May 13, 2011

Two Covenants, One Grace: Romans 11:1-36

1 I say then, has God cast away His people? Certainly not! For I also am an Israelite, of the seed of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin. 2 God has not cast away His people whom He foreknew. Or do you not know what the Scripture says of Elijah, how he pleads with God against Israel, saying, 3 “LORD, they have killed Your prophets and torn down Your altars, and I alone am left, and they seek my life”? 4 But what does the divine response say to him? “I have reserved for Myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Ba’al.” 5 Even so then, at this present time there is a remnant according to the election of grace. 6 And if by grace, then it is no longer of works; otherwise grace is no longer grace. But if it is of works, it is no longer grace; otherwise work is no longer work.7 What then? Israel has not obtained what it seeks; but the elect have obtained it, and the rest were blinded. 8 Just as it is written:
        “God has given them a spirit of stupor,      Eyes that they should not see      And ears that they should not hear,      To this very day.” 9 And David says:
       “Let their table become a snare and a trap,      A stumbling block and recompense to them.      10 Let their eyes be darkened, so that they do not see,      And bow down their back always.” 
11 I say then, have they stumbled that they should fall? Certainly not! But through their fall, to provoke them to jealousy, salvation has come to the Gentiles. 12 Now if their fall is riches for the world, and their failure riches for the Gentiles, how much more their fullness!
13 For I speak to you Gentiles; inasmuch as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I magnify my ministry, 14 if by any means I may provoke to jealousy those who are my flesh and save some of them. 15 For if their being cast away is the reconciling of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead?
16 For if the first fruit is holy, the lump is also holy; and if the root is holy, so are the branches. 17 And if some of the branches were broken off, and you, being a wild olive tree, were grafted in among them, and with them became a partaker of the root and fatness of the olive tree, 18 do not boast against the branches. But if you do boast, remember that you do not support the root, but the root supports you.
19 You will say then, “Branches were broken off that I might be grafted in.” 20 Well said. Because of unbelief they were broken off, and you stand by faith. Do not be haughty, but fear. 21 For if God did not spare the natural branches, He may not spare you either. 22 Therefore consider the goodness and severity of God: on those who fell, severity; but toward you, goodness, if you continue in His goodness. Otherwise you also will be cut off. 23 And they also, if they do not continue in unbelief, will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again. 24 For if you were cut out of the olive tree which is wild by nature, and were grafted contrary to nature into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these, who are natural branches, be grafted into their own olive tree?
25 For I do not desire, brethren, that you should be ignorant of this mystery, lest you should be wise in your own opinion, that blindness in part has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. 26 And so all Israel will be saved, as it is written:
        “The Deliverer will come out of Zion,      And He will turn away ungodliness from Jacob;      27 For this is My covenant with them,      When I take away their sins.” 28 Concerning the gospel they are enemies for your sake, but concerning the election they are beloved for the sake of the fathers. 29 For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. 30 For as you were once disobedient to God, yet have now obtained mercy through their disobedience, 31 even so these also have now been disobedient, that through the mercy shown you they also may obtain mercy. 32 For God has committed them all to disobedience, that He might have mercy on all.
33 Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out!
       34 “For who has known the mind of the LORD?      Or who has become His counselor?”      35 “Or who has first given to Him      And it shall be repaid to him?” 36 For of Him and through Him and to Him are all things, to whom be glory forever. Amen.


From Genesis through Malachi God pictured a savior, told about a Messiah, promised a Messiah. As we work our way through our series in the Old Testament histories, it's easy to lose sight of that fact, as well as the fact that at just the right time the Messiah came; and that He was rejected by the very people God had so long ago chosen for His own. So today I want to look at Romans 11 to show that while there were two covenants, God's grace has been the saving and preserving factor in both periods.

We have seen a real problem with the Israelites especially apparent when they were in the wilderness on their way to the promised land: They grew increasingly proud of the fact that they were, after all, the chosen people . . . and increasingly arrogant; No one, they proudly boasted, could know God except an Israelite.

This led to the attitude that regardless of the laws God had given them, they could pretty much live as they wanted, because God had chosen them, and that was that.

In the time of the judges, their periods of repentance and peace in the land seemed to be motivated by wanting to escape from oppression by their enemies rather than motivated by their love for God and desire to do His will. And then, after the time of the judges, over the following centuries, the Israelite religious leaders evolved a systematic code of conduct, despite the urging of the prophets to simply turn back to their God.

