Israel Has a Future! (preaching resource for 8/20/23, 12th Sunday after Pentecost)

This post exegetes Romans 11:1-36, providing context for the 8/20/23 RCL Epistles reading. It draws on "The Expositor's Bible Commentary" and John Stott's "The Message of Romans."

"The Children of Israel Crossing the Red Sea" by Schopin
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)


In Romans 9 and 10, the apostle Paul addresses God’s relation to Israel from two standpoints: God's sovereignty in Israel’s election (9) and Israel’s responsibility in her failure to respond to God’s grace (10). Together, these present a serious tension: will Israel’s sin and stubbornness defeat God’s sovereign purpose, or will God find a way to deal effectively with the situation so as to safeguard his purpose for Israel? In Chapter 11, Paul answers these questions, addressing Israel’s past and present, but focusing on her future. In providing these anwers, Paul calls upon the testimony of five witnesses: 1) himself (Paul), 2) Elijah, 3) the Gentiles, 4) the Patriarchs, and 5) God.

1. Paul

Romans 11:1. “Hath God cast away His people? God forbid! For I also am an Israelite!” Had God cast away His people, how could the Paul's conversion be explained? The fact that his conversion is presented three times in Acts is significant (Acts 9, 22, 26). Certainly Luke did not write these chapters and repeat the story just to exalt Paul. No, they were written to show Paul’s conversion as an illustration of the future conversion of the nation of Israel. Paul called himself “one born out of due time” (1 Cor. 15:8) and in 1 Tim. 1:16 he stated that God saved him “that in me first Jesus Christ might show forth all long-suffering, for a pattern to them which should hereafter believe on Him to life everlasting.”   

2. Elijah 

Romans 11:2–10. Israel is God’s elect nation; He chose them, and they are His. The fact that most of the nation has rejected Christ is no proof that God has finished with His people. In his day, Elijah thought that the nation had totally departed from God (1 Kings 19). But Elijah discovered that there was yet a remnant of true believers. He thought he was the only faithful Jew left, but discovered there were 7,000 more. 

Paul refers to this “remnant” in Rom. 9:27 (quoting Isa. 10:22–23). At no time has the entire nation of Israel been true to the Lord. God makes a distinction between Abraham’s natural children and his spiritual children (Rom. 2:25–29). The fact that the Jews shared in the covenant by being circumcised did not guarantee their salvation. Like Abraham, they had to believe God in order to receive His righteousness (Rom. 4:1–5). Note, therefore, that this remnant is saved by grace and not by works (Rom. 11:5–6). Note also the parallel in Rom. 9:30–33. It is impossible to mix grace and works, for the one cancels out the other. Israel’s main concern had always been in trying to please God with good works (Rom. 9:30–10:4). The nation refused to submit to Christ’s righteousness, just as religious, self-righteous people refuse to submit today. 

If a remnant had been saved, thus proving that God was not through with His people, then what had happened to the rest of the nation? They had been hardened (a better translation than blinded in Rom. 11:7). This was the result of their resisting the truth, just as Pharaoh’s heart was hardened because he resisted the truth. Paul quoted Isa. 29:10 to support his statement, and also referred to Deut. 29:4. We would expect a pagan ruler to harden himself against the Lord, but don't expect God’s people to do so. 

Rom. 11:9–10 quotes Psa. 69:22–23, which is one of the most important of the messianic psalms and is referenced several times in the New Testament. Note especially Rom. 11:4, 9, 21–22. Their “table to become a snare” means that their blessings turn into burdens and judgments. This is what happened to Israel: their spiritual blessings should have led them to Christ, but instead they became a snare that kept them from Christ. Their religious practices and observances became substitutes for the real experience of Christ and His salvation. Sad to say, this mistake is made today when people depend on religious rituals and practices instead of trusting in the Christ who is pictured in these activities. 

Paul made it clear that Israel's hardening is neither total nor final. God has a future for the nation: “Hardness in part is happened to Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles be come in” (Rom. 11:25). The existence of the believing Jewish remnant today, as in Elijah’s day, is evidence that God still has a plan for the salvation of His people. Paul did not imitate Elijah’s mistake and say, “I only am left!” He knew there was a remnant of Israel in the world who will believe the gospel.   

