One of the most common objections that I hear to belief in the God of the Bible is that the God of the New Testament seems to be a different person than the God of the Old Testament. The God of the Old Testament is often very severe. For example: a few weeks ago we looked briefly at the flood of Noah and that the fact that God elected to wipe out all of humanity because of their sin. Later, he does a similar thing to Sodom and Gomorrah. Later still, he drowns the bulk of the Egyptian army in the waters of the Red Sea. And, we could go on and on. There is horrific violence in the pages of the Old Testament, and, often, it is God himself facilitating such things or it is God directing his people to do them. This is especially the case as the Israelites come into the promised land, and God directs their army to utter destroy many cities includes all the inhabitants.
But, then we get to the New Testament, and we hear,
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.
1 John 4:16
16 And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them.
8 But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
So, a lot of people say, “how is this the same guy?” But, this question is really only based on a surface level reading of the Bible. The reality is that two core attributes of God have been prominently on display since the very beginning: his love and his justice. Think back to the garden. Think of the love and care with which God not only made the earth, but the man and the woman. Think of his consideration for them. Think of his provision for them. And, yet, how swift was his justice when they turned their backs on him. God’s love and justice have always been on display.
Today let’s consider how we reconcile those two things because we’re going to encounter both of these attributes as we look at the story of Israel through the lens of Romans 11, and ask, what exactly is God up to here?
I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! For I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. 2 God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. Do you not know what the Scripture says of Elijah, how he appeals to God against Israel? 3 “Lord, they have killed your prophets, they have demolished your altars, and I alone am left, and they seek my life.” 4 But what is God’s reply to him? “I have kept for myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal.” 5 So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace. 6 But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.
7 What then? Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking. The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened, 8 as it is written,
“God gave them a spirit of stupor,
eyes that would not see
and ears that would not hear,
down to this very day.”
9 And David says,
“Let their table become a snare and a trap,
a stumbling block and a retribution for them;
10 let their eyes be darkened so that they cannot see,
and bend their backs forever.”
Gentiles Grafted In
11 So I ask, did they stumble in order that they might fall? By no means! Rather, through their trespass salvation has come to the Gentiles, so as to make Israel jealous. 12 Now if their trespass means riches for the world, and if their failure means riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their full inclusion mean!
13 Now I am speaking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch then as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I magnify my ministry 14 in order somehow to make my fellow Jews jealous, and thus save some of them. 15 For if their rejection means the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance mean but life from the dead? 16 If the dough offered as firstfruits is holy, so is the whole lump, and if the root is holy, so are the branches.
17 But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, although a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing root of the olive tree, 18 do not be arrogant toward the branches. If you are, remember it is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you. 19 Then you will say, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” 20 That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but fear. 21 For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you. 22 Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off.23 And even they, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again. 24 For if you were cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these, the natural branches, be grafted back into their own olive tree.
I wish we had time to do a full recap of Romans today. We are now entering our sixth month of studying this letter, and so much has happened. And, there are a lot of different ways that theologians summarize this letter, but I really love Dr. Tim Mackie’s approach. He says that Paul began by reminding us that all of humanity is hopelessly trapped in sin and needs to be rescued. And, yet, God’s righteous character has moved him to rescue the world through Jesus’ death and resurrection. And, ultimately, what God is doing in the process is: he is creating a new faith-based, multi-ethnic family of Abraham as his people. And, so Paul has spent a good bit of time not only unpacking the theological concepts of Justification and Sanctification, but trying to help his multi-ethnic readers understand what God is up to.
Over the last few weeks, Paul has turned the spotlight on the Jews and asked, “are these still God’s people?” If they are, why do so many not believe in Christ? And, that is basically where we pick up today, with a question. “Has God rejected the Jews as his people?” Paul’s answer: “absolutely not.”
So, let me remind us of something we’ve already seen, and then I want to pull out three truths from this long text and wrap up by looking at small section.
First, back in chapter 9, Paul pointed out to us that God made covenant promises to Abraham, and that God has always selected a subset of the family of Abraham to carry on those promises. So, he told us of Ishmael and Isaac, Esau and Jacob, and these selections perhaps didn’t make sense on a human level. Ishmael was actually Abraham’s first born. Esau was actually Isaac’s first born. But, God blows past human traditions and conventions and does what he wants. Why did God choose these guys? Well, Paul basically says that we don’t really know except to say that that is simply what God sovereignly elected to do.
