Skip to main content

Why Foreign Missions? 25: The Narrative of Israel and the Mission of the Church According to Paul

Why Foreign Missions? 25: The Narrative of Israel and the Mission of the Church According to Paul[1]

I. Introduction

On three occasions Paul insists that 'whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope' (Rom. 15.4, RSV).  By this hermeneutic Paul applies Ps. 69.9, 'The reproaches of those reproaching you fell on me', both to Christ and to believers in general.  We find the same point in a second Pauline text, 1 Cor. 10.11: 'Now these things happened to them as a warning, but they were written down for our instruction, upon whom the end of the ages has come'.  This comment drives home to the Corinthian church the story of Israel's wandering in the wilderness.  Paul describes the Israelites as 'our fathers' (v. 1) and compares their baptism into Moses in the cloud and in the sea to the Corinthians' baptism, their eating spiritual food and drinking spiritual drink to their Lord's table.  Paul's point is that the Israelites had a form of what the believers in Corinth now have, and therefore the latter should beware and not repeat the Israelites' idolatry through their eating food sacrificed to idols in the Temple.  In a third text, Paul argues that the command not to muzzle the ox while it treads the grain (Deut. 25.4)—a law for the Israelites—was written 'for our sake' (1 Cor. 9.10)—Jews and Gentiles in the Church.
To such explicit statements about the relevance of the narrative of Israel for the Church might be added numerous other texts that show a continuity between the Old Testament and the Gospel.  More particularly, I would like to examine how Paul saw the narrative of Israel with respect to the mission of the Church.  To accomplish this, I propose that we look at the following topics:

*A fundamental hermeneutical distinction for Paul in a 'literal' and a 'spiritual' dichotomy, applied to Israel;
*The relationship between the community of Israel and that of the Church;
*The call of Israel and the mission of the Church;
*An application: the obedience of faith as the mode of existence for believers

II. A Fundamental Hermeneutical Distinction for Paul in a 'Literal' and a 'Spiritual' Dichotomy, Applied to Israel

Paul uses words like 'Jew', 'Israel', and 'circumcision' in two ways, consistent with the prophetic challenge to Israel to be spiritually pure and not rest in legal purity, ethnic identity, or covenantal security (cf., e.g., Is. 58; Jer. 7).  Thus, for example, we see a literal use of 'Jew' and 'Greek' in Rom. 1.16 and 2.9f but a spiritual redefinition for the term 'Jew' in Rom. 2.28f:

For a person is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical.  Rather, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart-- it is spiritual and not literal. Such a person receives praise not from others but from God.

Similarly, in Rom. 9-11, Paul argues that not every Israelite is an Israelite: 'it is not as though the word of God had failed. For not all Israelites truly belong to Israel, and not all of Abraham's children are his true descendants...' (Rom. 9.6-7a, NRSV).

This 'literal/spiritual' distinction is a fundamental hermeneutic in Paul's theology and ethics.  (1) On three occasions, Paul distinguishes between the 'letter' and the 'Spirit': there are two types of Jews (Rom. 2.29), two types of service (by the Law or by the Spirit, 7.6), and two types of covenant (Moses or the new covenant, 2 Cor. 3.6).  (2) Paul knew this distinction within his own experience, contrasting his former way of life, resting in ethnic identity, zealous activity, and legal righteousness as a Jew to his new life and ministry as one in Christ (Phl. 3.2-10).  (3) The same distinction accounts for Paul's understanding of two spheres of existence, one which is in the flesh, sin, and the Law, resulting in death, and one which is in Christ, righteousness, the Spirit, and resulting in life.  (4) This basic dichotomy explains Paul's various anthropological terms, which are not attempts to offer a human psychology with finely distinguished terms for personality but refer to 'outward' and 'inward' forms of human existence (e.g., old and new person, flesh and S/spirit, psychical and spiritual).  (5) The distinction is also captured in Paul's Jewish understanding of 'two ages', which overlap since Christ's death and resurrection.

