The Fullness Of Time
Mercy, Mystery, Ignorance, Promise
Dr. James Boice begins one of his sermons on Romans 11:25-31 with this story,
Around 100 years ago, Frederick the Great, King of Prussia, was having a discussion with his chaplain about the truth of the Bible. The King had become skeptical about Christianity because of the influence of French atheist Voltaire. He said to the chaplain, “If your Bible is really true, it ought to be capable of very easy proof. So often, when I have asked for proof of the inspiration of the Bible, I have been given some large document that I have neither the time nor the desire to read. If your Bible is really from God, you should be able to demonstrate that fact simply. Give me proof for the inspiration of the Bible in a word.”
The chaplain replied, “Your Majesty, it is possible for me to answer your request literally.”
Frederick was amazed and said, “What is this magic word that carries such a weight of proof?” he asked.
“Israel,” said the chaplain.
Fredrick was silent.
It can hardly be doubted that the continuing existence of Israel as a distinct people throughout the four thousand years of her history is a striking phenomenon. Dispossessed of her homeland and dispersed throughout the world, Israel has nevertheless survived while other people in similar situations have not. Coupled with the Bible’s identification of the Jews as God’s elect people and its many prophecies concerning their unfolding history, the preservation of Israel as a people is strong evidence for the Bible being the inspired and inerrant (without error) Word of God. [p. 1376]
Throughout the course of Romans 9-11 Paul has been addressing one primary question: did God’s promise fail since Israel largely rejected Jesus as the Messiah? In these three chapters Paul gives at least seven different answers to the question. God’s purposes have not failed because,
1. a true Israelite is anyone who has the faith of Abraham, not just those who are born Jews. (9:6-24)
2. God always said that not all Israel would be saved and that some Gentiles would be. (9:25-29)
3. the unbelief of the Jews was their own responsibility, not God’s (9:30-10:21)
4. Some Jews (Paul included) have believed and been saved (11:1)
5. God has always worked through a remnant (11:2-10)
6. The salvation of the Gentiles is meant to arouse Israel to jealousy and be the means of saving some of them (11:11-24)
7. Our text today gives us the seventh answer: in the end all Israel will be saved, and everyone will see that God has honored His promise toward Israel on a national basis. (Romans 11:25-32)
A MYSTERY REVEALED
I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers, so that you may not be conceited: Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in.And so all Israel will be saved, as it is written:
“The deliverer will come from Zion; he will turn godlessness away from Jacob. And this is my covenant with them when I take away their sins.” As far as the gospel is concerned, they are enemies on your account; but as far as election is concerned, they are loved on account of the patriarchs, (Romans 11:25-28)
The Nature of the Mystery A mystery, in the Bible, is something we would not have understood apart from the revelation of God. The mystery Paul reveals can be stated in a few statements,
Israel’s hardening is temporary (v. 25)
The hardening will continue until the full number of Gentiles has come in (v. 25)
All Israel will be saved (v. 26)
These statements raise a couple of question: “What does Paul mean when he says, “until the full number of Gentiles has come in?”” and what does the phrase “all Israel will be saved” mean?
When Paul talks about the Gentiles it seems that Paul is saying there are a particular number of Gentiles God is going to bring to faith. When that number is reached, the door will be closed to the Gentiles and opened to the Jews. Some suggest this “fullness of the Gentiles” will trigger what is commonly known as the “rapture”. The Rapture (made very popular by the Left Behind novels) is thought to be a time when the Lord will summon all the believers out of the world in advance of His second coming. They suggest that the rapture will be the act that will inspire the Jews to believe in large numbers. I find teaching on the rapture to be somewhat scant so I will reserve judgment on when this fullness of the Gentiles will take place.
The second question is, What does “all Israel will be saved” mean? It certainly does not mean every single Jew is going to be saved any more than the “fullness of the Gentiles” means every Gentile will become a believer. Sometimes when we say things like “all Israel” we actually mean, “it will appear like every Jew is coming to faith.”
Let me illustrate. We might say “the whole town” was at the recent football game. We don’t really mean that we surveyed the community and found that every single person was at the game. We mean there was a very large number of the community was at the game.
In much the same way, the Bible is not telling us that every Jewish person will trust Jesus as Savior. However, we do understand that something remarkable is going to happen. There is going to be a massive turning to Christ by Jews. No longer will God be working with just a remnant.
The Reason for Revealing the Mystery
Notice the reason Paul gives for telling us about this future work of God. He wants to keep us from being arrogant. He wants us to understand that even though Israel stands against Christian belief right now, they are still favored by God and will eventually turn to the Savior themselves. Ignorance often breeds arrogance.
In our ignorance we can become short-sighted and believe the Gentiles and our generation is the culmination of God’s dealings in history.
In our ignorance we may actually think that we have gained salvation because of some inherent goodness or superiority in us.
In our ignorance we may come to think there is no place for Jewish believers.
In our ignorance we may determine that some people are outside the reach of God’s grace.
We have met people who seem to think that the only people who will be saved are the ones who go to their church, or believe exactly as they believe. Paul wants to keep us from such narrow-minded shortsightedness.
A PROMISE KEPT
Notice the statement in verse 29 “God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable”. Paul wants us to understand that when God makes a promise, He keeps it. God promised Abraham back in Genesis 12,
I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.
Throughout the Old Testament God promised that Israel would be His chosen people. God meant His promise then and He means it now.
