Romans 11:11&12 “Again I ask: Did they stumble so as to fall beyond recovery? Not at all! Rather, because of their transgression, salvation has come to the Gentiles to make Israel envious. But if their transgression means riches for the world, and their loss means riches for the Gentiles, how much greater riches will their fulness bring!”
I was fascinated when I read recently of the fall of the Pontfadog Oak in the Ceiriog valley near Chirk in North Wales. Experts claim that its acorn probably germinated in the year 802 when the Vikings were invading the land, though some believe it is older. It is believed to be the oldest oak tree in the nation, one of the oldest trees in the world, but in April, after heavy snow and a freezing cold snap a storm blew through that area with winds of 55 m.p.h. and down the tree fell. The Welsh prince Owain Glyndwr had rallied his army underneath its branches in 1157. The tree was hollow and six people could sit inside it. A bull was lost and after a search was found stuck inside the tree. George Borrow mentions this oak in his book Wild Wales. Now it has crashed to the ground to fall beyond recovery. It will never stand erect again. Its life is over.
Paul is asking us this question about corporate ethnic Israel. “Did they stumble so as to fall beyond recovery?” He’s not talking about the elect believers found within Israel, those who hadn’t bowed the knee to Baal, the remnant who repented and believed and brought forth the fruits of righteousness. They will keep trusting in the Lord. Paul is referring to the circumcised nation of Israel. Its leaders, the chief priests and the Sanhedrin who planned and achieved the crucifixion of the Lord, bribing men to say that they had heard Jesus blaspheme, handing him over to the Roman governor, and leaning on Pontius Pilate with threats of reporting him to Caesar if he refused to pass the death sentence on Christ. Then they mocked Jesus as he hung on the cross, and stifled the story of his resurrection, and when the New Testament preachers began to preach Jesus as the Messiah and Son of God they hounded those people under men like Saul of Tarsus. They persecuted and killed the members of the early church.
Israel fell, but the question Paul is asking now is had they fallen beyond recovery like the Pontfadog Oak? Would they disappear like the ten tribes taken captive to Assyria and then swallowed up into that pagan empire finally vanishing without trace? Would this happen to Israel? It would be merely what they deserved for treating the Son of God as they did. Would God now totally abandon them and turn to the Gentiles? Would he refuse to save Jewish men and women, not blessing any attempts to reach them with the gospel of Christ? Would they lie helpless like a fallen oak tree decaying and rotting, becoming compost for other trees to feed on? Was that the grim future that faced Israel to “fall beyond recovery” and be annihilated?
“Did they stumble so as to fall beyond recovery? Not at all,” or “By no means” says Paul. Don’t even think like that. The reason for God to allow his old covenant people to fall so disastrously, to treat the Messiah as they did, was not so that Jehovah could divorce them once and for all. Jehovah was not fed up with them, wanting to get rid of them after 2000 years of their grumbling and disobedience. God had not decided he would abandon them in order to get a better response from the rest of the world. He hadn’t turned his back on them totally. He hadn’t withheld every hint of grace and mercy towards Jewish men and women. Not at all! By no means! He saved Saul of Tarsus a Hebrew of the Hebrews and persecutor of the church. That is the assurance with which he began this chapter; “I ask then: Did God reject his people? By no means” (v.1). And then repeating himself in verse two and spelling it out word by word, “God did not reject his people, whom he foreknew.” So what was his purpose in permitting his old covenant people to hate the Son of God as they did? It was, Paul tells us, to bring salvation to us gentiles.
1. THROUGH THE ACTUAL WICKEDNESS OF THESE MEN SOMETHING GLORIOUS OCCURRED: SALVATION CAME TO THE GENTILES.
God’s purpose in Israel’s unbelief and in the crucifixion of their Messiah . . . the purpose of God in not sending a great revival to turn the people, from the greatest to the least of them, to himself in repentance . . . the purpose of God permitting that evil was this, that the most glorious international and eternal salvation might come to billions of Gentiles. “Rather, because of their transgression, salvation has come to the Gentiles” (v.11). You might expect these verses to read something like this, ‘because of 500 Jews turning to follow Jesus Christ, and because of Peter’s powerful preaching at Pentecost, and because of the evangelism by these converted Jews that took the gospel all over the world, that because of all that holy evangelistic work salvation has come to the Gentiles.’ But that is not what Paul writes. “Rather, because of their transgression, salvation has come to the Gentiles.” There was a direct correlation between their wicked crucifixion of Jesus and persecution of Christians and salvation coming to the Gentiles. Out of something very bad – that should not have been done at all as forbidden by God – then something good came to others and even to ourselves two thousand year later.