This fundamental distinction seems to involve a simple contrast between Israel and the church. (Cf. Betz, noted in Witherington).  Paul does work with such a distinction in his arguments on occasion.  In Galatians, Paul speaks of two time periods: 'before faith came, we were confined under the law...' (3.23), and 'when the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son...' (4.4).  In 2 Cor. 3, Paul distinguishes the Mosaic covenant and the new covenant of the Spirit in terms of a 'service of death' and a 'service of the Spirit'.  And in Phl. 3, Paul speaks of his once putting confidence in the flesh and now worshipping God in Spirit (cf. v. 3).

However, Paul does not believe that the old covenant contrasts so completely with the new, as if we have two divinely ordained economies such as Communism and Capitalism, one replacing the other because the first failed and the second more or less works for most of us. Let us rather note that the distinction is more basic than Israel versus the Church in two ways.  First, Paul contrasts the first man, Adam, with the second Adam, Christ.  Rom. 5 distinguishes the first and second Adams with respect to salvation, 1 Cor. 15 with respect to the body and resurrection.  While there is certainly a temporal element to the argument (Adam, then Christ), Paul's point is equally or perhaps even more that there are two modes of existence.  The temporal aspect of the argument is significant in that it is only through the work of Christ that the second mode of existence is truly possible.

The second way in which we can see that Paul's distinction between the literal and the spiritual is more than a distinction between Israel and the Church is from Paul's concern to show his readers that the Law, which puts such emphasis on the literal, actually offers both possibilities.  This is a crucial part of his argument in Galatians and Romans, for he needs to establish his argument on his opponents' terms in order to convince them.  His Jewish Christian opponents are arguing that Christians of all sorts, Jews and Gentiles, need to follow the Law in its outward rules and regulations, such as circumcision, food laws, and observing special days (Gal. 2.12; 4.10; 6.12-15; Rom. 2.25-29; 14-15).  Thus Paul insists that his argument can be established from the Law itself, as we note from the following texts:

*Tell me, you who desire to be subject to the law, will you not listen to the law?  For it is written that Abraham had two sons... (Gal. 4.21-22a).

*God is one (as the Shema, Deut. 6.4, tells us), and therefore He is God of both Jews and Gentiles, and therefore He will justify both in the same way, i.e., by faith (Rom. 3.29f).  Paul concludes this line of argument: 'Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.'  (So also Rom. 10.12.)

If the 'literal' versus the 'S/spiritual' distinction can be found within the Law, it follows that the distinction can be found within the narrative of Israel as well.  In Galatians 4.22-31, Paul makes this point from the narrative of Abraham.  On the one hand, there are the slave children (Ishmael), born of the flesh (Abraham and Hagar) and living under the Sinai covenant, represented by Jerusalem.  On the other hand, there are the free children (Isaac), born of the promise (Abraham and Sarah), represented by the Galatian Christians.

In Romans 9.30-10.21, Paul makes this point from the narrative of Israel per se.  Here again the distinction existed within the narrative itself, not only in temporal sequence of Israel and now the church.  Paul takes care to demonstrate that the option of the Law versus faith was offered to the Israelites within the Law, using first Lev. 18.5 and then three quotations from Deut. 30.12, 13, and 14:

             Moses writes concerning the righteousness that comes from the law, that "the person who does these things will live by them." (Lev. 18.5)  But the righteousness that comes from faith says, "Do not say in your heart, 'Who will ascend into heaven?'" (that is, to bring Christ down) "or 'Who will descend into the abyss?'" (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead).  But what does it say?  "The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart" (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. (Rom. 10.5-9, NRSV).

III. The Relationship Between the Community of Israel and That of the Church

On the relationship between Israel and the Church, consider the following points (following James D. G. Dunn).

