The Mystery of Israel's Salvation
Passage: Romans 11:25–36
Romans 11. If you were here last week, you know that Paul answered questions about the faithfulness and character of God in light of so many Jews not believing in Jesus. This week he’s answering a different question. What is going to happen to the unbelieving Jews? Does God have a plan for ethnic Israel? In verse 1, Paul asks has God rejected them? And think about the critiques that Paul himself probably received doing his ministry among the gentiles. Has Paul given up on his people?
In this chapter, Paul zooms out and looks at this issue from a higher perspective. Dr. Cole at RTS gives an illustration of a corn maze that I can really relate to. I don’t see these as much in Florida, probably because we don’t grow corn, but when we lived in Mississippi, every fall we’d go to a pumpkin patch to get our pumpkins and there was always a corn maze. Basically, they’d take a field of corn and cut a maze in it and you had to find your way through. If you went at the end of the season, the maze was all beat down and it was easy to see your way through, but if you went early, these mazes were tall and thick and it’s impossible to see through or over the wall of corn. But, in the center of these mazes, there is often a step ladder so you can gain a different perspective. You can see where you came from and where you are going.
This chapter is like that step ladder. Paul answers these questions about ethnic Israel by zooming out and first looking to the past and then looking to the future and that’s how we will walk through this as well. And I hope as we look at this, we will see how this is helpful to us today and not be a mere intellectual exercise about what might happen one day to ethnic Israel. It’s about the Character of God when everyone seems to be walking away from him.
- Looking to the past
Has God rejected his people? Notice that Paul doesn’t say ‘has he given up on the Jews’, he says has God given up on his people? And the answer is by no means! For one, Paul says, “I’m a Jew. I’m a descendant of Abraham and I’m here right now.” Not to mention Peter, James, John, Mark and the believing Jews in the church in Rome!
But Paul then pushes on what they understand ‘God’s people’ to be. He says that God has not rejected the people whom he foreknew. Remember Romans 9. God’s people are not the mere physical descendants of Abraham, but the spiritual descendants of Abraham. Just because you were a physical descendant of Abraham does not mean you were ever a part of God’s people.
And here is where Paul looks to the past. He goes all the way back to Elijah to make his point in verse three. 3 l“Lord, they have killed your prophets,they have demolished your altars, and I alone am left, and they seek my life.” 4 But what is God’s reply to him? m“I have kept for myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal.”- Rom 11:3,4 When it looked like there was no one left, God told Elijah that there were 7000 who were true believers. This wasn’t the first time that it looked like the entire nation of Israel was faithless and idolatrous, but God then and now has maintained a remnant chosen by grace. In the days of Noah, God’s chosen people were less than 10, but clearly all was not lost!
Why is Paul saying this? He’s saying to the church in Rome that what has happened is not new and that they don’t need to worry. This isn’t the first time it looks like the vast majority of Israel has rejected God. God has always had a remnant of believers. If you are a kid and you have the awesome word finder game that Jen makes for the sermons, remnant is one of your words and you might not know what that means. It means a small remaining group. So, if you’re on the playground and everyone leaves except you and a few friends, you would be a remnant.
Paul is saying that there has always been a remnant of God’s people. At times it was smaller and at other times it was larger, but what has happened should not cause alarm to the church in Rome. There has always been a remnant that God foreknew who were chosen by grace and Paul goes so far to say that if it were on the basis of any kind of merit that grace would no longer be grace. This is why he says in verse six But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace. - Rom 11:6 Paul then says, 7 What then? pIsrael failed to obtain what it was seeking. The elect obtained it, but the rest qwere hardened - Rom 11:7 Now, if the words elect or chosen don’t sit well with you, I’d encourage you to go back and listen to the sermon on Romans chapter nine.
So, why does this matter to us today? It matters for a lot of reasons, but one important one is that today in our culture it can feel like everyone is leaving the faith. It can feel like God has abandoned the United States of America. Let me just make two points about that. First, God has no obligation to the United States. Our country does not have any special relationship to God in the way Israel did. According to a Pew Study, almost 20% of adult Americans believe that the US constitution is a divinely inspired document on par with the Bible. In one of the great ironies of the Great Dechurching, more than one-quarter of dechurched evangelicals in our study believe that the United States should be declared a Christian nation AND they no longer attend church. And because of this belief in God’s special Israel-like blessing on the United States, there are people who look at the ways our culture is changing and question God’s sovereignty and goodness as though he isn’t fulfilling his end of the bargain. God has made no promises to the United States of America as an institution and if the US fails tomorrow, his character doesn’t change.
