A REMNANT BY GRACE
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. Romans 11:1
For ten chapters in Romans Paul has been leading us up to the theological mountaintop so that we might better understand our salvation and that we may get a clearer view of God’s great saving work for all humanity. Now in chapter 11 we reach the top of the mountain and what a vista!
In the state of Colorado where my wife and I reside we are blessed with a close-up view of the famous mountain called Pikes Peak. From the top of this 14,110 foot peak (4300 meters) one is afforded a seemingly unlimited view in all directions of the compass. The view inspired Katharine Lee Bates in 1895 to write our nation’s great patriotic song America the Beautiful. From the peak one can see the vast reaches of the Great Plains to the east, with the sprawling but lovely city of Colorado Springs in the immediate foreground. To the west and north are the almost unlimited snowcapped Rocky Mountains and the Continental Divide. Then to the south one sees the majestic Sangre de Christo Mountains running all the way into New Mexico. There is just nothing like a view from the top of the mountain to put all things into perspective.
Today in the twenty-first century we have a perspective that earlier scholars and Bible commentators did not have. In the last one-hundred years or so God has returned many of the Jewish people to their native land and reestablished their nation. He has done this quite miraculously and against the increasing opposition and rage of most nations on earth. He has done it in the face of repeated attacks of the combined military forces from all the Moslem countries in the Middle East. The nation of Israel is an undeniable fact in our world today. In the next few years most Jewish people on earth will actually live in Israel. There are already many nations where Jews have lived for centuries that are now almost empty of their Jewish populations. They have all gone home. God has restored Israel as a nation after two-thousand years. This greatly impacts and broadens our understanding of the Bible.
The question that Paul asks, “Did God reject his people?” might have been answered “Yes” or “Maybe” a hundred years ago but today the question hardly seems relevant. For Bible lovers and observing people everywhere it must be answered with a resounding “No Way! God cannot do such a thing.” Paul answered the question in almost the same manner with his characteristic mē genoito, “By no means!” In fact, Paul himself was “Exhibit A” to prove that God had not rejected the Jews. He was a Jew of Jews from the tribal lineage of Benjamin. So Israel is not rejected and still exists in our modern and postmodern world. It has existed for thousands of years. The historian Arnold Toynbee once classified Israel as “a fossil civilization” because he didn’t quite know what to do with the nation. 1 The famous American author Mark Twain once remarked: “All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?”2
Again we can be immensely thankful for Paul. He was a man with vast prophetic understanding. We remember how he saw the risen Christ in a vision on his way to Damascus (Acts 9:3-5). And again we are reminded that he actually visited in the heavenly realms hearing things that were astounding and unspeakable (2 Cor. 12:2-4). It is clear that Paul faithfully interpreted his Master Jesus. Perhaps we should list Paul among the prophets since he may well be one of the greatest prophets who ever lived. In his works we have many mysteries revealed to us. Much of our understanding of the church and its mission comes from revelations given through the apostle Paul.
Thus Paul can say with prophetic certainty: “God did not reject his people, whom he foreknew.”(11:2). The scripture in several places assures us that God has not deserted his people. The people were actually foreknown (proginōskō), which has the meaning of being foreordained. In Psalm 94:14 it says: “For the LORD will not reject his people; he will never forsake his inheritance.” Many folks, and some of them Christians, think God is finished with Israel and the Jews because they sinned against him in rejecting their Messiah. However, the scripture is clear that God knew from the beginning they would reject him. In Leviticus 26:44 God speaks of their sins and says: “Yet in spite of this, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not reject them or abhor them so as to destroy them completely, breaking my covenant with them. I am the LORD their God.”
In Jeremiah 31:35 God speaks of the ordinances of the sun, moon, stars and the waves of the sea. Then he says: “‘Only if these decrees vanish from my sight,’ declares the LORD, ‘will the descendants of Israel ever cease to be a nation before me’” (Jer. 31:36). So we need to look out and see if the sun is still shining or if there is a moon in the sky. These things tell us that Israel is still with us. God has not given up on his people.
Paul brings up Elijah the prophet to bolster his point. “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?” (11:2-3). After his victorious encounter against the prophets of Baal, Elijah went through some very difficult times. He began to feel sorry for himself, thinking that he was the very last believer in the whole land (1 Ki. 19:10 & 14). At this low point God came to reassure him.
