MESSAGE FOR MAY 7, 2000 FROM ROMANS 11:23-27
This morning, we return to Paul’s letter to the Romans as we continue to work our way through the 11th chapter of this glorious letter. Before we move into our text for this morning, its important for us to first do some review so that we will be able to re-connect with Paul’s thought after our three week absence from Romans. In chapters nine through eleven, Paul treats the issue of national, ethnic Israel. He answers what was evidently a burning question among believing Jews under his ministry. That is, “Has the word of God failed in its Old Testament promises about the future of Israel?” The understanding of the Jews at the time of Christ was that the Messiah would come and, as Isaiah 45:17 says, “Israel will be saved.” This understanding of those kind of Old Testament promises regarding Israel caused some real problems when Christ the Savior came and only a very small number of Jews placed their faith in him. What’s more, it was the pagan Gentiles who were coming to faith in droves. This gave the Jews who believed in Christ something of a headache as they tried to figure out why God’s word, in their minds, had failed.
In Romans nine, Paul clarifies the meaning of these Old Testament promises regarding Israel by drawing a distinction between the “spiritual” Israel and the national, ethnic Israel. Paul says there is interspersed within national, ethnic Israel a spiritual Israel, a small “remnant” of those ethnic Jews who are truly spiritual children of Abraham. It is this remnant, this true, spiritual Israel who had in fact received Jesus as their Messiah. They, along with those believing Gentiles, are the group Paul refers to in chapter eleven verses 17-27 as he teaches by the illustration of an olive tree. In this illustration of the olive tree Paul actually pictures three groups or people or “branches.” The two groups, or two types of branches remaining on the tree represent all those who, through faith in Christ, have been saved by grace through faith. This includes first, this small remnant of believing Jews. This group Paul calls the “natural branches.” The tree is also made up of Gentile believers and Paul refers to this group as the “grafted in” branches. The third group is represented as those branches which were formerly on the tree, but because of unbelief have been broken off. This pictures the national, ethnic Jews who did not accept Jesus as their Messiah. Before we finish this section on the olive tree this week, we need to review what Paul teaches through this illustration.
The reason he launches into this illustration of the Olive tree is to answer the question he poses in verse 11 where, speaking of this larger, national Israel he asks, “…Did they stumble so as to fall beyond recovery?” Paul uses this illustration of the Olive tree as God’s people to say that the apostasy or falling away of the majority of the national Jews was NOT a permanent state. There would be a time when God would, in faithfulness to His word, bring salvation to Israel as a national group through the Messiah, Jesus Christ. That’s where his argument is headed and we will see that later as we finish this section this morning. But to review, let’s first look at three major truths taught in Paul’s illustration about the Olive tree.
The first truth is the same one we have repeatedly seen in Romans 9-11. Having laid the foundation for it in chapter nine, he gives further application of it here in this section. That is, God sovereignly controls the composition of the tree. Paul presents a tree that is like any other tree. The tree has branches and these branches neither jump on by themselves nor do they sever themselves off the tree. As we said, the branches either appear naturally as part of the tree, are grafted in by someone from the outside, or are broken off by someone. In verse 17 Paul is addressing the Gentile believers and says, “If some of the branches have been broken off, and you, though a wild olive shoot, have been grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing sap from the olive root,” The verbs there are passive. God is portrayed as the One who breaks off some branches (and we’ll review what Paul means by than in a minute) while He grafts in others. In verse 19, he quotes the Gentiles and says, “You will say then, “Branches were broken off so that I could be grafted in.” Granted…” Paul admits that God sovereignly chose to take off some of the branches, namely, much of national, ethnic Israel for the purpose of bringing in new, Gentile members to his family.
