The nation of Israel is in the news constantly. The Israeli/Palestinian battle has raged for many years. Throughout all the trials and turmoil of Israel the United States has worked hard to remain an ally to Israel. One of the reasons for our pro-Israel stance is Biblical. We believe Israel is still in some sense God’s chosen people. There is a sense in which we (as believers) have drawn our life from Israel. To abandon Israel feels like we are abandoning God.
My intention today is not to debate foreign policy but to examine what Paul says about the nation of Israel. As we understand these words it will help us understand some of what is going on in the world today.
The role of Israel is debated in Christian circles. Everyone agrees that Israel was God’s chosen people. God chose Abraham and his descendents way back in the book of Genesis. Someone has said, “One of the greatest arguments for the truthfulness of the Bible, is the continued existence of Israel in spite of all odds.”
Some in the Christian community believe the role of “chosen people” has now been taken over by the church. In Romans 9 Paul tells us that the “true Israel” is those who have the faith of Abraham. In that sense, the people of God is no longer the nation of Israel but the church.
Others believe Israel as a nation will once again take a prominent role. Some believe the temple will be rebuilt in Jerusalem and sacrifices will once again be offered on the altar. This is the view made popular by the Left Behind novels.
I can’t speak definitively on this issue. In my present understanding I believe the church is the true people of God. I don’t know about the rebuilding of the temple (since God’s Spirit now lives in those who believe) and I don’t know why God would allow sacrifices to be offered again in the temple (since the perfect sacrifice has been offered.) However, I do believe Romans 11 teaches that God is not finished with Israel. In Romans 11 Paul contrasts Israel with the Gentiles. This leads me to conclude that Paul is not talking about “spiritual Israel”. He is talking about national Israel.
Romans 11 is a tough passage to read because we think it doesn’t apply to us. We must remember that ALL scripture is inspired by God and is profitable. That means this passage has something valuable to teach us. Let’s try to find it.
AN UNDERLYING QUESTION: Did God Reject His People?
I ask then: Did God reject his people? By no means! I am an Israelite myself, a descendant of Abraham, from the tribe of Benjamin.God did not reject his people, whom he foreknew. Don’t you know what the Scripture says in the passage about Elijah—how he appealed to God against Israel: “Lord, they have killed your prophets and torn down your altars; I am the only one left, and they are trying to kill me”? And what was God’s answer to him? “I have reserved for myself seven thousand who have not bowed the knee to Baal.” So too, at the present time there is a remnant chosen by grace. And if by grace, then it is no longer by works; if it were, grace would no longer be grace. (Romans 11:1-6)
Paul has been addressing this question since the start of Romans 9. The reason for the question is obvious. Jesus came as the long awaited Jewish Messiah, and yet the Jews largely have rejected Him. It’s only natural to ask: has God washed His hands of Israel? Have all God’s promises to Israel been abandoned?
In Romans 9 Paul reminded us that God’s promises were not meant to be universal. God has always chosen to save some and not others. In chapter 10 Paul reminds us that Israel has heard the gospel message but has turned away from the Lord. They have drifted because of their own unbelief.
In chapter 11 Paul makes yet another distinction. He says God could not have abandoned Israel because Paul, all the disciples and thousands of the first converts, were Jewish. Though many Jews do not believe, not all Jews have fallen away. Since God is saving Jewish people (and He is still doing so today through Jews for Jesus, Messianic Jews and others), God has obviously not abandoned the Jews.
Second, Paul reminds his readers that God has often preserved only a “remnant” which becomes seed for a future harvest. In the history of Israel we see a pattern: faith, falling away, judgment, threatened extinction, the raising up of a remnant of faithful followers and the cycle begins again.
To illustrate Paul turned to 1 Kings to tell the story of Elijah. Wicked King Ahab hated Elijah and had put out a contract on him. Elijah proposed a contest with the prophets of Baal. Ahab agreed. The prophets of Baal were humiliated and killed. Since Ahab’s wife, Jezebel was determined to kill Elijah he went to the desert and became very depressed. God ministered to him through an angel. Elijah was so discouraged (which often happens after a mountain top experience, pardon the pun) that he told God he wished he were dead. God asked, What are you doing here? Elijah responded, I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too. (1 Kings 19:10) Elijah felt he was fighting the Lord’s battle all by himself (have you ever felt that way?) and he was worn out. He felt he couldn’t go on any longer.