Let me show you this important fact of God using human transgression to bring good to his people. I want you to see it in six other places in the Scriptures of the Old Testament and the New Testament, on the lips of Jesus, from the apostle Peter and from Moses. You can see how pervasive this teaching is. It tests us as to whether our lives and our minds are submissive to the Bible [I am using the observations of one of my old teachers, the late Edwin Palmer (The Five Points of Calvinism, A Study Guide, Baker, 1972, pp.100-103)].
i] Acts 2:23 “This man [Jesus] was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge.” Here Peter explicitly states that the betrayal, whipping and killing of Jesus was brought to pass by the set purpose of God. The death of Christ was not left to chance – “will men shed his blood or not?” The salvation of the believer by the atonement of the Lamb of God on the cross was no lucky accident; it was not left to the arbitrary whim of the people. Nobody could be saved without the substitutionary death of Jesus. If the crowds, the priests, and the soldiers had not conspired to kill him, then there’d have been no salvation, no justification, no church, no salt and light in the world, no heaven, God’s decree would have been frustrated.
But the Bible tells us that this most evil of evils—the crucifixion of Jesus—came about by “God’s set purpose.” This transgression and unbelief was ordained by God. Notice the juxtaposition between God’s ordination of sin and man’s blame. The first part of the verse (“handed over to you by God’s set purpose”) clearly teaches that God decrees the worst of sins; but right in the same breath, in the same sentence, the Bible puts all the blame on man. Our logic would tell us to blame God. He did it, so it was his fault. But it was the Holy Spirit who inspired Peter to say, “And you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.” Wicked men—they were to blame.
This is the awesome Biblical asymmetry: God ordains sin, and man is to blame. Men do what they should never do, and yet God brings salvation out of it. We cannot comprehend this. We can only come back to our conviction that the Bible is the infallible, inerrant Word of God and is the final arbiter in all teaching, including the awesome decree of reprobation.
ii] Acts 4:27, 28 “Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen.”
These verses closely parallel Acts 2:23 in that they speak of the death of Jesus as being foreordained by God. Again there is the juxtaposition of man’s transgression and God’s decree. By quoting the second Psalm, Peter reproaches Herod, Pontius Pilate, the Gentiles, and the people of Israel for putting to death the Lord Christ (“nations rage. . . peoples plot . . . against the Lord and against his Anointed One,” Acts 4:25 & 26).
At the same time Peter says that this sin was what God’s “power and will had decided beforehand should happen.” Peter could have said that they merely did what God “had decided” should happen. That would have been very clear. It was not Herod and Pilate who decided. The decision for this wicked cross was God’s. But Peter strengthens this clear statement:
a. He says, God “decided beforehand.” The word ‘beforehand’ stresses that the sin was in God’s hands and not in the rulers’ and the Gentiles’.
b. It would have been enough to say that God “decided beforehand.” But Peter places further emphasis on God’s sovereignty by saying that his “will” decided, instead of saying, that ‘God had decided.’
c. Peter adds a third touch: instead of saying that God had decided beforehand or even God’s will had decided beforehand, he adds the word “power” to the word “will.”
It is impossible for anyone to say on the basis of the Bible that the sinful killing of Jesus was not ordained by God. The Scriptures are most emphatic. It was because of this murderous transgression that salvation came to us Gentiles.
iii] Acts 3:18 “But this is how God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, saying that his Christ would suffer.” Just prior to this verse Peter rebuked and blamed the Jews for killing Jesus: “You handed him over to be killed, and you disowned him before Pilate. You disowned the Holy and Righteous One and you asked that a murderer be released to you. You killed the author of life.” But Peter goes on to say that by this transgression God fulfilled what had been prophesied about the death of Christ.
