The Letter to the Romans
COLLEEN MOORE TINKER
39. Riches From Loss
Paul has been explaining that God hardened Israel for the purpose of awakening them to their loss by arousing envy in them as they see the Gentiles becoming His people. Now he begins to explain that their hardening and rejection are not permanent. God will awaken them and draw them to repentance, just as He has the Gentiles.
Because of their transgression, Paul says, "salvation has come to the Gentiles to make Israel envious" (verse 11). What transgression, then, did Israel commit that resulted in such a great consequence?
In Matthew 11:22-24 Jesus mourned over the Jewish town of Capernaum. They refused to acknowledge Him or His miracles and turned hard hearts toward Him. He stood in the street one day and cried over the city, comparing it to Tyre and Sidon. It would be better for Tyre and Sidon in the Day of Judgment, He said, than for Israel. If those cities had seen the miracles Israel saw, they would have believed. Capernaum represented a large percentage of Israel who saw the obviously divine acts of Jesus but rejected Him anyway.
The Pharisees' arrogant refusal to acknowledge the divinity of Jesus paints a poignant picture of Israel's faithlessness. When they attributed Jesus' casting out demons to the power of Beelzebub, Jesus identified their blasphemy as the unpardonable sin.
Wayne Grudem describes the unpardonable sin, modeled by the Pharisees, this way: "The context indicates that Jesus is speaking about a sin that is not simply unbelief or rejection of Christ, but one that includes (1) a clear knowledge of who Christ is, (2) knowledge that the Holy Spirit is working through him, (3) a willful rejection of these facts, and then (4) slanderously attributing the work of the Holy Spirit in Christ to the power of Satan." (Bible Doctrines, p. 223)
The Pharisees and Israel as a nation rejected God's normal means of pursuing them and bringing them to repentance. They knew the truth, but they chose to reject it. In cases such as this, continuing to try to persuade with arguments of truth those who are deliberately hardened is a doomed effort.
Just before Jesus' crucifixion as he stood before Pilate, the nation chose to sentence Jesus to death and to release the insurrectionist Barabbas. As they did so they called a curse upon themselves: "His blood be on us and on our children" (Matthew 27:20-25). This rejection was culmination of their persistent rejection of Him as the promised Messiah. They knew who He was, but they chose to reject that truth because they loved their comfort and their own perception of their identity more.
Their rejection of Jesus continued as the apostles began to preach the gospel. Acts 5 tells of the apostle healing people and preaching and seeing converts in Jerusalem, and the priests and Saducees were jealous and had them imprisoned. When an angel released them from prison, even then the priests were unmoved, petulantly asking them why they persisted in teaching and accusing them of trying to blame the priests for Jesus' blood. (see Acts 4:17-18, 27-28).
Israel's transgression, then, was a deliberate refusal to acknowledge the true identity of Jesus as the Messiah and the Son of God. God hardened the nation (although He still works in individual lives including the 3,000 Jews baptized at Pentecost), putting distance between Himself and them much as He did throughout the Old Testament when they apostatized. Since Pentecost, however, He has been drawing the Gentiles to Himself during the period of Israel's hardening.
Stirred to envy
In this passage Paul twice mentions his desire to stir Israel to envy. In verse 14 he states clearly that his desire is that Israel's envy of God's acceptance of the Gentiles will stir the Israelites to envy and thus to return to the Lord so they will be saved. In chapter 10:19 Paul had quoted Moses in Deuteronomy 32:21 where he prophesied, "I will make you envious by those who are not a nation; I will make you angry by a nation that has no understanding."
In the quotation above, Moses is not only foretelling the inclusion of the Gentiles in the people of God, but he is also making a clear statement about God's sovereignty over salvation. The Gentiles will be included, contrary to Israel's belief, not because they know God's intent and have God's special revelation of the coming Messiah. Unlike the Jews whose very existence was shaped around God's special revelation of salvation, the Gentiles would have no knowledge of God's law or the sacrificial ceremonies or the tangible presence of God in their communities. Yet God would intersect the lives of these "unenlightened" people with the glory of the gospel, and they would embrace Jesus without having the intellectual and historical understanding that the Jews had. Moses, the original leader of the fledgling Israelite nation, prophesied that God would bring salvation to the whole world, with or without people's previous knowledge of Him.
Even to the Jews God gave the message that it was not their knowledge or special insight that qualified them to be His people. God had entrusted them with these glimpses into His plan in order to prepare people and to provide a means of understanding His will for the generations to come. Never, however, would this revelation of God's will and the foreshadows of the atonement be salvific. Only belief in God's promises would save people.
