Romans 11 and the Mission of God
Paul’s unfolding of the mystery of God’s eschatological purposes for Jew and Gentile in Romans 11 constitutes one of the most profound explications of the mission Dei in the New Testament. The seeming failure of God to remember his chosen people is in fact proof of God’s commitment to have mercy on all.
Michael Goheen defines ‘missional’ as “not a specific activity of the church but the very essence and identity of the church as it takes up its role in God’s story in the context of its culture and participates in God’s mission in the world.”¹ A missional hermeneutic therefore reads the Scripture in order “to analyze the missional identity of the church by tracing its role in the biblical story”.² Since the theme of Romans 11 is the role of Israel and the Gentile nations in God’s plan of salvation, it is a prime candidate for such a reading.
Romans 11 and the missional shaping of the church in Rome
It’s probably true that “Paul’s composition of Romans was generated less by a crisis in the Roman church than by Paul’s own plans”.³ His ambition is to push onward to Spain, and he hopes to enlist the support of the Roman church (Rom 15:24 NIV). This profoundly theological letter is therefore written with a missionary purpose in mind. As Luke Timothy Johnson observes, “As Paul reflects on what the meaning of his mission might be for the salvation of humanity, he is literally trying to catch up with what God is doing. In this sense, Romans is quite rightly designated as Paul’s missionary theology”.⁴ Paul’s dominating theme of God’s grace to Jew and Gentile alike is meant to fuse the Roman church into a united community participating together in Paul’s mission to the Gentiles.
Romans 11 is the climax of the argument begun in chapter 9, where Paul expresses the “great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart” (9:2) that Israel has not put its faith in its Messiah. This is no digression from Paul’s main argument. As John Barclay observes, “like other Jews, Paul does theology by thinking about Israel … because he takes the story of Israel to be central to all God’s dealings with humanity”⁵. Any faithful Jew reading the Old Testament, not least the book of Isaiah, would have expected any blessing to the nations to come through the exaltation of Israel. But now it appeared that Israel, far from enjoying the central role, was being entirely bypassed in God’s purposes. This creates a difficulty Paul must have felt keenly, and with him the Jews in the Roman church. But Israel’s seeming rejection is disconcerting for Gentile Christians as well, for it called into question not only the future of Israel but the very faithfulness of God. “If God’s chosen people are not participating in the gospel, how confident can Gentiles be in the hope which they have placed in God’s promises?”⁶
Paul therefore offers a midrashic reading of no less than thirty Old Testament texts in order to show that “God’s way of acting in the ‘now time’ is not radically discontinuous with Torah but is rather paradoxically and dialectically continuous with it”.⁷ What seems to be the jettisoning of the original missio Dei is actually its further unfolding in light of the Messiah. In Romans 9 and 10 Paul is “reflecting on the troublesome phenomenon of Gentile belief and Jewish unbelief, but also affirming the fidelity and mercy of God to Israel”.⁸
“Has God rejected his people?” Paul asks in 11:1. If Israel has refused the offering gospel because it has “stumbled over the stumbling stone” (10:32), Christ, does that mean God has turned from them to the Gentiles? Indeed, is Paul’s own mission as apostle to the Gentiles evidence of a change in the divine plan? Paul puts forth himself as a living demonstration that there is at least one Jew whom God has not rejected (11:1). And just as God in Elijah’s day had preserved seven thousand who had not yet bowed the knee to Baal (1 Kings 19), “so too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace” (Rom 11:5). Since there were between 40,000 and 60,000 Jews in Rome in the first century,⁹ the Jews worshipping in the Roman house churches must have felt themselves to be a tiny remnant indeed. Nevertheless, Paul reminds them, they are evidence of God’s gracious determination to use his chosen people for the salvation of the world.
This still leaves unanswered why the majority of the Jewish nation had not responded to the Messiah. Paul can attribute the unusual obstinacy of his fellow Jews only to divine “hardening” (11:7). He quotes Deut 29:4, Isa 29:10 and Ps 69:22–23 in support. Though he does not deny human responsibility, his emphasis is on God’s action in preventing eyes from seeing and ears from hearing the good news. Failure to respond to the gospel, “the power of God for salvation” (1:16), cannot ultimately be attributed to human unbelief, for that would suggest that the divine mission could be thwarted by human intransigence. The only explanation is that Israel’s present unbelief time has been willed by God.
