Understanding a Mystery

Israel or Palestine – where is it heading?

A sermon by Richard Matcham based on Romans 11:25-36

“Lord I pray that the raw nerves and thin shells this topic will likely touch upon, will enlarge the capacity of us all to engage truthfully with the text and the world, and challenge us to be contentedly discontent with mystery, that we may be more loving to one another, and truly worship you in all your unsearchable and inscrutable ways.  Amen”

Have you ever been in a discussion with someone, on a topic that really interests you, and at the crucial point of insight, understanding and genuine learning, you hear the comment, “Ah, we can’t ever know that, it’s a mystery!”

We often deploy the “mystery card” because it seems to be a way of protecting our own limited understanding on a subject.

Take for example, the Trinity (you know what I mean)!

I’ve faced this situation quite a few times over the years, especially as a young Christian man in my mid-20’s, hungry to learn and know God.

“The Trinity,” we shout, “it’s a mystery.”  And with that mystical phrase, the conversation is closed, and genuine biblical understanding is shoved into the cul-de-sac of frustrated, genuine enquirers, where they stay until they learn to stop asking awkward questions!

If the response, “it’s a mystery!” is the most we can ever say about God as Trinity, then that is a terrible indictment on a Church that has simply failed to do the theology, the “God-words” about God!

Following Paul’s lead in Romans, we see that he does not shirk his Apostolic responsibility to preach into a mystery.  He doesn’t go round it, or ignore it, or infantilise it, he charges reverently head-long into this mystery.

V25, “Lest you be wise in your own eyes, I want you to understand this mystery….”  Paul wants the Roman church to understand this mystery. 

A mystery of Gentile inclusion into the salvation purposes of God and of the eventual (eschatological) inclusion of all Israel too.

Now, the wise amongst us will know that it is impossible to deal with every nuance in the text, and likewise it is impossible all questions will be answered.

The set text is very specific to the context of Romans and encapsulates the eschatology of God’s saving purposes for…..not just Israel…..not just Gentiles, but Israel and Gentiles (i.e. everyone).

That’s the text.

The set title roots all of this into a very hotly contested contemporary situation regarding the present State of Israel and the present plight of the Palestinians.  The question posed is this:  Israel or Palestine:  where is it heading?

I am tempted to say “It’s a mystery!” but I beg you to pray for me as I attempt to correctly handle the Word of truth on the one hand, and a present and pressing concern on the other.

The book of Romans is a book written to a church that was struggling with Jewish and Gentile believers.  There were palpable tensions, and any careful reading of the book will show this.

Paul has already made it clear in ch1-3 that sin affects everyone.  All have sinned!

The next chapters set up Paul to introduce the logic of salvation for all.  In Christ!

Paul then follows through with an inevitable consequence.  This salvation in Christ leads to sanctification……by the Spirit.

So far, in chapters 1-8, Paul has written on Sin, Salvation and Sanctification.

Then we come to chapters 9-11 and start hearing something on that other great theme:  Sovereignty.  Bear in mind the internal tensions in the church in Rome.

Gentile arrogance, Jewish superiority.

Paul must now address Gentile arrogance by writing of the Israelites.

Our passage this evening comes in at the very end of this argument, and we would be advised to make sure we start at the beginning, before merely interpreting the ending.

Paul is wrestling with theological categories such as election, covenant, promise.  He is literally unpacking a mystery.  Many in our enlightened 21st century world today have no time for notions of “mystery”.  Mystery for many = ignorance.

The Bible is much more truthful and happily allows mystery to co-exist as genuine biblical knowledge and within genuine biblical knowledge. Mystery =bold humility.

The late-great Anglican Evangelical, John Stott, helps us here with correct tools of interpretation.

He outlines four ways the term “Israel” can be interpreted:

  1. Jacob the Patriarch.
  2. Israel as the covenant people of God, the 12 tribes.
  3. The Messianic community of those who believe in Jesus. (In Gal 6:16 the “Israel of God” refers to believers in Jesus).
  4. The nation-state of Israel today since 1948.


When Paul writes Israel, he does not have in mind what we are tempted to have in mind:  The present day secular state of Israel.

The question is this:  What does it mean to be a Jew or an Israelite?

Paul has likewise written that being “Israel” is not even about flesh or ethnicity (9:6-8).

Jesus likewise in John’s Gospel, in an astonishing confrontation with the Pharisees, called them “Children of the devil.”

Deuteronomy talks of a circumcision of the heart as eternally more suitable for anyone who wanted to enter into the Covenant made at Sinai.  And this extended to anyone! 

And in Esther, many people of the Persian Empire (India to Ethiopia – 127 provinces 1:1) “declared themselves Jews, for fear of the Jews had fallen from them” (8:17).

Finally, Abraham himself.  A Chaldean (modern day Iraq), thus a gentile.  And just in Abraham we see the exquisite purposes of God for the salvation of the world.  The Hebrew people were created, called, elected….for a greater purpose – the salvation of the whole world – which alone is found in Christ!  In the call of Abraham is the seed of the Gospel – no wonder Paul refers to him so much!!!  A Gentile becoming a Jew by faith!!!

And I haven’t even mentioned the Book of Hebrews!!!

So by the time we come to Romans 9, 10 and 11, and our passage in particular, there is a trail of genuine complexity that the Scriptures bear witness too, that without doubt is a mystery, but is also our responsibility to interpret well.

And with the Gospel proclamation:  There is neither Jew nor Gentile…..we see that ethnicity not only is not the problem in the Bible, but that it is the problem as we consider the Middle East situation today.

