Good News for all Peoples
When I preached here in June we looked at the promises made by God to Abraham and his descendants, promises that God would make them into a great nation and bless them so that they would be a blessing. As you read through the Old Testament, you see God fulfilling these promises through the nation of Israel, through the people who have come to be known as Jews.
Today we jump from Abraham’s time some two thousand years into the future, we jump over the Old Testament and into the New, landing in Paul’s letter to the Romans, chapter 11 which at first sight is all about the Jews and what has happened to God’s promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, now that, following the death and resurrection of Jesus, Christianity has begun to spread through the world.
But I don’t see Romans 11 as being primarily about the Jewish people or what God is doing amongst non-Jews, that is gentiles. Rather this chapter is about a gracious God whose heart is such that he does not give up on people, it’s about the very character of God. The previous chapter ended, “But concerning Israel he says, “All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and obstinate people.” That’s the message that Paul wants these Christians in Rome to hear about God, that God holds out his hands to a disobedient and obstinate people. That’s Gods sovereign grace, his undeserved loving kindness that never fails, it can’t be stopped. God keeps his promises to his people. So primarily this chapter is about what God does in the face of human hard heartedness. And if we want encouragement as we seek to be a Church and to be Christians in a world that wants to reject God, then we need to understand the message of Romans 11
To set the scene, in Romans chapters 1-8 Paul has explained how God’s word is all about Jesus, all about forgiveness in Christ alone. But the problem is that God made promises in the Old Testament to his people Israel, promises that all pointed to Jesus, but not all Jews have followed him. In fact, most of them appear to have rejected Jesus. So, have God’s promises failed? In Romans 9 Paul answers, “no”, it was never God’s plan to save the whole nation of Israel. Rather, God sovereignly chose to bring people into relationship with himself, because you’re saved by His grace, not by your nationality. In Romans chapter 10, Paul tells us that it is faith in Jesus that makes people right with God. So, the way that a person comes to be one of God’s people is by trusting in God’s word about Jesus. And the Jews – they’d heard that word about Jesus, but a lot of them have chosen to reject it. So, is God going to keep his promises in the face of that rejection. And what is God going to do when people don’t believe him? Will he just give up on them?
Well, Paul answers these questions in chapter 11 “I ask then: Did God reject his people? By no means!” And here’s the first thing we need to see this morning. God’s sovereign grace never loses those he chooses. Paul gives two bits of evidence for this, look at me he says, “I am an Israelite myself, a descendant of Abraham, from the tribe of Benjamin”. I’m a kosher Jew, and I’ve become a committed Christian. What’s more, I’m the apostle to the Gentiles.
And here’s more evidence from the history of Israel “God did not reject his people, whom he foreknew. Don’t you know what the Scripture says in the passage about Elijah–how he appealed to God against Israel: “Lord, they have killed your prophets and torn down your altars; I am the only one left, and they are trying to kill me”? After the victory on Mt Carmel Queen Jezebel threatened to kill Elijah who cried out to God, “I am the only one left, and they’re seeking my life.” And God’s answered, “I have reserved for myself seven thousand who have not bowed the knee to Baal.” Elijah, you think there’s only you left, but I’ve got seven thousand.” God never loses those he chooses. God’s grace is more than abundant. Elijah wasn’t the only one left, God had a remnant. And Paul says that’s the same today, there is a remnant, chosen by grace. And why, “If by grace, then it is no longer by works; if it were, grace would no longer be grace.” In other words, it’s God’s free, undeserved, loving kindness. God chooses people, and he does not lose them. For Gods sovereign grace is bigger than people’s sin. That’s why God’s people are never defined by being a particular race or group or church. God’s people are never defined by being more morally upright or being a bit nicer than other people. These things do not define God’s people. God’s people are always defined by God’s gracious choice. He chooses them and brings them to himself, and God never loses those he chooses.
That should be great news to us because it can be easy to feel helpless like Elijah in our present-day world. To say, well what’s going on Lord? You’ve brought us together as a church here in St Martins and have given us the good news about Jesus that’s supposed to change people’s lives and we’re doing all we can, but frankly we aren’t seeing many lives being changed. But God saves those he saves because he chooses them by grace. It’s not the intensity of our efforts that causes people to follow Jesus. It’s by grace alone, and nothing can change that. And that’s great news because God’s grace is far, far bigger than our efforts. His plan is far, far bigger than our timescale, and he will keep on working despite our feelings of despair and defeat and struggle for he is the God who holds out his hands all day long to obstinate and disobedient people. His grace always triumphs in the face of hard hearts.
