Romans 11 and the Parable of the Olive Tree (Part 1)

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In Romans 11, Paul finally answers the question he’s been dancing around since ch. 9: what is God’s plan for the people of Israel?

  • He’s defended God against false accusations (Rom 9:6-29).
  • He’s told us the nations have obtained righteousness from God, even though they didn’t pursue it. However, the people of Israel have come up empty. “But Israel, chasing after law as the means of righteousness, didn’t achieve that goal. Why not? Because they’re chasing righteousness not by means of faith, but as if by means of works” (Rom 9:31-32; my translation).
  • Paul explained: “… because they don’t know the special righteousness which God offers and are trying to set up their own righteousness, they haven’t submitted themselves to this one-of-a-kind righteousness from God” (Rom 10:3; my translation).1

So, in Romans 11, Paul at last answers the question. But we’re making a mistake if we reduce this to an academic question about “Israel.” The real question is: “how will God’s divine rescue plan come together?” Christians sometimes have incomplete ideas about this—they either ignore His promises to the people of Israel or maximize those promises and lose sight of the whole. So, how will God’s plan come together, and what will it look like when it’s finished?

God hasn’t rejected the people of Israel (vv. 11:1-6)

God has not rejected His people.2 Perhaps a better translation is “repudiate,”3 which gives the idea of to thrust or drive away4—to cast off, disown, to refuse to be associated with.5 How could God have disowned His people if Paul himself is a native Israelite (Rom 11:1)? God has known the people of Israel for a long time6—He has a relationship with them (Rom 11:2). It is not over for them.

So, what’s happening, then? Why have the people of Israel not accepted Jesus as their Messiah? Does God intend to rescue (a) all the people of Israel, or (b) a group from within the larger number?

Paul explains that, for the moment, God is working through a remnant. Just as He reserved a small core of people for Himself during the prophet Elijah’s day, “[s]o too, at the present time there is a remnant chosen by grace,” (Rom 11:5). And, then and now, these are people God has reserved for Himself—salvation is ultimately the result of God’s specific grace (Rom 11:4).7 Whatever God is up to, for right now He’s only rescuing a smaller group of Jewish people.

This rescue is by means of grace, not by means of works8—or else it wouldn’t be called “grace” (Rom 11:6). This is what the people of Israel had missed (Rom 9:30 – 10:4). If I owe you money, when I pay you it’s not an expression of love or friendship—it’s a business transaction. With God, His divine favor and love is a gift, not a business transaction.

Instead, God is punishing the people of Israel (vv. 11:7-10)

So, if God hasn’t repudiated the people of Israel, what is He doing with them?

The people of Israel had chased after righteousness but missed the boat. The chosen ones among them had made it, “but the others were hardened” (Rom 11:7). The idea here is a divine blinding, a veil of sorts, a darkening of the mind—a mental block that makes them “not get it.”9

This is a punishment which follows the failed chase—“God permits them to become entangled in their own No.”10 If God is God, then He has the power to act upon our hearts and minds so that we make real, voluntary decisions, but in the manner He wants (cp. Jn 12:39-40). God channels our desires towards the goal He’s determined. This is not a new thing:

  • When Moses preached to the people of Israel on the eastern banks of the Jordan River, he recounted Israel’s long and sad tale of disobedience. Paul quotes Moses here in support: “God gave them a spirit of stupor, eyes that could not see and ears that could not hear, to this very day” (Rom 11:8; quoting Deut 29:4).
  • King David called out to God in misery and asked for judgment on his enemies: “May the table set before them become a snare; may it become retribution and a trap. May their eyes be darkened so they cannot see, and their backs be bent forever” (Rom 11:9-10; quoting Ps 69:22-23).

Paul says the same thing has happened to the people of Israel. God hasn’t repudiated or disowned them—He’s punishing them.