Paul says: “And what was God’s answer to him? ‘I have reserved for myself seven thousand who have not bowed the knee to Baal’” (11:4). Israel was literally swept away with the worship of the pagan god Baal. In Elijah’s day true prophets were hidden away in caves while the prophets of Baal were everywhere and numbered into the hundreds. On the surface it seemed that all was lost but God assured the prophet that he still reserved seven thousand in Israel who had not bowed down to Baal. With this God again reminds us of the doctrine of the “remnant” in Israel (cf. 9:6, 8 & 27). This idea is seen in many other places in the Bible such as Micah 2:12; Zephaniah 3:12-13; and Jeremiah 23:3. In Isaiah 10:21-22 we read: “A remnant will return, a remnant of Jacob will return to the Mighty God. Though your people, O Israel, be like the sand by the sea, only a remnant
We see in scripture that Isaiah had a son with the Hebrew name “Shear-Jashub.” This child was to be a sign and warning to Israel. The name in Hebrew meant “A remnant shall return.” We can imagine that every time Isaiah called his little son it got the attention of all those present: “Come on Remnant Shall Return and let us go home.” Today in Israel there is a kibbutz (collective farm) in the northernmost part of the country by the name “Shear-Jashub.” Whenever we passed by this spot we often thought of God’s promise of returning only a remnant to Israel, and the kibbutz itself is evidence that this has happened already. This surely reminds us of Paul’s statement in Romans 9:6:“…For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel.”
“So too, at the present time there is a remnant chosen by grace” (11:5). It seems that the idea of the remnant was a popular one among the sectarians who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls. Joseph Shulam quotes from one of the scrolls: “Thou wilt soon raise up survivors among Thy people and a remnant in the midst of Thy inheritance, and that Thou has purified them that they may be cleansed of (all) sin.”3 In the first century and even much earlier the remnant doctrine was alive. Today in the twenty-first century the truth of the remnant still lives on. In Acts 21:20 James would inform Paul that there were thousands of Jews who believed in Jesus in his day. Of course, in our day there are once more thousands of these messianic Jews living in Israel.
“And if by grace, then it is no longer by works; if it were, grace would no longer be grace” (11:6). The remnant of Israel will not look to a works-righteousness or keeping the law as their means of salvation. They will look to the Lord who is their righteousness.
God’s dealing with Israel, as we see, is much too deep and mysterious for us to fully understand. The scripture is clear that God cannot cast away his people. Even today he maintains a righteous remnant in the midst of Israel. It is also obvious that he maintains a national covenant with Israel and has done so since the time of Abraham. The Jewish people in every age must decide whether or not they will inherit the blessings of this continuing covenant.
We remember that Abraham was in a deep sleep when God made (or cut) the covenant with him and with Israel (Gen. 15:12-21). The national covenant is thus a one-sided covenant maintained by God himself regardless of what the people of Israel may do. The prophetic books are filled with God’s promises to restore Israel as a nation in the last days (Isa. 11:11; Isa. 43:5-7), and so it is happening today. Also it is of great interest that in Ezekiel 36:24-32, God promises to return the Jewish people to the land in a defiled and unbelieving state. Once they are back in the land God will then cleanse his people and institute the New Covenant with them.
What then? What Israel sought so earnestly it did not obtain, but the elect did. The others were hardened… Romans 11:7
Israel earnestly sought the righteousness of God but did not find it. They did not submit themselves to the Lord who is their righteousness (Jer. 23:6), but went about trying to establish their own righteousness. Because they did not submit they were hardened or made stubborn and without feeling. The noun form (porosis) of the Greek word used here is a medical word and speaks of a callus. 4 According to Harrison “the metaphor implies not merely the stiffening of the existing soul and character, but the outgrowth of a new feature, which obscures while it hardens, by an outer coating of mental habit.”5 While Israel as a whole did not obtain the righteousness and justification she sought, the elect did obtain it.
Paul continues: “as it is written: ‘God gave them a spirit of stupor, eyes so that they could not see and ears so that they could not hear, to this very day’” (11:8). Paul is quoting both from Deuteronomy 29:3-4 and Isaiah 29:10. The “stupor” he speaks of not only involves a hardening but spiritual drowsiness as well. The Greek word used (katanyxeōs) speaks of a numbness that results from a sting, as well as blindness and deafness (cf. Isa. 6:9-10). 6 In the scripture it often seems that God causes such things. However, just as Pharaoh’s heart was hardened before God hardened it, the stupor of Israel was self-induced before it turned into a divine judgment. In other words, “God gives people up to their own stubbornness.” 7 The scripture makes clear that it is the “god of this world” or Satan who blinds the minds of unbelievers lest they see the glory of Christ (2 Cor. 4:4).
