Israel’s Restoration – Rom. 11:23-32
In this chapter, Paul continues to show how God has not been unfaithful to his promises to Israel in that he has kept his word (9:6). As he has worked through chapters 9-11, the apostle has argued for this from several different angles. In chapter 9 especially he argues that God’s covenant with the Patriarchs did not guarantee the salvation of every individual Israelite, and that this depends not upon the corporate election of Israel as a nation, but upon the unconditional election of Israelites as individuals to salvation. Moreover, in chapter 10, he argues that the election of Israel as a nation did not mean that faith in Christ was negotiable, and that those who reject Christ in unbelief must not expect to be included in the age of God’s eternal blessing. In some sense, the apostle sums this part of his argument up in 11:1-10, when he argues that the rejection of Israel is not complete, that there has always been this righteous remnant within Israel according to the election of grace. This remnant has always been distinguished from the rest of Israel in two ways: (1) they are distinguished by the sovereign electing purpose of God and his grace (the argument of chapter 9), and (2) they are distinguished by their faith and faithfulness (the argument of chapter 10). In the rest of the chapter (11:11-32), the apostle has been arguing that the rejection of Israel is not final by teaching that at some point in the future, Israel as a nation will be brought to saving faith and so be saved.
Why has Paul been so determined and concerned about this? Why go into such lengths upon this subject? Especially to those of us who are living in West in the 21st century, so much of this seems to lack relevance. However, as the apostle will say of the OT, so it is true of the NT, and true of this chapter no less than the others, that “whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that though endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Rom 15:4). Well, there are at least two reasons why Paul would have been so concerned to instruct the Roman Christians about the place of Jew and Gentile in God’s redemptive purposes.
First, he was concerned because he wanted to show that God has been and is always faithful to his word. His word has not fallen to the ground because of God’s electing purpose (9:1-19). And his word has not fallen to the ground because his word to Israel did not deprive individual Israelites of the responsibility to repent of their sins and believe his word. The reason why so many of Paul’s fellow Jews were not saved was because they had failed, not God, in this very respect (9:30-10:21).
Here we must pause and observe that so many people blame God when sin is at the door. We want to blame God for everything that is wrong in our lives and in the world when the reality is that the cause for all of this is often directly attributed to our sin. And even if it is not directly attributed to our sin (as in the case of Job), the Biblical explanation for all the suffering and pain in the world goes right back to mankind’s original apostacy from God in Adam. At the end of the day, human rebellion is the explanation for the wrongness of our world, and it is wrong to put any blame at God’s door (cf. Jam. 1:13-15).
Do you see why it is so important to take God at his word? If you cannot, then you cannot trust him or obey him or fear him or worship him. All of true religion depends upon taking God at his word. In fact this is precisely how Abraham’s faith is described in chapter 4: “No unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God” (ver. 20; cf. ver. 18). And so the apostle is at pains to show us that God can be trusted, and to give us reasons why we can trust him. Here again we see why theology is important – theology is what gives us these reasons to trust in God. It is one thing to say, “Yes, God can be trusted,” but when it gets hard to trust him, when things aren’t going your way and it appears that God is not following through on his word, where will you look for support when unbelief is rearing its ugly head? We must be people who are so immersed in Biblical theology that we have a treasure of resources upon which to depend that show us that God is truly worthy of our trust and that he is a promise-keeping God. And these chapters are a key resource for that.
But there is another reason the apostle is writing this. It is to keep us (Gentiles) from conceit. We saw that last time, when we considered verses 16-22. “Do not be arrogant” (18), he tells us, and then, “do not become proud, but fear” (20). And in the verses we are considering this morning, he comes back to it in verse 25: “Lest you be wise in your own sight, I do not want you to be unaware of this mystery.” So you see how he keeps coming back to this.