Now, admittedly, that’s not most of us here. What we can experience as people leave the church and our culture changes is fear. Fear of what this means for our jobs. Fear of what this means for our children and grandchildren. Fear of what this means for our churches. This leads to the second reason this matters to us today. Even though 40 million adult Americans have left the church largely over the last 25 years, God has and will remain faithful to his chosen people. Living in a state of cultural exile has been the norm for God’s people going back to Abraham. A state of exile was the norm for the early church and is the norm for Christians today in the global East and South and they would be less likely to question God’s faithfulness in that state of cultural exile than an American Christian losing the political influence we once had here. And we must remember that our cultural exile is based on sonship, not discipline. We have been saved into a new kingdom, so this works will never truly be home. God will be faithful. We can trust him as people leave the faith and our culture changes because he doesn’t change. It may be a small remnant not a big army that carries things forward, but that remnant is backed by the power and faithfulness of God himself.
Then, Paul does something that would have felt ominous or even chilling to Jews who knew their Old Testament. He quotes Psalm 69 which is an imprecatory psalm. That means it is a prayer by David to bring curses down on his enemies. Let their table become a snare and a trap, a stumbling block and a retribution for them; let their eyes be darkened so that they cannot see, and bend their backs forever. - Rom 11:9,10 What is Paul doing here? This Psalm is quoted not only here, but Jesus quotes it in John 15 saying, 25 But qthe word that is written in their Law must be fulfilled: r‘They hated me without a cause.’ - John 15:25
The way Jesus uses this psalm, you can rightly say that the true speaker of the psalm is Jesus himself. He is both the speaker and the subject of the psalm. And Paul is saying that Jesus is speaking this imprecatory psalm about the unbelieving Jews. Paul is turning the tables on Israel. If you were a Jewish person in Jesus’ day, who were the enemies God is going to destroy in Psalm 69? The Roman gentiles. The Jews in that day would have seen themselves as the anointed, righteous ones who were being persecuted. But, Paul is saying that enemies in Psalm 69 are now the unbelieving Jews themselves! That means Jesus is calling down curses on his enemy, unbelieving Israel. They have become the enemies because they have rejected God and become the one upon whom he calls judgment down. But, Paul’s hope is that they don’t stay there. All they have to do is believe.
Ok, that is Paul looking back to the past to show that God has had a plan for ethnic Israel and that he has not been unfaithful to ethnic Israel. Then, Paul looks forward.
- Looking to the future
Paul asks in verse eleven Did they stumble in order that they might fall? - Rom 11:11 Another way to ask this is ‘has Israel become unsaveable?’ And the answer is no! Looking ahead to the future, Paul says that this is all a part of God’s divine plan and his purpose is twofold. First, God’s plan is for salvation to go to the nations. Remember, this was always God’s plan. We talked about this last week. In Genesis 12 and 15, God said to Abraham that through your descendants, the nations will be blessed. Israel was called to take this message of salvation by faith to the world, but they didn’t understand it for themselves and they didn’t take it to the world.
But, in God’s sovereignty, Paul says, through Israel’s trespass, salvation has come to the Gentiles. Israel failed to do what she was supposed to do, but that’s not a problem for God. His mission still goes forward. That’s the first part of God’s divine plan and has always been from the beginning. The second is this: Israel is made jealous through it.
I remember back in Oxford, when my kids were younger, we would have a family movie night every Friday. On one particular Friday we were starting the movie night and the kids all got their sleeping bags and pillows on the floor in front of the TV and an argument broke out about who gets the center spot on the floor. One kid huffed off to his room, not happy that he didn’t get the spot his sister did. We let him pout and then made popcorn and Angela and I really embellished all the fun we were having. Mmm, this popcorn is so good! What a funny movie! Laughing just a bit harder than is appropriate for what the movie called for. And I looked back and I could see two little eyes looking around the wall about two and half feet off the ground. I went and I asked him if he wanted to come back and he said, “Well, it does look like y’all are having a really good time.”
This is exactly what Paul is saying about Israel! God’s plan is for the Israelites to be jealous of the grace the gentiles are lavished with and desire to come back to the party. So, is God giving up on his people? Is Paul giving up on his people? No! They want them to come back, but again, there is no alternate path for the Jews. The only path back is through Christ.
This then brings up another question. Did the church replace Israel then? Strictly speaking, no. Paul is working hard to stress the continuity of God’s plan for Israel and the nations and he does this with the analogy of an olive tree. The roots of the tree are the patriarchs like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Imagine the full life cycle of a tree. The seeds of the church are planted in genesis from Adam to Noah. The roots grow in Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. While there is some disagreement as to whether it sprouts with Abraham or Moses, we all agree it becomes a mature tree in Moses at Mount Sinai. That was the first time a large number of God’s people came together to formally worship him in the place he designated. So, the tree sprouts and grows and the branches are all the Israelites, but the tree is diseased and even though the limbs are large, they are sick and unfruitful. God cut them off once in the exile but they continued to grow back diseased. The problem is that not all the branches belong to the tree because they don’t possess faith and they aren’t fruitful.