“And David says: ‘May their table become a snare and a trap, a stumbling block and a retribution for them. May their eyes be darkened so they cannot see, and their backs be bent forever.’” (11:9-10). Here Paul is quoting from the popular messianic Psalm 69:22-23. The meaning and application to Israel is rather obscure. Some think the table mentioned here could refer to the altar and that Israel has allowed the Temple ritual to cause her stumbling (cf. Isa. 1:11-18). Their backs bent forever may refer to the heavy load of grief, fear or oppression. Harrison remarks that the troubling word “forever” can more commonly be rendered “continually.”8
God’s stern dealings with Israel for her lack of faith and disobedience should stand as a warning to the church today. Pett remarks that the church has “miserably failed in a way that Paul could never have dreamed of, for they too experienced the spirit of stupor and the closing of ears and eyes. That is why unbelieving Israel does not at present have anything to be jealous about. They do not see a living spiritual body presented to
REJECTION AND RECONCILIATION
Again I ask: Did they stumble so as to fall beyond recovery? Not at all! Rather, because of their transgression, salvation has come to the Gentiles to make Israel envious. Romans 11:11
It is interesting that for the first time in Romans Paul does not quote from the Old Testament in this section (11-24). Yet in these verses, which are dominated by the metaphor of the olive tree, we are brought closer than ever to understanding the place of Israel in salvation history.10
In this section Paul reveals the great mystery of how God is working among the Jewish people and among the Gentiles as well. Moo mentions how in this section God’s great unfolding plan oscillates between the Jews and the Gentiles. He points out three stages in God’s work, which are as follows: 1. First Jewish transgression and rejection of the gospel leads to; 2. Salvation of the Gentiles, which in the end; 3. Leads to Jewish salvation. This is so important that Paul relates it six times in this section. 11
We see pictures of this so clearly illustrated in the ministry of Paul. Wherever he traveled he always tried to present the gospel first to the Jews. When the Jews rejected the gospel he turned to the Gentiles. He always had an ulterior motive of making the Jewish people jealous (Acts 13:46; 18:6; 28:25-28; cf. Deut. 32:21).
Paul was also interested that Gentile Christians not be proud and haughty in their relationships with the Jewish people. Apparently this had been a problem in the Roman church. Gentiles have received blessings from the Jews that are unimaginable but they must take great care not to become haughty.
So we can see that Israel stumbled but they did not stumble beyond recovery. Once in Jerusalem as I began to cross a major street I stumbled over the curb. That set off a chain reaction of stumbling and recovery and I went thrashing across the whole street wildly flailing my arms and legs as I tried to keep from falling flat on my face. I am sure that all the drivers and bystanders were amused. I was thankful that I didn’t fall but even more thankful that I was not run down by one of Israel’s impatient drivers. God sure knows how to help us gain a little bit of humility.
Israel stumbled as was predicted in Psalm 69 but we see that even the stumbling was part of God’s mysterious plan. “Thus, what initially seemed to be a fatal misfire in the divine plan turned out to be the secret of its fulfillment.”12
Paul adds: “But if their transgression means riches for the world, and their loss means riches for the Gentiles, how much greater riches will their fullness bring!” (11:12). Once again the apostle employs his kal ve-homer type argument (from the least to the greatest). If the loss of Israel meant riches to Gentiles, what will their recovery, fullness or completion bring? The “fullness” (plērōma) of Israel obviously deals with a certain number of people. However, it most likely has other meanings as well, such as numbers of people being recovered, converted and restored.
As we see, Paul is dealing here with heavenly mysteries. What exactly will the fullness of Israel bring to the Gentiles? Of course, salvation is a primary thing but there is more. We have a hint of what else is involved in Ephesians 3:6. Here we see that Jews and Gentiles are to become “heirs together” and “members together” in one great body of Christ. We are to share together in the riches of Christ Jesus. Further down in this chapter of Ephesians Paul calls these riches “unsearchable” (v.8).
