Salvation is of the Jews. For Paul, this doesn’t simply mean Yahweh preserved Israel so the Jewish Messiah might be the Savior of the world. Salvation is of the Jews because the people of Israel is the object of salvation and, redeemed, God’s instrument for saving Gentiles.
In short, Jesus came to save Israel. According to Paul, he accomplished it. And that salvation of Israel is the foundation for the mission to the nations.
This is clear in Galatians, where Paul states that God sent forth His Son specifically to “redeem those who were under the law,” so that Israel can fully become what they have already been: sons of God. Because the curse is renewed from Israel (“us”), the Gentile Galatians (“you”) can also share the Spirit of sonship (Galatians 4:1-7).
Here’s how I summarized Paul’s argument in Galatians 3-4 in Delivered from the Elements of the World (200-1):
God has chosen a narrow stream to bring blessing to the Gentiles, the stream of Abraham, but that stream is blocked by the curse that comes from the very law that marks the descendants of Abraham out from the rest of the nations, the law in which the Jews boasted, the Torah that it was Israel’s privilege to receive and maintain. That law has turned into an enemy of the promise.
If the blessing of Abraham is going to be brought to the Gentiles, then the curse has to be overcome. According to Paul, Jesus has broken through the curse “having become a curse for us” (Galatians 3:13). Hanging on the tree, he is a cursed one, and by bearing the curse he breaks through the curse.
In Deuteronomy, this immediately follows a law demanding the execution of a son who has abandoned Torah. Jesus is condemned as a rebellious son, though he is not. he is condemned as a rebellious son by the rebellious son, Israel in the flesh. In that precise sense, Jesus suffers the curse of Israel.
Because Jesus the faithful Israelite bears the curse, He delivers/redeems (exagorazo) Israel from the curse (Gal 3:13). He takes the place of the Israel that should be cursed in order to remove cursing. And so, the flow of blessing, the flow of the Spirit, begins.
Israel is the target of the curse, and the beneficiary of Jesus’ curse-busting curse-bearing. Israel is the only people who suffer the curse of Torah. The curse that Paul describes does not come on everyone, but only those who are “of the works of the law,” those whose lives have been formed by what the law does among a people who are in the flesh. If Israel is the people under curse, they are the ones who must be redeemed from the curse. Jesus’ curse-bearing is for “us,” that is, for Paul’s people, Israel (Gal 3:14).
Perhaps we could call this “definite atonement” if the term weren’t already in use.
Removing Israel from Paul’s account of atonement distorts and dehistoricizes his argument. Jesus’ death has universal effect, but it is an error, a profound and common one, to universalize the curse and the redemption from the curse prematurely.
God’s promise is universal, to “justify the Gentiles by faith,” but that universal promise is realized only in the fulfillment of the particular promise that the blessing will come to and through Abraham’s seed. We gain a historically plausible atonement when we follow Paul in seeing that Jesus bears the curse for Israel, to form a new Israel enlisted by the Spirit to war against flesh.
Paul’s story, then, goes like this: Abraham was chosen to be the conduit of blessing to the Gentiles. Israel, the Abrahamic people, was given the Torah, and Torah worked a curse. Unless that curse could be removed, the Gentiles would never receive the blessing of Abraham.
Unless Israel could be repaired, the nations could not receive the delivering verdict of justification, delivered from the reign of Sin and Death and Flesh that undermined all striving for justice. Israel could not remove the curse on her own, because in her fleshliness she only created more occasions for cursing.
The deliverance promised to the nations was accomplished because God sent the Seed of Abraham, the true Israelite, to be a curse-bearing substitute for His people, to become the cursed Son that Israel was, so that the curse could be killed, buried and removed. Once that curse is removed, Israel is renewed; the removal of the curse implies a resurrection from the curse of death.
Israel is delivered, receives the blessing of the Spirit, and from Israel that blessing flows to the nations. That is the justification of Israel by the Faithful Messiah. [End of excerpt.]
What’s new in Romans 9-11 isn’t an idea of the salvation of Israel or of Israel’s role in the salvation of Gentiles. Rather, what’s new in Romans 9-11 is the insight that Israel’s role in bringing the blessing of Abraham to the Gentiles occurs through Israel stumbling (Romans 11:11) and rejection (11:15).
That is, Israel’s role in the redemption of the Gentiles conforms to the Messiah’s role. Jesus saves through His rejection and restoration, through cross and resurrection, and so does the Jewish people. Romans 9-11 unveil a deep mystery, one that provokes Paul’s ecstatic “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God!” (11:33) because, as N.T. Wright puts it, these chapter unveil the cruciform shape of Israel’s own role in the salvation of the world.
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