Lesson 11: God’s faithfulness (11:1-36)


Chapter 11 now brings to a climax the question concerning God’s faithfulness to Israel (9:6). In the previous two chapters, Paul answered this question in two ways: first, by describing God’s sovereign free will in choosing whom to bless and, second, by describing Israel’s unfaithfulness, thereby making them accountable for their rejection of God. 

 In this chapter, Paul gives two more answers showing God’s faithfulness to Israel: First, by preserving a faithful remnant within Israel, not only in the past (Old Testament) but in the present (time of Paul until now); secondly, by prophesying God will bring, at a future time, “all Israel” to salvation. Paul then ends this entire section (chapters 9 through 11) with a doxology of praise and worship. The outline of the chapter is as follows:

1.      God continues to be faithful to national Israel despite its unfaithfulness (11:1a & 2a)

2.      God’s past and present faithfulness to Israel in keeping a remnant (11:1-10)

3.      God will continue to be faithful to national Israel in the future (11:11-32)

a.     The importance of Israel’s salvation for the Gentiles (vv. 11-24)

b.     The mystery of Israel’s salvation (vv. 25-32)

4.      Doxology: In praise of the sovereignty of God (11:33-36)

So, God’s righteousness is vindicated by his plan of salvation for both the Jews and Gentiles.

God’s continued faithfulness to Israel (11:1a & 2a)

Paul had charged Israel for “stumbling over the stumbling stone” (9:32) and “being ignorant of the righteousness of God,” trying to establish “their own righteousness” and “not submitting to God’s righteousness” (10:3).  Paul goes on to say, Israel has “not all obeyed the gospel“ (10:16) even though they knew (10:18) and understood the gospel (10:19).  Paul concludes this indictment by quoting Isaiah, who states, Israel is “a disobedient and contrary people” (10:21).  It is not unexpected, therefore, for Paul to asks, “then, has God rejected his people?” Possibly surprising, then, Paul answers with a resounding, “By no means!”.

He repeats this assurance in the next verse, “God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew.” In both affirmations, “his people” refers to ethnic Israel.  However, Paul qualifies “his people” by adding “whom he foreknew.”[1] Does this mean, there are God’s people, Israelites, whom he did not foreknow? Many commentators view this as a restricting clause refering to a remnant within Israel. Others think Paul is referring to all of national Israel as a whole as he did in 9:1-5 (see also Amos 3:2).[2] This affirmation reflects both Psalm 94:14 and 1 Samuel 12:22. However, Paul now elaborates on this answer by referring to a faithful remnant rather than the nation as a whole (vv. 1b-10).  So “foreknew” refers to a remnant chosen for salvation.  Although Paul’s focus is on a remnant, Schreiner points out, “the preservation of the remnant functions more explicitly in an anticipatory way: the preservation of the remnant signifies that God isn’t finished with his people and thus will fulfill his saving purposes and save Israel in the end.”[3] The remnant acts as an implicit lesser-to-greater argument for God’s faithfulness to Israel (11:25-32).

God’s past and present faithfulness to a remnant within Israel (11:1b-10)

vv. 1b-5 God preserves a faithful remnant

In these verses, Paul provides four proofs God would never forsake his people.[4] First, Paul gives a personal reason why God has not rejected Israel. He states, “I myself am an Israelite.” As a Jew, Paul is proof God has not rejected his people. He makes this emphatic by emphasizing he is a “descendant of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin.”  Like the remnant in the Old Testament, God has maintained a remnant to this present day.  Paul is an individual member of this remnant.

The second reason is theological. God does not reject “his people whom he foreknew.” As mentioned, these are the faithful Israelites who placed their hope and trust in God.  God speaking through Jeremiah, states: “Thus says the Lord: If you can break my covenant with the day and my covenant with the night, so that day and night will not come at their appointed time, then also my covenant with David my servant may be broken so that he shall not have a son to reign on his throne, and my covenant with the Levitical priests my ministers” (Jeremiah 33:20-21). This covenant promise was ultimately fulfilled in Christ.

The third reason is biblical. Paul appeals to the story of Elijah when after his victory at Mount Carmel, he was overcome with fear. Elijah thought he was the only faithful Israelite left, but God tells him, “I have kept seven thousand men” (v. 4; 1 Kings 19:18) faithful to himself. 

Paul then gives a fourth reason.  As in the time of Elijah, “so too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by God.” And, as we have already seen, Isaiah also predicted, that “a remnant of them will be saved” (9:27).  This current “remnant” are Jews who had accepted Jesus as their Messiah and the gospel as the way of salvation. Luke tells us, “three thousand souls” came to faith on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:41), and later on, “five thousand“ more came to faith (Acts 4:4). Also, James tells us, there were “many thousands” who were believing Jews (Acts 21:20).  Those whom God “foreknew” have also been “chosen.

v. 6

Paul’s reference to “no longer” in verse 6 should not be understood as temporal; that is, at one time God chose on “the basis of works,” but now he chooses on the based of “grace.”  Instead, it should be viewed as logical.[5] God never chose the remnant based on good works. In Elijah’s time, God did not keep the “seven thousand men” because they had “not bowed the knee to Baal” rather, it was God who kept them from bowing. Paul is pointing out that there is no kind of work (works of the law or otherwise) resulting in God’s electing grace.

