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Romans 11:1-2 Biblical Commentary:
ROMANS 9-10: THE CONTEXT
In chapter 9, Paul deals God’s election of Israel (9:1-18), God’s wrath (9:19-29), and Israel’s unbelief and the idea of the law as a stumbling stone (9:30-33). He quoted Isaiah, “If the number of the children of Israel are as the sand of the sea, it is the remnant who will be saved” (9:27; Isaiah 10:22).
Paul begins chapter 10, “Brothers, my heart’s desire and my prayer to God is for Israel, that they may be saved”—”they” meaning Israel (10:1). He says that Israel has zeal, but it is unenlightened (10:2). In its attempt to establish its own righteousness, Israel “didn’t subject themselves to the righteousness of God” (10:3). He says that God intends salvation for all, not just Israel (10:5-17). He concludes by noting God’s frustration with Israel, quoting Moses and Isaiah, and concluding, “But as to Israel he (God) says, “All day long I stretched out my hands to a disobedient and contrary people” (10:21).
This background is essential to understanding chapter 11, where Paul uses the Greek word gar, meaning “for” or “then.” In other words, Paul uses the word gar in verse 1 to signal that chapter 11 has its roots in chapters 9 and 10.
ROMANS 11:1-2a. DID GOD REJECT HIS PEOPLE? MAY IT NEVER BE!
1 I ask then (Greek: gar—for or then), did God reject his people? May it never be! For I also am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin. 2aGod didn’t reject his people, which he foreknew.
“I ask then (gar—for or then), did God reject his people? May it never be!” (v. 1a). The question raised by Israel’s unfaithfulness (chapters 9-10) is whether God’s frustration with Israel has led him to abandon them. Paul responds decisively—”May it never be,” (v. 1a) and “God didn’t reject his people” (v. 2).
This might seem to be an issue completely irrelevant to us today, but it is not:
• First, what Paul has to say about Israel applies in our day as well as his. It is still God’s will “that they may be saved” (10:1), so we have a responsibility to pray for Israel and to proclaim the Gospel to Israel.
• Second, the underlying issue is God’s faithfulness. God made covenants with Abraham (Genesis 12:1-3; 17:1-2) and Israel (Exodus 34:27; Deuteronomy 29:1; Joshua 1:1 ff.; Psalm 89:3-4; 105:8-11; Isaiah 59:21; Jeremiah 31:33-34). If God felt free to abandon Israel because of its unfaithfulness, then we could not trust that he would not abandon us.
“For I also am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin” (v. 1b). Paul holds himself up as an example of God’s faithfulness to Israel. Paul is a Jew, and mentions three credentials that cement his identification with Israel:
• Paul is an Israelite.
• Paul is a descendent of Abraham. Abraham was the founding father of Israel—the one with whom God made the original covenant (Genesis 12:1-3).
• Paul is a member of the tribe of Benjamin. Scholars debate whether there is any significance to Paul’s mention of Benjamin other than his tribal identification. The tribe of Benjamin was located geographically between Judah on the south and Ephraim on the north. Although the smallest tribe geographically, it included the city of Jerusalem. Interestingly, Benjamin was the tribe of Saul, the first king of Israel (1 Samuel 9), and the apostle Paul’s name was Saul prior to his conversion.
“God didn’t reject his people, which he foreknew” (v. 2a). This wording, “God didn’t reject his people, comes from 1 Samuel 12:22 and Psalm 94:14, which promise that God will not cast away or forsake his people.
The wording, “which he foreknew” (v. 2a) is Paul’s. God knew in advance what the people of Israel would be like, but chose Israel anyway—made promises to Israel anyway—covenanted with Israel anyway. Knowing in advance that they would disappoint him, he could not make a covenant with them and then abandon them because they disappointed him. There is a sense in which God, knowing them in advance, obligated himself to keep the covenant in spite of their disappointing behavior. He was not, however, bound to save the whole nation, but only those who remained faithful—the remnant mentioned in 9:27.
ROMANS 11:2b-28: NOT INCLUDED IN THE LECTIONARY READING
These verses, not included in the lectionary, talk about the Jewish rejection of Jesus and God’s plan of salvation. First, Paul mentions Elijah, who despaired that he was the only Godly man left in Israel (v. 3). God assured Elijah that there were seven thousand faithful people who had not bowed to Baal (v. 4; 1 Kings 19:10-18)—thus the idea of a remnant. Paul says, “Even so then at this present time also there is a remnant according to the election of grace” (v. 5).