What’s the point of God’s punishment? (vv. 11:11-32)

Paul writes:

So, I’m asking: “they didn’t stumble and ruin themselves, did they?” May it never be! Instead, because of their false step, the divine rescue [goes] to the nations, so that it will make the people of Israel jealous (Romans 11:11; my translation).11

There you have it. Israel’s “false step” or “trespass—their rejection of Christ as the long-promised prophet, rescuer, and king—triggers God’s pivot to the nations. God is making the people of Israel jealous, envious (cp. Rom 10:19). Interestingly, Paul’s focus is not the nations per se. Instead, he frames the people of Israel as the hinge upon which God’s whole rescue plan turns.12 The idea is that the people of Israel will see God showing love + grace to the nations, become jealous, re-evaluate, then choose divine rescue through Jesus.

This obviously hasn’t yet happened. Right now, the people of Israel either (a) don’t care, or (b) reject Christ. The people of Israel will never become jealous unless they first agree that Jesus is their Messiah. For example, one kid won’t be jealous of the other’s cookie unless they both agree the cookie is worth having! I’m not jealous if my wife eats plain Lays potato chips, because I don’t like plain Lay’s potato chips.

So, when will God change their minds and make the people of Israel jealous, so they’ll want Jesus as their king, too? During the Millennium (see Zech 12:10ff). But Paul ignores this question—he homes in on “the nations” who will read his letter. He deploys a sort of parable to explain God’s divine rescue plan.

We turn to the olive tree in the next article.

Notes

1 Gk: ἀγνοοῦντες (adverbial, causal) γὰρ (explanatory) τὴν (monadic) τοῦ θεοῦ (gen. source) δικαιοσύνην καὶ τὴν ἰδίαν (δικαιοσύνην) ζητοῦντες (adverbial, causal—paired with ἀγνοοῦντες)στῆσαι (BDAG, s.v., sense 3; anarthrous, complementary), τῇ δικαιοσύνῃ (monadic) τοῦ θεοῦ (gen. source) οὐχ ὑπετάγησαν (passive w/middle sense, constative).

2 The fact that the people of Israel are “his people” (τὸν λαὸν αὐτοῦ; Rom 11:1) is significant.

3 BDAG, s.v. “ἀπωθέω,” sense 2; p. 126.

4LSJ, s.v. “ἀπωθέω,” senses 1, 2; p. 232.

5 OED, s.v. “repudiate,” senses 1a, 2a.

6 It goes too far to plead that “foreknow” here (προέγνω) means something like “to choose beforehand.” The word can bear that meaning (e.g. 1 Pet 1:20), but the more common use is just “to know beforehand or in advance” (BDAG, s.v., sense 1, p. 966) or to “foreknow” (LSJ, s.v., sense 3). Reformed exegetes who wish to carry water for unconditional single election will find fertile ground elsewhere in scripture, but Romans 11:2 is not the place to plant that flag.

7 The 1833 New Hampshire Confession explains: “… regeneration consists in giving a holy disposition to the mind; that it is effected in a manner above our comprehension by the power of the Holy Spirit, in connection with divine truth, so as to secure our voluntary obedience to the gospel,” (Article VII).

8 Gk: εἰ δὲ χάριτι (dative of means), οὐκέτι ἐξ (means) ἔργων.

9 See BDAG, s.v. “πωρόω,” and LSJ, s.v., sense 3.

10 Emil Brunner, The Epistle to the Romans, trans. H.A. Kennedy (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1959), p. 94.

11 Λέγω οὖν, μὴ ἔπταισαν (fig. for “sin”) ἵνα πέσωσιν (result clause; BDAG, s.v., sense 2b); μὴ γένοιτο· ἀλλὰ τῷ αὐτῶν (dir. obj) παραπτώματι (dat. reason) ἡ σωτηρία (monadic article) τοῖς ἔθνεσιν (implied verb of “going,” dir. obj.) εἰς τὸ παραζηλῶσαι (purpose clause) αὐτούς(dir. obj. of infinitive—refers to people of Israel).

12 John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965), p. 76.

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