An Evening Prayer homily on Romans 11:25-36 with Jeremiah 31:31-37, at Grace Anglican Mission Station, Athol, on Wednesday 19 June 2013
It’s one of the oldest questions a Christian can ask: “how does the Old Testament apply to us today?” The Early Church was pretty confident and consistent in its answer: Israel has become the Church in the New Testament, and therefore her scriptures become our scriptures. One of the big challenges, though, is that through various interpretations, mistakes, and false teachings, the waters have gotten quite muddied regarding what this really means. Do the Jews need to be evangelized? Should the Jerusalem Temple be rebuilt? Is the modern nation of Israel still part of God’s redemptive plan for the world? Or has the Church utterly replaced Israel?
This evening’s reading from St. Paul’s epistle to the Romans is the tail end of a careful three-chapter treatment of this very subject. He was writing to a church composed of both Jews and Gentiles. They’d had a rough recent history, with the Jews getting expelled by the Emperor for a while, and the Gentiles being the only Christians in their absence. Once the Jews were allowed back in there was some tension between the two groups, and St. Paul was seeking to help them to see their equality in Christ.
For much of the early part of the letter, St. Paul was summarizing the Gospel – the problem of sin, the insufficiency of the Law to bring righteousness, and the necessity of God’s grace to bring about our salvation. He was careful to place the Law of Moses aside as unable to accomplish what Christ did on the Cross, yet still uphold the sacred value that the Law has as a witness of the unreachable holy standards that God holds before us. And so he seems to work himself into a corner – are the Jews better off for having had the Law? Or are they worse off for having failed to keep that Law?
And so he gets to chapters 9 through 11, where he deals with the relationship between the Jew and the Gentile in the New Covenant family – the Church. To summarize those three chapters, we can make three simple statements:
- Gentiles disobeyed God by ignoring the Old Testament revelation given to Israel.
- Most of the Jews disobeyed God by ignoring the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
- Therefore, everyone is equally in need of God’s grace and mercy!
This points us to an interesting realization: it’s precisely because many Jews reject Jesus that Gentiles can enter the Church on equal footing. For if the Jews had all accepted Him, then we Gentiles would merely be an afterthought. So the sins and failures of both Jew and Gentile point us to a common and equal need for Jesus. And so we have this great mystery: when people rebel against God, he responds not with instant judgment but with the mercy of waiting, so that new and additional blessings can be worked out instead.
So let’s turn back to tonight’s reading: I want you to understand this mystery, brethren: a hardening has come upon Israel, until the full number of the Gentiles come in, and so all Israel will be saved. The word “so” is a tricky one in English. It has led many people lately to read these verses and think that St. Paul is saying that every Jew will be saved after the “full number of the Gentiles” come in. But in Greek the word for “so” is όυτως which means “thus” or “in this way.” So what these verses are really saying is that a hardening came upon the Jews – many rejected Christ – paving the way for Gentiles to come into the Church and believe the Gospel, and in this way, all Israel will be saved.
How can this be? Remember what I said at the beginning: Israel has become the Church in the New Testament. As St. Paul wrote in chapter 9, “not all who are of Israel are in fact Israel.” When St. Paul says “all Israel” will be saved, he’s no longer talking about the Jews; he’s talking about the Church. Everyone who believes the Gospel of Christ, Jew or Gentile, enters into the True Israel of God. The Jews were the original natural branch of the family tree, and we Gentiles are being grafted in, but at the end of the day both Jew and Gentile are equally part of this family called Israel.
And thus we can look back at the promises of salvation in the Old Testament and see ourselves there. Part of our Old Testament reading this evening was quoted in the Romans reading: “This will be my covenant with them when I take away their sins.” The promise of a new covenant heralded by the removal of sin was spoken through Jeremiah to the ancient Israelites, but is received by each of us, today, as we are baptized and fed unto Christ’s eternal and sinless life!
O the depths of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! As Job said, “who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor? Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?” For from Christ and through Christ are all things. To God be glory forever. Amen.