“I ask, then, have they stumbled in order to fall? Absolutely not! On the contrary, by their stumbling, salvation has come to the Gentiles to make Israel jealous. Now if their stumbling brings riches for the world, and their failure riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their full number bring! Now I am speaking to you Gentiles. In view of the fact that I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I magnify my ministry, if I can somehow make my own people jealous and save some of them. For if their rejection brings reconciliation to the world, what will their acceptance mean but life from the dead? Now if the firstfruits offered up are holy, so is the whole batch. And if the root is holy, so are the branches.” (Romans 11:11-16 HCSB)
Have you ever noticed how our life journey often takes us to places we never thought we would go? When I was just graduating high school, I enrolled in college classes at Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. Though I knew God had called me into ministry, I really wanted to be an architect. I made it through a full semester taking night classes and working long, hard days at a small restaurant in Wagoner. It didn’t take long for me to realize two simple truths, I couldn’t pay for school without working and I couldn’t keep working and do well in school. Something had to give, so I chose to drop out of my college classes so I could work and get married. My wife, Tina, and I just celebrated 43 years of marriage last week.
While I wanted to be an architect, I knew God had called me to ministry. That was undeniable. I had been experiencing that call since the age of 10 at Tulakogee RA Camp on Ft. Gibson Lake. I simply struggled to see what God saw, me standing in front of a crowd preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I was shy, reserved and lacking confidence. How could God use that? Was my decision to walk away from college, to work and get married an irredeemable act of rebellion towards God? Well, let me finish the story and then you can decide…
About a year into married life, I was asked to preach at a small church in the rural area south of Muskogee, Oklahoma – Brushy Mountain Baptist Church. It seems that God’s people in that small church saw more in me than I saw in myself and they asked if I would come be their pastor. What? How was that possible? I was young, inexperienced, married just a little over a year and we were expecting our first child, Shawnna. Let me step forward a few years… I pastored at Brushy Mountain for three years, then was called to pastor First Baptist Church, Loco, Oklahoma. Yes, there really is a place called Loco. At Loco, I grew in my knowledge of scripture and was challenged by a retired school teacher to learn to speak well and be articulate and accurate. Research. Study. Check references. Develop your thesis and argument. Above all, be Biblical and trust scripture. I think I learned as much from her as I did any college class I ever took. (Thank you, Mrs. Gladys Pratt!)
While I was pastor at Loco, I took our youth group to Falls Creek Youth Camp (if you don’t know what that is, Google it – you’ll be glad you did) in the summer of 1985. We now had two children, Shawnna and Brad, and God had been blessing our ministry in Loco. While at camp, I met Dr. Bob Agee who was president of Oklahoma Baptist University. As we talked, I told him that my dream had been to attend OBU but my financial resources simply prevented that and, besides, I was now married and had two children. He looked me in the eye and said, “I had two children when I finished my degree. You can do this, if you want.” Within six months, I was enrolled at OBU while I continued to pastor and, believe it or not, I finished in three and a half years with a 3.0 GPA. But God wasn’t finished surprising me, Dr. Agee hired me to work in the OBU Computer Center as Computer Lab Supervisor. I went from being a student at OBU to being a graduate and an employee in one week. I agreed but with one condition, I needed to continue to pastor. While I was certain God had called me to work at OBU, I was equally certain He had also called me to be a bi-vocational (two jobs/vocations) pastor.
So, back to my question from above – were my choices and are our choices, decisions, disobedience and rebellion towards God and His will irredeemable? That’s the very issue that Paul addresses in our focal passage, this week. He begins by asking “have they (Israel) stumbled in order to fall (beyond redemption/salvation)?” His response, “Absolutely not! Their stumbling has brought salvation to the Gentiles and God will use it to make Israel jealous.” Paul insists that Israel’s rebellion is not a surprise to God and is, actually, a part of God’s plan to bring salvation to the rest of mankind – the Gentiles. God had not only anticipated Israel’s response, He had planned and prepared for it. God had revealed the Messiah to a faithful remnant of ethnic Israel and they had believed and obeyed while the bulk had turned away in disbelief and rebellion. But God wasn’t done… He would use this faithful remnant to take salvation to those “who were not looking for Me (Rom 10:20).”
Does our stumbling along the path of life and do our sinful and rebellious choices make our lives irredeemable to God? Let Paul’s response echo in your heart: “Absolutely not!” If our salvation is based on personal merit and righteousness then we might fall beyond hope and salvation. But if our salvation is based on the redemptive work of Jesus and His rightesousness, then we cannot fall beyond God’s grace and His mercy’s reach. That’s Paul’s point and it must be the anchor of hope for those of us who struggle with our faith, fears and doubts.
