In Philippians 3:5, Paul recorded his genealogy as being "of the stock of ISRAEL," even though he also referred to himself as being "of the tribe of Benjamin" (formerly associated with JUDAH). Why did he not call himself a JEW of the tribe of Benjamin?
Judah: A Tribe and a Kingdom
To answer this question we need to return to the Old Scriptures at the time when Israel was divided as a nation. In 1 Kings we read that God rent the kingdom of Israel from Solomon. 1 Kings 11:13; 12:21; and 2 Chronicles 11:12,23 state that at that time God gave one tribe (i.e. Benjamin) to Judah for a light in Jerusalem. For Jerusalem's borders lie within the tribe of Benjamin's allotment, not Judah's. We see then that Judah and Benjamin were the only two tribes comprising the Southern Kingdom of JUDAH. Later on in 2 Kings 16:6, the King James translators chose to introduce the word Jews as an alternative name for Judahites. Thus Judahites and Jews are synonymous names, as Strong's Concordance will verify.
The New Covenant Is Not To Jews Only
With this historical background in mind, let us return to the question at hand. Why did Paul refer to himself as an Israelite instead of a Judahite or Jew? The answer can be found in the New Covenant Scriptures of Jeremiah 31:31-34 and Hebrews 8:8-13. Since both these excerpts from Jeremiah 31 and Hebrews 8 are essentially the same, let us focus on the first reference in Jeremiah. At the time Jeremiah was declaring this prophecy (c. 600 B.C.), 10-tribed Israel was in captivity, and 2-tribed Judah was in the process of going into captivity. In the midst of such hopelessness, God sent the prophet Jeremiah to instill hope because of a NEW COVENANT that would graciously affect their future! In verse 31 notice that the New Covenant was to be not only with Judah, but with Judah AND Israel. However when this New Covenant is mentioned again in verse 33, ONLY Israel is named. This was not merely an oversight on Jeremiah's part. Neither is this an error in translation. Such an omission of Judah's name is absolutely inspired. For under the New Covenant, Judah and Israel would no longer be divided (let alone be in captivity). Read Ezekiel 37:16-22-28; Isaiah 11:10-12-13; and Ephesians 2:11-14-22.
And so under the New Covenant, Paul could still identify himself with the tribe of Benjamin, but not with the Kingdom of Judah. For the New Covenant is God's means for reuniting Judah and Israel once again into one kingdom - ISRAEL (Ezek 37:1-28 and Hosea 1:11). Christ's entire purpose was to set the "captives" (physical and spiritual) free... See Isaiah 61:1 and Luke 4:18. Being set free by Christ, Paul no longer related himself with Judah (Jews), but with Israel! Unconverted Saul associated himself with the Jewish nation (Acts 26:1-5). But under the New Covenant, the "new Saul" (i.e. Paul) associated himself with the kingdom of regathered, undivided, reunited Israel (Acts 26:6-7; Rom 11:1; Phlp 3:5). Contrary to modern tradition, the names Jews and Israelites are not synonymous.
Paul's Burden: Israel or the Gentiles?
Understanding that Paul identified himself with 12-tribed Israel, and not 2-tribed Judah, it is very enlightening to study his ministry. What people were heavy upon Paul's heart? Romans 9:1-4 reveals that they were "my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh - who are ISRAELITES." Perhaps this seems quite natural in that we just learned Paul's identity with Israel. However when one reads in Romans 15:16; Galatians 2:7-8; and Acts 13:44-48 that Paul's "main ministry" was to the GENTILES, he wonders what happened to Paul's heavy burden for his own kinsmen according to the flesh, who are Israelites! One might also wonder why Paul would even consider the Gentiles, since the New Covenant was made initially to Judah and Israel, not Gentiles. The solution to this seemingly strange behavior of Paul may be found by studying Romans 11:13-14... "For I speak unto you Gentiles, inasmuch as I am the apostle of the Gentiles (Gal 2:7-8), I magnify mine office; if by any means I may provoke to emulation them which are my flesh, and might save some." Here Paul is identifying the Gentiles as them which are his own flesh (i.e. racial Israelites who had been excommunicated from God's promise by divorce... See Rom 9:6; Gal 3:29; Hosea 1:10).