The coming together of Jews and Gentiles in the church will make known God’s great wisdom to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms (v.10). Also in Ephesians 2 we see that this coming together will bring about one new man on earth (v.15) and one new body (v.16). This body will then make up God’s new household (v.19) and will ultimately result in a new “holy temple” (v.21) in which God will dwell. This temple will be made up of holy and redeemed people, both Jews and Gentiles. What mysteries! These mysteries were hidden through all ages but are now plainly revealed to God’s people (Eph. 3:9).
We Gentiles had better loosen up and listen to what Paul is saying, for all this greatly concerns us. Paul says: “I am talking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch as I am the apostle to the Gentiles, I make much of my ministry in the hope that I may somehow arouse my own people to envy and save some of them” (11:13-14). No doubt Paul is primarily referring here to the many Gentiles that made up the church in Rome but it still applies
to Gentiles today.
Once again we can thank God that he saw fit to send Paul as the apostle to Gentile people. We can be thankful that he brought the gospel from Asia to Europe and then ultimately to us. But Paul never lost sight of his other goal and that was to make Israel jealous in the process. That has still not happened to any significant degree. We must always remember that we are not saved for our own sake but for the sake of Israel’s salvation. We all know how a child may not be too interested in a toy until another child picks it up. Then the first child becomes jealous. May it be so with Israel.
There is still more: “For if their rejection is the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead?” (11:15). Bruce wonders if the meaning here is that Israel’s conversion will immediately result in the great resurrection of the dead even coinciding with Christ’s parousia. 13 However, Stott remarks that “life from the dead” is a most unusual expression. In the Greek language there was a perfectly good word for resurrection (anastasis) and yet Paul does not use it here. 14 It makes us wonder what really is involved in Paul’s words. Perhaps the conversion of Israel will bring about dramatic increases in the quality of life and health both in a natural and spiritual sense. There are probably many other things involved and all of them far beyond our ability to easily understand.
Paul now changes pictures and takes us to the altar of God. He says: “If the part of the dough offered as firstfruits is holy, then the whole batch is holy; if the root is holy, so are the branches” (11:16). This is probably a reference to Numbers 15:20. Barclay enlightens us on the significance of the firstfruits offering of dough. He says: “It was not necessary, as it were, to offer every separate mouthful to God. The offering of the first part sanctified the whole.”15 Thus in the offering, a symbolic or representative piece brought about the sanctification of the whole thing. We can see more about this in Leviticus 2:3, 10 and in Numbers 18:9. These verses tell us that all the offerings, even those of grain, were made most holy.
Many commentators see the firstfruits offering as representing the Patriarchs or particularly Father Abraham (Rom. 4:3; Gal. 3:6)—the idea being that as Abraham was holy he would set apart his descendants as well. Unfortunately, such an idea would seem to go against all that Paul has been trying to establish. Nowhere in the Bible is Abraham compared to the firstfruits. Nowhere in the Bible are the words “Abraham” and “holy” used together. Abraham was a righteous man for sure but he was righteous by faith in a holy Messiah who was to come. The Bible says that this Messiah, Jesus, is the firstfruits offering (1 Cor. 15:20, 23). Abraham himself cannot sanctify Israel. Only the Messiah can do that. Indeed, he will do that and make the whole batch of Israel holy in due time.
At the end of verse 16 he mentions that “if the root is holy, so are the branches.” Here the picture is changed again, and beginning with the next verse Paul will develop the metaphor of the olive tree. It is a different picture entirely but we will see that the same
THE OLIVE TREE HERITAGE
If some of the branches have been broken off, and you, though a wild olive shoot, have been grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing sap from the olive root… Romans 11:17
Now Paul switches to the picture of an olive tree and continues with his application. The olive tree makes a beautiful and meaningful symbol. It is one of the longest-living trees on earth. While we may have problems getting our regular fruit trees to live fifty years, the olive can live hundreds of years and still remain fruitful. So the olive is a beautiful picture of longevity and fruitfulness. It is a picture of durability as well. After the Genesis flood it is interesting that the dove brought Noah an olive twig (Gen. 8:11). Somehow the olive had withstood the deluge quite well.
