I know God has everything timed perfectly according to His will and plan, for and because of Israel. But are the Gentiles just pawns to bring Israel to faith and repentance for their treatment of Jesus?
Paul himself marveled at how God could use Israel’s disobedience to their covenant as an opportunity to bring salvation to the Gentiles. Paul's desire to reconcile the truth of a faithful, promise-keeping God with the reality of an unbelieving Israel can be found here in Romans Chapter 11. With careful scholarship, one will begin to notice something that’s been hidden from the beginning of time, something we need to understand with an open mind and an appreciation of Israel’s history.
Beginning in verse 1 of Chapter 11, Paul has more questions to answer regarding God’s faithfulness and His plan for His people, Israel, including the most important question of all: why?
ROM. 11:1 I say then, God has not rejected His people, has He? May it never be! For I too am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin.
ROM. 11:2 God has not rejected His people whom He foreknew. Or do you not know what the Scripture says in the passage about Elijah, how he pleads with God against Israel?
ROM. 11:3 “Lord, they have killed Your prophets, they have torn down Your altars, and I alone am left, and they are seeking my life.”
ROM. 11:4 But what is the divine response to him? “I have kept for Myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to baal.”
ROM. 11:5 In the same way then, there has also come to be at the present time a remnant according to God’s gracious choice.
ROM. 11:6 But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace is no longer grace.
Paul opens the chapter with the next logical question he knew his readers would pose: Does this mean God has rejected His people, Israel? Does Israel’s continuing unbelief mean Israel will never come to faith in Jesus?
Indeed, many believers have asked this same question in the centuries since Paul wrote this letter. In fact, some believers – and even entire Christian denominations – have answered this question wrongly, concluding that God did reject Israel forever. However, they are teaching a wrong view of Israel called “replacement theology” which argues that Gentile believers in the Church have “replaced” the Jewish people in God’s plan. Consequently, the promises God gave to the Jewish people will be fulfilled through the Church. These false conclusions are especially ironic given Paul’s direct answer to the question in v1 when Paul says, unambiguously, that the Lord will never reject His covenant people!
Notice the people in view in v1 (i.e., His people) are the same people Paul defined at the start of Chapter 9. In Chapter 9, Paul defined God’s people as those who physically descended from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – who Paul called Israelites. Paul’s definition prevents us from shifting our focus to some other group, a so-called “spiritual Israel.” Paul clearly states that God has not, and will not forsake His covenant people, Israel. Furthermore, Paul offers himself as his best proof that God has not rejected His people. Notice again Paul’s description; Paul called himself an Israelite, a descendent of Abraham of the tribe of Benjamin.
In the Bible, the term Israelite is only ever used to describe a physical descendant of Jacob. Gentile believers in the Church are never called “Israelites” in the Bible. Only Jews, whether believers or unbelievers, can be considered Israelites. So Paul says, the proof that God hasn’t rejected Israel is that there are believing Jews today – including Paul. Had God rejected His people, there would be no means of belief at all.
This argument can only make sense if we understand that God determines who receives His mercy, as Paul has shown his audience again in Chapter 9. Therefore, Paul says explicitly that his faith is proof that God has not forsaken the Jewish people, those God foreknew, even if it's just one Jew. The people God foreknew are those Jews God had on His mind from before the foundations of the earth, that He predestined to salvation. And those He predestined He called into faith, preserving a remnant within the larger community of apostate Israel. Paul is identifying himself as a member of the Jewish remnant in his day.
Moreover, Paul’s saying that the continuing existence of a believing Jewish remnant is proof of God’s continuing faithfulness to His people. Just as God has only selected some to believe in Israel’s past, He continues to select only a remnant to believe today while the continuing existence of a remnant proves that God is not done with the Jewish people.
If God had no intentions of preserving His nation, then He wouldn’t have perpetuated faith among Jewish people at all. He would have withheld His mercy, faith would have died out, and eventually, the people themselves would have ceased to exist in the same way God extinguished the Canaanites, the Phoenicians, and other people groups. Therefore, we can be sure God still has a plan for His covenant people.
Throughout the Bible God has always called a minority of His people into faith (a remnant), and it’s always been easy for someone to assume God had turned His back on Israel. Even some of God’s greatest servants have made this same mistake as Paul cites one such example from the Old Testament, such as Elijah in 1 Kings 19. Essentially, Elijah was declaring what some were declaring in Paul’s day: the nation was lost because the Lord has forsaken His people Israel. In Romans 11:4 Paul reminds us of God’s response to Elijah’s pity party; the Lord told Elijah that He had kept 7,000 within Israel from bowing to the false god of Ahab, Baal.
