Bryan Chapell tells a story about learning to use a crosscut saw with his father. As Bryan and his father were sawing through a log that had a rotten core, a piece of wood sheared off that looked just like a horse’s head. So Bryan took it home and then later on gave it to his dad as a present. Chapell continues:
I attached a length of two-by-four board to that log head, attached a rope tail, and stuck on some sticks to act as legs. Then I halfway hammered in a dozen or so nails down the two-by-four body of that “horse,” wrapped the whole thing in butcher-block paper, put a bow on it, and presented it to my father. When he took off the wrapping, he smiled and said, “Thank you, it’s wonderful … what is it?” “It’s a tie rack, Dad,” I said. “See, you can put your ties on those nails going down the side of the horse’s body.” My father smiled again and thanked me. Then he leaned the horse against his closet wall (because the stick legs could not keep it standing upright), and for years he used it as a tie rack. Now, when I first gave my father that rotten-log-horse-head tie rack, I really thought it was “good.” In my childish mind this creation was a work of art ready for the Metropolitan Museum. But as I matured, I realized that my work was not nearly as good as I had once thought. In fact, I understood ultimately that my father had received and used my gift not because of its goodness but out of his goodness. In a similar way our heavenly Father receives our gifts not so much because they deserve his love, but because he is love.
We see this righteous and loving character of God expressed in Romans 9-11. In chapter 11 Paul enters into a discussion regarding the nation of Israel. The Jews had been chosen by God to receive and dispense his covenant promises through Abraham (see Rom. 9.4-5, Acts 3.25). Yet, because of their disobedience and hard-hearted rejection of God’s grace, they had forfeited their privileged position and had lost the ability to see and hear God (v.8). And God, therefore, had turned his personal attention toward the Gentiles.
Paul addresses the question of whether or not the Jews will continue in their disobedience, or will there ever be a chance that they will turn back to God? He presents his discussion by posing two primary questions in the text about what the future will hold for the Jew. In a spiritual sense, it is a parallel story for each of us, who try to be right with God on our own, pursue our own self-interest, and often choose to reject God’s love. We then discover God’s amazing grace to rescue us through Jesus Christ.
How Hearts Become Hardened
The first question Paul asks in verses 1-10 is, “Has God rejected Israel?” Paul responds to his own question with a flat-out, “Not at all!” God has not totally rejected Israel – In fact, he has kept a remnant chosen by grace (v5). Paul’s own story, as well as that of a number of other Jews, proves that God didn’t reject all of the Jews. They themselves are members of this believing remnant community. As an example of what God does, Paul refers to Elijah, who thought he was the only one left who had stayed faithful to God. However, God showed Elijah that he was not alone. God had chosen 7000 others by grace to be a part of a faithful remnant within their unfaithful nation. They didn’t earn that privilege; they didn’t do anything to deserve it. They were simply chosen in God’s mercy to experience his divine favor. Overall, Israel tried to merit salvation by works and failed. Because they refused the grace that came through Christ (see 10.21), God hardened their hearts.
The Greek word translated “hardened” (eporothesan) refers to hardening of the heart to the point that it becomes very difficult to get through to them from then on. “It is as though a callus built up over the Israelites that made them less sensitive to God” (Henry Liddon).
Paul continues in verses 11-24 with a second question – “…did they stumble in order that they might fall?” That is, Has God rejected Israel permanently? Again, Paul responds with a resounding, “Not at all” (v.11). God took their sin and made something good out of it (see Romans 8.28) – salvation was offered to the Gentiles in order to make Israel jealous. What resulted from Israel’s sin became riches for the world. Yet, God never ‘pulls the plug’ on election and the gospel for the Jews.
Now Don’t Get Cocky
Having explained the status of the Jews before God, Paul turns for a moment to speak to non-Jews to explain why his ministry to them is so important. It is not only to bring salvation to them but also to make the Jews jealous and so, hopefully save some of them (vv.13-14). Paul reminds these non-Jews to not become proud because of their new-found privilege. It’s as if he were to say, “Don’t feel superior to the Jews simply because God cut them off and sent me to you instead. God will deal the same with you as he did with Israel if you respond in unbelief.” To prove this, Paul uses the example of an olive tree. The Jews are the God-planted, God-cultivated tree. The non-Jews are a wild olive branch grafted into the tree. Therefore, there is no basis for feeling superior to the Jews. Though the Jews are cut off now, they can easily be grafted back into their own olive tree. The truth is, all of this privilege is due to God’s mercy and grace. No one deserves the enormous privileges that come through the gospel.
The Power of a Promise
Paul now, in verses 25-32, tells us the mystery of how this remnant of Jews that are destined for God’s grace will experience God’s mercy once again. This is a key truth and reminds us that we serve a God of second chances. Though we are undeserving sinners God so loves us that he never gives up on us. Paul tells us that a partial hardening upon Israel is in effect until “the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. And in this way all Israel will be saved” (vv.25b-26a). This refers to the manner of Israel’s salvation. As a fulfillment of prophecy, Israel will one day see their sin, repent, and place their faith in Christ just like believing Gentiles have. Zechariah 12.10 describes what that day we be like: “And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and pleas for mercy, so that, when they look on me, on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn.” When Israel on that day realizes that they crucified their Messiah (“him who they have pierced”), their hardened hearts will be broken over it, and they will turn to Christ for salvation. God’s covenant with them will be the same covenant made available through Christ to all who believe. As Anthony Hoekema writes, “… the future of believing Israelites is not to be separated from the future of believing Gentiles … Israel’s hope for the future is exactly the same as that of believing Gentiles: salvation and ultimate glorification through faith in Christ.”
Yes, God keeps his promises. Israel is still chosen. They have been disobedient. Yet, they will be shown mercy … if they do not continue in their unbelief (v.23). God’s mercy truly is getting what you don’t deserve. Today, you may feel you don’t deserve God’s mercy for all the wrong you have done. And to be honest, none of us deserve what God offers. Our spiritual “tie racks” (self-made efforts) will always be imperfect, yet our Heavenly Father’s righteous character and love never change. He holds the door to salvation open, so that all who believe may come in. Who could have worked this out but God (see vv.33-36)? His divine plan, worked through human history in the person of Christ, ultimately leads to salvation for ALL who believe.