Now I am speaking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch then as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I magnify my ministry in order to make my fellow Jews jealous, and thus save some of them. For if their rejection means the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance mean but life from the dead?
For the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable. Just as you were once disobedient to God but now have received mercy because of their disobedience, so they have now been disobedient in order that by the mercy shown to you they also may receive mercy. For God has consigned all men to disobedience, that he may have mercy upon all. (Romans 11:13-15; 29-32)
When my father was in seminary, he and his classmates were assigned Paul’s letter to the Romans to translate from the Greek into English with one sizeable exception: the whole of chapters nine through eleven. It seems the professor didn’t trust a bunch of young seminarians to not wreak havoc on the extraordinarily complex and deep theological concepts contained within them.
After several days of prayerfully wrestling with this particular passage I can say that I completely respect the wisdom of this decision. It is, in many ways, an overwhelming chapter.
Nonetheless there are certain truths that any of us can glean both from the excerpt given in this week’s reading and the chapter as a whole, for at its core it is a chapter meant to inspire both humility and hope.
As Logan wrote last week, the larger context of this portion of the letter is an exhortation to the Roman church (comprised primarily of Gentiles) to recognize the role of the Jews in their own salvation. Paul refers to his readers as wild branches that have been grafted into a cultivated olive tree against nature (v.24). He leaves no room for doubt: there is absolutely nothing natural about their (or our) incorporation into the kingdom of God. It is neither deserved nor inherited; it is all grace.
The Jews, to the contrary, are the natural branches of that tree. To them has been given the Law and the Prophets, which find their ultimate fulfillment in Christ. There is a fundamental truth at play here: you cannot fully understand Christianity without understanding its Jewish roots, and in a very profound way, the converse is also true. Their patrimony is now our patrimony; we are the sons of Abraham in that we, by grace, have been ingrafted into the work that the Lord began through the nation of Israel and has brought to fulfillment in Christ’s life, death and resurrection.
Like the original readers of this letter, we are to be humbled by this reality because it means the story of our salvation is not individual, but rather inscribed in the story of God’s salvation of the whole world, a story so epic that it literally spans millennia (and is still going on) and is more intricately and masterfully woven than we can even begin to imagine. That is one of the things that impressed me most with Fred’s piece on Monday: it revealed the beautiful and intricate way that the Lord, through His word, has woven certain truths in delicate patterns that permeate and connect every part of Scripture and Revelation—in this case, from the prophet Isaiah, to our Lord Jesus, and to an apparently random Eunach reading that same prophet centuries later, thus in a sense fulfilling a Scripture he did not even understand at the time.
Absolutely beautiful and awe-inspiring.
But most of all, we are to be humbled by the God who has written that story and who sustains it by his grace. “Remember that is not you that supports the root,” he says in verse 18, “but the root that supports you.” At the end of the day, even our faith is grace (vss 5-6; Catechism 1813, 1814).
Furthermore, we are to realize that the same end that found the Jews who rejected Christ can also find us as well if we likewise fall into rejection and willful disbelief:
“For if God did not spare the natural branches, perhaps he will not spare you,” (v. 21)
“They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand only through faith. So do not become proud, but stand in awe” (v. 18)
It seems we have a lot to be humble about.
But as I said before, cursing through the veins of this chapter is also a profound and indomitable hope with which Paul wants to infect us, not only for the Jews but also for ourselves. It is a hope that points to the absolute sovereignty of God and the abundance of his love and grace for his beloved children.
Paul argues that through the Jews’ rejection of Christ, we have gained the hope of mercy, of redemption. However, we must be careful to not think he is therefore saying that the extension of salvation to the Gentiles is the desperate attempt to salvage a salvation mission gone bad. As we learned on Monday (and is clear throughout Scripture) the plan has always been to extend salvation to all of God’s children. But in a very mysterious way God has used their rejection of Him to redound in blessing for the Gentiles, unworthy though we are. Their rejection did not thwart His plans, but rather became integrated into them, an extraordinary illustration of the promise Paul gives us earlier in the letter of God’s ability to “work all things for the good of those who love him and have been called according to His purpose.” (8:28)
And if God is able to do this with their rejection, Paul says, imagine what he can do with their acceptance! It will mean life from the dead.
I love how Paul’s extraordinary heart and mind pour through these words. You can almost see a little twinkle in his eye as he writes “life from the dead”, for is that not the very hope on which Christianity is founded: that death is no longer the final enemy and has been ultimately defeated through Christ’s own sacrificial death and resurrection? “Death, where is thy sting? Grave where is thy victory?” he writes elsewhere tauntingly. Death, in the end, is no match for the redeeming power and love our Lord.
Notably, in the verse just before the second portion of this reading Paul says that as regards the gospel, the Jews are the enemies of God, but as regards election they are the beloved. It is a word used throughout the New Testament to refer to and address individuals who are held in deep esteem and affection, but perhaps most beautifully it is the word God himself uses at Jesus’ baptism and His Transfiguration to describe His love for His own begotten Son.
This is the love God has for the Jews; this the love he has also for us.
As Fred wrote a couple of weeks ago:
Not even our sin separates us from his love. It destroys our relationship, yes, but it does not end His love nor His willingness to die in order to restore that relationship.
Indeed, God, himself, promised this same enduring love to Israel through the prophet Isaiah:
But Zion said, “The Lord has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me.” Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. (43:14-15, emphasis mine)
As the prophet Micah said, He is the God “who pardons sin and forgives the transgression of the remnant of his inheritance” and who “[does] not stay angry forever but delight[s] to show mercy” (7:18, emphasis mine)
How can you not stand in awe of such a God?
What do we take away from this? Humility? Yes. Deep, abiding, humility at our smallness and his greatness, at our insufficiency and his abundant grace. But also hope, for the same indomitable love that will not forget His beloved Israel and never ceases to pursue them, will also never forget us nor cease to pursue us, “for the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable.”
Kathleen Durham is a Vice President of Alighieri Press and serves as an author, editor and speaker