Now knowledge can puff up (1 Cor. 8:1), but so can ignorance. And in particular, we need knowledge about ourselves, and in particular, about our limitations. Humility, as Stott put it, is not founded on hypocrisy but upon honesty. We need to be honest about ourselves. But unfortunately, we cannot arrive at this honest knowledge of ourselves by ourselves. Left to ourselves, we are blind. In our unawareness, we become puffed up with conceit. We need the truths of Scripture to guide us to a balanced view of our sinfulness and of our limitations, and that is what Paul is doing here.
Specifically, the apostle informs us and teaches us so that we do not think our (Gentile) reception into God’s family is due to any goodness in us or due to the Jews being less worthy. It is only of God’s goodness and grace that we are saved. Jewish hardness is not a result if their inferiority, it is a part of God’s plan. In fact, the apostle has been and continues to argue throughout this passage that God has so constructed salvation history so that it will become clear to all that the only reason anyone is saved is due to God’s sovereign mercy and grace.
Now let us come to verses 23-32. Again, the restoration of Israel is the main theme in these verses, and the apostle wraps up his argument by the time we get to verse 32. Indeed, he wraps up his argument for all of chapters 9-11 in these verses. He develops his argument in four steps. Israel as a nation will be restored, will be saved, will receive Christ by faith, and there are four reasons why we can be sure that he will do this. The first reason is God’s power (23-24); he will do it because he is able. The second reason is God’s purpose which can never fail (25-27), which Paul calls a mystery, something he has kept hidden but now revealed for us to know and believe. The third reason is God’s promise, in particular his promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (28-29). God always keeps his promises. Finally, this will happen because of God’s praise (30-32); the only way God will be shown to be glorious in salvation is by showing that he alone is the explanation why anyone is saved, and therefore the only way we will praise him is when we see him so. God has in his providence developed the outworking of redemptive history so that this will become more and more clear as we approach the end of the age.
God’s power (23-24)
“And even they, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again. For if you were cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these, the natural branches, be grafted back into their own olive tree.” Remember that grafting here refers to being put in the family of God, represented by the olive tree, and which is based on the root of God’s promises to the Patriarchs. The Jews make up the natural branches and the Gentiles the branches from the wild olive tree. Because of their unbelief the Jews have been broken off, and the Gentiles were grafted in through faith in Christ. The apostle is using this metaphor to describe the shift in the make-up of God’s family on earth, from being predominantly Jewish to becoming predominantly Gentile.
Now this shift happened only because of Jewish rejection of the gospel. It came in the context of their hardness. When it came to the gospel they were “enemies” of God (28). And so we can see that it would have been easy for an observer at the time to think that the Jews were done with God and God was done with them, and that in light of such hardness it would have been impossible for them to be saved. But the apostle shoots back by saying that God has the power to bring the Jews back to the family of God. It may seem like an impossible scenario, but nothing is impossible with God.
We should beware of looking at spiritually impossible situations as if we were atheists. Do you remember what our Lord said to his disciples when the rich young ruler walked away? Our Lord had in fact told them that it was easier for a camel to climb through the eye of a needle than it was for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. This distressed the disciples, who responded, “Who then can be saved?” To which our Lord responded, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Mt. 19:24-26).
It is because we don’t look through the lens of God’s omnipotence that we begin to look at things exactly backwards. You will notice in these two verse that the apostle makes an argument from the greater to the lesser. In other words, it is more reasonable to suppose that God will graft the natural branches back than it is to suppose that he would graft branches from an alien tree. But what does a perspective that does not take into account God’s power do? It reasons backwards! It says that it is more unreasonable that God would graft the Jews back in. But we only think that way when we begin to think that we can achieve these things on our own, rather than to see that we can only be saved because of the mighty power of God exercised on our behalf. When we don’t look through Biblical lenses, we start seeing things backwards, and we don’t see things as they really are. Believing the Bible doesn’t make us blind to reality; rather, it opens our eyes to truly see things as they really are for the first time.
