Romans 11:1–10 (ESV)✞: The Remnant of Israel
In this section of Romans Paul has been speaking about his fellow Jews – in particular, the ones who haven’t come to Christ. In the last passage, especially, he painted a picture of God’s (formerly?) Chosen People refusing to come to Him.
So… does that mean God has given up on the Jews? No, responds Paul – who is Jewish himself:
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.
But of course Paul has more to say on the topic than that.
To start with, Paul reminds himself (and his readers) that he’s not the first one of God’s prophets to have felt like he wasn’t having any impact. (Not that I recall Paul referring to himself as a prophet.)
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.
There might be times when Paul felt like the entirety of Judaism had rejected his message—the last passage had that kind of a feel to it—but Elijah had once felt the same way, as if he were the only one of God’s prophets left, facing off against Ahab and Jezebel on his own, but God told him no, he wasn’t on his own, there were 7,000 additional faithful, loyal followers of God1.
However, Paul says that the remnant was chosen by Grace, which he expands upon in the next verse:
But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.
It feels like a tautology: if it’s Grace then it’s Grace, not works; if it’s works then it’s works, not Grace. And… it is a tautology, but I feel it’s a necessary one. (Otherwise it wouldn’t be in the Bible…) We can know in our heads that we’re saved by Grace, but many, many times in our lives we act as if we believe we’re really saved by works. But it’s not works – not even a little bit.
The passage finishes with some hard teaching. He quotes Isaiah, Deuteronomy, and a Psalm, to say that… well, that this is God’s plan.
7 What then? Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking. The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened, 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;
10 let their eyes be darkened so that they cannot see,
and bend their backs forever.”
In 9:1–29 Paul touched on the idea of God being in control of everything, even to the point that He would harden hearts, so I won’t cover that topic again so soon. However, it seems even more extreme in this passage then it did there, and it feels like there is more to be said… I’m just not sure what it is.
There are some aspects of the history of God’s people—from Adam and Eve through to Abraham and Sarah, and then through to the twelve tribes of Israel, evolving to the nation of Israel (and then Israel/Judah), and then fundamentally evolving again after the coming of Christ to extend beyond Abraham’s family—that make sense to me, and there are some aspects that don’t. (To be clear, I’m saying I literally don’t understand, not “why would God ever do it that way?!?”) It makes perfect sense to me for God to extend His Grace beyond the descendents of Abraham to the rest of the world—He’d pretty much always been telling His children that was exactly what He was going to do—but then why, when that happened, didn’t more of the Jews also believe? Why does it seem like His chosen people are no longer His chosen people?
I recall saying many, many times while blogging through Acts that Christianity is an extension of Judaism—it grows out of Judaism—not an entirely new thing. God didn’t give up on His people (as Paul says above in this passage) and create a brand new religion. Christianity, and Christ’s work on the cross, was always the plan, from the beginning. And there were always descendents of Abraham who believed in God and those who didn’t, so in a sense even that hasn’t changed.
But… was the ratio always like this? Even if we just look at Paul’s day, not the modern 21st Century, were the numbers of Jews coming to Christ comparable to the number of Jews in, say, Solomon’s time who really believed in God, as opposed to those were just “culturally Jewish” (the same way so many in North America don’t really know what Christianity is but are “culturally Christian”)?
I’ll be very happy when I get out of this section where Paul is talking about salvation for the Jews, because there’s a constant danger of sounding racist when you talk too much about one particular people group (unless it’s your own), and doubly so when it comes to the Jews because there is a lot of antisemitism in the world – including (especially?) from Christians. In fact, even saying “the Jews” sounds kind of racist; the only people who ever use the phrase “the Jews” anymore are out-and-out racists. Or people trying to blog their way through the book of Romans…
I’m much more comfortable turning the microscope back on Christians, however, which I’ll do now.
Why weren’t the Jew of Paul’s day coming to Christ? Christ was a stumbling block to them; their understanding of righteousness was that it comes from works—from obeying the Law—and when Jesus said, “no, I’m your righteousness – just believe in Me,” they didn’t have a proper category for that. Paul has eloquently shown how Christ fulfilled all that was promised in the Old Testament—He didn’t throw it away, He did and completed all that the Old Testament had promised—but without careful instruction, I’m not at all surprised that the average Jew of Paul’s day didn’t “get it.” Let’s never try to pretend that Christianity is simple! There are elements of it that are simple, and one needs to come to God with the faith of a child, but, at the same time, we wouldn’t need Paul’s letter to the Romans, explaining all of the nuances of how Christianity evolves Judaism, if it was simple.
I don’t need to understand all of the physics and computer science that goes into manufacturing a smartphone in order to use one, but all of the physics and computer science are needed or else smartphones wouldn’t exist – and, whether I understand it or not, I can easily break that phone if I do something that goes against all of that engineering. I don’t need to understand all of the intricacies of Romans to come to Christ in faith, but those intricacies do exist, and I can do damage to my (or others’) faith if I bump up against them and try to explain them away with oversimplifications.
So, to turn this back on ourselves: the main reason Paul is giving for Jews not coming to Christ is their reliance on works over faith. Let us, as Christians, not fall into that same trap! Let us never feel that “you can’t be a Christian if you do this,” or “you can’t be a Christian unless you do that.” Where would that leave faith? Are we saying Jesus can save anyone – unless they do this? Or Jesus can save anyone – but only if they do that? That’s unbiblical. It’s not how faith works. I’m not saying people don’t sin, and don’t need to repent of sins, but the Bible makes it pretty clear that our salvation comes from faith, not from works. Period.
So…. where does that leave this quotation from my last post?
If you buy in to any of the many, many, many conspiracy theories in which the Jews are… I don’t know, doing whatever it is that evil people are supposed to do, it says a lot more about what you’re afraid of than it does about Jewish people. It is not just un-Christian it is anti-Christian to hate the Jews. I’m not saying you can’t be a Christian if you hate the Jews, there aren’t any sins that can prevent God from saving you in faith, but I am saying that I doubt your faith, and you should too, until you can get a handle on where that hate is coming from and seek the Holy Spirit’s help in rooting it out of your life.
Actually… as I reread it, I stand by it. (I was fully intending to copy and paste it into this post and then walk it back a bit.) To be clear, I’m sure there were Christians throughout history—and now—who were/are anti-semitic, and yet were true Christians. So when I say I “doubt” their faith, I could be wrong, and some of them could be true believers. But it’s also clear that having hate in your heart for anyone—especially a whole group of people—is antithetical to the Gospel. It is hard to believe that you can have the love of God in your heart, the Holy Spirit working in your life, and also hate a people group.
It’s also hard to believe that I am a Christian, though. God works in mysterious ways.