In verses 5 through 7, Paul’s emphasis is entirely on the grace of God in choosing a remnant for himself. Although Paul is speaking of the remnant in Israel, this teaching applies to all believers. It is not an esoteric theological question but a profoundly practical one. Works, including our ability to choose and worship Christ, cannot be mixed with grace. The reason is, if we include our choice of God with God’s choice of us, we rob God of his glory; that is, it diminishes the perfect work of the cross. Our ability to love God is only because he first loved us (1 John 4:10). It is also practical because if we base our salvation on our ability to have faith in Christ, then we can never be sure we have sufficient faith. Our faith is often so weak. It also leaves open the question of losing one's faith and, then, losing salvation.  But, if we base our salvation entirely on God's sovereign, loving faithfulness, we have complete assurance he alone will carry us through to the final day (Philippians 1:6). 

vv. 7-8

Given that God has preserved a remnant, Paul asks, “what then?” Why are there now so few Jewish believers?  He concludes, Israel, as a whole, had “failed to obtain what it was seeking.” What Israel had been seeking was justification before God.  But it had done so on their own terms and not by submitting to God’s way (10:3, 16, 18, 21).  However, like Elijah and the seven thousand and Paul and the many thousands, “the elect obtained it.”  So, the reference to “the elect” here does not refer to Israel as a whole but the faithful remnant of Israel within Israel. This was the “remnant chosen by grace” (v. 5).  The remaining Israelites, “the rest,” like Pharaoh, had their hearts “hardened.”

Paul has shown from Scripture that God preserved a few faithful people, but now he proves from Scripture that the rest were apostate. In verse 8, he combines Isaiah 29:10 with Deuteronomy 29:4. In the first line, Isaiah says, God has given Israel a “spirit of stupor,” meaning they have had no spiritual sensitivity to God’s word. Israel was so committed to sinning, that when they heard Jesus and the gospel, they could not receive him. Instead, his message drove them further away from him.

The second and third lines in the biblical quote refer to Moses telling the Israelites the same thing. In the Old Mosaic covenant, the gracious enabling power to obey God by the Holy Spirit was not fully given to them. Only a few whom God called received it. But now Christ has come and inaugurated the new covenant, and God’s promise that he already gave during the old covenant has come true. These promises were given to Jeremiah, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts” (Jeremiah 31:33). And to Ezekiel, “I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes” (Ezekiel 36:27). Because of Christ, both Jews and Gentiles can now “walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (8:4).

However, Paul states that this condition of spiritual insensitivity continues to exist even “down to this very day.”  This day was the time of Paul, but it will continue until “the fullness of the Gentiles has come in” (11:25). This certainly does not mean every Jew is like this. Paul himself is a counter-example. There continue to be those Jews who accepted and believed in Jesus, so there continues to be the necessity to evangelize (10:14-16).

Paul has portrayed the remnant in these verses as God’s faithfulness to Israel.  However, this does not exhaust his faithfulness, as we will see in 11:26-29. Instead, the very fact there is a remnant, proves God has not rejected his people. The “hardening” (v.7) Paul referred to is, therefore, not a permanent hardening (11:25).

vv. 9-10

Paul quotes Psalms to prove his point that “the rest” (v. 7) are under the judgment of God.

And David says,

       “Let their table become a snare and a trap,

                  a stumbling block and a retribution for them;

let their eyes be darkened so that they cannot see,

                  and bend their backs forever.” (11:9-10; cited from Psalm 69:22-23)

These verses are a messianic reference Jesus applies to himself (John 15:25). The speaker is a righteous man who has experienced great injustice.  And so he prays, God’s just judgment will be given to his persecutors. In the original context, David is speaking of himself being persecuted. But here, because Jesus has appropriated the psalm to himself, Paul can reverse the application.  As Douglas Moo writes, “What David prayed would happen to his persecutors, Paul suggests, God has brought upon the Jews who have resisted the gospel.”[6]  The application is general, so there is no need to identify the meaning of the details of the quotes (e.g., “table,” etc).

God’s future faithfulness to Israel: “All Israel will be Saved” (11:11-32)

Paul’s major issue he is dealing with in chapters 9 through 11 is that most Jews have rejected Jesus as their Messiah. This was true during the life of Jesus, and it continued to be true in Paul’s day. And sadly, it has continued to be true to our day. Likely some Gentiles in the Roman church concluded that God had rejected Israel because of their stubbornness to accept his Son. However, Paul answered the opposite by giving two reasons (vv. 1-5). First, as a devoted Jew, he believed in Jesus as the Messiah. And second, not only Paul but also many other Jews had come to faith in Christ. However, Paul is not finished answering this question. Now, beginning in verse 11, he gives another reason.

The importance of Israel’s salvation (11:11-24)

v. 11a

Because the situation looks dire for most Israelites, Paul asks: “Did they stumble so as to fall beyond recovery?” (niv). Not surprisingly, Paul again responds with, “By no means!” In the previous passage (10:1-10), Paul has demonstrated that national Israel’s apostasy did not include the entire nation.  In this passage (11:11-32), Paul says that national Israel’s “fall” is also not permanent.  There will come a day when “all Israel” will be saved (11:26). 

God’s plan of salvation for the Gentiles and Jews (vv. 11-16)

This passage explains the mystery of God’s plan for the salvation of the Gentiles. It has come to them through the rejection of the gospel by the Jews.  This has resulted in Paul and others presenting the gospel outside the synagogues. What is important to remember is Paul’s reference to the Jews is as a community and not as individuals.  The same is true for the Gentiles. Later in this chapter, when Paul speaks about the restoration of Israel, he is also speaking about Israel as a community or nation, not as individuals.

vv. 11-12 God’s plan in general

Paul outlines God’s plan of salvation for the Gentiles and Jews in three sequential steps. First, Israel’s failure of the way of the righteousness of God as provided in the gospel has resulted in the gospel coming to and being accepted by the Gentiles (v. 11b).  This step has already begun, and we are in the midst of it.  Second, the salvation of the Gentiles will eventually make Israel jealous (v. 11c).  Israel will be fully included in God's elect in the third and final step.  This last step will result in an even greater benefit to the Gentile world than their rejection (v. 2).

v. 11b Rejection of the gospel by Israel meant the gospel went out to the Gentiles

