Romans 11:1-5 “I ask then: Did God reject his people? By no means! I am an Israelite myself, a descendant of Abraham, from the tribe of Benjamin. God did not reject his people, whom he foreknew. Don’t you know what the Scripture says in the passage about Elijah – how he appealed to God against Israel: ‘Lord, they have killed your prophets and torn down your altars; I am the only one left, and they are trying to kill me’? And what was God’s answer to him? ‘I have reserved for myself seven thousand who have not bowed the knee to Baal.’ So too, at the present time there is a remnant chosen by grace.”
You can understand the dilemma of the Christian Jews in the congregation in Rome, and how glad they were to be listening to this very letter I’ve read to you today, written by the apostle Paul, as one of their ministers read it to them on a Lord’s Day. They would know the Greek and Latin and Aramaic languages. They would have no problem understanding what Paul had written. Their dilemma was quite different, it was knowing that their chief priests and teachers of the law – whom once they had revered – had taken and put on trial the Messiah, had paid men to lie about him saying that they had heard him blaspheme, that the chief priests had then sentenced him to be crucified to death and then they had mocked him as he hung dying nailed to the cross. Then in the following years they had excommunicated, persecuted, imprisoned and even killed any disciples they could lay their hands on, especially Christian preachers. Some of those Jewish Christians sitting in the congregation in Rome had themselves suffered for the same Lord Jesus.
So what were they to think? The Lord Jesus had told the parable of two sons and as it ended he described a great feast to celebrate the return of the bad boy who had gone away from home and wasted all his inheritance – was he a symbol of believing Gentile Christians? The dutiful older boy who had served his father was now on the outside resentful, feeling rejected and estranged from the fun of the feast – had he not served his father for years – and these converted Jews might have been feeling like that boy. They were now outsiders in what was rightly the home of them and their Father.
These converts from Judaism needed to know whether God had rejected his people for ever. Did this overwhelming apostasy of Israel mean that God had cast them off for good? Paul has just given us in the final verses of chapter ten this picture of the Lord as a yearning evangelist, vainly appealing to the defiant old covenant people. He had been stretching out his hands to the Jews day after day, but they stubbornly defied him and said, “No!” So did the Jewish rejection of the Lord mean that the Lord had also rejected the Jews? Was the way ahead for these Christian Jews to discard every remnant of their cultural Jewishness? From now on was God going to turn his attention to the Gentiles, and must they do the same? Was that how they were to look at things? Those were the pastoral dilemmas Paul writes about in this chapter. Let us set it in the context of this letter to the Romans.
1. THIS TEACHING WITHIN THE CONTEXT OF ROMANS AS A WHOLE.
i] This 11th chapter is the last part of the so called ‘theological portion’ of the letter, because chapters 12 through 16 are concerned with the outworking in practical godly living of the first eleven chapters. They are the personal consequences of what Paul has been teaching in Romans 1 through 11 about the mercies of God.
ii] Chapter 11 is also the last chapter in a three-chapter section in the middle of the letter in which Paul is concerned to address what is referred to as the ‘problem of Israel.’ In other words, the question of why Israel, the old covenant people of God, had largely rejected the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, who was prophesied in the old covenant to come for Israel (and of course for the Gentiles), the Christ who fulfilled all those prophecies, and what would be the consequences of this for the Jews? Why was it that God’s own chosen people from old covenant times, the descendents of Abraham (spiritually as well as physically), why had so many within Israel turned their backs on the gospel, scorned the message of Jesus Christ, and rejected his claims to be the Messiah?
Paul has already been dealing with that very issue in Romans 9 and 10. In fact, Romans 9, 10, and 11 form a three-pronged argument in which Paul gives three answers to the question, why has Israel rejected God?
A] In Romans 9, his answer had to do with the sovereignty of God. God was still in control of everything. He had every right to choose many, many sinners and to pass others by. God is just in everything he does.
B] In Romans chapter 10, his answer focuses on our responsibility once we’ve heard about the Lord Jesus’ extraordinary life, that we are to repent of our sins and believe in him. Israel had largely rejected Christ. They heard, and understood, but they disobeyed.