The olive is also a picture of beauty as well as a biblical picture and symbol of Israel. The olive is an attractive tree, especially when it is loaded with fruit or when its silvery leaves are blowing in the breeze. In Hosea 14:6 the Lord says of Israel: “His splendor will be like an olive tree, his fragrance like a cedar of Lebanon.” In Jeremiah 11:16 we read of Israel: “The LORD called you a thriving olive tree with fruit beautiful in form…” So, in the olive tree Paul gives us a spiritual symbol of beauty, fruitfulness, longevity and durability. There are some other important things about the olive. It was the source for cooking oil, for light, for medicinal and many other purposes in ancient times. 16 It is very important to us that the olive tree was the “light tree.”
Now Paul tells us that the branches of the tree represent the people of Israel. Because of unbelief, some of these branches have been broken off. We should note that only “some” of the branches have suffered this fate. Harrison remarks here: “By stating that only some of the branches have been broken off (v.17), Paul inserts a reminder of the fact that Israel’s rejection is not complete (cf. v. 5).”17 In the place of the broken branches, we Gentiles, as wild olive shoots, have been grafted in. We now have the privilege of sharing in the nourishing sap from this ancient tree. However, in our new and wonderful position we must be careful not to boast.
We need to just stop and try to get the full picture of what Paul is presenting here. We Gentiles who were not a people (Eph. 2:12) and who were lost and doomed in our darkness of sin are now placed into Israel’s olive tree of light and salvation. We now stand waving in the breeze enjoying the life-giving sap of this old, old tree. We stand by faith and by the grace of God. What a blessed picture. We have roots and we now have a salvation history.
But there is a great mystery here and obviously it is a mystery that has been kept hidden for most of the two thousand years of Christian history. It is time we revealed this secret. Our family tree is Jewish! What astounding information this is! How could we have missed it for so long? We can see by this that we are grafted into something very old, very sturdy and very much alive. What a glorious heritage the Lord has given us in the olive tree! In Psalm 16:6 the Psalmist remarks about this: “…surely I have a delightful inheritance.” Also, in Psalm 61:5 we read: “…you have given me the heritage of those who fear your name.”
The spiritual ramifications of the engrafting seem almost without limit. As we have said, the olive tree is the light tree. When people wanted light in ancient times they didn’t just flip a switch. Rather they put some olive oil in a little clay lamp, adjusted the wick and applied the fire. Then they had light—wonderful glorious light. The Apostle Paul says in Colossians 1:12 that the Father has “…qualified us to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in the light.” Jesus has placed us into the light tree by grace and faith.
There are many other beautiful things about being in the olive tree. With light comes revelation. Through Jesus we have been grafted into the revelation tree. The Bible says in Proverbs 29:18, “Where there is no revelation, the people cast off restraint…” Multiplied millions of Gentiles live without revelation and thus live in the dark. We see how they have cast off all restraint. However, the church has light and revelation. We must understand that the church today does not need new programs but it needs new revelation, the kind that Paul had, the kind that propelled the early church to the ends of the earth.
There are many other things about the olive tree, like its medicinal use. Olive oil soothed and mollified the skin and was thus a healing agent (cf. Luke 10:34). This use of olive oil for healing is probably reflected in James 5:14-15.
We are not through yet. The olive represents holiness and holy relationships with man and God. We see that the olive symbolism takes us behind the veil into the Most Holy Place. It is very interesting that as he was building the holy Temple, Solomon constructed the doors of the inner sanctuary of olive wood (1 Ki. 6:31). It is doubly interesting that in that Holy of Holies, the cherubim covering the Ark of the Covenant were also made of olive wood (1 Ki. 6:23). This speaks of a most holy relationship.
Thus, through Jesus we have become part of a holy heritage. Since the olive tree is a tree of anointing, we are privileged to have the holy anointing oil available to us. In biblical times this anointing was reserved for kings, priests and prophets. Today through Jesus and his Holy Spirit, this oil runs down our beards and down to the skirts of our garments (cf. Psalm 133:2). We are grafted into the tree of anointing and the anointing destroys the yoke of bondage (Isa. 10:27 NKJ).
We should get all of this anointing we can because we are going to need it as the end days grow darker. Like the wise maidens of Matthew 25:1-13, we need to fill our little lamps with oil as we go out to wait for the Coming One. They not only had oil in their lamps, but they had buckets full of oil as they waited for the Lord. They were fully prepared for the long dark night before the coming of the Messiah.