It was and is a historical fact that most Jews have rejected the gospel. So, when Paul says: “through their trespass salvation has come to the Gentiles,” he gives a theological interpretation of this reality. Four times in the book of Acts, Luke records that when Paul first entered a city, he would first go to the synagogue.  Only after the Jews rejected his preaching of the gospel does he go to the Gentiles.  For example, on their first missionary journey:

And Paul and Barnabas spoke boldly, saying, “It was necessary that the word of God be spoken first to you. Since you thrust it aside and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we are turning to the Gentiles. (Acts 13:46)

The same happened during Paul’s second and third missionary journeys (Acts 14:1-2; 18:5-6). Even years later, it happened again when Paul finally reached Rome as a prisoner (Acts 28:25-28). These could have all been viewed solely as historical events. Paul, a Jew, would naturally go to a synagogue first, and when it did not work, he went to people who would accept the gospel. However, Paul views this outcome as the planned purpose of God. God used the Jew’s the stubborn rejection of Jesus, their Messiah, as the way to reach the Gentiles.

This was not a secondary plan but God’s plan from the beginning. And it is often how God works in the world. He uses the sin, transgressions and iniquity of people to bring about blessings to others. The greatest example of this is Christ’s death on the cross. An act of unimaginable evil produced salvation for the whole world. There are many examples of this throughout Christian history. The gospel has spread throughout the world because of the great sacrifice and even martyrdom of Christians. As Tertullian, an early church leader, stated, “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” This is important for contemporary believers as well. We often see God's gracious work through hard times and the most difficult circumstances.

v. 11c Gentiles’ new relationship with God will make Israel jealous

But Paul does not leave it there. He goes on to say, accepting the gospel by the Gentiles will result in the Jews becoming “jealous.” This also is God’s plan. Luke, the historian mentions, several times, this reaction by the Jews (Acts 5:17; 13:45; 17:5). In these instances, however, the jealousy resulted from Paul's success in converting Jews to Christ. This type of jealousy was envy resulting from pride and covetousness, which is a sin (1 Corinthians 13:4-5). But Paul also talks about a different kind of jealousy, a “godly jealousy” (2 Corinthians 11:2). This kind of jealousy is a zeal for Christ and his gospel. Elijah had this kind of jealousy for God (1 Kings 19:10).  The word Paul uses here in verse 11 is slightly different and refers to injustice in the sense of a husband or wife being jealous of their spouse's faithfulness.  Paul borrows from God’s declaration in 10:19 (Quoting Deuteronomy 32:21). Paul’s desire is for the Jews to see Gentiles receiving the righteousness they themselves desired, by trusting in their Messiah. And so, the Gentiles will receive all the blessings and inheritance the Jews were also seeking. As a result, jealousy will cause Jews to have a godly desire for Christ. 

It is often the case, Gentiles accept the first part of Paul’s statement but ignored the second.  Yes, salvation has come to the Gentiles because of the rejection of the gospel by the Jews.  But this happened to make the Jews jealous? This is a surprising statement. The conversion of the Gentiles is the means God will use to evangelize the Jews. The Gentile acceptance of the Jewish Messiah will result in a great benefit to the Jewish people.  

v. 12 A future revival in Israel will result in an even greater blessing for the Gentiles

Paul then adds a further third and final surprising step.  He states, blessings–Paul uses the phrase “riches for the world”–will result from Israel coming to Christ. That is, the meaning of “fullness” is the restoration of Israel to Christ and his gospel. Furthermore, when this occurs, these blessings will also be even greater than the blessing the Gentiles have already obtained through the rejection of the gospel by the Jews.  It is difficult to imagine a greater blessing than the gospel itself – righteousness with God and eternal life – but this is Paul’s prophetic description (see v. 15).

So, we can summarize God’s surprising plan of salvation for the world as follows: Israel’s rejection of the gospel results in the blessing of the gospel being preached to the Gentiles. We often think nothing could be greater. But in the future, the Gentile acceptance of the gospel will result in blessing to Israel because Israel will accept the Christ Jesus as their Lord and Saviour. And ultimately, Israel’s acceptance will result in a greater blessing to the Gentiles than when the gospel first came to them. This is hard to fathom! This should create a love and desire in all Gentile Christians to long for the conversion of Israel. Sadly, it has often been just the opposite in Church history. If only we had read these verses carefully, much pain and suffering the Christian church has inflicted on Jews could have been avoided.  

vv. 13-16 Paul's involvement in God’s plan

v. 13

Paul now relates this sequence of events to his ministry. Paul makes it clear that he is emphatically pro-Israel. Not in the sense of wanting a political or military nation but in wanting them to have all the blessings of the gospel. 

He begins by speaking to the believing Gentiles. Paul affirms Jesus appointed him as an apostle to the Gentiles (Acts 9:15; Romans 1:5; 15:16). He says, “I magnify my ministry” to the Gentiles. What he means by this statement is that he takes this ministry very seriously. He is so determined in his Gentile ministry that he hopes “somehow to make my fellow Jews jealous, and thus save some of them.” Again, this seems to be a surprising reason.

v. 14

The motivation of jealousy to become a Christ-follower does not seem very noble initially. But as already mentioned, jealousy may be understood as a desire for what is good and a hatred for anything that may damage the good. Paul wants the unbelieving Jews to emulate the believing Gentiles. Paul, therefore, hopes the Jews will see the great value and benefit of the gospel and desire it more than anything else. Also, we should not view negatively Paul wanting to “save some.”  Paul knows salvation comes from God and when the “fullness of the Gentiles has come in,” “Israel will be saved” (11:24-25). Paul views his contribution as only a part of God’s plan of salvation.