The point is, God is in control of who becomes part of his family and who does not. Entrance into God’s family is determined by GOD in accordance with His purposes in election according to 9:11. People don’t have ultimate control of their eternal destinies by virtue of some independent, decision-making power they have to choose Christ. Those decisions of the will were predestined in eternity past by God. As Luther said, the human will is ultimately “bound” by God’s will. God has the right to select who will be in his family. It’s not our purpose this morning to re-explore that glorious truth of election. (If you are interested, there is in the foyer a compilation of manuscripts where that foundation was laid when we studied chapters eight and nine.) The point here is only to show that Paul explicitly teaches this truth of God’s sovereignty in salvation in chapter nine and here in chapter eleven, he is consistent with himself as he illustrates this truth through the olive tree. God sovereignly broke off many of the Jewish branches and added the Gentile branches according to His purpose.
A second truth is The Olive tree has Jewish roots and that should quench the tendency for Gentiles to be spiritually proud. One of the main issues Paul addresses in chapter eleven is the fact that the Gentiles were aware that God had sovereignly broken off many of the Jewish branches because of the unbelief of the Jews and as a result the they, the Gentiles heard the gospel. They wrongly interpreted that to mean that God was breaking off the old, “inferior” Jewish branches to make room for their “superior” Gentile ones. Paul rejects this in verse 18. As we saw in verse 19, he agrees that Jews were broken off so they could come in but he cautions the Gentiles in verse 18, “…do not boast over those branches. If you do, consider this: You do not support the root, but the root supports you.” Paul is reminding the Gentiles that the family of God is built on what God did with His people, the Jews. Virtually every significant theological truth of our faith is developed in God’s dealing with His Old Covenant people, the Jews in the Old Testament. Speaking to the Gentiles in verse 24, Paul says, “After all, if you were cut out of an olive tree that is wild by nature, and contrary to nature were grafted into a cultivated olive tree, how much more readily will these, the natural branches, [the Jews] be grafted into their own olive tree.”
Paul’s point is to say that there is a sense in which the Jews are God’s native people. That simply means that He started with them. They are, because of their heritage with Him, native to the tree. Because of that, it is certainly possible for an unbelieving Jew to be reintroduced back onto the Olive tree of God’s family IF they place their faith in Jesus Christ. Verse 23 says, “…if they do not persist in unbelief, they will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again.” The Jews, like the rest of God’s family, come to God only through faith in Christ, but this coming to God, because of their ancestral heritage, is a RE-introduction of sorts to the family of God. The Gentiles have come in without this heritage of the Old Covenant with God. They joined the pre-existing tree rooted in the truths of the Old Covenant because they were accepted by God later through the new Covenant offered in Christ.
This in no way means that Gentile believers are second class citizens in the kingdom of God. There is ONE tree and it all belongs to God as his ONE people. Paul’s application is simply that as a predominantly Gentile church, we must never forget our roots in Judaism. And we must, by implication, be much more careful students of the Old Testament so we can know more closely the roots of our faith. As we know the roots of our faith better, we will much more understand and appreciate the fulfillment seen in the Person of Jesus Christ in His ministry to us as our Prophet, Priest and King.
A third truth Paul communicates through this Olive tree illustration is: Branches remain on the tree through faith. In verse 20, Paul writes to Christians that the unbelieving Jews were “Broken off because of unbelief, and you stand by faith. Do not be arrogant, but be afraid. For if God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either. Consider therefore the kindness and sternness of God; sternness to those who fell, but kindness to you, provided that you continue in his kindness. Otherwise, you also will be cut off.” This difficult verse teaches that the believer, if he is to remain part of the tree, must remain faithful. This only echoes the words of Jesus in Matthew 24:13, “he who stands firm to the end will be saved.” This truth does not mean that a genuine believer in Christ can lose their salvation. There is real assurance of salvation for the believer in the New Testament, but it is tempered with this need to stay faithful.
This element of our faithfulness as a product or result of our faith is the element Paul stresses here in Romans 11:20. The branches must remain faithful if they are to stay on. The gospel of Paul knows nothing of a person who prays a prayer, get his salvation, lives like the world the rest of his life and spends eternity in heaven. There is no place in Paul’s gospel of grace for that possibility. The branches stay on because they are faithful as God enables them to be so.
