Romans 11 is a difficult chapter. Most of Romans is difficult, which is one reason why we’ve had to go through it slowly. But Romans 11 is particularly difficult, and many of the phrases, indeed many of the words, are discussed at length by the commentators who are trying to make sense of what Paul wrote; and they offer one or two or three or more interpretations of many parts of this chapter. In fact, I was listening to one preacher who referred to another preacher whose sermons on Romans have been published in book form. And this preacher whose sermons have been published — and is a famous preacher — simply skipped over Romans 9 and 10 and 11. One Sunday he was preaching on the final versions of chapter 8; the next Sunday he was preaching on the opening verses of chapter 12. It was as if chapters 8 to 11 didn’t exist. That’s one way to avoid dealing with difficult chapters in the Bible. Just skip them!
But we can’t do that, because they’re here and they’re part of God’s word. And so, though this is a difficult chapter, we have to try our best to understand it.
And, of course — and you won’t be surprised to hear this — Romans 11 comes after Romans 10. What was Romans 10 about? How God has called preachers to go into all the world to declare the good news of Jesus Christ, because how can anyone call on the name of the Lord for salvation unless they have first believed in him? And how can they believe in him unless they have heard of him? And how can they hear of him unless someone preaches to them? And so, God has called preachers to go into all the world to tell people everywhere the good news of Jesus Christ, so that, having heard of him, they would believe in him and call out to him for salvation. And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.
And last time, we thought about the particular emphasis that Paul puts on preaching. Though we often doubt the power of preaching, nevertheless the Lord Jesus is building his church throughout the world through the preaching of his word. He did it in the Old Testament through men like Moses and Elijah and Jonah. He did it in the days of the apostles and prophets, through men like Peter and Paul and Philip the Evangelist. And he’s been doing it ever since, because it’s impossible to read the history of the church and not notice the way the Lord has used the preaching of his word to bring men and women and boys and girls to faith in Christ. Yes, we should all use whatever opportunties come our way to speak to people about faith in Christ and to point them to the Saviour; but we mustn’t ignore the special emphasis Paul puts on preaching as the means by which sinners come to faith in Christ and are saved. And so, we ought to pray for the preaching of God’s word, here in Belfast, and around the world.
And it’s interesting, of course, that though the Jews often did not believe whenever Paul preached to them, nevertheless Paul did not turn away from preaching and adopt another approach to evangelism. He continued to preach wherever he went, despite the unbelief of the Jews. And, in fact, when he was writing to Timothy, giving this young pastor some advice, he instructed him to preach the word, and to keep preaching, even though people will not always listen.
So, there’s that special emphasis on preaching. And, then, at the end of chapter 10, Paul wrote about how the Jews did not believe. The message of the gospel had gone out into all the world; and it was as if God was holding out his hands to the Jews, beckoning them to come and believe, and to receive salvation. But they would not listen. They remained a disobedient and obstinate people. That’s how chapter 10 ended:
All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and obstinate people.
And so, how does chapter 11 begin? It begins with a question:
Did God reject his people?
Verses 1 to 2a
Why did Paul begin chapter 11 like that? He seems to be thinking along these lines: The Jews have been disobedient and obstinate. God has sent them preachers; their voice has gone out into all the earth; but the Jews have not listened; they have not paid attention; they have not believed. Paul would go to a city, and enter the synagogue where he would preach to the Jews about the Lord Jesus and how he is the fulfilment of the Old Testament Scriptures, and the only Saviour of the world. But they refused to believe. So, has God rejected them? Has God washed his hands of the Jewish people? Has he given them up completely?
Well, look at Paul’s answer:
By no means!
In other words:
Definitely not. No way. Not a chance.
This is the strongest denial Paul could give to that question. And how can he be so sure? Well, he points to himself, as if to say:
Here’s Exhibit A.
He points out to his readers that he himself is an Israelite. And he says about himself that he’s a Jew and he was descended from Abraham and he’s from the tribe of Benjamin. What’s his point? The question was:
Has God rejected the Jews in their entirety?
And Paul’s response is:
No, he hasn’t rejected the Jews in their entirety, because I’m a Jew and he hasn’t rejected me.
So, Paul points to himself as Exhibit A to demonstrate that God hasn’t rejected the Jews in their entirety, because he himself has been pardoned and accepted by God.
And then, he moves from using himself as Exhibit A to making a theological point at the beginning of verse 2. He says:
God did not reject his people, whom he foreknew.
Now, this is where things start to get difficult. The word ‘foreknew’ is straightforward enough, because we’ve come across it before in verse 29 of chapter 8. At that time, I explained that in the Bible the word ‘know’ often means to choose someone, or to set your love on someone. In Amos 3:2, for instance, God said of the people of Israel:
You only have I known of all the families of the earth.
It’s not as if God only knew the Israelites, and he didn’t know anything at all about the other nations. No, when he says he ‘knew’ them, he means he ‘chose’ them from among all the nations to be his special people. To know someone in the Bible means to choose them. And the prefix ‘fore’ means ‘before’. Before they had done anything to deserve it, God knew them; he chose them.