Another reason Paul’s statement is surprising is that the reason to evangelizing the Gentiles is to evangelize to the Jews (“in order to”). However, this statement implies the very close relationship between Jews and Gentiles.  We have already seen that the gospel went out to the Gentiles because of its rejection by the Jews. The coming to faith of one group is strongly tied to the coming to faith of the other.  As the fullness of the Gentiles' salvation is reached, Israel itself will be saved. Paul is working hard for this to happen.

v. 15

Paul now explicitly restates the benefits the Gentiles will experience when the Jews come to faith. But first, he states the benefits they have already received from the “rejection” of the gospel by the Jews. This may mean Israel’s rejection of the gospel or God’s rejection of unfaithful Israel.  The latter is most likely.

In any case, this rejection results in “reconciliation of the world.” The best commentary of this phrase is Paul himself in Ephesians 2:11-22.  The “world” are those Gentiles who were “separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God.”  And “reconciliation” means, Christ came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those near. For through him, we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.” Therefore, reconciliation of the world is the conversion of a great number of non-Jews throughout the world to Christ and his gospel.  This reconciliation's glorious, happy and blessed result is “life from the dead.” This phrase has been interpreted as new spiritual life (2 Corinthians 3:6; 5:17; Galatians 6:15) when we were dead in our trespasses and sin (Ephesians 2:5; Colossians 2:13).  Others have said it means bodily resurrection after physical death.  Given the context, it seems much more likely it is the former.  However, as Douglas Moo states, “the context suggests that this state of “life from the dead” refers to an unprecedented experience of blessing that is inaugurated by the coming of Christ at the end of history.”[7]

v. 16

Paul, in this verse, uses two metaphors to illustrate his concern for the future conversion of Israel. However, the exact meaning has had different interpretations.  It seems best to view “firstfruits” and “root” as the patriarchs of Israel: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.[8] When first fruits were offered, they were regarded as consecrating the whole harvest (Leviticus 2:1-14). So, God’s choice of the patriarchs meant that the whole nation of Israel – the “whole lump” and “branches”–  became set apart  from the world for God (v. 28). Paul explains this in more detail in verse 28: “as regards election, they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers.” In this context, “election” means the descendants of Jacob.  The word “holy,” means devoted to God. Israel is a people consecrated to God. It does not mean being set apart for salvation but for them to continue being a special people in God’s eyes. Because of this special relationship, there is hope for their spiritual renewal (vv. 23-24).[9]

Gentile Christians are warned against being arrogant (vv. 17-22)

vv. 17-18 The Olive Tree Illustration

Paul now begins with an illustration of an olive tree. When Paul mentions an olive tree, his readers would have known he is speaking about Israel. Old Testament symbolism referred to Israel as a thriving olive tree (Jeremiah 11:16; Psalm 52:8; Hosea 14:6). The primary motivation of this instruction was to warn and admonish the Gentile Christians in their attitude towards their fellow Jews. To understand this illustration, we need to remember to whom Paul is referring. In the Old Testament, Israel is the olive tree, and God is the gardener. The spiritual “nourishing root” refers to the patriarchs of Israel, including all the promises made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Paul now reapplies this illustration to the New Testament people of God. 

He begins by saying, “some of the branches were broken off.[10]  This is Paul’s great anguish.  The Jews have not come into the blessings of the gospel because of God’s hardening (vv. 7-10) as a consequence of their unbelief (v. 20). However, other branches, which Paul calls “wild olive shoots,” are “grafted in among others.” These wild shoots are Gentile Christians who do not have a natural relationship with the patriarchs and God’s promises to them.[11] It is only by God’s kindness (v. 22) that Gentiles can be included and “share in the nourishing root of the olive tree.

It seems clear from Paul’s description that the “branches” broken off, which Paul later calls “natural branches” (v. 21), refer to Jews. “Wild branches,” then, refer to Gentiles.  The “nourishing root of the olive tree” is the blessings and promises to Abraham. As Thielman comments: “Contrary to expectations and solely as a matter of God’s grace, God had brought them into the sphere of Israel and enabled them to derive rich spiritual benefits from Israel’s heritage (9:4-5; 15:27; cf. Ephesians 2:11-13, 19; 3:6).”[12]  The illustration is surprising because Paul knows wild olive branches were not grafted into an old cultivated olive tree (cf. v. 24). It was, actually, the other way around. Paul’s illustration is against the natural order of things.  He does so in order to remind everyone of the surprising thing God has done by including (“grafting”) believing Gentiles into Israel.

In verse 18, Paul provides the “then” part of the “if” condition beginning in verse 17. Speaking now directly to the Gentile Christians, Paul warns them not to become “arrogant” towards the Jewish “branches.” Paul does not state whether these “branches” are believing Jews or unbelieving Jews, i.e., branches who have been broken off. It is, therefore, assumed he is referring to both.  The Gentiles should not be arrogant because they do not “support the root”; instead, “the root supports you.” The root, as before, refers to the patriarchs of Israel and the promises of God given to them. So, the root is not all Israel but the patriarchs who “continue to be the source of spiritual nourishment that believers require.”[13]  Salvation does not depend on biological descent but faith like Abraham’s. Only those “who share the faith of Abraham” (4:16)  can consider Abraham their father, who is “the father of all who believe” (4:11). 

We conclude from these verses that the Christian church is one with Israel.  There are only one new covenant people of God that includes both believing Jews and Gentiles. There is only one olive tree.  There is not one olive tree for Israel and another for the Christian church.

