In verses 1-10, the apostle Paul shows that Israel’s rejection is not complete, that there will always be at least a remnant of believing and faithful Jews. He has given at least four reasons for this. First, God will always have his remnant, as Paul’s question implies a negative answer (1). Underneath this conviction lies passages like 1 Sam. 12:22, “For the LORD will not forsake his people, for his great name’s sake, because it has pleased the LORD to make you a people for himself.” The fact that God will not forsake his people means at least partly that he will always have his seven thousand who have not bowed their knees to the image of Baal. Second, Paul gives his own example (1). The fact that God chose this great persecutor of God’s people, a Jew, to be the apostle to the Gentiles, is proof enough that God has not completely abandoned the nation of Israel. Third, Israel as a nation holds a special place in God’s purposes in redemptive history, a place that is not shared by any other nation. This is explicit in the fact that God has foreknown Israel (2). He has a fierce covenantal commitment to Israel, a commitment that goes all the way back to Abraham and stretches into the foreseeable future. Finally, we have Elijah’s example (2-5). Even though Elijah had been faced with national apostacy of the most tragic proportions, God reminded his prophet that he was not through with Israel. And Paul applies that same reality to his day, and by implication to every future day in which Israel remains as a whole unfaithful to Christ.
Now, in these verses, Paul shows how Israel’s rejection is not final. He talks about God receiving Israel once again (15). Note that the apostle is still speaking in a corporate sense, for there is this contrast between Israel and the Gentiles (or “world,” ver. 12, 15). In other words, the apostle is making an argument in these verses (which he will take up again in the following verses) that there is coming a day when Israel will as a whole embrace the gospel of Jesus Christ. In making this argument, Paul will caution his readers (and us) against making some unjustified assumptions with respect to the current spiritual condition of Israel, and he is going to show that the Lord has a surprising purpose behind the apostacy of the Jews.
The main thing that the apostle is doing here is showing us what God’s purpose is in the apostacy of Israel. But we will also see that he is doing something else. He is showing us how he is conforming his purpose in ministry to the purpose of God. What a lesson is there in that for us! For how often do we try to go at it the other way! We have something we want to do with our lives, and we try to go to Scripture to find justification for it, instead of starting with God’s word and then conforming our will to his. People talk about God giving them the desires of their heart, but we must never forget that this only applies to those who delight in the LORD (Ps. 37:4). And you cannot delight in the Lord if you have not first committed your way to him (5). That is the order.
What we will see is that though Paul saw himself as the apostle to the Gentiles (Rom. 11:13), yet he never gave up on his fellow Jews. This is remarkable if you consider how much abuse he suffered at their hands. It would have been the easiest thing in the world for him to have become bitter and to leave them to the fates. Yet that is not what he did. And at least one reason he didn’t is because he understood that God’s purpose for Israel did not allow him to go there. The apostle did not take the easy way out. He did not allow his own personal inclinations determine his path; rather, he sought to conform his inclinations to the purpose of God. We should do the same.
So we will look at this text in three stages. First, we will examine the purpose of God in the apostacy of Israel. Second, we will observe how Paul conforms his purpose to God’s. Finally, we will draw some principles from this text that we can apply to our own walk and life.
God’s purpose in Israel’s rejection is Israel’s salvation.
Paul begins in verse 11 by asking a question: “So I ask, did they stumble in order that they might fall?” This question is asking whether God’s ultimate purpose in Israel’s stumbling is that should be irretrievably ruined and lost. This seems to be the intent of the word “fall” when compared to its use in verse 22, when it is parallel to being cut off from God’s kindness and grace. This stumbling is the stumbling of unbelief at the gospel of a crucified Messiah (cf. 9:32-33). So Paul is asking if the current state of Jewish unbelief is going to lead to the nation being permanently cut off from God’s grace and salvation.
Paul’s answer is a very strong no (“By no means!”). He argues that God’s ultimate purpose in Israel’s stumbling in unbelief (“trespass” and “failure,” ver. 12) is that they should be saved. That is to say, Israel’s current state of unbelief is not meant to become a permanent fixture of their spiritual state. One day, they will be a nation that welcomes its Messiah by embracing Jesus as Lord. Paul delineates how this will happen in four stages.
First, there is the current stage in which Israel stumbles through unbelief.
Second, there is the consequence of this, which is Gentile salvation: “Rather through their trespass salvation has come to the Gentiles” (11). The trespass of Israel has resulted in “riches for the world/Gentiles” (12). This was happening in Paul’s day. In fact, the rejection of the gospel by the Jews often led the way to the apostles preaching the gospel to Gentiles (cf. Acts 13:44-46). Jewish persecution was often the reason why the gospel spread to non-Jews (cf. Acts 8). It is likely in fact that the early Christians who were all Jewish would have been content to keep the gospel to themselves had not persecution driven them out into the world.
