Thursday, April 05, 2007

Romans 11:19-24

You will say then, "Branches were broken off so that I could be grafted in." Granted. But they were broken off because of unbelief, and you stand by faith. Do not be arrogant, but be afraid. For if God did not spare the natural branches, He will not spare you either. Consider therefore the kindness and sternness of God: sternness to those who fell, but kindness to you, provided that you continue in His kindness. Otherwise, you also will be cut off. And if they do not persist in unbelief, they will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again. After all, if you were cut out of an olive tree that is wild by nature, and contrary to nature were grafted into a cultivated olive tree, how much more readily will these, the natural branches, be grafted into their own olive tree!

Paul has taught us that grace produces humility. Now he teaches us that grace produces faith. An understanding of how God has saved us in His grace will produce the response of faith. And Paul gets to this point by his typical response to a hypothetical argument. Perhaps a Gentile believer in his audience who wasn’t convinced that he should be humble and compassionate would arrogantly say, “Branches were broken off so that I could be grafted in.” In other words, “God chose me and not them. Why should I care about Israel, since it has been broken off so that I could be included?” And Paul concurs with the fact, but he dissents regarding the attitude. He adds that Israel was broken off due to unbelief, and that can happen to any branch (natural or wild) if the branch withers in unbelief. Basically, Paul is rejecting nominal Christianity. He is saying that grace produces a humble trusting in Christ for everything, and not an “I’m more deserving than thou” type of religion. There’s no such thing as a non-humble Christian. Not that we don’t experience proud moments and even struggle with pride daily, but again, perpetual pride and Christianity are mutually exclusive according to Paul.

Paul has taught that grace produces genuine humility and genuine faith. Finally, he teaches that grace always promotes the largest view of God. In other words, if you have the right view of God, the God of grace, that is in and of itself a product of God’s grace. And having tasted of God’s grace, you now realize both the justice and mercy of God to the exclusion of neither. That’s what Paul shows in v22. He’s saying to the Gentile Christians, “In the salvation of God and in the judgment of God, you see two aspects or attributes of the character of God. You see both His love and His justice served to the full. Seeing His love and His justice ought to make you tremble, because He is a living and active, righteous and just, powerful and holy God. He will be stern with those who fail to believe, but kind to those who persevere in faith.” Often times, the kindness (or mercy) and the sternness (or severity or wrath) of God are displayed simultaneously in the same event. Our perspective makes the difference. For example, when a grandmother dies after a short battle with cancer, we might be angry or upset and consider that to be God’s sternness; or we might be glad in the sense that she didn’t have to suffer any longer, and thereby consider it God’s kindness. Furthermore, always noticing both attributes of God’s character will drive us to “continue in His kindness.” It is a delight to fear the Lord. (See Nehemiah 1:11; Isaiah 11:3) Revelation 2:7 “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.” 1 John 5:4-5 “Everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world? Only he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God.”

V23-24 – Paul makes a very simple argument here. If God, in the salvation of the Gentiles, made those who were not His people become His people, and grafted those who were not part of His olive tree into His olive tree, then how much more can God graft branches that originally came from His olive tree back into that olive tree. If God can do this amazing thing in bringing Gentiles into the Kingdom, it’s certainly not beyond God to bring His own ancient people back into the Kingdom. Paul is asserting here that all Jewish people who embrace Christ by faith will be grafted into the body of Christ. He’s hoping for Israel, and he’s talking about God’s ability to save.

And as has been typical of Paul throughout this 3 chapter span of Romans 9-11, he emphasizes God’s sovereignty in salvation without downplaying human responsibility to come to Christ and persevere in faith. V23 shows both truths: “If they do not persist in unbelief, they will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again.” Paul emphasizes God’s ability to actually save the lost and the necessity of faith in Jesus Christ. He’s not saying that since God is able to save, maybe He’s going to save in some other way than faith in Jesus Christ. No, God saves by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. That’s it.

