Israel: a story of God’s faithfulness
You will recall that there was a pressing question in the church in Rome and it related to the role of the Jews. The church had been started by Jews but when the Jews were kicked out of Rome by the emperor Claudius in the 40s AD the church became exclusively Gentile. The role of the Jews in the church became a hot topic when Nero permitted their return to Rome in the early part of the following decade. Paul has been addressing specific questions that this raised and that are still of importance for us today: what is the role of the Jews in God’s overall plan for this world and mankind? I think it is no exaggeration to say that if you fail to grasp Paul’s line of thinking in these chapters you are likely to miss the point of much of the bible – it really is as important as that. If we fail to take God at his word in these chapters (and the bible as a whole) his name will be dishonoured, his plans will be obscured and a false gospel will arise.
1. Israel rejected
The question is explicitly set out in verse 1: ‘did God reject his people.’ Just who are his people? Once again let’s allow God’s word to speak, Paul says: ‘I am an Israelite myself, a descendent of Abraham, from the tribe of Benjamin.’ Have you got that? There is no doubt, ‘God’s people’ in this chapter are not Gentiles, but Israelites – Paul says this in three different ways to ensure the absence of doubt. Well, has God rejected his people? Here’s Paul’s straightforward statement: ‘By no means.’ (v 1) and if that is not convincing enough he then explicitly says in verse 2: ‘God did not reject his people.’ Just why is this so important? One of many reasons is that if God’s does not follow through with his promise(s) to Abraham then why should we trust any other promises he makes to us?
The Jews in Paul’s day were pretty downcast at the situation – it seemed that God had forgotten his promises to them, it seemed to them that it was all over. This was not a new experience for believing members of Abraham’s descendents. In fact none other than Elijah had experienced exactly the same sort of thing. You may remember that he took on the establishment in Israel, an establishment that had gone over to apostasy and idolatry. God was with him, but in spite of a great victory on Mount Carmel he was downcast, he was utterly exhausted, he felt alone in the struggle, he felt that Israel was finished, he feared for his life, he wanted to curl up and die! But God strengthened him and told him that he was not alone: God had reserved a group on no less than 7,000 prophets. Paul applies this very situation to the situation facing the Roman Jews: he says ‘So too, at the present time there is a remnant chosen by grace. And if by grace, then it cannot be based on works: if it were, grace would no longer be grace.’ Now let’s remember that in chapter 9 and 10 we learned two separate and immensely important things: first, God has a right to choose a group of people for his purposes, he has a right to choose that people from within a family (he chose Isaac over Ishmael) and even has a right to choose between twins! (Jacob over Esau) – this was about God’s right to choose the people through whom he would work. Chapter 9 gave us further nuances on God’s right to choose in this way, he could even choose not to destroy the people that he chose even although they deserved it! The second idea we discovered was that for an individual to have a right relationship with God there is only one way: by faith. The sequence (you may recall) is that a messenger is sent, the messenger preaches, the message is heard, the message is believed and the individual calls to God. The individual must believe and call on God in response to the message heard. So two distinct ideas: one relating to choice of a people and the second idea about how individuals are ‘saved.’ Never ever mix up the two! It is the first of these ideas that is in view in these early verses of chapter 11. The situation in Elijah’s day was a collective disobedience of God’s people and it was precisely the same in Paul’s day (the people rejected the Messiah and the coming of the Holy Spirit). The new information for the Jews was this: just as God has a right to choose a people for himself, so too he has the right to choose a sub-group of that people too. He did it in Elijah’s day and he does it again in Paul’s day: ‘so too, at the present time there is a remnant chosen by grace.’ Note that this in no way contradicts the clear modus operandi of individual salvation which remains: send, preach, hear, believe, call.
So God is at work, maintaining and supporting a sub-group of Israelites – it’s his work. So if this is the case, what’s going on with all of these Gentiles in leadership positions in the church in Rome (and indeed elsewhere)?
2. In-grafted branches
Another question is raised: has God finished with Israel or to use Paul’s words: ‘did they stumble so as to fall beyond recovery.’ We ought to instinctively know that the answer to this question is no, because if God made unconditional promises to Abraham and his descendents then of course God would make good on his promises. Paul agrees – did they fall beyond recovery- ; ‘not at all.’ So what’s God up to? Way back in Genesis God told Abraham that ‘all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.’ Now here’s what Paul says: ‘because of their transgression, salvation has come to the Gentiles to make Israel jealous.’ This is quite remarkable, God has used Israel’s failure to bring benefits to the Gentiles! And if this is so, says Paul, just imagine the benefits that will come when Israel get’s itself right with God! This is no empty notion of Paul. The failure of the Jews has most certainly brought benefits to non-Jews: God’s agency on earth has become the church (more of that in a moment) – and that means benefits for Gentiles. But when Israel finally repents what happens then? On that day, God’s people Israel will be ready to welcome the king! And he will come and set up his eternal kingdom on earth! Paul’s point is that failure of the Jews has brought benefits to Gentiles, but their repentance and acceptance of the Messiah will bring in the righteous reign of the messiah on earth, with abundant benefits for everyone irrespective of race.