The attitude developed that being a people of God involved merit. There was growing belief among the Israelites that He chose them because they deserved it. An increasingly complex rabbinical code of conduct evolved, and by the first century A.D. there was a kind of curious confusing doctrine among the Jews. On the one hand, there was that centuries-old arrogant attitude that no one possibly could be a child of God unless he or she had been born an Israelite. But on the other hand, while they prided themselves that they were the chosen people of God, they also believed that one must earn God's favor by strictly adhering to the complex rules administered by the spiritual leadership—the Pharisees and the Sadducees.

The point is that even as early as the period of the book of Judges and as late as first-century Israel, we find little awareness among the Jews that God's love for His people was unconditional and that their communion with Him came by grace through faith.

Right after the resurrection, almost all of the church was made up of Jews who believed in Jesus as the promised Messiah. These Jewish Christians accurately saw Jesus as the Messiah and the New Covenant as the latest and final covenant God offered to His people—not by their merit, but by grace through faith.

The writer of the book of Hebrews repeatedly emphasizes this when he lists the motivations of what we call the Old Testament heroes in Hebrews 11—by faith Abel offered a more excellent sacrifice, by faith Enoch was taken away so that he did not see death, by faith Noah prepared an ark, by faith Abraham obeyed God . . . by faith Isaac, by faith Jacob, by faith Moses, by faith the walls of Jericho fell, by faith Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, and the prophets were God's servants.

It was that truth—by faith alone through grace alone—that existed from the beginning and which the Israelites seemed to miss, except for these spiritual leaders. And it was on this same basis—by grace through faith—that the church was established.

As we know, as time progressed in the early days of the church, there was increasing opposition from the Jews. Look at Acts 18:5-6 to see how Paul finally reacted:

5 When Silas and Timothy had come from Macedonia, Paul was compelled by the Spirit, and testified to the Jews that Jesus is the Christ. 6 But when they opposed him and blasphemed, he shook his garments and said to them, “Your blood be upon your own heads; I am clean. From now on I will go to the Gentiles.”

One thing led to another, and pretty soon the Jews were rioting against Christians. Jews who became believers were disowned by their families and by their Jewish neighbors. And to make matters worse, from the standpoint of the Jews, the Christians reached out to gentiles and preached salvation to them.

In Romans 11, Paul deals with this attitude.  The non-believing Jews were hostile to him because he preached salvation to both Jews and gentiles.  And while the Jewish Christians did not blatantly oppose Paul, even they were a little uneasy about gentile believers and had lots of questions about whether God was rejecting the Jews; they struggled with some of these ideas because their cultural conditioning.

Paul summarizes in Romans 11 a whole lot of history and doctrine, demonstrating that God's plan has been consistent over all these centuries.

Paul raises several points in chapter 11 to deal with their concerns.

God didn’t reject His people; His people rejected Him (1-6)

We know the story of Elijah, in 1 Kings 19: He won a huge victory over 400 prophets of Ba’al, and then ran from one angry woman, Jezebel, and hid in a cave until God coaxed him out and asked him what in the world he was doing there. Elijah told him, maybe with a little whine in his voice, (1 Kings 19:14) "I have been very zealous for the LORD God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too." God replied to Elijah: (1 Kings 19:18) “Yet I reserve seven thousand in Israel—all whose knees have not bowed down to Ba’al and all whose mouths have not kissed him."

Just as there was in that time an unseen remnant of the faithful, God knows the faithful remnant today that has not bowed the knee to righteousness by good works, but righteousness through the grace of God through Jesus Christ.

Elijah needed to open His eyes to the work God was really doing, just as the Jews in the first century needed to open their eyes to see the work God did through Jesus. As a nation they were so caught up in external righteousness by obeying the law that they missed the internal righteousness God offered through Jesus. And even as God told Elijah to anoint another to take his place, the Jews found themselves unable to obtain God’s favor through their own merits, and that rejection brought with it a result.

The Israelites’ rejection of Jesus led to their blindness (7-10)

Why do the Jews reject Jesus as the Messiah? In these verses, Paul says they earnestly desired to be God’s people but didn’t achieve it (“Let their table become a snare,” David wrote).

The first quotation is a combination of thoughts from Deuteronomy 29 and Isaiah 29. The word for stupor actually is from a word meaning “to prick” like a needle. The idea is that Israel has had so much stimulation and spiritual sensation, that they have become apathetic and their sensations dulled just like you would when a callous forms on your skin: tough, hard, and without feeling. They were so devoted to doing the law, they could not sense (see or hear) the grace of God.