C] Then, when Paul gets to Romans chapter 11, he has yet another argument, another line of reasoning, in order to help us to understand Israel’s rejection of the gospel. He begins in the first ten verses to summarize what he has said so far, that there is a remnant in Israel who trust in Christ, while unbelieving Israel is under the divine cosh. Then in verses 11-24 he tells the Gentile members of the Roman congregation what their attitude should be towards Jews, that Israel is not beyond recovery, and that the rebellion of Israel against God has resulted in God’s blessing now coming on the Gentiles. Then in verses 25 to 32 he answers the question how God would ultimately fulfil his plan for the Jews. Finally he ends the chapter with doxology. Today we are following the first prong of this three-fold argument about Gentiles and Jews. So as we’re now looking at this chapter in the context of the whole book let me add this third point . . .
iii] The contents of Romans 11 are very relevant for us for day to day Christian living. Practical Christian teaching does not start in the next chapter, but it is here. It is not that the subject of Israel in the plan of God is speculative and theoretical, stuff to argue and debate, or split churches over, or even fit into a millennial scheme about the future. It is not a chapter that is rather irrelevant and impractical in terms of the way we live our Christian life. Not at all; it is on the front line of God-pleasing living. There are Christians in this congregation who are struggling with their marriages, or they are having some difficulty with parenting, or dealing with serious moral issues in their lives, or they are battling with vocational matters. What you need is a grasp of the teaching of Romans 11. You must learn from what God has inspired in this chapter about his big plan of salvation and notice the principles of how God deals with men and nations, because those principles will apply for you today with your struggles. Let me use this illustration, if you are an architect then whatever the building you are designing there are certain features that every single building needs. It might be a cathedral, a condominium, a college or a cottage. Each building needs access, protection from the weather, light, fresh air, warmth in the winter and coolness in the summer. Those principles are built into every plan of every architect for every building they design. So it is when God is dealing either with a little Christian girl, or the holiest man who has ever lived, or with a congregation of a thousand people, or with an Old Testament nation then God is always the same in how he deals with them. He focuses the attention of us all on the Messiah; he turns them from sin; he strengthens them to live for his glory and he encourages them to love one another. Whoever it is, important or insignificant; this is always the plan of God for his people. He works by unchangeable principles. And so, whatever part of the Bible you are studying, and whether you are a new baby Christian or a mature believer, a solitary disciple or a member of a mega-church God will work in you and with you by these same principles and teach you the same truths and encourage you to live the same God-fearing way. What God says to Israel he also says to our congregation. Dr. Ligon Duncan of Jackson, for example, offers four suggestions of what we can learn from Romans 11, which I have taken and adapted.
A] The first thing is this: Romans chapter 11 reminds us of the importance of a vital relationship with God through Jesus Christ, because throughout this chapter we’re going to be told about people who had exposure to the Bible, were taught the covenant promises of God, sat under faithful preaching not only for years and years, but century after century, and yet never loved the Lord. Now that reminds us that in religious communities today in the professing church – the Roman church, the Anglican church, the Baptists, Free Churches, charismatics, Pentecostals and the cults – in all of them people can go through ceremonies and memorize scriptures and catechisms and attend various religious courses and fill in work-books, but it is worryingly possible at the end for them for them not to know the Lord. That means that we must watch and pray; we must take heed to ourselves. We must ensure that we are trusting in God through Jesus Christ, that we have received him by faith, that we’re walking with him, and that we have vital personal relationship. Romans chapter 11 reminds us of that stark truth in the material that it covers.
B] Secondly, in Romans chapter 11, we learn about the trustworthiness and the faithfulness of God. You see, the question that Paul has raised brings to our attention the issue of whether God is straight. Now we know that that is a very practical question for a Christian to answer. You see, if you think that God has failed to keep his promises to Israel then you’re going to think; “If he’s failed to keep his promise to Israel, might he fail to keep his promise to me and any believer. I’m not the strongest of Christians?” So having an assured answer to the questions, “Has God been faithful to Israel, and in what ways?” is actually the most practical encouragement for you and me to keep trusting in the promise-keeping Lord.
C] Thirdly, as we look at this great passage, it confirms that our attitude toward the Jewish people ought to be one of a sincere desire to see them brought to a saving knowledge of God in Jesus Christ. Every year in Aberystwyth we are confronted with a thousand orthodox Jews coming for a month’s holiday to our resort and staying at premises in the university. They are easy to spot; I love to see them walking around the town. I admire their family life, and the books the men often carry, and the prams they push, and the modest old-fashioned nature of their general appearance. We yearn for them to know that their Messiah has come and he is in fact our Lord Jesus Christ. You know, from the very first days of the early church, there were Jewish persecutions of the early Christians, and over the course of the centuries, as the church became more and more Gentile, a certain Christian hardness developed, an ugly hostility towards the Jewish people. Sometimes in the Middle Ages it would break out in pogroms against the Jews in various parts of Europe. We know what happened in Germany in the middle of the 20th century. As a boy I even heard one of my own family talking disparagingly about a ‘Jew boy’ to my shock and distress. Yet Paul in this passage, and elsewhere, supplies for us what ought to be the Christian’s attitude toward the Jewish people: not to see them as scapegoats to be driven off and abandoned, but as those for whom we ought to love and speak to and pray to the Lord that they would become objects of his mercy, that they would find the knowledge of salvation through Jesus Christ. And we learn that in Romans chapter 11.