Third, this state of affairs will then provoke the Jews to jealousy – that is to say, they will want the same blessings the Gentiles have: “so as to make Israel jealous” (11; cf. 13,14). This in turn will lead to conversions among Jews resulting in their salvation (14).
Finally, this will lead (ultimately) to the salvation of Israel as a whole. In place of their rejection by God they will be received and accepted by God (15).
Now it is important to realize just how surprising this would have been, especially to someone like Paul who had been raised as a Pharisee. This would have seemed like the very opposite from what they would have expected. In other words, the Jews would have had no doubt that Abraham’s blessing would come to the world, for that is what God promised. But they would not have expected it to come like this! They would have thought that it would come through the faithfulness of Israel, not because of its unfaithfulness.
Should we not pause here and reflect on the comforting reality that God’s ways are not our ways? We have all sorts of expectations and we sometimes fall into the trap of thinking that God must not only share our expectations, but also our ideas for how those expectations will become a reality. But so often he does not, and is doing something in exactly the opposite way that we would have wanted! Nevertheless, there is comfort in that thought, for it reminds us that when our expectations for God’s kingdom are falling to the ground, that does not mean that he is not at work or that he is not doing the very thing we think is lost because it is not happening the way we had expected. For God redeemed Israel through slavery and he redeems his elect through a crucified Messiah. Is that the way we would have done it? Of course not! His ways are not our ways and his thoughts are not our thoughts. Thank God!
By the way, this is exactly what our Lord predicted would happen. On more than one occasion he warned the Jews that their rejection of the kingdom of God would lead to the inclusion of the Gentiles: “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a people producing its fruits” (Mt. 21:43; cf. Mt. 8:11-12). Despite what so many had thought would happen, our Lord’s prediction came true. And how often this has happened again and again in history. The world thinks one way, and God’s word says something different. Whose thinking will prevail? Of course God’s will!
Paul’s desire to see Israel saved, and why
But the apostle not only tried to understand God’s purpose for Israel; he also conformed his purpose to God’s purpose when it came to his ministry. He did what he did “in order somehow to make my fellow Jews jealous, and thus save some of them” (14). You see, this was God’s purpose (see 11), and so Paul made it his purpose.
However, it would be easy to surmise that this was easy for Paul; after all, he was a Jew! So was it Paul’s Jewishness that motivated him in wanting the salvation of his kinsmen? There is no doubt that this was a big part of his motivation. And we should not, of course, fault him for this. The new birth does not destroy our national and physical identity, and it does not therefore destroy the ties that bind us to our families and nations. There is nothing wrong with a strong commitment to our heritage, whether that be to our family or to our country. Patriotism, for example, is not wrong, so long as it does not come before our devotion to Christ and his kingdom. In Paul’s case, not only did it not come into conflict with God’s purpose for his ministry; if anything, it strengthened it.
Nevertheless, we would be amiss if we thought that this was the only, or even primary, reason why Paul wanted to see Israel saved. What then was the apostle’s motivation? It is found in verses 12 and 15.
Verse 12: “Now if their trespass means riches for the world, and if their failure means riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their full inclusion mean!” Here we have an argument from the lesser to the greater: if Israel’s sin and loss has lead to Gentile riches (salvation), how much more would Israel’s fullness lead to even greater blessings for the world? Here, fullness must refer to fullness of salvific blessing. Paul is not specific here but he becomes more so in verse 15 as to what is implied.
Verse 15: “For if their rejection means the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance mean but life from the dead?” Here Israel’s acceptance by God is parallel with their fullness in verse 12. This acceptance leads to life from the dead. What does the apostle mean by that?
There are two main interpretations. The first is that this is a reference to the resurrection from the dead at the end of the age. The second is that this is a metaphor referring to spiritual life and referring to a world-wide conversion of the nations to Christ. I believe that the first interpretation is the correct one, and I want to give you a couple of reasons why I think this is right.
First, I believe it is right because although the phrase “life from the dead” never occurs in the NT, the phrase “from the dead” does (47 times), and this phrase always (with one exception) refers to the resurrection from the dead at the end of the age.
Second, the context demands that “life from the dead” should be understood to be distinct from Israel’s conversion (or to world-wide conversion), because this happens after all Gentiles have been saved. Notice how Paul puts it in verses 25-26: “Lest you be wise in your own sight, I do not want you to be unaware of this mystery, brothers: a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. And in this way all Israel will be saved….” Israel’s acceptance by God resulting from their conversion to Christ will happen after “the fullness of the Gentiles has come in;” that is to say, after they have all been converted to Christ. What is left after that? All the elect among the Gentiles and the Jews have been gathered in – what is the next big thing in God’s redemptive plan? Is it not the resurrection of the dead and the final judgment? As Douglas Moo puts it, “No room is left for a spiritual quickening of the world; all that remains is the consummation” (Romans [NICNT, first ed.], p. 695).
