So much of the Bible is about Israel’s past. When we get to the New Testament, the story line shifts to focus on the Gentiles. But the Jews are still around, mostly causing problems. How then does Israel’s future fit into the plan of God? Paul takes up this question in Romans 11.
1 I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! For I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. 2 God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. Do you not know what the Scripture says of Elijah, how he appeals to God against Israel? 3 “Lord, they have killed your prophets, they have demolished your altars, and I alone am left, and they seek my life.” 4 But what is God’s reply to him? “I have kept for myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal.” 5 So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace. 6 But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.
7 What then? Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking. The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened, 8 as it is written, “God gave them a spirit of stupor, eyes that would not see and ears that would not hear, down to this very day.” 9 And David says, “Let their table become a snare and a trap, a stumbling block and a retribution for them; 10 let their eyes be darkened so that they cannot see, and bend their backs forever.”
Paul poses the question, has God rejected his people? The answer is, by no means! What’s the proof? Paul himself. Paul is a Jew who has become a Christian. Therefore, it cannot be that God has rejected all his people, even if some are rejecting Jesus. Paul is Exhibit A that God still has grace for some Jews.
God preserves a remnant in every age from Israel. In verse 2, Paul quotes from both Psalm 94:14 and 1 Samuel 12:22, which make the same point with similar wording. God has not rejected his people. Paul adds “whom he foreknew” to show that God’s preservation of his people is his preservation with those children of Abraham that are inheritors of the promise, according to Romans 8-9. It is his chosen number that is preserved. In this age, it is no different. God keeps his people.
Paul identifies with Elijah, whom he quotes in verses 3-4, referencing 1 Kings 19. Elijah was a prophet in Israel. Queen Jezebel drove him out of Israel after his showdown with the prophets of Baal. In his distress, Elijah believed he was the only faithful Israelite remaining. But God told him there were seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal. By grace, there was a faithful remnant, even if Elijah could not yet see them. It was so in the days of Elijah, and it was so in the days of Paul. It is so in our day as well.
But not all of Israel has believed. Many have rejected Jesus. They sought righteousness but put righteousness to death when they crucified Christ. Those who rejected him were hardened. Paul quotes from Deuteronomy 29:4 and Isaiah 29:10 in verse 8. These passages, with the same meaning and wording, give biblical precedent for Paul’s statement of hardening. Psalm 69:22-23, which Paul quotes in verse 10 makes the same point. Israel has rejected God. Therefore, their hearts are hardened. Even when the Messiah shows up on their doorstep, they reject him (Luke 4:24). In their disobedience to God, they did not just remain the same but drifted further and further from God. They became immune to God’s word because they refused to listen to it. The references to Deuteronomy and Isaiah are the Bible’s anticipation of what Paul is now witnessing. Israel has so closed her ears to God that they can’t hear him when he speaks to them in the flesh inside their own homes. This blindness and deafness are a judgment on their unbelief.
But the remnant remains, and it’s all due to God’s mercy and grace. He remains faithful to his people, the children of Abraham. What Paul is talking about throughout this passage is God’s unconditional election. It is not the works of Israel that will save them, and it’s not their lack of works that will condemn them. It is the divine election of God that will save them, just as it is for the Gentiles. The remnant is preserved because God preserves them. It is not according to works. It is according to grace. Paul is proof.
11 So I ask, did they stumble in order that they might fall? By no means! Rather, through their trespass salvation has come to the Gentiles, so as to make Israel jealous. 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!
13 Now I am speaking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch then as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I magnify my ministry 14 in order somehow to make my fellow Jews jealous, and thus save some of them. 15 For if their rejection means the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance mean but life from the dead? 16 If the dough offered as firstfruits is holy, so is the whole lump, and if the root is holy, so are the branches.
17 But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, although a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing root of the olive tree, 18 do not be arrogant toward the branches. If you are, remember it is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you. 19 Then you will say, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” 20 That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but fear. 21 For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you. 22 Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off. 23 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. 24 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.
The Israelites have failed to obtain righteousness through the law. And their rejection of Jesus Christ as their long-awaited Messiah only piles more trespass on top of their growing mound of sin. But what is the future for Israel? Will they always stay outside God’s kingdom or will God do something to woo them back to himself?
Paul tells us that through Israel’s trespass, salvation has come to the Gentiles. That makes Israel jealous, and that’s a good thing. Why? Because when the Jews see the Gentiles enjoying the benefits of their blessings, they will be roused to jealousy and come back to the Lord. In God’s grace, this will lead not to jealousy on the other side, but joy for the Gentiles. If Israel, the receiver of God’s promises, sinned and failed, and through that God brought the Gentiles in, how many more amazing things will happen as a result of God saving the Jews? When the prodigals come home, they’ll find a Father with open arms, and the Jews and the Gentiles will enjoy the party afterward. Because of this, it cannot be true that God’s purpose for Israel’s stumbling was their permanent fall into destruction but a temporary fall so that the Gentiles might be brought in. It's impossible for us to understand how it all works, but in God's economy, the ledgers always balance.
