So what about those Israelites, the blood descendants of Abraham, God’s chosen people? What went wrong? If the Gospel is the power to save, why didn’t they believe? Why did they reject their own Messiah? They had it all: adoption as sons, the divine glory, the covenants, the Torah, the temple, the promises. They had the patriarchs, the prophets. They were the forerunners of the Christ HImself. These are Jesus’ own blood relatives. And yet they did not believe that Jesus, Y’shua, is the Christ, the promised Seed of Abraham, the Son of God and Savior. What went wrong?
Did the Word of God fail to deliver the goods, fail to work faith, fail to accomplish its purpose? We need to know the answer to that, because if it failed with Israel, God’s own nation and people, how can be we sure that it won’t fail with us?
The apostle Paul anguished over his fellow Israelites. He says, “I wish I could be damned and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, the people of Israel. Paul, aka Saul, was an Israelite’s Israelite, of the tribe of Benjamin, circumcised on the 8th day, trained as a Pharisee under Gamaliel, one of the finest rabbis of Israel. Saul was going places in Israel until that fateful day on the Damascus road when the risen and reigning Lord Jesus Christ struck him blind and laid out different plans for him. Things would never again be the same for Saul. He was God’s man, selected to be the untimely thirteenth apostle, the odd man out who would take the Name of Jesus to the Gentiles. Yet still he agonizes over his fellow Israelites; he’s restless for their salvation, for their coming to repentance and hearing the good news of Jesus.
We can never simply rest in our being saved and not care about anyone else. The church can never rest as a country club of the saved. “I’m saved, to hell with everyone else. No! Salvation is not just about you; it’s about the world. The interesting thing is that Paul was not driven to despair or panic over the unbelief of the Israelites. Instead, he sees yet another example in the pattern of God’s working, how God saves by grace apart from law, how God justifies the sinner through faith and not through works, and how even hard-hearted unbelief in the hands of God works toward His saving will and intent.
Consider the patriarchs. Abraham had two sons. The older son was Abraham’s doing, by his will, his choice, his decisions, by the ordinary laws of nature, conceived with Hagar standing in as the surrogate mother for Sarah. You see, Abraham and Sarah didn’t believe God’s promise that in their old age, childless though they were, they would have a son. They didn’t believe God’s promise, so they took matters into their own hands, and cooked up their own scheme and had a son, Ishmael.
Then God came to Abraham and Sarah, and said, “At this time next year, you’ll have a son,” and Sarah, old enough to be a great-grandmother laughed at the promise of God. Until the year was up, and she gave birth to a son and called his name Itzak, Isaac, which means, “he laughs,” because God always gets the last laugh.
Isaac, the second born son, is the son of the promise, the one who carried the promised Seed, the one who would be the forerunner of Christ. Not the first born, as the law would say, but the second born, the one born of a barren womb, the impossible son, for with God nothing is impossible, and what God does is by grace and not by law.
Isaac married Rebekah, and she conceived twins. Before the twins were born, God told Rebekah, “The older will serve the younger.” From the twin boys, Esau and Jacob, would come two nations – Edom and Israel – and the first-born would serve his younger brother. This was determined by God even before the boys were born, even before they did anything either good or bad, all to underscore and highlight that it is by grace and not by works.
When the boys were born, Esau came out first, and as is typical for twins, he pops out all big and red and hairy. A man’s man who loved to hunt in the wild, favored by his father. And oh how father Jacob loved that wild game that Esau brought home! And then number two son, Jacob, emerged, grabbing onto the heel of his elder brother. A quiet gentle man, who stayed among the tents, it says in Genesis. A mama’s boy who liked to cook, and was pretty good in the kitchen, good enough to persuade his hungry brother to trade his rights as the first-born for a bowl of red stew, sealing the Word of God that had been spoken before they were even born that “the elder would serve the younger.” That wasn’t simply a prediction. God doesn’t just tell what will happen, He causes things to happen by telling it.
When father Isaac was old and his eyes were blind, Jacob and his mother scheme to trick the old man. They put animal skins on Jacob along with the smelly clothes of Esau, and made father Isaac favorite dish, and passing himself off as his older brother tricked the old man into blessing him as the first-born, as he once again grabbed the heel of his brother. And by the time Esau discovered what had happened, it was too late, and with tears he begged his father to bless him, yet all old Isaac could do was to set him in the desolate land of Edom to live by the sword.
