In Romans 9 and 10, Paul describes a theological problem: Most Jews are rejecting the gospel. Not only are they missing out on salvation, it makes other people wonder whether God is faithful to his promises. In chapter 11, Paul affirms that God has a surprising plan for the people of Israel.
The remnant of Israel
At the end of chapter 10, Paul described Israel as a people who heard the message but refused to accept it even though God pleaded with them. So Paul asks, “God has not rejected his people, has he?” (11:1). He answers: “Absolutely not! For I too am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, from the tribe of Benjamin.” Paul is living proof that God has not abandoned his people.
“God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew!” (verse 2). Foreknow here does not refer simply to advance knowledge, as if God knew some facts about the Jews. Rather, it refers to a relationship that God had with the Jews. He had a covenant with them. It is no longer valid as a source of laws, but the promises God made to them will still be kept. God has not given up on the Jews.
“Do you not know what the scripture says about Elijah, how he pleads with God against Israel? ‘Lord, they have killed your prophets, they have demolished your altars; I alone am left and they are seeking my life!’” (verses 2-3, quoting from 1 Kings 19:10, 14). Elijah thought that everyone else had gone astray.
“What was the divine response to him?” Paul asks in verse 4. It was: “I have kept for myself seven thousand people who have not bent the knee to Baal.” [1 Kings 19:18] Paul draws a lesson from this: “So in the same way at the present time there is a remnant chosen by grace” (verses 4-5). The situation wasn’t as bad as Elijah thought it was. In Paul’s day, too, thousands of Jews believed in Christ. There was a remnant, a small percentage, of Jews who accepted what God had done in Jesus Christ.
They are chosen by grace, he says, not by their zeal for the law. “And if it is by grace, it is no longer by works, otherwise grace would no longer be grace” (verse 6). Grace and works are opposites—we cannot mix the two.
Some were hardened
“What then?” Paul asks in verse 7. “Israel failed to obtain what it was diligently seeking, but the elect obtained it.” The Jews sincerely wanted to be righteous, but their efforts did not achieve what they wanted.
The elect—the chosen ones—obtained righteousness, Paul says. “The rest were hardened, as it is written, ‘God gave them a spirit of stupor, eyes that would not see and ears that would not hear, to this very day’” (verses 7-8, adapting Deuteronomy 29:4 and Isaiah 29:9-10). The minority accepted the gospel; the others did not because God gave them over to their own inclinations.
However, Paul said in chapter 10 that they heard and understood, and that God pleaded with them, but they refused. Paul will soon say that he works hard so that some of them might be saved (verse 14), showing that Paul does not believe that the end of the story is cast in concrete. God has not decided that these people will be lost. But at this point in history, they have rejected Christ, and God let them have their own way. But the blindness can be removed.
In verses 9-10, Paul quotes a stronger passage in Psalm 69:22-23: “And David says: ‘Let their table become a snare and trap, a stumbling block and a retribution for them; let their eyes be darkened so that they may not see, and make their backs bend continually.’” In this psalm, David asks God to punish his enemies — even to blot them out of the book of life! But Paul is not asking that, for the Jews have not stumbled beyond recovery, and Paul works hard so that some might be saved. Paul is not quoting the psalm for eternal punishment, but only for its comment about eyes that cannot see. That is what has happened, but Paul is working to change it.
Arousing the Jews to envy
In verse 1, Paul asked a question as a springboard for his discussion, and in verse 11 he does it again: “I ask then, they did not stumble into an irrevocable fall, did they?” And again he answers: “Absolutely not! But by their transgression salvation has come to the Gentiles, to make Israel jealous.” Their fall, their blindness, their hardening, can be revoked.
Jews who reject Christ are not hopelessly lost — they can still be saved. But in the meantime, salvation is being offered to Gentiles. Paul is alluding here to Deuteronomy 32:21: “I will make them jealous with a people they do not recognize, with a nation slow to learn I will enrage them.” Contrary to what most Jews thought, God would bless the Gentiles so much that the Jews would be envious. That is Paul’s hope and reason for ministry.
In verse 12, Paul reasons from a less-than-ideal situation to a better one: “Now if their transgression means riches for the world and their defeat means riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their full restoration bring?” If Jewish failure has brought blessings to others, won’t Jewish success bring even more? Paul is implying that there will come a day of success, when most Jews will accept Christ.