Why should we expect the Jews to be grafted back into the family of God? Because of the power of God!
God’s purpose (25-27)
“Lest you be wise in your 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, as it is written, ‘The Deliverer will come from Zion, he will banish ungodliness from Jacob’; ‘and this will be my covenant with them when I take away their sins.’”
Here Paul refers to “this mystery.” What is a mystery? It is not something that is above our ability to comprehend or understand. Rather, it is a reference to something which we can only know because God has revealed it to us (cf. Eph. 3:4-6). In other words, what we have here is a partial unveiling of God’s eternal purpose. What is this purpose?
Paul says three things. First, “a partial hardening has come upon Israel.” In other words, Israel is not now believing in Jesus. They are hardened in their hearts towards the gospel. Second, he says that this hardening in only temporary. This can be seen in the word “partial” and in the fact that there is a time limit on this hardening: “until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in.” In other words, when all (or at least, most) of the Gentile elect have been gathered in, at that time Israel’s hardness will also come to an end. There is coming a future day when Israel, as a people, will embrace the gospel of Jesus Christ, which they have so long rejected. Third, he says, “and in this way all Israel will be saved.” This receiving of the gospel will issue in salvation for the Jews.
There is a lot of debate surrounding this verse, so I want to spend a few moments examining it more closely. Some say that the apostle means by “all Israel” all the elect, both Jew and Gentile. Others argue that the apostle means by “all Israel” all Israel in all time, from beginning to end. In other words, every physical descendent of Abraham will be finally saved.
I don’t think that’s what the apostle is saying here. He doesn’t mean all the elect here because “Israel” in this context clearly means physical Israel. You can see this by the distinction made again and again between Israel and the Gentiles, between natural branches and branches from the wild olive tree. This is clear in verse 25, and it is unthinkable that the apostle would switch the meaning of Israel in the very next verse without alerting the reader, which he doesn’t.
Neither does he mean all Israel in all time. This would contradict what he has been saying up to this point, especially chapter 9, when he argues that physical descent from Abraham isn’t a guarantee of salvation. What then does he mean?
He means that at the end of history, when the Gentile elect have been gathered in, that at that time the Jews as a people will embrace the gospel and be saved. Whether he means every single Jew at that time or not, he at least means that an overwhelming majority of Israel will believe on Jesus and be grafted back into the one family of God. They will be saved, a salvation that will come by bringing repentance and forgiveness of sins (26-27). Here Paul quotes the OT, putting together several verses (Isa. 59:20; 27:9; Jer. 31:33). In each case, the context of those verses spoke of a restoration of Israel after great apostasy. Paul looks at these verses and sees them fulfilled ultimately in this future conversion of the nation to Jesus Christ.
This is God’s purpose. It will happen “in this way” (26) because this is the way God has planned it. We don’t believe in a God who makes plans and then has to scrap them and reformulate in response to human foibles. He is not like our GPS systems, which “recalculate” when we make the wrong turns. No, my friends, he is working all of history out according to his good and wise and holy purpose. And that is why we can believe this will happen: it will because it is God’s eternal purpose, a purpose which he has revealed to us in this mystery.
God’s promise (28-29)
“As regards the gospel, they are enemies for your sake. But as regards election, they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers. For the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable.”
Verse 28 begins with a powerful reason to think that the Jews will never be restored. They are enemies of God. It is true that they were enemies of the believers, but that is not probably what the apostle means here. The reason why I (and many) commentators think this is because of the parallel word “beloved” in the next sentence, which is almost certainly a reference to God’s love for the nation of Israel. In the same way, it is likely that “enemies” here means that they are the objects of God’s hostility. In rejecting the gospel, they were rejecting God’s Son, and so they were enemies of God. “For you sake,” means that it was God’s plan for the Jews to turn away from the gospel while the Gentiles received it. Every reason to think it was over for them.