That’s a brief introduction to this section. If you would like a more full treatment, manuscripts from the last message from Romans are on the table in the foyer. Now, let’s turn to verses 25-27. Paul writes, “I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers, so that you may not be conceited: Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved, as it is written: “The deliverer will come from Zion; he will turn the godlessness away from Jacob. And this is my covenant with them when I take away their sins.” Let’s highlight two truths here by application to this text. The first has to do with the major burden of Paul as he writes this section. That is, as we said before, to check the Gentiles’ tendency toward spiritual pride fed by their awareness that God was working in them/us more at this time in history than He is with the Jews. There is a tendency even today for Gentile believers to cluck their tongues at the Jews. The fact that they were God’s chosen people and were the people out of whom the Messiah came and lived and ministered and yet they have almost totally rejected him--that can cause Gentile believers to arrogantly shake their heads in disbelief at the hardness of the Jews.
Paul again brings correction to this spiritual pride in verse 25. The point of application is this. The revelation of God’s sovereign control in his eternal plan of redemption should humble us before him. Paul here thrusts one more spear into the heart of our tendency toward spiritual pride and he does it by ripping off the shroud of secrecy God had for so long kept covering this part of His eternal plan to redeem his elect people. Paul calls this part of God’s redemptive plan a “mystery” in verse 25. By that he means, “something that has been hidden that is now revealed.” Paul unveils this mystery, this part of God’s eternal plan as to how He is going to bring His elect people, Jews and Gentiles to Himself and the revelation of this plan is humbling to us. It humbles us because it makes absolutely clear that there will be no room for boasting about ANY so called “part” we played in our salvation.
This is true for BOTH Jews and Gentiles. We saw this earlier in our study about the Jews. The Jews are God’s chosen people. Through them came the patriarchs, the law and the promised Messiah. But they have no right to boast because when the true Messiah came, they rejected Him. They rejected him in favor of trying to be righteous in themselves and in so doing totally missed God’s plan. They thoroughly perverted the way of grace God had taught in the Old Testament. We saw in 11:5 that the only Jews who accepted Christ were those whom God actively prevented from falling into unbelief and, in his grace, chose to call to Himself. There is no room for boasting there.
The same is true for the Gentiles. They, without having any background in the Jewish heritage come and place their faith in Christ. Clearly, this showed their spiritual superiority, or so they thought. But Paul has already shown them that they, as these “superior” Gentiles, have been grafted in to a JEWISH tree. So much for superiority over the Jews!! But Paul sends one more pride-deflating message in verse 25. As he unwraps God’s eternal plan and their place in it he says, “Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in.” Paul sticks a needle into any balloon of Gentile pride here. He says, in effect—“These Jews, over whom you feel superior, have been hardened by God so as not respond to the gospel for a season only. This is a temporary condition for the national Jews. The length of that hardening by God is set by when His predetermined number of Gentiles come to Christ in faith.”
One truth that so powerfully assaults our pride about this revelation of God’s eternal plan is this—it causes us to see that our salvation is not fundamentally about us, though we obviously greatly benefit from it. Our salvation as a predominantly Gentile church at the beginning of the 21st century is about something so much larger than us. I am just one member of a group of people over which God has total control. And this group makes up just one part of an eternal plan of redemption predetermined by God in eternity past for HIS glory. When you see yourself that way, as just one tiny cog in an eternity-old plan designed to glorify God, it humbles us. And when the number of saved gentiles reaches its fulfillment, God will give the cue to begin the next and final scene of his drama of redemption. God has this drama of redemption he is directing before the audience of His heavenly hosts Ephesians three tells us. And he is utterly in control of who comes onto the stage and walks under the spotlight of his saving work in Christ. He controls how long each group, Jew or Gentile remains on stage as the main focus of His activity. Right now, the Gentile group is on stage as the main focus of God’s saving work. He is saving a remnant of Jews, but the main force of his work in this current scene of the drama is the Gentiles. At some predetermined time, God will give the cue and the then-complete number of Gentiles will be ushered off the stage and God will once again focus on the Jews as we will see in a moment. When we see ourselves within the context of this drama of redemption and we know that the only reason the Jews aren’t on stage is because God has sovereignly kept them from responding until the Gentiles are brought to fullness, that total control of His is humbling. The extent of God’s sovereign control in all of this causes us to see that its not about us, its about Him.
