For an introduction to this series, click here.
Well here we are at the conclusion of Paul's statements about the past, present and the future of Israel. Paul spends much of this epistle writing about the Jewish people. Perhaps there was some anti-Semitism among the believers at Rome, or maybe there was some confusion about their role in the church and in God's overall plan.
Paul makes it clear here in the beginning of this chapter that God's purposes are at work: "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. 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? 'Lord, they have killed your prophets, they have demolished your altars, and I alone am left, and they seek my life.' But what is God's reply to him? 'I have kept for myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal.' So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace. But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace. What then? Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking. The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened, 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.'" (11:1-8)
I think in context those who are "elect" in this passage are those Jews who believe in the Lord Jesus, at least those about whom Paul was writing in the first century. The same thing applies today. Of course Jews today, as a general rule, have become even more hardened to the Gospel than those of the first century. But there still are a good number who do believe in Jesus. And it means a lot more to them than it does to most of us. I know I didn't have to give up anything to be a Christian. But they often have to give up their family and are viewed by the wider Jewish community as second-class citizens.
Have you ever thought about the number that God told Elijah, that there were 7,000 people in Israel who had not worshiped Baal? That's an astonishingly small number, considering there were no doubt millions in Israel. But God has never worked with an overwhelming majority. He likes to use a small number committed to His purpose to fulfill His plan.
Next, Paul explains that Gentile Christians are "grafted" into the tree of faith: "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, 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. Then you will say, 'Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.' That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but stand in awe. For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you. 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. 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." (11:17-24)
This is a tough passage to get a grasp on, but basically, the Jews who did not believe, but were part of the tree of faith because of their physical relationship with Abraham, are the ones being cut off here. That seems fairly obvious, but it is an important premise. Now Gentiles are joining the church and becoming part of that tree. But God is certainly not going to spare those who make a false profession or join the church just because it seemed like the thing to do at the time. He is going to deal with them just as He dealt with the unbelieving Jews, and maybe even more harshly. This is the same principle as is taught in the parable of the tares and several other of Jesus' parables. God tolerates unbelievers in the visible church, but He will judge them in the end.
Finally Paul summarizes all of this with a final statement of future blessing for Israel: "Lest you be wise in your own conceits, I want you to understand 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.' As regards the gospel, they are enemies of God for your sake. But as regards election, they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers. For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. 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 on all." (11:25-32, ESV)
I approach Scripture from a dispensational perspective, and so I think this passage is talking about a yet-to-be-fulfilled time when God will once again deal with Israel as His chosen people. There are good brothers who disagree, and say that Paul is continuing his discussion of Jews who believe in Jesus. I would point out to them that the passages Paul quotes have everything to do with Messiah (Jesus, of course) establishing His kingdom. But I'm not going to debate much beyond that. We can't get caught in the trap of allowing our interpretation of unfulfilled prophecy to drive a wedge between brothers in the Lord.
The very last section of the chapter I am going to deal with next time, since I think verse 32 is a more natural break in Paul's thought, and the last four verses would have been more appropriately included as the first four of chapter 12. Of course you understand the chapter and verse divisions were added later for the benefit of reference. I am glad they are there, but sometimes they made some goofy choices. That's why I always take out the verse divisions when I quote the scripture. If you ignore the verse divisions, it helps to see the overall context.