Romans 11:11-16 – Why has God hardened unbelieving ethnic Israelites?

, posted by kingswoodhart

This is part of a series of posts on Romans. The main focus of this series will be chapters 9-11 of the letter. These chapters, particularly chapter 9, have been interpreted in various different ways. My aim is to demonstrate what I consider to be the correct interpretation. I will do this by considering the structure and context of the letter and then focusing in on these chapters, showing how the proposed interpretation fits with the context and structure of the letter, as well as being internally consistent within chapters 9-11. Click here for the contents page.

Now that we have an understanding of Paul’s view of election, we can continue with this section of Romans (11:1-32), picking up from verse 11:

“[11] So I ask, did they [“the rest”, i.e. the non-elect among the ethnic Israelites – those who are not currently trusting in Christ] stumble in order that they might fall? By no means! Rather through their trespass salvation has come to the Gentiles, so as to make them jealous.”

The use of the word ‘they’ and the reference to stumbling (see verse 9) shows that Paul is speaking about the same people as in the previous verses – ethnic Israelites who are not currently trusting in Christ. As Paul has just explained, these ethnic Israelites have been hardened. The reference to a ‘fall’ is referring to a situation in which they are spiritually lost forever. Paul is asking if the purpose of their stumbling was so that they would be lost forever. He answers strongly against this.

We discover here that God had a higher purpose in hardening the ethnic Israelites who were not trusting in Christ. God did not harden them for the purpose of rejecting them. Instead, God worked through their rejection of Christ to bring about, first of all, a proclamation of the gospel to the Gentiles. We see an example of this in Acts 13:44-46:

“[44] The next Sabbath almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord. [45] But when the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy and began to contradict what was spoken by Paul, reviling him. [46] And Paul and Barnabas spoke out boldly, saying, “It was necessary that the word of God be spoken first to you. Since you thrust it aside and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we are turning to the Gentiles.”

The active opposition from the Jewish leaders in thrusting aside the message that they had heard, rather than simply disagreeing with it and allowing Paul to continue preaching, resulted in the gospel being spread to the Gentiles. We see in Acts that the persecution of the believers in Jerusalem results in them spreading the gospel throughout the world. If these believers had not been persecuted, then the gospel would not have spread nearly as quickly. God’s hardening of the hearts of those carrying out the persecutions was a deserved act of judgement against their rejection of Christ, but it was done with the aim of promoting a spread of the gospel.

The ultimate example of this is the Jews who rejected Jesus’ claim to be the Messiah and had him crucified. Their active rejection against Jesus resulted in Jesus’ death and resurrection, which (little did they know at the time) is the event that had to happen for salvation to be available to anyone and everyone. Did the fact that those who sent Jesus to be crucified had hard hearts and did not accept him for who he is mean that they would always be in this state? By no means! (As Paul might say!) Look what happened in Acts 2:36-38:

““[36] Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.” [37] Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” [38] And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

Some of the people who, in their hardness of hearts and rebellion, had sent Jesus to be crucified, subsequently came to trust in Christ for their own salvation. So, God brought an enormous good out of their original rejection of Jesus (the salvation of all who believe), but God did not want to permanently reject those who had rejected Jesus. God patiently gave them a subsequent opportunity to repent, and enabled them to do this.

The situation Paul is describing in Romans 11 is that the hardening of the many ethnic Israelites who have rejected Christ has been a means for God to bring salvation to the Gentiles, but that this was not done in such a way that the unbelieving ethnic Israelites have been rejected for the rest of their lives. In fact, the salvation of the Gentiles is intended to provoke jealousy in these ethnic Israelites, with the intended result that at least some of them will repent and turn to Christ. God’s actions with the unbelieving ethnic Israelites are done to promote salvation of Gentiles, which is itself intended to promote salvation of those ethnic Israelites. All of God’s actions are therefore aimed at increasing the number of people who will be saved. This demonstrates the point that Paul introduced in verse 1: God has not rejected any of the ethnic Israelites.

Carrying on with Romans 11:

“[12] Now if their [“the rest”, i.e. the non-elect among the ethnic Israelites – those who are not currently trusting in Christ] trespass means riches for the world, and if their failure means riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their full inclusion mean! [13] Now I am speaking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch then as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I magnify my ministry [14] in order somehow to make my fellow Jews jealous, and thus save some of them.”