Paul again warns us, “do not boast over those branches. If you do, consider this: You do not support the root, but the root supports you” (11:18). This is humbling information. The proud Christian church does not have an independent existence apart from Israel. It is supported by the ancient roots and trunk of Israel. Paul warns us not to boast and that is the very thing Christianity has done now for twenty centuries. “You will say then, ‘Branches were broken off so that I could be grafted in.’ Granted. But they were broken off because of unbelief, and you stand by faith. Do not be arrogant, but be
The olive tree heritage is a faith heritage. As Gentiles we are a part of it by faith in Jesus and through the grace of God. We must cease our arrogance toward Israel. Not only have we been haughty but for two millennia the church has even tried to chop down the tree of Israel, not realizing that she herself is grafted into the tree and somehow even supported by it. What insanity! Not only that, but the church has proclaimed that she is in fact the olive tree. What pride and arrogance—the very thing Paul is warning against.
His warning continues: “For if God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either” (11:21). Edwards notes that the olive tree illustration “excludes any hint of anti-Semitism,” and that “Anti-Semitism is a boomerang which will return to lop off the heads of Christians!” 18
GOD’S KINDNESS AND STERNNESS
Consider therefore the kindness and sternness of God: sternness to those who fell, but kindness to you, provided that you continue in his kindness. Otherwise, you also will be cut off. Romans 11:22
What kindness God has shown us Gentiles to make us a part of his ancient people and covenants. Keener remarks concerning our privileged position: “Gentile Christians must remember that they are grafted into a Jewish faith, and that when they are grafted into the Old Testament people of God, they accept not only Israel’s spiritual history as their own but also Jews as in some sense their siblings, even if those who do not follow Jesus are fallen siblings.”19 Not only do we share a spiritual history but we share a natural one in the land and people of Israel, their heritage, land, language and culture. It is all important
We Christians must remember that God is not only kind but he is stern. He is kind to those who come with humble faith but stern to the proud and those who would abuse his heritage or take it lightly. If God cut off Israel the native olive branches for unbelief, he can certainly cut off Christians who are only grafted by faith into the tree. Perhaps this was what Paul was thinking about in Philippians 2:12 when he advised the saints, “…continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” We are reminded of the solemn words of Jesus found in John 15:2 and 6: “He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful… If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned.”
Now Paul speaking of Israel says: “And if they do not persist in unbelief, they will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again” (11:23). The whole business of grafting is a rather mysterious process. First Paul says that the Gentile branches were wild olives that were grafted into the cultivated stock of Israel. This is contrary to nature as Paul admits. Normally cultivated branches are grafted into a wild and sturdy stock. There is some evidence, however, that the grafting of wild branches was actually practiced in ancient times. Sir William Ramsay in earlier days noticed that it was customary in Palestine to graft wild olive shoots into cultivated stock as a way of reinvigorating old olive trees which had ceased to bear fruit. 20
But Paul mentions here that the cut off branches will be grafted in again if they believe. Can we imagine old cut-off, dried-up and dead branches being reintroduced into the
tree? 21 We need to remember that nothing is impossible with God (Mk. 10:27). He is the same God who once made the dead and dried-up staff of Aaron not only to bud but to bear almonds (Num. 17:8).
“After all, if you were cut out of an olive tree that is wild by nature, and contrary to nature were grafted into a cultivated olive tree, how much more readily will these, the natural branches, be grafted into their own olive tree!” (11:24). All this is really not a problem for God. The real problem is our being able to believe it, receive it and live it.
Before we leave the metaphor of the olive tree let us stretch our understanding a little further and try to appreciate this whole picture. The branches of the tree are Israel as Paul has stated. The grafted wild branches are Gentile believers. The trunk of the tree probably represents the faith heritage, particularly of the Patriarchs. We might even label the trunk as “Zion.” But the root of the tree must be the Messiah. Again, most commentators see the root as Father Abraham. To my knowledge only one Bible scholar, Karl Barth, sees the root as Jesus. 22 It should be noted that nowhere in scripture is Abraham ever called “the root.” In verse 16 we note that the root is holy. Again, the words “Abraham” and “holy” never appear together in scripture, although he was a truly righteous and holy man. When we designate Abraham “holy” or “the root,” we have the same problem as with the dough of the firstfruits. He is not able to make Israel holy because that is the work of another, the Messiah.