But Paul could not have expected the Jewish Christians in Rome to content themselves with this as a final answer. Is the hardening of their Israelite friends and family to be their permanent fate? “Did they stumble in order that they might fall?” (11:11) Paul answers firmly in the negative. “Far from their being on a downward spiral, the spiral is upwards. They have not stumbled so as to fall beyond recovery, but rather to rise”.¹⁰ The God who hardens is also the God who shows mercy (9:18). Israel’s future restoration “owes nothing to the character or deeds of an intractable people and everything to the will of God who restores them”.¹¹
But in the meantime, Israel’s “trespass” has been the means of salvation coming to the Gentiles. Paul’s own missionary practice was to preach the gospel “first to the Jew” (1:16) in the synagogue. Upon Jewish rejection of the message, he would go the Gentiles. In Pisidian Antioch, for example, Paul and Barnabas informed the Jews who rejected the message,
“We had to speak the word of God to you first. Since you reject it and do not consider yourselves worthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles. For this is what the Lord has commanded us: ‘I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.’” (Acts 13:46).
This ingathering of the Gentiles will in turn make Israel “jealous” (Rom 11:11), provoking them to claim their rightful place in the messianic kingdom. The Abrahamic promises, far from being annulled, are being fulfilled in a surprising way. “Israel’s sin is the starting point of a process that will lead back to blessing for Israel” — through the agency of the Gentiles.¹² In a circle of reciprocity, Israel’s blessing of the nations (Gen. 22:18) will be repaid by the nations blessing Israel, for “God’s saving purposes are not exhausted with the inclusion of the Gentiles” (Schreiner 594). None called to participate in God’s mission can avoid being themselves blessed by it. If in Israel’s disobedience they have unwittingly been fulfilling their call to bring the nations to Yahweh, “how much greater riches will their full inclusion (lit.: ‘fullness’) bring!” (11:12) Although ‘fullness’ has a numerical sense, it can also be understood qualitatively as Israel’s “‘completion,’ the full restoration to Israel of the blessings of the kingdom that she is now, as a corporate entity, missing”.¹³
Paul then explicitly addresses “you Gentiles” in Rome (11:13), who need to properly appreciate Israel’s role in God’s plan:
“Gentile Christians, on hearing his argument thus far, might be inclined to think patronizingly of their Jewish fellow-believers as refugees, mercifully rescued from the doom about to overtake an apostate nation, and to dismiss from any place in the divine purpose the majority of that nation.”¹⁴
But this is to misunderstand both Israel’s and the nations’ role in God’s single and sovereign purpose. The Gentiles cannot disentangle themselves so easily from Israel’s destiny. As Gerhard Lohfink observes, “For Paul the fate of the nations is indissolubly linked to the way of Israel; consequently, the fate of Israel is linked to the way of the nations”.¹⁵ As the Roman church becomes increasingly Gentile, it must not forget its calling to reciprocate divine blessing to Israel. Even Paul’s own mission as “an apostle to the Gentiles” is undertaken “in the hope that I may somehow arouse my own people to envy and save some of them” (11:13). Paul makes no extravagant claim to be the key to the eschatological salvation of Israel; the modest “somehow” and “some of them” show that “Paul leaves his degree of success and the precise means in the hands of God”.¹⁶
In 11:17–24 Paul visualizes the people of God as a single olive tree, an image borrowed from the Old Testament. The root of the tree is Jewish. God set apart Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as the beginning of a holy people, and the whole tree derives its holiness from them. But God, the farmer, has snapped off some (but not all) of the branches: those Jews who “were broken off because of unbelief” (11:20). In their place God has grafted in a wild olive shoot, the Gentiles. Paul is referencing an ancient technique by which wild shoots were used to rejuvenate an old and barren tree.¹⁷ God as the cultivator is using his skill to cause the whole tree to live, flourish, and bear fruit, even if radical surgery is necessary. The point of this illustration is to rebuke the Gentiles in the Roman church who might be tempted to self-congratulation. Paul reminds them, “You do not support the root, but the root supports you” (11:18). The growing community may become more and more Gentile, but if it forgets its Jewish heritage it will lose its identity, calling and mission as God’s holy people in the world. “Only by tapping into God’s gracious sap flowing through the rich covenantal root of Israel and her Messiah do the Gentiles have any hope of salvation.”¹⁸
The church, therefore, cannot be in a relationship with Israel’s God without also being in a relationship with God’s Israel. The irony is that the Gentile Christians in Rome were giving into the very temptation to pride that had doomed Old Testament Israel. Paul warns them, “Do not be arrogant, but tremble. For if God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either” (11:20,21). The current composition of the people of God should not be taken for granted: those Gentiles who do do not “continue in his kindness” are warned they will be cut off, while Israel is promised that “if they do not persist in unbelief, they will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again” (11:22,23). The Roman church, Jew and Gentile alike, must be a community shaped not by merit but by mercy.
