(Read the series so far.)
Almost in the perfect center of the north end of the city of Paris, the hill of Montmartre and its grand white Cathedral of “Sacré-Cœur” (Sacred Heart) seem perched above the city. From the church you are afforded one of the most magnificent views of the “city of lights” that doesn’t require going up in a rickety elevator on an old “erector set” called the Eiffel Tower.
Montmartre is noted for several things, but probably best known for the quarter’s daily working street artists. Gathered near the square due west of the church, these artists sit in front of easels painting either in oils or watercolor, while others around them are sketching, chalking and creating in a host of artistic media.
Though I could not do what they do, I confess that I love to walk around and see artists at work.
One of the most fascinating parts of the experience of watching an artist develop a picture is what I would call the “layering” of the picture. For a long time, the artist of a landscape (and even many who detail the background of a portrait) may work on the background of a picture with a variety of colors and shades that have no discernible purpose at all to the lesser trained eye. Often, I cannot make “heads nor tails” of the picture as they develop it in the early stages. Yet, if I wait patiently and don’t distract them, the artist will carefully offer an amazing transformation of the canvas—and the scene will begin to assemble and make itself known.
One of the best ways to describe God may well be that He is the greatest of all Artists. He is the author of art—just as He is the Author of all things. He works the background of something, sometimes for hundreds of years, before anything becomes clear at all. He works very carefully on every detail of the setting, so that His picture becomes clear. In fact, there are many words that describe God, but none sweeter than the word “patient.”
If you watch Him work the canvas of history, you get the same thrill as standing over the artist’s shoulder. That is one of the things that His Word affords us—the longer view of history from the Artist’s perspective! Watching His work, it becomes readily apparent that God works through the eons of time to tell His story and is meticulous about every detail- because each layer will affect the later story—and all of it is a singular picture. I mention that truth because our lesson comes from a text that exposes this very idea. Paul’s writing in Romans 11 teaches this central truth:
Key Principle: God is working a plan to show Who He is through His historic people—and it is being artistically sculpted from materials that do not look now like they will look when He is finished.
Because that is true, we find that God’s work with the Jewish people, in spite of their rejection of Messiah’s first coming, is not finished. He wants His estranged bride to return to Him, and see the gift He has given for them. As a result, their rejection of God is…
Not Total: There Is a Remnant!
Paul made the point that not all Jews refused to see the work God did in Messiah for them. Some believed and remained people of faith…for God was not done with the Jewish people. He wrote:
I say then, God has not rejected His people, has He? May it never be! For I too am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin. 2 God has not rejected His people whom He foreknew. Or do you not know what the Scripture says in the passage about Elijah, how he pleads with God against Israel? 3 “Lord, they have killed Your prophets, they have torn down Your altars, and I alone am left, and they are seeking my life.” 4 But what is the divine response to him? “I have kept for Myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal.” 5 In the same way then, there has also come to be at the present time a remnant according to God’s gracious choice. 6 But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace is no longer grace. (NASB, Rom. 11:1-6)
Before we go too far into our lesson, let’s remember something: It is easy to “tune out” passages that don’t seem immediately relevant to “us.” Don’t do it! Be patient with the Artist—He has something profound and wonderful to show us!
The earliest layer to the picture was a time when Jews pointed the way to God. The atonement sacrifices brought temporary, but real peace with God. The nations made their own false gods, while the Jewish people were endowed with the revealed truths of the Creator Who had been rejected by the sons of the sons of Noah. The first layer was the layer of joy from a people of the Law, a layer with Mount Sinai in the background.
Over that was a “second layer” of the historical canvas—the layer of the Cross. The Jewish people were represented on that dark part of the canvas by some leaders who were bitter and self-interested. They rejected Jesus when He stood before them, and they had no place for the work of the people of the Way—who seemed to be upstart Jews who were unwilling to follow Jerusalem and the Temple leadership.
The leaders sought to shut down the message of the nascent group, and they hounded the steps of Paul as he led people to Jesus’ teachings and the work of cleansing through His death. Paul opened Romans 11 with a question, as it were: “Is this the last layer of the canvas?” His answer was a loud and clear: “No!”
He made a few points:
First, God’s curtain of spiritual blindness that fell on the Jewish people as a whole did not include all of them—for Paul was an example of a small piece of the original cloth of the Jewish people: he and other Jewish believers were pieces of remnant fragments of the nation.
That should remind us that the message of the Lord is not more true because His Word is more popular. As our culture moves from its Christian moorings back toward a rebirth of paganism, don’t underestimate the power of God to revive His message at any time. The Bible promises that even in the darkness of the Great Tribulation, there will be a remnant of witnesses who will proclaim a walk with God—even to their own peril.
Second, this wasn’t a strange work of God—but a familiar theme from the earlier canvas. God was probably never followed by the majority on a personal and intimate level, and at times, it seemed like individual believers were almost alone in their following of God. Elijah was provided as an example in verse two.
God’s reply in verses three and four help set things in perspective: I have always had more in my fold than people could clearly see. That is an important truth: often when it comes to the believers and their strength—things aren’t what they appear to be. Sometimes we look much weaker than we are. Remember that in the days ahead, the world will describe our message as “defeated”—a relic of the time past. Yet, they will not know how many draw their personal strength from a personal and vital walk with the Lord and His Word.
The end of the short passage encouraged people who believed that there were others who also found refuge in the faith that brought life. Their belief in the sacrifice of Jesus became the basis of their walk with God, and they were now living examples of the remnant—in spite of the rejection of the majority of their people.
Herein is a great lesson: The greatest “take away” to this short view of a snapshot from the history of the relationship between God and Israel is this: It doesn’t matter what you have done, if you are still alive, you can turn back to God—because of His grace.
That isn’t a lesson for someone else from some other time and place: it is a lesson for us right now. You haven’t done anything to get too far from God. He is still beckoning you to come to Him if you haven’t made that choice. He still wants you, no matter how profound your rejection has been, and no matter how deliberate you have been at defying His Word.
Grace is unmerited favor. Faith is seeing it His way. Salvation is embracing His forgiveness—given in grace and accessed by faith. Here is the truth: It doesn’t matter what brought you to this point—you are still invited to have a relationship with God through the completed work of Jesus—until you breathe your last breath—and then time runs out.
The people of Israel committed many heinous acts against God—but He kept coming at them. In the same way, it could be that He is coming at you right now, once again, to get you to respond. Don’t back away. Israel has been an example of God’s patience—and you can be the benefactor of responding to a patient God!
Yet, that isn’t all! God’s work in Israel is not total—there were some who believed even in the time of Paul (just as there are some now)! Yet, Paul offered more. God’s rejection of those who led Israel, and the dark curtain He placed over many of their hearts is not the final layer of the canvas. His veiling is not final: there is a promise!