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. 2 God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. Do you not know what the Scripture says of Elijah, how he appeals to God against Israel? 3 "Lord, they have killed your prophets, they have demolished your altars, and I alone am left, and they seek my life." 4 But what is God's reply to him? "I have kept for myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal." 5 So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace. 6 But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.
If we want to know God deeply and personally, we have to take him on his own terms. We can't dictate to God how he should be known or how he should reveal himself. We can't say, "Give me a dream!" Or, "Give me a list!" Or, "Give me human authority!" God will say, "I have given you the Bible. Go there and get to know me. Don't tell me how to make myself known. I will tell you how you can know me. Go to your Bible and get to know me."
But even when we go to the Bible to know God, we have to take his self-revelation on its own terms. And what we find when we take it as a whole is that there is a history in it. It moves from predestination, to creation, to the call of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to the bondage of Israel in Egypt, to the Exodus and the giving of the law and the wilderness wandering, to the promised land and the judges and the monarchy with Saul and David and Solomon, and to the divided kingdom of Judah and Israel, to the exile in Babylon and the return to the homeland, to the silence between the Old and New Testaments, to the coming of the Messiah - Jesus Christ - and the rejection of Christ by his people, to the crucifixion and resurrection and ascension, to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, to the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., and on to the amazing spread of the lordship of Christ among more and more of the peoples of the world, including us.
This is the way God has revealed himself. We don't say, "Give me dream." We say, "Give me a Bible." And when we have our Bible, we don't say, "Give me a systematic treatment of divine attributes." We say, "Show me your self, O God, from the way you have acted in history, and the way you spoke about your action." That is how we know God. We come to him on his own terms. That is, we come to him as he has acted in history and as he has given us a book to tell that story and explain what it means.
Romans 11: The Revelation of God and His Work in History
No chapter in the New Testament reveals this more than Romans 11. It is all about the way God has acted and will act toward Israel and toward the nations in history. And therefore it is all about who God is and what he is like.
This is why history matters. This is why there is history. History exists to reveal God. God doesn't exist to unfold history. He is the first and last and middle in this affair of history. It's all about him, from beginning to end. The universe exists to display the fullness of the glory of God's perfections.
The Bible says that "the heavens declare the glory of God" (Psalm 19:1).
It says that the people of Israel exist to the glory of God. "I made the whole house of Israel and the whole house of Judah cling to me, declares the LORD, that they might be for me a people, a name, a praise, and a glory" (Jeremiah 13:11).
It says that Christ came into the world to die to make known the glory of God. On the eve of his death he said: "Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? 'Father, save me from this hour'? But for this purpose I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name" (John 12:27-28).
It says that the existence and advance of the Christian Church over the centuries is for the display of the glory of the Father. "To him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen" (Ephesians 3:21).
It says that all secular rulers and institutions exist by God's decree (Romans 13:1) and for the display of his power and perfections, including his justice and wrath. "For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, 'For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth'" (Romans 9:17). And when king Nebuchadnezzar discovered this truth he recovered from his insanity and said, "All the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and he does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, 'What have you done?'" (Daniel 4:35).
All of history - including what is happening all around us - is a canvas being painted by an infinitely glorious and very mysterious Artist. And the point of the painting is the revelation of his glory - including all the pain and all the horror and all the injustice as a backdrop for God's holy wrath and unimpeachable justice and sovereign grace.
What is God like? That is the point of history. Mainly what we see is the work in progress, as Paul said, "Now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known" (1 Corinthians 13:12).
But the decisive events for understanding God in history have already happened. Jesus Christ is the center of the story. He's the most important character and the clearest revelation of God. The Bible is the record and the interpretation of the decisive events of history with Jesus at the center, and this record guides how we interpret every other brushstroke on the canvass that we look at in our day.
Romans 11 is spectacular in its vision of God's work in history. It's not an accident that it comes to an end with the words, "Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!" I pray that the Lord give you a humble sense of awe and admiration from what we see here. Because some of it is so strange to fallen, secular, self-centered human ears that, without a lowly sense of reverence, you may be simply bewildered or even angered.
Romans 11:30-32-A Three-Verse Summary of the Chapter
Just to give you a flavor of where Paul is going and how strange God's rule over history is, look at verses 30-32. This is the last thing he says before he sings his doxology. He is summing up God's ways with the Gentiles and the Jews in history.
Just as you [Gentiles] were at one time disobedient to God but now have received mercy because of their [Israel's] disobedience, 31 so they too have now been disobedient in order that by the mercy shown to you they also may now receive mercy. 32 For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all.
You see four steps of history: 1) The Gentiles were disobedient to God. There was a long history of letting the nations go their own way while God focused his redemptive work on Israel. 2) Then there was the decisive disobedience of Israel as she rejected her Messiah and stumbled over the stumbling stone (Romans 9:32-33). 3) This disobedience led to mercy for the Gentiles as the gospel spread among the nations. And notice in verse 31 that this is not mere sequence. This is divine plan: They - Israel - have now been disobedient in order that by the mercy shown to you - Gentiles - they also may now receive mercy. 4) Which is the fourth step: Israel receives mercy because the mercy shown to the Gentiles. God aimed to show mercy to both. Therefore (v. 32) he consigned both to disobedience that he may have mercy on them.
That is a three-verse summary of Romans 11, and it is mind boggling. Which is why it leads directly into verse 33, "Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!" Oh, may the Lord make us humble and willing to follow him in his unsearchable and inscrutable ways - and there get to know him. That is my goal. I believe that knowing God, as he reveals himself in this chapter, will be good for us and good for our families and good for our city and good for the nations of the world. God would not have taken such pains to show himself in this way if it were not good for us. I trust him.
The Inscrutable Ways of God in Romans 11:1-6
So let's look at his ways in verses 1-6.