Paul believes the majority will be saved — first a remnant of Jews, then a good number of Gentiles, then the majority of Jews, and finally another blessing for the Gentiles — the salvation of the great majority. “Now I am speaking to you Gentiles,” he says in verse 13. “Seeing that I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I magnify my ministry, if somehow I could provoke my people to jealousy and save some of them.” Although Paul was writing to Gentiles, he was addressing a question about Jews. He may be rehearsing what he will say on his trip to Jerusalem: He wants his people to accept their Messiah, so that they might be saved.
In verse 15, Paul again uses an argument from the lesser to the greater: “For if their rejection is the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead?” If the failure of the Jews brought salvation to everyone else, won’t it be even better when the Jews finally accept the gospel? They might be spiritually dead now, but God can raise the dead.
New branches attached to the tree
In verse 16, Paul switches to a different style of reasoning, using analogies. First, he uses an example from Israel’s system of worship: “If the first portion of the dough offered is holy, then the whole batch is holy…” No one could eat from the harvest until the firstfruits had been offered (Leviticus 23:14). After they were offered to God, the entire harvest was sanctified, permitted for the people. In context, the firstfruits are the remnant of Israel, the small percentage of Jews who accept Jesus. They are given to God, and this implies that the whole Jewish nation is set apart for God.
Then Paul uses another analogy: “And if the root is holy, so too are the branches.” The root is probably the patriarchs, and if they are holy, their descendants are, too, and God won’t give up on them. Paul moves from there into the analogy of tree-branch-grafting: “Now if some of the branches were broken off, and you, a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among them and participated in the richness of the olive root…”
Paul isn’t giving horticultural advice — he is tailoring his analogy to suit his purposes. The root is Abraham, and the promise given to him, a promise now producing fruit by Jesus Christ. Many of the Jews are broken off, or cut off from Christ, and Gentiles are being attached to the tree and enjoying the blessings. The Jews are not superior — but neither are the Gentiles.
Paul warns those Gentiles in verse 18: “Do not boast over the branches.” That was apparently a temptation for Gentile Christians in Rome. If you think this way, Paul says, “remember that you do not support the root, but the root supports you.” Your salvation depends on a promise given to the ancestor of the Jews, Abraham, and to the Messiah of the Jews, Jesus. You didn’t earn the right to be grafted in; it was only a matter of God’s grace. You were not on the A-list for the party, but on the B-list.
“Then you will say, ‘The branches were broken off so that I could be grafted in’” (verse 19). Paul responds: Even so, you shouldn’t think of yourself as superior. “Granted!” he says in verse 20. “They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand by faith. Do not be arrogant, but fear! For if God did not spare the natural branches, perhaps he will not spare you” (verses 20-21). You can be broken off just the same as they were.
Paul implies here that it possible for someone to reject the faith. If salvation were completely decided in advance, then people would have no need to fear, and Paul would not imply that God could break them off. Paul wants people to be confident, but not to assume that everything is guaranteed no matter what they do.
Paul combines God’s grace and judgment in verse 22: “Notice therefore the kindness and harshness of God—harshness toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness toward you, provided you continue in his kindness; otherwise you also will be cut off.” If we fall away from grace and go into self-reliance, then we will be cut off from the tree.
The salvation of Israel
“And even they [the Jews] — if they do not continue in their unbelief—will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again” (verse 23). If Jews accept the Messiah, they will be re-attached to the Abrahamic tree — everything can change, according to whether people accept or reject Christ. God does not favor one ethnic group over the other.
Paul then reasons as to how easy it will be for the Jews to be brought back in: “For if you [Gentiles] were cut off from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree…” — if that difficult thing has been done — “how much more will these natural branches [Jews] be grafted back into their own olive tree?” (verse 24). God can easily put the Jews back in.
Paul then says: “For I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers and sisters, so that you may not be conceited: A partial hardening has happened to Israel until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved” (verses 25-26).
Paul calls it a mystery, something previously hidden but now revealed — and it is revealed so Gentiles do not think themselves superior to Jews. It was God’s plan for Israel to resist their own Messiah, for a while. Most Jews of the Jews did not accept Jesus. But this resistance is temporary — it lasts only until the full number of Gentiles comes into faith.