Gentiles who would believe in Jesus would be saved-without knowledge of God's heritage to the Jews.
In 1 Corinthians 10:32-33 Paul explained his underlying motive behind all his decisions. "I seek to please everybody in every way," he said, so that many would be saved. He would always place other's needs over his own freedom in his commitment not to cause anyone to stumble in his faith. Paul's desire to arouse Israel to envy by the Gentile's inclusion in the gospel was not to incite controversy but to stimulate longing and repentance in the Jews so they would be saved. In 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16 Paul gives us another glimpse into his thinking. He tells the church there that their persecution at the hands of their own countrymen is like that of the believing Jews in Judea who were persecuted by their Jewish brothers for the sake of the gospel. Then he says that the Jews are hostile in an effort to prevent Paul and his fellow Christians from speaking to the Gentiles with the gospel.
At some level the Jews realized that, even though they rejected Christianity, the Gentiles' acceptance of Jesus gave the Gentiles closeness with God that the Jews historically claimed only for themselves. Even though they denied their own need of the Savior, still they didn't want the Gentiles accepting Him and claiming to belong to the one true God. In Acts 13:42-48 we find Paul and Barnabas preaching the gospel in the synagogue in Antioch. Many Jews and devout Gentile converts to Judaism followed them from the synagogue and begged to hear more.
The next Sabbath "almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord." The Jews became angry and spoke abusively to Paul and Barnabas who answered, "We had to speak the word of God to you first. Since you reject it and do not consider yourselves worthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles."
A similar phenomenon occurred in Corinth. When the Jews turned on Paul, he shook out his clothes and said, "Your blood be on your own headfrom now on I will go to the Gentiles."
The Jews' rejection of the gospel resulted in the riches of salvation going directly to the Gentiles. God blessed the word of truth spoken by the apostles, and Gentile converts poured into the church. Paul points out, however, that if the Jews' apostasy meant riches for the world in the form of salvation spreading among the Gentiles, we must realize that when they are again drawn back to God, their eventual acceptance will result in even greater blessing for humanity.
The loss they experience to which Paul refers is their loss of relationship with God. By rejecting Jesus and steadfastly opposing the gospel, the Jews have lost not only the blessings promised by the Old Covenant but also the incomparable new reality of being born again and becoming new creations filled with the Holy Spirit. They failed to see that their heritage pointed to an intimate adoption that far exceeded their belonging to God on the basis of genetics. The Gentiles as a group of people, consequently, have experienced a wider-spread adoption by new birth than have the Jews during this period of their hardening.
Of transgression and riches
In order to understand Israel's great transgression in rejecting their Messiah and the subsequent revelation of the gospel to the Gentiles, we need to look at the Jews' attitude which underlay their great sin.
In Romans 2:17-24 Paul describes Israel's cocky attitude toward their position with God. They brag about their relationship, he said, convinced that they have superior knowledge because of the law. They consider themselves qualified to teach the spiritually blind and foolish because they have what they consider to be the embodiment of all spiritual knowledge: the law.
To be sure, the law was God's special revelation of His mercy, His justice, and His plan for redeeming mankind. The Israelites, however, saw the law as their private possession, God's mark of their "specialness". They developed a sense of entitlement and pride that they had "special knowledge" denied the world. Instead of being moved to surrender to the God who had thus blessed them with this revelation of Himself, they instead viewed God's law as their personal badge of honor. Instead of seeking to know and grow in relationship with the God who revealed Himself (unlike the pagan gods), they became experts in the words and requirements of the law. They became erudite intellectual snobs. They honored the law instead of the law-Giver, and they lived by knowledge instead of by faith.
Romans 2:9-10 emphasizes that the Jews had special revelation from God; God's blessings for obedience to Him would come first to them and then to the Gentiles. Similarly, His discipline for evil would fall first on them and then on the Gentiles.
The author of Hebrews emphasizes that transgression of the law of Moses resulted in death. He then points out, in 10:28-31, that if a person trampled on Jesus and the His blood, his punishment would be far more severe than that falling on a Jew transgressing God's law. The Jews ultimately trampled on Jesus. They betrayed him and called for his crucifixion. They knew who He was, and they refused to acknowledge Him, even attributing his divine power to Beelzebub (Matthew 12:25-32). By knowingly choosing to reject Jesus and attributing His power to demons, they placed themselves in the position of committing the unpardonable sin.
