Dan Popp
A divine symphony
Romans: The most important book ever written
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By Dan Popp
May 1, 2011

A great symphony may begin with a simple theme. Then the maestro leaves that melody and introduces another. When he returns to the original motif he expands it, changes it — and so on, until several sonic threads are woven together and the masterpiece is complete. As Romans 11 begins, the Composer of Creation will recapitulate His refrain that He has not abandoned the Jews; He has preserved a remnant.

Chapter 11

I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! for I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. [ESV]

This word foreknew hearkens back to Chapter 8, verse 29: For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. (ESV) This is pretty radical stuff — to say that God foreknew the Jews — because it implies what follows.

Paul then recounts the story of Elijah from 1 Kings 19, and how the Lord told the prophet that He had preserved 7,000 from idolatry. But the remnant tune sounds different this time. The emphasis is not on how few, but on how many. Elijah discovered that the remnant was 7,000 times larger than he had realized. Skipping to verse 5,

In just the same way at the present time a 'remnant' has come into being, selected by the grace of God. But if it is by grace, then it does not rest on deeds done, or grace would cease to be grace. [NEB] ...But if it is by His unmerited favor, it is not at all conditioned on what they have done, for the gift that is earned is no gift. [Wms, Con]

Suddenly we're back to the primal, primary chord of God's sovereign choice.

What then? Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking. The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened, as it is written, "God gave them a sluggish spirit, eyes that would not see and ears that would not hear, down to this very day." And David says, "Let their table become a snare and a trap, a stumbling block and a retribution for them; let their eyes be darkened...." [NRSV]

Chapter 10 was about the Jews' responsibility for refusing to hear and see the Messiah when He was right in front of them. Now Paul says that God is also at work in their deafness and blindness!

So I ask, have they stumbled so as to fall? [NRSV]

The Jews have stumbled over the stumbling stone (9:32). But "we all stumble in many ways." (James 3:2) This word translated stumble is a "very soft word," John Wesley comments. To fall is something different.

May it never be! But by their transgression salvation has come to the Gentiles, to make them jealous. [NASB]

If God had not put a veil over the eyes of Israel (2 Cor. 3:14 ff), Christianity might have remained a sect of Judaism. Here we see the brilliance of our Composer — His mode of dealing with the Jews benefits the Gentiles; His grace to the nations will help Israel.

But if their transgression means riches for the world, and their loss means riches for the Gentiles, how much greater riches will their fullness bring! [NIV] ...their full restoration! [TCNT] ...their reinstatement! [Wey] ...when the full quota of Jews comes in! [Wms]

Paul has said several times, in very clear language, that God has not rejected His people; that His heart is for their salvation; and that their current condition of hardness, darkness, stumbling, transgression and loss will be followed by full inclusion. Skipping to verse 15:

For if their being cast away is the reconciling of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead? [NKJV] ...what can it mean but that the dead will live? [Beck]

Heaven's score will bring life out of death, both metaphorically and literally, for Jews and Gentiles alike. And now, something we couldn't have expected. There has never been any music like it. We begin to hear the remnant strain in a totally new way.

And if the first piece of dough — the firstfruit, the first handful — be holy, the lump is also. [NASB, KJV, TCNT]

The melody has been inverted all this time! Here it is, rightside-up. When we heard remnant we naturally thought of the dregs, the last pitiful scraps. But God's portion is the first portion. And if the first tokens of salvation named Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are His, then the remnant is not the leftovers, but the initial deposit for the whole lot!

Perhaps we could also include Jewish Christians like Paul (11:1). This scraggly bunch of kosher rejects, soon to be overwhelmed in the church by goyim, weren't the gleanings, the last of the faithful breed of Israel — they are the firstfruits. They, like the patriarchs, are proof that God will keep His promises to all Israel (11:26).

and if the root is holy, then the branches also are holy.

Holy
doesn't always mean "sinless" — Israel was far from sinless — it means "other," "set apart."

But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, a wild olive shoot, were grafted in their place to share the rich root of the olive tree, do not boast over the branches. If you do boast, remember that it is not you that support the root, but the root that supports you. You will say, "Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in." That is true. They were broken off for their unbelief, but you stand by your faith. Do not be conceited, but fear; for if God did not spare the natural branches, He is not likely to spare you. [NRSV, NASB, Jerus]

The Jewishness of this symphony, God's masterplan for His kingdom, is undeniable. "Salvation is from the Jews," Jesus said. (John 4:22) The tree that the Gentiles have been grafted into is the promises made to Abraham, the visions of the Hebrew prophets, the veracity of the words of Moses, and allegiance to the Son of David. We are not brought under the Law (Chapters 7 & 8); but we could not have been brought into grace without that Jewish root.

I'd like to point out that Paul again opposes boasting and conceit, to faith and salvation. And awe.

Behold therefore the goodness and severity of God. [KJV] ...You must try to appreciate both the kindness and the strict justice of God. [Phillips]


Imaginary gods like those of the Greeks and Romans are just the same as people, only more powerful. The true and living God is much more kind, good and loving; and also much more severe, harsh and unbending than we have imagined.

to those who fell, severity, but to you, God's kindness, if you continue in His kindness; otherwise you also will be cut off. And they also, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in; for God is able to graft them in again. [NASB]

We've said that God has predestined us, and will not unchoose us. But we have to make a place in our theology for scriptures like this as well. "He that endures to the end shall be saved." "It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened...if they fall away, to be brought back to repentance." (Hebr. 6:4 ff NIV) This is not Paul's main message here, but it is intriguing — especially as it occurs in this section on God's choice.

Well, the grand finale is yet to come. I hope you'll join us for the powerful conclusion of the divine symphony at our next meeting of the Romans Book Club.

© Dan Popp

 

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