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Romans 11 and God's Plan for Ethnic Israel (Lesson 10.8)

The EPILOGUE of the New Covenant: What's still to come in the New Covenant?

It's now time to draw our study to a close. But as we do, there's one last subject we need to address. It's true that we've saved this topic for the final section; but it's not because it's an afterthought; rather, we wanted to save the best for last. What we are going to discuss in this final section is very precious to me; and my prayer and earnest desire is that it might also become something very precious to you.

The truth is, there's a surprise ending in the new covenant. Maybe you've read a book or seen a film with a surprise ending. Everything in the story was going just as it should have; and you fully expected it to turn out in a certain way. But just as the story is drawing to its close, it takes a dramatic turn; and you're left awed and speechless. Well, we're at the point now in our study where it seems we should be closing up shop. We've learned a lot about the covenants. We now have an understanding of the Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Grace; and we've seen how the Covenant of Grace is really just another name for the gospel. We've discovered that there's a fundamental unity between the Old and New Testaments. But at the same time, we've also learned how the new covenant is distinct from the old; and perhaps we've been amazed and humbled in particular that God's new covenant church has become universal in scope; so that instead of being limited to just one nation, God's grace is now extended worldwide. This seems a fitting place to say: And God's people lived happily ever after.

But the story doesn't end here. And, in particular, the story doesn't end here for ethnic Israel. From what we've learned so far, we might be left with the impression that Gentiles have essentially taken the place of ethnic Jews in the new covenant church. That is, there's still a few believing Jews; but by and large, the church of the new covenant is primarily a Gentile church. It makes sense to us: In the Old Testament, God's people were largely Jews. But at Pentecost, the floodgates were burst open, so that now the nations have been included in God's plan of salvation. And at the same time, we know that the Jewish nation rejected their own Messiah; so it appears to us that God has given them over to the stubbornness of their ways; perhaps—we even think—fittingly so. And then, our own experience tends to validate these assumptions; because when we look at the church, it's predominately Gentile; and in fact, overwhelmingly so; to such an extent that it's a rare thing to even come across a Jewish believer in Christ. In Ephesians 3:1-10, Paul spoke about something that he referred to as a mystery; and the mystery was this: that the Gentiles have been grafted into the body of Christ. It's commonplace to us, but it would have been something astonishing and wonderful for Jews who were living in the days of the old covenant. Well, in Romans 11:25, Paul speaks about another mystery; and the mystery that he refers to in this passage has to do with the Jews. It will likely be just as astonishing and wonderful to us, but what Paul is going to share with us in Romans 11 is that God isn't done with ethnic Israel.1

A) EXPOSITING the TEXT: As we come to this passage in Romans 11, it would be good to begin with some context. Throughout chapters 9-10, Paul had been dealing with the JEWS' REJECTION OF CHRIST. In Romans 9, he writes: “What shall we say then? That Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, attained righteousness, even the righteousness which is by faith; but Israel, pursuing a law of righteousness, did not arrive at that law. Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as though it were by works. They stumbled over the stumbling stone. . .” (vv30-32). And then later, in Romans 10, Paul quotes Moses and Isaiah as the Lord rebukes Israel and announces His future plan for including Gentiles: “Moses says, 'I will make you jealous by that which is not a nation, by a nation without understanding I will anger you.' And Isaiah is very bold and says, 'I was found by those who did not seek Me, I became manifest to those who did not ask for Me.' But as for Israel He says, 'All the day long I have stretched out My hands to a disobedient and obstinate people.'” (10:19-21). This last passage, in fact, represents the final words that Paul speaks in Romans 10; and thus serves as the immediate context of Romans 11. But what's important for us to see in all these passages leading up to Romans 11 is that when Paul uses the term “Israel” in this context, he's talking about ethnic Jews.

