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.
As we begin Romans chapter 11, let's orient ourselves in this greatest of all letters. No letter in the history of the world has had a greater impact than Paul's letter to the Romans. There are reasons for this. The first and foremost is that the letter is God's word through an inspired spokesman for Jesus Christ, the apostle Paul, whom Christ had called and set apart before he was born (Galatians 1:15). The second reason is that it is the fullest statement in the Bible of the Gospel of Christ which is the power of God unto salvation for everyone who believes (Romans 1:16).
Martin Luther on the Unsurpassed Value of This Letter
Martin Luther's massive impact in the 1500's for the return of the church to the Gospel was empowered by this letter. Here is what he said:
In this epistle we . . . find most abundantly the things that a Christian ought to know, namely, what is law, gospel, sin, punishment, grace, faith, righteousness, Christ, God, good works, love, hope, and the cross; and also how we are to conduct ourselves toward everyone, be he righteous or sinner, strong or weak, friend or foe-and even toward our own selves. Moreover, this all ably supported with Scripture and proved by St. Paul's own example and that of the prophets, so that one could not wish for anything more. Therefore it appears that he wanted in this one epistle to sum up briefly the whole Christian and evangelical doctrine, and to prepare an introduction to the entire Old Testament. For, without doubt whoever has this epistle well in his heart, has with him the light an power of the Old Testament. Therefore let every Christian be familiar with it and exercise himself in it continually. To this end may God give his grace. Amen. (Luther's Works, Vol. 35, 1960, p. 380)
He goes even further and says something that perhaps a few of you will follow:
The epistle is really the chief part of the New Testament, and is truly the purest gospel. It is worthy not only that every Christian should know it word for word, by heart, but also that he should occupy himself with it every day, as the daily bread of the soul. (Luther's Works, Vol. 35, 1960, p. 365)
A Review of Romans 9-11
So with that reminder of the unsurpassed value of this letter-from God to this church, and to your own soul-let's get oriented in the letter as we come to chapter 11. Chapter 9 began with the heartbreaking problem that most of the people of Israel have rejected their Messiah and are therefore accursed and cut off from Christ. So Paul says, "For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh."
That heartbreaking problem raises a deeper one. What then becomes of God's promised faithfulness to his people? What becomes of his word? So Paul answers in Romans 9:6, "But it is not as though the word of God has failed." It would not be wrong to say that all the rest of Romans 9-11 is Paul's support for that assertion. The word of God has not fallen even though in his day-and ours-the great majority of Israel has rejected her Messiah and is accursed and cut off from Christ.
His argument proceeds in three steps.
Step One: The Promise Is for Those Who Are True Israel by Election, Not Physical Birth
First, he argues that God's saving word of promise has not fallen because it only refers to those who are truly Israel by promise and election not just by physical birth. Romans 9:8, "It is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring." In other words, God is not bound to save a person just because of ancestry or parents-Jewish or Gentile. God is free, and fulfills his promise to Israel by saving those whom he chooses, so that, as Romans 9:11 says, "God's purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of his call." So the first step in Paul's argument that the word of God has not fallen is that not all physical Israel is spiritual Israel, and the saving promises apply to those who are spiritual Israel by virtue of God's promise and election.
Step Two: Gentiles Too Are Included in the Promise of Salvation
The second step in his argument that the word of God has not fallen is that Gentiles too are included in the promise of salvation and they are in fact being saved by grace. Romans 9:24, "Even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?" This is possible, he explains because salvation is by grace through faith apart from works of the law. Romans 9:30, "Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness have attained it, that is, a righteousness that is by faith." Jesus Christ is the "end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes" (Romans 10:4). God's word stands because it is fulfilled in those who have faith, including Gentiles.
Step Three: All Israel Will One Day Be Saved
The third step in Paul's defense of God's word is that one day "all Israel will one day be saved." In Romans 11:25-26 Paul says to us Gentiles, to warn us against boasting over Jews or becoming proud in ourselves, "Lest you be wise in your own conceits, I want you to understand this mystery, brothers: a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. 26 And in this way all Israel will be saved."
That third step in the argument is found in Romans 11 where we begin today. It doesn't begin full blown at the beginning of the chapter. He begins by arguing that God has a remnant of physical Israel who are Christians-believers in the Messiah-who are heirs of the promise. And then he builds on this and argues that the remnant will one day become a fullness. Romans 11:15, "For if their [Israel's] rejection means the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance mean but life from the dead?" There has been a rejection, and there will be an acceptance. There has been a partial hardening (11:25), and one day the veil will be lifted and "all Israel will be saved" (11:26). That's the way the chapter unfolds toward its climax of praise in 11:33-36.
