MESSAGE FOR MAY 21, 2000 FROM ROMANS 11:33-36
Chapters nine through eleven in Romans is a glorious section of Scripture. This text, more than any other in the New Testament, helps us see into the mind of God as it relates to his plan of salvation. The Holy Spirit through Paul allows us to see behind the events of salvation history and watch the hand of God at work executing his plan as He sovereignly superintends these events. The historical events are plainly taught in the Bible. About 2000 BC God calls a man named Abraham to be in a covenant relationship with Him and from Abraham and Sarah’s miraculous conception of Isaac, a covenant people of God, the Hebrews emerge. God promises Abraham that through him and his family line, he will uniquely bless the earth.
We discover that it will be through Abraham’s line that the Messiah will be born—the one whom God promised He would send to reverse the effects of Adam’s Fall. He would be the one to crush Satan’s head and solve the mammoth, agonizing problem of sin. This chosen family line of Abraham genetically runs through his son Isaac, not Ishmael. Uncharacteristically, Abraham’s chosen line also runs through Isaac’s second born Jacob, not the first born, Esau. From Jacob, the twelve tribes of Israel originate. God’s blesses these people immeasurably. He miraculously preserves them as a people over the next 2000 years, in spite of their best efforts to sinfully self destruct, and in spite of Satan’s varied schemes to cause the Jews to disintegrate as a people and thereby prevent this Jewish Messiah from coming.
The Messiah, “son of Abraham” named Jesus comes and crushes Satan’s head. Through his sinless life, death and resurrection, He does the work of redemption to set God’s people free from the penalty and power of sin. The vast majority of the Jews however, reject their promised Messiah. Astonishingly, the Gentiles with whom Christ’s apostles shared the good news, are much more receptive and many receive Him through faith. So this plan of redemption, though Jewish in its origin, has been played out for the last 2000 years almost exclusively in the Gentile world, with only a shockingly small number of Jews accepting the Messiah.
That’s a rough sketch of salvation history. Those are some of the main external, historical events, well documented in Scripture. In Romans 9-11, Paul shows us some of what is behind those events and how God’s over arching plan and purpose caused them to occur. These historical events weren’t happening accidentally—the hand of God was behind all of them. All those events played out according to His plan which He purposed in eternity past. This text allows us to eavesdrop on God’s eternal purposes and priorities that are behind and control the flow of salvation history.
Paul tells us in 9:15 that God planned and executed these events in salvation history in order to emphasize that His salvation was not dependent “on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy.” He says with Moses that God “has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy and he hardens whom he wants to harden” and those decisions about whom to harden and on whom to shows mercy were made by God in eternity past according to “his purpose in election.” God planned salvation history, we are told in 9:22-23 and again in chapter eleven, to shine the light on His saving mercy. In chapter ten, we see that the reason, on a human level, why most of the Jews were rejected was because they rejected the righteousness of Christ and instead pursued a righteousness of their own through works. In chapter eleven Paul says the Jews were hardened from believing so that the Gentiles would have a chance to believe as they were preached the gospel. We saw that God’s word hadn’t failed about his Old Testament promises regarding the salvation of the Jews for two reasons. First, because only the small remnant of Jews who DID accept Jesus were true, spiritual children of Abraham and second, because as a nation, the Jews WOULD come to Christ in the last days to fulfill God’s covenant promises to Abraham about national Israel.
As Paul concludes this treatment of God’s previously unknown plan behind the events of salvation history, he reflects on the wonder of this plan he’s just laid out with a closing doxology. In 11:33-36 we read, “Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! 34"Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?" 35"Who has ever given to God, that God should repay him?" 36For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen.”
This text is an expression of Paul’s wonder at the glory of God as he celebrates the unfathomable wisdom and knowledge of God seen in His plan of salvation. As we read these words of celebration, we can almost feel the intense joy of Paul here as he revels in the glory of God’s wisdom and knowledge. Even though there is clearly much emotion here bursting from Paul, there is also profound truth. That’s a pattern for us, isn’t it? l’s emotion here is driven by the truth about God’s Person. The church today is filled with much emotionalism that is often grounded in nothing more than a desire to feel good in church. Worshippers become ecstatic over superficial song lyrics and a driving beat. Notice Paul’s burst of emotion is triggered by deep theological truth about the Person of God. This is what true worship is. Paul is worshipping God in Spirit and Truth. The emotional fire is there, but it is stoked by truth.