In view of this, it’s not at all surprising that Paul was keen for his people to be saved: ‘I hope that I may somehow arouse my own people to envy and save some of them.’
Paul now uses a picture to explain the current circumstances: Israel is like an olive tree. The Israeli branches have been broken off and a wild olive shoot has been grafted into the root. Paul tells the Gentiles that they are the wild olive shoot and they are nourished by the root. This is entirely consistent with God’s original promise to Abraham: all peoples on earth will be blessed through you. (Genesis 12). The foundation of relationship to God by faith came via Abraham and it seems that in that sense we in the church age are nourished and supported by these roots. Paul is quite careful in what he says about this. Note that he doesn’t say that the church (Gentiles and Jews) inherits all of the promises made to Abraham and others (David and Moses), to read that into Paul’s picture of an olive tree seems to be quite an extrapolation and one not merited by anything that Paul says. So it seems that the church composed of Gentiles and Jews is represented by the wild olive branches, these branches are not natural to the stump but are nourished by the stump. Why did Paul use this particular picture of an olive tree? Living in the UK, we don’t have attach any particular significance to olive trees, but at the time Paul wrote the olive tree was the source of olive oil and olive oil was the fuel used in oil lamps. Back in Zechariah 4, there is a clear link between olive trees, olive oil and light but perhaps more importantly this image is linked to God’s prophets who bring the light of his message to the world. The olive tree thus speaks of light provided to the world. It was Israel’s privilege to fulfill this role, but through their failure the no longer provide light to the world. That role is now taken by the church.
Does this mean that God’s promises for Israel will not now be realised and that Israel has no future? This is a fair question, just how can God fulfill his promises to Abraham and his descendents if they no longer are attached to the stump? Here’s what Paul says: if they do not persist in unbelief, they will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again. So, God is not finished with Israel (more of this in a moment). But what of the church (the wild olive branches) they should watch out: 22 Consider therefore the kindness and sternness of God: sternness to those who fell, but kindness to you, provided that you continue in his kindness. Otherwise, you also will be cut off. As I write this in July 2016 I note with sadness that the first mainstream church has now decided to permit the conduct of so-called ‘gay-weddings’ in their churches. The light seems to be getting ever dimmer – this should motivate us individually and collectively to be light in this dark world.
3. Israel’s guarantee
God made promises to Abraham that largely came without conditions (see Genesis 12 and following chapters if you want to know more). And we can be absolutely certain that God will not fail to keep his promises. But there’s more to it, if the nation were disobedient this would influence their treatment at God’s hands and the timing of the fulfillment of the promises. Paul adds some new information here: 25 I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers and sisters, so that you may not be conceited: Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in, 26 and in this way all Israel will be saved. Paul seems to use this word ‘mystery’ to indicate something new and unanticipated and the new information is that Israel’s situation (of playing second fiddle to the Gentiles) is temporary and is somehow connected to Gentile response. The key message though is that God will take up with his people again, he will make good on his promises. Paul supports this with some references from the Old Testament (Isaiah and Jeremiah): ‘The deliverer will come from Zion; he will turn godlessness away from Jacob.’ The nation will turn back to God. The implications of this are far reaching: with this future repentance in view, the promises and forward looking statements of the Old and New Testaments fit naturally with what Paul is saying and make perfect sense with the overall Bible story. Failure to accept Paul’s inspired words about Israel’s future creates huge tensions and inconsistencies in the Bible. Many Christians adopt huge revisions in the normal meaning of many bible books in order to get their schemes to fit the data, this is a tragic meddling with God’s very words and is to be avoided at all costs. We must simply accept what God says, neither more nor less will do.
At the time of Paul’s writing the Jews had rejected the gospel and were thus enemies (and sadly this remains to this day), but as far as God is concerned they remain his people, as Paul put it: but as far as election is concerned, they are loved on account of the patriarchs, for God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable. Once again we need to be reminded that this is not about personal salvation but God’s corporate dealing with Israel.
For the Jews in the church at Rome this must have been a greatly encouraging message: in spite of their catastrophic failure in murdering the promised son of David and the loss that this brought (no kingdom on earth, no reign of righteousness and peace, no prosperity) God would in a future time work again with his people and bring about all of the glorious promises he had made. So for the Jew there was great comfort. But what about us, is this just a technical subscript to the gospel message? I think not. As we understand what is going on in these chapters of Romans we discover the sort of God we worship; a God who works with a people who reject his love, a God who holds out his hands to a disobedient and obstinate people, a God who personifies love, patience and mercy, a God who never ever goes back on his promises, a God who does not wriggle out of his commitments on an obscure technicality, a God on whom we can rely 100%, a God who says what he means and means what he says. The God presented in the bible holds his hands out to you too, if you have not responded to his love isn’t it about time that you did?
For both Jews and Gentiles we worship a consistently good God as Paul concludes in this chapter: To him be the glory for ever! Amen.