You can see how stunningly important this chapter will be over the next several months. We live in a world where the main political problem may be how the world understands and relates to Israel. I think the message of Romans 11 is desperately needed both for the sake of Israel and for the sake of Palestinians, and for the sake of Gentile Christians who need to make much more careful judgments about Israel than we often do.
An Overview of Romans 11
Let's turn now to today's text and get a sense of where it is going in the coming weeks, and then step back and ask why anyone should care about these messages on Romans 9-11. Romans 11:1, "I ask, then, has God rejected his people?" That question is utterly pressing because of the preceding chapters and the preceding verse (Romans 10:21), "But of Israel he says, 'All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and contrary people.'" In other words, it looks like Israel is resistant to God and therefore rejected.
So Paul asks in verse 1: "Has God rejected his people?" And he answers: "By no means!" Then he gives his argument, his reason: "For I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin." Do you see how different this argument is from anything else he has said so far in Romans 9-11? Here he is arguing that God's faithfulness to his people is found precisely in the fact that Paul is Jewish. God has not rejected his people! Look! I am a Jew. I am an Israelite, a "member of the tribe of Benjamin." The fact that he mentions what tribe he is from shows that he is not merely thinking of himself as a spiritual descendant of Abraham, but also as a physical descendant. God has not rejected his people, because I am not rejected and I am part of physical Israel. That is his argument so far and it is new in these three chapters. This is a new level in the argument.
From here he will argue that there is a remnant including himself-including Jews for Jesus-and a remnant points to a fullness the way first fruits point to harvest. We will need to follow this argument carefully. But I save that for next week. I want to ask the "so what" question as we tackle Romans 11. Why should anyone care about this ancient letter? Why should anyone who is here for the first time today bother to come back?
Really it's a question of whether we need to be assured that the word of God to Israel has not fallen. Paul must think this issue is enormously important to spend three chapters defending God's faithfulness to his word to Israel. Why? And why should we care?
I'll mention two reasons. Please consider them earnestly.
1. If God's Word Fails to Israel, God Is Not Glorious, and God Is Not God
If God's word fails to Israel, God is not glorious. And if God is not glorious, God is not God. And if God is not God, our greatest treasure is taken from us, and we are turned into beasts with the monkeys and the porpoises, and all our love and all our affections are nothing more than chemicals, and we must play "make believe" all our life that anything is significant.
But Paul is passionate for the glory of God and the God-ness of God and the unspeakable significance of your life. And so he writes these chapters and ends them like this:
Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! 34 "For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?" 35 "Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?" 36 For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen. (Romans 11:33-36)
That is what hangs on God's faithfulness to his word to Israel. His glory. His being God. And your life mattering at all.
2. If God's Word Fails to Israel, We Cannot Believe That the Promises of Romans 8 Will Be True for Us
The second reason you should care about God's faithfulness to his word to Israel is that if God does not keep his promises to Israel, all our hope that he will keep his promises to us in Romans 8 falls to the ground.
What about the promise of Romans 8:38, "I am sure that neither death nor life . . . will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord." Will death separate you from the love of God? Not if you trust Jesus Christ as your only Savior and Lord and not if God is trustworthy. But if he does not keep his promises to Israel, he is not trustworthy, and the promise of Romans 8:38 is unreliable, and the experience of Frances Ridley Havergal is a sham and you will never know it. She wrote "Like A River Glorious." She died when she was 42. She wrote:
I do not fear death. Often I wake in the night and think of it, look forward to it, with a thrill of joyful expectation and anticipation, which would become impatience, were it not that Jesus is my Master, as well as my Saviour, and I feel I have work to do for Him that I would not shirk, and also that His time to call me home will be the best and right time; therefore I am content to wait. (Like A River Glorious: Prose, Poetry, and Music by Fances Ridley Havergal, Rio, Wisconsin: The Havergal Trust, 2003, p. 710)
That kind of hope and confidence and even joy in the face of death is possible only if God keeps his promises to Israel, and therefore keeps his promise in Romans 8 to those who trust his Son Jesus.
And so it goes with all the other promises that we live by if we are Christians. "Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?" (Romans 8:35). If your home has been burned up in Southern California have you been separated from the love of Christ? If a parking ramp has fallen on you in New Jersey have you been separated from the love of Christ? If your son or husband has been killed in Baghdad, have you been separated from the love of Christ? If you found out last week that you have inoperable pancreatic cancer, have you been separated from the Love of Christ? If your babysitter drops a TV on your nine-month-old child and he dies, have you or he been separated from the love of Christ? Not if you trust Christ, and God keeps his promises to Israel.
If God fails in his promises to Israel, he is untrustworthy and we cannot say, "No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us" (Romans 8:37). But I say with the apostle Paul, "God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew" (Romans 11:2). God's word has not fallen. And if you will trust him and bank on his Son Jesus, all the promises of God for living and dying will be yours and will be sure. And you will enjoy God's peace, like a river glorious.