This is where we pick up with Romans 11, where Paul's main object in verses 1-10 is to show us that THE JEWS' REJECTION OF CHRIST IS NOT TOTAL. He begins in verse 1 with an emphatic declaration: “I say then, God has not rejected His people, has He? May it never be!” (cf. v2a). Paul goes on to use himself as a living attestation of this very truth: “For I too am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin. God has not rejected His people whom He foreknew.” (vv1b-2). Again, it's clear from what Paul's saying here that he's talking about ethnic Israel; and he proceeds to set forth an illustration of the same truth from the Old Testament: “Or do you not know what the Scripture says in the passage about Elijah, how he pleads with God against Israel? 'Lord, they have killed Your prophets, they have torn down Your altars, and I alone am left, and they are seeking my life.' But what is the divine response to him? 'I have kept for Myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal.'” (vv2-4). Elijah thought he was the only one left in Israel who believed in the Lord during a time of great apostasy. If he was killed, it seemed faith in the Lord would vanish entirely. But God's response to Elijah showed that however bad things might get in Israel, the Lord himself was preserving a remnant of Israelite believers. Paul concludes with this application: “In the same way then, there has also come to be at the present time a remnant according to God's gracious choice.” (verse 5). In other words, Paul's telling us that the situation today in Israel is just like it was in Elijah's day. It may have seemed like there were no believers in Israel during that time—but God was at work all the while, behind the scenes, preserving a remnant for himself. And He's doing the same thing today. That's Paul's whole point here in this first section of Romans 11. The Jews' rejection of Christ is not total, because God is at work, behind the scenes, preserving for himself a remnant. Paul does end this section with a final clarification, in verses 6-10, that the vast majority of Israelites are still indeed hardened. But even in the midst of this general hardening, God is preserving His remnant.2

But that's not all. Paul's aim isn't just to tell us that God has an elect remnant among the Jews. It's not until the second part of the chapter that we get to the surprise ending; because what we're going to see is that just as the Jews' rejection of Christ is not total; it's also true that THE JEWS' REJECTION OF CHRIST IS NOT FINAL. As we get into this second part of the passage, it might be helpful to see that Romans 11 is structured around two questions; which, in turn, naturally divide the text into two distinct sections. In verse 1, Paul had asked: “I say then, God has not rejected His people, has He? May it never be!” Well, as we get to verse 11, Paul asks a second question: “I say then, they did not stumble so as to fall, did they? May it never be!” He's referring to ethnic Jews, as a whole; for though God has a remnant among them, the great majority of them are hardened. Well, here in this second question, Paul's asking whether or not they did stumble so as to fall. In other words, he's asking if this hardening is going to last—if this is the end for Israel—if they've fallen for good—if they've stumbled in such a way that they'll never rise again. And Paul's answer is an emphatic, no. Let that sink in: Paul's telling us that though Israel has stumbled, becoming hardened as a nation; it won't be the final word.3

Verses 11-16 show us there was a design in Israel's hardening, but it wasn't to cast Israel away. Rather, as Paul says in verse 11: “But by their transgression salvation has come to the Gentiles. . .” In other words, God had a design in giving the Jewish nation over to stumbling; but that design was never that they would stumble so as to fall—it was that by their stumbling the Gentiles might be saved. They've been hardened, to be sure. But that hardening came for a purpose—and it's to end in recovery. Paul is going to get back to the Jews' recovery in verses 25-26, but before he can talk more about the Jews, he knows he needs to address us as Gentiles. He doesn't want us to become arrogant about the way things have become in the church; and so, in verses 17-24, Paul sets forth for us a lesson from Israel's hardening. The church is like an olive tree: Abraham is the root; his descendants are the branches. Some of those branches were broken off; they represent ethnic Jews. Other branches were grafted in among the others, taken from wild olives; they represent the Gentiles. And Paul's urging his Gentile audience not to be arrogant; because, first of all, they're growing as branches on a Jewish tree, not the other way around (vv17-18). And secondly, they're grafted into this tree by faith, and so they ought to fear; for if God didn't spare the natural branches—but cut them off for their unbelief—then He won't spare us either (vv19-22). Paul then closes this section by coming back to the Jews; and this is what he says: Not only is the Lord able to cut off Gentile branches because of their unbelief; He's also able to graft the natural ones back in. For, as Paul tells us, if the wild branches can be grafted in “contrary to nature,” how much more “will the natural branches be grafted into their own olive tree?” (vv23-24).4