The parable Jesus told in Matthew 21:33-44 about the landlord who left tenants in charge of his vineyard was the story of Israel. The landlord sent servants [the prophet] to the vineyard to assist and give His instructions to the tenants, but they killed the servants. Finally the landlord sent His son, saying surely they would honor him above the servants they despised. The tenants, however, killed the son. The landlord then sai8d he would take the vineyard from the tenants and give it to new tenants.
This parable foreshadowed the hardening of the Jews and God turning His face toward the Gentiles by sending them the gospel directly without their having to become Jews first. The vineyard is a rich symbol. Jesus calls Himself the vine, and those who believe in Him are the branches. The grapes are filled with juice, the symbol of Jesus' blood which we celebrate when we take communion.
In this parable the original tenants were in charge of tending and nurturing the vineyard for the landlord. Instead of seeking to honor the landlord and spending energy on nourishing the vineyard, the tenants attempted to take control the vineyard themselves. They tried to usurp the authority of the landlord by killing every one of His agents. They attempted to establish themselves as the sole proprietors of the vines and the wine they produced.
Israel tried to claim authority and control over salvation. Instead of remembering that they were appointed guardians and caretakers of God's promises and revelations, they adopted the attitude that they deserved this honor and stood in the place of God, using their position to gain power and to build an exclusive community whose membership they would guard. Instead of allowing God to make them His agents for the nourishment of the vineyard, they tried to keep out God's further revelation of His will and His provision for them and the vines.
After Pentecost, the leaders of the Jews continued in their hardened state. When Paul and Barnabas preached the gospel in the synagogue in Antioch, the Jews spoke abusively to them, and Paul told them he was turning to the Gentiles with the gospel because the Jews rejected it and did not consider themselves "worthy of salvation" (Acts 13:46). Again in Corinth the Jews abused Paul (Acts 18:6), and later in Jerusalem, when Paul preached to the crowd, they became angry and wanted to kill him. Acts 26:19-23 records the Jews seizing and trying to kill Paul after he preached obedience to God and the need for repentance in Judea. Later, in Rome, Paul preached the kingdom of God to a crowd of Jews. They disagreed among themselves over Paul's words, and instead of staying and submitting to God's teaching through Paul, they left. Paul announced to them that the gospel would go to the Gentiles (Acts 28:23-238).
Romans 11:30-31 explains that the Jews' flagrant disobedience and rejection of Jesus has placed them in a position where they will have to face the fact that their salvation, just like every other humans', is entirely the result of God's mercy. The remnant of Jews that God is sparing will humble themselves and approach God through faith in Christ. They will be saved exactly as the Gentiles are: by grace, not inheritance.
The Jews' great transgression was based on an attitude of arrogance and entitlement. They refused to humble themselves and accept Jesus as their promised Messiah because He pointed out their need for repentance. They preferred their illusion that they were intrinsically favored by God and therefore worthy. They were not willing to let go of their power and control and allow God to reveal their brokenness and sin. They rejected Jesus not because they didn't recognize Him. They DID recognize Him. They just didn't like the fact that He came to change and spiritually regenerate them instead of politically vindicating them.
Their transgression that precipitated their scattering and hardening took them out of the controller's seat. No longer could the Jews lay claim to embodying the ultimate revelation of God. Jesus now held that role, and He now revealed Himself directly to the Gentiles. God removed the Jews from the center of salvation history after the cross for a period of time. By their not being the focus of the developing church, God was able to demonstrate that He directly chooses and justifies people. They do not have to approach Him through an established group of people, as Gentiles had previously had to become Jews in order to be part of God's people. Now, becoming God's person meant directly relating to Jesus Himself and being born from above.
By taking the Jews out of the story for a period of time, God clarified that He has always wanted people to embrace Him, not a nation or an organization, for salvation. While the Jews guarded God's special revelation for the world until the coming of Jesus, even then people who entered the Jewish community could only be saved by faith in God's promises. The Jews, however, twisted God's entrustment and taught that people had to honor them and THEIR laws to be saved. They failed to allow God's law to point people to Him. Instead, they appropriated the law for themselves and made people Jews instead of God-fearers.
The same temptations exist today. People look for a church that teaches all truth, hoping thereby to be RIGHT. Rather, God is drawing each person to Himself through Jesus. Joining a group is not our calling; surrendering to Jesus is. Once a person has surrendered himself to Jesus, then He places that person in a fellowship of believers where others who are united with God by the Holy Spirit function in a community. The focus, however, is the focus Israel failed to have: Jesus alone. Christian community is based on individual relationships with Jesus whereby believers are united with each other through the shared Holy Spirit. Judaism became a community based on honoring a law. It could never have produced true community as long as the law and not God was their authority.
