God's Ways are Inscrutible: Reflections from Romans 11 part 3


In the last post we ended on the note of the sufficiency of God's grace to sustain us through our deepest and most difficult trials. The apostle Paul suffered from a difficulty, most likely a physical health trial of some kind, that often proved to be a degrading frustration. He called it a "thorn" in his flesh and even a "messenger of Satan to harass me." He asked God three times to take it away. But God answered Paul in a way that would glorify God's grace: “But he said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.'” (2Corinthians 12:8-9). But how do we receive God's grace? How does it get from God to us - to our hearts in such a way that it sustains us? Part of the way we receive that grace from God in difficult times is to remind ourselves of the truths about who God is and what he is capable of. The truths of God buttress up our souls to survive life's difficulties like laying re-enforcing timbers in the structure of our houses in the midst of destructive storms. One of those truths to acknowledge is that God’s ways are sovereign. Romans 11:7-10 reminds us that nothing escapes the active power of God’s rule.

Things may seem random at times. History has its seemingly inexplicable chapters. But God has never been asleep or out to lunch. Every so often I send out prayer-letters to well over 350 email addresses of people we’ve met around the world who pray for us and Christ Community Church. Inevitably I get three or four immediate automatic responses saying: “I will be out of the office from such and such to such and such dates.” God never does that to us. He’s always administrating the universe and your prayers are never met with an automatic “out of the office” reply. In Romans 11:7-10 Paul acknowledges God's sovereignty by once again distinguishing between ethnic Israel as a whole and the elect within Israel according to God's sovereign choice. Paul is picking up the point he made in Romans 9:6-13 asserting that not all Israel is true Israel. So, if some are hardened, this too is not outside of God’s sovereign reign over the world and its history.

“What then? Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking. The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened, 8as it is written, "God gave them a spirit of stupor, eyes that would not see and ears that would not hear, down to this very day."  9 And David says, "Let their table become a snare and a trap, a stumbling block and a retribution for them; 10let their eyes be darkened so that they cannot see, and bend their backs forever."  (Romans 11:7-10)

It is true that many Jews have rejected Christ, but some did believe  and that is enough for Paul to show that God has not totally thrown his original people away, even though he has hardened the rest (vv. 8-10). This tells us that God is sovereign in his all his ways. It is God’s prerogative to choose some to demonstrate his grace while the rest remain hardened. The encouraging news that shines through this reality is that nothing is left untouched by God’s hand and as desperate as it may seem at times God is always in control. This is difficult for some people to swallow and that’s why Paul asserts that as God’s ways are sovereign they appear equally severe and Kind. So, not only are God’s ways sovereign they are also both kind and severe all at the same time. Romans 11:11-24 says...

So I ask, did they stumble in order that they might fall? By no means! Rather through their trespass salvation has come to the Gentiles, so as to make Israel jealous.  12 Now if their trespass means riches for the world, and if their failure means riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their full inclusion mean!  13 Now I am speaking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch then as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I magnify my ministry  14 in order somehow to make my fellow Jews jealous, and thus save some of them.  15 For if their rejection means the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance mean but life from the dead?  16 If the dough offered as firstfruits is holy, so is the whole lump, and if the root is holy, so are the branches.  17 But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, although a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing root of the olive tree,  18 do not be arrogant toward the branches. If you are, remember it is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you.  19 Then you will say, "Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in."  20 That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but stand in awe.  21 For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you.  22 Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God's kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off.  23 And even they, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again.  24 For if you were cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these, the natural branches, be grafted back into their own olive tree.

In v. 11:11 the question of v. 11:1 is repeated and Paul again bluntly rejects the implication that Israel’s rejection of Jesus issues a final and fatal verdict on the race as a whole. (vs. 12) Think of how in the book of Acts, whenever Jews would reject Paul and the gospel, Paul would then turn to the Gentiles (“riches for the world/Gentiles”) who would often accept the gospel. Paul says this will have the effect of making the Jews jealous (also vs. 11b, 14) and cause some Jews to turn to Jesus themselves and receive the gospel. He then elaborates on this by structuring his explanation around a parable of two olive trees (vv. 16-24) and then by looking to the prophet Isaiah (Romans 11:26-27 from Isaiah 59:20f. and 27:9 and maybe Psalm 14:7).

The first olive tree represents Israel, the Jewish people. They are referred to as holy  (v. 16), cultivated (v. 24) by God. He nurtured the root (v. 16) – suggesting his call upon the patriarchs (vv. 26, 28). The growth of the branches represents the emergence and growth of the twelve tribes of Israel. But in the end despite their cultivation the result was their failure (vs. 12) and the fruit of unbelief (vs. 20).

The second olive tree represents all the rest of the “Gentile nations” and peoples of the world. They are comparatively called wild (vv. 17, 24), not nurtured by God’s grace, unproductive (spiritually).

The first tree again: Israel’s rejection of Christ is described as branches being broken off (vv. 17, 19). Paul sees this as the defining moment in Israel’s recent history. He calls it their fall (vv. 11, 12); their failure (v. 12); their hardening (v. 25); and the unbelieving branches were not spared (v. 21). This is talking about God’s severity (v.22).

By the way, God's severe dealings with Israel is something worthy of our attention. It is an “internal” proof for the authenticity of the Bible. The fact that God holds the people he chose for himself to a severe standard of holiness and does not turn a blind eye to their disobedience shows an objective point of view in the Bible. Many so-called holy books nearly always show the people writing the book as favored by God no matter what. Why would the Jews record so many very unflattering and incriminating stories about their forefathers’ disobedience? It shows an objective point of view. The perspective is God's perspective in his severity.

But the Bible also attests to God being at work even in all this unbelief (v. 20). It was to cause the Israelites to be jealous as the Gentiles come into the New Covenant people of faith, God’s Kingdom, originally promised to the Jews so that some of them will be saved (vv. 13-14). Some Jews, like Paul and the apostles will turn to faith in Jesus and in this way the failure of the Jews is only partial (this is about quantity not time v. 25). So the answer to the question: "Why would God harden a sizable proportion of his own people?" is v. 28, i.e. it is for the good of the unbelieving world that God left the Jews in partial unbelief and hardening. It is an element in his sovereign strategy of gloriously displaying his kindness. God's ways are both severe and kind at the same time.

God can be this way with us. Consider how the discipline of the Lord in our lives shows us to be his true children. The author of Hebrews tells us as much:

For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives."  7 It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline?  8 If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. (Hebrews 12:6-8)

So through God's severity and kindness the two trees come together to make one new tree. Branches of the wild olive tree (Gentiles) are grafted in to the cultivated olive tree (true Israel) in place of those broken off (vv. 17,24), and so partake of its richness (v. 17). This is salvation coming to all the Nations through Jesus (v. 11) who came through Israel. Here we see God’s goodness and Kindness  (v.22). The astonishing outcome of Jewish unbelief results in riches for the world (v. 12) and the reconciliation of the world (v. 15) to God.

What a strange way of doing things. This is not how any Jew or Gentile in Paul’s day would have guessed God would carry out his plan for the world. Indeed God’s ways are Mysterious, which is the subject of the next post when we look at Romans 11:25-29 and following.