Sunday, August 23, 2020

“God has not cast away his people”: Romans 11:1-6

 


What should be our attitude toward Israel?  By this I don’t mean the geopolitical entity in the Middle East, but rather I mean the Jewish people (although it is true that our attitude toward the latter must affect our attitude toward the former).  Admittedly, the attitudes of Christians toward the Jew has varied greatly through the years.  It is certainly a cause for a lot of reflection and self-examination on our part as Christians that for many years the attitudes of professing Christians, especially in Europe, was (often openly) hostile and anti-Semitic.  The sixteenth century German reformer Martin Luther said a lot of pretty bad things about the Jews, which Hitler would later grasp and use for his own nefarious purposes.  On the other hand, there are bright and shining examples of the opposite, guys like Dietrich Bonhoeffer (a German Lutheran!), who sacrificed his life in the fight against Nazism and its brutality against the Jewish people. 

Theologically, the place of the Jews in the plan of God has been debated through the centuries by Christians as well.  Today, there are some who, taking the OT prophesies literally, believe that every OT prophesy about Israel can only be fulfilled through the Jewish people.  This is the stance, for example, of dispensational theological systems.  Others have embraced what is sometimes called “Replacement Theology,” the belief that that the OT prophesies of Israel which have not been fulfilled yet will all be fulfilled through the Christian Church.  In this view, there is no longer a place for the nation of Israel in the outworking of God’s redemptive plan.  According to this perspective, the church is the new Israel, and that is that.

Personally, I fall somewhere between dispensationalism and Replacement Theology.  I do believe that many of the OT prophesies will be and are being fulfilled in the church.  For example, the prophesy about the New Covenant in Jeremiah 31 is being fulfilled in the church.  We know that and celebrate that every time we celebrate the Lord’s Supper.  However, on the other hand, when I look at Romans 11, it seems clear to me that God is not done with the nation of Israel, with the Jewish people, and I am willing to allow that many of the OT prophesies about Israel that are still unfulfilled could very well have a future fulfillment through the nation of Israel.

When we think about the Jewish people and their relationship to God’s redemptive plan in history, I think the following two points need to be made at the outset.  First of all, we must not back down from the insistence of the NT that Jews as well as Gentiles must embrace Jesus as Lord in order to be saved.  The gospel is not just to Gentiles, but it is first of all to Jews (Rom. 1:16-17).  When Peter said that there is no other name under heaven whereby we must be saved (Acts 4:12), he was talking to the Jewish leadership.

On the other hand, we must never, ever, allow ourselves to cultivate a proud and condescending attitude towards Jews (note Paul’s admonition, “Be not high-minded, but fear,” ver. 20).  For, as we shall see, Israel is still God’s chosen people – he has not cast them away.  There is no place, therefore, for antisemitism among Christians.  We, of all people, should be praying for and loving our Jewish neighbor.  For that was Paul’s attitude (Rom. 10:1) and it should be ours as well.

But what is Paul doing here?  How does this chapter tie into his overall argument in Romans 9-11?  Remember that the thesis statement of these chapters is 9:6a, “But it is not as though the word of God has failed.”  God has not gone back on his promises to Israel.  In chapter 9, Paul demonstrates this by arguing that “not all that are descended from Israel belong to Israel” (9:6b).  In other words, the salvation of the Jew and the fulfillment of God’s promise to Israel does not depend upon physical descent, it depends on God’s election (chap. 9) and personal faith in Christ (chap. 10).  So I think what Paul was doing in chapters 9 and 10 was dealing with a misunderstanding that the Jews had with respect to God’s promises to Israel.  Many of them thought that their being related to Abraham determined their salvation, but Paul argues that that is not the case; it depends primarily on God’s sovereign choice which is evidenced by their faith in Christ.  However, now in chapter 11, he is dealing with a misunderstanding that the Gentiles might have about God’s plan for Israel (“Lest you be wise in your own sight, I do not want you to be unaware of this mystery, brothers,” Rom. 11:25).  Some of them apparently (and this is born out by history) that God was done with the Jews and that all they had coming from God now was judgment.  But this is not the case, as the apostle will go on to show and that should calibrate our attitudes towards Israel.

So as we consider this text this morning, there are three things I want to do.  First of all, I want us to consider what the apostle means when he says that God has not cast away his people.  Second, I want us to consider what evidence Paul gives that God has not cast away his people.  Finally, I want to look at some applications this text has for us today.

What does it mean that God has not cast away his people?

Again, this question was prompted by the fact of Israel’s wholesale rejection of the gospel (cf. 10:21).  Israel has rejected the Lord – has he rejected them? 

Now let me reiterate the fact that when the apostle refers to “his people,” he is talking about the nation of Israel, the Jewish people.  We know this because in verse 1 Paul answers his question by referring to himself as “an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin.”  So the people of God being referred to here are the Jewish people.  In saying this though, we must remember that there are two elections Paul is referring to in these chapters.  First of all, there is the election of the nation of Israel.  This is what prompted the whole discussion of these chapters in the first place.  It was assumed by many that this election guaranteed the salvation of all Jews but Paul argues that it does not.  Second, there is the election of the remnant, an Israel within Israel (9:6, 11; 11:5).  The first was an election of the nation of Israel to great privileges (cf. 3:1,ff).  But the second was an election of individuals unto salvation.  As we can and shall see, the two are related, but they must not be confused.