“Jacob, I loved and Esau I hated,” God says through the prophet Malachi, looking on the nations Israel and Edom which descended from the twins Jacob and Esau. And here is where a lot of Christians stumble, and think that God favored Jacob and He despised Esau by some arbitrary choice, so that for no good reason except God is sovereign, Jacob is saved and Esau is damned. But that would be to miss the point entirely.
Paul is trying to explain why Israel does not believe; he is not answering the unanswerable question why some are saved and not others. Don’t even try to answer that question, at least in a single breath, you will be wrong. Jacob I loved and Esau I hated is not about election but about selection, God’s preferring the heel-grabbing, scheming, mama’s boy over the big, hairy first-born brother to bear the promised Seed until the fulness of time came with Christ. Why? To imbed in the history of Israel, in the patriarchs, the pattern that God works by grace through faith and not by rules and commandments and regulations and works. That He works through weakness not strength. And the He doesn’t play by anyone’s rules, including His own.
Does that make God unjust, that He doesn’t play by His own rules? Hey, He’s God; He can play by any set of rules He wants, or none at all. Is it unjust that God takes Pharoah’s heart that is hardened against Him, and hardens it even more, because he needs a hard-hearted Pharoah in order to have an exodus, and God says to Pharoah in his willful, prideful, unbelief, “Your my man! I’m going to make an example out of you the world will never forget.” Is that unfair?
God isn’t fair. He’s good and gracious and just and holy. But the one thing He isn’t is far. Isn’t God free to save the world in Christ any way He wants? It’s as silly for us to judge God as it would be for a lump of clay to judge the potter, says Paul. So now think about that analogy form the pottery barn and push it hard. Does a potter intentionally make junk that he intends to smash to pieces? Of course not. It’s a waste of time and clay. Even a pottery student always intends to make a work of art every time the clay goes on on the wheel. Do you think that God makes some people with the intent to destroy them? Of course not! He intends to make a masterpiece of salvation out of every chunk of clay. But if the clay insists on having its own way, and doing its own thing, the divine Potter will find a use for that too.
And so if God takes hard-hearted Pharoah or stubborn, unbelieving Israel, and chooses to make an example of wrath out them, doesn’t He have the right to do so? And if he takes barren Abraham and heel-grabbing Jacob and losers the likes of you and me and makes us examples of His mercy, doesn’t He have the right to do that? So if a chunk of Israel doesn’t want to be Israel and tries to make a commandment-keeping religion out of God’s undeserved kindness, what’s God going to do? Put a gun to their heads and say, “It’s my way or the highway?” No – He simply uses their unbelief and their rejection of Christ to work nothing less than the salvation of the world.
Remember, Paul’s talking about selection not election. It’s about one’s place and purpose in salvation history, not about where one winds up at the close of the cosmic ninth-inning, whether in heaven and another in hell. God pulls off the unthinkable – He uses the unbelief and rejection of the chosen to save the unchosen, the Gentiles! Turn that one over in your fair-minded heads. “I will call them “my people” who are not my people; and I will call her “my loved one” who is not my loved one.”
God saves through the faithful Remnant, the rejected Rock, the stumbling Stone. He saves in a way no one, not even Israel, would ever have conceived – by sending His Son into the world to take up human flesh and die at the hands of His own people as a stand-in sacrifice for the sin of the world. He takes Israel’s rejection and turns it into His acceptance. That’s grace, undeserved kindness!
That’s the grace came to you in your Baptism, and what comes to you in the Supper. Undeserved kindness in Jesus. You, having no right to be God’s people, are declared by God to be His people, His Israel. You, sinners though you are, are declared by God to be justified, making an example out of you for the whole world to see. You, deserving nothing but wrath and punishment for your sins, are the recipients of God’s mercy in Jesus.
Israel missed it and tripped over it. Learn from that, and don’t make the same mistake. They chased after a righteousness of the law based on their commandment-keeping, insisting that God play by the rules. And so they tripped over the not-so-obvious stumbling Stone – Jesus, and His death and resurrection, and a righteousness that is by faith in Him.
What went wrong with Israel? Nothing. Nothing that hasn’t been answered and atoned for and made good in Jesus.
In the name of Jesus,