A. LXX uses evkklhsi,a (assembly) of Israel's assembly before God (e.g., Deuteronomy 9:10 'And the LORD gave me the two stone tablets written with the finger of God; on them were all the words that the LORD had spoken to you at the mountain out of the fire on the day of the assembly.')

a. James D. G. Dunn makes the point that the New Testament 'church' is an intentional extension of the OT notion of 'assembly of God' to the church: `Ekklhsi,a translates 'qahal' about 100 times in the LXX, and 'qahal' is often the 'assembly of Yahweh or of Israel'.[2]

B.  'Community without a Cult' (so J. D. G. Dunn, The Theology of Paul):

1. . Dunn points out how Paul applies certain terms used of Israel in the OT to Christians in his argument in Romans, and this is one reason why Rom. 9-11 is so important: to address the question about what happens to ethnic Israel in his theology.  Note the following terms:

a. Rom. 8.27-33 (the close and climax of the argument about salvation)[3]

*saints (8.27)
*those who love God (8.28)
*the called (8.28)
*the elect of God (8.23)

b. Rom. 12.1-2 uses OT language of believers:[4]

Romans 12:1 I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.  Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God-- what is good and acceptable and perfect (NRSV).

1. Parista,nai qusi,a: technical language used in Gr. literature and inscriptions for sacrifice[5]
2. Qusi,an: standard term for sacrifice
3. Latrei,a: 8 of 9 uses in the LXX refer to Jewish cultic worship

c. 'The Temple of God' refers to believers:

1. 1 Cor. 3.16-17: 'you are God's temple'
2. 1 Cor. 6.19: 'your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit'
3. 2 Cor. 6.16: 'we are the temple of the living God'
4. Gal. 2.9, perhaps: 'pillars' used of three Jerusalem apostles

d. 'Access' (prosagwgh,) to grace in Rom. 5.2 likewise captures the notion of transcending the need for the Jerusalem Temple in one's relation to God[6]

e. 'Priesthood'[7]

1. Rom. 15.16: Paul is a leitourgo,j (minister—with accountability to God) of Christ Jesus for the Gentiles, serving the Gospel of God as a i`erourgou/nta (priest) that the prosfora, (offering) of the Gentiles might be euvpro,sdektoj (acceptable), h`giasme,nh (sanctified) by the Holy Spirit.
2. Epaphroditus is a leitourgo,j (minister) (Phl. 2.25)
3. The collection for the poor in Jerusalem is an act of leitourgei/n [service] (Rom. 15.27)

2. Dunn interprets the above data in Paul, along with Paul's doing away with the old distinction of 'Clean/Unclean' (Rom. 14.14, 20), to show that 'Paul in effect transforms the holy place into the marketplace.  He 'secularizes' the sanctuary by sanctifying the business of every day.’[8]

3. Dunn is to some extent correct to say that Paul sanctifies the business of every day in that he repeatedly resists Christian theology which wants to find a sphere of existence outside the Lordship of Christ: going to pagan Temples (1 Cor. 8-10; 2 Cor. 6.14-7.1), going to prostitutes (1 Cor. 6.13-18), ceasing from intercourse within a marriage or even from marriage itself and thinking that one must change one's identity as a slave or woman (1 Cor. 7.1ff; 11.2-16), distinguishing between clean and unclean foods (Rom. 14.1-15.6) are all resisted because they fail to find Christ's Lordship in every aspect of life.  In this sense, Paul 'sanctifies the business of everyday life.'

4. Yet Dunn's comment overshadows Paul's important point that believers have a calling that is not the same as their everyday work.  Ministry is something for all believers, for his band of apostolic ministers and for every believer, in the way they live in obedience to God's will (Rom. 12.1f).

IV. The Call of Israel and the Mission of the Church

The calling of Israel begins with the calling of Abraham.  If Adam is the classic story of breaking God's Law, Abraham is the classic story of obtaining righteousness by God's grace through faith.  At least, this is how Paul reads the story of Abraham.  Abraham's faith is the type of response to God's grace which has been the only appropriate response to God in all ages.  He responded in faith to God's announcement of His covenant with Abraham and his offspring (Gen. 15.6; quoted in Rom. 4.3, 9; Gal. 3.6).  Paul notes specific evidence from the narrative of Abraham in Genesis that he had faith (Rom. 4.18-23: his own old age and Sarah's barrenness).  Of particular importance to Paul in a reading of the narrative is the time sequence: faith preceded Law, whether with respect to Abraham preceding the Mosaic Law by 430 years (Gal. 3.17) or Abraham's believing God in Gen. 15 preceding his circumcision (i.e., works or Law) in Gen. 17 (Rom. 4.9-12).  This time sequence establishes three important matters in Paul's theology: (1) that faith, not works or Law,[9] leads to righteousness (cf. Gal. 3.9); (2) that Abraham is the father not only of Israel but also of all nations (both points are made in Rom. 4.9-12 and 4.16-17; also Gal. 3.7)[10]; and (3) that God justifies the ungodly, that is, righteousness comes through His grace (Rom. 4.1-5).

