Paul was considered a traitor to the Jewish people. He was looked upon as the Judas of Judaism. Once Israel's greatest champion for Judaism (Acts 8-9), Paul became a believer in Jesus the Messiah (Acts 9:4-6), an apostle to the Gentiles (Romans 11:13), and a teacher of salvation by grace (Romans 4). From the perspective of the Jewish people, Paul was an enemy. How wrong they were. Paul loved his people with the deepest of passions.
Paul was about to address Israel's unbelief and rejection of the Messiah, and he didn't want to be misunderstood. He didn't want anyone saying, "I told you so. Paul hates us. Look how he delights in our spiritual dilemma." So before he even mentioned the shame, failure, and unbelief of Israel, he affirmed his love for his kinsmen. He wrote, "I say the truth in Christ, I lie not, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Ghost, That I have great heaviness and continual sorrow in my heart" (9:1-2). Paul wanted every Jewish person to be assured that he was grief-stricken over the spiritual condition of Israel. His conscience and the Holy Spirit confirmed the genuineness of his anguish. Paul's heart was breaking for the nation of Israel.
It isn't uncommon to hear godly Christians refer to their love for the Jewish people. Paul's love, though, was so intense and so earnest that he was willing to go to Hell for eternity if it would result in the salvation of the Jewish people. He wrote, "For I could wish that myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh" (9:3). The term "accursed" is a translation of the Greek word anathema, meaning "to hand someone over to God for judgment." The same thought is conveyed by the word "damnation." Paul's love for his people consumed him to the degree that, if it were possible, he was willing to be damned to Hell if they could be saved in his place.
Paul knew that he could not be damned to Hell. He had just taught the truth that nothing "shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord" (8:39). Paul also knew that Israel could never be saved by his being lost. His words were the language of passion—not logic. He was communicating the great yearning he had for his kinsmen's salvation, a yearning so deep that he was willing to be lost forever, if that were possible.
Just because Paul's desire could not become a reality, we should not take his words lightly. Even though the apostle knew his yearning was a theological impossibility, he still meant what he said and he called upon Christ, his conscience, and the Holy Spirit to verify the depth of his love for Israel (9:1-2).
Very few believers can relate to this depth of love. There may be people for whom we would be willing to die, but would we be willing to spend eternity in Hell for them? Paul's love dominated his missionary zeal. His heart broke over Israel's failure to embrace Christ. Such intensity of love is often lacking in today's Christian. To us Hell is often only a category of theology, an academic subject to be discussed. Paul's concern for lost people was an anguish of heart reminiscent of Christ's weeping over the city of Jerusalem (Matthew 23:37) and then suffering judgment for its sin.
I once heard a story about a church that dismissed its pastor because he kept telling the congregation that they were going to Hell. Then their new pastor also told them they were bound for Hell. But they did not have a problem with him. When questioned about the different reactions to the two pastors, one church member replied, "When the first pastor told us we were going to Hell, he sounded like he was glad about it, but when the new pastor says it, he sounds like it breaks his heart." It ought to break our hearts too that people are lost. It should especially break our hearts that Israel is lost.
Why should we grieve over lost Jewish people more than we grieve over other lost people? The reason is not that the souls of Jews are more important, but that they were given unique privileges from which they never benefited. No other nation was ever blessed as Israel was, yet she reaped nothing from her spiritual advantages. Paul's sorrow was over a nation that in spite of her privileges rejected the Messiah.
In Romans 9:4-5 Paul listed eight unique privileges given only to Israel:
God chose to adopt the Jewish people as a nation. This adoption did not mean that every individual Jewish person was His child, but that Israel collectively had a special relationship with God. Moses wrote in Deuteronomy 7:6, "For thou art an holy people unto the Lord thy God; the Lord thy God hath chosen thee to be a special people unto himself, above all people that are upon the face of the earth." In Hosea 11:1 God called Israel His son. Through adoption Israel became the recipients of God's special favor.
Paul was referring to the shekinah, the presence of God in visible manifestation described in Exodus 40:34-38:
Then a cloud covered the tent of the congregation, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. And Moses was not able to enter into the tent of the congregation, because the cloud abode thereon, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. And when the cloud was taken up from over the tabernacle, the children of Israel went onward in all their journeys; But if the cloud were not taken up, then they journeyed not till the day that it was taken up. For the cloud of the Lord was upon the tabernacle by day, and fire was on it by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel, throughout all their journeys.
No nation but Israel had the inestimable privilege of God's visible presence guiding, protecting, and assuring them.
God covenanted with Israel's leaders: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and David. He committed Himself to do certain things for Israel which He will never do for any other nation.
As Christians we read the law of Moses, but it was not given to us. The law was specifically given only to Israel. Some of the laws of the United States are based upon the law of God, but God never gave His legal code to any nation but Israel.
Only Israel was given the privilege of serving the Lord in the tabernacle and in the temple. The entire system of temple service was a requirement for acceptable worship.
God gave to Israel the promise of the Messiah's reign and the promise of blessings that will flow from that reign. No other nation has ever been given these promises. All other nations receive their blessings through Israel and Israel's King.
The nations of the world can read in the Bible about Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but only Israel can claim them as ancestors and the holy roots of its nation.
Only of Israel can it be said: "Of whom as concerning the flesh Christ came" (Romans 9:5). The greatest honor and blessing ever given to the nation of Israel was that from its loins came Jesus the Messiah. Jesus was a Jewish man but since He was also God, Paul added, "Who is over all, God blessed for ever."
No other nation has ever been as blessed as Israel. No other people has ever been as privileged as the Jewish people. Yet in spite of her privileges and blessings, she officially rejected Jesus the Messiah. When Christ came to her, she did not want Him (John 1:11). The tragedy is that without possessing a personal relationship with Christ, Israel cannot benefit from her privileges and blessings. Israel's failure to enter into her inheritance, to take advantage of her unique position, broke the apostle Paul's heart. This tragedy should also break the heart of every believer in Christ.
Having forcefully expressed his passion for his kinsmen, the apostle Paul was ready to launch into a defense of God's righteousness in His dealings with Israel.