Do you see Paul wrapping up his argument? He began the discussion back in Romans 9 addressing the question of God’s integrity. Can He be trusted to do what He says? Will God deliver on His promises? I know these three chapters in Romans have been difficult. Understand why Paul has taken such time with the issue of Israel. God’s integrity is essential to faith.
Do you understand what a crucial issue this is to you and to me? If God cannot be trusted to deliver on His promises to Israel, how can we know that He will truly forgive us? If He is not trustworthy how can we believe Jesus when He said, “He who believes in me will live even though He die?” How can we be sure “all things will work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to His purpose?” How can we have any confidence that God will supply our needs or that God has any control over history at all?
The story of the nation of Israel is indeed the one word that speaks of God’s integrity. I don’t know whether the nation of Israel as we know it will see a revival in our time or whether it is still centuries away. What I do know is it will happen because when God makes a promise, He delivers.
A MERCY EXTENDED
Just as you who were at one time disobedient to God have now received mercy as a result of their disobedience,so they too have now become disobedient in order that they too may now receive mercy as a result of God’s mercy to you. For God has bound all men over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all. (Romans 11:30-32)
Paul follows his declaration of God’s integrity with a reminder of God’s mercy. We proclaim that all men are created equal. However, we don’t really believe that statement. In all honesty, we tend to think that some (including us) are better than others.
Jesus told a parable about two men going to pray. One was a well-respected Pharisee, the other a despised tax-collector. The Pharisee prayed with fluent words and sounded wonderfully spiritual. The Tax-Collector, on the other hand, didn’t’ even look to Heaven when he said, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”
Those who listened to the story certainly believed that the tax-collector should be asking for mercy. There was no doubt that he needed to bow before the Lord. Jesus shocked his audience however, when he told them, “I tell you that this man (the tax-collector), rather than the other went home justified before God.” (Luke 18:9-14)
Jesus wanted the people to understand that we must recognize our sin before we can every receive God’s mercy. We are all dependent on God’s mercy whether we are Jews or Gentiles, rich or poor, respected or despised, outgoing or shy, powerful or oppressed. Every one of us must come to God the same way.
Paul tells us that God has “bound all men over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.” Paul is saying God has allowed us to become addicted to sin in the hope that it will cause us to cry out for help and allow Him to extend His mercy to us.
Some people will take that last phrase in verse 31, “mercy on them all”, to imply that everyone is going to be saved in the end. This is foolish thinking. The entire context of the book of Romans paints for us two roads: the road to eternal life and the road to eternal judgment. Paul is clear that no one can be saved or made right with God apart from the work of God that brings them to faith and trust. It is better to understand Paul as saying God has bound all men over to disobedience so that he might have mercy on them all (both the Gentiles and the Jews).
Let’s draw some practical lessons. First, we are reminded again to guard against spiritual arrogance. We have talked about this principle in every sermon on Romans 11. Paul is attempting to combat a very human tendency. We often cherish and celebrate the fact that we have received God’s mercy and grace and then turn around and insist others jump through the hoops we establish for them.
Our challenge is to view people with the eyes of the Father. Paul told the Romans that Israel was in one sense their enemies (because they opposed the gospel), but on the other hand were loved by God. In the same way, there are people we meet in life who do not treat us well. They are in one sense our enemies. In those times of frustration and hurt we must remind ourselves that God may view those same people in a different way. We need to look at others to see what God sees in them.
We are reminded to rest in God’s Sovereign control over History. I’ve enjoyed watching the men of our church working at the parsonage. I must confess there are times I have no idea what they are doing. As I continue to watch them work, I begin to see that there is a plan. There is a purpose for the holes in the cement, a purpose and system in all those dangling wires, and there is a purpose for the piles of wood.
Isn’t it great to be reminded that God has a plan for the world? We watch the news and it seems like things are out of control. We look at the closed doors of opportunity in our lives and wonder what is going on. We face various adversities and we wonder why God “doesn’t like us”. This passage reminds us that God has a plan. He is weaving the various movements of history and the various circumstances of our lives for His glory and for the benefit of those who put their faith in Him.
If you are churning today, and most of us are churning about something, I encourage you to rest in the providence of our Father in Heaven. Your life may seem to be a mess of broken up concrete and dangling wires. . . but the Master builder has a plan. Trust Him.
We should be spurred to action. Most of us understand the need to put money aside for the future. We know that if we don’t establish a 401K or some kind of pension savings we are going to be in trouble later in life. Some people put this off year after year after year. When they reach retirement age, it is too late to put anything away. It is financial foolishness to delay preparing for your retirement. It is even more foolhardy to delay planning for your spiritual future.
Paul warns us that there is a time coming when the door of opportunity will close. Our life could end in a moment through a physical problem or an accident. The Lord may come back to earth at any time. We just don’t know. To continue to push spiritual issues aside because you have “more important things to do” is the height of foolishness.
Take this warning to heart. Ask yourself if you are more like the Pharisee or the Tax-collector in Jesus’ parable. Are you putting your confidence in your goodness, your good looks, your religious practices or your fine reputation? Or have you come to the Lord with your heart humbled and your hands open, seeking the mercy that only God can give? I know you have many important things to do. You probably have many significant demands on your time. However, is there anything in your life that has a greater and more long-lasting significance than your relationship with God? Don’t keep putting it off. You never know when you will be out of time.