Now, we could continue in God’s selecting. Ruth…David. But, now, here’s what seems to be happening. The promise of being God’s people is passing to Jesus followers of all ethnicities rather than Jesus rejectors. Because, God so loved the whole world, not only the Jews. And, this isn’t some pivot on God’s part; Paul has shown us clearly over the last few weeks by quoting directly from the Old Testament that this has always been the plan. Even God’s original promise to Abraham was that all people would be blessed through him…not just his own people.
So, 3 key points to be made here.
- God has not rejected his people
- God can use evil for good
- God is both kind and severe
Paul makes it clear; God has not rejected Israel in the sense that salvation is unavailable to them. Now, many had rejected him, but Paul says, “just look at me.” Paul was an example of what he calls a remnant of Jews whom God had saved. And, he says, this is what God has always done. The whole of Israel has never worshipped him appropriately or followed him in obedience, but he’s always set aside a remnant, and that is true today as well.
But, Paul says, it’s because of the Jew’s rejection of Christ that the gospel of Jesus has been made available to the Gentiles. So, in other words, God has used this rejection of him for good. He has used it to accomplish his purposes, and he is constantly using evil to accomplish his purposes. This is hard for us to fathom because we naturally think that God can only use positive situations or obedient people to accomplish his purposes, but that’s simply not the case. (Political Implications)
Finally, Paul makes this fascinating statement in verse 22, “note the kindness and severity of God.” Quick word study, the Greek word that is rendered “kindness” in the ESV could also be “goodness” or “excellence.” But, then there is this word “severity.” The Greek here is “apotomia” and the literal translation is “sheerness.” So, the image is that of a cliff. You’re climbing a mountain, and you’re on solid ground, but then suddenly everything drops off. It is abrupt; it is harsh. So, God is both good, excellent, kind and he is a sudden chasm. Paul says, pay attention to that. Don’t miss it because that is who he is. God is infinitely loving, but he also doesn’t play. God creates the man and the woman and an amazing garden and cares for them, but then, because of their sin, he immediately curses them. Look at verse 17. Paul gives us the metaphor of a cultivated olive tree, one grown in a garden that is cared for by a gardener.
17 But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, although a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing root of the olive tree, 18 do not be arrogant toward the branches. If you are, remember it is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you. 19 Then you will say, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” 20 That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but fear.21 For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you.
Last week we touched on another garden narrative, the parable of the sower, and we said that a lesson of that parable and the New Testament in general is that people of true faith persevere in faith in Christ. They keep going in allegiance to Jesus. Paul’s teaching here is that the root of this olive tree is Christ. There are some natural branches of this tree, the Jews, which have been broken off. And, there are wild branches, the Gentiles, which have been grafted in. God is the gardener in this scenario. He is cultivating this olive tree, and he is making it into what he would have it be. So, Gentiles, don’t ever be arrogant about being a part of the tree, because the gardener can just as easily break you off as he grafted you in. And, if he would do that to the natural branches, you better believe he would do that to the wild branches. He is both good and severe. God is love, yes. But, God is also just, and he demands our obedience. And, his kindness and severity somehow live in harmony with each other.
What remains, though, is a hybrid tree. It is a tree that has been constructed by the gardener. The root is Christ and the original branches are Israel, but now it is this new thing. And, to further drive home the point that God has not fully rejected Israel, he says, “listen, if you can be grafted into this tree as a wild olive branch, you better believe that a natural branch can be grafted back in. Don’t discount the gardener’s ability to do this.
So, where does this leave us? God is not done growing this tree, and, as we saw last week, we should be praying for the branches that have not yet been grafted in. We should also be sharing the truth of Christ with them. Here’s how you know that a grafted branch is healthy. It not only looks healthy on the outside, but it starts to bear fruit. It sprouts a new leaf. It shoots off a new branch. It grows an apple. This is the gardener is looking for. What is your status as a grafted branch? Are you hanging there? Sickly looking? Not much happening. Or, are you flourishing in your new environment? Your health is directly connected to how fully you rely on the main root. A branch cannot sustain itself. The more that your livelihood is directly tapped into Christ, the healthier and more fruitful you will be.