yom kippur service

Reflections on Romans 11 Part 1

However, they did not all heed the good news; for Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed our report?” So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ.

But I say, surely they have never heard, have they? Indeed they have;

“Their voice has gone out into all the earth,
And their words to the ends of the world.”

But I say, surely Israel did not know, did they? First Moses says,

“I will make you jealous by that which is not a nation,
By a nation without understanding will I anger you.”

And Isaiah is very bold and says,

“I was found by those who did not seek Me,
I became manifest to those who did not ask for Me.”

But as for Israel He says, “All the day long I have stretched out My hands to a disobedient and obstinate people.”

Romans 10:16-21 (NASB)

This is where we left off in my reflection on Romans 10. Sounds pretty grim, huh? I followed up at the end of that blog post by saying:

Paul had many good things to say about his people Israel, but he wasn’t above also speaking of them as Moses had spoken of the Israelites in their times of rebellion. It saddened his heart, even as the same attitude saddened Messiah’s heart as he lamented over Jerusalem (Matthew 23:37-39).

Paul continues this line of thought without missing a beat at the beginning of the following chapter…

So here we are. In general, Paul’s letter to the Romans, from my reading of it, seems to be his telling the Gentiles in the Roman synagogues to stop arrogantly flaunting their equal co-participation in Jewish communal life by trumpeting their “freedom” from the Torah obligations (as per Apostolic decree – see Acts 15) their Jewish counterparts (both Jesus-believing and otherwise) possessed. Some of these Jewish people, for their part, pushed back against the Gentiles by declaring their chosen status, their possession of Torah, and Shabbat, and their covenant relationship with God as justifying them in the presence of the Creator.

Paul was trying to build up the reputation of the Jewish people in the minds of his Gentile readers, but is he now denigrating them?

I say then, God has not rejected His people, has He? May it never be! For I too am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin. God has not rejected His people whom He foreknew.

Romans 11:1-2

God did not reject His people Israel and as Paul declared, “May it never be!” Paul strongly reminded his readers that he also is a Jew and said again that God has not rejected His people Israel. But my quote stops in the middle of a verse.

Or do you not know what the Scripture says in the passage about Elijah, how he pleads with God against Israel? “Lord, they have killed Your prophets, they have torn down Your altars, and I alone am left, and they are seeking my life.” But what is the divine response to him? “I have kept for Myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal.” In the same way then, there has also come to be at the present time a remnant according to God’s gracious choice. But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace is no longer grace.

Romans 11:2-6

kneelingThe phrase “in the present time” is important. Paul is comparing the current situation in Rome with the prophet Elijah’s condemnation of the faithless of Israel in his day. God’s response? “I have kept for Myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal” (see 1 Kings 19:18). This seems to re-enforce what I’ve heard preached in churches, that God will save only a remnant of Israel, presumably condemning the rest for not converting to Christianity.

Now along with this assumption is the belief that Paul is foretelling the future, and that ultimately among Israel, only a small fraction of the overall Jewish population will be redeemed by God. But why does this have to be prophesy about the future (and remember what I said about the phrase “in the present time”)? What if Paul wasn’t speaking of the future of the Jewish people? What if he’s referencing an example from the prophets and then specifically applying it to the Jewish people in the synagogues in Rome at that point in time,  Jews with whom the Gentile readers of this letter were interacting?

In drawing from Mark Nanos’ book The Mystery of Romans, I’m suggesting three populations existing in the synagogues in Rome when Paul was writing his letter: Jewish disciples of Yeshua the Messiah, the larger group of Jews who were not Yeshua’s disciples and who were struggling with faith, and Gentile disciples of the Master. What Paul could be saying here is that not all of the Jewish people in the Roman synagogues would be condemned, and that some portion of that population would come to faith and be redeemed?

If that’s true, then Paul isn’t commenting on the eschatological future of Israel at all, but only addressing the current state of specific Jews in Rome at that moment in time.

That sounds great, but we have a problem.

