Here in the rest of the chapter we find the conclusion of the great “theological” part of the book of Romans. Paul is drawing to the great climax and conclusion of the whole matter. And what is the focus at this crucial point? It is the wisdom of God to bring together in one people all those in the world who are true children of Abraham by faith. How is God going to accomplish this bringing together? This is the mystery that Paul now wishes to explain. Now we are going to see and understand the mind of God in His dealings with men. We are going to be able to make sense of what He has done with His people, Israel, and to see what His purpose has been for it all.
Having shown us that the nation of Israel has been rejected on account of their unbelief, that only a small remnant of believers from that vast people remain in God’s favor, Paul takes a moment to consider the meaning of such a drastic change in God’s dealings with men. What is the significance of this fact, and what purpose of God lies behind it?:
I say, then, they did not stumble so that they should fall, did they? May it never be! But rather, by their trespass, salvation comes to the Gentiles in order to provoke them. But if their trespass is the world’s riches and their loss the Gentiles’ riches, in how much more their fullness? (11:11-12)
On the face of things, to see what God has done in the history of Israel and yet then to behold the state of their affairs at the time Paul writes is a very confusing thing. It is so confusing that even the important point that Paul makes concerning the fact of the faithful remnant that remains is not enough to remove all doubt and wonder. Why has God dealt with Israel in this way? If Israel was to be cast aside for their unfaithfulness in the end, why did God call them and choose them and make such glorious promises and covenants with them? It seems that so much of it was in vain!
But Paul says that this is not the case. The purpose of God’s dealings with Israel is not what it might appear. They have not stumbled so that they should fall away from God’s grace. This statement has two sides of emphasis. First, the purpose of their present stumbling is not merely so that they might be rejected from God’s salvation. Rather, as Paul makes the first point of contrast, the result and practical meaning of their stumbling was the bringing of salvation to the Gentiles. The fall of Israel has resulted in great spiritual gain for the Gentile nations! What seems like a loss and a failure of God’s plan is actually a part of His whole plan to fulfill salvation for all mankind.
It is not to be thought that the hardness of the Jewish nation was necessary for a Gentile to be given the grace of salvation, such as that a Gentile could not be saved if the Jews had received Christ and believed in Him. Paul is not here talking so much in an ideal and theoretical way in these chapters as in a practical way. He is tracing out the actuality of what God has done, is doing, and will do throughout the course of history in order to bring about His purposes. Practically speaking, the fall of the Jewish nation has resulted in the turning of the gospel ministry to the Gentiles. This is how God has chosen to work in order to accomplish His desire among men.
Paul himself is probably the first and best example of this practical result of Israel’s rejection of the gospel. As he traveled and preached the message of Christ, he consistently preached first in the synagogues of the Jews. Most often, though, the majority of the Jews rejected what he was saying in the end, and he, as a result, turned his focus to the Gentiles, who often proved more receptive to the truth. Thus, the rejection of the gospel by the Jews resulted practically in a focus on the Gentiles. This is what Paul is describing. This is part of God’s great wisdom seen in the course of events in redemptive history.
Again, we should not try to take these practical explanations of God’s historical dealings with men and turn them into a basis for ideal theological principles beyond what they warrant. For example, what we have already mentioned, the stumbling of Israel was not literally necessary for the salvation of the Gentile. This is the practical view, though, of how God has brought it about. Likewise, we will see shortly that the salvation of the Gentiles has an important result also in God’s plan: The provoking of Israel to jealousy so that Israel too might turn and be saved. This is a practical view of what results from God’s dealings with men, but it is not to be thought that this was the only point and purpose of the salvation of the Gentiles or the necessary way by which alone the Jew could be saved. Could the Jewish nation only be saved by their initial rejection leading to the Gentile inclusion, which provokes them to jealousy to turn to Christ? No, but this is how God shapes and orders events in history to bring about His purposes. This is how it has and will actually take place.