3. The Gentiles 

Romans 11:11–15. In Rom. 2:1–3 Paul used the Gentiles to prove the Jews guilty of sin, but here he used the Gentiles to assure Israel of her future salvation. His logic is beautiful. When the Jews rejected the gospel, God sent it to the Gentiles and they believed and were saved. Three tragedies occurred in Israel: the nation fell (Rom. 11:11), was lost (Rom. 11:12, “diminished”), and was cast away (Rom. 11:15). None of these words, however, suggests a final judgment on Israel. But the amazing thing is that through Israel’s fall, salvation came to the Gentiles. God promised that the Gentiles would be saved (Rom. 9:25–26) and He kept His promise. Will He not also keep His promise to the Jews? 

It is important to understand that in the Old Testament, God’s promises to the Gentiles were linked to Israel’s “rise”—her entering into her kingdom. Prophecies like Isa. 11 and 60 make it clear that the Gentiles will share in Israel’s kingdom. But Israel did not “rise”; she fell! What would God then do with the Gentiles? God’s answer is the church in which believing Jews and Gentiles are one in Christ (Eph. 2:11–22). In Eph. 3, Paul called this new program “the mystery,” meaning “the sacred secret” that was not clearly revealed in the Old Testament. Does this mean that God has abandoned His promises to Israel? Of course not! Israel is merely set aside until the time comes for God’s plans for Israel to be fulfilled. 

Paul stated that the Gentiles had a vital ministry to Israel. Today, the saved Gentiles provoke Israel “to jealousy” (Rom. 10:19) because of the spiritual riches they have in Christ. Israel today is spiritually bankrupt, while Christians (who are primarily Gentile) have “all spiritual blessings” in Christ (Eph. 1:3). There is a future for Israel. Paul calls it their "fullness” (Rom. 11:12) and “receiving” (Rom.11:15). Today, Israel is fallen spiritually, and is cast away from God, but one day she will be received again.  Exactly how and when this will be, Paul does not say, but he is confident it will happen. There are many Christian teachers today that seem to have all the details of Israel’s restoration worked out – beware of such teachers, for they go beyond what is clearly taught in the Bible. We leave it, in faith, to God, to fulfill his promise to bring salvation to Israel as a people.

4. The Patriarchs 

Romans 11:16–24. From looking at the future, Paul next looked to the past to show Israel’s spiritual heritage. From the beginning, Israel was a special people, set apart by God. Paul uses two illustrations to prove his argument that God was not finished with the Jews. 

a. The lump of dough (v. 16a) 

The reference here is to Num. 15:17–21. The first part of the dough was to be offered up to God as a symbol that the entire lump belonged to Him. The same idea was involved in the Feast of Firstfruits, when the priest offered a sheaf to the Lord as a token that the entire harvest was His (Lev. 23:9–14). The basic idea is that when God accepts the part He sanctifies the whole. Applying this to the history of Israel, we understand Paul’s argument. God accepted the founder of the nation, Abraham, and in so doing set apart his descendants as well. God also accepted the other patriarchs, Isaac and Jacob, in spite of their sins or failings. This means that God has determined to accept the “rest of the lump”—the nation of Israel. 

b. The olive tree (vv. 16b-24) 

This is a symbol of the nation of Israel (Jer. 11:16–17; Hos. 14:4–6). Paul is not discussing the relationship of individual believers to God, but the place of Israel in the plan of God. The roots of the tree support the tree; again, this was a symbol of the patriarchs who founded the nation. God made His covenants with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and He cannot deny them or change them. Thus, it is God’s promise to Abraham that sustains Israel even today. 

Many of the Jewish people did not believe. Paul pictured them as branches broken off the tree. But he saw an amazing thing taking place: other branches were grafted into the tree to share in the life of the tree. These branches were the Gentiles. In Rom. 11:24, Paul described this “grafting in” as “contrary to nature.” Usually a cultivated branch is grafted into a wild tree and shares its life without producing its poor fruit. But in this case, it was the “wild branch” (the Gentiles) that was grafted into the good tree! “Salvation is of the Jews” (John 4:22). 

The olive tree illustrates the relationship between Jew and Gentile in the program of God. The “breaking off of the branches” is the equivalent of “the fall” (Rom. 11:11), “the diminishing” (Rom. 11:12), and “the casting away” (Rom. 11:15). Paul warned the Gentiles that they were obligated to Israel, and therefore they dared not boast of their new spiritual position (Rom. 11:18–21). The Gentiles entered into God’s plan because of faith, and not because of anything good they had done. Paul was discussing the Gentiles collectively, and not the individual experience of one believer or another. God will keep His promises to the patriarchs, but God will break off unbelieving Gentiles. No matter how far Israel may stray from the truth of God, the roots are still good. God is still the “God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (Ex. 3:6; Matt. 22:32). He will keep His promises to these patriarchs. This means that the olive tree will flourish again! 