Paul further uses the Abraham story to insist that the covenantal promise to Abraham's offspring had to come through Christ: Gen. 12.7 says that the promise is for Abraham's 'seed', not 'seeds' (Gal. 3.16).  If this is so, then the promise comes not to the children of Abraham according to the flesh but to his children who are in Christ (3.29).  One may wish to object that Paul's argument depends on a rather strained reading of the singular 'seed', which is after all a corporate term.  Yet Paul has a significant point from a narrative perspective, which he brings up in Gal. 4.21ff: Abraham had two 'seeds', Isaac and Ishmael, but the promise came to and only through Isaac, not Ishmael.  Paul identifies the heir of the promise as Christ, who is a type of Isaac in that both are associated with the 'promise' of the covenant with Abraham.  Isaac is the son of the free woman through promise (Gal. 4.23), and Christ brings the Law to an end and establishes the covenant of promise given to Abraham (Gal. 3.23f, 29).  By this reasoning, Paul further explicitly relates Isaac to those (in Christ) who are now 'children of promise' (Gal. 4.28).

Yet the Law also played a role in the Abraham story, first in that Abraham was circumcised (Gen. 17) and second in that Abraham unsuccessfully attempted to produce an heir according to the flesh and not according to the promise.  This latter story, that of Hagar and Ishmael, came to represent the failure of Law to reach the goal of righteousness for Paul, and so he saw Sarah as the covenant of promise with the goal of Isaac the free child and heir on the one hand and Hagar as the covenant of Law with the goal of Ishmael the slave child on the other hand.[11]

N. T. Wright argues that a number of Biblical and later Jewish texts identify Adam not only with all humanity but also with Israel as Adam's true heir (Jub. 2.23; 3.30f; 15.27; 16.26; 19.23-31; 22.11-13; T. Lev. 18.10; 1 En. 90.19, 30, 37ff; Wisd. Sol. 2.23f; 3.8; 4 Ez. 3.4-36; 6.53-59; 9.17ff; 2 Bar. 14.17-19; 1QLitPr. 2.3-6; 4QPs.37 3.1f): Israel represents true humanity.[12]   This interpretation already begins in Genesis, with Abraham fulfilling the role originally assigned to Adam (cf., e.g., Gen. 1.28 and 17.2, 6, 8).  It continues in prophetic literature with the depiction of restored Israel as a new creation (Jer. 3.16; 23.3; Ezek. 36.11; Zech. 10.8; Dn. 7).  Also, there are occasional identifications of the king with the people (e.g., 2 Sam. 5.1-3; 19.41-20.2; Is. 55), which opens up the possibility of a messianic figure representing true Israel, which, in turn, represents true humanity.  According to Wright, this is the very step Paul took in his Adam christology: Jesus as the last Adam represents those in him, who in turn represent the true humanity of the new creation (1 Cor. 15; Rom. 5.12ff).

Having established that the path of faith was offered to Israel in Abraham and then again as they entered Canaan (Deut. 30, quoted in Rom. 10.5-9), Paul can insist that even though there is some sense in which the church replaces Israel or the Gentiles replace the Jews, this is not really the true story of salvation history.  Instead, as we have seen, the church is continuous with the 'qahal YHWH,' the assembly of God of the Old Testament, and the Gentiles are grafted into the olive tree or Israel rather than being a new planting or a new tree replacing a dead one.  Thus the future status of the Jews, of the people of Israel, remains an open question.  What is clear from Paul's argument throughout Galatians and Romans is that only the Israel of faith receives God's salvation.  What is unclear is whether literal Israel will someday come to faith.

Some, such as N. T. Wright, have argued that Rom. 11.25f does not claim that literal Israel will come to faith.  Others, such as James Dunn and Douglas Moo, argue that in these verses Paul reveals the mystery which was revealed to him that the literal Israel will come to faith in the future.