D. One last thing. This chapter is about the big picture, it’s about the plan of God, and that, in and of itself, is most helpful and practical. You know, sometimes when we are dragged into the problems of life we lose sight of the big picture, and that is fatal. It is like concentrating on one piece of jigsaw rather than the picture. You know, some folk are struggling in their marriages, we’re wrestling as parents, we’re having a hard time at work, or with our college courses, and it can get overwhelming. We feel as if we’re stagnating spiritually, we are making no progress, and we’re never going to advance another step. But being able to pull back for a moment and realize that we are part of a big plan, in fact a huge plan, a plan that’s far vaster than our own problems, our own circumstances, and in the particularity of our own situation, then that renewed vision of God at work is quite refreshing. Life in this world doesn’t revolve around me, and my family, and my little congregation, and my small nation, and this brief period of one lifetime in the early 21st century. Life is about God working out his purposes; it’s about God’s glory, and a grasp of that isn’t only practical, it’s essential. Without reminding ourselves regularly that our chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him for ever, we lose the plot. So for all those reasons and frankly for many more, the study of Romans chapter 11 is far from being speculative or theoretical, but a practical and essential boost for healthy Christian living. So what I have done so far is to have looked at the teaching of this chapter in the context of the letter as a whole, and this chapter is saying that the rejection of the Jews is neither total – rejecting every descendant of Abraham – nor final.
2. GOD HAS NOT REJECTED HIS PEOPLE.
You see how the chapter begins, “I ask then: Did God reject his people? By no means!” (v.1). You see how Paul underlines the importance of this question. He doesn’t simply make a bare statement, “God hasn’t rejected his people.” He doesn’t simply raise the question, he first announces to the Roman church that he was now going to ask a question, “I ask then”, before he actually announced it, and then he answered his own question most emphatically. “By no means!” All that builds up the importance of the question. But Paul doesn’t rely on laying down some dogmatic statement. He spells out four pieces of evidence to back up this assertion, “God forbid!.”
i] Paul supports the fact that God has not rejected his people by a personal statement. Paul says, “I am an Israelite myself, a descendant of Abraham, from the tribe of Benjamin” (v.1). This is one of three places in his letters when he refers to his own Jewish background. He tells the Corinthians that in no way is he inferior to the false apostles who are stirring up Christians against him. He says, “Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they Abraham’s descendants? So am I” (2 Cors. 11: vv.11-22). And again he writs to the Philippians about men envious of him and his ministry; “If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee” (Phils 3:4&5). So he could be speaking merely as a patriotic Jew, and saying that it was inconceivable to consider that Jehovah God would cast off his own people; that would be rubbish. But there is more to Paul’s self-identification than nationalism. Saul of Tarsus had been the very worst kind of unbelieving Jew. He hated Jesus and all who followed him, especially those who preached him. He mercilessly persecuted the Jews who had become Christians. He wanted them dead. Yet God had saved him! What greater proof could there be that God had not rejected his people than this Jew, Saul of Tarsus, the blasphemer and the persecutor, one surely on whom a bolt of lightning would fall striking him dead – he had received mercy from God and he was a beloved servant of Jesus. He had even been caught up to the third heaven and shown sights and listened to the most wonderful words – this man who had contended with all his strength against the Son of God. He had not been condemned by God, and thus there was hope for any Jew anywhere.
What did the Jews in the Roman congregation see in Paul? A preacher and apostle whose first port of call, whenever he went into a new town, was the local synagogue, and there he debated and preached to his fellow country men and reaped a harvest of people who became the founder members of the new church. He certainly did not act as though believing that God had rejected them and that trying to reach them with the gospel was futile, indeed God blessed his evangelism. Paul said, “To the Jews I became like a Jew that I might win the Jews” (I Cors. 9:20). What did he gain from the Jews for all his love for them? I’ll tell you. “Five times I received from the Jews forty lashes minus one.” They flogged him within an inch of his life on five occasions, and he never warned them, “You take care. I am a Roman citizen.” He never used that argument to save himself such excruciating pain. Why not? Because nothing must interfere with his desire to see them saved. That is how sure he was that God had not cast them into the incinerator where rubbish was consigned. I wonder what pain threshold have we marked out saying that we are not going beyond that weariness, and that rejection, and that mockery even for the sake of Christ?