Paul has already argued that the Jews have not stumbled beyond recovery, and Jewish branches can be grafted back in if they believe, so when he says they are hardened until the full number of Gentiles comes in, he implies that the hardening was temporary. He also says that the Jewish people are still loved, their calling cannot be revoked, and that God will have mercy on them. Paul believes that most of the Jews will be saved, because Deuteronomy 32 predicts a time when they will accept Jesus as their Savior.
What does he mean by “all Israel”? Some scholars say that it means all Jews. But there is no blanket promise that absolutely every Jewish person will be saved, or will come to faith. Paul’s anguish expressed in 9:1-3 would be unnecessary if they were all going to be saved anyway. Other scholars say that “all Israel” means “all God’s people,” as Paul has redefined them: those who believe in Jesus are now the Israel of God, all who are attached to the Abrahamic tree through faith. Paul believes that this will include “the full number of the Gentiles” as well as a sizeable number of Jews who are stirred up by seeing the blessings being given to Gentiles.
Paul supports his point by blending ideas found in Isaiah 59:20-21; 27:9; and Jeremiah 31:33-34: “As it is written: ‘The Deliverer will come out of Zion; he will remove ungodliness from Jacob. And this is my covenant with them, when I take away their sins’” (verses 26-27). Isaiah says, “A protector comes to Zion, to those in Jacob who repent of their rebellious deeds,” and Jeremiah promises a new covenant in which God will not remember their sins any more.
Paul knows that the Redeemer has come to Zion — Jesus has come, and Paul is confident that Jesus will accomplish the work he came to do. Even when the nation was a mess, God used the prophets to promise a day of salvation for them, and he promised a new covenant for them. The fact that Gentiles are entering the new covenant does not change the fact that it was promised to Israel. The promise is not broken — rather, it is expanded to include Gentiles. The Redeemer not only came to Zion, but he is now going out from Zion to save Gentiles.
When will all this happen? Paul does not say. The Jews can turn to Christ at any time.
Paul gives us his summary and conclusion in verse 28: “In regard to the gospel they are enemies for your sake, but in regard to election they are dearly loved for the sake of the fathers.” Most of the Jews are enemies of the gospel, but God still loves them, and they are still part of the chosen people. Why? “For the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable” (verse 29). God will keep his promises.
In verses 30-31 Paul summarizes it: “Just as you were formerly disobedient to God, but have now received mercy due to their disobedience, so they too have now been disobedient in order that, by the mercy shown to you, they too may now receive mercy.” Mercy is given to Gentiles; it is also given to Jews, for salvation is by grace.
Paul’s concluding rationale is in verse 32: “For God has consigned all people to disobedience so that he may show mercy to them all.” Everyone has sinned and deserves a guilty verdict, but in Christ all are given mercy. The grace of God is “bringing salvation to all people” (Titus 2:11) — to all races and nations.
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Scriptures are quoted by permission from the NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2006 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com. All rights reserved.
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This article was written by Michael Morrison in 2004 and updated in 2015. Copyright Grace Communion International. All rights reserved.
What more can Paul say? There is no proof that this will happen — there is only the promise of God, but he is more faithful than evidence is. So Paul launches into a section of praise. It is a call to theological and intellectual humility — and it is also a reminder that theology, if done correctly, should always lead us to praise and worship. Whenever we catch a glimpse of what God has done or is doing, we should respond with awe and thanksgiving.
Paul started this chapter by talking about human failure, but he ends by praising the God who can be counted on to succeed:
Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how fathomless his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor? [Isaiah 40:13] Or who has first given to God, that God needs to repay him? [Job 41:11] For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever! Amen. (verses 33-36)
Praise God, who in his grace saves all peoples! He is faithful to his promises, and his purpose will stand.
Things to think about
- Are there people today who claim to be part of God’s people, and yet seem to ignore him? Would Paul hold out hope for them?
- Do people reject the gospel by their own choice (10:21) or because God has blinded them (11:8)?
- Can envy cause anyone to turn to Christ (verse 13)?
- Have I ever felt superior to unbelievers (verse 18)?
- Does Paul want me to be confident (8:38-39) or to be afraid (11:20)?
- When I think about what God has done in my life, do I respond with praise (verses 33-36)? What would I include in my poem of praise?