Paul’s thought here is very well organized. This is not an uncontrolled, ecstatic utterance. There is an air-tight, logical progression to Paul’s thought here. To better understand this, let’s divide this text into its four section. The first section is in verse 33. We could call it the declaration—“Oh, the depths of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!” Don’t you love Paul’s passion here about God?! Are we impassioned about God? One of the greatest scourges of the church today is that we are impassioned by so many things that AREN’T God. We are impassioned about music and singing. We are impassioned about ministry, even evangelism. We are impassioned about knowing facts about God. We are impassioned about sports, jobs, hobbies, possessions. But where is our passion for the Person of God? This should be the greatest, driving passion of our lives. Yet so many evangelicals are a dry well when it comes to being impassioned about God. They are cut off at the root. Without a passion for God, all the other passions become idolatry.
Paul thinks about the wisdom and knowledge of God in planning and executing his plan of salvation and he says “Oh, the depths of the riches of this wisdom and knowledge of God.” He uses these terms “wisdom” and “knowledge” mostly synonymously here to describe the mind of God that crafted and is executing this marvelous plan of salvation for the redeemed. He says this wisdom and knowledge is not only deep, but it is so rich, so precious. Its like a huge, underground vein of pure 24 carat gold that runs from the surface of the earth thousands of miles down to the center of the earth. You dig and dig and dig and pull out millions of tons of it until all your tools for digging can’t reach any deeper and there is still in inestimable supply down there you can’t even access. Its not only a deep mine, but its filled with invaluable treasure. That’s the way Paul describes the wisdom and knowledge of God. As he continues his praise to God, He wants us to know that the depth of this wisdom far exceeds human ability to grasp. Unless God supernaturally reveals his plan behind history, (as he does in Romans 9-11) there is no way we would ever be smart enough to figure it out.
Here, Paul is echoing the truth of Isaiah 55:8-9 where God says through Isaiah, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” We must always carry around with us the humbling truth that God is qualitatively different than we are. He is not just bigger and better and more perfect than us, He is different. We are creatures and He is the Creator. Even in heaven when we are glorified and all the sin our removed, we will only express HIS glory, we will never own it—we will never possess it independently. We will never be anything more than those who burn with HIS light within us. HE is the source of the light—we are, and always will be, nothing more than vessels through which HIS glory can be seen. We can, by the grace of God, carry his glory because we are created in His image but that glory is native only to Him. Do you hear the vast difference between God, who independently possesses glory, and us, who will forever be limited to only expressing HIS glory? We vessels who express the glory of God will never be by nature like God. He is not like us and we are not like Him and that should send us to our knees in worship!
Paul brings out this transcendence of God, that is, his difference from us by declaring that God’s judgments and ways are far beyond our capacity to figure out. Again, these two words, “judgements” and “ways” are more or less synonymous describing the decisions and actions of God in his saving plan. Paul says that any attempt for fallen man to try to search out or trace out the decisions and actions of God in salvation are doomed to failure because his decisions and actions are well beyond our ability to independently discover or think through. Its like that gold mine. This rich vein of God’s wisdom runs on infinitely, but we only have the capacity to reach down three or four feet with our arms. We can bring out only a very small amount of those riches on our own. Beyond the reach of our finite and fallen powers of human comprehension lies vast stores of God’s wisdom. The only way we can access any of that is if GOD Himself mines it and brings it within our grasp by revealing it through His Spirit, as He does in Romans 9-11.
After Paul declares the glory of the inaccessibility of God’s wisdom and knowledge in verse 33, he moves one step further in verses 34-35. In the second section in verses 34-36 he grounds that inaccessibility of God’s wisdom in the supremacy of God. He says the reason God’s judgements and ways are unsearchable and untraceable, why any attempts to figure out His plan of salvation are doomed to failure is because He is so different than us. He is so far above us. Paul highlights some ways God is above us by asking some rhetorical questions, borrowing here from Isaiah and Job. He asks, “Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor? “Who has ever given to God, that God should repay him?” The obvious answer to all these questions is a resounding, “No one!”
