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Family Tree

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Last week we discussed the lesson of Christian liberty and the importance of unity as we looked into Paul’s teaching found in Roman’s chapter 14. It is no accident that I choose to preach this sermon immediately following that one. The chapters and topic we will be looking at today have been, and still are, some of the most controversial and hotly debated passages in all of scripture. There are excellent scholars and devout Christians who have and continue to see and interpret these chapters very differently. Each side makes a good and defensible argument for their position. I know this because while at OCC I wrote my major research thesis over these chapters. I’m telling you this because I want to be honest with you. I want you to know that others, even in our own brotherhood, interpret these passages differently than I do. That is OK. Even after spending several hundred hours researching, studding, meditating on, and praying over these verses, I recognize that any conclusion I may come to must be done so with great humility. With that said, I do not believe that these chapters are impossible to understand. Paul didn’t set out to confuse the church. The purpose of Scripture is to reveal God’s way’s and message, not to conceal it. Therefore, we should not let the fear of differing opinions rob us from the opportunity to finding God’s heart in the midst of these chapters. And I believe that there is a powerful benefit in studding these chapters. On the same note, we ought not to let the presence of differing opinions ruin the fellowship that we have with others in the family of faith with whom we disagree. In fact no matter how these verses are interpreted all students of the Bible can agree upon Paul’s main point. That God willing and able to save, and he has been actively doing so from the very beginning, and he will continue to do so until the very end.

By now you are probably wondering what Chapters I am talking about, and what the controversy is all about. Today’s message is over Romans Chapters 9-11. In these chapters Paul discusses his grief over the many Jews who rejected Jesus. He then addresses the issue of the church as it relates to Israel and God’s promises in the Old Testament.

What makes these passages so controversial is the scope and impact of its content. For instance is the church just a “great parenthesis” or “plan B?” Does God’s acceptance of the church equal is rejection of Israel? And what does Paul mean in 11:26 when he writes “and so all Israel will be saved?”

What are at stake are the character of God, as well as the validity and the nature of the church. For instance, if the Church is just plan B then does that mean that his first plan failed? And if his first plan failed then what assurance do we have that the church won’t fail either? Or if God’s acceptance of the Church amounts to a rejection of Israel, then does that mean that God went back on his promises to Israel? And if God goes back on his word what assurance can we have that he will be faithful to save his Church?

For two millennia now skeptics and believers alike have wrestled with these issues. I mean haven’t you ever wondered what tie is between the Old Testament and the New Testament; Between God’s system of law and his era of grace? Are they two separate programs or is there a continuity of theme and purpose that insuperably link the two together? If they are two separate programs than who are the people of God: The Jews or the Christians?

If the Jews are than why did Jesus and his disciples try to evangelize them? Even more if the Jews were already in with God why did Jesus say that no one can get to God except through faith in him? If the Christians are the people of God than why does the Old Testament refer to the Jews as God’s people? If there is continuity between the OT and the NT then how can their apparent differences be reconciled?

These were the questions of seekers in Paul’s day, and they are the questions of many honest seekers today as well. They need to be answered. This is why Paul wrote chapters 9-11 in his letter to the Roman Church.

The first key to understanding these passages is that there are two Israels.  

I.                    The two Israels

Paul makes this clear when he writes: Don’t suppose for a moment, though, that God’s Word has malfunctioned in some way or other. The problem goes back a long way. From the outset, not all Israelites of the flesh were Israelites of the spirit. Romans 9:6 (The Message, emphasis added)

In this verse Paul makes apparent two key points. The first is that God neither went back on his word, nor did his plan fail. He explains how by making his second point: that there is a difference between Israelites of the flesh (or ethnic Israel), and Israelites of the Spirit (or Spiritual Israel.) In Paul’s mind, seeing this difference was the solution to understanding all the issues discussed in these chapters. Because of this I felt that it would be appropriate to take a look at the identity and purposes of the two Israels.