This touches on the whole of God’s sovereignty in history. When we look at how God works to govern the affairs of all this world and the history of man, we are in a realm of great wonder and mystery. This is what Paul himself calls such dealings of God in this chapter, a “mystery” (11:25). We must learn to appreciate both the choices and actions of men as well as the greater and higher sovereignty of God over all men’s affairs in this world. There is no contradiction between the two, but God is wise and able to accomplish His purposes using men and their actions how He chooses.
While the rejection of the gospel by the Jews was the result of their own stubborn hearts against God’s will for them, not the result of God’s will for them, yet at the same time their rejection falls exactly into the larger picture of God’s plan to bring about salvation for all men. Regardless of what men might choose to do, God knows how perfectly to bring about the accomplishment of His will and purpose. All things are working together according to His ultimate will, which will most certainly be accomplished. This is the wonder of the mystery of God’s wisdom as seen in the whole workings of God’s plan in the world of men. And wondrous indeed it is, as Paul declares so loudly once he has laid out the whole picture in this chapter.
And so we come to the second aspect of Paul’s analysis of the stumbling of the Jews. First, it was not in vain and only to their harm, but had as its result the salvation of the Gentile world. Secondly, the stumbling of the Jews was not their final rejection, Paul insists. There is more yet to be said concerning them, further chapters in their history yet to be seen. The key thought here is that the salvation of the Gentiles will prove to provoke the Jews to jealousy which will lead in turn to their salvation as they repent and turn back to God. So Paul hopes will be the result of his own ministry among the Gentiles:
Upon such indeed, then, that I am an apostle of the Gentiles, my ministry I glorify if somehow it will provoke to jealousy my flesh and save some of them. (11:13-14)
Paul rejoices in the salvation of the Gentiles in its own right, no doubt, but also sees that his ministry among them will receive even more glory if it becomes a means by which some of God’s chosen people, the Jews, are called unto salvation as well. He hopes that God’s turning to the Gentiles and offering full salvation to them will make the Jews jealous so as to repent themselves of having rejected Christ and His gospel, so that they, too, might be saved. Paul longs for the salvation of his brothers according to the flesh, and he sees God’s plan to bring about that end in a way that would not seem likely without an understanding of God’s wise purposes and ways. What seems to the natural mind to be almost the end of hope for Israel is actually the very means by which God will accomplish His purposes for them.
And so in these few basic thoughts, Paul gives a proper understanding to both Jew and Gentile of the overarching plan of God in history and their own place in that plan. The gospel of salvation by faith and grace is not isolated and removed from the course of this world, but is most perfectly in harmony with all that God is doing. Indeed, it is the only means by which to make sense of God’s dealings with men. Without the gospel of faith, things would make little sense in this world as we attempted to understand God’s saving purposes and His actual actions among us in this world. The theology of redemption and salvation through faith in Christ is now seen to be perfectly at unity with God’s deeds.
This proper and true understanding of God’s purposes, then, is an invaluable help in understanding how we ought to view ourselves within that whole picture. What ought we to think about our place in God’s plan and how He is going to use us to accomplish His final glorious fulfillment of all things? That is what Paul now takes time to trace out for us, especially for the Gentile believer.
The following section emphasizes to the Gentile believer the need to be humble in light of all that God has done. There might be a temptation to be lifted up in pride, especially over and against the Jew who has been rejected by God on account of hardness of heart. Using the picture of an olive tree that has native branches (the Jews) and ingrafted branches (the Gentiles), Paul urges the Gentile church to be lowly in mind as only accords with their true condition as sinners who have been brought into salvation by the grace of God, those who obtain righteousness through faith:
But if some of the branches were broken off, but you, being a wild-olive, were grafted in among them and became a fellow partaker of the richness of the olive’s root, do not boast over the branches. But if you boast, you do not bear the root, but rather the root you. You will say, therefore, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” Good! By unbelief they were broken off, but you have stood by faith. Do not think high things, but rather, fear! (11:17-20)
The Gentile believer might be tempted to fall into the very trap and error of pride that caused the downfall of the Jewish nation. The Jew before grew proud in heart on account of the blessings of God. As Moses foretold from the very start of the history of the Jewish nation, “Jeshurun grew fat and kicked” (Deuteronomy 32:15). That is, Israel, having received many blessings of good things from God, became as an animal might be when pampered and treated well; it grew overly comfortable in its blessings and failed to honor the one who gave them such blessings. Israel began to be very proud of itself in its blessed condition. They then rebelled against God who gave them all those blessings. What folly!