So, who did it? Who killed Jesus? The Bible says that the Jews cried, “Away with him!” The chief priests plotted it. Judas betrayed him. The Roman soldiers whipped him and nailed him to the cross. Pilate cowardly signed the death certificate. His disciples forsook him. Their transgressions were all to blame for the death of Christ. Yet in the very next breath the Bible says that God was the one who fulfilled what had already been prophesied about Christ’s death. All things, including sin, are brought to pass by God – without God violating his holiness. Notice again the placing side by side of man’s transgression and God’s ordination of this particular sin.
iv] Luke 22:22 “The Son of Man will go as it has been decreed, but woe to that man who betrays him.” In this verse “will go” refers to what had just been said, namely, that Judas’ transgression would be that of betraying Jesus. So Jesus was saying with the utmost clarity that the future events in his life – the betrayal, trial, and crucifixion – had “been decreed.” They were unchangeable. God had determined them. In other words, God ordained sin and unbelief. Once again, there is a sharp juxtaposition of divine sovereignty and human responsibility. In the very same sentence in which Jesus said that his betrayal had been decreed, he concluded, “But woe to that man who betrays him.”
Man always recoils at this juxtaposition. He wants to say that either God is sovereign and man is not responsible; or he wants to assert man’s responsibility and take away God’s sovereignty. However, the Bible repeatedly puts the two side by side. It is the Christian’s duty to accept both, recognizing that God’s thoughts are higher than man’s thoughts, as the heavens are higher than the earth.
v] Genesis 45:5-8 “And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you. For two years now there has been famine in the land, and for the next five years there will not be plowing and reaping. But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance. So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God.”
This passage is one of Scripture’s most powerful statements in support of God’s power over man’s transgression. In fact, it is so strikingly clear that it cannot easily be misinterpreted. Notice God’s role in the events of Joseph’s life.
a. Joseph seems almost to excuse his brothers for their dastardly crime. They were wrong, they acted immorally, they hated their brother and they planned to kill him. In actuality they sold him into slavery, and then they concocted a story and blatantly lied to their father. Yet Joseph is saying, “Don’t worry; God was at the back of it all.”
b. Yet Joseph said that it wasn’t them that sent him into Egypt. How could he say this? Chapter 37 clearly states that “they plotted to kill him” (v. 18) and they “sold him for twenty shekels of silver” (v. 28). Joseph knew this only too well through personal experience. In Genesis 45 and verse eight, when he said right out, “It was not you who sent me here,” he was not contradicting what he knew very well, namely, that these boys had sent him into slavery in Egypt. But this was just Joseph’s way of pointing out that the sin of his brothers was not something that happened haphazardly, by chance, without God having anything to do with it. Rather, in some mysterious way, God, who is absolutely holy and who hates sin, was deeply involved in the action of Joseph’s brothers, but not in the guilt of the action.
The reason was that God wanted the salvation of Israel as a nation. He didn’t want it to be wiped out by the upcoming famine. For God had plans: he wanted “to save lives,” the lives of the Israelites. He wanted “to preserve. . . a remnant on earth and to save. . . lives.” The Bible does not say it here, but God also determined to have a people out of whom would come the Messiah, the Saviour of the world. God was not going to leave this plan to chance, to the will of men. So Joseph makes the astounding statement that it was not his brothers who sent him into Egypt! Well, if they didn’t commit this sin, who did?
“God sent me” (45:5). In case there were still any lingering doubts as to who was behind this heinous crime, the Bible comes out clearly and says that it was God! Nothing could be clearer: “So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God.” I almost recoil in preaching this. Selling Joseph into slavery was a criminal act. It involved murderous plotting, betrayal, heartache for a father and deceitfulness. Yet who did that? “It was not you who sent me here, but God” the holy one who cannot sin nor tempt men to sin.
vi] Genesis 50:19, 20 “But Joseph said to them, ‘Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” What is so striking here is that the same verb is used in reference to the actions of God as to the transgressions of Joseph’s brothers. Joseph’s brothers intended evil when they sold Joseph. Now God, of course, intended the opposite in order that Israel might be saved. But regardless of his motive, the fact is that in some way that’s not clear to us, God, who abhors sin, actively used transgression to accomplish his purpose. Both Joseph’s brothers had an intention and God had an intention. The same verb is used for the same actions, but with entirely different motives. The Bible is clear: because of man’s transgression salvation comes to others.
