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Friday, 4 March 2016

Romans 9:3-6 – Israel’s Privileges

Paul was aware of the great spiritual privileges that had been given to the Israelites during their history as God’s people. It is not clear if he mentions eight benefits, or whether he mentions seven before highlighting the most important role that Israel enjoyed in the purpose of God, which was that through them the Messiah came.

It is noticeable that Paul uses the present tense when he says that those privileges belong to Israel, which means that in some way they still had them even although the Israelites no longer were the sole beneficiaries of God.

The first privilege that Paul mentions is that of adoption, a description that includes the concepts of endearment and exaltation. It was customary for kings to show special favour to individuals and adopt them as their heirs and to give to them a share in the royal inheritance. Paul is not referring to the status of permanent adoption that belongs to Christians. Instead he is stressing that God took undeserving Israel into a special relationship with him and gave to them a special inheritance in the promised land. There are many Old Testament passages in which the Lord describes his deep affection for Israel and of his desires that they would use their inheritance aright.

The second privilege is ‘the glory’, which is likely a reference to the Shekinah glory by which God revealed himself in the tabernacle and the temple. This glory was a reminder of his permanent presence with Israel. Obviously God is omnipresent, but the Shekinah was a special kind of divine presence. It had its solemn aspects, as many who despised it discovered to their cost. Nevertheless, it was a great privilege for Israel to have God dwelling among them.

The third privilege was that God made special arrangements with the Israelites, here called ‘the covenants’. In those covenants, God made great promises to the Israelites about the benefits they could experience as his people as long as they were faithful to his requirements.

Those requirements are stated in the next privilege, the giving of the law. It was customary for an overlord to appear in great splendour, perhaps on a decorated chariot, surrounded by his army, when he informed his subjects about the laws he required them to obey. The Lord appeared in great splendour at Mount Sinai, so awesome that the mountain shook, and his troops were the angelic hosts. It truly was a magnificent occasion, one that had great significance for Israel. God had come down to them and revealed his glory as well as his requirements.

The response to the revelation of God at Sinai was worship, but not worship according to what the Israelites thought was suitable. Instead they were given what Paul calls ‘the worship’, and the definite article stresses that this expression of worship was unique. The detail that was unique was that in this form of worship Israel were told that their God was a God of mercy who desired to forgive their sins. All the sacrifices that the Israelites offered spoke of his holiness and his mercy, two attributes that we might think could never be in harmony, but they were in the worship of Israel.

Accompanying the other privileges were the promises of God. He shared with Israel his intentions for the future. Most of the promises were connected to the coming of the Messiah and the kingdom he would set up after his arrival. Even in their darkest moments in their history they could remind themselves that God had great things in store for them.

The last privilege of the seven is that the patriarchs belonged to the Israelites. It may be that Paul was stressing that the patriarchs did not belong to other descendants of Abraham and Isaac, but instead belonged to the descendants of Jacob only. Or it may be that here he was asking his readers to consider the small origins of the Israelites and how unlikely it seemed that they would be become a people. But they had because God was gracious to them and entered into a covenant with them regarding their descendants.

The obvious comment that can be made about the Israelites in Paul's day and their privileges is that they as a race received no spiritual benefit from having received them. Although God had been gracious to them they had despised their privileges. We should value ours.

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