Many places in the Bible mention Jesus the Messiah as the root. In Isaiah 11:10 we read: “In that day the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him, and his place of rest will be glorious.” In Revelation 22:16 Jesus is clearly named as the root: “I, Jesus, have sent my angel to give you this testimony for the churches. I am the Root and the Offspring of David, and the bright Morning Star.” [emphasis mine]
Although the Bible may never specifically compare Jesus to the olive tree, the clear implication is there by the fact that he is the root. We know from another related picture that he is the vine. In John 15:5 we read: “I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” Truly it is Jesus and him only who is the root of Israel and the one who sanctifies Israel and makes her holy. This same one by his grace has grafted us Gentiles into the
I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers, so that you may not be conceited: Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. Romans 11:25
Paul has presented us with several mysteries and now he gives us another one. Just as there is a “fullness” in Israel (v.15), there also will come a “fullness” among the Gentiles. This is another deep mystery and commentators have wondered about its true meaning. It obviously has some connection with a certain number of Gentiles who will be saved.
Since Paul is dealing with so many mysteries it might be good for us to look at that word “mystery” itself. According to the Bible, “mystery” (mustērion) is defined as “a hidden purpose or counsel of God which when revealed, is understood by the believer.”23 Once Paul reveals these mysteries, they can be understood by the saints of God (cf. Col. 1:26). However, the saints are expected to meditate upon them until understanding comes.
When we think of the “fullness of Gentiles” we must not get this confused with the “times of the Gentiles” which is mentioned in Luke 21:24. The “times of the Gentiles” encompass the whole period of Gentile world government from Nebuchadnezzar to the Antichrist. We see this prophesied in Daniel, chapters 2 and 7. The term “fullness of the Gentiles” has to do with the completion of the Gentile segment of the Body of Christ.
Now what could the fullness of Gentiles mean besides a certain number? The word for full number or fullness (pleroma) can indicate “completion” or “wholeness.” 24 It also has the meaning of “fulfilling” or “full measure.” We can see by the range of meaning that the fullness could imply a completed or whole Gentile church, or to be more precise, a completed or whole remnant of Gentile Christianity. If God will only preserve but a remnant of Israel, his chosen nation, the Gentile church can hardly expect better.
“And so all Israel will be saved, as it is written: ‘The deliverer will come from Zion; he will turn godlessness away from Jacob’” (11:26). This scripture immediately sounds wonderful but we need to think a little about what “all Israel” means. We have already seen that all who are in Israel are not Israel and that there is a holy remnant that will be saved. In Israel today, like in any modern country, there are some pimps, prostitutes, mobsters and a lot of people who care nothing about Israel or her spiritual heritage. Of course, there are also a lot of truly devout people who love the word of God and who diligently seek after him.
It is interesting that Israel’s Bible interpreters never considered “all Israel” as being everyone in the nation. “‘All Israel’ is a recurring expression in Jewish literature, writes F. F. Bruce, ‘where it need not mean every Jew without a single exception’ but ‘Israel as a whole.’” 25 There may be a lot of rebels in Israel who will not continue to live in the land, and some Jews living abroad may never get to return. In Ezekiel 20:38 God, in speaking of the last days and the re-gathering of Israel, says: “I will purge you of those who revolt and rebel against me. Although I will bring them out of the land where they are living, yet they will not enter the land of Israel. Then you will know that I am the LORD.”
Guzik comments concerning this: “God is not ‘finished’ with Israel, and Israel is not ‘spiritualized’ as the church… All Israel will be saved: This does not mean there will be a time when every last person of Jewish descent will be saved. Instead, this is a time when Israel as a whole will be a saved people, and when the nation as a whole (especially its leadership) embraces Jesus Christ as Messiah.” 26 Keener adds: “Jewish teachers commonly said that ‘all Israel will be saved,’ but then went on to list which Israelites would not be saved: the phrase thus means ‘Israel as a whole (but not necessarily including every individual) will be saved.’”27
There has been a considerable discussion about Paul’s quote “The deliverer will come from Zion.” This quote is taken from Isaiah 59:20 and Edwards points out that both the Hebrew and Greek (LXX) texts read that the deliverer will come “to Zion.” 28 This seems to be but a technicality. Probably “to Zion” and “from Zion” may both be correct in a spiritual sense (cf. Psa. 14:7). Calvin says that Paul’s purpose was not just to point at scripture but “that readers might be directed to the fountain itself.” 29
“And this is my covenant with them when I take away their sins” (11:27). This statement is a composite rendering of two or perhaps three Old Testament scriptures. They are Isaiah 59:20, 21; 27:9; and Jeremiah 31:33. The prophet speaks of a day when all of Israel’s sins will be forgiven and gone: “‘In those days, at that time,’ declares the LORD, ‘search will be made for Israel’s guilt, but there will be none, and for the sins of Judah, but none will be found, for I will forgive the remnant I spare’” (Jer. 50:20).