Paul is unveiling a “mystery”: “Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in, and in this way all Israel will be saved” — an eschatological salvation that will happen when “the Deliver will come from Zion” (11:25,26), as promised in Isaiah 59:20. There is hope for Israel because “they are loved on account of the patriarchs, for God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable” (11:28, 29). Paul concludes with a startling assertion: “God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all” (11:32). Paul therefore invites the Roman church to join him in the appropriate response to this unexpected triumph of mercy is doxology. “The depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God” in the planning and unfolding of salvation are inscrutable to humanity; they spring from divine grace that can never be repaid (11:33–35). Therefore, “To him be the glory forever!” (11:36)
Theological implications of Romans 11 for mission
Romans 11 is is an extended argument for the faithfulness of God to uphold the people he has called, even though the church’s state in the world at any given point in history might call that into question. The failure of God’s people to master the mission, “a memorial apparently to the unconcern or the defeat of God”¹⁹ does not mean that God has rejected his people or that his word has failed (9:6).
This faithful God is also sovereign — behind human responsibility (which Paul fully acknowledges) is the hand of God bringing his purposes to pass. The accent through this chapter is on the initiative and efficacy of God’s actions, while “what the people of Israel sought so earnestly they did not obtain” (11:7). While Romans 9–11 make no claims about God’s exhaustive control over all human events, Paul does discern God’s hardening behind Israel’s rejection of Christ. But this apparently dark side of God’s power is cause for hope, for if God hardens, he can also soften.
Paul is confident that God will soften, for God’s power is exercised for the ultimate demonstrate of God’s mercy. God’s actions in history, hidden in human rebellion, appear to contradict his promises. But in fact, God’s eschatological plan is “he may have mercy on them all”, Jew and Gentile alike — a confidence in the scope and efficacy of God’s mission that is almost unsurpassed in Scripture.
Romans 11’s place in the missional arc of scripture
Apart from Romans 11, the missional arc of Scripture would be partially unresolved. How could God’s election of Abraham and Israel to be a blessing to the nations (Gen 12:3, 18:18, 22:18) be reconciled with the hard facts on the ground: the Gentiles had accepted the Jewish messiah that Christ’s own people had rejected?
“It was a paradox, not to say a scandal, that the very nation which had been specially prepared by God for this time of fulfilment … should have failed to recognize him when he came, while men and women of other nations which had never enjoyed such privileges embraced the gospel eagerly the first time they heard it. How could this be harmonized with God’s choice of Israel and his declared purpose of blessing the world through Israel?”²⁰
In Romans 11 Paul unveils a mystery revealed nowhere else in Scripture: through the Gentiles Israel will somehow be blessed with the riches of salvation at the end of history. Thus the missional arc returns to where it began; as God’s purposes in history began with Israel, so they will conclude with Israel.