First it speaks of something God does not do - he does not reject his people. Verse 1: "I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means!"
Then it speaks of something God did do - he foreknows them. Verse 2: "God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew."
Then it speaks of something God did and does - he kept for himself a remnant of faithful people in Elijah's day and Paul's day. Verse 4: "I have kept for myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal." And Verse 5: "So too at the present time there is a remnant."
And finally it tells us (at the end of verse 5) how God did it - he chose them by grace.
We will linger a long time next week over the meaning of grace, and God's keeping a remnant for himself according to election. Those are huge questions: How does election relate to grace? And how does God's keeping a remnant of faithful people relate to election and grace? So we will save that for next week.
Today let's look at God's not rejecting his people, and what his foreknowing means.
God Has Not Rejected His People
Paul's argument in verse 1 that God has not rejected his people is that he himself is a Jew. "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." So the people Paul is concerned about in verse 1 must be the physical, ethnic people of Israel, not the church of Jew and Gentile. God has not rejected ethnic Israel because "I am an ethnic Israelite, of the tribe of Benjamin."
But someone asked me last week: Does that mean that all Jewish people who ever lived will be saved? The answer is no. Jesus and Paul sound the same note on this question (as do the Jewish prophets, e.g., Ezekiel 18:20; Daniel 12:1-2). Jesus says, "I tell you, many [Gentiles] will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom [Israelites] will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth" (Matthew 8:11). He said to the Pharisees: "You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell?" (Matthew 23:33).
And Paul said in Romans 2:8-9, "For those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek." So there is no thought of every individual Jewish person being automatically saved because he is a Jew. "It is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God" (Romans 9:8). That principle has not changed. No Jew or Gentile individual is saved because of his ethnicity or background.
Well, if not every individual Jewish person, what does Paul refer to when he says in verse 2, "God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew"?
We could argue that he simply means the "remnant" mentioned in verse 5: "So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace." In other words, Paul and other Jews in his day are believers on the Messiah, and so there is a faithful remnant who will inherit the promises made to Israel, and so God has not rejected his people, namely, his remnant whom he foreknew.
That's almost the right answer. But there's a problem with it: that's not what verse 1 was asking when it said, "Has God rejected his people?" The problem verse 1 is raising is not that there is no remnant. Chapters 9 and 10 were clear that there was a remnant of Jews who were saved (9:24, 27, "a remnant will be saved"). The absence of a remnant was not the problem.
The problem in these chapters is that it looks like corporate Israel taken as a whole, alive in any given generation, is mainly perishing and cut off from Christ. That's the issue raised in verse 1. That's what I think Paul refers to when he says God has not rejected his people - the people of Israel taken as a corporate whole in any given generation. God has not rejected them. I will give at least six arguments for this understanding in the weeks to come (Romans 11:15, 16, 24, 25, 28f, 31).
God Has Foreknown His People
But for now let's connect this with the idea of foreknowing. Paul says in Verse 2, "God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew." He means that if God foreknew them, then he can't reject them. The foreknowing implies a commitment to them. It can't be broken. That's why Paul is sure God has not rejected Israel as a whole. He foreknew them. In the past he "knew" them.
So what does this foreknowing mean? The clearest illustration of it in relation to the whole people of Israel is found Amos 3:2. God says to Israel, "You only have I known of all the families of the earth." Almost everyone agrees that this means, "You only have I chosen. You only have I sought out and made mine and known you the way a husband knows a wife." I think that's the foreknowing in Romans 11:2. Israel is God's foreknown, that is, chosen people.
This is confirmed in Romans 11:28-29, "As regards the gospel, they [Israel] are enemies of God for your [Gentiles'] sake. But as regards election, they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers. 29 For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable."
This is not a reference to the remnant. The believing remnant are not "enemies of God" for the sake of Gentiles. They are not part of the disobedience that leads to mercy for the Gentiles (11:31-32). Romans 11:28 is a reference to corporate Israel as a whole, alive in any given generation. This is the visible corporate nation of people called Jews. And because they reject Christ, they are presently enemies of God (I say it with trembling and longing for their faith), and cut off from Christ (Romans 9:3). But that is not the whole story. There is a future for corporate Israel, because they are as a corporate people (not every individual who lived) "elect." That is, they are "foreknown." God made a covenant with their forefathers. "You only have I known from all the peoples of the earth."
And in Paul's mind the fact that there is a remnant of Jewish believers in the Messiah that God has kept for himself (vv. 4-5) signals to Paul that God is not through with corporate Israel. That's where we will pick it up next week, Lord willing. God has kept for himself a remnant according to the election of grace.
Application Question: "Has God Rejected the Gentiles?"
But as we close today, consider this question of application to yourself. Suppose someone raised the opposite objection today. Suppose someone asked, "Has God rejected the Gentiles?" I don't mean an exact parallel with Israel. Just loosely: What if someone said, "Has God rejected all the Gentiles?" And suppose they looked your way for an answer to the question. Could you do what Paul did here in the last part of verse 1?
Could you say, "No, God has not rejected the Gentiles. For I myself am a Gentile, and I am not rejected. I have been accepted not first because of the Jewish forefathers, but because of Christ, who loved me and gave himself for me. My sins are forgiven. His righteousness is provided for me. My condemnation is removed. My guilt is taken away. I have been born again into the family of God, not by natural birth or any ethnic connection, but by the Holy Spirit who changed my heart and awakened faith. I am not an enemy of God, but a friend. I am not hardened and resistant anymore, but broken and dependent. No, God has not rejected the Gentiles. Because in Christ he had not rejected me.
Oh, how I pray that you will say that. For this Christ died and rose again, that he might be Lord of the Jew and of the Gentile. May the Savior receive the reward of his suffering even today.