But so exactly in the same way comes the temptation of the Gentile believer here as well. Having received great blessings from God, there is temptation for them to grow proud. The corrupt heart of fallen man can pervert even this grace of God into a cause of boasting somehow. There is no reason for it at all, as Paul has shown before and again reminds us. We only have been received into salvation on account of faith in the goodness and grace of God. We have done nothing to merit or earn this grace, but we have simply believed in God’s goodness towards us. There is no cause for boasting in a salvation by faith. We had better learn this lesson.
But how hard the lesson has been, it seems. History abounds in the fact of a great misunderstanding of the proper place that both Jew and Gentile occupy before God. We have seen the sad wrongs taking place on both sides. The first stage of error has been for the Jew to despise the Gentile and think little of him as having any part in God’s grace. It was a hard work to convince the Jewish mind that God gave equal status to the Gentile in His purposes and salvation. It took divine revelations and many battles before that equal footing for the Gentile was secured in the church.
But then there was a sad reaction to the opposite extreme that took root for many long generations. There are so many examples of how the Jewish people have suffered injustice at the hands of Christians throughout history. The fact of the Jewish nation’s rejection of Christ has been used as an occasion by many to oppress and persecute the Jew, even in the very name of Christ. Nothing could be further from the spirit of Paul and all of the New Testament authors. The Jews indeed have brought down on themselves great wrath from God on account of their sin, but this ought give the church no pretext at all to haughtily rise up and look down upon them, despising them and oppressing them when they have opportunity. As Paul so nobly demonstrates, we ought to have the compassionate spirit of love, hoping and praying and longing for their conversion. And, indeed, the teachings of this very chapter have on many occasions been the greatest source of help for Christians in learning to look upon the Jews with this spirit of charity and love that we ought to manifest.
And yet there has been a still further reaction caused by these teachings by which we have again erred at times to the opposite and original extreme error of Jewish superiority. This chapter indeed clearly teaches that the Jewish nation, even despite their rejection of the gospel, holds a special place in God’s heart. He remembers the fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and He longs to save their physical seed, quite naturally. But this love of God for the Jews in no wise amounts to what too often has been inferred, that the Jews as a political nation still hold the greatest honor in God’s eyes and will have pre-eminence throughout eternity over all other men.
Again, we need not deny that God has a special love for the Jews, but neither can we allow the idea to enter in that they are somehow to be treated as superior to the Gentiles in God’s eyes. This false idea runs contrary to all that Paul is doing to show us the true picture of how God is working among both Jew and Gentile through the gospel to bring all men to the same place of humble salvation by grace. And so, then, the Gentile must not boast over the Jew, nor should we think that the Jew has greater favor than the Gentile before God. Paul will state this equality of position very plainly as his final word of explanation in this chapter, and, indeed, in the whole flow of his theological argument in this book.
Paul’s admonition to the Gentiles not to be lifted up in pride and boast against the Jew is then accompanied by the sobering command, “But rather, fear!” Why should this be, that the Gentile ought to be afraid in his position of grace? Because of the important fact that God’s grace is not to be understood as given as a permanent right and claim, but is ever to be understood as dependent upon our continued faith and humility before Him. This has great bearing both for the Gentile in his position of grace and for the Jew in his position of rejection by God:
For if God did not spare the branches that were according to nature, neither will He spare you. See, then, the goodness and harshness of God. Indeed, upon those falling, harshness, but upon you, the goodness of God, if you should remain in that goodness, because you also will be cut off. But also they, if they should not remain in unbelief, will be grafted in. For God is able to graft them in again. (11:21-24)
The Jew fell from his honored position because he grew proud and did not believe the gospel. The Gentile believed the gospel, and so was brought in to saving grace. What will happen to the Gentile if he grows proud and ceases to believe? He, too, will be cut off. What will happen to the Jew if he repents and turns away from unbelief to belief? He will be brought back into God’s grace and favor. This is not too hard for God to accomplish at all.