First lets take a look at Ethnic Israel

a.       Ethnic Israel

Who is Ethic Israel? Paul describes them when he writes:

For 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. Romans 9:3-4a (NIV, emphasis added)

            Ethnic Israel is made up of those who were part of Paul’s race. In other words they are the Jewish peoples. Notice how devastated Paul was that most Ethnic Israelites had rejected Jesus and were thus cut off from his grace. He was willing to trade his salvation for theirs. But salvation is not a thing that can be traded or bartered; it can only be accepted or rejected. Paul, a Jew, accepted it while many other Jews had rejected it. Paul and other Jews like him who trusted in Jesus for their salvation will be saved. Any Jewish person who rejected Jesus will not be saved. In other words Paul’s despair over his unbelieving brethren shows that salvation is not a characteristic of Ethnic Israel.

So what are the characteristics of Ethnic Israel? Well the first is that it is Exclusive to the children of Abram, Isaac, and Jacob.

Exclusive to the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

They all have common ancestry, this is what made them a race. This is a very special race of people to be sure. They were a race chosen by God and given many promises and blessings. These are the physical descendants of the Patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And this is what God said to Abraham right after God tested him and almost let Abraham sacrifice his son Isaac:

The angel of God spoke from Heaven a second time to Abraham: “I swear— God ’s sure word!—because you have gone through with this, and have not refused to give me your son, your dear, dear son, I’ll bless you—oh, how I’ll bless you! And I’ll make sure that your children flourish—like stars in the sky! like sand on the beaches! And your descendants will defeat their enemies. All nations on Earth will find themselves blessed through your descendants because you obeyed me.” Genesis 22:15-18

And Later to Isaac God repeated the promise he had made to his father Abraham.

That very night God appeared to him and said, I am the God of Abraham your father; don’t fear a thing because I’m with you. I’ll bless you and make your children flourish because of Abraham my servant Genesis 26:24 (The Message)

And after he had received the blessing from his father Isaac, God repeated the blessing to Jacob (Whom God later renamed Israel.)

Then God was right before him, saying, “I am God , the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac. I’m giving the ground on which you are sleeping to you and to your descendants. Your descendants will be as the dust of the Earth; they’ll stretch from west to east and from north to south. All the families of the Earth will bless themselves in you and your descendants Genesis 28:13-14(The Message)

            If you look at the blessings God gave the Patriarchs you will notice that basically they received 3 promises.

                                                               i.      Received 3 promises

The first promise it that they would receive land.

1.      That they would receive land.

God fulfilled this promise when he gave the Israelites the Palestinian landscape from the time of the conquest under Joshua about 1500 BC till they were captured by Babylonians in 586 BC. In Deuteronomy 8:25-31God told them that they could keep the land forever if they would only stay faithful to him and to his law, but if they didn’t stay faithful then they would have to give the land back. The people agreed to this condition. Kings, Chronicles, and the prophets all record a history in which the Israelites continually rejected God and his law. He sent them prophets and plagues and other punishments to help get them back, but eventually in 586 BC he took the land back, just as he promised he would do in Deuteronomy.

The second Promise they received was that their offspring would be numerous.

2.      That their offspring would be numerous.

Unlike the first promise God never placed a condition upon the perpetuation of this second promised blessing. Therefore, the Jewish race has endured throughout the millennium. Despite persistent anti-Semitic attitudes and repeated genocidal attempts to wipe them out physical Israel continues to survive as the many children of Abraham now inhabit almost every continent on earth.    

The third promise they received was that their lineage would result in a global blessing.

3.      That their lineage would result in a global blessing

God fulfilled this promise with Jesus. Jesus didn’t come to save only the Physical Israelites. He came to save the world! People from every race, nation, language group, age, gender, socio-cultural status and background can all find forgiveness, restoration, and salvation in Jesus.

And who is Jesus? The first 17 verses of Matthew’s Gospel trace his heritage back to Patriarchs. Jesus was a Jew. Everybody knows that, but why is it important enough for God to allocate the first 17 verses of the first Gospel to prove it? Because, Jesus had to be a Jew in order for God to fulfill this promise to Physical Israel.