So, the word ‘foreknew’ is straightforward. But how is Paul using it here? Some commentators think he’s using the phrase ‘whom he foreknew’ as a way to describe the nation of Israel as a whole. So, God chose the nation of Israel as a whole to be his special people; and he gave them certain privileges. You know, he rescued them from captivity in Egypt; he gave them his law to guide them; he gave them the land of Canaan to live in; and he promised to be their God and to watch over them. So, because God chose them in this way, he won’t reject them now, even though many do not believe; but he will continue to care for them and to preserve them as a nation. And from this nation, many will come to believe, just as Paul himself came to believe.
That’s one way of understanding Paul’s words at the beginning of verse 2. There’s another way though and this other way fits in with what Paul said back in verse 6 of chapter 9. Back there, Paul said:
not all who are descended from Israel are Israel.
In other words, there’s an Israel within Israel. There’s the nation of Israel, comprising all those who are physically descended from Abraham. But within that larger group there’s a smaller group, comprising all those whom God chose to save from before the world was made. So, there’s this smaller, spiritual Israel, the true Israel, within the larger group of ethnic Israel.
Bearing that in mind, what Paul is saying in verse 2 of chapter 11 is that God has not rejected his people, that is, he has not rejected those he has chosen for salvation. There’s the nation of Israel, ethnic Israel; this big group. But within that big group, there’s a smaller group, comprising all those God has chosen for salvation. God chose them before the world was made; and he hasn’t forgotten his plan for them; he hasn’t rejected them; he’s still going to save them.
When Paul went from city to city, preaching the gospel, many of the Jews refused to believe. They refused. But some did believe. And when they called out to the Lord for salvation, the Lord didn’t reject them because they were Jews. He didn’t say:
I’m not going to answer you, even though you’ve called on me. I’m not going to answer you because you’re a Jew and I’ve rejected the Jews.
No, whenever they believed in the Lord Jesus and called out to him for salvation, he saved them, just as he will save everyone who calls on him. God will not reject those among the Jews whom he foreknew. He will not reject them; he’s still going to save them.
Verses 2b to 6
And then Paul refers his readers to the Scriptures and, in particular, to the story of Elijah who, at one time thought he was the only true believer left. And the Lord spoke to him and re-assured him that he wasn’t the only true believer left, because the Lord had kept for himself 7,000 who have not bowed down to Baal.
What’s Paul’s point? Well, although most of the Israelites in Elijah’s day had turned away from the Lord, God had ensured that there would still be this smaller group of people who would love him and trust him and remain faithful to him. Within the larger group, there was a smaller group. So too, says Paul in verse 5, at the present time there’s a remnant like that. Most of the Jews in Paul’s time refused to believe in the Saviour. Most of the Jews who heard Paul did not believe. But some did, because God has kept a remnant for himself, those whom he had chosen for salvation. And whenever they heard the preaching of the gospel, God worked in their hearts and enabled them to believe.
And, of course, Paul underlines in verse 6 that this remnant — this true Israel within ethnic Israel — is saved by grace and not by works. It wasn’t that they were any better than the rest; it wasn’t that they were more deserving than the rest. Before they were born and had done anything, whether good or bad, before they were born God set his love upon them and said:
I want him, I want her, to be with me for ever and ever.
Verses 7 to 10
The words ‘What then?’ in verse 7 tell us that Paul has come to the conclusion of this first section of chapter 11. He’s saying:
What then shall we say in conclusion?
This is the conclusion: Israel — that is, ethnic Israel, or, most of the Israelites — did not obtain what they earnestly sought. What where they earnestly seeking? They were seeking righteousness with God. But they were seeking it in the wrong way, because they thought they could obtain righteousness by keeping the law. But that way is a dead end, because no one is able to keep the law perfectly. So, most of the Israelites have not obtained the righteousness they were seeking. But, says Paul, the elect — those chosen by God before the world was made — did obtain righteousness. And, of course, as we’ve already seen, they obtained it through faith in Jesus Christ.
So, most did not obtain it. Some — the elect — have obtained it. The others, though, were hardened. When they heard the gospel message from Paul, their hearts, instead of opening up to the message, became hard as rock. And Paul quotes from the Old Testament to show that the Lord hardened their hearts. He gave them a spirit of stupor, so that instead of waking up to the good news, they fell asleep to it. He covered their eyes, so they could not see; he blocked their ears, so they could not hear. And instead of enjoying God’s goodness and mercy, they would suffer God’s punishment.
Although Paul is writing specifically about the Jews in his day, what he says here about the Jews in his day applies in every generation and in every place. God’s word has gone out into all the earth. Many do not believe. However, we shouldn’t despair. Neither should we give up on preaching as the means to evangelise the nations. We still believe that God has chosen those whom he will save. And we are hopeful that among the mass of those who refuse to believe, there will be a remnant, chosen by God, who will believe. And so, while many will not believe, we’re hopeful that some will. And so, we need to persevere and we need to pray for God to bless the preaching of his word, and we need to make the most of every opportunity we have to tell others of Jesus Christ the Saviour.
And, of course, since we’re saved by grace, and not because of our works, we need to be careful that we’re not proud or arrogant, and think that we’re better than those who do not believe, or more deserving of God’s grace. No, we should humble ourselves before the Lord, and acknowledge that we’re no better than the rest, and that we owe our salvation to him and to him alone. And to him be the glory for ever and ever.