It would not, of course, be any great mystery to learn at this point that a spiritual Israel established through faith would be saved.  Nor does what Paul says in Rom. 11.28-31 seem to leave open the possibility that we should understand Rom. 11.25f to speak of a 'spiritual Israel'.  Whatever 'all Israel' means in v. 26, it must not be equated with the mostly Gentile church.  Rom.11.25 and 28-31 suggest that it refers to completed Israel, made up of Jews and Gentiles together.  The mystery to which Paul refers in v. 25 is explained prior to v. 26: 'thus' means 'in this manner'.  The manner in which 'all Israel' comes to salvation is through a narrative of the hardening of literal Israel, an entrance of the full number of Gentiles, and then, according to v. 31, mercy for literal Israel once again.

This understanding is affirmed theologically in v. 32: 'For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.'  Thus, if Israel is now hardened, if it has been severed from God's olive tree while the Gentiles have been grafted in, then Israel has become like the Gentiles once were, disobedient and therefore the object of God's mercy.  They will, therefore, receive God's mercy once again.  Only so can Paul break into doxology in the next verse about the depths and the riches and the wisdom of God.

This understanding is also consistent with certain prophetic passages about the future of Israel:[13]

Psa 22.27 All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD; and all the families of the nations shall worship before him.  28 For dominion belongs to the LORD, and he rules over the nations. 29 To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down; before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, and I shall live for him. 30 Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord,  31 and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that he has done it.

Psa 86.9 All the nations you have made shall come and bow down before you, O Lord, and shall glorify your name.

Isa. 2.2 In days to come the mountain of the LORD's house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. 3 Many peoples shall come and say, "Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths." For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.

Isa. 25.6 On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.  7 And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; 8 he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the LORD has spoken.

Isa. 56.3 Do not let the foreigner joined to the LORD say, "The LORD will surely separate me from his people"; and do not let the eunuch say, "I am just a dry tree." 4 For thus says the LORD: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, 5 I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off. 6 And the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants, all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant-- 7 these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. 8 Thus says the Lord GOD, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered.

Isa. 66. 18 For I know their works and their thoughts, and I am coming to gather all nations and tongues; and they shall come and shall see my glory, 19 and I will set a sign among them. From them I will send survivors to the nations, to Tarshish, Put, and Lud-- which draw the bow-- to Tubal and Javan, to the coastlands far away that have not heard of my fame or seen my glory; and they shall declare my glory among the nations. 20 They shall bring all your kindred from all the nations as an offering to the LORD, on horses, and in chariots, and in litters, and on mules, and on dromedaries, to my holy mountain Jerusalem, says the LORD, just as the Israelites bring a grain offering in a clean vessel to the house of the LORD. 21 And I will also take some of them as priests and as Levites, says the LORD. 22 For as the new heavens and the new earth, which I will make, shall remain before me, says the LORD; so shall your descendants and your name remain. 23 From new moon to new moon, and from sabbath to sabbath, all flesh shall come to worship before me, says the LORD.

Mic. 4.1 In days to come the mountain of the LORD's house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised up above the hills. Peoples shall stream to it, 2 and many nations shall come and say: "Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths." For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.

Zeph. 3.8 Therefore wait for me, says the LORD, for the day when I arise as a witness. For my decision is to gather nations, to assemble kingdoms, to pour out upon them my indignation, all the heat of my anger; for in the fire of my passion all the earth shall be consumed. 9 At that time I will change the speech of the peoples to a pure speech, that all of them may call on the name of the LORD and serve him with one accord.  10 From beyond the rivers of Ethiopia my suppliants, my scattered ones, shall bring my offering.  11 On that day you shall not be put to shame because of all the deeds by which you have rebelled against me; for then I will remove from your midst your proudly exultant ones, and you shall no longer be haughty in my holy mountain.

Zech. 2.10 Sing and rejoice, O daughter Zion! For lo, I will come and dwell in your midst, says the LORD. 11 Many nations shall join themselves to the LORD on that day, and shall be my people; and I will dwell in your midst. And you shall know that the LORD of hosts has sent me to you. 12 The LORD will inherit Judah as his portion in the holy land, and will again choose Jerusalem.