For just a moment, let me take Paul’s observations about Israel and consider them in relation to the modern American church. There’s little doubt that American Christianity and the American Church is in a state of crisis. One of the biggest issues facing our nation are the cultural wars raging in our country. Many of our allies, neigbors and enemies are watching closely as we face internal struggles related to political divide, racial tensions, cultural disagreements, and governmental direction, overreach and trust. The UNITED States of America is, once again, struggling with just how “united” we are and how to resolve and heal these apparent divisions. While I’ve highlighted the national tensions that exist, it would be foolish to overlook the fact that many of these same issues are at the heart of the division among most Christians and churches. In many ways, the issues that divide us politically are at the heart of those things that divide us religiously.
So, let me ask you a simple question.. do you think that the political views of an Israelite Christian and a Roman Christian would be the same? Their political affiliations are likely to be very different, at least at the time of Paul’s writing. I suspect an Israelite Christian would despise Roman domination and rule over their homeland and the claimed deity of Caesar. I also suspect a Roman Christian would likely embrace Roman political culture and freedoms, holding political allegiance to Rome while rejecting the deity of Caesar. While we can certainly expect nuances and levels of agreement/disagreement between these two groups to vary based on individual circumstances, that only illustrates my point even more. Paul recognizes that the rejection of Christ by Israel and the acceptance of Christ by the Gentiles goes against what some would have expected, but God was at work in unexpected ways uniting these two disparate groups under one Lord and Savior, Jesus, to achieve His plan and divine purposes.
What’s my point? He can do the same in our culture. He can take two culturally disparate groups and unite us under one Lord, Jesus. What does that mean? It means that we can be united in Christ even in the midst of political differences. Now, some of you will balk at this idea because you see political differences, especially in America, as being too divisive and occurring along religious lines of belief and faithfulness. However, I know many of our Black brothers in Christ will agree with us on the issue of Christ’s Lordship, Christian obedience and discipleship while disagreeing with us politically and culturally. We can disagree on political and cultural issues while agreeing and working together in our efforts at impacting our world and its culture(s) with the truth and power of the Gospel. So, let me ask Paul’s question in light of the American church… have we stumbled and fallen beyond redemption and God’s grace? Absolutely not! God is at work in our midst to restore us to fellowship with Him and service to one another, if we’re willing.
Next, I’d like you to consider Paul’s statements regarding the Israel’s stumbling/failure and God’s riches being poured out upon the Gentiles. He doesn’t just state these facts related to Israel, he then draws an inference regarding their restoration. If Israel’s stumbling/failure has brought God’s riches and blessing upon the church, just imagine how much more will be poured out when their “full number” come to faith. It is important for us to understand what “full number” means. First, it doesn’t mean that every Israelite will come to faith in Christ. This points back at the “elect” or chosen of God and clearly references those who will come to God through faith in Christ and His righteousness, Abraham’s see by faith and not by birth. However, it does mean all of those whom God has “foreknown” of Israel who will believe in Christ. Notice, Paul is anticipating a time of revival among his brothers resulting from their jealousy of what God is doing among the Gentile believers. In other words, God’s not DONE with Israel.
Paul says that while Israel’s rejection brought reconciliation to the world, their acceptance of Christ will mean “life from the dead” (v. 15). While this may be a difficult phrase to initially understand, it appears to relate very clearly to Paul’s view of end time events. Israel’s redemption will precede the final resurrection and return of Christ, the end of this age. This appears to coincide with John’s vision of those who were “sealed” from every tribe of the Israelites in Revelation 7. The 144,000 should not be understood as a literal headcount but as the “full number” of those sealed – 12,000 from each of the 12 tribes. God is still working among His people, drawing them to Himself and the church should rejoice in that – especially in light of Paul’s words. If Israel’s rejection resulted in God’s blessings on the church, just imagine what will happen when Israel turns and comes to God by faith in Christ.
Finally, Paul ends this section with the reminder, “if the firstfruits offered up are holy, so is the whole batch (or harvest) and if the root is holy, so are the branches (v. 16).” It is important to note, the firstfruits do not MAKE the whole batch holy. It simply means that the holiness of the firstfruits is indicative of the holiness of the entire harvest and the holiness of the roots is indicative of the holiness of the entire vine. The holiness of the Roman church is intrinsically linked to the holiness of the firstfruits and the root and the holiness of our church is intrinsically linked to the holiness of the firstfruits and the root. But here’s the catch, the holiness of the firstfruits and root (these are the same, synonymous) does not originate in itself. The firstfruits and root are references to the patriarchs, the remnant of Israel and even the Apostles and their holiness is found in the righteousness of Christ.
Their holiness was not linked to their ethnicity or nationality, it was linked to their faith in God’s promised salvation, Jesus the Messiah. In like manner, our holiness is not linked to our ethnicity or nationality but is linked to our faith in Jesus Christ. Jesus used a very similar analogy when He said, “I am the true vine, My Father is the vineyard keeper… you are the branches… If anyone does not remain in Me, he is thrown aside like a branch and he withers. (see John 15:1-8).” The life, growth and holiness of every believer and the church, by extension, is intrinsically linked to and dependent upon Christ. Let that sink in, a bit, before I elaborate.