 With the coming of Jesus God had completely fulfilled all of the promises he had made to Physical Israel through the Patriarchs. In this God has proven himself to be completely reliable. He will always keep is word…always. Therefore I can think of no better way to begin the first part of the first Gospel with then with proof that God is trustworthy and able to keep his promises. 

God gave Physical Israel more than promises. In fact God gave Physical Israel the three promises because he had given them one purpose.

                                                             ii.       Given one purpose.

Why did God call Abraham out from his home land to move far away to a strange place where he was not known? Why did God call Isaac and Jacob to live the life of nomads as they waited on a promise? Why did God rescue his people from Egypt and give them the land he had promised their forefathers? Why did he give them the law, and the arc, and the tabernacle, and the temple? What was the one purpose God had for Physical Israel? It was to prepare the world for Jesus.

1.      To prepare the world for Jesus

All of their scripture, all of their festivals, all of their prophets and all of their laws pointed to Jesus. As Isaiah the Prophet put it, God did this so they could to be a light to the gentiles.

Unfortunately many Jews never truly understood their purpose. Some became proud in their hearts and looked down upon non-Jews as second class beings. Others rejected the strict regulations of the law and rebelled against its statutes. However many of them honored and revered the law. Unfortunately, most misunderstood and thought that they were made right before God by law through works.

                                                            iii.      Most misunderstood and thought that they were made right before God by law through works.

This is why Paul writes:

Since they did not know the righteousness that comes from God and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. Romans 10:3(NIV)

What is righteousness? It is the ability to stand before God completely free from any sin, or any wrongdoing, or any misdeed. In other words righteousness is being completely in the right in every area of your life for the entirety of your life. Because they had misunderstood the means to righteousness they had missed out on the righteousness that God was offering. That is a righteousness that declared by faith in God’s salvation. Instead they opted to try to obtain a righteous standing by earning it through keeping the Law. Paul illustrates what they are trying to do when he writes:

For Moses wrote that if a person could be perfectly good and hold out against temptation all his life and never sin once, only then could he be pardoned and saved. Romans 10:5 (TLB)

            Sure what they are trying to do is possible, but it is so difficult that only one man in all of history was able to—and he had the added benefit of being God. In other words no one other than Jesus is ever going to earn righteousness. It is just too hard to stay perfect. Fortunately some Ethnic Israelites, like Paul, had chosen to accept God’s righteousness that comes through faith. Paul shows that this was true back in the days of the prophets and shows that it was true in his day and will continue to be true for the rest of time. This is why Paul writes:  

So too, at the present time there is a remnant chosen by grace. And if by grace, then it is no longer by works; if it were, grace would no longer be grace. Romans 11:5-6 (NIV)

            The remnant that Paul describes here are members of more than just Ethnic Israel. They are also members of Spiritual Israel.

b.      Spiritual Israel

Who is Spiritual Israel? Paul explains:

... not all of Abraham’s children are his true descendants; but “It is through Isaac that descendants shall be named for you.”  This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as descendants. Romans 9:7-8(NRSV, emphasis added)

In other words unlike Ethnic Israel membership in Spiritual Israel is not based upon ones genealogy. Paul goes on to prove this point by pointing out that this was true even from the beginning. He does this by reminding his audience of Ishmael and Esau. Ishmael was Isaac’s older half brother. Abraham Ishmael and Isaac were all circumcised on the same day. And even though Ishmael was a circumcised son of Abraham, he was not allowed to accept the promises God made to Ethnic Israel. The same was true for Jacob’s twin brother Esau. In both cases direct lineage to Abraham and circumcision didn’t guarantee membership into Israel. In the same way, the absence of any biological lineage to Abraham and circumcision does not exclude someone from membership into Spiritual Israel. This is due to the fact that Membership into Spiritual Israel is based upon faith in God’s promises, not upon biology. Because of this, unlike Ethnic Israel which is exclusive to the physical descendants of the patriarchs, Spiritual Israel is inclusive for all the children of Adam and Eve.