Then Paul says that Israel did not “stumble that they might fall” (v. 11). Instead, “by their fall salvation has come to the Gentiles, to provoke them to jealousy” (v. 11). Paul goes on to promise, “so all Israel will be saved” (v. 26).
ROMANS 11:29-32. THE GIFTS AND THE CALLING OF GOD ARE IRREVOCABLE
29 For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. 30For as you in time past were disobedient to God, but now have obtained mercy by their disobedience, 31even so these also have now been disobedient, that by the mercy shown to you they may also obtain mercy. 32For God has shut up all to disobedience, that he might have mercy on all.
“For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (v. 29). The word “irrevocable” has the place of emphasis in the Greek. Paul is emphasizing that God does not go back on his word.
When Paul uses the word “gifts” here, he most likely means gifts that he mentioned earlier—grace (5:15)—eternal life (6:23)—”the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the service, and the promises” (9:4). When he speaks of “the calling of God,” he means that God has called Israel to be his people.
“For as you in time past were disobedient to God, but now have obtained mercy by their disobedience” (v. 30). Note the parallel structure of verses 30 and 31. They tell us that both Gentiles and Jews have been disobedient—both have been the beneficiary of the other—and both receive mercy.
In verse 30, Paul addresses Gentile Christians, reminding them that they were once disobedient, “but now have obtained mercy by their (Israel’s) disobedience”. The idea is that, because of Israel’s disobedience, God turned his mercy to the Gentiles, who have become, therefore, the beneficiaries of Israel’s disobedience. It is rather like a father, whose first son turned out to be unworthy, shifting the first son’s inheritance to the second son. The Gentiles are tempted to despise unworthy Israel, but need to understand that they have benefited by Israel’s unworthiness.
This is provocative language from a Jewish perspective. Israel considered itself worthy—doubly worthy by virtue of its covenant with God and its observance of the law. Israel considered Gentiles unworthy—doubly unworthy because they were not born to the covenant people and did not keep the law. Paul, however, says that
“even so these also have now been disobedient, that by the mercy shown to you they may also obtain mercy” (v. 31). In verses omitted by the lectionary, Paul said, “salvation has come to the Gentiles, to provoke them to jealousy” (v. 11). He also said, ” Since then as I am an apostle to Gentiles, I glorify my ministry; if by any means I may provoke to jealousy those who are my flesh, and may save some of them” (vv. 13-14).
Just as Gentiles benefited by Israel’s disobedience (because God turned his mercy to Gentiles), so also Israel benefited by Gentile obedience (because Gentile obedience made Israel jealous, causing her to reconsider her disobedience and to become faithful to God). This is not to say that disobedience is good or that it usually produces good outcomes. It is rather to say that God, in his great love, turned disobedience to redemptive purposes.
God still turns disobedience to redemptive purposes today. A celebrity smoker dies of lung cancer, and other smokers are motivated to quit. An alcoholic loses a spouse or a job and is motivated to quit. Chuck Colson was prosecuted for a felony, and in his misery became open to hearing the Gospel. Our disobedience is never good, and often produces terrible suffering. God, however, is always at work behind the scenes to turn our disobedience to redemptive purposes.
“For God has shut up all to disobedience, that he might have mercy on all” (v. 32). At first reading, this verse appears to hold God responsible for people’s disobedience, but that is not the case. Instead, God imprisons “all to disobedience” in the sense that he forces them to suffer the consequences of their disobedience so that they might be motivated to change their ways—”that he might have mercy on all”. He gives “them up in the lusts of their hearts to uncleanness” (1:24)—to their debased minds (1:28)—so that they might turn to Christ and be “justified freely by his (God’s) grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (3:24). Tough love!
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Barclay, William, The Daily Study Bible: The Letter to the Romans, revised edition (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1975)
Brueggemann, Walter; Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV — Year A (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995)
Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holladay, Carl R.; and Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, A (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1992)
Dunn, James D. G., Word Biblical Commentary: Romans 9-16, Vol. 38B (Dallas: Word Books, 1988)
Morris, Leon, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Co, 1988)
Wright, N. Thomas, The New Interpreter’s Bible: Acts, Romans, 1 Corinthians, Vol. X (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002)
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