We can summarize Gentile Christians’ attitude to present-day Israel as follows: First, we need to remember that the root of the Christian church is Israel; that is, Abraham and the promises to him. We must not erase Jewishness from Christianity. Christianity is inherently Jewish, and Paul warns Gentile Christin to understand Israel is the foundation of God’s promised blessings. Second, we should remember our grafting is unnatural. Only by God's grace are pagan, idolatrous, polytheistic Gentiles included in his people. It is only because of our union with Christ that the wild olive branches of Gentile Christians are included in the olive tree. God has, against all natural expectations, included us in his fellowship. And third, this should make us humble. It is only by God’s all-surpassing grace that we are included. And so, we should not look at the broken branches with arrogance. Instead, we should be like Paul, whose “heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved.

vv. 19-21

Once again, someone seems to object to this line of teaching.  The objection can be stated as follows: “We agree that God in the Old Testament used Israel, but today they have rejected him. And you state that they are broken off.  We share a common root, but why should I be concerned for present-day unbelieving Israel?” So Paul now continues the allegory to reset and correct the arrogance of the Gentile Christians towards the Jews in general. The Jews had boasted of their special status and elitism towards the Gentiles and missed out on the righteousness of Christ that comes through faith.  Paul is warning the Gentiles of the same thing.  There is nothing special about the Gentiles who have faith; that is, faith is not an accomplishment in which to boast. Like all of salvation, faith is a gift from God (Ephesians 2:8-9). So Paul urges the Gentile Christians not to fall into the same error as unbelieving Israel. Instead, we are to “stand fast through faith” and not be proud, “but fear” because if we don’t, we will also find ourselves broken off.

Paul now explains what he means by “fear.” This is a severe warning to not trust in anything but the unmerited grace of God for our salvation. The Gentiles should learn from the Jews that failure to continue in faith would result in the same judgment of God. If God judged the “natural branches,” he will most certainly judge the “wild branches.”  This also warns and rebukes the Gentile Christians not to be arrogant towards Jews.

v. 22

In verse 22, Paul describes the “severity of God” against those “who have fallen.” The severity of God’s ultimate judgment and condemnation is directed at those who have fallen away from saving faith.  These are Gentiles who, like the Jews, have presumed God’s goodness (2:4-5). So they, like the Jews, will also be “cut off.”  The “if” (kjv) statement (translated “provided” in esv and niv) in verse 22 (and in verse 23) is not assumed to be true but only potentially true in the future. In New Testament teaching, salvation always depends on a continuing faith. Anyone who has renounced their faith has given up any hope of salvation (Matthew 10:22; Luke 9:62; Galatians 6:9; Colossians 1:23; 2 Timothy 4:7; Hebrews 3:6, 14; 6:4-6).

The question then is, can a genuine Christian lose their faith?  From this teaching, it certainly appears to be the case. However, it is not necessarily so. The difficulty is in the olive tree allegory. It is important not to extract more theological teaching from an illustration than was intended.  When Paul states natural branches are cut off, he refers to Jews who have never believed.  In reality, they never were part of the tree, but Paul states the allegory as if they were. So, in the same way, there are members of the Roman Christian church who might appear genuine but reject their faith in the end. Such members may not have been part of the tree in the first place.  As we have mentioned several times, it is essential not to lose sight of the fact Paul uses this illustration to warn and rebuke Gentile Christians not to become elitist and arrogant towards Jews.

All Israel, believing in Jesus by faith alone, are included in God’s kingdom (vv. 23-24)

Paul continues the olive tree illustration by stating that in his sovereignty, God can certainly graft back in the “natural branches” if they repent of their unbelief and place their hope and trust in Christ and his gospel. Just as Paul emphasized the sins of the Jews to admonish them in their boasting over the Gentiles (2:17ff), so now he admonishes the Gentiles in their boasting.

Paul, however, is not stating the Jews are in some way ”by nature” better suited for salvation than the Gentiles. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile so far as their relationship with God is concerned.  Neither is Paul stating Jews have a greater claim on God and so have an advantage in salvation.  Paul has gone to great lengths in chapters 2 and 3 to deny this.  He had concluded that Jews are not better off concerning salvation, but “both Jews and Greeks are under sin” (3:9). Paul means that the future redemption of Israel is more likely than the surprising present inclusion of the Gentiles into God’s elect.[14] Although most Jews during Paul’s time had rejected Christ, Paul is saying it is easier (“how much more”) for God to save Israel than it was to save Gentiles. Paul is unequivocal about the power of God to save even those who seem so hardened against the truth. However, it is important to note this will only happen if they “do not continue in their unbelief.” So, God’s sovereignty and human responsibility to believe are not compromised. Both truths are held simultaneously together.

The mystery of salvation for Gentiles and Israel (11:25-32)

Within the Protestant church, these verses have had two quite different interpretations. At the Reformation, most leaders did not believe Paul was speaking of a future time when there would be a great conversion of Jews.  They understood the “partial hardening” did not prevent individual Jews from coming to faith. And so, the term “all Israel” referred to faithful spiritual Israel, which included Jews and Gentiles until Christ’s return.  However, since then, as well as in the early church, another interpretation supported a remarkable time of conversion for national Israel's future. Suffice it to say there are many reasons why the latter interpretation is correct, not the least being Paul has been speaking about Jews and Gentiles throughout this passage in a corporate sense. Verse 25 makes clear, his reference to a “partial hardening has come upon Israel” refers to ethnic Israel, the Jews. And so, it is unlikely he would not change the meaning of “Israel” in the following sentence.[15]

v. 25

It would appear from this verse some Gentile Christians had a preconceived idea of why most Jews had rejected Jesus. They believed God had rejected the Jews because they had crucified Jesus. And then, when the infant church began, they severely persecuted it. Paul was involved in such persecution and later could attest to being himself persecuted. However, Paul wants to dispel the misunderstanding that the Jews' rejection of Jesus means God abandoned them. He says he does not want them “to be wise in your own sight.”  And so, Paul tells the Gentile Christians he does “not want them to be unaware” of what God is doing now in bringing about a people of God and what God will do in the future. He does not want them to be “arrogant” (v. 18) or “proud” (v. 20). Sadly, this is exactly what has often happened throughout the Christian church history.