                                                               i.      Inclusive for the children of Adam and Eve

Explaining this Paul writes:

As the Scripture says, “Anyone who trusts in him will never be put to shame.” For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” Romans 10:11-13 (NIV)

            Spiritual Israel is open to any who wish to join. All that is required is faith, and the willingness to act upon that faith. But wait it gets better. Not only is Spiritual Israel open and easy to join, it is also the heir to three powerful promises.

                                                             ii.      Received 3 Promise

That right, just as Ethnic Israel received three promises, so did Spiritual Israel. And Since God was faithful to make good on his promises to the Jewish peoples, he will most certainly make good on the promises he made to those who faithfully trust him.

So what are these promises? Well the first one is found in your old testament, beginning in Genesis and continuing through Malachi. God’s first promise to the faithful was that a savior would come.

1.      A savior will come

So obvious is this promise that even today many in Judaism are still looking for the Messiah. However, an honest look at the messianic prophecies will lead us to the inevitable conclusion that God fulfilled this promise when he sent his only son, Jesus, to earth.

The second promise God made to Spiritual Israel follows from the first. Not only will a savior come, but he will also save anyone who follows him and trusts in his salvation.

2.      He will save anyone who follows him and trusts in his salvation.

Another way to put that is that through the savior God will save all of Spiritual Israel. God started keeping this promise long before Jesus walked the earth. You see, before the fulfillment of the first promise Spiritual Israelites didn’t have the privilege of knowing the name of their savior. This group included people like Noah, Abraham, Moses, Deborah, Samuel, David, Isaiah, Daniel, and the many named and unnamed believers who lived before the coming of Christ. They placed their hope in a promise that had not yet been fulfilled. However, we who stand on the other side of the cross have the incredible benefit of placing our hope in a promise that has already been fulfilled. Therefore we have great assurance that God will also fulfill this second promise to save those who place their faith in Jesus for their eternal salvation.

And when does this eternal age of salvation begin? Well on a personal level scripture says it begins the moment a person believes the first two promises and therefore turns from their former way of living, confesses the lordship and deity of Jesus, and identifies with Christ through the waters of baptism. On a global level it will begin when Jesus returns. While we don’t know when that will be, Jesus assured us that it will happen when he gave Spiritual Israel its third and last promise: That he will return soon!

3.      He will return soon!

When will that be? Jesus made this promise purposefully ambiguous, because he wants us to live every moment of our lives as though he could return by the time we take our next breath. Anyway this promise deals with the manor of Jesus return, not the schedule of it. In Acts 1:9 after Jesus had given his disciples the great commission; he immediately and unexpectedly ascended into heaven. In the following verse we find the apostles all staring into the sky in amazement. They certainly didn’t expect that to happen! Just then two angles appeared and said “Men of Galilee, why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”

Just as Jesus’ ascension was both rapid and unexpected, so it will at his return. It may happen today. It may happen in 1000 years. But I can grantee you this, when he does return it will happen so soon that he will catch the world off guard. There will be no time to prepare. Therefore, since return is both imminent and immediate, we will do well to live our lives in constant preparation of its occurrence.

God made 6 promises between Ethnic and Spiritual Israel. 5 of those 6 he has already honored. Judging from his track record this 6th and final promise is sure to be fulfilled as well.

Like Ethnic Israel God not only given Spiritual Israel three promises, he has also given us one purpose.

                                                            iii.      Given one purpose

However, unlike ethnic Israel God didn’t give us our promises in order that we could fulfill our purpose. Rather, he gave us our purpose because he has and is sure to fulfill his promises. And what is God’s Purpose of Spiritual Israel? It is nothing less than to proclaim the salvation of Jesus, both at home and abroad.

1.      To proclaim the salvation of Jesus

God made Spiritual Israel Inclusive for a reason. If God had his way every person would be a member of Spiritual Israel. This is why the scripture clearly states that God does not desire any to perish but rather for everyone to enjoy eternal life. You see, God loves people. He made us; he provides for us, he is patient with us, even those of us who hurt him and reject him. But God will not force anyone into his kingdom. He wants you to be a part of Spiritual Israel so badly that he was willing to trade his own son’s life for the possibility that you might join. But if you refuse, God, with great grief, will respect your decision.

