What about Israel? (Romans 11)

Paul was an Israelite (a Jew) who became a Christian because he realised that the God of the Jews - the God of their forefather Abraham - was the same one who had turned up as a man - Jesus!  He took a while to realise it but now he's in with both feet and he's trying to persuade as many people as he can to jump in with him. 

In this part of his letter to the early church in Rome, he's puzzling over why it is that some of his Israelite friends have accepted Jesus and others have rejected him, even though all of them share a history of being a nation that belonged to God.  Paul says it's not about nationality or human works - it's about Jesus and God's grace. 

STOP, pray and read Romans 11

There's a lot of complex ideas in this chapter, especially if you don't know your way around the Bible very well yet.  But let's try and pull out a few useful thoughts that should be clear...

Paul knows full well that many of his Jewish readers will be struggling with the idea that they must trust and follow Jesus.  They would have struggled because they thought they were fine as they were.  They knew the Old Testament Scriptures and the story of God's promises to their ancient father Abraham about him becoming a great nation chosen by God.  They thought it was all about being in Abraham's family but they were wrong.  It was always primarily about being in God's family through trusting and following him.  And that means since God himself showed up in the person of Jesus, it's about trusting and following Jesus.  New deal!

So did God just change his mind and dump a load of Israelites from his previous promise?  Not at all.  They got to be part of Abraham's family - part of the nation of Israel but they never automatically made it into God's family because of these promises.  To be in God's family meant trusting and following God.  Paul's already made this clear when he described how Abraham was made right with God by believing God (Romans 4).  Likewise, some Israelites had soft hearts, trusted and followed God and he was merciful and forgave them.  At the same time, other Israelites had hard hearts and didn't trust or follow God and so he wasn't merciful to them and didn't forgive them.

Paul says that it's not just about human will.  God's will is involved too.  God chose some Israelites to trust and follow him and be in his family, whilst hardening the hearts of others who didn't trust or follow him.  Did he force anyone either way?  No.  Did he take away their own decision?  No.  Was human will in harmony with God's will?  Absolutely.  It's hard to understand but no human choice goes beyond what God has chosen.  God is God.  He gets to choose who and how many undeserving people he will be save (Romans 9:15).

So Paul says there are some Israelites who will trust and follow Jesus and the reason they will do this is because of God's grace.  Nothing to do with human effort, works, religion or heritage.

Paul says he hopes that God will use Gentile (non-Jewish) Christians to help Israelites realise what they're missing and turn from their sin and trust and follow Jesus, but he warns them too.  They should not be proud or think they're better than the Israelites in any way.  It's not about nationality.  No-one gets into God's family except through coming humbly to Jesus and receiving grace from God.  Paul uses the example of a vine to describe how anyone from any nation can be 'grafted in' or adopted into God's family through trusting and following Jesus.  Paul wants there to be no division based on heritage, nationality or anything else other than Jesus.  It's Jesus that makes people part of God's family.  It's all about him.  No-one should be proud.  Everyone should be humble.

Paul wonders in amazement at God's plans.  Will large numbers of people come to know Jesus because of the witness and example of unlikely Christians?  Absolutely!  God is in the business of rescuing all sorts of people from sin and sometimes a person stuck in religion or pride will and trust and follow Jesus because they see him rescuing and restoring drug addicts, prostitutes and killers.  It happens!

Paul has spent 11 chapters explaining and unpacking the good news of Jesus and now he's bursting with worship to God and at the end of this chapter, he lets it fly.  I wonder if you could use Paul's words here as part of your own worship today.  And if not, what would it take for you to see God this way?

Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!
    How unsearchable his judgments,
    and his paths beyond tracing out!
‘Who has known the mind of the Lord?
    Or who has been his counsellor?’
‘Who has ever given to God,
    that God should repay them?’
For from him and through him and for him are all things.
    To him be the glory for ever! Amen.