Paul begins by calling what God is and will do a “mystery.”  The way this word is used in the New Testament means that spiritual truth is hidden or concealed, which can only be revealed through divine revelation (Ephesians 3:3f). So, when Paul uses this word here, he means this could not be understood from natural reasoning or observation but is the divine plan of God which he has kept hidden (Ephesians 3:9).  Therefore, when Paul now describes this mystery, he is doing so as a prophet.  Prophecy should not be understood as foretelling the future as history in the same way history describes the events of the past. Instead, it is a promise from God about what he will do in the future; however, the details of how this promise is fulfilled are not in view.

So, what is this mystery Paul is now revealing? When the Gentiles observed the Jews, they could see this “hardening” was “partial.” There were many Jews who had accepted Christ as their Saviour and Lord; Paul is one of the most prominent as also all the other apostles, as well as James and Jude, who were Jesus’ brothers. This partial hardening has continued until now and will continue until the time the “fullness of the Gentiles has come in.”  Although there have been many Jews who have become Christians, a great conversion had not taken place and awaits the full number of Gentiles who first must become Christians.

It is not easy to understand what Paul means by “fullness.” It does not mean that every Gentile will first become Christian. It likely means Gentiles, as a corporate body, will come to faith in large numbers (Luke 21:24).[16] At some time after the fullness of the Gentiles come to faith, Israel as a corporate body will also come to faith.  Again, the corporate reference to the Gentiles or Israel does not mean every person will come to faith.

In this verse, we see Paul describing God’s plan for salvation.  Jesus came to the Jews as their Messiah, the Jews rejected him, but the Gentiles accepted him, which will result in the Jews accepting him. The wide acceptance of Gentiles to believe the gospels does not mean God no longer has a plan for Israel. Instead, it means that the fullness of the Gentiles will result in a great conversion of the Jews, resulting in an even greater benefit to the Gentiles (v. 12).

v. 26a

Paul now states, “in this way” which means that after the full conversion of the Gentiles, “all Israel will be saved.[17] The phrase, “all Israel,” does not mean the faithful remnant has already come to faith since the time of Christ.  It means there will be a great, astonishing future outpouring of the Spirit on Jewish people before Christ’s return. As a result of this outpouring of the Spirit, a vast number of Israelites–although not every Israelite–will come to faith in Jesus.

To be clear, however, this does not mean there are two different separate peoples of God. There is only one true Church –the elect people of God –including both believing Jews and Gentiles who put their hope and trust in Christ Jesus.  When this future outpouring occurs, “all Israel” will put their faith in Christ and so be re-grafted into the one people of God; the Church of which Christ is the head (Colossians 1:18). Therefore, the purpose of salvation for the nation of Israel is not to restore her to her Old Testament theocratic glory. Instead, it is to include her again into the faithful Israel of God.

A significant objection to this understanding of “in this way” and “all Israel” is that Israel has an ethnic privilege not available to the Gentiles. It seems to contradict Paul’s emphasis that there is no longer Jew or Gentile in Christ Jesus (3:22; 4:11-12; 8:15-17; Galatians 3:28-29). N.T. Wright’s criticism, for instance, is typical.  He writes, ”this basic view always seems to fit very badly with Romans 9-10, where, following Galatians and Romans 1-9, Paul makes it abundantly clear, there is no covenant membership, and consequently no salvation, for those who simply rest on their ancestral privilege.”[18] A future large-scale conversion of ethic Israel appears to undermine Paul’s teaching on the equality of the Gospel without ethnic privilege.  How, then, can this objection be addressed?

The answer is in verse 28.  Future Israel will be saved because of the “election” promises made to the “forefathers.”  As has been made clear, the election is always a matter of grace and not one of works or privilege (3:34; 5:17, 20-21; 11:5).  It is not because of their privilege God grants grace to Israel but because of God’s grace that Israel is privileged. Abraham was granted righteousness and salvation, not because of his merit but because God chose Abraham. And Abraham responded to God’s choice with faith. In the same way, future Israel will respond to God’s choice in saving faith.  Because of God’s sovereign choice in offering grace and predestination to whom he wills, future Israel will be saved.

vv. 26b-27

To prove this prophecy (divine promise) of Israel’s conversion as true, Paul again appeals to the Scriptures. Although he only quotes from Isaiah, Paul has a more general prophecy in mind, expressed in many other passages in the Old Testament (Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 14:7; Zechariah 12:10). This prophecy is, God has promised to be Israel’s “Deliverer” and, therefore, we can be certain, he will come and save them.  The quotation from Isaiah 59:20-21 and 27:9[19] is clear that salvation is much more than a remnant since God, “the Deliverer,” will “banish ungodliness from Jacob.” Paul’s prophetic interpretation then is proven correct.  The result of this deliverance will be that God will “take away their sins.”  This is not a new or different way from the past.  Paul has made it clear throughout the letter, there is only one way to receive salvation by grace: through faith in Christ (see also Jesus’ own words in John 19:7-8; 11:25-29; 14:6).  Of course, like all prophecies, the details of how these events will unfold are not given.  We also know this from the prophet Zechariah:

“And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and pleas for mercy, so that, when they look on me, on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn. (Zechariah 12:10).

There is a day when Israel will recognize their Messiah, repent in mourning and weeping, and turn and follow him.

