Israel’s Rejection Not Final
Romans 11:1,2 picks up the thread that Paul had begun in Romans 9:6, in which he asked if God’s promises to Israel had failed in light of the fact that most of the Jewish people and their leaders had not accepted the gospel. He had ended chapter 10 by stating that the problem hadn’t been with God, who had stood before them with open arms, but with the people who had rejected Him out of rebellion. Well then, one might ask, if they had spurned Him, perhaps God had done the same to them.
Paul violently rejects that suggestion. “By no means! (Romans 11:1) is the strongest exclamation that he could use. God does not go back on his promises (Psalm 94:14).
The apostle then offers four pieces of evidence in Romans 11:1-5 to back up his claims. The first is that Paul himself a Jew and God had not rejected him (verse 1). That is especially significant in his case, since he had been a prominent persecutor of Christians.
The Apostle’s second evidence regarding God’s non-rejection of the Jews was that He “foreknew’ them (verse 2). To foreknow in the sense that Paul here employs the word means “to choose.”
A historical lesson from the experience of Elijah (verse 3, 4) provides Paul’s third evidence that God had not rejected the Jews. The apostle’s fourth evidence that he has not abandoned Israel is that “at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace” (verse 5). Just as there had been a faithful remnant of seven thousand in Elijah’s day, so there still existed one in Paul’s. Such a remnant was not a figment of his imagination. James was able to tell Paul during one of his visits to Jerusalem that “many thousands of Jews” had believed (Acts 21:20). God had most certainly not rejected His people.
One of the more interesting words in Romans 11:5 is remnant. The Old Testament pictures the remnant of Israel as those Israelites who had remained faithful to God. Thus there was, so to speak, an Israel within an Israel.
The fact that God’s remnant is “chosen by grace” (verse 5) leads the apostle into a short commentary on grace versus works in Romans 11:6 before he returns to the main flow of his argument in verses 7-10. He refuses to allow the slightest misunderstanding on that most important point. Paul wants to highlight the fact that grace and works are mutually exclusive. It has to be one or the other.
By verse 7 Paul has come to the place where he needs to summarize what he has said. What conclusion can we draw about the position of the Jewish people in the light of what he had discussed so far in Romans 9 – 11?
His answer is that the bulk of the nation had not obtained true righteousness. But not all of them were in that class. Some of them – whom he calls the chosen or elect – found the proper way to righteousness. The chosen were to those who, realizing their helplessness in the face of sin, accepted Christ through faith. The others pursued righteousness through human effort and failed.
The latter group, Paul tells us, “were hardened” as Pharaoh was in Exodus. Thus, when a person “persistently resists this grace of God, who will not force anyone against his will, leaves man to the natural consequences of his stubborn resistance” – hardening of the heart.
It is imperative that we read Romans 11:11-24 against the problematic tensions between the Jewish and Gentile believers of the Roman church. Both racial groups apparently believed that they somehow had a superior standing with God. Each were somewhat disdainful of the other. And both were united in their disunity if in nothing else. Paul has been addressing the problem since Romans 1:16, 17, leaving the field by demonstrating that no one has any room for boasting, since all have been saved in the same way – by faith in God’s saving grace in Christ.
Whereas Romans 9 argues that God had a perfect right to include the Gentiles in the gospel, and chapter 10 put forward the thesis that the rejection of the Jews was not His fault but their own, Romans 11 tells us that God will save a remnant from Israel and that Israel’s future salvation is a reality for those of them who believe. Thus Paul can climax his extensive treatment in chapters 9 – 11 with the declaration that God “may have mercy upon all” (Romans 11:32).
With verse 11 the apostle raises a new question. In verse 1 he had asked whether God had rejected Israel. His answer was that God hadn’t cast off the Jews but that most have been hardened through their persistent rebuff of His grace. The hardened condition of the majority of the Jews suggests a new question in Paul’s mind: “Did they stumble so as to fall beyond recovery? (verse 11 NIV). His answer is an explosive NO! He will demonstrate in the rest of Romans 11 that hope still remains for his fellow Jews.
His first evidence is what we might call the chain of blessing. The God who makes all things work together for good to those who love Him (Romans 8:28) has caused something good to come out of the Jewish refusal to accept the gospel. Because of their failure, the gospel went to the Gentiles, who accepted it more readily (Romans 11:11).
The book of Acts repeatedly reflects that fact. There the apostles first preached to the Jews in the new locations. But when the Jews rejected Paul’s message, he went to the Gentiles, who often accepted it. That of course stirred up the Jews. Paul’s hope in verse 11 is that they will stay stirred up, look into the blessing the Gentiles have found in the gospel, and in turn accept it themselves.
In verses 17-24 Paul expands on the metaphor of the holy tree of verse 16. Here, however, he identifies it as an olive tree, a symbol of Israel (Jeremiah 11:16). In an enlightening illustration, Paul notes that even though most of the Jews had been “broken off because of their unbelief” (verse 20), they could be grafted back in “if they do not persist in their unbelief” (verse 23). And if that happens, there is every evidence that they will flourish second to none in Christian tree that has a Jewish root (verse 24).
In verse 25, 26 Paul cautions the Gentiles not to become proud regarding the failure of the Jews to respond to the gospel because “all Israel will be saved.” That phrase has caused a great deal of discussion. But it does not sand alone in chapter 11 which later notes that God will have mercy on all people (verse 32). What did Paul mean by all in such places? One thing is certain – God will never force anyone to be saved. Paul has been arguing all the way through Romans that salvation is a choice that requires accepting God’s gift of grace and that it is against God’s values to impose His gift on anyone. The apostle is not teaching universalism (i.e., the doctrine that every human being will ultimately be saved).
As to “all Israel” being saved, Paul has already expressed his hope that “some” of the Jewish people might be saved (verse 14). It seems evident that he believed that many would continue to reject all efforts to save them. And in verse 5 Paul had raised the concept of a faithful remnant of Jews from within the nation who had accepted the gospel. Building on the remnant idea and the realization that even though salvation comes from God, it still needs a faith response, all those Jews who will have accepted Christ (verse 23) throughout the Christian era will constitute the “all Israel” who will be saved.
That thought brings us to Romans 11:32, “For God has shut up all in disobedience so that He may show mercy to all” (NASB). As in so many passages, it is the context that supplies the answer to what Paul meant by all. From Romans 1:16 on he has been arguing that all, both Jew and Gentile, had sinned and that both could be justified by faith in the gospel. Then beginning in chapter 9, he relates in a highly detailed way how God would have mercy on both groups because of His sovereign choice to do so. Now in Romans 11:30-32 Paul sums up his argument of chapters 9-11. Just as both groups have been disobedient, so both can receive God’s mercy. Thus he does not have in mind every individual when he says, “all,” but rather the sense of both Jew and Gentile. The only way to salvation for either group is through Gods mercy and grace.
In painting his picture of mercy for all, the apostle in verse 32 compares disobedience to a dungeon in which all people have been “shut up” or incarcerated (NASB). This prison is so secure that “they have no possibility of escape except as God’s mercy releases them. Such is the magnitude of divine mercy.
With “Mercy to all” Paul concludes his unparalleled treatment of the plan of salvation. Step by step, for eleven chapters he has guided his readers through the universality of sin (Romans 1:18-3:20), God’s salvation in justification by faith (Romans 3:21-5:21), the way in which Christians should live their lives (Romans 6-8), and how both Jews and Gentiles are on equal ground when it comes to divine mercy (Romans 9:1-11:32).
As Paul views the plan of salvation, he sets forth a mighty doxology in Romans 11:33-36. All he can do is praise God for all that He has done.