The second quotation here is taken from Ps 69, in which David was praying against his enemies. Their feasts were special times of idolatry and blasphemy and so David prays that these would be used to entrap them. Jesus said, and I’m paraphrasing, “you study the law because in it you think you have life, but that life you want is found only in Me.” The same pictures of dulled senses and limited usefulness are presented. The Greek word “always” (some trans. “forever”) commonly means “continually.”  The idea is that they are continually hardened and continually in bondage to the law. No wonder David said “their backs bent forever. Who can bear under the weight of the obeying the law to get right with God?”

Later Paul would write (2 Corinthians 3:15-16):  “But even to this day, when Moses is read, a veil lies on their heart.  Nevertheless when one turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away.” That “veil” keeps them from understanding that Jesus is the Messiah. Jews will tell you that the Messiah is supposed to do three things: bring peace to the world, gather the Jewish people from their exile, and rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem. Jesus didn’t do any of those things, they say, so He can’t be the Messiah. The Messiah is to be three things – king, priest, and prophet – Jesus is all three, but He fulfills those roles not in a way that the Jews expected.

Even today, here’s how one Jewish web site defines Judiasm:  “The obligation in Judaism is to follow G-D's statutes and his laws.  Man is judged by his deeds, not by his faith.  In synagogue, you will find that the rabbi's sermon usually will stress deeds, community, social involvement, or the observance of the Sabbath, etc.  You will not hear a Rabbi's sermon on salvation through faith.”  (

So what do we do? Lambaste the Jews for rejecting Jesus? Unfortunately, that’s what many Christians have done down through the ages, citing the Israelites' works orientation in the Old Testament and their rejection of the Messiah. But that is not the response God wants us to have.

Christians should show God’s love to everyone, including the Jews (11-16)

There is hope for the Jews—the same hope as for everyone, both Jews and gentiles. Many have come to know Jesus as their Savior. Today there are movements of Jewish believers, such as Jews for Jesus. Jewish believers bring the rich history, heritage, culture, and knowledge of the Old Testament with them.

Once God takes the church from the earth, He will lift that veil that Paul talks about off the Jewish nation, and many of them will come to Christ, becoming powerful, anointed believers.

When we study the O.T. and see the legalism of the Israelites, we need to keep reminding ourselves that the Jews are not cast-offs, we should seek to understand how they can enrich our own experience with Jesus.

We share common roots with Israel (17-21)

Some Christians adopt an arrogant attitude of superiority over the Jews, as well as gentile unbelievers. That is the wrong attitude and in prideful and arrogant. Instead, we need to keep in mind that we have been grafted in to something God was already doing through them.

What a wonderful heritage we have! All that Abraham and Moses and David went through . . . we now share in that history; we are now a part of that family.

God has included us in what He started through Israel (22-24)

God is adamant that only through Jesus will we find Him. But the point here is this:  once a Jewish person realizes he has been cut off from God and has come back through Jesus the Messiah . . . how natural it is.

The Jewish hardening is only temporary (25-27)

So what is the trigger for the Jews to recognize their Messiah? It is when “the fullness of the gentiles has come” (25) Paul calls this a mystery. The most popular interpretation is that this will be when the last gentile chosen for salvation by God accepts Jesus as Lord.  More broadly, it is simply when the end of the church age comes—that is, upon Jesus’ return at the start of the tribulation, when God will remove the church from the earth and remove the veil from Israel.

People are saved by grace through faith, Jew and gentile alike (28-36)

Paul is just amazed at the intricacy of God’s plan: We were disobedient to God, and received mercy; then the Jews rejected the Messiah the Father sent to them, becoming disobedient in the process; and now in that same disobedience that we were in, they can come to God in the same way – through realizing their disobedience and receiving mercy – not by works, not by the law, but by the grace of God through the sacrifice once for all of His Son Jesus.

Does all this sound a little confusing? Don’t worry about the big picture – just worry about faithful daily living with God. He’ll take care of the big picture. We must not feel smug.  At the same time we that feel secure in His care, we must not get all puffed up about it. Instead, we should realize the awesome privilege we have been given, of being grafted in as a wild branch to the root.

All interpretation of Scripture must be seen through the lens of Jesus. Hebrews 1:1-2: “In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe.”

In recent months we have spent a lot of time in the Old Testament. Always remember to see the Israelites and their history in light of the promised Messiah and our Lord's unchanging offer . . .  by grace through faith. Some Jews will see this. When Paul came to Rome (years after writing this letter) he met with Jewish leaders and they discussed Jesus as the Messiah. At the end of the discussion it says this (Acts 28:24): “Some were convinced by what he said, but others would not believe.”

