Paul’s intentions in Romans 11 are hotly debated. A pivotal question is the relationship between Israel and the church. Are God’s intentions for Israel relayed to the church? Or do God’s promises to Israel remain Israel’s alone?
In the larger context of Paul’s writing it seems clear that the promises made to Israel are not founded merely on natural inheritance. Paul has already said “For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. Nor because they are his descendants are they all Abraham's children. On the contrary, ‘It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.’ In other words, it is not the natural children who are God's children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham's offspring” (9:6-8). Romans 11 is about a remnant within Israel who do go beyond the parameters of their religion to find God, and he cites himself as an example (11:1). This is because of God’s sovereign grace by which our opportunities are not simply limited by our choices, but by God’s grace. God’s grace does not dictate our choices, but it does not easily allow our selfish choices to obstruct the flow of God’s blessing into our lives. When Elijah complained that he was the only one in Israel who remained faithful to Yahweh he was told there were 7000 others who had not bowed to Baal, and God would not facilely categorize those along with the children who continued to rebel. We have all rebelled and all deserve the same judgement of wrath, but because of the grace of God we find ourselves basking in God’s favor.
The original context of Paul’s quotes again makes it clear that the blindness and deafness that Paul attributes to Israel (11:8f) was not the result of God’s choosing. The tone of Deuteronomy (29:4) and Isaiah (29:10) is that in spite of all God has done to show Israel a better way God has not yet gotten through to their stubborn hearts and minds to turn them from their selfish ways.
Even in the face of the continued rebellion of the people of Israel Paul says they are even now not beyond hope. Yahweh still stands ready to redeem those who will come to Him for salvation. The failure of Israel to be the instrument that channels God’s blessing to the nations results in God’s direct action to do so. This should generate a certain jealousy among the Israelites that prompts them to return to the God who had first called them to be the intermediaries of that blessing. How much richer would the entire world be if the objects of God’s mercy and the channels of that mercy could be united in their appreciation of the bounty of that salvation! Given the way that trouble in the Middle East reverberates around the globe it takes no great imagination to understand how such unity could multiply the dividends of such peace and harmony.
This promising and encouraging discourse is followed by stern warnings regarding presumptuousness in one’s evaluation of one’s position in relation to God. If those who were God’s original choice to be the instruments of His blessing can find themselves under a judgement of wrath by the God whom they claim as their special benefactor, then we must never presume to be beyond that risk ourselves. It is always only by grace that we stand in God’s favor. The moment we begin to find satisfaction in our own structures for salvation our security is fatally compromised. Our only hope is God’s grace.
In fact, it is because of God’s grace that all people are bound over to disobedience (along with Adam), so that now God can have mercy on all people (because of the work of Christ 11:32). The enormity of this grace on God’s part calls forth the only available response from Paul - a doxology of thanks and praise to God whose salvation is beyond understanding. If our soteriology does not evoke the same response from us then we miss the point.
In view of this magnificent salvation Paul tells us that offering our bodies as a living sacrifice to the God who offered Himself as our sacrifice is eminently reasonable, and it is our spiritual act of worship. Offering our bodies is a spiritual act of worship. How this is done is fleshed out in the rest of Romans. It is done by living a life consumed by an authentic love that permeates our actions in our communities with our neighbours, with political authorities, and in our communities of faith when we run into fundamental disagreements regarding right and wrong. In the latter Paul enjoins a profound integrity that neither runs roughshod over the convictions and dearly held opinions of others, nor allows one’s own values to be facilely disregarded.
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 counselor?”
“Who has ever given to God,
that God should repay him?”
For from him and through him and to him are all things.
To him be the glory forever! Amen.