Last month, we began discussing “the oldest division”, the separation of the Gentile and Jewish parts of the Church or Jesus Christ from one another. We learned about a movement towards a new council in Jerusalem to confirm what was established at the first one in Acts 15—that Gentiles do not need to become Jews in order to be Christians and, by extension, the Jews do not need to become Gentiles. We saw that, even though Israel had fallen into sin and rejected God, He never abandoned nor rejected them, His chosen people. His intent is that all Israel be saved. We also saw that the healing of all the divisions in Body of Christ will come from the healing of this first separation, this earliest division. We began looking at what the Scriptures say about this in Ephesians 2 and Romans 10 and 11. This month we take up where we left off starting with Romans 11, verse 11.
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. 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? (Hebrews 11:1-15)
Paul is putting the failure of Israel into a greater context. Because of Israel’s turning away from God, the Gospel has gone forth to the Gentiles.
I can think of several ways that this happened, including a specific thing that Paul, himself, participated in, actually took the lead in.
First of all, the Jewish leaders rejected Jesus Christ, calling for Him to be crucified—the act for which He had come into the world to begin with. It is through His death on the Cross that the world is reconciled to God and the Gentiles saved. Then as the Jewish leaders, including Saul who took the lead, persecuted Christ’s disciples, these disciples were dispersed going out to share the wondrous news of the death and resurrection of Jesus to the Gentiles. While Peter was the first one to evangelize Gentiles, it was the Jewish leader and persecutor Saul who, later as Paul, became the Apostle to the Gentiles. Paul also sees the success of the mission to the Gentiles as the means by which God is provoking the unbelieving Jews to a jealousy that will drive them back to God. He clearly sees the day when Israel, made jealous by the salvation of the Gentiles, will return to their Messiah and that, when this happens, there will be a great and mighty resurrection.
If the first piece of dough is holy, the lump is also; and if the root is holy, the branches are too. But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, being a wild olive, were grafted in among them and became partaker with them of the rich root of the olive tree, do not be arrogant toward the branches; but if you are arrogant, remember that it is not you who supports the root, but the root supports you. You will say then, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” Quite right, 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 will not spare you, either. Behold then the kindness and severity of God; 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. For if you were cut off from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and were grafted contrary to nature into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these who are the natural branches be grafted into their own olive tree? (Romans 11:16-24)
Paul’s image of the olive tree is key to this whole passage. The olive branch in the beak of the dove returning to the Ark was a promise of new life for the earth. The precious oil of the olive provided light in the Sanctuary as well as healing ointment and nourishing food and oil for cooking. In the Psalms and the Prophets, Israel is likened to a green olive tree. It was also the olive trees in the Garden of Gethsemane that witnessed the travail of Christ as He accepted His role in paying the price for our sins on the Cross. Clearly, the olive is a special tree. It is this special tree that becomes the illustration of the relationship between the Jewish Church and the Gentile Church.
Yes, unbelieving Jews who rejected their Messiah are cut off but the root and trunk of the God’s covenant with Israel remains. The wonderful good news is that the Gentiles, the wild olives, are able to be grafted into this special olive tree and so become heirs of God’s covenant with Israel. However, Paul goes on to caution his Gentile readers quite strongly not to think of themselves as better than the Israel that is being cut off. He calls them (me and most of my readers) to walk in humility, never forgetting that we are completely dependent on the root and trunk. In fact, if we, as wild branches can be grafted into the olive tree, how much easier it is for those who grew originally from that trunk to be grafted back in when they repent and return to their Lord and Messiah. Unfortunately, the very thing that Paul cautioned against is exactly what happened in the Church. The Gentile Church, in its arrogance, turned away from Israel and cast them out rather than seeking, in great humility, to draw them back that they may, once again, be grafted in.
Paul goes on to say…
For I do not want you, brethren, to be uninformed of this mystery -- so that you will not be wise in your own estimation -- that a partial hardening has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in; and so all Israel will be saved; just as it is written, “THE DELIVERER WILL COME FROM ZION, HE WILL REMOVE UNGODLINESS FROM JACOB. THIS IS MY COVENANT WITH THEM, WHEN I TAKE AWAY THEIR SINS.” From the standpoint of the gospel they are enemies for your sake, but from the standpoint of God’s choice they are beloved for the sake of the fathers; for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. (Romans 11:11-29)
Again, Paul emphasizes the importance of Israel and the danger of the temptation to pride—to our being wise in our own estimation. The hardening of Israel is only a partial hardening that God is using for the salvation of the rest of the world, all of us, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come. At that point, all Israel will be saved. Yes, we can see unbelieving Jews as enemies of the Gospel but that is only for our sake and for a time. They are still, and will forever be, God’s chosen ones, the priestly people whom God called to be intermediaries for the world before Him.
As we read in Exodus…
Moses went up to God, and the LORD called to him from the mountain, saying, “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob and tell the sons of Israel: ’You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings, and brought you to Myself. Now then, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine; and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you shall speak to the sons of Israel.” (Exodus 19:3-6)
God’s gift of deliverance to Israel at the Red Sea and his Covenant with them at Sinai are the gifts and the calling that are irrevocable.
Let us, in humility, pray for the salvation of all Israel, the Jewish people. Let us seek in every way we can to be one with the renewed Jewish portion of the Church, Jews who have returned to Jesus their Messiah and have been grafted in again to that special olive tree. Let us seek to heal the first division in the Church of Jesus Christ, that horrendous wound in His precious Body. Let us remember that we, the Gentile part of the Church, have not replaced Israel but rather are added to the Household of Faith, the renewed Israel. We long for the return of all our elder brothers and sisters to their rightful place at the table of the Father, the table to which we—who were far off and estranged from Him—have been invited to sit. We pray for the day when all Jews and Gentiles sit down together, honoring one another as God has called each to serve Him, without forcing one to become the other. This was established at the first Council of Jerusalem, let there be a second to confirm it anew. Amen.