May 4, 2011

Hope for Judah: The Future King--Isaiah 7-12


You will remember that chapter 1 gives a stern message to the people of Judah: accusations regarding their rebellion despite past judgments from God; their futile, empty worship; the call to repentance; and two promises: (1) those who repent will be restored, and (2) those who continue in rebellion will be judged

Two weeks ago we discussed how chapters 2-5 continue this message, while at the same time adding a new message of hope for the future. Delivering the word from God, Isaiah describes at length Judah’s inglorious present and how God will deal with His people’s rejection of Him. But then he prophesies about a contrasting glorious future, when He once more dwells and rules in Jerusalem (Isaiah 4:2-6):

2 In that day the Branch of the LORD shall be beautiful and glorious; And the fruit of the earth shall be excellent and appealing for those of Israel who have escaped. 3 And it shall come to pass that he who is left in Zion and remains in Jerusalem will be called holy—everyone who is recorded among the living in Jerusalem. 4 When the Lord has washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion, and purged the blood of Jerusalem from her midst, by the spirit of judgment and by the spirit of burning, 5 then the LORD will create above every dwelling place of Mount Zion, and above her assemblies, a cloud and smoke by day and the shining of a flaming fire by night. For over all the glory there will be a covering. 6 And there will be a tabernacle for shade in the daytime from the heat, for a place of refuge, and for a shelter from storm and rain.

Chapter 5, you will remember, is a song or poem from the Lord about the vineyard He had planted (Judah). It is similar to a lament: the vineyard He cultivated and cared for did not bear cultivated fruit, but only wild grapes. He cultivated justice and righteousness, but the vineyard produced oppression, bribery, greed, arrogance, with His people seeking only pleasure, while taunting Him and His prophets to accomplish His will. Worst of all, the people grew to call evil good and good evil, darkness light and light darkness. Therefore the vineyard will be laid waste. Judgment will come, in the form of strong nations invading the land to conquer and carry away their prey, and the vineyard will be laid waste, because it has not produced good fruit; the people of God have hated and rejected Him. And until the Messiah comes, no longer will the light shine in the land; it will be dark and desolate (Isaiah 5:30: “In that day they will roar against them like the roaring of the sea. And if one looks to the land, behold, darkness and sorrow; and the light is darkened by the clouds.”)

Think for a moment about the messages of the prophets and also the messages of Jesus. God does not want merely outward expressions. He wants our hearts and minds. Like the Judeans, we can see in our culture some of the same attitudes and cultural pressures as God saw among His people Judah: greed, injustice, oppression, arrogance.

If the only word of God we had were the first five chapters of Isaiah, we still would know His will for His people: to know Him, to be faithful, to have the courage to live for Him and call evil evil and good good. A genuine person of God is simply one who not only believes in His revealed word, but also lives in and obeys His will.

Chapter 6 deals with Isaiah’s call to prophesy and includes the account of the response that is an example for all Christians: “Here am I! Send me.”

And today, we are going to zip through chapter 7 and complete the first major section of the book, the prophecies concerning Judah and Jerusalem. We have already learned what God thought about the sinful state of Judah, and we will not dwell on the messages about their sin today. Rather, I want to take a look at the section in general, and the prophecies of the Messiah in a little more detail.

Isaiah is sent to King Ahaz (7:1-12)

1 Now it came to pass in the days of Ahaz the son of Jotham, the son of Uzziah, king of Judah, that Rezin king of Syria and Pekah the son of Remaliah, king of Israel, went up to Jerusalem to make war against it, but could not prevail against it. 2 And it was told to the house of David, saying, “Syria’s forces are deployed in Ephraim.” So his heart and the heart of his people were moved as the trees of the woods are moved with the wind.3 Then the LORD said to Isaiah, “Go out now to meet Ahaz, you and Shear-Jashub[a] your son, at the end of the aqueduct from the upper pool, on the highway to the Fuller’s Field, 4 and say to him: ‘Take heed, and be quiet; do not fear or be fainthearted for these two stubs of smoking firebrands, for the fierce anger of Rezin and Syria, and the son of Remaliah. 5 Because Syria, Ephraim, and the son of Remaliah have plotted evil against you, saying, 6 “Let us go up against Judah and trouble it, and let us make a gap in its wall for ourselves, and set a king over them, the son of Tabel”— 7 thus says the Lord God:
        “ It shall not stand,
      Nor shall it come to pass.
       8 For the head of Syria is Damascus,
      And the head of Damascus is Rezin.
      Within sixty-five years Ephraim will be broken,
      So that it will not be a people.
       9 The head of Ephraim is Samaria,
      And the head of Samaria is Remaliah’s son.
      If you will not believe,
      Surely you shall not be established.” 
10 Moreover the Lord spoke again to Ahaz, saying, 11 “Ask a sign for yourself from the Lord your God; ask it either in the depth or in the height above.” 12 But Ahaz said, “I will not ask, nor will I test the Lord!”