No one can know the mind of God because in order to be able to know the mind of God, we would have to be able to have a mind like His and if we had a mind like His, we would be God and we are NOT God. The only parts of God’s mind we know are the one’s He has graciously condescended to reveal to us. We see this in First Corinthians 2 where Paul says, “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him”—but God has revealed it to us by His Spirit.” The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God.” Its only as the Holy Spirit reveals God’s mind to us, that we can access it. We cannot climb up to God’s mind and look in. God must graciously bring some of his thoughts down to us by the Spirit.
Paul asks in the same vein, “…who has been his counselor?” Who in the universe would God go to for advise? It’s a ridiculous question because there is no problem that God not only cannot solve, but which He cannot also predict. He not only knows the answer to all the questions, he knows the questions before they are asked. Who is there who would be sufficient to give God counsel? As ridiculous as we all know that sounds, why is it that everyone in this room has assumed for themselves the position, at times, of God’s counselor? Think about it. Have we never questioned God’s way of doing things? Have we never whined or complained about a circumstance He has allowed into your lives? Have we never told Him to change things because we just can’t take any more, as if our knowledge of ourselves was greater than His knowledge of us?
This is why complaining and grumbling is so wicked. Whenever we complain or gripe about our circumstances, we are arrogantly assuming the role of “Counsel to God.” When we complain or whine, we are telling God that there was a better way to do things than the way He selected for us. We are communicating that God’s plan needs some editing or correction. He needs a bit of our input to run His universe at least as it relates to my life. How arrogant. Its no wonder that complaining is called rebellion in the Old Testament. Complaining is our feeble way of trying to cast off what God has planned in favor of our “better way” for our lives. “Who has been His counselor?”
Paul continues to express the supremacy of God when he refers to God’s statement to Job in chapter 41. He asks, “Who has ever given to God, that God should repay him?” Because God is infinite and utterly self-sufficient, he doesn’t need anything. No one can ever give Him anything He needs because He doesn’t need anything! And because God owns everything, no one will ever give him anything that doesn’t already belong to Him. He’s like the Father who, two days before Father’s day, gives his five year a ten dollar bill so the five year old can put the ten dollar bill in a Father’s day card and give it back to him as a present. He is totally self sufficient in Himself and if, hypothetically he ever wanted anything outside Himself, He would create it Himself. He can create things out of nothing—He has that capacity. We don’t. On the contrary, whereas God is totally self-sufficient and self-reliant, we are totally God dependent. We need Him and what he supplies to even maintain life. What if God took away HIS air or HIS atmosphere around the earth or HIS food. It all belongs to Him—the cattle on a thousand hills.
Because God is God and we are his creatures it is intrinsic to that arrangement that God will always be the Giver and we will always be the receiver. We can never give anything to God except what He has first given us. If we preach or pray or worship or serve, we are needful of HIS strength, HIS life, HIS Spirit and HIS blessing if we are to offer anything to Him. Even in our giving to Him, we are debtors to Him. That’s the way it is. That reminds us that we are not God and we are dependent debtors while God is the self-sufficient, gracious Giver of every good and perfect gift. After Paul grounds the wisdom and knowledge of God in His supremacy, he then tells us how God expresses or manifests His supremacy over His creation. In the third section he tells us: God’s supremacy is seen or expressed in his absolute sovereignty. We see in the first half of verse 36, “For from him and through him and to him are all things.”
This sentence in verse 36 is perhaps the most tightly packed truth in Romans, maybe the New Testament. This short sentence is like an electron flying through a nuclear accelerator. It is tiny, but packs immense power because in only a few words, this sentence lays out the extent of God’s sovereign control in the universe. Paul uses these three short prepositional phrases, “from him…through him…to him” to communicate this earth- shattering truth. Paul says that ALL things, not most things, not many things, not everything but a few things—ALL things—on heaven, on earth, under the earth—all things in our circumstances—all things in history. ALL things are FROM God—that is, they originate in some way with God. All things are TO God. That means that all things not only originate with God, they terminate with God. He is the origination of all things, but he is also the destination of all things. And in between the origination and the destination of all things, Paul says all things are THROUGH Him. That means he sustains, maintains, manages and directs all those things in the time between when they originate with Him and the time they terminate in Him. This is a perfectly closed loop! This is a picture of a totally sovereign God. God doesn’t sin or cause sin, but be controls it. If He doesn’t, then we have no business sleeping at night. The extent of His control is over ALL things in ALL respects.