Life from the dead
"If their rejection is the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead?" Paul asks in verse 15. We have seen that in rejecting Israel, God brought the understanding of salvation through a personal relationship with Jesus to the world at large. By removing Israel's twisted view of righteousness being attained by becoming part of the Jewish traditions, God revealed Jesus as the True Israel through whom all people could be reconciled to Him.
Now Paul introduces his discussion of God's eventual awakening of Israel. "What will their acceptance be but life from the dead?" he asks.
Several places in the Bible compares spiritual awakening with being brought from death to life. Romans 5:10 comments on our common human situation of being reconciled to God while we were God's enemies, and once reconciled, we are saved through His life. Our inherent sin renders us dead and enemies of God. Jesus' death reconciled us to God without our participation, and through His resurrection life, we are brought from spiritual death to life through His indwelling of us by the Holy Spirit. In other words, we are dead until Jesus' sacrifice saves us through our faith in Him, and then He brings us to life by a miracle of new birth.
In Jesus' story of the prodigal son we see this phenomenon of death and life. When the prodigal returned home, the elder brother who had never left was jealous of the father's celebration over the wayward one. The father replied, however, that the prodigal had been dead but now was alive, was lost but now was found (Luke 15:24, 32). When he had wandered far from home, he was dead in his sins. Returning home to the Father, however, he came to life. Being out of relationship with God is death, even if our bodies are still alive. Surrendering to Him and being in relationship with Him, however, brings us to spiritual life. Instead of being doomed to eternal death, being in relationship with God through Jesus brings us to eternal life.
Besides the obvious illustration of personal apostasy and repentance the prodigal portrays, this story might be seen from two perspectives. On the one hand, it can represent the Jews who always considered themselves God's true sons who become jealous at the welcome of the Gentiles into the family. From another perspective, however, the story may also be seen to illustrate the grafted-in Gentiles who become jealous of the fact that God will honor and accept the eventual repentance of the Jews, the cut off branches, restoring into the family all who accept Jesus.
Ephesians 2:1-5 clearly describes the natural condition of mankind. We were dead in our sins, objects of wrath by nature, but in mercy God made us alive in Christ. Later in the same letter Paul comments that everything exposed by light becomes visible. He admonishes Christ-followers to have nothing to do with deeds of darkness, and quotes Isaiah in calling for the sleeper to "rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you" (Ephesians 5:13-14). Again Paul uses the metaphor of accepting the saving grace of Christ resulting in our rising from the dead.
In 1 Timothy 5:5-6 Paul uses an illustration to describe this death/life phenomenon. In his instructions for the practical life of the church body, Paul says that a widow in need who puts her hope in God will pray night and day. On the other hand, a widow who lives for pleasure will be dead while she lives.
Being unrepentant and steeped in self-absorption equals spiritual death. On the other hand, when a person turns to Jesus and surrenders all he is and all he values to Him, the Holy Spirit brings him to life. When Paul discusses the acceptance of the Jews being life from the dead, he is quite literal in his meaning. Although a body may be functioning, if the spirit inside is unrepentant, that person is dead and has no access to eternal life. If a person accepts Jesus, however, he comes to life spiritually, and he is rescued from the kingdom of darkness and placed into the family of God for eternity.
Paul's statement in Romans 9:15, however, has implications for more than just the Jews. If their rejection meant the reconciliation of the world, their acceptance will be a source of great joy and far-reaching unity and vitality not only for each one who repents but for the entire body of Christ. This awakening and enlargement of the church will also have a powerful effect in the world as well as in the unseen spiritual realms.
Sanctified by firstfruits
When Israel was about to enter Canaan, God gave directions for the feasts they were to celebrate in honor of His sovereign blessing and provision. One of the offerings Israel was to offer was that of "firstfruits" Each year when they harvested their grain, they had to present to God loaves made from the flour of their crop and sheaves of grain which the priests would wave before the Lord. They had to give these offerings before they ate any of the crop (see Numbers 15:17-21 and Leviticus 23:9-11). This offering was an acknowledgment that God was the source of all their blessings, and by offering the firstfruits to God, the whole harvest was blessed and sanctified.
(Intersetingly, the Feast of Weeks, or Pentecost, was celebrated 50 days after the seventh Sabbath on which they offered the wave offering of their firstfruits. On that "day after the seventh Sabbath", or the first day of the week, they were to offer another wave offering of "firstfruits". Pentecost, the birth of the church, was foreshadowed through the generations of Israel, and it was always celebrated on the first day of the week. (See Leviticus 23:15-18.)