You’re not holy because of your affiliation with a particular church denomination or even your lack thereof. You’re not holy because of your style of worship or the version of scripture you read. You’re not holy because of your pastor’s eloquence or teaching ability. You’re not even holy because of your sacrifice, obedience and faithfulness. You are only holy because He is holy and you belong to Him. Holiness is not a characteristic you can intrinsically possess it is one that is given relationally. A vessel is not holy because of its characteristics or the element from which it is comprised. A vessel is only holy through its purpose and use – when its purpose is rooted in God and it is available and used by Him for that purpose. For example, the vessels used in the Temple worship were not holy because of their flawless construction or the substance from which they were created, they were holy because they were given to God and used by Him for His purposes.
In the John 15 passage cited above, Jesus points out that any branches that do not fulfill their purpose (being fruitful) will be cut off and any branches that do fulfill their purpose and produce fruit will be pruned by the vineyard keeper (God) for the express purpose of being more fruitful. We will look at this in more detail, next week. For now, I really want you to recognize and remember that your holiness is found in your relationship with God and His purpose for your life. In my experience, people often stress out over that last part – they struggle to discover and understand God’s purpose for their lives. As I close, let me remind you that God’s grace is at work in you and me to surrender to and live for His purpose. I believe it is less about identifying and understanding and more about surrendering to His purpose. In other words, you don’t have to know and understand God’s purpose and plan, you just have to be (and continue to be) surrendered to Him and His purpose and plan.
You may question that last statement, so let me end with a scriptural quote and a personal illustration. In John 21, Jesus has just revealed Himself to the disciples as the Resurrected Lord of all creation. In response, Peter said: “I’m going fishing.” As Peter and his friends fished that night, they came up empty. Nothing. Not a fish. The next morning, Jesus called to them from the shore asking if they had caught anything. “Nothing,” the group replied. Jesus told them to “try your net on the other side of the boat.” When the net filled up with fish, Peter instinctively knew that it was Jesus on the shore. He’d experienced this before.
After eating, Jesus and Peter walked alone along the shore and Jesus challenged Peter regarding his love for Christ. “Simon, do you love me more than these?” Peter replied, “Yes, Lord. You know that I love you.” Jesus asked and Peter responded to this question three times. Why three times? I personally believe that it is directly related to Peter’s bold statement in John 13, “I am willing to lay down my life for You!” then Peter’s subsequent three-fold denial of Christ. Was Peter’s failure irredeemable? No, and neither is ours.
I told you at the beginning of this post about my failure to be completely obedient to God’s call upon my life. I dropped out of college, got a job and then got married. I was more interested in pursuing my goals than God’s but my failure, like Peter’s, was not irredeemable and permanent. I mentioned that my call to ministry began at the age of 10 and continued throughout my teenage years. During one of those times in my early teens when God reminded me of His calling, He also gave me a glimpse of what obedience would entail. I had a dream or a vision of where I would serve. It was a group of buildings that somehow also seemed to form letters. For several years I was very reluctant to share this with anyone out of fear that they might question my sanity or even my faith.
What I failed to realize for many, many years was that God had, in fact, been redeeming my failures and my disobedience as I learned to surrender to His purpose and will. He was faithfully working His will and His purpose without my understanding. Understanding isn’t necessary, surrender is. Almost 20 years after I completed my bachelors degree and began working at OBU, I came to the realization that the place I saw in that vision was the very campus on which I was working. Those buildings and letters I saw were the buildings of the OBU oval and I was given the joy of recognizing God’s faithfulness and His redemptive purpose in my own life.
Understanding wasn’t necessary for Peter, surrender was. Understanding wasn’t necessary for me, surrender was. Understanding isn’t necessary for you, surrender is. Did God bring understanding to Peter? Perhaps. Maybe Peter understood as they led him to the cross where he would, in fact, die for his faith in and faithfulness to Jesus. “Lord,” Simon Peter said to Him, “where are You going? ” Jesus answered, “Where I am going you cannot follow Me now, but you will follow later.” “Lord,” Peter asked, “why can’t I follow You now? I will lay down my life for You! ” Jesus replied, “Will you lay down your life for Me? I assume you: A rooster will not crow until you have denied Me three times.” (John 13:36-38 HCSB)
Even in his failure, Peter wasn’t beyond God’s reach and Christ’s forgiveness and his actions were not beyond redemption. You are not beyond God’s reach and Christ’s forgiveness, in spite of your failures. Your actions are not beyond God’s redemption, if you are willing to fall before Him in complete surrender. Understanding of His will and purpose isn’t necessary, surrender is…