22 February 2014

Romans 11:1-12

“I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means!” (v. 1)


Paul is thinking through possible consequences that could be drawn from his argument to this point, and he rejects very sharply the conclusion that God has turned away from Israel to the Gentiles (non Jews). This is simply unthinkable (the Greek words here translated "by no means" are a very strong denial), and Paul takes this further by asserting his own identity and roots as an Israelite (verse 1). He himself is living proof that God's grace in Christ reaches people of Israel.

Paul uses the prophetic tradition of the faithful remnant to explain God's actions in Christ. Since the days of Elijah, there have been groups of Israelites who have maintained their commitment to God in the face of terrible odds. These remnant groups are chosen by God through grace - they are no more virtuous than other people (verse 6), and therefore Paul and his fellow-believers, the present-day 'remnant', have nothing to boast about (cf verse 18). There is nothing that makes Paul better than other Jews; it is simply that God has called him through grace.

This is God's choice; why does God choose to "harden" some (v. 7)? Paul suggests that the reason is that in this way, the need has become clear to take the gospel (good news of Jesus) to the Gentiles as well. He imagines a situation in which the Jews accepted the good news of Jesus immediately, and sees how easy it would then have been simply to ignore a mission to the Gentiles (cf verse 15). But he also envisages a circular process, where God's message comes back from the Gentiles to the Jews, encouraging the Jews to look once again at the wonderful consequences of life with Christ.

Paul concludes this section by looking forward in hope to the completion which God holds in store for all things. One day, God will act finally in justice and mercy; and Paul does not venture an opinion on what shape God's royal reign will take or in what way the people of Israel will be part of it.

To Ponder

  • Christians in the West today can easily identify with Paul's words about the 'remnant'. Do you find this a helpful picture for understanding what God is doing with the church at the moment? Why?
  • Have you ever experienced a situation where failure in one area of outreach has led you to try something else that wouldn't otherwise have occurred to you? What happened? To what extent does this possibility help you make sense of Paul's argument here?

Bible notes author

The Revd Caroline Wickens

Caroline is a Methodist presbyter, currently serving as superintendent of the Dudley and Netherton Circuit just outside Wolverhampton. She is married to Andrew, an Anglican priest, and has two teenage children.