Zec 14.16 Then all who survive of the nations that have come against Jerusalem shall go up year after year to worship the King, the LORD of hosts, and to keep the festival of booths. 17 If any of the families of the earth do not go up to Jerusalem to worship the King, the LORD of hosts, there will be no rain upon them.

Psalms of Solomon 17.34 ku,rioj auvto.j basileu.j auvtou/ evlpi.j tou/ dunatou/ evlpi,di qeou/ kai. evleh,sei pa,nta ta. e;qnh evnw,pion auvtou/ evn fo,bw| 
The Lord himself is his (Christ's) king... and he will show mercy to all the nations (gathered) before him in reverence.

Sibylline Oracles 3.702-4, 710-20 But the sons of the great God will all live peacefully around the Temple, rejoicing in these things which the Creator, just judge and sole ruler, will give....And then all islands and cities will say, 'How much the Immortal loves those men! for everything fights on their side and helps them, heaven, divinely driven sun and moon' (but the all-bearing earth will be shaken in those days).  They will bring forth from their mouths a delightful utterance in hymns, 'Come, let us all fall on the ground and entreat the immortal king, the great eternal God.  Let us send to the Temple, since he alone is sovereign and let us all ponder the Law of the Most High God, who is the most righteous of all throughout the earth.

Sibylline Oracles 3.772-75 From every land they [those God raises up as a kingdom for all ages among men, lines 767f] will bring incense and gifts to the house of the great God.  There will be no other house among men, even for future generations to know, except the one which God gave to faithful men to honor (for mortals will invoke the son of the great God).

Such passages demonstrate a future hope for the Gentiles in God's salvation.  But they also demonstrate a connection between the restoration of Israel after captivity for their sins and the blessing of God extended to the Gentiles.  So it is significant that Paul does not leave his argument in Rom. 9-11 with what he says in 9.1-29: (1) that 'Israel' is divided between a true remnant and others who are descendants of Abraham only in terms of the flesh; (2) that God has mercy on whomever He wills and He hardens the heart of whomever He wills.  If this were Paul's argument, we would rightly conclude that the church has replaced Israel.  But Rom. 11 retains the connection in the OT passages between a restoration of Israel and the Gentiles' entering into God's salvation.  Thus Paul retains the possibility that Israel will be grafted back into the olive tree (11.24).  Israel's situation is an ongoing captivity among the nations.  While this is indeed due to Israel's sinfulness, this 'hardening' serves the divine purpose of bringing the Gentiles into God's salvation plan. 'All Israel,' in v. 26, must mean that all true Israel will be saved through the process of exclusion of Israel so that the full number of the Gentiles might come in: it is the remnant of Israel and the believing Gentiles.  So understood, it is not a future prediction but a statement of the manner in which God works salvation for Israel, believing Jews and Gentiles.

But the next two verses quote from prophetic texts that speak of the restoration of Israel from captivity (Rom. 11.26f quoting Is. 59.20f and Jer. 31.33 (cf. Is. 27.9)).  God's faithfulness towards Israel will not fail in the end: they will be restored from their captivity or hardening towards the Gospel.  This major theme from the prophets must be what Paul has in mind when he holds out a future hope for Israel: 'so they have now been disobedient in order that by the mercy shown to you they also may receive mercy' (Rom. 11.31).  Behind this construal of passages related to the restoration of Israel is Paul's theological convictions that what has been consigned to disobedience becomes the object of God's mercy and that all (first Gentiles, then Jews) have been so consigned to disobedience so that God may have mercy on all (Rom. 11.32).

While hope still remains for literal Israel, the spiritual Israel continues to fulfill its calling in the world to be righteous through faith, just as Abraham their father.  Paul does not accommodate his theology to the realities of Christians engaged in a struggle with sin so much as proclaims to them the new creation now possible for them in Christ.  Israel's calling to be righteous among the nations stands, now as the mission of the Church.  While for Paul and his cohorts the mission involves proclamation of the Gospel to the Gentiles, establishing and nurturing churches, for the believers in the Church the focus of mission remains consistent with Israel's calling: to be God's righteous community in the world.