So Paul wanted to see his kinsmen saved because he knew that when this happened that the fullness of the kingdom of God would be experienced on the earth at the resurrection of the dead and the consummation of all things. In other words, at the end of the day, what excited the apostle about the possibility of the conversion of Israel was the fact that it would lead inevitably to the consummation of all things. Paul’s longing was for that; and he wanted to be a part of those events which would usher in the new heavens and new earth. His desire was not to make this a better world, but to bring in the best of all worlds!
This excited the apostle Paul, and it should excite us as well, because this is God’s purpose, and we can be absolutely sure that it will come to pass. It is going to happen, no matter what the condition of the world is today, and no matter how widespread the apostacy and the rot is all around us. Should this not encourage us? And should it not also show us that our hopes should not be imbedded in this world but rather in the world to come?
And as Gentiles, we should want the salvation of Israel, because we are the means by which Jews are going to be brought to salvation. This is what Paul has been saying: Jews are provoked to jealousy by seeing Gentiles experience the blessings of salvation that were first promised to them. And this leads to my final point.
Do people who don’t know the Lord envy my relationship with God?
I think this is so important, especially in our day, because we are living in a time when people by default suspect the motivations and the beliefs of Christians. Our culture has taught people to assume that Christians are hypocrites, that they are hateful and bigots, and therefore to be discounted off-hand. We need to live in such a way as to give the lie to this. We need to live in such a way that people – Jews and Gentiles – will become envious of us because we have something they want but do not have. Do we live in that way? Can we live in that way?
I can’t live in this way if I share the priorities of the world, if I share their values, if what is most important to me is the same things that are important to those who don’t know Christ. Things like financial security or a good reputation.
I can’t live in this way if I pursue the pleasures of the world which the Lord denies. Of course don’t get me wrong here – Christianity is not about emptying your life of joy and become a dull, lifeless creature. No! Following Christ is about joy in the Holy Spirit (Rom. 14:16), joy which cannot be obtained through the avenues which a godless world advocates. Ultimately if I pursue the world’s pleasures, I will become a slave to them just like everybody else. The only joy that is liberating is the kind which Christ gives. That is what we need to be showing.
I can’t live this way if I face the problems of the world just like everyone else. As I’ve said, it doesn’t matter whether people are on the political right or left, today both approach the problems of the world in the same way – through hysteria and panic. If you don’t vote for their candidate the world is going to come to an end. It is frankly beneath a Christian to adopt this mindset. We need to be people who face the problems of the world knowing that God is on his throne, and that when the foundations are destroyed and the righteous are impotent to change anything, none of that changes the reality of God’s sovereignty over all things (Ps. 11). We may not know what the future holds, but we know who holds the future.
That being so, we need to act in the following ways.
First, we need to experience more of the blessings of salvation for ourselves (cf. Eph. 1:15-19; 3:16-21; Phil. 1:9-11; Col. 1:9-11). We need to pray and to seek them. Christianity is not simply about subscribing to a set of beliefs (though it is not less than that), or going to church (although that is important). It is about putting off the old man and putting on the new man. It is about becoming more and more like Christ in our attitudes and actions. Is that happening to us? Do we know more about God’s love in an experiential sense, and are we showing it to those around us?
Second, we need to learn to live by faith and not by sight, to let God’s word be a lamp to our feet and a light unto our path. If we don’t, what is going to distinguish us from the world? If we can’t take steps of faith in reliance upon God, why should the unbeliever put his or her trust in him in the first place? If by our choices we are showing that God is not reliable to trust for our daily bread, why should the lost think he is reliable to trust for eternal salvation?
Third, we need to be dying to ourselves daily. We live in a world which knows everything about self-control when it comes to physical exercise and dieting. But it knows nothing about self-control when it comes to relationships and when loving someone else means that I must crucify my own wishes. As a result, we have a lot of physically fit people who are in dying relationships. They have healthy organs but their selfishness is killing those closest to them and they know nothing about community except the artificial ones they create online. As Christians, we should be showing the way. Unfortunately, too often we act just like the world in this respect. How are they going to envy our relationship with Christ, when our relationships to those closest to us are rotten and in tatters?
As we close, let’s step back from the passage a bit. What is Paul talking about here? He is talking about God’s redemptive purposes in the world, and our place in them. And of course God’s redemptive purpose is a purpose in Christ. He is the only redeemer of God’s elect. The Holy Spirit is in the world today, mediating the presence of the risen Christ, applying his redemption to his people. And we must never forget this. This is not about us. It is not about our programs. It is not about our success. It is about God gathering a people for his name through his Son. Do you want to join God in his purpose in the world? The place to start is in a relationship with him, which you can have if you place your faith in his Son. Will you? May God bring you into his kingdom, for there is no better master than Christ and no greater savior than Jesus.