This divine outpouring of mercy has a doxological aim. The identity, salvation and mission of the people of God, Jew and Gentile do not terminate on themselves. “The salvation of Jews and Gentiles is penultimate. What is ultimate is the glory of God”.²¹ God’s mission is initiated by divine election, is pursued through divine mercy, and is aimed at divine glory, “for from him and through him and for him are all things” (Rom 11:36).
Contemporary missional application of Romans 11
At first reading Romans 11 seems limited to an ecclesiological problem in the distant past or an eschatological event in the distant future. How does this chapter shape worshipping communities today for a missional encounter with culture?
It would be a grave mistake to abstract some timeless and universal truths from this chapter. That would in fact be perpetuating the very Gentile neglect of the Jewish roots of God’s people against which Paul is warning. “Only as the church sees itself in continuity with Israel and learns from God’s interaction with Israel as recorded in the Scripture can the church truly designate itself the ‘people of God’”.²² Paul’s concern then presses upon us today: that as the church engages the dominant culture it squanders its own heritage.
This must be done with great humility, for a truly missional community cannot congratulate itself being “in” and nonbelievers’ being “out”. God is free to dispense his mercy how and to whom he pleases. The unbelievers whom we look down on today may well be gathered in tomorrow, while we are rejected for pride and unbelief. Therefore the church’s encounter with the world must be a proclamation of mercy by a people called and shaped by mercy.
Churches, especially in the West, are easily tempted to trust in human technique to “do the mission”. Indeed, no area of the church’s life is so prone to pragmatism as is its mission to the surrounding world — as though the world’s idols must be adopted in order to be challenged. But as Richard Bauckham points out,
Mission is God’s work before and after it is ours … God continually makes more of what we do for him than we can make of it ourselves, and God continually prevents the harm our foolishness and failures would do. The Bible does not map out for us the path from Pentecost to the kingdom. It invites our trust in God rather than mastery or calculation of history.²³
If the impetus for mission lay in the hands of the worshipping community, we might well despair of reaching the world. But since both the mission and its people — Jew and Gentile — belong to God, the church may look forward confidently to its consummation, no matter how confusing the times.
- Michael W. Goheen, A Light to the Nations: The Missional Church and the Biblical Story (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011), 4.
- Ibid, ix.
- Luke Timothy Johnson, Reading Romans: A Literary and Theological Commentary (Greenville: Smith & Helwys, 2001), 6.
- Ibid, 10.
- John M. G. Barclay, Paul and the Gift (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015), 520.
- Andrew H. Wakefield, “Romans 9–11: The Sovereignty of God and the Status of Israel”, Review and Expositor 100.1 (2003), 65.
- Johnson, 151.
- Michael J. Gorman, Apostle of the Crucified Lord: A Theological Introduction to Paul and his Letters, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016), 450.
- W. R. Stegner, “Diaspora”, in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 211.
- John R. W. Stott, The Message of Romans: God’s Good News for the World, The Bible Speaks Today (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 294.
- Stephen Westerholm, Understanding Paul: The Early Christian Worldview of the Letter to the Romans, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004), 142.
- Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 687.
- Ibid, 689.
- F. F. Bruce, Romans: An Introduction and Commentary, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1985), 212.
- Gerhard Lohfink, Jesus and Community: The Social Dimensions of Christian Faith, trans. John P. Galvin (Fortress: Philadelphia, 1984), 143.
- Anthony C. Thiselton, Discovering Romans: Content, Interpretation, Reception (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016), 212.
- Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 437.
- F. Scott Spencer, “Metaphor, Mystery and the Salvation of Israel in Romans 9–11: Paul’s Appeal to Humility and Doxology,” Review & Expositor 103, no. 1 (Winter 2006), 129.
- G. R. Beasley-Murray, “The Righteousness of God in the History of Israel and the Nations: Romans 9–11,” Review & Expositor 73, no. 4 (Fall 1976), 439.
- Bruce, 1985.
- Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1998), 638.
- W. S. Campbell, “Israel”, in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters (Downers Grove.: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 644.
- Richard Bauckham, Bible and Mission: Christian Witness in a Postmodern World (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 92.