A sermon preached at Covenant Presbyterian Church of Fort Smith, Arkansas on May 1, 2022.
So I ask, did they stumble in order that they might fall? By no means! Rather, through their trespass salvation has come to the Gentiles, so as to make Israel jealous. Now if their trespass means riches for the world, and if their failure means riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their full inclusion mean! Now I am speaking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch then as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I magnify my ministry in order somehow to make my fellow Jews jealous, and thus save some of them. For if their rejection means the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance mean but life from the dead?
Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off (Romans 11:11–15, 22)
Paul’s question presumes our knowledge of his ongoing epistolary argument: “did [Israel] stumble in order that they might fall?” (11:11). Did Israel in fact stumble, and if so how? Indeed, they did; indeed they have, as Paul describes in the ninth chapter, “They have stumbled over the stumbling stone, as it is written, ‘Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense; and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame” (Rom. 9:32-33). Pursuing the righteousness of God by works not faith, they stumbled over Christ. Or, as Paul puts it in the tenth chapter, “For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Rom. 10:3-4).
So, why did Israel stumble over Christ? Was it so they might be irrevocably condemned forever? Paul says, “Absolutely not!” (11:11 NET). Does this mean that unbelieving Jews may be saved by their works? No, eternal salvation is through faith in Christ alone. So, what is Paul saying?
To understand Paul’s argument, we must first understand that God is sovereign and his sovereign purpose always prevails, even if it doesn’t make sense to us. For example, in referencing Israel’s redemption from Egypt and God’s purpose in Pharaoh, Paul explains, “For he says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.’ So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharoah, ‘For this purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.’ So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills” (Rom. 9:15-18). We must, however, not misunderstand what Paul is saying. He is not describing God’s sovereign activity as arbitrary or his sovereign will as capricious. No, there is purpose in everything God does, including Israel’s stumbling over Christ.
So, what was God’s purpose in Israel’s stumbling? The answer is two-fold: the salvation of the Gentiles and to make Israel jealous. And of course the two are connected, because nothing was more offensive to Israel than to consider Gentiles as God’s people. For example, recall Paul’s return to Jerusalem after his missionary journeys, when he was seized in the temple and beaten in the street. Saved by Roman soldiers, Paul was allowed to address the Israelites, in Hebrew no less. When he told of his Jewish heritage, his religious training, and zealous persecution, the crowd listened attentively. When he told of the miraculous revelation of Jesus on the road to Damascus, the blindness that resulted, and his subsequent baptism, the people listened curiously. But when he revealed the Lord’s command to “Go…far away to the Gentiles” (Acts 22:21), the Israelites erupted, attempting murder, demanding his execution. A commissioning to serve the Gentiles by the Word of God was too much for Jewish ears. Yet, in God’s sovereign purpose God chose to reject Israel and bestow his riches upon Gentiles, revealing his kindness to the world.
When Failure Means Fullness
Through Israel’s “trespass,” or “transgression” (NET), meaning their rejection of Christ, Paul explains, “salvation has come to the Gentiles” (11:11), an act of God that Paul designates a mystery, “something once hidden that is now revealed, a matter that would not be known otherwise.” As he explains to the Ephesians, “This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (Eph. 3:6). Such a mystery is quite startling when we consider the exclusive revelation of God to ancient Israel. Among all the nations, Israel was the only one chosen to be his own possession (Ps. 135:4) and given his special revelation.
There are Gentile exceptions in the Old Testament, such as Rahab, Ruth, Naaman, among others. But they are but a glimpse of inclusion to come, for, as Jesus told the woman at the well, “salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22).
Yet, not every Old Testament Israelite believed; many didn’t, as Paul explained earlier in Romans, “For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter” (Rom. 2:28-29). And it is here that we understand Israel’s transgression: that of unbelief. Just like New Testament believers today, salvation has always been by the life-giving work of the Holy Spirit through faith in the promise according to the Word of God. But apart from the grace of the Holy Spirit, without faith in Christ the trespass continues, even as the gospel advances to the nations.
From Pentecost onward, a new era dawned in which the gospel is proclaimed to every tribe, tongue, and nation, “riches for the world…riches for the Gentiles” (11:12), “the unsearchable riches of Christ” (Eph. 3:8). Just as God promised Abraham, “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:3), so we are recipients of its fulfillment, once not God’s people (1Pet. 2:10) but now in Christ “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession” (1 Pet. 2:9). According to God’s sovereign yet mysterious purpose, Israel’s failure means our inclusion into the family of God, an inclusion that continues “until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled” (Luke 21:24), “until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in” (Rom. 11:25), until one day when Israel’s jealousy will turn them to Jesus.
When Dead Means Life
When this will be in temporal time, God only knows. But Paul is not looking through the lens of the temporal but eternal. He is not naïve but knows that this is the Lord’s doing. It was God who “gave [Israel] a spirit of stupor, eyes that would not see and ears that would not hear” (11:8). It was God who rejected them (11:15), breaking them off like a branch from the tree of his Church (11:17). While incomprehensible to us, “This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes” (118:23). Why? Because God’s rejection of Israel “means reconciliation of the world” (11:15).