Speaking of the Gentiles, Paul turns his attention to them in verse 13. He wants to ensure that they do not become boastful. Just because the Jews have stumbled and the Gentiles have come in does not mean that they are now superior. The Gentiles have the present and the future, but the Jews have the whole shebang: past, present, and future.
Furthermore, if Israel’s loss is the Gentiles’ gain, what will be the super-gain when Israel succeeds in coming to Christ? When Israel comes to Christ, the only proper metaphor Paul can come up with is resurrection. “For if their rejection means the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance mean but life from the dead?”
Resurrection is a fitting metaphor. Whether Jew or Gentile, we are all dead in our trespasses and sins. We need not a coach to help us reach our potential but a Savior to bring us back from the dead. Paul warns the Gentiles in verses 17-24 not to be arrogant as if they brought themselves into the kingdom. If God brings in outsiders, such as themselves, he can surely bring back insiders who made themselves outsiders through their sin. Gentile inclusion doesn’t mean Israel has been replaced as much as it means the Gentiles have been added to the foundation already laid. They were not the first to receive God’s grace, so they shouldn’t act like it. It was the promise God made to Abraham, the father of the Jews, which led to Gentile inclusion. So, Gentile, remember your fathers and praise the Father that he remembers them too.
“So do not become proud, but fear,” Paul says. He then makes four conditional statements. The danger here is that the Gentiles will do the same thing the Israelites have done. Namely, they will become boastful of their salvation and as a result, lose the foundation of their salvation. Their pride will harden their hearts, and they will forget the grace that saved them. We humans have a tendency to make humbling doctrines into grounds for boasting in ourselves. The Gentiles (and we today) must be aware of that danger and flee from it. We did not save ourselves. God saved us on the coattails of the Jews.
John Piper helps us see the intensity of this passage. “The central concern here is: ‘Do not become proud.’ Do not boast over the broken off branches. Do not speak of unbelieving Israel in a way that exalts you. Speak of them in a way that shows you tremble with fear and awe at the freedom of God’s grace in saving you. Don’t be proud, but fear — stand in trembling awe that you are saved by mercy alone.”
This naturally leads to the question of how the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints fits into this passage. Why does the Bible use these kinds of warnings if God wants us to have assurance of our salvation? Because these warnings are one of the means that God uses to preserve us. Warnings serve us, even if they scare us. Here’s how Charles Spurgeon puts it.
“But,’ says one, ‘You say they cannot fall away.’ What is the use of putting this ‘if’ in, like a bugbear to frighten children, or like a ghost that can have no existence? My learned friend, ‘Who art thou that repliest against God?’ If God has put it in, he has put it in for wise reasons and for excellent purposes. Let me show you why. First, O Christian, it is put in to keep thee from falling away. God preserves his children from falling away; but he keeps them by the use of means; and one of these is, the terrors of the law, showing them what would happen if they were to fall away. There is a deep precipice: what is the best way to keep any one from going down there? Why, to tell him that if he did he would inevitably be dashed to pieces. In some old castle there is a deep cellar, where there is a vast amount of fixed air and gas, which would kill anybody who went down. What does the guide say? ‘If you go down you will never come up alive.’ Who thinks of going down? The very fact of the guide telling us what the consequences would be, keeps us from it. Our friend puts away from us a cup of arsenic; he does not want us to drink it, but he says, ‘If you drink it, it will kill you.’ Does he suppose for a moment that we should drink it. No; he tells us the consequences, and he is sure we will not do it. So God says, ‘My child, if you fall over this precipice you will be dashed to pieces.’ What does the child do? He says, ‘Father, keep me; hold thou me up, and I shall be safe.’ It leads the believer to greater dependence on God, to a holy fear and caution, because he knows that if he were to fall away he could not be renewed, and he stands far away from that great gulf, because he knows that if he were to fall into it there would be no salvation for him.”
So the warnings serve us as God saves us by helping us cling to him for our righteousness. The Gentiles have been saved by faith alone in Christ alone. They did not do this themselves. God did it in Christ. Israel can be saved too if they will come to faith in Christ. Not only is God willing to save them, but he is also able to save them as well. And he might just use the Gentiles, and warnings, to do it. Whatever it takes, God will save his people, and through this struggling with him he will bring great assurance.
25 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. 26 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”; 27 “and this will be my covenant with them when I take away their sins.”