This traditional offering of the firstfruits is what Paul refers to when he writes in verse 16, "If the part of the dough offered as firstfruits is holy, then the whole batch is holy." Paul gives further insight into this metaphor in verse 28 where he says, "As far as the gospel is concerned, they [the Jews] are enemies on your account; but as far as election is concerned, they are loved on account of the patriarchs."
The "part of the dough offered as firstfruits" from Israel were the patriarchs. They were the firstfruits of Israel, the first fruit of the nation. They were chosen by God and sanctified by Him for the special calling of being the foundation of His people. The "whole batch", or all of Israel, is therefore holy, just as the firstfruit offering consecrated the whole harvest. This metaphor does not suggest that every Jew will be saved. What it does signify, however, is that God is faithful to His promises. What He pledged to the patriarchs He will be faithful to complete.
As Paul said in Romans 3:3-4, "What if some did not have faith? Will their lack of faith nullify God's faithfulness? Not at all! Let God be true, and every man a liar." God's promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were unconditional. They were not based upon His agreement with them but upon His sovereign declaration. The covenant he made with Abraham was ratified without Abraham's involvement whatsoever. While Abraham slept a supernatural sleep, the Father and Jesus in the form of a smoking pot and a blazing furnace moved among the covenant sacrifices and ratified His promises to the patriarch. (See Genesis 15.) God Himself made His covenant promises with the patriarchs, and they cannot be broken, because God cannot lie. His word is eternal, and His promises to them are unconditional, completely independent of whatever humanity might do.
In the second half of verse 16, Paul uses a parallelism to further emphasize God's unconditional promises to Israel. "If the root is holy," he says, "so are the branches."
In this chapter Paul will expand this metaphor of the root and branches. He will describe God's people as an olive tree from which branches have been broken off and into which other branches have been grafted. He further declares that God can graft the broken branches back into the tree.
We can understand Paul's use of "root" and "branches" in verse 16 as references to that olive tree described in succeeding verses. We can also understand its significance by comparing it with the first half of the verse, the metaphor of the "firstfruits" and the "whole batch".
The "firstfruits" and the "root" are parallel to each other. Paul uses both figures of speech to describe the holiness of the foundation of Israel. Because the foundation was holy, the whole batch is holy.
In this reference Paul is referring to the patriarchs as the "root" of the olive tree. They were the foundation of Israel, the men God chose and to whom He made His promises of Seed, land, and blessing. All Israel would descend from them, and in succeeding verses we will see that Christ-following Gentiles are also part of God's Israel fed and nourished by the patriarchal roots.
Just as God blessed the firstfruits and sanctified the whole batch of dough or the entire crop, so He planted and blessed the root of the tree, thereby sanctifying the branches that eventually sprouted from that founding root.
Paul is not saying that all Jews will be saved because of the patriarchs, but he is saying that God is faithful to keep His promises. He will be faithful to Abraham's offspring, both Jew and Gentile, and He will save all those who share in Abraham's faith,
God is asking us to surrender to His sovereignty. He wants us to know that when we are in Him, we are truly Abraham's descendants. He also wants us to know that His promises to Israel are unconditional because He made them to Abraham by His own word. He asks us to be humble in our interpretation of the veiled but real promises of God's continued dealing with Israel. He does not ask us to be certain that we know what will happen and how it will come about because He does not clearly reveal the details. He does, however, ask us to approach Him with openness, to be open to His word, and to allow His Spirit to teach us.
The core of Paul's message in this passage is that God loves Israel. As we move farther into chapter 11, we will find Paul cautioning us Gentile believers against arrogance. We have not replaced Israel; they will be grafted back into the olive tree in the same way we were grafted in-by faith in Jesus alone following repentance for sin. We will live together, attached to the trunk of the tree (Jesus) and nourished by the sap of the roots-God's promises to the patriarchs.
God is asking you to surrender your feelings of discomfort or arrogance about His will for including the remnant of Israel in His olive tree. He is asking you to humble yourself and allow His word to teach you through the quickening of the Holy Spirit.
Most of all, He is asking you to humble yourself before His sovereign grace and to praise Him for His faithfulness. Thank Him for saving you. Thank Him that He does not leave us where He finds us but continues to teach us and mature us in Him. Thank Him that He is faithful to complete the work He begins in each of us.
Praise Father, Son and Holy Spirit!
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