Monday, June 29 –
If there’s anything that has struck me in 48 years of pastoral ministry, it is the hardening of opposition to the Gospel, and the word of God in general. Yet along with that the urge is to hunker down, withdraw and keep ourselves separated, and think now we are secure – and as a Pastor, I’ve seen that also. We are back to our reading through the New Testament in a year and in today’s reading – Romans 11:1-31 – Paul will challenge our perceptions on what God is doing, and therefore what we should do. Read the chapter and then come back that we might walk through the Apostle’s message for us today.
It is easy to lose sight of God in the midst of cultural ups and downs. We wonder as Paul did, “Has God rejected his people?” (11:1), and later asks again, “Did the Jews stumble and fall beyond hope?” We know the assurance of God’s keeping from 8:28-39, but why does life in Christ leave us – at times – wondering, “what is going on here?” The answer lies in two unseen realities: a Remnant and God’s discipline.
Paul first takes up the unseen reality of a faithful remnant (11:1-6). Israel, in general as a nation, had rejected Jesus and the message of the Gospel. Paul had established that in chapter 9, and reminded us that God had purposes to fulfill that lay outside of Israel’s will (take a look again if you need to at 9:6, 11, 32; and 10:21). The natural question Paul then asks is, “well then is God finished and given up on his people altogether?” He answers it in the same strong Greek word he had used in 6:1, “by no means”, or, “absolutely not”. First of all, Paul himself is proof of God’s ongoing work. There were many Jewish believers who did turn to the Gospel of Christ and believe – the biblical reminder was in the story of Elijah when he complained to God that he and he alone was left to fight the Baal worshipers. God told him that he had seven thousand who had not bowed to Baal. Paul then adds: “So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace. (11:5).
The keyword is “grace”. Grace becomes the stumbling block for any who refuse to come to Christ. Paul reminds us that grace is how God calls his elect people and the rest are “hardened” – even as Jesus had taught, “they have eyes but they do not see, and ears but they do not hear” (11:7-8). Paul quotes from the Old Testament. First from Isaiah (29:10), and then from Deuteronomy (29:4), followed by a Psalm (69:22-23) as a reminder that the efforts of their religious works to achieve the righteousness they hoped for turned out to be a “snare”, a “trap”, and instead of seeing the light, they stumbled in the darkness. The language is a reminder that church-going, creed-speaking, hymn-singing, sermon-hearing, without humbling grace does not lead to a faithful response, but to a hardening of heart, and a mere going through the motions of religion.
He asks, “Did they stumble in order that they might fall?”, again he answers: “By no means!”, again, “absolutely not”. The Gospel was good news to some of them but rejected by the whole, but that opened the doorway for the Gospel to the Gentiles, and Paul reminds them, “I’m speaking to you Gentiles” (11:13). Remember that in Paul’s missionary journeys his pattern was to go to the Synagogue and explain the Gospel to the Jews “first”, and then after they rejected it (although some did believe) he said over and over, “then I’ll take the good news to the Gentiles”. It was how new churches came into being all over Asia and Europe.
The rejection by Israel became the very means God sovereignly used for the Gospel’s reception among the Gentiles. God purposed the Church as Christ’s body, a new creation, a new covenant that replaced the old covenant, and God purposed the Church as a world of believers, not just a Jewish offshoot. While the reception of the Gentiles and some Jews might make the Jewish nation “jealous” (11:11,14), the larger purpose of God is clear – “riches for the world” (11:12). It is as John Stott wrote – “A chain of blessing” – whereby God’s discipline of his people is not a rejection of them, but a means to accomplish a larger purpose – the Church. Israel’s hardening is not absolute (11:14) and not permanent (11:15, 25ff).
Theologically Paul returns to God’s instruction to Israel when they first came into the Promised Land. God instructed them to take the “first fruits” of the land and bring them to God’s place of worship and give thanks for the provisions that had come from the “first fruits”. The first meant God gave them to us, and we have God’s blessings that more will come after this. It was a confession of God’s faithfulness, love, and grace. The principle goes back to the nature of Grace. God pruned the branches that produced no fruit (Israel) and grafted on to the tree branches that would bear fruit (11:17-18). Paul is giving a sovereign picture of God’s purposes in church history. While some Jewish people have always turned to Christ in every generation, God grafted the Gentiles into the tree in order to demonstrate that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile – just God’s redeemed people by grace through faith in Christ.
The danger of any religion is its pride, smugness, lack of humility and so Paul makes it clear – as a Gentile grafted in, we have nothing to brag about(11:19-20) – grace through faith eliminates any thought that we are better, and in fact, pride, or religious motions without humbling grace might even reverse the process (11:21-23). This is not a loss of the security in Christ he had previously written, but a cautionary warning not to let religious pride make us lose sight of the humility of grace. It is God’s kindness that leads us to his grace and faith, and it is God’s severity that led to Israel’s discipline and hardening – it can go the other way too! The problem is always a matter of unbelief (vs 23-24), and the remedy is always faith that honors and glorifies God.
In 11:25-32, Paul finishes the three chapters and answers his initial question – “why have my people – Israel – rejected the Gospel?” (9:1). The death of Christ, his ascension into heaven, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit opened the Gospel first to Israel. Yet Jesus had told his disciples in Acts 1:8, this was a gospel for “the uttermost part of the world”. It is a mystery that was hidden in the eternal plan and purposes of God (11:25). It is not an absolute, nor permanent setting aside of Israel, but a temporary hardening (disciplining) of Israel “until the fullness of the Gentiles has come” – aka, until God’s purposes for the Gospel worldwide are finished. Some who are enemies (11:28), who are disobedient (11:30), receive mercy and show God’s infinite wisdom and sovereign ways – inscrutable ways. In other words, incomprehensible ways...never could imagine this is how God was going to work out his salvation plan.
Paul cannot write anymore.
From 1:16 where he had said, “I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for it is the power of God unto salvation” to the end of chapter 11, he has made the case and as in a courtroom drama, there is nothing more to be said, except this: the
“ Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!
“For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?”
“Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?”
For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen (11:33-36).
God’s purpose and plans are beyond our comprehension. God is the source and the sustainer of all creation – including all humanity – including the Church. We often don’t understand what God is doing until he gets our attention. Blessings are often overlooked, even not thanked for, but losses, grief, struggles, and pain stop us and get us to reflect. God is not concealed if we’re not closed up. Has God ever stopped being unfaithful – Absolutely not! Why then do these painful, difficult struggles come upon us? Like Paul, we have to say, “who has known the mind of the Lord?” They lie outside of our mind because they are beyond our ways.
If we will only admit that “God’s ways are not our ways, God’s thoughts are not our thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8) we can also accept the rest of what Isaiah writes: “ “Seek the LORD while he may be found; call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD, that he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. (55:6-9). In this world, there will always be anxiety, troubles, pain, and struggles mixed in with blessings, God’s favor, forgiveness, and grace. God is sovereignly in control – relax.
We began it all with the introduction: “I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God unto salvation to all who believe”. This is God’s way, this is God’s thoughts, this is our need. We find life both joyful and painful at times, but with the Gospel we can say that what we cannot explain we can always confess: “to him be glory forever. Amen”