Let me ask you? Is there anything in your life that is not under the control of God? If a good, gracious, loving God who sent His only Son to die for us is the origin, controller, sustainer and termination of everything in your life, why do we worry so much? Worry and anxiety and nervousness are utterly unnecessary and thoroughly inconsistent with being a child of this sovereign God when we understand the extent to which our good, loving Father has it all in His sovereign hand.
After Paul tells us how God expresses His supremacy over all things, in this fourth section He responds to this in the only way that is appropriate, He worships God. He begins with a worshipful declaration of the depths of the riches of the wisdom of God. He grounds those deep riches in God’s supremacy, he says that supremacy is expressed in His absolute sovereignty and he closes the circle with another expression of worship. With God, the appropriate starting place is worship and the appropriate point of conclusion is always with worship. Paul says, “To Him be the glory forever! Amen.” What else is there to say when you are overwhelmed with the magnificence of God? As Paul concludes this glorious section of Romans where He, by the Holy Spirit, traces the untraceable paths reveals the unsearchable judgments of God in his plan of salvation, He reflects on it and his reaction is “Glory to God.”
That’s our first point of application. The plan of God in salvation as seen in God’s election and predestination are to be marveled at, not challenged or edited. There is much in Romans 9-11 that has tragically often been reduced to a controversy in the church. The reason is not fundamentally because the truths are not presented clearly. They are. One reason is because, in the pride and vanity of fallen humanity, we want more control over this process of salvation. There is something in us that quakes in fear at the prospect of not having some definitive control over whether or not we or our loved ones are saved. We want a vote in this decision!! We want a decisive role. This arrangement Paul shows us in these three chapters is a challenge to our sinful goal of self-determination. Yet, God’s point in this section is to show that salvation is NOT dependent “on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy.” We are not to challenge God’s plan in redemption or try to make it more palatable to our self-sufficient hearts by giving us more say so in the process. He says we are to respond to this glorious plan by worshipping God and trusting His good and gracious hand.
A second point of application is seen in the contrast between Paul’s tone here as he finishes this treatment of God’s plan in salvation history and the Jews in particular, and his tone when he begins this section in the first verses of chapter nine. Listen to the striking difference between this worshipful celebration here at the end of this section when compared to 9:2-4. There Paul says, “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, those of my own race, the people of Israel.” Here Paul is looking at the presenting circumstances—the Jews, the people of his race were almost totally rejecting the gospel and were headed for an eternal hell. And Paul’s heart is in pieces over this turn of events. He hypothetically wishes that he could be damned on behalf of his people. The depth of Paul’s sorrow here is enormous. Yet, at the end of chapter 11 after he has revealed God’s sovereign plan explaining this set of circumstances, he is at the opposite end of the emotional spectrum, reveling in the glory of God’s wisdom, rooted in His supremacy, expressed through His sovereignty.
How can we explain this incredible contrast of emotion when both emotions are obviously very real to Paul? The answer gives us a final truth. That is, true passion for God will result in a passion for people. The reason Paul was so destroyed about the plight of the Jews was not because he had a sentimental attachment to them. If you'll go back and read chapter nine, you’ll discover his agony for the Jews was fueled by his understanding of their heritage with God. “Theirs is the adoption…the divine glory…the covenants…the law…the temple worship…” His passion for God bled over into a passion for God’s people. Its no accident that Jesus characterized all the law and prophets by two commandments. “Love the Lord your God with everything you have”—passion for God. And second, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.”—passion for people. If this walk through Romans 9-11 has only enhanced your mental, theological understanding of God, if its converted us to Calvinism and that is all its has done, then this has been at best a partial success. The Paul who saw the sovereign hand of God’s plan through the ages is the same man who wept for the Jews. Who are we weeping for? If we have no passion for God, then we certainly won’t have a God-centered passion for people. And we don’t have a passion for people, then it’s a sure bet that our passion for God is a very low wattage one. We may have a passion for theological correctness, but so did the Pharisees. May God give us the grace to know Him, glory in Him and surrender our lives to Him in service to others as our worship to Him.
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