What then? What Israel is seeking, it has not obtained, but those who were chosen obtained it, and the rest were hardened…

Romans 11:7

Paul is speaking of Israel, presumably the collective body of Jewish people, and saying they have not obtained what they sought. Only those who were chosen obtained it and the rest were hardened.

This seems to harken back to some version of Calvinism, where God pre-chooses individuals, in this case, individual Jews, to be saved and condemns the rest. Is that really true? After all, at Sinai, all Israelites were chosen as a body, not as individuals.

…just as it is written,

“God gave them a spirit of stupor,
Eyes to see not and ears to hear not,
Down to this very day.”

And David says,

“Let their table become a snare and a trap,
And a stumbling block and a retribution to them.
“Let their eyes be darkened to see not,
And bend their backs forever.”

I say then, they did not stumble so as to fall, did they? May it never be! But by their transgression salvation has come to the Gentiles, to make them jealous.

Romans 11:8-11

zealous torah studyYou can see why reading Romans can get really confusing. It seems, on the one hand, that Paul is condemning Jewish people and in fact, that God deliberately “hardened” them, but on the other hand, he says their stumbling does not mean they fell. Additionally, the transgression of the (presumably unbelieving) Jews is necessary for salvation to come to the Gentiles. Given the way it’s worded in English, I almost can’t tell if the people who are supposed to be jealous are the Gentiles or the Jews. In fact, I know of some Gentile believers today who are jealous of Jewish people to the point of being covetous.

I have in my notes that Paul is continuing to juxtapose the rather dim present situation at the time he was writing his letter with the brighter future situation when all of Israel will be saved, but I want to address something else first.

Many non-Jews have quoted the Romans 11:11 clause to “making the Jews jealous” as their main mandate as Gentile believers, and many have attempted to do this through various different methods; few have been successful. Understandably, living a life with the purpose of making people turn green with envy is not a covetous calling for someone who loves the LORD and loves his people. This word from Paul, let’s be honest, seems somewhat unethical when we read it in this English translation. However, the Greek word “zelos” is translated into Hebrew as “kin’ah,” which means “zealousness.” So actually, Paul’s words should really be understood as bringing Jews to zealousness. This is a mission that is a lot easier to comprehend and enact.

-Jordan Levy
“The Crowning Jewels of the Nations”
from Messiah Journal, issue 112 (Winter 2013/5773), pg 18
First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ)

I originally quoted this passage from Levi’s article in my blog post called Provoking Zealousness back in January 2013. I was writing about what I believe to be the true calling of Christian Gentiles in relation to Jewish people, and what I believe Paul was trying to inspire in his Gentile audience: that we are supposed to provoke Jewish zealousness. What zealousness?

And when they heard it they began glorifying God; and they said to him, “You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed, and they are all zealous for the Law…

Acts 21:20

Here we see a perfect example of Jews who were disciples of the Master and who were zealous for the Law (Torah). If you’ve been reading my blog for very long, you know I believe that Jewish devotion to performing the mitzvot and faith in Messiah are not mutually exclusive and in fact, they are absolutely necessary components in the life of a faithful Jew, both in the days of Paul and now. I’ve heard Messiah Yeshua referred to more than once as “our living Torah,” the only Jewish person (and only person at all) who perfectly obeyed the righteous requirements of God in accordance to the Jewish covenant relationship with God. He’s the forerunner of how all Jews in New Covenant times will have the Torah written on their hearts so they too will be obedient according to God’s commandments.

But they need to both be truly zealous for the Torah with the realization of the identity of Messiah, and have faith in the accomplishments of his works as mediator of the New Covenant. Paul is telling the Gentiles in his letter that instead of extinguishing Jewish zeal, they should help properly contextualize it by supporting Jewish Torah observance. The Gentiles should have been behaving in a complementary fashion toward the Jews, not in competition. You could see how the Jewish people in Rome could get the impression that either they choose the Torah for their justification or they choose the Gentile “freedom” from Torah (we see a similar dynamic today). Naturally, if the Jews thought there were only two selections, they’d choose the former, which unfortunately caused them to miss out from Paul’s point of view.