The cleansing of Israel is a mysterious subject in itself. The prophet Zechariah deals with this in some detail in the 12th to 14th chapters. He mentions that God will pour out a spirit of “grace and supplication” on the house of David; that they will look upon the one they have pierced and grieve deeply for him (12:10). Then he shows us that a fountain will be opened for the house of David and residents of Jerusalem to cleanse them of sin (13:1). God will not only remove impurity from the land but he will remove the false prophets and the spirit of impurity as well (13:2). This is such a thorough cleansing that even the bells on the horses and common cooking pots in Jerusalem will be “holy to the Lord”
Paul continues to assess the present tensions between Gentiles and Jews. “As far as the gospel is concerned, they are enemies on your account; but as far as election is concerned, they are loved on account of the patriarchs,” (11:28). Thus we see in a real sense that there is a natural tension between Gentiles and Jews. Even to this day many Jews are avowed enemies of the gospel. Jewish believers in Jesus are regularly harassed in Israel and sometimes there are even life-threatening persecutions. Yet, for the sake of the patriarchs Israel is still loved and must be loved by us. We know that ultimately there will be a coming together in spirit and in truth.
The apostle continues: “for God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable” (11:29). Just as I was writing this section, a believer contacted me by internet wondering if his spiritual gifts had been taken away due of his disobedience. I was happy to write back and assure him that his gifts are irrevocable. God doesn’t change his mind about them or withdraw them if we goof up. We need to understand that the same applies to Israel’s calling. God has never changed his mind about Israel and neither has he changed his mind about us. We were chosen in him before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4). He will not cast us away.
There are a couple of verses that assure our hearts about God’s faithfulness in this regard. Malachi 3:6 states: “I the LORD do not change. So you, O descendants of Jacob, are not destroyed.” Then there is Numbers 23:19 which says: “God is not a man, that he should lie, nor a son of man, that he should change his mind. Does he speak and then not act? Does he promise and not fulfill?”
“Just as you who were at one time disobedient to God have now received mercy as a result of their disobedience, so they too have now become disobedient in order that they too may now receive mercy as a result of God’s mercy to you” (11:30-31). Stott notes in this passage: “It is because of disobedient Israel that disobedient Gentiles have received mercy, and it is because of this mercy to disobedient Gentiles that disobedient Jews will receive mercy too.” 30
“For God has bound all men over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all” (11:32). We might say that it is necessary for everyone to be damned before they can be justified. 31 Paul has gone to great lengths to prove that the whole world stands guilty of sin before a holy God. We see this situation clearly stated in other places such as in Galatians 3:22: “But the Scripture declares that the whole world is a prisoner of sin, so that what was promised, being given through faith in Jesus Christ, might be given to those who believe.”
GOD’S DEEP WISDOM AND KNOWLEDGE
Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! Romans 11:33
Paul in thinking about the great mysteries and the theological summits he has glimpsed cannot help but burst into praise, making this one of the most beautiful doxologies in the New Testament epistles.
Someone has remarked, “theology becomes doxology.” If our theology is correct it should end in praise. Stott remarks that the two should never be separated and adds: “On the one hand, there can be no doxology without theology… It was the tremendous truths of Romans 1-11 which provoked Paul’s outburst of praise…On the other hand, there should be no theology without doxology. There is something fundamentally flawed about a purely academic interest in God.”32
Paul continues in his ode of praise from Isaiah 40:13: “Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?” (11:34). In Isaiah 55:9 God says: “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” We have seen that his judgments are beyond our
All this might be discouraging were it not for certain New Testament promises. One of them is found in 1 Corinthians 2:10 when Paul, after mentioning how unsearchable God’s riches are, declares, “but God has revealed it to us by his Spirit. The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God.” We can rejoice that God has given us the Holy Spirit to dwell with us and reveal God’s deepest secrets to us.
“Who has ever given to God, that God should repay him?” (11:35). We are deeply indebted to God but God is not indebted to any man. How is it possible to give anything to God because the earth and everything in it are already his (Psa. 24:1)? Paul sums up this fact in the next verse of Romans 11:36: “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen.”