How many wars and conflicts have been conducted on the basis of racial superiority?  A kind of ethnic-superman that demonises anyone who is “other”!  This is the way of the world, and Paul addresses what causes that in Romans 1-3.

You will also have noticed, that while our text and indeed the New Testament does not speak of “land” in a territorial way of ownership by occupation, we see the present day situation is all about land by occupation!

And so even while Paul was writing into a particular contextual situation; and while we are often tempted to read the Bible into our contemporary situation, Paul’s vision is much bigger.

The Corinthian Christians were guilty of what is called an “over-realised eschatology”.  In other words, they dragged God’s eternal and final end into their present day situations and were living very distorted and sinful lives as a result.

Similarly, what many Christian observers of our day stumble over, is that we “over-realise” or over-interpret a contemporary situation at the expense of what Scripture is doing.

Thus Paul interprets “Israel” within a framework of God’s ultimate purposes whilst he himself is located in a particular context.  As a Biblical thinker, he avoids political expediency and religious idealism.  So must we.

The biblically shaped eschatological view is a way to trust God within this great mystery.  It is a faith-full way to pray well during the in-between times:

The in-between times of disobedience and election; of disobedience and mercy.

P. T. Forsyth said, “man is born to be redeemed”, and we agree with Scripture, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”

We can rest in the eschatological truth that because of Jesus on the Cross, and by faith in Him, always in Christ, then when God, v32 has “consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all”, we trust that all this talk of Israel & Gentiles, and hardening & mercy, and Gospel & election, and fullness & mystery is God’s way of being God!  And a saving God at that!

As Karl Barth said, and as our Bible passage would suggest, “Rejection is for the sake of election.”  God alone is in control of salvation history!

No wonder Paul exclaims:  “Oh the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!  How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways….”

So what is the way forward?  (says the man who doesn’t know – with fear and trembling)!

I love the OT Law.  One can’t help reading Psalm 119 without wondering what you’ve missed all these years!  The Law gets such bad press!

The OT Law tells me and proves to me my need of God.

In this regard I love Judaism.

I love Jews/Israelis.  I have not known many in my life.  I’ve travelled to the West Bank twice, I’ve been there and met both Israelis and Palestinians, including Israeli government officials and Palestinian theologians.

Israel, as a nation has the right to exist in peace and security, without walls.

But here’s my problem.  No nation or ethnic group or person has any right whatsoever to imprison, control and occupy another.

In this regards, I do not like Zionism or Christian Zionism, in the sense that it blurs the political ideology of a secular state with idealist religious notions of divine right by occupation and conquest.  Zionism is not Judaism.

All the lines are blurred and great injustice is committed.

And this is often supported by a ‘Christian Zionist’ reading of Scripture!

Rev Alex Awad, A Palestinian Pastor of East Jerusalem Baptist Church and Dean of Bethlehem Bible College, writes, “This manipulation of the Bible has also caused much anguish and frustration to Arab Christians, and it continues to be a stumbling-block preventing millions the world over from responding to Christ.”

Likewise, Bristol Baptist College Principal, Dr. Steve Finamore writes, “Paul is not concerned with addressing questions about the political ownership of the land. Like everything else, it belongs to Christ. Nor does he suggest that we can expect the restoration of Israel to have consequences in terms of the land. Rather Israelites simply recover their place within the people of God and their place in the Messiah in whom they become co-heirs of the world.”

Nelson Mandela:  “We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.”

In my view, Christians need to be more open to what the biblical text is doing and saying in the light of current events.

One reason, I am convinced, this is such an entrenched situation, is because Christians have championed one people over another; one text over another; one history over another.

It is no wonder John Stott would say, “I myself believe that Zionism, both political and Christian, is incompatible with biblical faith.”

We have prayer times “for Israel” but why do we never pray for our Palestinian Christian brothers and sisters?

We go to the physical land of Palestine and we never meet an indigenous Palestinian, or see the massive separation wall.

Our religious tourism has been too content getting high on biblical nostalgia.

We have demonized those who speak up for the oppressed and too cheaply accused them of anti-semitism, thus making this “mystery” an academic no-fly zone, a subject that is taboo in the church!

“Don’t talk about Israel-Palestine, anything but that!!”

But we must navigate these treacherous and emotional waters with intellectual honesty, gritty realism and a deep faith.

Like Paul we must not minimize Christ as a bit-part player in this supposed great End-Times conflict.  We must not elevate “Land” to the status of a god, nor must we succumb to political ideology as prophecy fulfilment.

Finally, Desmond Tutu, “Now, alas, we see apartheid in Israel, complete with the ‘Separation Wall’ and bantustans that keep Palestinians rounded up in prisons.  History tragically repeats itself.”

What is the way forward?  Desmond Tutu says it best:

“God’s dream begins when we begin to know each other differently, as bearers of a common humanity, not as statistics to be counted, problems to be solved, enemies to be vanquished or animals to be caged.  God’s dream begins the moment one adversary looks another in the eye and sees himself reflected there.”

The way forward …is found in the Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace.

…is found in the reconciliation of his Cross.

… is standing up to oppression.

… is speaking out for the down-trodden.

… is speaking truth where there are lies.

… is shining light where there is darkness.

…is a boldness of prophetic imagination saturated in the mercy of God.

… is knowing that God has consigned all to disobedience that he may have mercy on all.

The way forward is to look any human being in the eye, pray for them, love them and see God in them.

So where is it heading?

Let’s pray not for Israel or Palestine, but Israel and Palestine.

Why?  Because we believe in Jesus:

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.”



Me taking a photo of a ruddy great wall that should not be there!!!

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