A glimpse into God’s divine plan of salvation (vv. 28-32)

vv. 28-29 How the Gentiles should understand Israel

Paul sums up how the gospel became available to the Gentiles. As far as the gospel is concerned, “they [Jews] are enemies for your [Gentiles] sake.” Paul does not say with whom the Jews are enemies; given the context, it is most likely the gospel and by implication, Jesus Christ. But with regard to the election of Israel, “they [Jews] are beloved for the sake of their forefathers.” This reference to election is the election[20] of national Israel; that is, it refers to the covenant promises made to Abraham and his elect descendants. The faithfulness of God is Israel’s only hope (Malachi 3:6 “For I the Lord do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed.”) This highlights in a different way what Paul has already said, “the covenant made with Abraham was inconsistent with the final rejection of the Jews as a people. God foresaw and predicted their temporary defection and rejection from his kingdom, but never contemplated their being forever excluded (see verses 15, 25-27).”[21]

However, once again, their salvation will not be based on their Jewishness or their obedience but on God’s free and gracious promise made to Abraham. Their salvation will come through faith in their Messiah, Jesus Christ who will deliver them from their sins (v. 27)

v. 29

Once God has made a promise, he is faithful to keep it and sovereign to be able to keep it despite Israel being “a disobedient and contrary people” (10:21). Having chosen Israel as a people, they will continue to remain his people. The meaning of the word “irrevocable” is to show no regret.  So, the emphasis in this verse is God has no regret in his “gifts and the calling”.  The “gifts” refer to the promises of 9:4-5. The “calling of God” is equivalent to “election.” Once again, when God calls, his calling is sure and effective.  In the New Testament, those whom God calls will have eternal life; and in the Old Testament, Israel, whom he called, will forever remain his chosen people. As in the previous verses, Paul is speaking here about the rejection and restoration of Israel as a corporate body rather than the salvation of individuals.

We might ask: on what basis will all Israel be saved?  Is it because they are Jews? Definitely not.  Is it because they will be obedient? Also, definitely not.  What then?  It is because of God’s free and gracious commitment to his promises which he made to “the forefathers” (v. 28). This salvation will be through faith in their Messiah, Jesus Christ when he comes to “take away their sins” (v. 27).  This is Paul’s answer to the question he raised earlier in his letter: “Does their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God? By by means! Let God be true though every one were a liar” (3:3-4). God does not take back or even regret his decision to choose and to bless[22].

vv. 30-31 God’s method and goal of salvation

These verses are a summary of all of chapter 11. Paul is still speaking to the Gentiles in the church.  It is no less startling a divine mystery then the first time Paul states it.  God is using Israel’s disobedience as the way to open the door of the gospel for the Gentiles.  And the great number of Gentiles being included in God’s people will one day result in God’s saving mercy coming to Israel as well.  The fourfold reference to God’s “mercy” dominates this remarkable plan of salvation. And, of course, mercy only has meaning in the justifiable condemnation of the disobedient.

v. 32 God’s judgement and mercy

If verses 30 and 31 sum up chapter 11, then verse 32 sums up the whole letter in one short sentence.  The phrase “for God has consigned all to disobedience,” refers to chapter 1 verse 18, “for the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness.” The word “consigned” means to bind, lock up, or imprison. God has revealed in the gospel that all people, Jews and Gentiles, have disobeyed God and are under his condemnation. The charge of rebellion he has against each one is inescapable. But he has done this so “he might have mercy on all” (10:12).  The word “all,zz” applies to all Israel and Gentiles in a corporate sense.

Doxology: In praise of the sovereignty of God (11:33-36)

Paul ends his question concerning Israel’s salvation and God’s faithfulness by describing the power and majesty of God’s promised plan of salvation. It is a surprising plan, not one Jews would have thought of or even understood from the Old Testament Scriptures. In this sense, it was a divine “mystery” only revealed through divine revelation. It is an expression of wonder to Paul that God has revealed this plan to him.

Moreover, God’s plan was not just for Israel but the whole world despite their rebellion against him. In all this, God remained faithful to his justice, yet his unsurpassed mercy and compassion brought salvation for all. This majestic passage is the culmination of the entirety of God’s plan of redemption, all Paul has described from the beginning of his letter. God’s plan is an overwhelming display of his wisdom, knowledge and power.  It was a plan whose ultimate goal was to bring glory to God himself. As Gentiles or Jews, it is far beyond our human knowledge or understanding.  This passage has three parts and is outlined as follows:

1.     Expression of amazement at three attributes of God: his riches, wisdom and knowledge concerning his plan of redemption (v. 33).

2.     Three rhetorical questions contrast God’s greatness with human weakness to evoke our praise and trust in him (vv. 34-35).

3.     Praise of the sovereignty of God who is the source, provider, and owner of all things (v. 36).

Few passages in all of Scripture describe so powerfully that God is all in all and, in comparison to God, mankind is nothing. Yet it is this all-sovereign God who provided a means of redemption for his people through his mercy, love, and grace.

v. 33

Paul begins the passage with “Oh!”. This is Paul’s loud cry of amazement and astonishment. He is simply overcome, contemplating the “depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God.” The word “depth” modifies the three attributes of God.[23] It means God’s riches, wisdom and knowledge are inexhaustible. God’s infinite “riches” highlights God’s glory, that is, the revealing of his infinite worth (9:23 “the riches of his glory”). As such, it refers to his sovereign power to accomplish his will in all things. God’s infinite “wisdom” then refers not only to the creation of the world (Proverbs 3:19) but also to his ability to plan salvation history in a way that all the world can experience his grace and peace (1 Corinthians 1:21; 2:6-7; Ephesians 3:10). God’s infinite “knowledge” refers to his foreknowledge of who would be included as his people (8:29; 11:2; cf. 9:6-29).[24]

Paul’s opening word in the second part of his exclamation also begins with amazement: “how!”.  (Most translations include the exclamation mark at the end of the sentence.)  Paul now compares God’s riches, wisdom and knowledge to human understanding. He does this with two parallel thoughts: “unsearchable” and “inscrutable.”  The first word, “unsearchable,” means that God’s “judgments” are beyond the ability of humans to comprehend. Judgment is a judicial term referring to the justice and mercy of God. The second word, “inscrutable,” is similar, but highlights the human inability to see how God accomplishes his plan of salvation; that is, “his ways” are beyond finding out. What Paul is referring to is his “amazement at how God has accomplished his purposes for the salvation of both Jews and gentiles and at the same time has remained faithful to his promises to Israel.”[25]  So, Paul is not only praising God for what God has revealed to him concerning salvation but also what God has not revealed to him. The great confidence of the Christian faith is not having all the answers but having God, who has all the answers.