Chapter 7 is a historical narrative of the advice the prophet Isaiah gave to Ahaz, king of Judah.

Ahaz reigned for three years, 735-732 B.C. During this time, Jerusalem was under threat of invasion from Syria and Israel in the north, for refusing to join them in their fight against the invading Assyrians. Now, with the Syrians threatening Jerusalem, Ahaz was tempted to seek help with alliances with the Assyrians and the Egyptians.

The word of the Lord through Isaiah to Ahaz was to rely on the Lord and not on unholy alliances, and not to worry, because the Syrians and the Israelites will not prevail in their invasion. In fact, the northern kingdom of Israel will itself be defeated and broken (verse 8: “. . . Within sixty-five years Ephraim will be broken, so that it will not be a people”).

In verses 10-13, Ahaz is invited to ask for a sign from God, but refuses. I see some hypocrisy here—the king who has rejected his God and who leads a people who rejected God refuses to test his God, perhaps out of fear of the God he has rejected.

The sign of Immanuel (7:10-16)

10 Moreover the Lord spoke again to Ahaz, saying, 11 “Ask a sign for yourself from the Lord your God; ask it either in the depth or in the height above.”
12 But Ahaz said, “I will not ask, nor will I test the Lord!”
13 Then he said, “Hear now, O house of David! Is it a small thing for you to weary men, but will you weary my God also? 14 Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel. 15 Curds and honey He shall eat, that He may know to refuse the evil and choose the good. 16 For before the Child shall know to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land that you dread will be forsaken by both her kings.

Despite Ahaz’s refusal to ask for a sign, the Lord through Isaiah delivers the prophecy of a sign to come. While the sign is to be given specifically to the “house of David” (verse 13, the descendents of King David)—a broader audience also is in mind: all Judeans and perhaps all people of Judah and Israel, who are in a sense related, all being descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

The prophecy is that a virgin shall conceive and bear a son (the word means an unmarried young woman, a virgin; never used of a married woman) . . .
and bear a son, and shall call His name Immanuel (which means “God with us”).

Verse 16 seems to give pastors and theologians fits, with theories of all kinds over the centuries. Some reason that the child in verse 16 is the child to be born to Isaiah, due mainly to a similar prophecy in Isaiah 8:4. However, the point should not be in question. The context is not ambiguous: the child of verse 16 is the same child in verse 14 (“Immanuel”), who would be conceived miraculously and literally to be “God with us.” The phrase that has given some theologians fits (“before the Child shall know to refuse the evil and choose the good”) is simply a colloquial expression of the culture, meaning “quite soon” or “sooner than you expect.”

The remainder of chapter 7 (verses 17-25) deals with the coming judgment of Judah and desolation of the land. The very nations Ahaz was ready to call upon for assistance (Assyria and Egypt) would take part in the judgment against Judah. There is an interesting allusion in verse 20—the Lord, using a “hired razor” (invading nations) will shave the head, legs, and beard of the land (i.e., remove them from the land). Verses 23-25 reveal that the once-cultivated land will produce only briars and thorns.

Isaiah mixes judgment with hope

Note how so far in the prophecy we have seen Isaiah delivering a message of both judgment and hope.

The judgment is against a people who have turned willfully and persistently from their God and have sought instead to pursue the pleasures of the cultures around them—wine, sexual promiscuity, greed, oppression of the poor, and worshipping idols.

So far, we have seen the hope God is offering them in two ways. First, there are frequent references to the remnant, a small number who would be preserved due to their faithfulness. And second, we find references to what we might call the “grand hope” of Judah—the future advent of the Messiah, Immanuel, God with us.

Chapters 8 through 10 deal mainly with more prophecies of judgment, but in the first seven verses of chapter 9, Isaiah again jumps ahead to prophecies of the coming Messiah. In addition, there are verses in chapter 10 dealing with the returning remnant of Israel and the promise of restoration and preservation of God’s people in the land that He gave them. We will look at these chapters next week.