But wait, that’s not the whole story! “But as regards election, they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers.” God is not done with the nation, because the promise that God made with Abraham established Israel as a special nation among all the other nations of the earth. They are elect, God’s chosen people. Remember that there are two elections running throughout these chapters. There is the election of individuals to eternal life and this is not something which is tied to one’s physical identity. But there is another election, the election of Israel as a nation. They were chosen by God as his special vehicle through which he would accomplish many of his redemptive purposes on earth. It was through Israel that the Messiah came. But God is not done with Israel, even though the Messiah has come. They are still beloved by God and there is another act in the movements of God’s redemptive purposes on earth in which they will play an integral part. The conversion of the nation to Christ will be the last glorious movement in Gods’ redemptive story on earth before the End comes.
And the reason it will be this way is because of the promises which God made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, these men whom God called to himself and gave these great promises. In these promises, he set Israel apart and gave them many wonderful gifts (cf. 9:1-5). These promises not only guaranteed a righteous remnant, but also that God would never give up on the people of Israel, “for the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable” (29). Why can we believe that “all Israel will be saved”? It is because God always keeps his promises, thank God!
God’s praise (30-32)
“For just as you were at one time disobedient to God but now have received mercy because of their disobedience, so they too have now been disobedient in order that by the mercy shown to you they also may now receive mercy. For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy upon all.”
Here again, as in 11:11-16, we see the sequence: Israel’s disobedience leads to Gentile conversion (“received mercy”), which leads to Jewish conversions (“receive mercy”). Verse 32 reveals the primary reason why God has done it this way. The purpose of God behind man’s sin and unbelief, whether Jew or Gentile, is to make more clear, to set forth in greater light, the glory of God’s mercy to both Jew and Gentile alike. For the implication of the language which Paul uses underscores the sovereignty of God’s mercy. He alone can deliver us from the prison of sin and unbelief.
In other words, the ultimate reason why God has done it this way, why he has moved in history in surprising ways, is so that everyone would see that it is God’s grace and not their goodness or cleverness which explains why they are saved. For many generations, God left the nations, the Gentiles, in their own ways and in their sin. He consigned them to disobedience. And because of this, Gentile inclusion into the family of God could never be explained by something good in them. Then the Jews thought that the Gentiles would be blessed through their faithfulness. God could have done it that way, but that would have obscured the fact that God’s saving blessing doesn’t come through our greatness but through God’s sovereign and gracious working. And so God allowed the Jews to reject the gospel while the Gentiles poured into the church. He consigned them to disobedience. At the end of the day, God has arranged history so that no one might be able to boast in ethnic superiority as the reason they are saved. It is to be attributed to God’s mercy, to God’s grace, and to God’s grace alone. And if we see that, we will praise him for it.
Paul will worship the Lord in the following verses. But I want you to see why it is so important to see God as worthy of worship. Worship is a gauge of how much we truly value and love and trust God. The worship of God is not something which is merely commanded, it is something which is the natural outflow of a heart that loves God. But we will never love God as we should if we do not see him to be lovely and most valuable and supremely trustworthy. What Paul is doing here is helping us to see that God is most worthy of worship by showing us in as many ways as possible that God is not just an explanation, but the only explanation, as to why you have the greatest blessing possible – fellowship with God. It is not just mercy, but surprising mercy, that is the reason why we are saved.
At the end of the day, this is the greatest possible news. Why is anyone saved? It is not because of anything in us – either inherent goodness, or moral achievement, or ethnic superiority. The only explanation is the work of God, the work of God first and foremost in history in the work of his Son who came and became poor for our sakes so that we through his poverty might become rich (2 Cor. 8:9). We are not saved through our righteousness but through his righteousness, not through our sacrifice but through his atoning death, not through our doing but through his exalted life. He died for the sins of all who believe on him, so that when you put your trust in him and receive him as your Lord and Savior, you will be saved. That’s not my promise, but the very promise of God. May the Lord bring you into the possession of it this very day!