenant of peace. (2 Samuel 7:12, 16; Jeremiah 23:5) He promised that he would make a new covenant unlike the one he established with Israel when they came out of Egypt. He would write his laws on their hearts and minds, and all his people would know Him without being taught by another. (Jeremiah 31:31-34) He promised to give Israel a shepherd like David to care for the people and to be a prince among them. He also promised a covenant of peace, safe land, and showers of blessings. He promised to put His sanctuary among them under the reign His servant who would be like David. (Ezekiel 34:23-26; 37:24-28n)


Ancestry Of Christ Through Patriarchs

The patriarchs were Israel's forefathers. They are the ones to whom God made His original promises regarding the formation of His people and the eventual birth of the Messiah. Abraham, the first patriarch, received God's original covenant-the covenant that God fulfills for all His people through Jesus. Isaac, the miracle son of promise, is the second patriarch. He represents God's sovereign power in appointing and calling those who will be His. He also represents the fact that God's favor depends upon God's power only, never human effort or ability. Jacob was the third patriarch. He further represents God's sovereign choice; as the second-born, he should have been subordinate to his older twin, yet God appointed his brother to serve him. He also represents the human tendency to struggle with God in conflicts we cannot win. His experience reveals God's discipline and His giving people new identities in Him when they surrender to Him.

The Jews understood that the Messiah would come to them as the fulfillment of God's promises. They didn't understand, however, that the Messiah would be God. Because they honored their traditions more than they honored God, they missed His revelation of Himself through Jesus. Because they believed they understood truth, they were not open to knowing the reality of God's personal involvement and revelation of Himself. They loved their intellectual analysis of the law and the prophets, and their hearts were hardened toward spiritual reality.

The New Testament, however, reveals Jesus to be God's only Son who is also God. He is of the same "substance" as God His Father, and He is eternal as well. Romans 9:5 says, "Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of Christ, who is God over all, forever praised!" A more literal rendering of the last part of the verse is, "and from whom is the Christ according to flesh, who is over all, God blessed forever." If this verse is referring to Jesus as the one identified as "God blessed forever," this verse is one of the clearest statements of Jesus' divinity in the Bible.

Other texts also reveal Christ's divinity, some by implication, some more directly. Romans 1:3-4 says Jesus was powerfully declared to be God's Son by means of his resurrection from the dead. In Matthew 1:23, the writer quotes Isaiah 7:14 when he explains how the angel spoke to Joseph and informed him that Mary's baby was conceived by the Holy Spirit and would save people from their sins. "All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 'The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel'-which means, 'God with us.' " In Luke 1:35 Gabriel announced to Mary that the Holy Spirit would come upon her, and the holy one conceived in her would be called Son of God. Jesus confirmed his identity just before he returned to heaven when he told his disciple to baptize people "in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit." (Matthew 28:19-20) In saying this, He placed Himself in the Trinity and identified Himself as God.

John, the apostle who identified himself as the one Jesus loved, wrote the gospel that emphasized Jesus' divinity. The book opens with the provocative words: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made" (John 1:1-3). This seminal Word became flesh, and we have seen the glory of the "One and only" who came from the Father (v. 14). During his life on earth, Jesus called God his Father and also broke the Sabbath. By doing these things he incurred the wrath of the Pharisees, because he made himself equal with God (John 5:16-18). Jesus also made the shocking claim, "Before Abraham was, I am"(John 8:5) By claiming the title God used when He addressed Moses at the burning bush, He openly declared himself to be God, and the Pharisees' anger knew no bounds.

Paul confirmed Jesus' deity in several ways and in several letters. In 2 Corinthians 13:14 he blesses the Corinthians with a benediction invoking the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Spirit. He calls on the Trinity to bless them. He declares Jesus to be the image of the invisible God and the firstborn over all creation, because by Him and for Him all things were made. Further, he says, God "was pleased" to have all His fullness dwell in Christ so He could reconcile all things to Himself (Colossians 1:15-20). In Jesus, Paul further says, "all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form." To Titus Paul wrote that we wait for the glorious appearing of "our great God and Savior Jesus Christ" (Titus 2:13).

The author of Hebrews says the Son is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of His being (Hebrews 1:3, 8). Peter addresses his second epistle to those "who through the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ" receive the gift of faith. (2 Peter 1:1).

In Revelation, John again identifies Jesus as God. In 1:13-18 he describes one who looked like the "Son of Man" who declared that He was "the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive for ever and ever." At the end of the last chapter, John again records Jesus identifying Himself. "I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the EndI, Jesus, have sent my angel to give you this testimony for the churches." Further, He says, "I am the Root and offspring of David and the bright Morning Star" (Revelation 22:13-14).

Jesus is the eternal God who left the Father to identify Himself with us, His bride. He is forever divine, but He is also forever human as well. Israel received the most astonishing gift and legacy from God: the ancestry of the Messiah, the Son of God and Son of Man through whom our redemption has come.



Because of Jesus, God's children include more than just those descended from the patriarchs. All who accept Jesus and His sacrifice for their sins are God's children, Jew and Gentile alike. Jesus is more than the person who paid a down payment on our salvation. Many of us grew up believing that we couldn't be saved without accepting Jesus' sacrifice, but neither could we be saved without keeping the law. Jesus' death was like a ticket to Disneyland: we couldn't get in without it, but having it didn't guarantee that we would be there.

Reality is that when you accept Jesus as your Savior and surrender your heart to Him, allowing His blood to atone for your intractable sin, you are God's child. God foreknew you; He called and chose you. Even though you may not be descended from Abraham, you are Abraham's offspring. God's love for and anguish over Israel matches His love and concern for you.

God has made a covenant with you-the new covenant of His blood. He is the one who keeps the covenant; He holds you safely inside His heart by His promises which cannot be broken. He is asking you to surrender your desperate control over your circumstances and fears to Him, allowing His promises which cannot fail to bring you peace and healing.

Even if you have already accepted Jesus, He wants to continue the transforming work of grace in your life. He wants to bring you victory over your self-protective, self-destructive habits and compulsions. He wants to be your strength in the places where you are weak.

God is asking you to trust Him. What you can see of your life is only a limited glimpse of reality. God sees from eternity what you cannot even guess. He asks you to trust Him to care for you and for your loved ones with His eternal love and grace. Let go of your attempts to manage the shaky relationships and uncertain future before you. Surrender your hopes and fears to Him and ask Him to work out His will in your life. Ask Him to make your heart willing to know and to do His will.

Finally, praise God for what He is doing in your life and in the lives of those you love. Praise Him for saving you and for being strong in your weakness. Praise Him for giving you the gift of faith and for being faithful to complete in you the work He has already begun.

Praise Father, Son, and Holy Spirit!

Copyright (c) 2005 Graphics Studio, Redlands, CA USA. All rights reserved. Posted May 9, 2005.
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