God's Ways are Inscrutible: Reflections from Romans 11 part 1

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Have you ever lived in or traveled to a culture that’s not your own? Maybe America is not your home culture. What do you notice first about cultures you aren’t familiar with? Maybe it’s a language barrier but that’s pretty obvious. Dig a little deeper and isn’t it the way people do things and how they differ the first thing you notice? For example, when my wife’s brother and his family lived in Italy they discovered a stark contrast between the American and Italian definitions of what it means to be polite at the table. I was always told by my mother to keep my elbows off the table and my hands in my lap unless I was using a fork and knife and then I should only rest my forearms and not my elbows on the table. But in Italian etiquette it is considered extremely offensive and even threatening to keep your hands in your lap while at the table. Why? It comes out of Mafia culture where people might have a weapon concealed under the table. So keeping your hands up on the table – elbows and all – was a gesture of peace and friendship.

It all comes down to values and expectations. People of differing cultures value different things generally and collectively and therefore assuming those around them have similar values almost everyone in the culture has expectations that others will behave in certain ways. This idea can relate to our marriages. We are surprised when after the honeymoon is over we discover that our spouse has a different set of values and expectations because of the family culture our spouse grew up in differed from our own.

Let me make another application: when we come to the Bible and when we come to God in prayer – do we expect that the Bible has the same cultural values and expectations as our own? That’s dangerous because then we will start reading our expectations back into the text and obscure for ourselves what it really says. It’s the same with God. Sometimes we build up certain expectations about God, about how he should act and how, frankly, we think He should see things “my way.” But God doesn’t share all your values and expectations. God didn’t come out of your culture – cultures are fallen things. They are just the collective generally shared beliefs of a collection of people and people are sinful. Cultures are predominantly man-made things and bear the marks of our fallen-ness. They can be redeemed in areas and need to be redeemed. But many elements of any culture also need to be challenged, and transformed by the gospel.

Romans 9 through 11 increasingly deal with questions about the destiny of the ethnically Jewish race called Israel. These are Paul’s kinsmen. His “peeps.” But we might ask “why?” Why should the apostle Paul be concerned at this point in the letter with the destiny of Jewish Israel? Up to chapter 9 the discussion has primarily focused on the singular theme of the gospel message and specifically how sinful people can be made right with God - something the Bible calls “Justification by faith” – a gift of God at the heart of the gospel message. Writing to a church full of people from both Jewish and non-Jewish (or Gentile) backgrounds, the focus up through Chapter 8 was on the fact that all have sinned – both Jew and Gentile – and that being made right with God or justification is by faith alone and that salvation is received only in Christ and through the Spirit. So, “why should Paul suddenly be so deeply concerned with the status and future of unbelieving Jewish Israel?”[1] In a word, it is because the Jews of Paul's day had developed certain cultural expectations about God that weren't true to who God had revealed himself to be and they were reading those expectations back into the scriptures. The result is that their misdirected expectations had caused them to be blinded to the Messiah God had sent them. So, Paul's concern for them arises...

1.      Because the situation that ethnically Jewish Israelites had found themselves in illustrates the main themes in Romans 8 and 10. What we see in Romans 8 & 10 about God’s foreknowledge, calling, and justifying people and the centrality of the gospel to accomplish all those things all directly apply to the difficult reality of the massive rejection of Jesus by his people: the Jews of Paul's day.

2.      Another thing we notice is that the main question Paul seems to be answering in Romans 11 is “Has God rejected the Jews because of their rejection of Jesus?” And furthermore, if He has, then it seems like all the promises God made to their forefathers (like Abraham and Moses) must have failed.

3.      And finally, if God’s word failed with his original people, then what’s to say God’s word won’t fail with regard to the promises of salvation in Jesus?

Paul answers these questions by exalting the great, wonderful, and inscrutable ways of God which transcend all our expectations. Near the end of Romans 11 Paul rejoices saying:

“Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” (Romans 11:33)

This is the grid through which Paul answers these difficult questions. This is how, although it may not look like it at the moment, if we’re paying attention, we’ll see that indeed God’s word has NOT failed but has accomplished all that He intended from the beginning.

The first thing we see is that God’s ways are “Foreknown” or God’s ways are known by God eternally beforehand. Romans 11:1-2a says:

“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.  2a God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew…”

God carries out his ways according to his foreknowledge. Did you ever play a new game as a kid with other kids who already knew the game? Sometimes if they weren’t good at explaining all the rules they might introduce new rules along the way. When that happens it can seem like they’re just making the rules up as they went along. That’s a pretty defeating feeling – you feel like you can’t possibly win because your opponent will just introduce a new rule that will make it impossible for you to win.  God doesn’t do that. He doesn’t just make up the rules as he goes along. God’s foreknowledge as it is presented in the Bible presume his ability and desire to carry out his plans unto completion. We see this back in Romans 8:29-30:

“For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.  30 And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.”

God’s faithfulness to complete what he foreknows applies to us individually and to his designs for entire nations and movements in history. So, first Paul assures his readers that no God has not rejected his people whom He foreknew. And God’s foreknowledge assumes his ability to carry out what he had planned ahead of time.

But we must not assume we know how God will complete what he has planned in his foreknowledge. Who would have guessed at the time of Moses that God had planned according to his foreknowledge to fulfill all his promises to Abraham and his descendants through a select group of them who would place their faith in Jesus as their Messiah? This was God’s plan all along but most of the Jews of Paul’s day could not see it. Think about it for a minute. Professor David Holwerda reminds us to ask: 

“To whom were the promises [of God] made [in the time of ancient Israel]? Were they given to all Jews indiscriminately, simply on the basis of genetic or racial connections to the patriarchs? To this question Paul, together with the rest of Scripture, gives an emphatic No. The basis for claiming the promises of salvation has never been simply physical descent from the patriarchs. God’s covenant with Israel is not fundamentally a matter of ethnic ancestry.”[2]

This was the main thrust of the line of argument in Chapter 9:6 “But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel.” Paul’s answer to this question that arises from his acknowledgment of Israel’s rejection of Jesus: “has God therefore rejected them?” finds its answer in Jesus. Paul’s answer begins with himself as an object lesion, saying in a sense: “look at me as evidence that God has not rejected Israel.” Paul was a Jew and a Pharisee who later in life put his trust in Jesus – and God has in this way fulfilled his promises to his Jewish forefathers in people like him. God’s plan was to not to reject the Jewish people but to accept them at the age of the Messiah through their faith in the Messiah. That’s not what they expected but it is God’s way according to his foreknowledge and plan.

The fact of God’s foreknowledge and plan in our own lives should give us great comfort. If you have walked the walk of faith in God you have probably experienced times when you did what was right and upheld what God desired you to, but things didn’t seem to go as planned. God has promised to orchestrate all things for your good (Rom 8:28). And yet there have been times when everything seemed to be orchestrated only for your harm. You have cried out to God in those times: “Has God rejected me?” It may look like it for a season – but God is at work according to a foreknown plan that is difficult for you to see in those times. If you are in Christ, then God has not forsaken you. He knows you and has known you before you even came into being, and He has promised to be with you through the trials.

Next Paul reminds us of Elijah when he cried out to God. The prophet Elijah felt like he had been abandoned by God.  And Elijah found out that God’s ways demonstrate his grace which we will look at in Romans 11:2a-6 in the next post: "Part 2".

[1] David E. Holwerda, Jesus & Israel: One Covenant or Two? 151.

[2] Holwerda, 155.