But that doesn’t mean that the rejecting Jesus isn’t serious. It’s extremely serious. Hear what Paul says about the Jews who have rejected the Good News about Jesus “What then? What Israel sought so earnestly it did not obtain, but the elect did. The others were hardened, as it is written: “God gave them a spirit of stupor, eyes so that they could not see and ears so that they could not hear, to this very day.” Paul takes two Old Testament quotes, and he makes a serious point. That if you keep on rejecting Jesus, God will give you over to the path you choose. He’ll let you have what you want. If you harden your heart to his love, he will harden your heart to his love as well. He confirms that hardness in you. The second quote is from King David, the words of God’s chosen King, who speaks of judgement on his own people, offering little hope for Israel. “May their eyes be darkened so they cannot see, and their backs be bent forever.” While God never loses those he chooses, don’t think that means that you can go on spiritual cruise control, that you can harden your heart to him. No, if you reject him, that’s very serious. Don’t presume there’s a way back.
This raises another question, “Did Israel stumble so as to fall beyond recovery? Not at all!” God’s sovereign grace means he never loses those he chooses, but it also brings beautiful humility. “Because of their transgression, salvation has come to the Gentiles to make Israel envious. But if their transgression means riches for the world, and their loss means riches for the Gentiles, how much greater riches will their fulness bring. Do you see the three stages. The Jewish people reject Jesus. That drives the message of God’s saving love in Christ all over the world to the Gentiles. The Jews see the life of the Christians and they become envious of what they have, resulting in their trusting in Jesus, thus fulfilling God’s promises to them. And that’s seen through this section, indeed throughout the New Testament. Remember that it’s the Jewish religious leaders who reject Jesus and have him crucified. But as Jesus is raised up on the cross to die for sin, he draws people from all over the world to experience God’s love and forgiveness through him. In the book of Acts, Paul goes first to the synagogues to explain the good news of Jesus to the Jews, but when they reject it, he’s goes to the marketplace and the squares taking the good news of Jesus to the gentiles. You see, God’s grace is so vast that he uses his people’s rejection, and hard heartedness to save the world. You have to be extraordinary powerful to be able to use those who oppose you for your purposes, but that’s what God is doing. And if God can save people from all over the world through the rejection of the Jewish people, just think what he’s going to do through Jewish people coming to trust in Jesus. In fact, Paul says that’s what drives him in explaining the good news. “I am talking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch as I am the apostle to the Gentiles, I make much of my ministry in the hope that I may somehow arouse my own people to envy and save some of them.” So, Paul goes to the Gentiles, so that they come to know Jesus, so that the Jewish people see how great Jesus is and turn to follow him. “For if their rejection is the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead?”
In verses 16 to 20 Paul seeks to humble us who don’t have Jewish origins, reminding us that we were born on the wrong side of the track, and yet God in his mercy has given us the promises he gave to his people. And he does this by using a horticultural illustration. The quality of an olive tree depends on where its roots are, the quality of the fruit depends on the branches. For us here today, most, or all of us are not from a Jewish background, but we are trusting the promises of God, promises rooted in the Old Testament and given to the Jewish people. The fruit in our lives is bursting out from the promises that God gave to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. So, says Paul, we shouldn’t be arrogant or think we’re better than them. “If some of the branches have been broken off, and you, though a wild olive shoot, have been grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing sap from the olive root, do not boast over those branches. If you do, consider this: You do not support the root, but the root supports you.” A little bit of technical gardening jargon. When you graft an olive tree, you cut off a small branch of an olive tree and carefully attach it to another olive tree and if you do it correctly the grafted branch starts to grow and takes the sap from the healthy olive tree its now attached to and eventually the grafted branch produces fruit. Paul tells us non-Jewish people, that God’s cut off a branch of people who have rejected him, but he has taken us, branches from a wild olive tree, and grafted us into his cultivated olive tree, he’s grafted us into his people, so that we can bear fruit. But remember where your sap comes from. Remember where the roots are. We’ve been grafted in. They’re not our promises by right. They weren’t spoken to our nation, so we’re hugely privileged. Just because we have come to trust in Jesus doesn’t make us better than the Jewish people. Rather it’s a gift of God’s grace. And if he can do that for us, he can just as easily take the natural branches he has broken off and also graft them back into his people. Remember that Jesus was a Jew. He was the Jewish Messiah. He fulfilled the Jewish law. Don’t think that in some way being a Christian makes us better people than Jewish people. The only difference is that we have faith in Christ. “The Jews were broken off because of unbelief, and you gentiles stand by faith. Do not be arrogant but be afraid.” The fact that God’s Old Testament people, the Jews, can receive His promises and then reject him should make us tremble. It should make us fearful that we would do the same thing and so cause us to take it as a warning. “For if God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either.” Don’t forget, everything we have is because of God’s kindness and grace to us. “Consider therefore the kindness and sternness of God: sternness to those who fell, but kindness to you, provided that you continue in his kindness. Otherwise, you also will be cut off.” If you’re a Christian here this morning, you must remember that your trust in Jesus is not about you, it’s about God’s kindness and grace to you. The kindness of a stern God who by nature judges people who reject him. And the only thing that that makes a difference between you and anyone else is that he has lavished his kindness and love upon you. Which is why we must turn from any sense of self-righteousness, any sense of superiority, any sense that we’re better than anyone else. No, we simply have a God who’s been kind to us. Note the repetition, in verse 18, “do not boast”. Verse 20, “do not be arrogant.” Verse 25, “do not claim to be wiser than you are”. We are hugely privileged, and we must not lose sight of that because there is probably no greater danger in the Christian life and following Jesus than presuming on God’s grace. What does it look like to presume on God’s grace? It’s when we start to be quicker to spot faults in others than in ourselves. Faults in their doctrine, faults in their lifestyle. It’s when we’re quicker to put others down than to build them up. It’s when we don’t daily feel, I desperately need Jesus, that my relationship with God is only because I trust in Jesus today. We should tremble before God, amazed that he loves us, outsiders by nature, grafted into promises that are not ours by right. And that’s the heartbeat of the deeply attractive church that Paul says will draw other people in. A church that’s so sold out on God’s gracious love in Jesus that it has a tangible humility. A church that loves others and does not look down on them. That forgives one another because they see their own faults. That melts hearts that are hardened to the message of Jesus Christ. A church of soft-hearted people who know they totally depend on God’s grace.