vv. 34-35

God’s ways are unsearchable and inscrutable because humans cannot fully comprehend the depth of God’s riches, wisdom and knowledge. Paul now explains why this is so (“for”). He asks three rhetorical questions, which would all be answered with a resounding, “no one!” The questions refer to God's riches, wisdom and knowledge in reverse order.  The first question asks about the “mind of the Lord” and refers to his “knowledge.” The second question asks about being “his counsellor” and refers to God’s “wisdom.” These two questions reference the passage in Isaiah 40:9-17 and specifically verse 13. The third question asks about a human’s ability to repay God. This is a question God asks Job (Job 41:11).

Paul’s intent in giving both Gentiles and Jews this passage is to warn them of any hasty judgments on how God is working out his promises.  Too often we want to quickly understand the reasons and causes of the current world events and so come to a hasty judgment that this is the way God is working.  Paul’s words here are an admonishment to any such rash judgments.

v. 36

Paul now answers why no one can give God any advice by being his counsel. Also, no one can repay God for his glorious plan of salvation. This is because (“for”) everything is already “from him,” that is, all things originate with him. Everything is “through him,” everything occurs because of God’s sovereign ability to accomplish his will, and everything is “to him,” God is the goal of all things. All of this is the reason: everything originating with him, everything accomplished, and everything belonging to him is for his “glory.”  All things were created and are sustained and find their purpose in glorifying God.  The salvation of Jews and Gentiles is only the penultimate purpose; what is ultimate is the glory of God.  God has determined all history, particularly salvation history, is done to bring maximum glory to himself.[26]

Paul ends this passage of praise with a concluding, “Amen.” Paul began with worship in 9:5: “Christ, who is God over all blessed forever. Amen” and concludes his doxology with a matching “Amen” (v. 36)

Questions for Reflection

Study it

1.  [11:1-10] List four reasons Paul says God has not rejected his people.

2.  [11:5-7] Who are the remnant, and on what basis have they been saved? Who are the “elect” in verse 7?

3.  [11:11, 16] Based on these verses, why is Paul confident that Israel’s rejection is not final?

4.  [11:17-24] What is Paul warning the Gentiles about?  How is it similar to the warning he gave the Jews (2:12ff)?

5.  [11:11-24] Outline how the Gentiles were given the gospel.

6.  [11:25-32] What does the “mystery” in verse 25 mean? What is the ultimate future for Israel?  How does Paul use Scripture to support it? 

7.  [11:26] What does “all Israel” mean? Is Paul speaking about the salvation of individual Israelites or Israel's political and military establishment as a nation?

8.  [11:29] On what basis will Israel be saved? 

9.  [11:33-36] Why does Paul conclude chapters 9 through 11 this way?  Why is God’s judgment unsearchable and inscrutable?  What does this mean?

10.           [11:36] For whom are all things?  What does this mean?

Live it

1. Does this passage support evangelism to the Jews?

1. In what context does “mercy” have meaning in vv. 30-33?

2. On what basis were the remnant saved in the Old Testament?  So, does the Old Testament teach salvation based on faith or works of the law (cf. chapter 4)?  How does God’s consistency through the old and new Testaments encourage you?

3. Does the “depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God” encourage you?

4. How does your life glorify God (cf. v. 36)?

[1] When the word “foreknew” is attributed to God it does not just mean knowing what will happen in the future. It also means foreordained; that is, what God knows in advance will always happen because he has the sovereign power to make it happen.

[2] Moo, Romans, 692-693.

[3] Schreiner, Romans, 566.

[4] Stott, 292-293.

[5] Thielman, 517.

[6] Moo, Romans, 700.

[7] Moo, Romans, 713.

[8] Hodge, 329.

[9] Moo, Romans, 718.

[10] Verse 17 contains the condition (“if” part) and verse 18 the “then” part. This “if” statement is assumed to be true just like the other five “if” statements in verses 12 to 16.

[11] Ibid, 719.

[12] Thielman, 541.

[13] Moo, Romans, 722.

[14] Hodge, 333.

[15] However, even today, some evangelical commentators hold to the spiritual Israel interpretation including Jews and Gentiles who have put their faith in Christ.

[16] Some commentators understand “fullness” to mean that the gospel will be preached and a church established in every Gentile nation.

[17] It is possible to understand “in this way” in a causal sense rather than temporary.  That is, it is the ongoing process of salvation which is the means “all Israel” is saved.  Commentators who follow this interpretation also consider “Israel” to include all believers, Jews and Gentiles. However, we understand “in this way” to be temporal.  That is, it refers to a future time when all ethnic Israel will be mysteriously and miraculously saved.

[18] N.T. Wright, The Climax of the Covenant: Christ and the Law in Pauline Theology, (New York: T&T Clark, 1991), 246.

[19] After this quote, Isaiah 27:9, Isaiah continues in verses 12 to 13 to include the Gentiles together with Israel to worship God together.

[20] The election of Israel in the Old Testament was to show the Gentile world the glory of God, and to eventually result in the coming of Jesus as the Redeemer of the world.  Election in the New Testament, however, refers to the gospel, salvation and eternal life. These are two different meanings of election.

[21] Hodge, 338.

[22] Thielman, 550.

[23] In other translations “depth of the riches” modifies two attributes of God: wisdom and knowledge.

[24] Thielman, 553.

[25] Thielman, 553.

[26] Schreiner, Romans, 620.