This kind of total sovereign control over history is seen throughout the Scriptures. Perhaps the closest parallel to this text in 11:25 is seen in Genesis 15:16. God is telling Abraham about what will happen to this group of people he has chosen for himself that will come through Abraham as the Patriarch. He tells Abraham that his descendants will be enslaved and mistreated in a country not their own for 400 years and then he says in verse 16, “In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.” God in his justice knew how many sins he was going to allow the Amorites to commit before he would punish them by driving them off the land of Canaan and he knew it would take till the end of these 400 years. Then the level of sin would be sufficient to move his hand of judgment against them and, through the Jews, take their homeland away from them and give it to the Jews as punishment.
Do you hear how God has all these things set in advance even down to how many sins the Amorites would have to commit and how long it would take them to commit them in order for God to justly punish them by driving them off His land? Just as the Exodus Jews could not enter the promised land until God gave the cue, neither can end-time Jews enter the kingdom of God through Christ until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. What a mighty God we serve to have all of this planned out in precise detail!! What a glorious God is this One who sovereignly directs his drama of redemption so that it progresses and culminates precisely in accordance with the way He authored it in eternity past—down to the last person!
Think about the glorious brilliance of the details of this plan. Even with the Old Testament prophecies which indicate the broad direction of this plan, it was so glorious in its creative brilliance that no one was able to forecast the ways of God in salvation. Even Paul, from all indications would never have been able to predict that this age of the Gentiles would last more than 2000 years. From what we know of his writing, he was expecting the Messiah to come during his lifetime. Yet here we are 2000 years later and God is still harvesting Gentiles for His glory. This is an epic, God-sized plan of redemption. He’s not in any hurry to end this drama. It will end at the moment He has decreed it will end and not one nanosecond sooner or later.
Notice how unexpectedly this plan works. Just when it looked like God was going to bring in his promised harvest among the Jews when their Messiah came, they reject Him under His sovereign hardening and the Gentiles, by His grace come to faith in mass numbers. Who would have predicted that? And think about the Jews, who for the most part are so hardened against Christ today. No one, on a human level, would expect them to come en mass to Christ. Yet, as we’ll see in a moment, at the end of history, the Jews come as an entire, national people to faith in Christ. Only God could think of and execute such an impossible, unpredictable plan. And that IS the point, isn’t it? Its very impossibility and unpredictability bring praise to God because He HAS predicted it and He has and WILL execute it. And when it happens, against all human understanding, it will be manifest that HE is sovereign Lord over all things, including the salvation of all who come to Him. This humbles our spiritual pride.
The second and final truth we want to look at from this text is this: God is faithful to His promises concerning Israel. We’ve already seen from verse 25 that this hardening of the Jews is temporary. Paul says in verse 26, “And so all Israel will be saved, as it is written: “The deliverer will come from Zion; he will turn godlessness away from Jacob. And this is my covenant with them when I take away their sins.” I believe what Paul is teaching here is that God will be proven faithful to his Old Testament promises regarding Israel by bringing a great ingathering of Jews to Himself in the last days. We know from the text that this will occur after the full number of Gentiles have come in. How this will happen we cannot be sure. Some scholars see in the Old Testament texts Paul cites to support this claim a reference to the second coming. They believe this great ingathering will come when Christ returns. Whether or not this is true, the point is that God will show Himself faithful and all Israel, (that is, this large group of last day Jews,) will be saved. All the final details will be finished. Everything that needs to happen in salvation history for God to be glorified to the maximum will be accomplished. And when the roll call of saints is taken in heaven, it will correspond precisely in number, both of Jewish and Gentile believers, to the predestined number established by God before the dawn of eternity. God is Lord of all things including the salvation of His elect people! May God give us grace to exult in our sovereign Lord.
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