In this chapter, Paul delves into the nuances of salvation being now available for all people, instead of just the Israelites as has been the case for generations. Some Jews may have supposed that since God is now offering salvation to Gentiles through Jesus, that the Jews had lost their chance since they neglected countless opportunities to have the right relationship with God. To help make and support his points, he pulls from as many as five different old testament passages, starting with Elijah from I Kings 19. In verses 14 and 18, Elijah and God have an exchange where the disobedience of Israel is recognized, yet God makes it clear that there is still a faithful remnant preserved to honor and glorify God.
Paul makes this point easily and obviously for a couple of reasons. For one, a story about the major prophet Elijah to incredulous Jews would have increased the credibility of the idea that God has not forsaken the faithful of Israel. A second reason is that the Jews referenced in I Kings 19:18 (who had not worshipped the false god Baal) represent a commonality in the faithful of God’s original people. For there were still a number of Jews that worshipped and honored God properly and without all of the self-effacing and hypocritical methods we read about in the gospels. Paul is appealing to those believing Jews (aka the remnant) whose hearts were fertile for news of the great Messiah that was prophesied. These believing Jews can rightly and easily access God’s grace through His Son. This grace is precious, and would have been a new concept to the Jews, who have been obeying God on the basis of works alone for generations. By invoking the example of the revered prophet Elijah and also using himself as an example (“For I also am an Israelite, of the seed of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin”), Paul is attempting to persuade faithful Jews to Christ.
To help support his point, Paul quotes from Isaiah 29, Deuteronomy 29, and Psalm 69 in verses 8 and 9 of Romans 11. These passages describe the state of those Jews that lost their way. The passage in Isaiah describes the Jews’ departure from God, that both God and Israel played a part:
“For the Lord has poured out on you the spirit of deep sleep, and has closed your eyes, namely, the prophets; and He has covered your heads, namely, the seers…“Inasmuch as these people draw near with their mouths and honor Me with their lips, but have removed their hearts far from Me, and their fear toward Me is taught by the commandment of men…”” Isaiah 29:10, 13
Then, in Psalm 69:22-23, he uses the words of David to show the result of their estrangement from God, as is the case for us all: “Let their table become a snare before them, and their well-being a trap. Let their eyes be darkened, so that they do not see; and make their loins shake continually.”
Paul is telling those Jews that would believe in Jesus that their state and also their fate is part of a larger plan of God over generations. There is a fear and hopelessness that comes when we live apart from God, particularly after we have already come to know and obey Him. But God singled out and punished the Jews, leaving them in darkness and fear. Some Jews were faithful, but these verses in Psalms call out those Jews that forsook God and all of His statues and commandments.
With knowledge comes power, and Paul is attempting to empower those Jews that still believe in God and tend towards faith in Christ. Through understanding their faith-heritage in the written context of respected men like Elijah and David, the Jews reading the letter to the Romans would have been enlightened. By quoting these verses to them, Paul is revealing the permission space to believe the words of Jesus.
Ending the first ten verses of this chapter, let us consider that all of the context of the history of the Jews’ disobedience to God and the penalties it incurred would also have been very enlightening to newly converted Gentiles. Understanding these themes would have helped them to understand the plight of the Jews and could have created compassion towards them. In essence, Paul is explaining the equal playing field of salvation that God has created through Jesus Christ, with a particular concentration on the Jews.
Verse 11 suggests that beyond the strong and simple desire to be saved, the Israelites have other motivations to be saved as well. The Gentiles’ access to salvation provokes jealousy in the hearts of the Jews, and Paul insinuates that the jealousy could spur them on to belief in the true Savior.
In verse 13, Paul pivots a bit to speak directly to the Gentiles on the subject of their now having access to God. To illustrate the condition, he uses the olive tree and the ideas of grafting on and breaking off branches. It is a simple but effective device. The newly grafted on branches are the Gentiles, whose belief in Christ saves them. The broken branches are those Jews that eschew Christ. The roots are the same, always having been God, from whom all blessings, truth, and goodness flow. Paul concentrates on the attitude and behavior of the Gentiles in respect to the Jews in verse 18: “do not boast against the branches. But if you do boast, remember that you do not support the root, but the root supports you.” Boasting is off limits here no matter the case; the idea of boasting against God is anathema. The resulting condition of the newly believing convert ought to be gratitude and fear, not pride and haughtiness.
Reading on, we see that even those Jews that had left God can return to Him through Christ in verse 24: “For if you were cut out of the olive tree which is wild by nature, and were grafted contrary to nature into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these, who are natural branches, be grafted into their own olive tree?”
Paul begins the conclusion of chapter 11 by quoting from Isaiah 59:20-21, making the point that the Gentiles have all obtained mercy through the disobedience of Israel. Indeed, the sins of Israel are taken away through Jesus, but their disobedience opens up the door for mercy; such is the nature of God. If Israel had accepted Christ absolutely, there would not have been the need for mercy. But, since many rejected Him, God’s mercy is needed for reconciliation and those at first disbelieving Jews can access God through Christ by the same mercy that blesses the Gentiles.
These are not simple concepts, the deep things of God rarely are. The conclusion, then, is fitting. As Paul quotes from both Isaiah 40:13 and Job 41:11, he makes it clear that God’s mind is unknowable. The mystery of Christ was unknown for generations, and no one could have predicted it. God’s decisions to bless and punish then, too, are righteous and appropriate, but still can remain mysterious to those that experience them. No one is in the place to predict or to aid or to charge God. He is everything, and our gratitude and fear should follow:
“”For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has become His counselor?” “Or who has first given to Him and it shall be repaid to him?” For of Him and through Him and to Him are all things, to whom be glory forever. Amen.”