And in v24, Paul offers one more argument to the doubting Gentile Christians. Picture them saying that the Jews are too far gone, they are beyond saving, there’s no hope for them now, it’s too late. Paul says essentially that it will be easier for God to graft the Jewish people into their own olive tree than it was to bring the Gentiles and graft them into the cultivated olive tree from which they did not spring. The Westminster Confession of Faith, written long ago by our reformation-era brothers in faith, has this to say from chapter 25 section 1: “The catholic or universal church, which is invisible, consists of the whole number of the elect that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ the head thereof, and is the spouse and body and fullness of Him that fill us all and all.” That’s exactly what Paul is emphasizing here, the spiritual unity of the people of God.

In closing, take 3 truths from the last 2 verses alone: First, God is sovereign in salvation and we are responsible to believe. Second, faith is the way of salvation and God’s sovereignty is not an argument against the fact that we must believe the Gospel with saving faith. Third, when God saves us, He brings us into spiritual unity, one family, one body, one tree, one church. That’s His plan.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Romans 11:17-18

If some of the branches have been broken off, and you, though a wild olive shoot, have been grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing sap from the olive root, do not boast over those branches. If you do, consider this: You do not support the root, but the root supports you.

Remember that Paul’s audience was amongst a Roman society which had a general contempt for all things Jewish. The Romans looked down their noses at Israel, because Israel was a conquered, surrogate state. And Christians were often fearful of the Jews, because they were the first – before the Romans – to persecute them. Within 100 years of the writing of the New Testament, some people, now called Gnostics or Marcionites, literally went through the New Testament and removed every New Testament reference to the Old Testament. They tried to expunge the Jewishness of Christianity. But you can’t do that, because Christianity is Jewish inherently. So Paul is warning these Gentile Christians to understand that and think of the present Israel in view of the root of God’s word. Perhaps Paul wanted to prevent the Christians in Rome from displaying a general secular attitude toward Israel in his teaching here, but it sure works out nicely for us in the twenty-first century political realm.

Israel is the olive tree, and God is the gardener. It’s an illustration that everyone with any biblical literacy would have understood when Paul was speaking. The prophets often talked about how God tends and cares for the body of His people. Now the illustration that Paul is giving here is horticulturally odd. It was not common practice to take a wild olive branch and graft it into an old cultivated olive root. Normally it would be the other way around. The olive farmers of Paul’s day would normally have taken a branch from an older, cultivated olive that was becoming less fruitful and more vulnerable to disease and would have grafted it into a wild olive root, which would have produced good fruits. Paul knew that it was normally that way, but the illustration he offers, like so many of Paul’s illustrations, is designed to show how surprising it is that God has brought Gentiles into His people. In v24, Paul says that it is not natural to take a wild olive branch and graft it into a root of an old cultivated olive tree. Rather, it is contrary to nature. That’s his whole point. God’s grace to the Gentiles is surprising. And perhaps we’ve taken that for granted, but Paul reminds us again what a surprising thing God has done to the Gentile Christians. They were “wild” and God grafted them in; they didn’t graft themselves in. Paul is teaching us that grace produces humility. A proper view of God’s grace will bring about humility in Christians and not arrogance. You can be proud or you can be a Christian, but not both. And, once again, when we Gentiles are humble, we have a greater propensity to have compassion for the people of Israel, knowing that our roots lie in Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, knowing that what God has done for us is surprisingly gracious. Here are 3 things we should display as a result of Paul’s teaching: (1) humility and (2) compassion towards Jews and (3) awe towards God.