Doesn’t this give us enormous hope? God always has a purpose to bring blessing out of cursing for his people. We feel the anti-Christian ethos of our own land steadily growing in its hostility to Biblical religion and practice. Blessing comes upon those who are reviled and persecuted for righteousness sake. We read of Christian martyrs in other lands. The blood of the martyrs is sealed and God uses their deaths for his own purposes. Isn’t it important when we remember, as we often do, many things of which we’re ashamed, that we look back on today and shake our heads sadly at our folly and guilt. We hurt other people and we wonder where they are now and how are they doing? We grieve over our transgressions. Yet God tells us that he was involved. It was not all the work of the flesh and the devil. The transgression was ours but God worked it for our good and for the good of others. We would not be where we are today without that action as wrong and devastating as it was. People might even have been saved through that horrible action. We leave all that to God. We merely plead, “Lord you have promised that for all who love you and have been called according to your purpose you will work everything they do for their good. Please don’t omit working in this transgression for my good and the good of all touched by it.” What good could come from such sins? Well look at two examples Paul gives us.
2. THROUGH THEIR ACTUAL TRANSGRESSION AND THE SUBSEQUENT SALVATION THAT CAME TO THE GENTILES THE JEWS WERE MADE ENVIOUS.
“Salvation has come to the Gentiles to make Israel envious” (v.11). So here is a pattern of Jewish-Gentile relations. The Jews reject and kill the Messiah, but then the Gentiles believe on Christ in their droves. The Jews see this and they begin to want what Christian Gentiles have got. We are told a number of times in the book of Acts of the jealousy of the Jews at the spread of the church, and many Jews coming to trust in Jesus as the promised Messiah. It starts in Jerusalem as crowds come into the city, not now for one of the Jewish feasts but to hear the message of the church and be healed. We are told, “The high priest and all his associates, who were members of the party of the Sadducees, were filled with jealousy” (Acts 5:17). Or again in Pisidian Antioch as Paul preached to the crowds, “On the next Sabbath almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord. When the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy and talked abusively against what Paul was saying” (Acts 13:44&45). Or again in Thessalonica we read, “As his custom was, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Christ had to suffer and rise from the dead. ‘This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Christ,’ he said. Some of the Jews were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a large number of God-fearing Greeks and not a few prominent women. But the Jews were jealous” (Acts 17:2-5). It was a very marked feature of the Jewish response to the gospel. Either they were converted or they were envious of those who were converted. They could not be indifferent. They were initially jealous of the success of these evangelical Christians, of the crowds who were drawn to them, of the influence they had over the people.
That is where it began, in a common kind of jealousy. In other words, they were annoyed at losing people from the synagogues who were joining the gospel churches. It was as basic as the statistics at first. The Jewish numbers were going down while the evangelical numbers were going up. But that is only the start, and just the most superficial kind of response. Then they watched these Christians over the years and they saw their piety and godliness, the blessing in their homes, the hearts of the fathers turned to the children and the hearts of the children turned to the fathers, wives being loved by faithful husbands. They saw their forgiving spirit, their affection, joy and peace through the Spirit. They saw how they loved one another with pure hearts fervently. They heard the message with greater clarity and forcefulness, the gospel of the suffering Servant of God, how he was the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies and they were envious of their confidence and their love for Jesus Christ. Some even met people who had been amongst the 500 people in Galilee who had spent hours with the risen Jesus. Can you imagine the pillow talk in many Jewish homes as they talked about their converted neighbours and their happy lives and their confidence that their sins were all forgiven? “They’ve got something that we haven’t got” they would say to one another in complete agreement. They were envious of the assurance and trust they had in the Lord. They wanted those blessings for themselves, and so they repented and trusted in the Lord Jesus, and so the number of converts grew.