For those of us who have accepted God’s gracious invitation, we cannot sit idle safely inside the walls of spiritual Israel. Especially while those whom God loves are dying on the outside. We are compelled by our love for God and our gratitude for what he had done for us to go out into the dangerous world and offer those on the outside God’s personal invitation to receive eternal life.

A forth trait of Spiritual Israel is that its members understand that we are made right before God not on the basis of law through works, but rather on the basis of grace through faith.

                                                           iv.      Understand that we are made right before God by grace through faith.

Paul explained it this way:

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.

Ephesians 2:8-9 (NIV)

Unlike Ethnic Israel we who are in Spiritual Israel are not entitled to receive our promises and purpose from God based upon our good fortune of being born into the right family. Rather we recognize that we were in no way entitled to receive our position. God gave it to us, because we could never earn it on our own. We humbly recognize that he graciously treats us as his very own sons and daughters and all we can do is accept that treatment through faith.

After Paul had clearly differentiated between Ethnic and Spiritual Israel, he uses an interesting word picture to illustrate how the two are related. The word picture Paul employs is a cultivated olive tree. And since it is a tree which illustrates relations I thought it fitting to look at it as our spiritual family tree.

II.                 Our Family Tree

This is Paul’s illustration:

If some of the branches have been broken off, and you, though a wild olive shoot, have been grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing sap from the olive root, do not boast over those branches. If you do, consider this: You do not support the root, but the root supports you. You will say then, “Branches were broken off so that I could be grafted in.” Granted. But they were broken off because of unbelief, and you stand by faith. Do not be arrogant, but be afraid. For if God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either.

Consider therefore the kindness and sternness of God: sternness to those who fell, but kindness to you, provided that you continue in his kindness. Otherwise, you also will be cut off. And if they do not persist in unbelief, they will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again. After all, if you were cut out of an olive tree that is wild by nature, and contrary to nature were grafted into a cultivated olive tree, how much more readily will these, the natural branches, be grafted into their own olive tree! Romans 11:17-24(NIV)

            Isn’t that a great illustration?! Of course it is, it’s inspired. Unfortunately it can also be somewhat confusing to our modern mindset. Therefore we will take a closer look at Paul’s tree in order to gain a firm grasp on the truth it represents. As you can tell this illustration is rich in symbolism and metaphor. The key to understanding it is to recognize meanings behind the symbols and metaphors.

            The first is really easy. God is clearly the gardener.  

a.       God is the gardener.

God is the one who shapes and cares for the tree. He prunes it, he removes dead branches, he even grafts in new ones. While he seems to be surrounded by wild olive trees, he chose one to cultivate. That was his prerogative. He is in charge of the tree, and he working hard to make sure that it is healthy and thriving.

Next we will notice that patriarchs are the roots.

b.      The patriarchs are the roots.

These are our forefathers of faith. They are the ones who first secured their spot in God’s kingdom through their faith in his promises. Their faith stands as an anchor which both supports and feeds the faith of the many who built upon their example.

Next we notice that Spiritual Israel is the tree.

c.       Spiritual Israel is the tree

God’s great work throughout all of history (through both the old and new testament) is seen through his cultivation and care of Spiritual Israel.

Well if Spiritual Israel is the tree than what is Ethnic Israel? The Ethnic Israelites are the Branches. 

d.      Ethnic Israelites are the branches

Notice that originally Spiritual Israel and Ethnic Israel were the same. The Israelites had all the advantages. Theirs were the scriptures, the prophets, the miracles, and the promises. They had everything going for them. Because of this it would be natural for them to place their faith in the God who had chosen them and had proven himself to them.

While the Ethnic Israelites are the natural branches, everyone else are the wild olive trees. 

e.       Those who are not Ethnic Israel (gentiles) are the wild olive trees.

Gentile cultures have not been specifically shaped and molded by God. Our ancestors didn’t receive the inspiration of scripture. They didn’t have the benefit of the prophets or the promises of the Old Testament. They didn’t even know to look for a coming savior. They were not cultivated by God, but neither were they forgotten.

