Did Israel Stumble in Order That They Might Fall?

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.

Before we are done I want to talk about 1) how to make Israel jealous of the fact that the people of Christ are inheriting the promises of Abraham, and 2) how the picture of God's sovereignty in Romans 11 helps you trust in his sometimes very roundabout purposes.

Who Is "They" in the Question: "Did They Stumble in Order That They Might Fall?"

But first let's look closely at a couple verses: Who is "they" in verse 11? "So I ask, did they stumble in order that they might fall?" To see who it is, we read the preceding verses:

Romans 11:7-10

What then? Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking. [That's a reference to Israel as a whole corporate, ethnic Israel taken as a people who failed to obtain right-standing with God.] The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened. [So "the rest" are treated by Paul as corporate Israel: they failed to obtain a right-standing with God; in stead they were hardened. This is the "stumbling" that Paul wonders about in verse 11: "Did they stumble in order that they might fall?" This generation of Israel stumbled, except for the elect. The people as a whole are lost.]

[Now verse 8:] As 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." [In other words, let them stumble over their bountiful table, and let them be bent down for generations, burdened by the law until the hardening is removed (11:25)] Let their eyes be darkened so that they cannot see, and bend their backs forever."

In other words, the "they" in verse 11 ("Did they stumble in order that they might fall?") is corporate, ethnic Israel as a whole in a condition of ongoing hardness and lostness from generation to generation. As Romans 9:3 said, They are "accursed and cut off from Christ."

Did Israel Stumble in Order They Might Fall?

So what's the answer to Paul's question in verse 11: "So I ask, did they stumble in order that they might fall?" He answers: "By no means!" I take this to mean; the purpose of God in the stumbling-the hardening-of Israel is not the final abandonment of Israel as a whole. I think that's the general idea in verse 11: "Did they stumble in order that they might fall [i.e., for the purpose of falling]?" Answer: the stumbling led to lostness and judgment in some generations of Israel, but the final lostness and judgment on the people as a whole was not the purpose of God. That was not the purpose of hardening in (verse 7).

This becomes really clear as we read on in verses 11 and 12. "So I ask, did they stumble in order that they might fall? By no means!" That's not the purpose of their stumbling. What was? Paul answers in verse 11b, "Rather through their trespass [=their stumbling] salvation has come to the Gentiles. . ." God's purpose for Israel's unbelief and hardness and rejection of the Messiah is that salvation might come to the Gentiles.

Two Biblical Pictures of God's Purpose in Sin, Unbelief, and Hardening

I know that for many, speaking of God's purpose in sin and unbelief and hardness is difficult. But keep two biblical pictures in your mind:

1) The story of Joseph's abuse by his brothers, selling him into Egypt, because the point of the story in Genesis 50:20 is: "You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good."

2) The crucifixion of Jesus, because this was sinful and planned by God for our salvation (Acts 4:27). God is always doing more than one thing. Hardening yes, but Oh, so much more! By means of the hardening and the stumbling and the trespass, God is guiding history in such a way that the Gentile nations would receive salvation.

Jesus' Teaching on the Rejection of Israel and the Salvation of the Gentiles

Jesus said this several times in his teaching. For example, after the parable of the wicked tenants, where the owner sends his own Son to get the Father's fruit, and they kill him, Jesus said the upshot is that God will remove these tenants, and "let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons" (Matthew 21:41). Which Jesus interprets like this: "Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits" (Matthew 21:43). In other words, Israel's trespass, in rejecting the Messiah, happened so that God might give the kingdom the heritage of Israel to those who follow him.

Jesus says it again in Matthew 8:11-12. After seeing the faith of the Gentile Centurion, Jesus says to those who followed him, "I tell you, many will come from east and west [that is, Gentiles] and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, 12 while the sons of the kingdom [most of Israel] will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth." So Israel is hardened, and the Gentiles are coming into the kingdom. Salvation is coming to the nations.

It happened all through the book of Acts. For example, in Antioch of Pisidia the message of Paul and Barnabas was rejected, and the effect was a powerful mission among the Gentiles: "Paul and Barnabas spoke out boldly, saying, 'It was necessary that the word of God be spoken first to you. Since you thrust it aside and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we are turning to the Gentiles. . . . And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed" (Acts 13:46, 48; see 18:6; 28:19-20).

What Paul makes clear in Romans 11, that may not be as clear in these other texts, is that the spill over of the Gospel to Gentiles did not just result from Israel's trespass -as though this took God off guard, and he had no plan in it. Instead there was divine design behind it. Verse 7: It was God who hardened. And it was the hardening the trespass (v. 11b) that brings salvation to the Gentiles. "Through their trespass salvation has come to the Gentiles." This is God's unfathomable wisdom being worked out in history and shown to us in Romans 11.

The Purpose of the Hardening: Salvation to the Gentiles

You can see the purposefulness of it most clearly perhaps in Romans 11:30-32.