But it was a mistake for the Gentiles as well. Perhaps if Paul had personally been in Rome, he could have straightened all this out as a Jew, as a Pharisee, as a zealous devotee of Torah, and as a bondservant and disciple to the Master. But he wasn’t.

So the downside is that many of the Roman Jews at that day missed the boat. But, as Paul has said, there’s an upside for the Gentiles.

Now if their transgression is riches for the world and their failure is riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their fulfillment be! But I am speaking to you who are Gentiles. Inasmuch then as I am an apostle of Gentiles, I magnify my ministry, if somehow I might move to jealousy my fellow countrymen and save some of them. For if their rejection is the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead? If the first piece of dough is holy, the lump is also; and if the root is holy, the branches are too.

Romans 11:12-16

Cutting BranchesJewish failure and success continue to be compared and contrasted, with the former being the present as Paul is writing, and the latter being the future as viewed through the lens of the New Covenant. In saying that a piece of the dough will make the whole lump holy, it could be he’s saying that the remnant could provoke zealousness in all Israel. Using the word “fulfillment” seems to indicate that will be an ultimate redemption and inclusion of all Israel in God’s salvational future for them, just as the New Covenant promises (see Jeremiah 31:34). This is particularly emphasized in Paul’s use of the phrase “life from the dead,” which his readers couldn’t help but associate with the resurrection, another reference to the New Covenant.

But what about the root and the branches? If the root is holy then the branches are too. What does that mean?

This seems like a good place to end Part 1 of this “reflection.” Romans 11 is a very dense chapter and rather than write 3,000 or 4,000 words or more in a single missive, I’ll break this one up into parts. Part 2 will start where we left off and attempt to answer the question, “What is the root?” The answer may not be what you think.

You might be wondering what zealousness for Torah has to do with zealousness for Messiah. What if the Jews in Rome had a problem in authentic zeal for both? See what Derek Leman has to say in his blog post Paul Was Too Jewish For The Synagogue, Part 1 to find a possible answer.


3 thoughts on “Reflections on Romans 11 Part 1”

  1. @James: Did you get the message that Derek Leman exposed in his September series (6 posts) about Romans? You haven’t mentioned his conclusions here at all…

  2. I think I mentioned part of Derek’s series in an earlier blog post but I can’t always keep up with everything. Can you be specific about what Derek has written that modifies what I’ve authored here?

  3. In part 1 of “WHAT’S WRONG WITH THE JEWS (IN ROMANS 9-10)?”, Derek writes about Stanley Stowers (A Rereading of Romans, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994)

    “Stowers offers a brilliant interpretation which makes sense of the whole thing. It is outside of the usual box. It is more about the days of Paul, the gentile communities in Yeshua over which he is the teacher, and the Jewish communities out of which these gentiles have been taught. It is not about “Christianity” and “Judaism” at all. And a reading of Paul in his first century context will mean rejecting later understandings of words like “salvation” and “righteousness.””

    In part 2, Derek continues to write about Stowers proposal:

    “Stanley Stowers’ reading of Romans 9-10 is so different from what most people are used to, it seems fitting to prepare for it beforehand by discussing some definitions, paradigm changes, and issues of method. The biggest barrier holding traditional readers back from understanding what on earth Paul is talking about is a millennia-long tradition of assuming a lost-then-saved or lost-then-damned story to be the center of all talk of the gospel. The central idea of the New Testament, most think, is that every individual has a moral flaw which needs a remedy, and that this remedy is found in personal trust (faith) in the deeds and character of Jesus in order to obtain a joyful afterlife. This problem-then-solution story tends to be seen everywhere, especially in Paul’s writing. “

    Reading the 6 parts, Derek explains how Stowers reads Romans 9-10 and concludes something very different of what people think Paul is writing about…

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