Are we conscious of that kind of New Testament evangelism? You remember what Peter says to Christian woman whose husbands are not converted? “Wives, in the same way be submissive to your husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behaviour of their wives, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives” (I Pet. 3:1). The husband wants what the wife has. It is not an unworthy incentive we provide to unbelievers to change through repentance and faith by our living before them a Christ-like life in this world. Jesus sends us out as the light of the world and tells us not to hide our lights under a bushel. Let your light shine before men that they see your good works. It was part of Paul’s evangelistic strategy. He tells us that in verse 14 where he says, “I hope that I may somehow arouse my own people to envy and save some of them.” Let us arouse our friends to trust in the Lord as we live lives of consistent godliness before them by the power of God.
3. IF JEWISH TRANSGRESSION MEANT RICHES COMING TO THE WORLD, WHAT GREATER RICHES WILL COME FROM JEWISH FULNESS?
God wouldn’t allow the Jewish crucifixion of Christ and persecution of Christians to result in a vast stony desert of unbelief in the Mediterranean basin. God used all the Jews did against his Son to be the means of winning Gentiles in their millions to believe upon the Lord Jesus Christ and be saved. God even used the throbbing emotion of their envy and jealousy to deliver many of them from their unbelief. “We have to have what those Gentiles have received in Jesus Christ,” said many of them. What riches have come to the world through Jewish rejection of Christ! What riches have come to the nations of the world through all that the Jews lost in denying Jesus to be the Messiah. We’ve got the riches of the Scriptures; riches of the gospel message; riches of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit; riches of forgiveness and the imputed righteousness of Christ; riches of adoption into the family of God; riches of an inheritance in glory that will never fade away. All that has come freely to Gentile believers for 2000 years through all that the Jews lost in saying no to their Messiah. Through their poverty many have become rich.
Now, Paul says, what far greater riches will come to Gentile Christians through the sum total of Jewish converts over 2000 years. Millions of Jews have heard the gospel since the day of Pentecost and received it with joy. They have bowed down in the presence of the living Jesus and said to him, “Jehovah Jesus, my Lord and my God!” and through their lives they have served him. They have not been ashamed of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Some have become pastors and preachers. Some have written books using their knowledge of Aramaic and the Hebrew language and Jewish customs and traditions to inform their Gentile brothers and sisters. Others were singers who now sing for Jesus Christ and give their testimony to having found their Messiah. All of them present their bodies a living sacrifice to Jehovah and they say each day,
Take my lips that they may be
Filled with messages from Thee (Francis Ridley Havergal)
Paul’s argument is that God has not allowed Jewish rejection of Christ to stop the gospel reaching out to the world. Their loss means riches for the Gentiles. So “How much greater will their fulness bring!” (v.12). There is a young Jewish preacher called Benjamin Hersh who is musical, a classically trained pianist and composer. How did this Jew become a follower of Jesus Christ? He says that it began in childhood, attending one Christian meeting and hearing of how Jesus fed 5000 men with two loaves and fishes. The story stuck. Then one Christmas his brother said to him, “Let’s make some money and go carol singing.” O.K. they were singing at one house and a lovely Christian couple answered the door. They asked the brothers whether they knew what Christmas was all about. “Yes,” said his brother, “presents.” They said, “Yes, but that’s not the heart of Christmas. God so loved the world that he gave his Son the promised Messiah, and he was born in Bethlehem as the prophet foretold, and who ever believes in him doesn’t perish but has everlasting life. That is what Christmas is about.’
Some years later he married a fellow Jew and then in a year or two she grew seriously ill. The mother of one of the boys whom he was teaching piano told him that he should have a chat with her pastor. His wife listened to the gospel and believed, and then when Benjamin met this minnister he was overwhelmed with the teaching of the Old Testament about the coming King and he also gave his heart to the Lord. Of course he wrestled with this problem of a feeling that he had betrayed his background and family, but as the years went by he believed he had come into the fullness of knowing Jesus Christ the Son of God. Now his life is spent in telling others about the Lord Jesus. Think of thousands like him, part of the fulness of the Jews who believe in Jesus. What greater riches will they all bring!
God won’t allow his word to fall to the ground. God will use our transgressions to bring glory to Christ and salvation to men and women. Through the poverty and the riches of men God will being the sweet savour of his Son to the world that they might believe in the Lord Jesus.
2nd June 2013 GEOFF THOMAS