ii] Paul supports the fact that God has not rejected his people by a theological statement. See the actual designation of Paul, that he calls them not ‘Israelites’ or ‘Jews’ but he calls them God’s people; “God did not reject his people” (v.2). Then do you see what he adds to that phrase? “whom he foreknew” – the people he had chosen, his covenant people. You remember how the foreknowledge of God means not simply those God was aware of, but those whom God loved beforehand. “You only have I known of all the nations of the earth.” Paul is not referring here to elect Jewish individuals, or the remnant; of course God loved and saved them. His point here is that God had not obliterated from his purpose completely his choice of this nation. That choice still meant something to God. There was still a love for them as his old people. As that was the case then it was impossible for God to discard them all for ever, shunning them to the extent that he never sent a preacher to preach to one of them, and never opened their hearts by the Holy Spirit to understand the gospel, and never gave one Jew the illumination to see the loveliness of Jesus – such rejection would have been unthinkable. He had foreknown them and so he didn’t now turn his back on them and ignore his people, though they had been involved in the crucifixion of his Son.
iii] Paul supports the fact that God has not rejected his people by bringing in biblical support. See what Paul says next, how he refers to a famous incident in the life of the prophet Elijah; “Don’t you know what the Scripture says in the passage about Elijah – how he appealed to God against Israel: ‘Lord, they have killed your prophets and torn down your altars; I am the only one left, and they are trying to kill me’? And what was God’s answer to him? ‘I have reserved for myself seven thousand who have not bowed the knee to Baal’” (vv.2-4). After the prophet’s victory over the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel Queen Jezebel had issued a threat against Elijah that she would soon take away his life, and so Elijah had fled. He had left the land and gone into the wilderness a few days journey and collapsed under a Juniper tree. “It is enough, Lord, take away my life for I am no better than my fathers. They have killed your prophets and torn down your altars. I alone am left, and now they want to kill me.” Those were the pathetic words of Elijah. God responded immediately by saying that in no way was Elijah the only believer left. Israel’s national apostasy was not complete. There was a remnant, as many as seven thousand in the land who had not been captivated by Baal’s prophets. They were not bowing down to that false god.
Paul was hearing the lamentation of some Christian Jews. They were sighing, “It’s all over with us. God has finished with us Jews. We’ve been trying to evangelize our families and friends, but now they are as hard as nails. They won’t listen to us when we talk to them. God has rejected the lot of them, and they are even becoming quite vicious towards us. It is an end to reaching out to them because God has finished with them.” So Paul reminds them that there was a famous day when Elijah thought the end had come and that the whole people had gone over to Baal. God spoke to him and told him that it wasn’t as bleak as he was making out. God said, “I have reserved for myself seven thousand . . .” So in Paul’s day amongst apostatizing and Christ-hating Israel God had a people still. He had not consigned them all to the incinerator. He is exhorting them, “Don’t be blind to the opportunities of synagogue preaching, and to your family coming to trust in Christ. Rebecca, keep praying for your estranged husband. Young Benjamin keep loving your cold parents. Keep sharing your faith with your Jewish family and friends. Such labour in the Lord is not in vain. God will bless your words and hear your prayers and Jews will discover that Jesus is the Messiah. You may see a little harvest in Asia Minor and in Greece and in the cities of Italy of Jewish converts.”
iv] Paul supports the fact that God has not rejected his people by referring to what the grace of God was doing in the lives of favoured Jews even as this letter was being read. You see what Paul writes, “So too, at the present time there is a remnant chosen by grace” (v.5). At that very time, while the Christian Jews were gathering with their Gentile brethren in the Roman congregation, were they only observing wholesale and total rejection of Christ by Jews everywhere? No, not total rejection. Had they seen new Jews beginning to attend the congregation in Rome during the last year? Yes. Had they seen converts from Judaism confessing Jesus Christ to be the Saviour? Yes. Was this going on elsewhere? Yes it was. In the last couple of years Paul had visited Jerusalem and he was confronted with a mega-congregation of converted Jews, and in a conversation he’d had with the pastor and elders there James had said to him, “You see, brother [Paul], how many thousands of Jews have believed,” (Acts 21:20). That was quite a sizable remnant, just in Jerusalem alone the congregation of Christians in that one city was to be numbered in its thousands, and all of them had been chosen by the grace of God (v.5). Such a saving work of God on that scale, a ‘great awakening in Jerusalem’ we would call it, doesn’t speak of God having utterly rejected his ancient people. It speaks of the vastness of his mercy to these Jerusalem sinners who had crucified and mocked his Son as he hung dying on Golgotha. God had chosen thousands of them and had saved them. This was the remnant chosen by grace not saved by their deserving.