Before moving on, I want to briefly mention here the eschatological considerations regarding Israel and the Church. Without really getting into it, let’s acknowledge that on the one hand, some theologians (Reformed or Covenant Theology) believe that Israel and the Church are one. There is a distinction made by the Savior’s earthly appearance, but the two entities make up one group – the Body of Christ. Both entities, as one group, share in the same covenantal promises. The Old Testament Hebrew people are our brothers, because we, as spiritual descendants of Abraham, are “Jews” in that certain sense. By faith in Jesus Christ, the Messiah, we have become the true Jews (Romans 2:28-29). Galatians 3:7 “Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham” (see Galatians 3:16). Gentiles, as the offspring of Abraham, inherit the promises made to "the Israel of God" (Galatians 6:16). And on the other hand, some theologians (Dispensational Theology) believe that Israel and the Church are two. Because of what is called a “dispensational” distinction – not merely that the Messiah came and separated these two entities, but that God relates on completely different terms with these two entities – they say that the two entities really are two separate groups and should not be grouped into one "Body of Christ." God is working differently in Israel than He is working in the Church, having made different promises to them than He has made to us. And we, as members of the Church, have no relation to the Old Testament Hebrew people, as we are “Jews” in no real sense. This will come up again in v25-32.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Romans 11:11-16

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! I am talking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch as I am the apostle to the Gentiles, I make much of my ministry in the hope that I may somehow arouse my own people to envy and save some of them. For if their rejection is the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead? If the part of the dough offered as firstfruits is holy, then the whole batch is holy; if the root is holy, so are the branches.

V11-12 – Paul offers another glimpse into the eternal plan of God. Here we are told that God’s plan to save the Gentiles is first and foremost gracious. He has no obligation to save or even to offer salvation to anyone. God hardens in order that He can reveal His mercy. And God has designed the hardening of a majority of the Jews in order to bring the full number of Gentiles into His Kingdom. So there is a purpose beyond anything we can really even understand to why most Jews reject the Gospel – that the Gentiles could be included in God’s salvation. Jesus spoke about this in Matthew 8:5-13 and in the parable of the tenants (Matthew 21:33-46). We just don’t always recognize that this was God’s plan from the beginning.

Paul is doing two things in v11. First, he is denying that God’s hardening of Israel so that the Jews reject the Gospel is intended to cause them to fall beyond recovery (commit eternal apostasy). That’s not what God has purposed with Israel’s hardening. And second, he is denying that God is done with Israel. God has something more in store for Israel. By their transgression, salvation has come to the Gentiles. Paul says that God used the unbelief of Israel to result in the salvation of Gentiles all around the world. But that’s not where Paul stops. He adds that this was to make the Jews jealous. And that sounds strange, but Jesus displayed how this works in His parable of the prodigal sons. Remember the jealousy of the elder son. He was jealous that the younger son was inheriting the party and his father’s favor. He was just as welcome to come into the party as the repentant younger son. The point is this: The conversion of the Gentiles is for the evangelism, for the benefit, of the Jews. So the hardening of the Jews is for the evangelism of the Gentiles, and the salvation of the Gentiles is for the evangelism of the Jews. Paul sets forth a plan of salvation in which the salvation of the Gentile is for the benefit of the Jew, and the salvation of the Jew is for the benefit of the Gentile. They can still be distinguished, but God’s plan of redemption is designed to work for their mutual blessing so that the Jew is for the Gentile and the Gentile for the Jew. God is always at work for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose. He really does work all things in accordance with His will and pleasure. And this, even though perhaps difficult to understand, should give us great assurance and hope and peace.

Now in v12, and its parallel in v15, Paul is saying that if blessing resulted to Gentile Christians all over the world because Jews rejected the Messiah, how much greater blessing is going to result for the Gentiles when Israel embraces the Messiah! Their rejection of the gospel brought blessing to the whole Gentile world. Their acceptance is going to do even more. Paul is saying that God’s works of grace in the present and future are going to be greater than His works of grace in the past.

V13-16 – Paul is teaching Gentiles to have a heart of love for the Jewish people, including a longing to see them converted. That was not an easy thing to do for Paul’s Gentile audience, and it’s not necessarily an easy thing to do in our day. At the same time, many Jews, both in Paul’s day and in our own, see Paul and other Jewish Christians as turning their backs on the truth by embracing Jesus Christ. But Paul saw his ministry to the Gentiles as a way to bless Israel. In v13-14 he’s saying, “Look, this is how I think of my ministry to the Gentiles, you Gentile Christians in Rome, and this is how I want you to think about your ministry to the Jews.” He says, “If I seek to move my fellow countrymen to jealousy and to save some of them, I am magnifying my ministry to the Gentiles. There is no conflict of interest. When I try to move Gentiles to trust in God, I’m not doing that to the exclusion of the salvation of my fellow countrymen. In fact, in God’s plan, the blessing of salvation for the Gentiles is designed to bring Israel to saving faith. Every time I witness to a Gentile, I’m praying that God will bring in the Israelites. And you Gentile Christians in Rome, you ought to be thinking the same way.”