In the New Covenant, this problem is fixed. The unbelieving Israelites branches that are cut off from the tree and believing gentiles are like branches from wild olive trees that were broken off those trees and grafted into this tree of faith. If the church replaced Israel, that would be like God burning down one tree and growing a new one. That’s not what is going on. The tree that has existed for thousands of years has become both bigger and more pure.
Now, one very important and timely thing we need to see in the transition from the Old Covenant to the New. God’s people in the Old Covenant all had the mark of the covenant (well, at least the men did) in circumcision, but clearly they were not all truly in because they didn’t believe. All you had to do in the Old Covenant to receive the sign was be born. Be born and you are on that tree with the sign of the covenant. In the New Covenant, though, there isn’t a mixed bag anymore of believers and unbelievers. The point of entry isn’t birth, but rebirth. So, the sign of the covenant, which is baptism, is given at this new entry point: belief - which is spiritual birth. This is one of the reasons the New Covenant is an improvement. It’s timely for us because on the evening of September 10th, we are going to have a special Covenant Celebration service and we will be baptizing at least three people. If you have not been baptized and you believe in Jesus, I invite you to take that next step and take on the sign of the covenant God established with you by being baptized. If you are interested in that or have any questions, please fill out a connect card and let us know.
Back to Paul’s argument. There is a divine plan at work to save the gentiles and make Israel jealous to entice them back in. The rejection of Israel is not God’s failure, but the way he does what he has promised to do. What looks like God’s failure is actually the means by which he maximizes salvation for the world. If they had a mind blown sign back then like we do today, I think this is the point where they’d use it.
Then Paul addresses the gentile Christians and his main application for them is that because they are grafted into a tree that they were not originally a part of…because they are built on the foundation of Jesus’ work in thousands of saints before them, they should not be arrogant.
I know Christians in places like Lebanon, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and other places in the Middle East who currently struggle with ethnic Israel. It is a very complicated situation over there. I know two pastors in Orlando who just got back from Israel and the Palestinian Christians told them that the sermons that come out of the American church have made their lives very difficult because we can exalt unbelieving Israel beyond what Scripture tells us and that fuels and already tense situation for these middle eastern Christians. Paul is telling us not to exalt them as if they have some path to God outside of Jesus AND to not become prideful and look at them in a condescending way. That we should long for their salvation the way Paul does even as they persecute him. In the words of Paul, 23 And geven they, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again. 24 For if you were cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these, the natural branches, be grafted back into their own olive tree. - Rom 11:23,24
And some of my dispensational friends would push on that looking to verse 26 and say, “But Jim, Paul says that all Israel will be saved.” But, not outside of Jesus. This is what Paul means when he says if they do not continue in their unbelief. In verse 25, Paul says this partial hardening of Israel will only last until the full number of gentiles has come into the church. And in this way, all Israel will be saved. What in the world does that mean?
There are two good ways of understanding this. I have an opinion, but either way is a good and acceptable understanding of what Paul is talking about. Option one. It doesn’t mean ethnic Israel, it means that the combined group of elect Jews and gentiles. The whole olive tree. That is, the whole church of God. This view does not see some future anticipation of ethnic Israel coming back into the people of God, they just see it as saying that both Jews and gentiles will be saved. This was John Calvin’s view, but it’s not mine.
The reason it’s not my view is because all along in this chapter Paul has been using this term ‘Israel’ to refer to ethnic Israel. Why now would he use this word in a different way without any signal that he was doing this? I think Paul does have the expectation that there will be a recognition of Jesus as the Messiah by ethnic Israel in the future when the fullness of the gentiles comes in. At that time, they will be grafted back into the tree. For me, this is the only way we can understand the partial hardening Paul describes. Now, this doesn’t have to mean every single Jew and it certainly doesn’t mean Jews who have already died, but I do think it mean that a large group on the same scale as those who denied Jesus will one day confess with their mouths and believe in their hearts that Jesus is Lord.
So, why does this matter to us? Why is this more than an academic exercise about the future of Israel? Because, once again, God’s character and righteousness are vindicated because his purpose in election, even including the hardening of Israel, is his means of vastly expanding a worldwide harvest of salvation. What looks like a failure becomes a triumph. Any of us who lives in this world for any amount of time will look at our situation and feel like God is not being faithful, we will feel like we can’t go on, we will not understand why God is allowing the things in our life to happen to us. All of us.
But, we need to remember that God uses what looks like failure and evil for our good and his glory. And no where are we reminded more of that than at the cross. Imagine the failure and defeat the disciples would have felt as they watched Jesus die. They didn’t understand. Had they given three years of their life to a failed cause? But just three days later, Jesus resurrected and what seemed like the greatest of failures became THE greatest triumph in the history of mankind. In the words of Paul, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”
And the more we understand that, in all circumstances we will be able to exclaim in worship along with Paul…
34 “For uwho has known the mind of the Lord,
or vwho has been his counselor?”
35 “Or wwho has given a gift to him
that he might be repaid?”