On the basis of this true understanding of the position of all men before God, Paul then considers the future resolution of all matters. In a few brief but wonderful verses, Paul summarizes God’s whole dealings with men to bring about the perfect result of a true and pure people for Himself:
For I do not want you to be ignorant, brothers, of this mystery, so that you might not be wise in yourselves, that a hardening from part has become to Israel until which time the fullness of the Gentiles should enter in, and thus all Israel will be saved, just as it has been written: “The Deliverer will come out of Zion. He will turn away ungodliness from Jacob. And this will be the covenant to them from Me, when I should wipe away their sins.” Indeed, according to the gospel, they are enemies because of you, but according to election, they are beloved because of the fathers. For unchangeable are the gifts and calling of God. For just as you yourselves once were disobedient to God, but now you received mercy in their disobedience, so also they now were disobedient in your mercy, so that they also might be shown mercy. For God shut together all unto disobedience, so that He might show mercy to all. (11:25-32)
Thus, the Gentiles are presently entering into the kingdom, and once their fullness has come in, there will be one united people of God with salvation for all “Israel.” Who is this “Israel”? That is a large question of debate among many interpreters, but we ought not forget the important theme of Israel in its two-fold meaning that Paul introduced at the very beginning of this concluding three-chapter section, which also had already its roots in various points throughout the book. All believers are spiritual children of Abraham, his true seed and heirs of the promises given to him. They are indeed God’s “true Jews,” His people. As they are brought in, it is to the same olive tree from which unbelieving Jews were cut off. True spiritual Israel, then, will all be saved.
But there is also no denying Paul’s concern here and focus on the love God has for currently rejected physical Israel. These physical descendents of the fathers are given the hope of being brought back in, as we have already seen, and here Paul seems to say that it will indeed happen. They, too, will be shown mercy once the fullness of the Gentiles has come in, and those who have been cut off will be brought back.
While there is no real reason to think that Paul states here that every Jewish man (“all Israel” in that sense) will be brought back unto salvation, yet it does seem plain that he expects God to do a work upon this hardened people that will bring many back to God in repentance. Just exactly when and how and to what extent this will take place are matters that we ought not expect to know until we see them fulfilled in reality. These are things that pertain to God. Let us simply rejoice to know that God’s plan is so perfectly laid out and will certainly be accomplished. He will bring about the cleansing of Jacob, and we will all be together in a purified people before God for eternity.
This is the glory of God’s plan. He has worked all things perfectly according to His will. He desires a holy people with their sins cleansed from them. So He is accomplishing, removing from His people those who are hard-hearted and will not repent of their sin; bringing in those Gentiles who by faith are cleansed from theirs; uniting in the Spirit those who find new and true spiritual life through Christ.
Ungodliness is indeed turned away from Jacob. All men are together under sin, but all those who repent find mercy and cleansing, so that God’s whole desire for a righteous people before Him in His image will be ultimately fulfilled. God’s ways are too wonderful for us to grasp, far beyond our ability to fathom. He has now revealed a glorious part of His mysterious and wonderful plan, and let us rejoice in His grace and humbly worship Him for all that He has done and will do among men. And so Paul concludes with his great exclamation of praise to God for the glory of the gospel, God’s wisdom in bringing righteousness and salvation to all mankind:
O the depth of the riches and and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and untraceable His ways! For who knew the mind of the Lord? Or who became His counselor? Or who gave forth to Him and will be given back by Him? For from Him and through Him and unto Him are all things! To Him be the glory unto the ages! Amen. (11:33-36)