Towards the end of Paul’s magisterial examination of Israel’s present rejection of God’s ways and the purposes and plans of God to bring all to repentance, there comes a passage that examines the mysterious and inscrutable ways of God in a manner that go far beyond the case of Israel alone. Despite the fact that this passage provides a great deal of insight into the way that God operates, it is not a passage that tends to receive a lot of attention from those who right about the Bible or about the mysterious workings of divine providence. Therefore, being the sort of person who has such an interest as well as an appreciation of obscure and unusual passages of scripture let us examine this passage and then discuss why it might be neglected, as well as the insight that it provides as a demonstration of God’s purposes and way of operating that can go far beyond the specific context of the passage itself.
Romans 11:28-36 reads as follows: “Concerning the gospel they are enemies for your sake, but concerning the election they are beloved for the sake of the fathers. For the gifts of God and the calling of God are irrevocable. For as you were once disobedient to God, yet have now obtained mercy through their disobedience, even so these also have now been disobedient, that through the mercy shown to you they also may obtain mercy. For God has committed them all to disobedience, that He might have mercy on all. 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! “For who has known the mind of the Eternal? Or who has become His counselor? Or who has first given to Him that it shall be repaid to him?” For of Him and through Him and to Him are all things, to whom be glory forever. Amen.”
Before we go far afield from this passage, let us at least spend some time discussing the narrow context of this passage so that we may base our inferences on the solid ground of firm exegesis. This passage, which rhapsodizes about the unknowable ways that God works our actions (especially our rebellion against Him) for His own purposes, itself comes at the end of a lengthy examination of the purposes of Israel’s rebellion for the salvation of the Gentiles, which can be found in Romans chapters 9 to 11. Specifically, this passage seeks to remind Gentiles not to lord it over the Jews that they have entered into salvation while the Jews have largely remained rebellious to their Messiah, even to this day, by pointing out that it was the prior rejection of Jesus Christ by the Jews that allowed the Gentiles to receive the opportunity of salvation here and now at all. Likewise, the larger passage points out that it remains God’s will that all Israel (and indeed, all flesh, per 1 Timothy 2;4, for example) will be saved. Since God wills for His own purposes that some have their hearts hardened towards him here and now so that the way may be opened for others to be saved, and yet those who are currently hardened, even if they should die in rebellion, are not irrevocably lost, it therefore remains for there to be some means of those people repenting and entering into salvation themselves, at some point after their physical lives are over. It is not the place of this post to follow that particular trail in looking at the means of that supposed ‘second chance’ for salvation, as there are others more skilled than I am who can detail that particular path with great authority, yet it is worthwhile to at least point out that this implication is present at a foundational level in this passage in its close context.
In the larger context, this passage seeks to justify the way that God uses selective blessings and the offer of salvation to small groups here and now to provoke others to jealousy, and ultimately to (eventual) repentance. After all, it was the original intent for God to bless an obedient Israel as a nation and so to provoke the nations around them to wonder what it was about that nation and their God (namely, His ways) that would allow such a little nation to be so mighty and so prosperous. This was, indeed, part of the original missionary appeal of Israel, to be placed in a place (at the intersection between Africa and Asia, and close to Europe also) where their action would be seen by a wide and influential part of humanity to provoke them to an examination of God’s ways, in which the people of Israel would serve as kings and priests, teaching and enforcing God’s ways . This purpose has yet to be fulfilled, because Israel was never obedient to God’s ways for any particular length of time, and even Israel’s leaders as a whole were not a particularly godly lot.
We should note as well that this principle of God calling seemingly unimpressive people with the aim of provoking jealousy is itself a consistent aspect of God’s workings with humanity. After all, as it says in a well known passage in 1 Corinthians 1:26-31: “For you see your calling brethren, that not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called. But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty, and the base things of the world and the things which are despised God has chosen, and the things which are not, to bring to nothing the things that are, that no flesh should glory in His presence. But of Him you are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God–and righteousness and sanctification and redemption–that, as it is written, “He who glories, let him glory in the Eternal.””
Here again we see that it is God’s purpose in dealing with mankind to take from among the most unimpressive people on this earth those to be His people, to work with them and to show His power and His grace not primarily through the rulers and the elites who glory in their own position and power, nor in those who can glory in their own intellect or in their own resources, but rather those who are painfully aware of their brokenness, their weakness, their foolishness, and their dependence upon God for all that they possess. The fact that God offers His salvation to the downtrodden and oppressed, and has throughout history , was meant to provoke those who possessed greatness by the standards of the world to notice God’s favor to those who they little regarded and to have their consciences pricked thereby, whether here and now or in the judgment to come. God delights in reversals, to show how little what appears to be the case from surface understanding in this world corresponds to His estimation by deeper spiritual insight. Because we are creatures of superficial understanding, we often fail to understand the deeper aspects of what God is trying to do in our lives and with ourselves and others simply because we cannot perceive ourselves or others as God does and cannot see what God is doing with us and with others to fulfill His purposes.
It ought to be clear to us that any such forgiveness or blessing as we receive from God is an act of mercy and grace on His part and not something that we can deserve based on our own merits. Even the love and respect we give to others and receive from them is similarly an act of grace on our part, since no one can demand it or earn it from others (as much as we might want to). By showing mercy to some, God demonstrates in a small and scalable way His longsuffering and patient and merciful nature, all of which are attributes that we who are treated in a merciful fashion by Him ought then to model ourselves in our interactions and relationships with others. Sometimes our mercy and grace and love does not appear that way to others, just like the way that God is being merciful and loving and gracious towards us is similarly obscure in many cases. Nevertheless, although God permits many beings to rebel against Him for His own purposes, His workings in history and through the redeemed lives of believers offers case studies of mercy and graciousness that are meant to demonstrate the way that God will eventually treat everyone. Those who have received God’s mercy in the most spectacular ways will then be those who will be the most passionate and generous givers of that same mercy to others in turn, just as was the case for the apostle Paul himself.
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