God sovereign grace never loses those he chooses, God’s sovereign grace brings beautiful humility, thirdly God’s sovereign grace will save all his people. “I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers, so that you may not be conceited: Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in.” God has hardened the Jews so that the message will go out to the gentiles till they have accepted Jesus and become Christians for “In this way all Israel will be saved.” Now Romans 11:26 is one of those verses that lots of Christians have disagreed about. What does it mean that all Israel will be saved? Most probably it’s that before Jesus comes back to judge, all the Jews that God wants to bring to trust in Jesus will trust in him. This could be in an intense event just before Jesus returns to judge the world, or it could be happening all the time now, as people seek to share Jesus with the Jewish nation. But God’s not going to lose any of his people either from the Gentiles, or from the Jews. And that’s the nature of his persistent grace. As Paul says, “As far as the gospel is concerned, they are enemies on your account; but as far as election is concerned, they are loved on account of the patriarchs.” So, the good news about Jesus goes to the world. God used the Jews. But in terms of his chosen people, they still have God’s promises given to Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, and he does keep his promises, he will bring them in. “For God’s gifts and His call are irrevocable.” So, when God calls you, he calls you, and he doesn’t give up on you. He doesn’t give up on his word of promise.
In 55 days, in case you hadn’t realised, there is a general election. Political parties across the spectrum are making promises of what they’ll do if we vote them into power. But can those promises be kept? There are probably two reasons why politicians can’t keep their promises. One, their character isn’t up to it, they just don’t care. Or two, they’re not powerful enough, they’re just not able to do it. But God’s promises are utterly trustworthy. His character is one of persistent love. He is gracious, and he never loses those he chooses. As to his ability he even uses the rejection of people to take his good news to the world so that he will save everyone he wants. Therefore, Paul can say “For God has bound all people over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.”
At the heart of God’s plan is his merciful heart. It’s his nature to order the world so that people are saved by His mercy. No one can possibly think they’ve done anything to deserve a relationship with their loving heavenly Father. All we are, is disobedient, whether we’re gentiles who never knew his promises, or Jews who knew his promises and have rejected him. All people that come to a relationship with God, do so only because of His mercy. You need mercy. I need mercy. Without mercy everyone is lost, disobedient and deserving punishment. Mercy is the only door back into a relationship with God. It flows out of his character, and it’s a door only he can open. And that should move us to worship, whatever our background, whoever we are. And so. Paul bursts out into praise because he realises that there is nothing that happens in our world that is good, that is not the result of God’s mercy and love towards us.
So, Paul finishes with praise based on Isaiah 40 and Job 41, two chapters that are about how enormous God is compared to us. Who knows everything that God’s planned. No-one. Who’s ever given God advice. No-one. Who’s ever helped God out when he’s been caught short? No-one. God gives us everything we have. We are not Gods councillor, he is ours. We’re not Gods creditor, he is ours. And that’s because we are not Gods creator, he is ours. Our chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. The purpose of the world is not that you and I feel good about ourselves, but that we see how good, how gracious, and how glorious God is. The purpose of the world is not that we get our own way, but that we enjoy seeing God work out his ways amongst us and through us. The purpose of the world is not that we can love ourselves, but that we know that we are loved by God through Christ despite ourselves, that we see that all that there is, is for His glory and we burst out in praise, as the Apostle Paul does. You see, Romans 11 is good news for us and all people. Yes, it’s complicated, yes, it has gardening and Jewish and gentile people in it. But primarily it’s good news because it puts on the throne of the universe a loving heavenly Father who gives His own Son for us and brings that to bear on our hearts by the power of his Spirit, a God who will not give up on working out his plan for his people. A God who never loses those he chooses. That is why Romans 11 is such good news.