As we turn our attention back to the cultivated tree we notice that God has been busy pruning. Who are the branches that have been cut off? Well if the natural branches are Ethnic Israel than the severed branches are those in Ethnic Israel who went against nature and chose not to believe.

f.        Unbelieving Ethnic Israelites are the severed branches.

Their lack of faith choked them off from the nourishing sap of salvation. Though they may have looked like they were part of the tree, in reality they were only deadweight and a hindrance to new growth. Therefore God cut them off.  

In their place God grafted in branches he cut off from the wild olive trees. These branches are the Gentile believers.

g.       Gentile believers are the grafted-in branches.

This was God’s plan from the beginning. He had planted the tree, he had watered the tree, he had nourished and cultivated the tree, and when the time was right he sent his son to make it possible for anyone to be added to the tree.

The tree is a beautiful masterpiece. It is the finished product of all of God’s work. It is icon of icon of grace, and faith, and life. It is our heritage. It is Spiritual Israel, but we know it as the church.

h.       The Church is God’s finished product.

So now that we understand the differences as well as the relationship between Ethnic and Spiritual Israel, what are the lessons we can learn from the tree?

III.               Lessons from the tree

The first lesson we learn is about Spiritual Israel in relation to the Jews, the Gentiles, and to Jesus.

a.       Israel in relation to: Jews, Gentiles, and Jesus.

Ethnic Israel’s relationship to Spiritual Israel is sad. We can see that even though God had provided them with every opportunity most Jews rejected Israel-that is the church.

                                                               i.      Most Jews rejected Israel

However, there has always been a small percentage of Ethnic Israelites who have never forfeited their natural place in Spiritual Israel. This who Paul is talking about when he writes:

Isaiah cries out concerning Israel: “Though the number of the Israelites be like the sand by the sea, only the remnant will be saved. Romans 9:27

            The second lesson the tree teaches us is that while most Jews rejected Israel some Gentiles accepted Israel.

                                                             ii.      Some Gentiles accepted Israel

This is what Paul is explaining when he quotes the Prophet Isaiah, writing:

And Isaiah boldly says, “I was found by those who did not seek me; I revealed myself to those who did not ask for me.” Romans 10:20 (NIV)

            The tree also teaches us that while most Jews rejected Israel, and some Gentiles accepted Israel, It is Jesus who perfected Israel.

                                                            iii.      Jesus perfected Israel

If Jesus had not come, and if he had not lived a perfect life, and if he had not died to pay the penalty for our sins then God wouldn’t have fulfilled his promises or his purposes for either Israel.  But, because Jesus came, and lived a perfect life, paid the price for our sins, and rose again to prove his deity, Jesus fulfilled the promises and gave purpose to both Israels. This is why I believe Paul writes:

And so all Israel will be saved, as it is written: “The deliverer will come from Zion; he will turn godlessness away from Jacob. And this is my covenant with them when I take away their sins.” Romans 11:26-27

Therefore what did we gain by looking into these passages? Well the first thing is that the Church is not a new creation, but rather the fulfillment and the result of God’s work.

b.      The Church is not a new creation but rather the fulfillment of God’s promises and the result of his work.

            We are not just a great parenthesis in God’s plan. Rather we are both his goal throughout all of history, and the result of his mighty and faithful work. We are what history has longed for but feared was impossible. But nothing is impossible with God. There is a theme that ties all of history together—that insuperably links the OT and the NT. The theme of history is God’s salvation and the link is Spiritual Israel. We are the proof of his love, his faithfulness, his grace, and his competence. We are Spiritual Israel…We are his Church!

            And as the Church we learn that we are not only the recipient of his favor, but we are also the agents of his grace.

c.       The church is not only the recipient of God’s favor, but it is also the agent of his grace.

            Last week we discussed what that looks like, this week we talked about what that means, and next week we will discover why it is possible. But now that we know who we are in Christ and the incredible privilege he has lavished upon us I challenge us to go into our families, our jobs, our communities, and actively fulfill the very purpose for our existence—to live and proclaim the grace of God through salvation of Jesus. In this family tree there is always room for more branches!

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