Has God Rejected Israel? Romans 11:1-10
That’s the question the Apostle Paul posed as he opened the 11th chapter of Romans. For nearly two thousand years, many have asked the same question, and the majority of Christendom has answered, “Yes.” This affirmative response indicates that they believe all the promises given to Israel in the Hebrew Scriptures have been rescinded and transferred to the Church. However, while the majority may answer “yes” to Paul’s question with a stirring “God forbid!” In the strongest language available to Paul, he affirmed that God is not through with Israel.
During the Church age, it is obvious that, in some sense, Israel has been set aside. However, this setting aside is not final. God has not permanently rejected the Jewish people and rescinded His promises to them. In the first ten verses of Romans 11, Paul argued that, in spite of Israel’s rejection of Jesus as Messiah, God did not reject the nation. He gave three lines of evidence to prove that God has not cast away His people:
The First Line of Proof The Conversion of Paul (v. 1c)
Paul presented himself as the first line of proof that God had not rejected Israel. He wrote, “For I also am an Israelite, of the SEED OF Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin” (v. 1c). If God had rejected His people, why was Paul, an Israelite, a believer in Jesus? Paul’s conversion proved that God was not through with the Jewish people. Not only was Paul Jewish, he was a Jew with a pure pedigree. He identified himself as “an Israelite, of the seed of Abraham.” Paul was not a Jew by proselytism (a proselyte is a Gentile convert to Judaism) but by bloodline. As a physical descendant of Abraham, he was born a Jew.
In addition to his blood relationship to Abraham, the apostle Paul said he was “of the tribe of Benjamin.” Apparently Paul wanted his people to know his tribal heritage, for in Philippians 3:5 he again mentioned that he was a Benjamite. Why was this important to the apostle? After the death of Solomon, the united kingdom of the 12 tribes of Israel divided. Ten tribes, noted for their idolatry and apostasy, broke off and formed the northern kingdom of Israel. The only tribe that remained faithful to Judah in the southern kingdom was Benjamin. As a result, the tribe of Benjamin was highly respected among the tribes of Israel. Many esteemed Jews were Benjamites, such as King Saul and his son Jonathan, Esther, and Mordecai.
To be from the tribe of Benjamin was a great honor in the eyes of the Jewish people. The fact that Paul was a Benjamite strengthened his argument that God wasn’t finished with Israel. How could God reject His people when Paul, a pure Jew from an honored tribe, was a believer in Jesus? Paul was a Jew’s Jew, and his conversion was ample proof that God had not rescinded His promise of salvation to Israel.
The apostle’s conversion indicated that God wasn’t through with the nation of Israel, in spite of her unbelief. If there ever was a Jewish candidate for rejection by God because of his actions against Christ, it was Paul. In writing to TImothy, he described his precoversion behavior and ultimate salvation by stating,
Who was before a blasphemer, and a persecutor, and injurious: but I obtained mercy, because I did it ignorantly in unbelief. And the grace of our Lord was exceeding abundant with faith and love which is in Christ Jesus. This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief. Nevertheless, for this cause I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might shew forth all longsuffering, for a pattern to them which should hereafter believe on him to life everlasting. (1 Tim. 1:13-16)
Paul was a living illustration of God’s mercy and patience in saving sinners who reject Christ. If God had totally rejected Israel because they rejected Him, why would He save the greatest rejector of all? Paul presented himself as a saved Israelite to make the point that if God saved the greatest Christ-rejecting Jew, He certainly was not through saving other Jews who rejected Christ.
The Chosen Remnant (vv. 2-7)
In Romans chapter 9, the concept of the remnant was introduced as the elect minority of Jewish people who trust God as their father Abraham did. In chapter 11, Paul once again mentioned this chosen remnant as proof of God’s faithfulness to Israel. He wrote, “God hath not cast away his people whom he foreknew” (v. 2). While many people assume the word “foreknew” means to know beforehand, it actually suggests a predetermined and preplanned love relationship. The word “know” is often used in Scripture to refer to setting one’s love upon another. For example, when God said to Israel, “You only have I known of all the families of the earth” (Amos 3:2), He meant, You are the only family on the face of the earth upon whom I have set my heart. Therefore, God’s foreknowledge of His people means He chose them to be the special objects of His love. Paul’s point was that God had not broken His promises and cut off the nation He chose to be His special people.
To illustrate that God will never cast away His people, regardless of their disobedience, Paul cited a national crisis in Elijah’s day. He wrote,
Know ye not what the scripture saith of Elijah? How he maketh intercession to God against Israel, saying, Lord, they have killed thy prophets, and Dug down thine altars; and I am left alone, and they seek my life. But what saith the answer of God unto Him? I have reserved to myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to the image of Baal (vv. 2b-4).
Elijah was one of the great Hebrew prophets. He was God’s spokesman to Israel in one of the nation’s darkest hours. In Elijah’s time, the Jewish people were deeply involved in idolatry. Led by King Ahab and his wicked pagan queen, Jezebel, the nation had rejected the Lord and instituted the worship of the false god Baal as the official religion of Israel. Elijah returned to Mount Horeb, where the original covenant with Israel was made. This action, along with his statement that he was the only one left who was faithful to God, indicates that Elijah was asking God to reject Israel and begin a new covenant with him (see 1 Ki. 19:10,14).