Paul is talking about how great it would be if the ethnic Israelites who currently are not trusting in Christ were to repent and trust in Christ. Paul is not guaranteeing that all of them will do this – he is talking hypothetically. The word ‘will’ in the English translation of verse 12 can be misunderstood as meaning that their full inclusion definitely will happen, but a more literal translation is ‘how much more their fullness’, which doesn’t imply that it is inevitable. The point is that none of these ethnic Israelites has been rejected, and all of them could still be saved, which would be a great blessing to the world. Whether they will actually be saved depends on whether they will trust in Christ.

When Paul speaks of making his fellow Jews jealous, and thus saving some of them, it is clear that he is considering the same people throughout this. He is not looking ahead to a future generation of Jews, but is trying to save his fellow Jews – the ones alive at the same time as him. He wants to make his fellow Jews jealous. As he wants to save some of them, it’s implicit that he doesn’t think that the ethnic Jews of his generation have been rejected by God – otherwise there would be no hope of any of them being saved.

When he speaks of saving ‘some of them’, he doesn’t mean that salvation is only possible for some of them – he’s just being modest in his expectations of the number of ethnic Jews that will be saved as a result of his personal ministry (see the end of verse 13). Paul was aware of other ethnic Jews coming to trust in Christ through the ministry of others, such as Peter, and he will have wanted that to continue, so he doesn’t expect to single-handedly save all of the ethnic Jews himself.

“[15] For if their rejection means the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance mean but life from the dead? [16] Now if the dough offered as firstfruits is holy, so is the whole lump, and if the root is holy, so are the branches.”

In verses 15 and 16, Paul is considering the great benefit that would arise from the salvation of these ethnic Israelites. Does ‘their rejection’ (verse 15) refer to God’s rejection of these ethnic Israelites, or does it refer to the fact that these ethnic Israelites have rejected Christ? As Chapter 11 begins with Paul emphatically saying that God has not rejected these people, it must be that the rejection being referred to is their rejection of Christ. In particular, this brought about Christ’s death and resurrection, which ‘means the reconciliation of the world’. ‘Their acceptance’ would therefore refer to these ethnic Israelites accepting Christ. Paul notes how much good came from their rejection of Christ, so think what a positive effect their acceptance of Christ would bring! (Again, the word ‘will’  in verse 15 is not in the Greek, so the Greek does not imply certainty that this will happen.)

‘Life from the dead’ would seem to refer to conversion – people spiritually coming to life from their previous position of spiritual death in their rejection of Christ (as in Romans 6:13). This would happen to the ethnic Israelites themselves if they came to trust in Christ, and we would see many more conversions throughout the world as a result of this. There would be a global impact of their acceptance of Christ, just as there was a global impact of their rejection of Christ.

From verse 16 onwards, we have three metaphors being used. They are:

  1. The dough offered as firstfruits and the whole lump (16a)
  2. The root and the branches (16b)
  3. The natural branches and the wild olive shoot (17-24)

What could these metaphors be referring to? The context of the surrounding text is talking about two groups of people: ethnic Israelites and Gentiles. Paul has just spoken in verse 15 about the effect that the ethnic Israelites have had (and could have) on the rest of the world. When examining the metaphors, we see that they come in pairs. It makes sense to see each pair as referring to ethnic Israelites and Gentiles. If we try to over-complicate matters and think of other things that some of the metaphors might be referring to, we would have to engage in pure speculation, as the surrounding text really talks only of ethnic Israelites and Gentiles. This means it is best to treat each of the three pairs individually. In particular, ‘branches’ appear in the metaphors of both verse 16b and verses 17-24, but we will see that they are used in different ways in each metaphor. We’ll also see in the next post that the metaphor of verses 17-24 has its own structure, showing that it is distinct from verse 16b.

The two metaphors in verse 16 would then each refer to the benefit that the salvation of Paul’s fellow ethnic Israelites would bring to the rest of the world (as verse 15). The ethnic Israelites are the ‘dough offered as firstfruits’ and the ‘root’ in the respective metaphors, and their salvation would bring a blessing to the rest of the world, who correspond to the ‘whole lump’ and the ‘branches’.

In the next post, we will look at the third metaphor from verses 17-25.

This was first published at the Predestination Station, where comments can be made.