So first of all, when Paul says that God has not cast away his people, he must not mean the salvation of every individual Israelite, otherwise Paul would overthrow his argument which he had already made in chapter 9.  We also know that because, as the apostle unfolds his argument here in chapter 11, he refers to the elect remnant (ver. 5).  In other words, Paul does not confuse the election of the nation to spiritual privileges with the election of individuals within the nation to salvation.

Therefore, it must mean, in light of Paul’s response, that there will always be an elect remnant among the people of Israel.  Which by the way is significant because this is not a promise given to any other people-group.  It is true that God has promised to save some out of every kindred, people, and language (cf. Rev. 5:9).  But this is different from what Paul is saying here, which is that no matter when you are looking, there will always be a remnant of saved Jews.  If you had looked in Elijah’s day, you would have found 7000 who were faithful to the God of Israel.  And if you looked in Paul’s day, he himself was an example of a faithful Jew.

But his argument goes further: not only will there always be an elect remnant, but that finally “all Israel shall be saved” (ver. 26).  Now I have heard this text applied repeatedly to the church.  But that is not what Paul is talking about: if you look in the previous verse (ver. 25) the apostle clearly distinguishes Israel from the Gentiles.  And so in verse 26, when the apostle refers to Israel, he must be referring to the nation of Israel in distinction from the Gentiles.  In other words, God’s rejection of Israel is neither total nor final.  There will always be the knees who have not bowed to the image of Baal and there is coming a day when the vast majority (if not all) the Jewish people will embrace Jesus as their Messiah.

What evidence is there that God has not cast away his people?

The first piece of evidence is implied in the question itself (ver. 1).  There are different ways to ask a question in Greek.  You can ask a question in a way that it implied a negative answer, and that is the way Paul asks the question here.  One way you could translate the verse in order to convey this idea is the way the NASB has translated it: “I say then, God has not rejected His people, has He?”  And then of course there is Paul’s emphatic answer: “By no means!”  In other words, we should approach this question expecting there to be a negative answer.  And why?  Because God always keeps his promises!  If he has made these promises to Israel, then we should expect him to keep them.  If he has separated Israel and made them his special people, we should not expect him to abandon them.  Because God is not like that.  We can always take his promises and his commitments to the bank.

I think it is worthwhile for us to ask ourselves: do we have this sort of expectancy?  Is this the way we approach the promises of God?  How often we are crippled by our little faith, and let the circumstances in which we find ourselves to overshadow the realities of God’s own word to us.  We should always, as it were, give the promises of God the benefit of the doubt, even when it doesn’t look like they can be fulfilled.

The second piece of evidence is the example of Paul himself (ver. 1).  Here was Paul, the great apostle to the Gentiles.  But we must never forget that he was a Jew!  It astounds me how some people in the history of the church have tried to marginalize the Jews.  Our Savior is Jewish, and everyone of the books of the Bible, with the possible exception of Luke/Acts, were written by Jews.  Our holy book is essentially a Jewish book.  The apostles, whose teaching form the theological basis of the church, were all Jews.  So it is not an exaggeration to say that our faith is a Jewish faith.  We ourselves may not be Jews, but we share the faith of the prophets and apostles who were all from the nation of Israel.

Though Paul doesn’t mention this here, it is surely significant that God made the foremost persecutor of God’s people into the foremost apostle to the Gentiles.  If there was any evidence that God wasn’t through with the nation of Israel, this was it!  For if there was anyone who should have been rejected by God and cast away, it was the apostle Paul.  But not only did God not reject him, he chose him and loved him and made him one of his greatest servants.

Then third, there is the fact that they have been foreknown: “God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew” (ver. 2).  Just as God foreknowing the elect (Rom. 8:29) means that he will never forsake them, so God foreknowing Israel means that he will never forsake them or cast them away in the context of his covenantal commitment to them.  Note that clearly “foreknow” here cannot mean that God looked down through the corridors of time to see if Israel was worthy, and on that basis choose them.  For the context here is the wholesale apostacy of Israel!  God didn’t foreknow them in the sense that he chose them on the basis of their worthiness: rather God foreknew them in the sense that he had been committed to them by covenant and promise, from the beginning, to the nation of Israel.  And because of this, Paul was sure of God’s ongoing commitment to the nation of Israel.  After all, his gifts and calling are without repentance (cf. ver. 29).

Finally, there is the evidence of God’s answer to Elijah (ver. 2-6).  I love this.  I love it because I can identify with the discouragement of the prophet.  Not that I’ve ever been in his shoes!  But here he was, on the heels of his greatest victory over the prophets of Baal, and yet Jezebel was still there, threatening his life.  Ahab was still on the throne, as apostate as ever.  It didn’t look like anything was going to change, no matter how hard he worked.  And so he goes out into the desert and complains to God and asks him to end his life then and there: “Lord, they have killed your prophets, they have demolished your altars, and I alone am left, and they seek my life” (ver. 3).  He is no longer appealing to God for Israel; he is appealing to God against Israel.  This is not just anyone appealing to God against Israel, this is a great and holy prophet of God.  This is a man who has God’s ear.  This is a man who has boldly and faithfully served God in a very difficult time. 