A Vital Question Over 25 Centuries Old
In Romans 11:1 Paul asked a vital question that was at stake in Jeremiah's day (Jer 33:23-26) as well as in his own day, and is still being asked in our present day: "Hath God cast away His people?" The inference, of course, is... "Hath God cast them off FOR EVER?" But first of all, who were "His People" that are referred to here as being "cast off" (i.e. dissolved as a nation and taken into captivity... Jer 33:24, 26; 7:14-15; 2 Kings 17:18-20). Certainly not Judah alone. By and large, there has been very little question whether or not God would return to deliver Judah. But the critical issue has always been regarding the outcome of 10-tribed Israel! Before considering this question, however, let us ask two other questions related to it. First, why has the question of Romans 11:1 been so entertained by men for over 25 centuries now? And secondly, why is this question in Romans 11:1 so important to answer?
Why is Romans 11:1 Continually Asked?
Regarding the first question, it has been asked for over 25 centuries no doubt due to the fact of 10-tribed Israel's past record of wickedness (not one good king!). And who do you suppose keeps reminding men about the 10-tribes' wicked past? Judah, of course! Note the enmity between Judah and Israel in 1 Kings 14:30; Isaiah 11:13; and Ephesians 2:13-16. But notice God's perspective from Jeremiah 3:11... "Backsliding Israel hath justified herself more than treacherous Judah." Indeed, "God hath concluded them all in unbelief, that He might have mercy upon ALL" (Rom 11:26, 32).
Why Is This Lingering Question in Romans 11:1 so Vital?
Why is this question regarding "Israel being cast off FOR EVER" so important? First it is important because God's Word is at stake! The covenant He made with Abraham in Genesis 12:1-3 was unconditional, and it was passed down from Abraham to Isaac, to Jacob, and finally to Joseph through his two sons Ephraim and Manasseh. As 1 Chronicles 5:1-2 reminds us, "Out of Judah came the chief ruler [i.e. Christ], but the birthright was Joseph's." This is vital to realize since Joseph (Ephraim and Manasseh) was the chief tribe among 10-tribed Israel (Jer 31:9; Hosea 11:8). Thus if 10-tribed Israel had been cast off FOR EVER, then God had broken His unconditional covenant. However, as Romans 4:16-18 reminds us, the promise was "sure to ALL the seed" of Abraham (both the circumcision/Judah, and the uncircumcision/10-tribed Israel... Rom 4:9-15) because of Abraham's faith, not his works. That is, the promise (covenant) was Unconditional upon Abraham and his seed's own works!
God's Answer To Romans 11:1
The answer to the question in Romans 11:1 then determines God's faithfulness regarding this unconditional covenant. Furthermore, besides having His Word at stake, God's love, mercy, and forgiveness are also at stake. How great is God's love, mercy, and forgiveness? Does He love the sinner, or only the righteous? Is God's love conditional or unconditional? Jesus referred to this very thing in Matthew 9:13 because the Jews believed God was coming back only for them since they were not sinners (so they thought). We see then that the question in Romans 11:1 is regarding God's faithfulness, love, mercy, and forgiveness towards ALL Israel, including 10-tribed Israel. This issue of God's character is vital in that it either increases or limits our worship of Him. For when we see Him as He is (i.e. faithful, loving, forgiving, etc.), we will worship Him as we ought. And if we do not worship Him as we ought, it is because we do not see Him as He is!
Having established what is at stake in Romans 11:1, notice Paul(s resounding reply: "GOD FORBID!" Continuing on, notice that Paul did not say, "For I also am a JEW etc." Rather he writes, "For I also am an ISRAELITE etc." The question at stake then is obviously not over Judah being cast off for ever, but ALL Israel being cast off for ever. Verse 2 adds that "God hath not cast away [for ever] His people." Acts 26:1-7 and James 1:1 provide additional evidence that all 12 tribes, not only 2-tribed Judah, are being reckoned with by God under the New Covenant.
Some Gentiles Are Disinherited, Racial Israelites?
Glancing at verse 7 in Romans 11, we are again reminded that the overall subject at hand is regarding ISRAEL. This verse explains that a portion of Israel known as "the election" (or "vessels of mercy", Rom 9:23) have found that for which they were seeking (i.e. their Redeemer/Deliverer who would save them out of their captivity and restore their nation) but "the rest were blinded." As we move on down to verse 11, another name enters into the context, namely GENTILES (KJV). Who are these Gentiles, and what do they have to do with Israel? The context of verses 11-14 makes it quite clear that these Gentiles are none other than "blinded" Israelites (v. 7, 25) who had "forgotten their resting-place" (Jer 50:6). But let us read Romans 9:24-25 for further confirmation.