God gently reminded Elijah that he needed to see beyond what was apparent. He sent a strong wind, an earthquake and a fire but God was not in those things. Instead God whispered to Elijah. God told Elijah he was mistaken. He was not the last man standing. The Lord had reserved 7000 people (a remnant) who were still faithful to Him.
Paul is arguing that just because it seems apparent the Jews have fallen out of favor with God we must not discount the remnant. God has still maintained a group of faithful Jews who have found salvation through Christ. It may not seem like there are many of these Jews, but there are more than you think. These Jewish believers are saved the same way we are, through grace and not by personal merit. There is not one way of salvation for the Jew and one for the Gentiles. No one will be saved because of his or her goodness or his or her nationality. We all find salvation through the gracious gift that comes through Christ. In this sense, God has not forgotten the Jews.
What happened to the rest of Israel?
If there is only a remnant of Jews that are at this time being saved, what has happened to the rest of the Jews?
What then? What Israel sought so earnestly it did not obtain, but the elect did. The others were hardened, as it is written: God gave them a spirit of stupor, eyes so that they could not see and ears so that they could not hear, to this very day. And David says: “May their table become a snare and a trap, a stumbling block and a retribution for them. May their eyes be darkened so they cannot see, and their backs be bent forever. (Romans 11:7-10)
These words sound rather harsh and are very unpopular. Paul says only the elect (those Jews chosen by God, the actual wording is “but the election did” to show that it was not because of their goodness but God’s grace) received this blessing. God has graciously chosen to save some but the others were hardened.
We struggle with the fact that we are told God gave them a spirit of stupor. That seems unfair. Let me try to help you understand what I don’t fully understand myself. In Exodus we are told both that Pharaoh hardened his heart to God and that God hardened his heart. There seems to be two dimensions to this hardening.
In 2 Samuel 24 we are told that God incited David to take a census of Israel. In 1 Chronicles 21:1 we are told about the same incident and we read “Satan incited David to take a census”! How can this be? Was it Satan or God? The answer is “Yes”! Satan was the primary cause of the census, but the Jews understood that nothing ultimately happens unless the Lord gives permission. In that sense God incited David. The buck stops with the Lord.
Perhaps it is the same in the hardening we read about here. God is ultimately responsible for the hardening and has ordained this hardening for his good purpose. However, the hardening is also something that has resulted because of our own disobedience to the Lord. We become calloused when,
We begin to disobey in little things. A thief starts by stealing little things. As they justify their actions to quiet their own conscience they are able to move without guilt to bigger things. We become hardened when we train ourselves to ignore our conscience.
- We make faith a routine rather than a relationship. People become hardened when faith becomes a ritual. They go through the motions but feel nothing. They assure themselves that they are fine with God, but really are drifting far from Him.
- We have plenty and start feeling content in our own ability to take care of ourselves. God warned Israel back in Deuteronomy 8, Be careful that you do not forget the Lord your God, failing to observe his commands, his laws and his decrees that I am giving you this day. Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the Lord your God,” (Deut 8:10-14) When times are good it is easy to feel self-sufficient and we believe we no longer need God.
- We have constant exposure to the sinful world without corrective time in the Word of God and prayer. We have all seen this in our lives. We have watched so much television and watched so many movies (and have spent so little time with God in prayer, study of the Scriptures and worship) that we have become numb to immorality, vulgarity, perversion, and materialism.
Any of these things will lead us to a calloused heart.
Why does God allow this to Happen?
This is a very common question. We all want to know why bad things happen. We seem to believe in God the most when we are looking for someone to blame! Listen to Paul’s words,
Again I ask: Did they stumble so as to fall beyond recovery? Not at all! Rather, because of their transgression, salvation has come to the Gentiles to make Israel envious. But if their transgression means riches for the world, and their loss means riches for the Gentiles, how much greater riches will their fullness bring!