And yet what does God say to Elijah?  He says, “I have kept for myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal” (ver. 4).  In other words, Elijah had it wrong: he thought he was alone, but he was not.  There were seven thousand others with him!  God had his righteous remnant (ver. 5).  Paul applies this to his day: just as there was a remnant according to the election of grace (note that there is no way this can mean the national election of Israel!) in Elijah’s day, so there was in Paul’s day, and by implication, in every generation.  The evidence that God has not cast away his people is that he always has this righteous remnant.

We must pause here to make a couple of observations.  First, don’t you love this description of the elect: they are those whom God has reserved for himself.  To be reserved for God, what better thing is there?  Suppose that someone pulls an old top-hat out of their attic; it is old and tattered and good for nothing, really.  No one would ever wear it.  And then suppose that it was discovered that this top-hat belonged to Abraham Lincoln.  Immediately its worth has shot through the roof, even though it may be unwearable!  In the same way, to be reserved for God, by God, is to make a sinner into a saint.  It is the only thing that can give us the meaning that we crave.  To be reserved by God for God is a thought so full of comfort and encouragement if we would but grasp its implications. 

And there is another description of the elect: it is that they are elect by grace.  God doesn’t choose us because we make ourselves worthy.  Like the dilapidated hat in the attic, its owner is what determines the value.  Our value doesn’t come from our works, but from the fact that God has chosen us.  It is an election of grace, which excludes all works (ver. 6).  Those who say that God chooses because of something we do (including believing) make salvation to be determined by works.  But we are not saved by works, but by grace, and that too is an encouraging and comforting reality.

Application: How God advances his cause and our part in it.

One principle we can take from this text is that nothing will stop God from fulfilling his purpose and promises.  He made these promises to Israel, and he will fulfill them.  God has a plan for the Jews and it will come to pass.  In the same way, nothing will stop God from advancing his kingdom and cause.  And so we can draw some important lessons from what Paul says about Israel and apply them to the church in our day.

First, there will be times when it seems like all is lost (ver. 3).  It certainly seemed like that to Elijah. It may seem like that today.  There are so many discouraging signs.  In an interview recently, Tim Keller was asked what encouraging signs he saw for the church in the near future.  To be honest, I was very surprised to hear him say that he didn’t see many at all!  And, on the surface, he is absolutely right.  There are so many things going to the wrong way for the church in our day.  And yet, we must remember that there have been many times in many places when the church was nearly blotted out, either through external opposition or internal rottenness. 

It is important for us to remember this because we can fall into the trap of thinking that success for the kingdom of God and the church means that external conditions for the church will be good, that people will look on the message of the gospel and find it compelling, that the freedoms we have enjoyed will remain intact, and that Christian people will be respected.  But this is not the atmosphere in which the church took root and in which it flourished.  We must never forget that “Christian” was probably at first a derogatory term, that the early Christians were described as those who had turned the world upside down, that the gospel was seen to be foolishness and uncompelling to the culture at large.  We need to have a realistic perspective when it comes to God’s promises.

Second, we should never lose hope (ver. 4).  Because, ultimately, salvation is of the Lord, not man.  Note the emphases of the text: “I have reserved for myself” – “remnant according to election of grace” – “not of works” – “election obtained it, and the rest were blinded.”  Because salvation is of the Lord, his purposes of salvation will always be successful!  His kingdom will never perish.

And because God’s cause rests on his shoulders, he can advance it in ways we cannot.  We should beware of thinking that for anything big to happen, it must be done in a big way.  Remember the way God revealed himself to Elijah on the mountain.  It was not in the fire, not in the storm, but in a still, small voice.  God doesn’t advance his cause through the multitudes, but through the seven thousand knees who have not bowed to the image of Baal.  I think this is a reality that the church, especially in the West, needs to relearn.  We think that God is only in something if it is done in a big way, with obvious results.  And because of that, we have adopted all sorts of ways of doing ministry and church that really are just pandering to the world.  And it does not in the end strengthen the church, it weakens it.

However, the point is that no matter how bad things may look, how weak the church may be, or how empowered the wicked are, God is not limited nor will his plans ever be thwarted.  He is often working in the least likely scenarios and moving in the most unlikely places and people.  So we should never lose hope!

Finally, we play our part in the advance of God’s cause through godliness (ver. 4).  In Elijah’s day, how was God advancing his cause?  He was doing so through those who refused to bind their allegiance to Baal.  This is what grace does: it does not give us a pillow upon which to rest in our sin, it gives us the power and strength and will to work out our salvation with fear and trembling.  It makes us into holy men and women.  It creates people whose ultimate allegiance is to Christ.  When Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord, the result was that he was the only person in a world gone mad to pursue and preach righteousness.  And in the same way, grace will keep creating and keeping God’s elect in the way of holiness and light.

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