At the beginning of Israel’s history God chose and set apart for Himself Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They are the “dough offered as first fruits” and “the root.” If the dough or the root is holy, meaning dedicated as a special possession of God and set apart from the nations, then the present enmity and hardening and stumbling does not nullify God’s original intention with Israel. God has a future for Israel. The whole lump of dough and all the branches of an entire generation will be holy. It could also be said that Jesus Christ is the “dough offered as first fruits” and “the root.” Paul will get more into this is v28, so we’ll save it for then.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Romans 11:7-10

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" [Deuteronomy 29:4; Isaiah 29:10]. 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" [Psalm 69:22-23].

V7-10 – The elect attained what Israel sought to obtain. The others were hardened. How would you have written v7? Maybe this: “What then? Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking. The believers obtained it, but the rest refused to believe.” And that is absolutely true. Paul could have easily written that and avoided the issue of God’s election and reprobation (hardening), just like most people avoid it today. But Paul once again emphasizes that the source of salvation is in the grace of God. How is it that that remnant came to saving faith in God? Grace. God chose them, and they obtained it. “It” is righteousness before the throne of God. “It” is salvation in Jesus Christ. None would have obtained “it” had God not chosen them. All whom God chooses will obtain “it.” There’s no confusion here with Paul, so there shouldn’t be any confusion for us either, but often times, this is a confusing, even divisive issue. Most of the time, the topic is simply avoided, but Paul doesn’t avoid it.

You might expect Paul here to emphasize that the difference between unbelieving Israel and believing Israel, the difference between Jewish Christians and those Jews who have rejected Christ, is to be found in their faith. After all, chapter 10 explained that all of Israel had everything they needed to believe. But that’s not what Paul says. He carries the thing back to what he said in chapter 9, that God’s grace is the determining factor. And let me say that I’m not saying that a decision to trust Christ is unimportant, just that it is penultimate. We at Southeast often talk about making a decision, but as far as Paul is concerned, that decision which we must indeed make is itself a result of a prior and ultimate decision that God has made. The choice of God is the determining factor. Paul is claiming that God’s grace makes distinctions. In fact, he offers three Scripture passages in the next several verses to prove his case.

Deuteronomy 29:3-4 “With your own eyes you saw those great trials, those miraculous signs and great wonders. But to this day the LORD has not given you a mind that understands or eyes that see or ears that hear.” Isaiah 29:9-10 “Be stunned and amazed, blind yourselves and be sightless; be drunk, but not from wine, stagger, but not from beer. The LORD has brought over you a deep sleep: He has sealed your eyes (the prophets, He has covered your heads (the seers).” Psalm 69:21-23 “They put gall in my food and gave me vinegar for my thirst. May the table set before them become a snare; may it become retribution and a trap. May their eyes be darkened so they cannot see, and their backs be bent forever.”

The people physically see and hear, but not spiritually. Spiritual truth has no attractiveness to it, unless God opens eyes and hears to that end. The hardening is not merely in the hands of man, because there is a planned end for it (Romans 11:25). The hardening will last “until the full number of the Gentiles comes in.” So God has appointed it, and God will remove it at the time He has appointed. The basis of this hardening is twofold. First, God’s glory lies in His freedom to never be ultimately dependent on the will of man. He has mercy on whom He has mercy and He hardens whom He will (Romans 9:18). But as equally important is the second basis for the hardening, that of man’s guilt in sinfulness and unbelief. Man is deserving of eternal hardening, and no one will ever convince God that he is innocent because he wasn’t chosen by God before creation; he has knowingly sinned against God by his own choice.