Paul anticipates the question: so, are the Jews lost forever? In Mark 6:50-52 we read about the disciples reaction to Jesus when he came to them walking on the water. The men were afraid and thought Jesus was a ghost. The text tells us, “Immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”Then he climbed into the boat with them, and the wind died down. They were completely amazed, for they had not understood about the loaves; their hearts were hardened.” The word for hardened here is the same word used in Romans 11.
The disciples were dull to the things of God at this point but that changed. God’s Spirit penetrated through the hardness and these disciples came to believe and follow Christ. You do not have to stay in the stupor!
Israel is not lost forever. Paul tells us that God has a purpose in this hardening. The hardening of the Jews was meant to propel the gospel to the Gentiles, to be an object lesson to us so that we might not become complacent, and a means to arouse faith in the Jewish nation.
Sometimes a parent lets their child make a foolish decision (in a sense the parent wills the decision by allowing it to take place). A parent might do this because they believe the child will learn better through the mistake than they will any other way. You might let your kids eat candy all day even though you know it is going to make them sick. You might let them try a puff of a cigarette knowing that it is going to make them gag. You might let them spend their money foolishly knowing that they won’t have money for the thing they really want later. We allow our children to do something foolish so they learn a more valuable lesson.
God has a reason for allowing the hardening. It is to reach out to the Gentiles and to ultimately awaken Israel (more on that next week).
Let’s try to draw out some practical answers to the honest question, “Who Cares?”
First, this passage reminds us that God sees the big picture and we only see today. God has the perspective of eternity and His plan and purpose is broad and far-reaching. We must be on guard against that hubris, or arrogance that seems to think that our present view of God’s plan is the correct view. Israel was so sure they had things figured out that they missed the Messiah. It is pretty arrogant for us to think that after hundreds of years we finally have figured out God’s plan for the future. His ways are beyond our ways. His plans are deeper than we can “figure out”. Jesus has certainly told us that He will return and that return is going to catch everyone by surprise. He has told us there will be a Day of Judgment and that He is preparing a place for those who trust Him in Heaven. Frankly, I’m hesitant to be too dogmatic about much more than these things. We must be humble when it comes to the mind of God.
Second, when we feel like we are the only one left we need to remember God’s history of preserving a remnant. You may feel like Elijah. Perhaps you feel you are the only one who cares about holiness, or morality, or evangelism. Perhaps you feel you are the only one who cares about prayer or theological fidelity. Maybe you feel like you are the only faithful person in your school or place of business. We need to remember that God has planted faithful people all over. We are not alone.
Third, we need to see the context of the discussion. The whole reason Paul has gotten into this discussion of God’s faithfulness to Israel, is because people wondered if God’s words in Romans 8 (that nothing will be able to separate us from God’s love) are dependable. Paul wants us to see that God does not abandon those whom He loves and has chosen. The firm commitment God has to the Jews is the same commitment God has to those who have placed their trust in Christ. We may drift, we may stumble, but He will not cast us aside. As believers in Jesus Christ we are His chosen ones. We are those He has foreknown and He will not let us go.
Let me ask you, as you look at Israel, which Israel best resembles your life? Are you like the remnant? Are you trusting God’s grace and rejoicing in the new life that He has given to us through the death and resurrection of Jesus? Have you stopped trusting your above average lifestyle, your great wisdom, your deep religious feelings and your sterling personality and placed all your confidence in His undeserved grace? If so, be grateful and guard against taking this for granted.
Are you calloused to the things of God? Maybe you grew up in a church that didn’t take the Bible seriously. Perhaps you know too many Christians who are phonies and have concluded that message of Christianity is a sham. Maybe you have been hurt in the past by God’s people. Maybe you have turned away because the lure of this life seems so much more attractive than the things of God. You have chosen immediate gratification over eternal riches. Perhaps you drifted away and have come to believe it is impossible to be accepted by God.
If you recognize your callousness toward God, there is no better time to come home than right now. The arms of God that were reaching out to Israel continue to reach out to you. The Lord offers you His forgiveness through Christ and promises to make you new. He will lead you to Heaven and He will never, ever, ever, let you go. Before this can happen you must dare to trust Him. You must be willing to take Jesus as your Savior and your Master. You must dare to stand with Him though all the world turns against Him.
You say you aren’t sure if God can be trusted? Then you need to take a lesson from God’s commitment to the Jews.