If Paul had stopped there, we would've been left with the impression that God is very able to graft the Jewish people back into the new covenant church. But we would have been left wondering whether or not that was something God was actually going to do. Thankfully, Paul doesn't stop there. Right after he tells us in verses 23-24 that God is able to graft the natural branches back into their own tree, this is what Paul says in Romans 11:25-26: “For I do not want you, brethren, to be uninformed of this mystery—so that you will not be wise in your own estimation—that a partial hardening has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in; and so all Israel will be saved. . .” Before we unpack what Paul is saying here, we need to address two other misguided views of this passage: First, there are some who contend that though Paul is using the term “Israel” in verse 25 to speak of ethnic Jews, he's using that same term “Israel” in verse 26 [IE, “all Israel”] to speak of mystical Israel; that is, God's people as a whole, made up of both Jew and Gentile alike. This interpretation requires a bit of exegetical gymnastics; changing “until” to “in order that;” so that the passage now says: “a measure of hardening has happened to the Jews in order that the fullness of the Gentiles might come in; that all God's people, Jew and Gentile, will be saved.” Aside from having to depart from the plain reading of the text, this interpretation falls short because of the context of the passage. As one writer points out: “In these three chapters (Romans 9-11) the term 'Israel' occurs no less than eleven times. And in the preceding ten cases it refers indisputably to the Jews, in contrast with the Gentiles. What compelling reason can there be. . .to accept another meaning here?” And not only is the context before verse 26 compelling; but even immediately afterwards, in verse 28, Paul's still talking about the Jews. This view also falls short because of the purpose of the passage. Remember, the whole reason Paul is writing all this is to humble the Gentiles (vv18,25); but the notion that God had hardened the Jews in order to make way for the Gentiles would actually serve to do the opposite—kindling their pride all the more. A second view of this passage understands “all Israel” in verse 26 as indeed referring to the Jews, but specifically, to the small remnant of elect Jews that God would preserve throughout time. This view also requires some exegetical gymnastics; but this time it involves changing “and so” to “nevertheless” in verse 26; so that the passage reads: “a measure of hardening has indeed happened to the Jews until the very end; nevertheless, all of God's elect from among the Jews will be saved.” Aside from having to depart, once again, from the plain reading of the text, this view also falls short; this time, because of the subject of the passage. In verse 25, Paul describes what he's about to share with us as a profound mystery; but is there really anything “mysterious” about the fact that God is saving a small number of elect Jews? This view also falls short because it fails to fit with the logic of the passage. There's a clear connection between verse 25 and what Paul had said just prior to that; and in verses 23-24, Paul isn't talking about preserving the branches that remain—but grafting back in the ones which were cut off.5