V. An Application: The Obedience of Faith as the Mode of Existence for Believers

In reading Romans 1-11, one becomes aware that 'faith' is the human entry point into God's gracious gift of righteousness.  One becomes so clear on this point that it comes as a bit of a surprise that Paul continues to use the word in the ethical section of Romans, in Rom. 12.1-15.6.  But this should not be a surprise, for the opposite of 'faith' is 'works'.  Nevertheless, the key to understanding 'faith' as a virtue in Rom. 12-15 is that it represents the virtue for what is spiritual as opposed to what is literal and of the flesh.  The aim of Paul's mission is to produce an obedience among the Gentiles, but that obedience is typified not by works but by faith.  This faith involves both the believing response to God's gracious work of righteousness through Jesus Christ and the obedient life of righteousness in Christ and worked by the Holy Spirit.[14]  Three key passages in Romans make this clear:

*'through (Christ) we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the                               obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations' (1.5, RSV)
*...'because of the grace given me by God to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit' (15.15b-16, RSV)
*'Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery which was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed and through the prophetic writings is made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith....' (Rom. 16.25-26, RSV)

Thus God measures to each believer a measure of faith (Rom. 12.3) to characterize his new service in Christ, that is, righteousness.

In discussing the strong and the weak in faith (Rom. 14.1-15.6), Paul allows for different attitudes towards Jewish and Gentile Christian practices with respect to food, observance of special days, and drinking wine.  One might have thought that the argument in the preceding chapters of Romans would have led him to attack the 'weak' for their lack of faith and their continued practice of special laws.  This would certainly be expected if James Dunn were correct in arguing that the problem Paul has with the Law is that only those laws which distinguish Jews from Gentiles are in Paul's mind.  But Paul allows these practices to stand in Rom. 14.1-15.6.  Instead, Paul argues that the weak and the strong must 'welcome' one another as Christ has welcomed them (14.1; 15.7).

How is it that Paul lets the position of the weak stand within the church?  The answer is repeated in ch. 14 several times: each acts out of honour of the Lord, living for Him.  Thus 'he who has doubts is condemned, if he eats, because he does not act from faith; for whatever does not proceed from faith is sin' (Rom. 14.23, RSV).  What saves the weak is the fact that they pursue their legal righteousness not in order to secure their salvation but in order to please God.  In this regard, they act out of faith, not works.  Once the strong recognise this, they will find it easier to welcome the weak and even avoid putting a stumbling block in the path of those of a weak faith (14.13ff).  Peace and mutual upbuilding rather than correctness about such matters is what should guide believers (14.19), and in all this the example of Christ guides the believers.  He did not please himself (15.3), and he has welcomed Jews and Gentiles (15.7-12).

VI. Conclusion

In summary, we have seen how Paul applies a fundamental hermeneutic of 'literal' and 'spiritual' in his theology and ethics to Israel and the Church.  In this way he identifies the calling of Israel with the Church's calling today, albeit without erasing literal Israel from God's plan of election.  The Gentiles are brought into this identity and calling, which is to live the righteousness of their father in the faith, Abraham, in a wicked and ungodly world.  This is the 'obedience of faith' among the Gentiles toward which Paul labours as an apostle.  This is the mission of Church.

In following this line of thought in Romans, Paul drives home an important point for that community, which was facing significant struggles between Gentile and Jewish Christians in the late 50's.  Paul argues that Gentile and Jewish Christians, the strong and the weak of faith, need to welcome each other as people of faith whom Christ has welcomed.  Paul does not insist that Jewish Christians cease to practice their literal or legal righteousness but that they practice it as a matter of their faith in God, not in order to obtain a righteousness of their own.


The significance of this study for us today is to capture the missionary dimension of ethics for the Church: righteous existence is the Church's calling, just as Israel of old.  The calling of those who have received the mercies of God is to engage in a spiritual sacrifice, of offering their bodies as a living sacrifice, holy, unblemished before God, and being transformed by the renewing of their minds, previously corrupted in sin (Rom. 12.1-2; cf. Rom. 1.28).  The practical outworking of this, as Paul develops his argument in Rom. 12.1-15.6, is to form a community of mutual service, love, and welcoming across the major division of his day, that between Jew and Gentile.