28 As regards the gospel, they are enemies for your sake. But as regards election, they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers. 29 For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. 30 For just as you were at one time disobedient to God but now have received mercy because of their disobedience, 31 so they too have now been disobedient in order that by the mercy shown to you they also may now receive mercy. 32 For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all.
33 Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! 34 “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” 35 “Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?” 36 For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.
Paul doesn't want his audience to be ignorant of these things. He wants to be clear about what is happening. There is a mystery he wants to explain. In the Bible, a mystery is not something unknown to us in the present. It is a truth previously hidden that is now revealed. What is the mystery Paul wants us in on? There is a partial hardening of Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. The mystery is that God has planned for both Jews and Gentiles to be co-heirs with Christ. But the way that happens is different than the way we would expect because the Jews rejected Jesus and had him crucified. How then can we understand Israel's future?
Paul wants to help us. The language he uses in verse 25 about the fullness of the Gentiles points us back to the words of Jesus in Luke 21. There, Jesus prophecies the destruction of the temple and he gives the sign of the times. “They will fall by the edge of the sword, and be led away captive into all nations. And Jerusalem will be trampled by Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.” (Luke 21:24) Paul’s message is that there is a time in redemptive history when God focuses on the Jew and a time when God focuses on the Gentiles.
The big question before us is whether Israel has a future or not. And in verses 25-36, three important questions regarding Israel are raised that help us answer that one big question. First, who constitutes “all Israel”? We know from Paul’s previous words in chapter 9 that it is not all ethnic Israel because “not all offspring of Abraham are children of Abraham.” So, then, it must be only the elect within Israel that are saved. Second, when does Israel get saved? There are three primary options: over time as the church reaches out to evangelize Jews, immediately before the second coming of Christ, or during the second coming of Christ. How you answer depends a bit on your eschatological view, but all three options are valid. Third, how does Israel get saved? This is where the rubber meets the metaphorical road. Is Israel saved by returning to the law and obeying it perfectly? Of course not. They could never do such a thing. The only way Israel is saved is the only way anyone can be saved: faith in Jesus Christ as the Messiah.
In verse 26, Paul uses a combination of Old Testament verses to show us one thing: Israel will be saved because God predicted it in the Old Testament and God always keeps his promises, even if, for now, his people are stumbling over his Promised One. God’s knowledge of future things is based on the fact that he ordered those future things, and for the Jews, he ordered that they would be saved in the end. Their future is bright, even if their present is dim. And Paul tells us here the mystery of what’s happening.
Paul can have such confidence because he believes in God’s divine election. If God was waiting for the Jews to turn around, he’d wait forever. But if God has elected some and can bring about their salvation by divine act of grace, then he can make promises like this and bring them about in ways that seem surprising to us, but that are just a day in the life of God.
Verse 29 is a comforting verse to all sinners—Jew and Gentile. “For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.” That means that though our sins never cease in this life, God doesn’t take back his free gift of grace. We are always recipients of it. The proof is that we love him. If a promise like that applies to us as individuals, how then does it not apply to Israel as God’s chosen corporate people?
God plans to overcome the evil in the hearts of Israel by his overwhelming grace. He will say no to their sin and cause their hearts to say yes to Christ. As Paul has told us before, "all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” Therefore, we stand as one human race, equal before God so that God can save all of us equally in Christ Jesus. The same mercy that saves the Gentile will save the Jew. He will have mercy on us all.
Paul caps this section off in verses 33-36 with what R.C. Sproul calls “a holy groan.” Paul’s emotions overtake him. He longs for his fellow Jews to come to Christ and in seeing the plan of God—the mystery, once hidden, now revealed—his words turn from teaching to praise. Paul fears God and what follows is a doxology because all theology done rightly leads to doxology prayed passionately.
We cannot see the bottom of the ocean. There are depths no one has ever plumbed. Even more so, we cannot see the bottom of God. He is so deep that even in eternal life we will never reach his end. So, when we think of the things of salvation, it should be no surprise to us that we reach our limits of understanding and step into the praise of God who saves. If our thinking about these things leads us further from God, we need to go back to him and become awestruck once again. These passages should lead us up to him in wonder, not away from him in confusion. Our limit of understanding is not a deterrent to coming to God but the precise requirement to coming to him. He is Lord of all, and we need a God greater than our own heart to overcome our heart and bring us to himself. No one deserves his grace. If we have it, we should rejoice and plead with others to get it.
We cannot know the mind of God, but praise him that he can know ours better than we can. And his heart causes him to come to us in mercy and grace. We cannot give God advice because our foolishness knows no end, but praise him that the foolishness of God is wiser than the wisdom of man. We cannot give anything to God or be repaid by him, but praise him that he gives freely of himself and does not demand to be repaid. Let us then rejoice that the God we have is bigger than us. That’s not a problem. It’s the solution to our problems.