God responded to the prophet by allowing him to witness a powerful wind, an earthquake, and a fire. These natural phenomena are well known for their capacity to kill men. Yet, the biblical record reveals that while God was not present in these natural catastrophes, He was present in a still small voice (1 KI. 19:10,14). This unusual incident indicates that while Elijah desired God to destroy Israel in judgment, God’s heart was tender toward them. With a still small voice, God reached out to Israel with His grace. Elijah thought he was the only one who had remained true to God; however, God revealed to him that a remnant of seven thousand Jewish men has remained faithful. While the nation as a whole was in unbelief, God refused to destroy Israel because of the believing remnant.
What was true in Elijah’s day was also true in Paul’s day. The apostle wrote, “Even so, then, at this present time also there is a remnant according to the election of grace” (v. 5). While national Israel had rejected Jesus as Messiah, there were many Hebrew Christians in the first century Church. Paul identified these believers as the “remnant according to the election of grace,” his point being that, just as the chosen remnant in Elijah’s day kept God from casting off Israel, the present day remnant accomplished the same thing. The chosen remnant’s presence proved that God had not rejected the nation of Israel.
The fact that there have been Jewish believers in every generation throughout the Church age indicates that God has not permanently cast away His people. When I accepted the Lord, I thought I was the only Jewish person in the whole world who had ever become a Christian. The Gentile believers I knew did little to discourage my error. For most of them, I was the first Hebrew Christian they had ever met. They would naively say things like, “Isn’t it wonderful to be Jewish and a Christian?” They tended to place me on exhibit like a one-of-a-kind species.
My well-meaning Gentile brethren should have known that God always reserves for Himself a remnant of Jewish believers. His tender, still small voice is always reaching out to save Jews. And the remnant always responds to His grace. Paul wrote, :And if by grace, then it is no more of works; otherwise grace is no more grace. But if it be of works, then it is no more grace; otherwise work is no more work” (v. 6). Unlike the majority of Israelites, the remnant trusts Christ to save them by His grace, rather than try to merit God’s favor by their good works. They understand that grace stands alone, apart from good works. Grace and works are mutually exclusive.
The Third Line of Proof The Condition of Israel (vv. 7-10)
Having explained that the remnant is saved by grace, Paul then stated the spiritual condition of the majority of Israel. He wrote, “What then? Israel hath not obtained that which he seeketh for; but the election hath obtained it, and the rest were blinded” (v. 7). The apostle declared that the mass of natural Israel was in a state of spiritual insensitivity. The word translated “blindness” is related to the Greek word porois, which is similar to our English word paralysis. It means “to cover with a thick skin, to harden by covering with a callous.1 Calloused skin is insensitive skin. It is skin which has lost its feeling, as in paralysis. The Jewish people had been made insensitive to the gospel because God has hardened them. As a result of Israel’s hardness to spiritual truth, God judicially hardened them further so that they could not believe the truth about Christ.
While this judicial hardness may, at first glance, seem unfair, it must be realized that God hardened them only after they hardened themselves. This concept of judicial hardness is not new. The Hebrew Scriptures refer to it quite often. Paul quoted from Moses and David to confirm that a chosen remnant has always existed within a God-hardened nation. He wrote,
(According as it is written, God hath given them the spirit of slumber, eyes that they should not see, and ears that they should not hear) unto this day. And David saith, Let their table be made a snare, and a trap, and a stumbling block, and a recompense unto them; Let their eyes be darkened that they may not see, and bow down their back always (vv. 8-10; cf. Dt. 29:4; Ps. 69:22-23).
Paul quoted these Hebrew prophets to prove that Israel’s rejection of Jesus did not result in God permanently setting the nation aside. Their rejection of Messiah was the consummation of their blindness and hardness of heart, not the cause of it. The Apostle John interpreted Israel’s rejection of Christ as a direct result of the hardening of God. He wrote,
But though he had done so many miracles before them, yet they believed not on him; That the saying of Isaiah, the prophet, might be fulfilled, which he spoke, Lord, who hath believed our report? And to whom hath the are of the Lord been revealed? Therefore, they could not believe , because that Isaiah said again, He hath blinded their eyes, and hardened their heart; that they should not see with their eyes, nor understand with their heart, and be converted, and I should heal them (Jn. 12:37-40).
Israel’s long history reveals that because they did not want to believe God’s truth down through the ages, God hardened them to the point that when the truth (Jesus Christ) finally stood in their midst, they could not recognize Him for who He was. The Hebrew prophets confirm that the majority of Israelites have always been disobedient and rebellious to God’s Word. Since unbelief on the part of the majority has never rescinded God’s promises to Israel in the past, their rejection of Messiah did not rescind them either.
Has God cast away His people? How could anyone ever think such a thought, when the conversion of Paul, the chosen remnant, and the condition of Israel prove otherwise?
- Linguistic Key to the Greek New Testament, Fritz Rienecker, Cleon Rogers.