Thus, the narrative of Israel reminds us of a sometimes ignored aspect of missions but one most central for Paul: to be the community of an obedience to God and righteousness by faith in and for the world.

[1] This was originally delivered as ‘Paul and Missions: The Narrative of Israel and the Mission of the Church’ at the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies on 1 August, 2000.
[2] James D. G. Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), pp. 537-8. The LXX translates 'Yahweh' as 'kuri,oj' in these instances, but Paul removes possible confusion for Christians by using 'of God': only in Rom. 16.16 does he use 'churches of Christ.’  On occasion he speaks of the churches of God in Christ Jesus (1 Th. 2.14) or the churches which are in Christ (Gal. 1.22).)  Paul often speaks of the 'church of God': a phrase reminiscent of the OT.
[3] James D. G. Dunn, Theology of Paul, p. 502.
[4] James D. G. Dunn, Theology of Paul, pp. 543-548.
[5] James D. G. Dunn, Theology of Paul, p. 544 and note 59.
[6] James D. G. Dunn, Theology of Paul, pp. 545f.
[7] James D. G. Dunn, Theology of Paul, pp. 546-7.
[8] James D. G. Dunn, Theology of Paul, p. 544.
[9]Paul is speaking of 'works' and 'Law' in the same sense: the problem with the Law in this section of Romans is that it involves doing rather than receiving, making a claim on God for the  reward of righteousness rather than God graciously giving His righteousness.  'Works of Law' (Rom. 3.28) cannot be something different from this; the phrase simply highlights that Law has to do with 'works'.  That is, it is not some aspect of the Law, such as activities required to establish ethnic separateness (food laws, circumcision, keeping of the Sabbath and special days), as Dunn has repeatedly argued.  If Dunn's limited understanding of Paul's problem with the Law were correct, Paul's argument in Rom. 4 about 'works' (in 4.1-12) and 'Law' (in 4.13ff) would not make sense.
[10]Paul argued this point theologically first before introducing the narrative of Abraham in Romans.  In Rom. 3.30f, he argues from the Shema ('God is one') that God is not only the God of the Jews (Rom. 3.29) and makes all righteous in the same way, that is, through faith (Rom. 3.30).  The importance of this argument (and that regarding Abraham) makes the further crucial point that what Paul says on these matters is in fact what the Law itself says (Rom. 3.31).  (The Shema also features in Paul's argument in Gal. 3.20, although in a different way.)
[11]Ben Witherington, III rightly insists that Paul's allegory of Sarah and Hagar in Gen. 4.20ff is about two pathways within Abraham's life.  He further says that it is not about a distinction between the new covenant and the old covenant.  Paul's Narrative Thought World: The Tapestry of Tragedy and Triumph (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994), p. 49.  The first point is well taken and can be argued from other texts in Paul as well (e.g., Rom. 10.5ff).  Gal. 4.21 introduces the allegory with the argument that the Law itself offers two paths: those who wish to follow the Law will find the two options within the Law itself.  The second point need not follow from the first and seems to run counter to the argument in Gal. 3.18-4.20, in which the time sequence of Promise-Law-Fulfilled Promise is an important part of the argument (cf., e.g., Gal. 3.21-26).
[12]N. T. Wright, The Climax of the Covenant: Christ and the Law in Pauline Theology (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1991), pp. 21ff.  The rest of this paragraph is an outline of Wright's argument.
[13] This list is requisitioned from James D. G. Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle, p. 535, n. 10.
[14]That is, Douglas Moo is right to refuse to collapse obedience into faith by taking the genitive as epexegetical, 'the obedience which is faith.' Romans, pp. 51f.  The main reason for not doing so is also the main reason for not translating the phrase as 'obedience which comes from faith': 'dikaiosu,nh' in Romans cannot be taken as purely theological and not also ethical.  Paul's argument in Romans is not simply about 'justification by faith'; it is more about 'righteousness by faith'.  Thus 'obedience of faith' is nothing other than dikaiosu,nh.