In Romans 9:24-25, Paul refers not to Israel, but to JEWS and GENTILES! But if the New Covenant is to Judah and Israel (not Jews only), and if God has not cast off 12-tribed Israel as we have just learned from Romans 11:1, Acts 26:1-7, and James 1:1, then why does Romans 9:24 use the name Gentiles to the exclusion of the name Israel? The answer to this vital question is carefully presented in Romans 9:25-26 where Paul explains that 10-tribed Israel became Gentiles (i.e. foreigners, strangers, cut off from God, "not My people") because of their spiritual adultery. Notice Paul's reference to Hosea 1:1-11 and 2:23. There Hosea reveals that 10-tribed Israel was to be excommunicated from God... BUT NOT FOR EVER! For Hosea 1:10 and 2:23 state that even though 10-tribed Israel would become "not My people" (i.e. gentilized, Ephes 2:19) for a while, they would once again in the future be called "My people!" And remember, Paul mentioned these verses in Hosea with a specific relationship to the GENTILES. What could more clearly reveal the identity of these Gentiles as being blinded, backsliding, cast off 10-tribed Israel?
Acts 15:14-19 records another very similar comparison between Gentiles and excommunicated Israelites by associating the Gentiles with "the tabernacle of David which is fallen." Now how in the world could Gentiles be related to the tabernacle of David??? (Remember at David's time, Israel was not divided!) For the answer, read 1 Kings 12:16,19 and Amos 9:8-11. From these verses we learn once again that the Gentiles of Acts 15:14-19 are racial Israelites who had "fallen" (i.e. been cast off from God and disinherited... BUT NOT FOR EVER).
Returning to Romans 11 again, we see this dual identity of "Israel - Gentiles" employed in verses 25-26. The phrase "And so ALL Israel" corresponds to the phrase "the fullness of the Gentiles." And realizing that the Greek word for Gentiles is sometimes translated "nations" or "people," how much more appropriate such words would be in this verse than the word "Gentile"! Why then did the KJV translators render it "Gentiles" rather than "people" or "nations"? No doubt it was their bias that had been instilled by the traditions of men. Furthermore, in Romans 11:26 notice the "ungodliness" (i.e. gentilized behavior) of "Jacob" (not "glorious" Israel) being cancelled by Jesus. How perfectly fitting this is. For who did Jesus say that He came to save except the lost, blinded, backsliding, gentilized sheep of the Jews ISRAEL (Mat 15:24; Rom 9:4-5).
Two Types of Gentiles
In unraveling this mystery regarding the Gentiles, let us investigate one last verse in Matthew 10:5-6. When commissioning His 12 apostles, Jesus commanded them NOT to go in the way of the Gentiles, but to go rather unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel. How can this be? We know that Paul was a godly Christian and especially ordained of God. And as we have seen, his main ministry was to the Gentiles! What could Jesus have meant when He commanded His disciples not to go in the way of the Gentiles??? It seems very evident that Jesus was commanding His disciples to discern between non-Israelite Gentiles and gentilized Israelites (i.e. "lost," disinherited Israelites). To mean anything other than this would contradict the bulk of Scripture that promised salvation to Abraham(s seed FIRST (Ex 4:22; Acts 3:25-26)! So once again we realize the critical importance of understanding how the word Gentiles is employed in the Bible.
Is This Matter of Jews, Israelites, & Gentiles an Issue of Racial Prejudice?
Finally, why is this subject of Paul being an Israelite or a Jew, and the issue concerning the identity of the Gentiles, so vital? Is it simply an issue over racial prejudice? NO. Paul's identity and the Gentile's identity is important because of God's character being at stake! Is He "the same yesterday, today, and forever," or does He change? "I am the LORD. I change not. Therefore ye sons of JACOB [not Judah only] are not consumed" (Mal 3:6). "For what if some [i.e. 10-tribed Israel] did not believe? Shall their unbelief make the faith of God without effect? GOD FORBID! Yea, LET GOD BE TRUE [He does not change or go back on His unconditional promise], but EVERY man [i.e. Judah and Israel, Isa 53:6; Rom 3:9-10, 23; 11:32] a liar" (Rom 3:3-4). This study is important then because it vindicates God's faithfulness, truthfulness, dependability, love, mercy, forgiveness, etc. It glorifies God (not man through racial prejudice) by revealing the fulfillment of His promises. Furthermore, this subject illustrates the significance of the New Covenant by revealing the bridge between Israel's hopelessness under the Old Covenant (Law), and their victory under the New Covenant (Grace).
Pastor Richard Kirsch Community Church of the Bible