5. God

Romans 11:25–36. Paul saved his best witness for last. He proved that the very character and work of God were involved in the future of Israel. Men may dispute about prophecy and differ in their interpretations, but let every man realize that he is dealing with God’s people, Israel. 

a. God’s timing (v. 25) 

What has happened to Israel is all a part of God’s plan, and He knows what He is doing. The blinding (or hardening, Rom. 11:7) of Israel as a nation is neither total nor final: it is partial and temporary. How long will it last? “Until the fullness of the Gentiles be come in” (Rom. 11:25). There is a “fullness” for Israel (Rom. 11:12) and for the Gentiles. Today, God in His grace is visiting the Gentiles and taking out a people for His name (Acts 15:12–14). Individual Jews are being saved, of course; but this present age is primarily a time when God is visiting the Gentiles and building His church. When this present age has run its course, and the fullness of the Gentiles has come in, then God will once more deal with the nation of Israel. It is reassuring that God is never late in fulfilling His will. 

b. God’s promise (v. 26) 

The reference here is Isa. 59:20–21 and Isaiah 60 completes the picture. God has promised to save His people, and He will keep His promise. “All Israel shall be saved” does not mean that every Jew who has ever lived will be saved, but a full remnant that represents the entire nation will.

c. God’s covenant (vv. 27–28) 

This is a continuation of the quotation from Isaiah 59; but the emphasis here is on the covenant of God with Israel. God chose Israel in His grace and not because of any merit in her's (Deut. 7:6–11; 9:1–6). If the nation was not chosen because of its goodness, can it be rejected because of its sin? “Election” means grace, not merit. The Jewish people are “enemies” to the believing Gentiles because of their hostile attitude toward the gospel. But to God, the Jewish people are “beloved for the fathers’ sakes.” God will not break His promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. 

d. God’s nature (v. 29) 

“I am the Lord, I change not” (Mal. 3:6). “God is not a man that He should lie; neither the son of man, that He should repent” (Num. 23:19). God’s gifts to Israel, and God’s calling of Israel, cannot be taken back or changed, or God would cease to be true to His own perfect nature. The fact that Israel may not enjoy her gifts, or live up to her privileges as an elect nation, does not affect this fact one bit. God will be consistent with Himself and true to His Word no matter what men may do. “Shall their unbelief make the faithfulness of God without effect?” (Romans 3:3, literal translation). 

e. God’s grace (vv. 30–32) 

“Because of the unbelief of the Jews, you Gentiles were saved,” said Paul. “Now, may it be that through your salvation Israel will come to know Christ.” Note that Paul repeatedly reminded the saved Gentiles that they had a spiritual obligation to Israel to “provoke them to jealousy” (Rom. 10:19; 11:11, 14). Israel’s hardness is only “in part” (Rom. 11:25), which means that individual Jews can be saved. God has included “all in unbelief”—Jews and Gentiles—so that all (both Jews and Gentiles) might have the opportunity to be saved by grace. “There is no difference.” If God can save Jews by His grace and mercy today, why can He not save them in the future? 

We must remember that God chose the Jews so that the Gentiles might be saved. “In thee shall all families of the earth be blessed,” was God’s promise to Abraham (Gen. 12:1–3). The tragedy was that Israel became exclusive and failed to share the truth with the Gentiles. They thought that the Gentiles had to become Jews in order to be saved. But God declared both Jews and Gentiles to be lost and condemned. This meant that He could have mercy on all, whether they are Jew or Gentile, because of the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. This is not to say that all will be saved—Paul is not teaching universalism. Rather, his point is that salvation will be inclusive of all without distinction —a fullness of both Jews and Gentiles, in the end, will be saved.

f. God’s wisdom (vv. 33–36) 

Having contemplated God’s great plan of salvation for Jews and Gentiles, all Paul could do was sing a hymn of praise. Theology becomes doxology.  

Only a God as wise as our God could take the fall of Israel and turn it into salvation for the world! His plans will not be aborted nor will His purposes lack fulfillment. No human being can fully know the mind of the Lord; and the more we study His ways, the more we offer Him praise. Are we to conclude that God does not know what He is doing, and that the nation of Israel completely ruined His plans? Of course not! God is too wise to make plans that will not be fulfilled. Israel did not allow Him to rule, so He overruled! 


And so we learn from the testimony of Paul’s five witnesses who all agree: Israel has a future! And when Israel recovers from her “fall” and enters into her “fullness,” the whole world will be blessed. To God be all praise! Amen.