In verses 23-24, Paul had spoken of the possibility of Israel as a nation being grafted back in to God's new covenant church. In verses 25-26, he's declaring the certainty of it. Way back in verse 11, Paul had asked if God was finished with Israel; and he had answered with an emphatic, no: “May it never be!” But as it's often the case with Paul, he got a bit sidetracked along the way as he sought to provide a fuller explanation. In verses 11-16, he felt the need to explain that even Israel's present hardening is indeed part of God's sovereign design to extend salvation to the nations. And then in verses 17-24, having just spoken of God's plan to include the nations, Paul felt the need to address us as Gentiles; reminding us that we've been grafted into a Jewish tree, and we're only here by faith; and that God is not only able to cut off the wild branches because of unbelief—but also to graft the natural ones back in again. This is the context of Paul's words in Romans 11:25-26: “For I do not want you, brethren, to be uninformed of this mystery—so that you will not be wise in your own estimation—that a partial hardening has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in; and so all Israel will be saved. . .” The “partial hardening” is the present situation among ethnic Jews; it's partial because God still has His remnant among them, even now; but it's the majority who are hardened. However, as Paul tells us, this hardening that has happened to Israel, will only continue “until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. . .” at which point, “all Israel will be saved.” In other words, presently, God is indeed at work primarily among the Gentiles; but there is a future time coming when “the fullness of the Gentiles” will be reached. And Paul's telling us that when that happens, “all Israel will be saved.” Who is “all Israel”? It's the same Israel he's been talking about over the course of Romans 9-11; it's ethnic Jews as a whole; corporately; as a nation. Presently, there are a remnant of Jews who have come to faith in Christ, but by and large, Israel as a nation has rejected Him. Well, just as Israel as a nation has rejected Him until now—Paul's telling us—Israel as a nation will return to Him once again. Paul's not saying that every Jew who has ever lived will ultimately be saved; he's not talking about some kind of universal salvation for the Jews—but rather—that there's a time coming when ethnic Jews will repent of their sins, return to the Lord, and put their faith in Christ. Paul's also not telling us that when this happens, every single Jew will be brought to salvation. But just as by and large, the Jewish nation has rejected their Messiah; the time is coming that by and large, the Jewish nation will turn back to Him.6

This brings us back to verses 11-16, where we'll close our study of this passage. Notice what Paul says in verses 12 and 15 as he talks about Israel's hardening and restoration: “Now if their transgression is riches for the world and their failure is riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their fulfillment be! . . . For if their rejection is the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead?” What Paul says here is important, first of all, because it serves as a confirmation of our interpretation of verses 25-26. Notice that it's the very group of people who had rebelled that are now being received; it's the same ones who had rejected the Lord that are now being readmitted. For just as it was the Jewish nation, as a whole, that stumbled and became hardened; it's the Jewish nation, as a whole, that will, one day, return and be restored. Indeed, the partial hardening that's come upon ethnic Israel isn't the end of the story. But notice, secondly, that their restoration isn't the end of the story, either. Look at the logic that Paul's using in verses 12 and 15: If Israel's rebellion led to riches for the world—then how much more their reception? And if Israel's rejection led to reconciliation for the world—then what will their acceptance be but life from the dead? Do you see what Paul's saying? Not only is God going to restore the Jews—but when He does so—it's going to unleash unprecedented blessing upon the nations all over again; to such an extent that the work God is doing now among the nations will only pale in comparison. Paul is talking about conversions; he's talking about awakening; he's talking about revival blessings that are so rich, we can only dream about them. But how does he know all this? We're given a hint in verses 26-27, where Paul quotes a passage from Isaiah, applying it to the restoration of the Jews. The passage comes from the very end of Isaiah 59, and according to Paul, it describes the corporate repentance of Israel as a nation. But we shouldn't stop reading there, because Isaiah 60 is the amazing account of what will transpire afterwards: “Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising. Lift up your eyes round about and see; they all gather together, they come to you. . .A multitude of camels will cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba will come. . .All the flocks of Kedar will be gathered together to you, the rams of Nebaioth will minister to you; they will go up with acceptance on My altar, and I shall glorify My glorious house.” (Isaiah 60:3-7). The names are significant; for Midian, Sheba, and Ephah were all sons of Abraham's concubine Keturah; whom he sent away to the east (Genesis 25:1-6). Do these make up the vast populations of Buddhists and Hindus living in Asia? Further, Kedar and Nebaioth were the sons of Ishmael (Genesis 25:12-13); Nebaioth was his firstborn, yet Muslim tradition traces the ancestry of their prophet to Adnan, who is claimed to be a descendant of Kedar. Could it be that there are certain breakthroughs in our missional and evangelistic efforts that will only come following the time of the restoration of the Jews? It's difficult to know. But what is certain is that those days will be so full of blessing and outpouring, that Paul can only describe them as “life from the dead.”7