Paul’s use of the word “world” is a synonym for Gentiles, a non-Jewish people who are reconciled to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, not universally but exclusively through Christ. We who were enemies of God have been reconciled to him through the death and life of Christ (5:10). No longer enemies, we are now worshipers, rejoicing “in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation” (5:11).
What then are we to make of Israel’s rejection? Though they stumbled, Paul says they have not irrevocably fallen away (11:11). Indeed, though we live in an era of Israel’s rejection, acceptance will come and with it the end of time and the resurrection of the dead, “life from the dead” (11:15). Speculation of the timing of Israel’s acceptance is pointless. Instead, it should point us to the One who rejects and accepts, the One who reconciles and resurrects.
I am reminded of the story of Lazarus’ resurrection to this life. You may recall that before Jesus resurrected Lazarus from the dead he told his sister, Martha, something essential, for Jew and Gentile alike: “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die” (John 11:25a). And then he asked her pointedly, “Do you believe this?” (John 11:25b), a question of personal faith. Her response is one few Jews have professed since: “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world” (John 11:27). Though her brother lay dead in the grave, Martha received eternal life.
Of course, the rest of the story is the resurrection of Lazarus from the dead, not unto glory but to this life again, a miracle that spread Jesus’ fame across the land. But Lazarus would eventually physically die, as is the way of us all, but his physical resurrection that day is a helpful picture of what happened to Martha spiritually, and all who believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, a glimpse of what is to come. By God’s grace through faith, we are brought to life, hearing our Savior call, “My child, come forth! And so we go from spiritually dead to alive, life to be fully and finally consummated in the final resurrection, when Gentiles like you and me and Jews like Martha and Lazarus shall live and never die through him who is “the resurrection and the life.”
When Severity Means Kindness
Like Paul, we too should not have a naïve view of God. In considering Israel’s rejection and our reconciliation, Paul says, “Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness” (11:22). If you are in Christ, God has shown you immense kindness, unexplainable except in his sovereign grace. Have you sincerely considered the magnitude of this kindness? All too often the cares and concern of this world cause us to forget that God “has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” (Eph. 1:3). No spiritual blessing is lacking if you are in Christ. And, “In him we have obtained an inheritance . . . to the praise of his glory” (Eph. 1:12). Such is the kindness of God to sinners like you and me.
But like his kindness, God’s severity is on display as well, notably in the unbelieving Jewish people throughout the world, as well as all who stumble over Christ in unbelief. But for the grace of God, we would know only his severity not his salvation. But one day unbelieving Jewish people will see his kindness too, evidenced in all who believe on the Lord Jesus Christ.
“For [the LORD’s] anger is but for a moment,
and his favor is for a lifetime.
Weeping may tarry for the night,
but joy comes with the morning” (Ps. 30:5).
Let us then persevere in the Lord’s kindness by faith, consistently mindful of God’s saving and sustaining unmerited favor to us, consistently mindful of such things as: First, let us have a right view of God. He who is love (1 John 4:16) is also holy, holy, holy (Rev. 4:8). He who is merciful and gracious is also faithful and just (1 John 1:9), “visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate [him], but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love [him] and keep [his] commandments” (Ex. 20:6). Let us remember both the severity and kindness of God.
Second, let us trust God at his Word. Since “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17), we must not neglect to be in the Word of God and especially under the preaching of it. Those who forsake the assembling of Christ’s church (Heb. 10:25) do so at their own peril, tempting the severity of God. As James Boice puts it, “we must continue to go to church to hear sound teaching and …study the Bible privately as well. If we do not, we will drift away. And if we drift away without returning eventually—and how can we be sure we will return?—we will perish.”
Third, let us not forget that it is not our will but God’s kindness that leads us to repentance. We are tempted to “presume on the riches of [God’s] kindness and forbearance and patience” (Rom. 2:4). Yet, such presumption can lead to “a hard and impenitent heart, awaiting the stored-up wrath of God” (Rom. 2:5). It is indeed God’s kindness that leads us to repentance, so let us see it, repent, and turn to the Lord.
Fourth, let us believe the gospel and consistently remember God’s kindness to us in it. The offer of the gospel is free to all: “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved” (10:9-10). If you have never believed, believe today and receive God’s forgiveness. If you have believed, let everything in your life be informed and formed by it.
Fifth, let us not take God’s kindness for granted. As Gentiles, we did not seek the righteousness of God; we never wanted to follow Jesus. He rescued us: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph. 2:8-9). And since you were saved by grace alone, it is God’s grace alone that will sustain you.
Let us then note “the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness” (11:22). For, through Israel’s “trespass salvation has come to the Gentiles, so as to make Israel jealous” (11:12), and through their failure we have received heavenly riches and reconciliation with God. Such is the mystery of God: jealousy, riches, and the kindness of God. What can we say but “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! . . . For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen” (11:33,36).
 Unless referenced otherwise, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2001).
 Robert Letham, Systematic Theology (Wheaton: Crossway, 2019), 840.
 James Montgomery Boice, God and History: Romans 9-11 (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1993), 3:1356.