First, it's important to note that the Lord kept a remnant that Elijah knew nothing about. The verb “kept” emphasizes an action by God to actively ensure the continuation of faith among Israel. God didn’t say "I found” or "I have received”, but instead the Lord said "I kept” – clearly God was working to assign His mercy to some in Israel, keeping them in faith. Secondly, this group was unknown to Elijah. Elijah the prophet truly believed he was alone in Israel because everywhere he looked he saw unbelief. Yet there were still those who knew and trusted the Lord, but they weren't powerful or prominent. This remnant of people God chose were quietly serving God in the shadows. Finally, notice the number the Lord preserved from apostasy: 7,000. The precise nature of this number was not an estimate, for there is no indication in the text that God was rounding up or down. The Lord gives a precise count of Jews who were believing in Elijah’s day, and the count was exactly 7,000. The number “7” is notable, since seven is the Bible’s number to signify completeness or the whole of something (100%).
In case some are tempted to conclude a coincidence in the precision of 7,000, Paul makes sure we understand this number was no coincidence in v5. Paul says Elijah’s example is proof of how the Lord works to preserve a remnant in Israel and in the same way today we will find a precise number of Israel preserved from apostasy by God’s gracious choice. By His grace, He chose to save some in Israel.
Paul explains in v6 that God's grace alone is how salvation comes to all, not through strenuous works of the Law as the Jewish people concluded. Pursuit of the Law and grace are mutually exclusive. In other words, the Jews are barking up the wrong tree, seeking to be justified by their works.
Meanwhile, the remnant of Israel – those who will receive God’s mercy – are those whom God chooses by His grace. If God allowed Israel to receive mercy because of their zealousness towards the Law, then salvation would cease to be by grace. If God was to reward the zealousness of Israel, then the law of grace would cease to exist for everyone. Suddenly, we all would find ourselves in an impossible race to earn salvation. Of course, we want the Lord to work on the basis of grace, for if it were any other way we could never receive mercy. So therefore, we accept God’s sovereignty and understand that God is choosing to work with only a minority in Israel for now and this is Paul’s conclusion too.
Looking further in Chapter 11 we read this:
ROM. 11:11 I say then, they did not stumble so as to fall, did they? May it never be! But by their transgression salvation has come to the Gentiles, to make them jealous.
ROM. 11:12 Now if their transgression is riches for the world and their failure is riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their fulfillment be!
ROM. 11:13 But I am speaking to you who are Gentiles. Inasmuch then as I am an apostle of Gentiles, I magnify my ministry,
ROM. 11:14 if somehow I might move to jealousy my fellow countrymen and save some of them.
In vv11-14 Paul reaffirms that Israel still has a special place in God’s plan. He asks, did the Lord allow the nation to stumble so they might fall? By "fall" Paul means to cease to be God’s people, to disappear, or to be forsaken. Of course, the answer again is no: God doesn’t have Israel’s destruction in mind. Instead, the Lord withheld His mercy from Israel, allowing them to reject Jesus and to be justly set under judgment for doing so, for a good purpose: you and I!
We Gentiles are now enjoying the Lord’s grace, being given the opportunity to receive His mercy and in the process, we serve God’s purpose in making Israel jealous. We make Israel jealous in the sense that we stir within the Jewish people a renewed desire for their Messiah. The Gentile's declaration that Jesus is Messiah serves to strengthen Israel’s anticipation and desire for a coming Messiah. For example, in the same way, when your best friend gets a girlfriend or boyfriend, it makes you wish you could find one too.
Paul then asks us to consider how God is working in this way for the benefit of the entire world, both Jew and Gentile. Paul compares the mistake Israel made with the way God used it for good. Israel’s rejection of Jesus was their transgression (singular) which gave God just cause to send Jesus to Gentiles instead, as you can learn about in Chapter 10 of Romans. Moreover, now we may enjoy the great riches in Christ because God allowed His own people to sin against His Son.
So if God could use Israel’s rejection of Christ to accomplish very good things for us, what more good things might come when Israel receives Christ? Paul describes that moment as Israel’s fulfillment in v12; Israel receiving Christ will bring about even better things for the world than their rejection of Christ.
Isn’t that an amazing thing to consider? The first coming of Christ brought about Israel’s rejection and Jesus' resurrection, while Israel’s acceptance of Christ will bring about Christ’s second coming and our resurrection, celebration and participation in the coming Kingdom. Israel is blessing us regardless of what they do. When they sin against Jesus, it opened the door for God to give us mercy and when they finally receive Christ, it will bring us even more riches because it will bring about the Kingdom God promised.
In knowing this, how should Gentiles view the Jewish people during this time – especially those who are not believing in Jesus? Paul explains saying specifically in v13, listen up Gentiles: Paul was the apostle appointed by Jesus to reach Gentiles but Paul says even though he was sent to Gentiles, he magnifies his ministry when he manages to reach a Jew here or there. Paul always went to the Jew first before reaching out to the Gentile in each city he visited, which was in keeping with scripture:
ROM. 1:16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.
Gentiles are part of God's mysterious plan to bring salvation to those who are undeserving. It is through the Gentiles that His people anticipate their coming Messiah even more.
Additionally, for a complete understanding of how Gentiles play into God's sovereign plan, we suggest the Romans teaching on our website, specifically Chapters 9-11.