When Dr Michael Horton discovered as a teenager the doctrines of grace he wanted to share them with all his friends and family. His mother and father were Christians, but they thought that it was Christians who chose God not that God chose us by his grace. So the teenager would argue with his mother who couldn’t appreciate her son’s words, and his father would get terribly upset at arguments about the Bible in his home, and often he would get up and leave the room. On one of those occasions Michael followed his father and apologized to him for arguing with Mom when it clearly offended him. His father turned to him with tears and said to him, “What if your father’s not been chosen?” Then the boy displayed his wisdom even at that age. It is little wonder that today he is the professor of theology at Westminster Seminary and the author of many books. What he did was to quote to his father John chapter 10 and verse 27, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.” Then he said, “Dad, have you heard the Shepherd’s voice?” “Yes,” said his father. “Do you follow him?” “Yes,” said his father again. “Then this is Jesus’ answer to your fears that you haven’t been chosen,” and he quoted to Dad the next words of Jesus, “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.” Everything changed at the sound of those words of Jesus, even the anger and sadness in his father’s face went. Once he understood what it meant to be one of the remnant chosen by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ then it became the very opposite of what he had thought it meant. It was a comfort not a threat. It was a foundation to rest on not a rock to crush you. His father always looked back at that little conversation and often told him and other members of the family, “That was a life-changing moment.”
So often being chosen by God is made out to be unfair. It is compared to you being a loyal employee in the same company for thirty years and some inexperienced student fresh out of college is employed, given the same pay, rank, and pension as you get. Or again, what if your younger brother wasted much of what Dad had worked for all his life, took it and wasted it on the lottery and horses, real ale, parties, world-wide cruises and fast cars, and then one day he came back broke and dirty and Dad welcomed him home with a party – and gave him the same status in the house as you? Or again, your father married again a much younger woman and he left her in his will the same inheritance as he left you. In all those cases you’d think, “That’s not fair!” We have a strong sense of justice and fair play.
Now you’re probably realizing that I’m paraphrasing some of our Lord’s parables: the one concerning the labourers in the vineyard and also the one concerning the prodigal son. In the first, Jesus looks them in the eye: “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity? So the last will be first, and the first last” (Matt. 20:15-16). The Jews were the labourers who had worked all day and were scandalized by the owner’s decision to pay the same wage to those others (in other words, the Gentiles, ‘Johnny Come Lately’) who showed up for an hour at the end of the day. The Jews were also the older brother, uncomprehending the Father’s love for his dissolute sibling, the godless Gentiles.
When it comes to salvation, there are no exact wages matching time sheets and effort put in. In fact, “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). So Jewish Christians might be upset that they have kept the law of God for centuries while the Gentiles have only been believers for five minutes. But if Jew or Gentile wants to talk about getting what they deserve, then they’re in for a rough ride. Eternal likeness to Christ in the glories of heaven, adoption into the family of God and receiving an inheritance that does not fade away, is an honour freely given to us. It is not a reward anyone has earned. What could we do to be worthy of such glory? Is being chosen by grace fair? Hardly. But who wants fairness in this matter? After all, if God were to give everybody what they deserved, nobody would enter heaven. He could leave every one of us in our spiritual death and the condemnation that we have chosen for ourselves.
When we talk about what is fair, then, we need to start with the baseline that each and every one of us deserves eternal death because we are sinners. The amazing thing is that God would choose to save any sinner at all, let alone countless billions, especially when God knows that the people he has chosen would not choose him apart from his grace. In his healing ministry, Jesus healed some sick fold but not others. When we come to such passages, do we question his pity? Not at all; we praise Christ’s mercy. I will tell you what is the remnant chosen by grace. Thousands of Jews were converted fifty days after many of them had been chanting, “Crucify Jesus! Crucify Jesus!” They had mocked God’s Son on the cross. To those very people God sent Peter and filled him with his Spirit, and when Peter preached he sent the Spirit on three thousand of them too and they repented and believed in the Lord. Aren’t you mighty glad of a remnant chosen by grace? None of us would be here without that. None of us will be in heaven without that. It will all be of grace! Grace alone.
28th April 2012 GEOFF THOMAS