Just as you [Gentiles] were at one time disobedient to God but now have received mercy because of their [Israel's] disobedience [that's the point of verse 11: "through their trespass salvation has come to the Gentiles"], 31 so they [Israel] too have now been disobedient in order that [purpose!] by the mercy shown to you [Gentiles] they also may now receive mercy. 32 For God has consigned all to disobedience, that [here is unmistakable purpose summing up the whole chapter] he may have mercy on all.

So we ask again, verse 11:

Did they stumble in order that they might fall? [Was that the purpose?] By no means! [What then was the purpose?] Rather through their trespass salvation has come to the Gentiles.

The divine purpose of Israel's hardening and trespass and rejection was to save a fullness of the Gentiles. There is a merciful purpose in the hardening. He consigned them to disobedience he hardened them that he may have mercy (v. 32).

The Purpose of the Hardening: Israel's Jealousy and Salvation

God's ways appear even more unfathomable at the end of verse 11. Was the purpose of their stumbling final rejection? No. The purpose was so that "through their trespass salvation [might] come to the Gentiles." And then amazingly he adds, "so as to make Israel jealous." Purpose upon purpose: The hardening and trespass of Israel are designed to bring salvation to the Gentiles. And Salvation to the Gentiles is designed to make Israel jealous. Why? So that Israel will return and lay claim on her Messiah, and become part of Church of Jesus Christ.

The Purpose of the Hardening: The Return of Christ and Resurrection from the Dead

And if we think that's the end or climax of God's design in redemptive history (salvation for Gentiles and Israel), verse 12 stuns us again with a further purpose.

Now if their [Israel's] trespass means riches for the world [which we have seen it does, by God's design], and if their failure means riches for the Gentiles [which it does, namely, salvation], how much more will their full inclusion mean!

God's purpose in the trespass of Israel is salvation for the Gentiles. And his purpose for the salvation of the Gentiles is to make Israel jealous, so that she wakens to the greatness of Christ and embraces her Messiah. And then he adds, the purpose of the salvation of all Israel "their full inclusion" is something even greater.

Something glorious follows the full number of the Gentiles and the full number of Israel. Verse 15 says what it is:

For if their [Israel's] rejection means the reconciliation of the world,
what will their acceptance mean but life from the dead?

I take this to mean that when God's mission to the Gentiles is complete and the hardening of Israel is removed, then the Lord will come and the dead will be raised, and we will enter the kingdom with everlasting joy.

Now this is all very weighty and I am sure seems remote to some of you. So let me move toward a close with two applications for your life.

Implications for the Jealousy of Israel Because of the Salvation of the Gentiles

First, consider the implications that God means to make Israel jealous by our Gentile salvation. Verse 11:

Through [Israel's] trespass salvation has come to the Gentiles,
so as to make Israel jealous.

How can we advance this purpose of God?

I think one of the keys is to understand and make much of the fact that the Church the followers of Jesus Christ is the true Israel and that we Gentile Christians will inherit all the promises of Israel by faith in the Messiah, Jesus Christ. We have to see this and make much of this, if our Jewish friends are ever (by grace) going to feel jealousy that we inherit their promises. The whole spirit of our interaction should be like the Father to the elder brother: Come on in to the party. You belong here!

Paul explains the Gentile inheritance of Israel's promises like this in Ephesians 2:12-13, 19:

Remember that you [Gentiles] were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise . . . 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. . . . So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.

By faith in Jesus Christ, the Messiah, we have become the true Jews (Romans 2:28-29). Galatians 3:7, "Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham" (see Galatians 3:16).

In this we should revel! Bethlehem, "the Israel of God" (Galatians 6:16)! All the covenants, all the promises belong to us and all who will one day trust the Messiah. All the promises of God are yes in Jesus Christ. And we are in Jesus Christ by faith alone. Know your Jewish inheritance and glory in it. That's what Paul did in verse 13b - 14, "Inasmuch then as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I magnify my ministry in order somehow to make my fellow Jews jealous, and thus save some of them." Let's join Paul in the enjoyment of Jewish promises. When you are with Jewish people this Christmas, say: "I love the descriptions of Christ in your Bible: 'For unto us a child is born, unto us a Son is given; and the government shall be upon his should and his name and shall be Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace' (Isaiah 9:6)."

God's Roundabout Way to Provide Mercy

And the last application I would draw out is that God is sovereign even in the hardening and trespass and failure of whole peoples, and his aim in the end by his own unsearchable wisdom is mercy. None of us deserves to be saved. But God is gathering a people through faith in Christ from all the peoples of the world. And one day mercy will triumph over the Israel's hardness, and she will come by faith in Christ to her own inheritance.

It may seem to us a very roundabout way to bring mercy to Israel and the nations. But we are not God. He knows what kind of history must take place to reveal the fullness of his wisdom and his mercy against the backdrop of his justice and wrath.

The effect this should have on us, I believe is to keep us faithful and patient, even when it looks as though unbelief has the upper hand. God is in control-unfathomably, unsearchably. And everything will work for mercy to those who trust the Christ.