“So that you will not be conceited, brothers, I do not want you to be unaware of this mystery: A partial hardening has come to Israel until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. And in this way all Israel will be saved, as it is written: The Liberator will come from Zion; He will turn away godlessness from Jacob. And this will be My covenant with them when I take away their sins. Regarding the gospel, they are enemies for your advantage, but regarding election, they are loved because of the patriarchs, since God’s gracious gifts and calling are irrevocable. As you once disobeyed God, but now have received mercy through their disobedience, so they too have now disobeyed, resulting in mercy to you, so that they also now may receive mercy. For God has imprisoned all in disobedience, so that He may have mercy on all.” (Romans 11:25-32 HCSB)
As I’ve shared here before, I am one of four brothers without any sisters. One of the things that happens with four brothers seems to be an inherent and ongoing competition. We are always trying to prove ourselves. We are working not only to prove our own worth, but that we are as good as or, perhaps, better than our brothers. I can specifically remember how my older brother was always able to best me when it came to physical strength or endurance. He was always stronger, faster or better at whatever we did. Of course, much of that was due to the fact that he was about 3 1/2 years older than me. So, he was naturally able to be stronger, faster or better than his younger brother.
However, I remember when some of that began to change. I’ve always been the “stout” brother in the family – some would have said I was the “fat” one. However, during my early high school years, my older brother, Jerry, had joined the Navy and my parents had bought a small place on a rocky piece of lake property. As the oldest and biggest brother now at home, I was given the task of removing the rock so that we could have a yard, grass and a way to mow the yard. My job was to gather and move all of that rock to a pile and I spent the summer doing just that. While I’m certain that I grumbled and bemoaned the fact that I was given this thankless job, a change was slowly occurring that even I failed to recognize. In addition to the “rock work” that I was assigned at home, a neighbor hired me to do the same job of rock removal around his lake home. All of that heavy lifting and work was building my strength and I was also growing taller. The fat little brother was no longer smaller and weaker.
I could share many more things that contributed and led to it, but let me get to the point. The sense of competition didn’t immediately subside once I reached puberty and turned some of my fat into muscle and added a few inches of height. I began to realize that I wasn’t in a competition with my brothers for my parent’s love. They loved each of us equally, but differently because of our uniqueness. But I do recall that the sense of competition slowly faded as I realized we were more alike than we were different and all of my brothers were better at some things while I was better at others. Now, I’m proud of who my brothers have become and I’m glad to call them not only brother, but friend. I’m also glad to know that our parents loved each of us, in our similarities and our differences and not because one was stronger, smarter, more athletic or more skilled than the others.
However, one of the dangers of achievement is the pride and conceit that it breeds. As I pointed out in last week’s post, my growing knowledge and professional achievements at work caused me to grow less and less dependent upon God and less prayerful about my work and personal goals. Obviously, Paul was concerned that God’s judgment upon unbelieving Israelites and His mercy upon believing Gentiles would result in a greater sense of personal pride and spiritual conceit among the Roman Gentile believers and churches and that’s a very dangerous place for believers and churches.
But when we begin to understand the truth about God and ourselves, it dissolves our conceit and melts our pride. We become prideful and conceited when we feel we deserve or have earned God’s love and blessings or when we think we understand or know better than God. But personal pride and an arrogant spiritual conceit cannot coexist alongside an awareness of sin, a confession of personal guilt and a cry for God’s forgiveness and mercy. Those two things, a heartfelt cry for God’s mercy and spiritual conceit, are mutually exclusive. Paul wants the Gentile Christians to understand the mystery of their inclusion and Israel’s judgment and hardening so that they remain spiritually humble and soft, pliable clay for God’s purpose and use.
In many ways, the American church needs to hear these words. While Paul feared this would happen to the Roman Gentile home churches, it HAS happened in many American churches. We have been lured into a sense of spiritual stupor by our financial blessings and decades of past achievements and successes. We have grown blind to our own spiritual pride and we often fail to see the ways in which God’s hand has been withdrawn from our ministries. Spiritual pride results in a conceited attitude towards worship, a lack of personal and corporate dependence on God and an inability to recognize an ongoing need for God’s mercy.
“Mankind, He has told you what is good and what it is the Lord requires of you: to act justly, to love faithfulness, and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8 HCSB)
“He said to him, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and most important command. The second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands.” (Matthew 22:37-40 HCSB)
We often try to measure success in the church using the wrong metrics. In most churches, we’ve adopted the world’s view of success and achievement while ignoring God’s measure of success; treating others with love and kindness while being faithfully obedient and humble before God. While I could go on and on about this issue in the American church, the bigger and more direct concern is how this issue impacts you and me. The spiritual condition of our church is but a reflection of our own humility before God, our awareness of personal sin and our gratitude for God’s gift of mercy. So, the real question is how are we gauging our personal spiritual condition, personal growth and life goals? Are we seeking spiritual humility and faithful obedience while loving others and loving God, most of all? Or are we more concerned with social recognition, financial success and work achievements? It appears Paul’s concern for the Roman church is also a very real concern for us.
Next, Paul indicates that this hardening of heart that has come upon Israel is only partial until the full number of Gentiles has come in. Then Israel will be saved by the Redeemer (or Liberator) who comes from Zion (Jerusalem) and turns away godlessness from Jacob and renews His covenant with them when He takes away their sins. What does all of that mean? It means that God isn’t finished with Israel and their redemption and the restoration and completion of God’s covenant with them will come through Jesus, the Christ.
I love the word “Liberator” in this passage. In fact, it is the same word used by Jesus in the “Lord’s Prayer” in the last sentence: deliver us from the evil one. But, consider the same word in the following context…
“In the same way the chief priests, with the scribes and elders, mocked Him and said, “He saved others, but He cannot save Himself! He is the King of Israel! Let Him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in Him. He has put His trust in God; let God rescue Him now — if He wants Him! For He said, ‘I am God’s Son.’ ” (Matthew 27:41-43 HCSB)
The Jewish religious leaders scoff at and mock Jesus on the cross because they were conceited and blinded by their false piety and self-righteousness. Instead of recognizing their own need for liberation from sin, they accuse Him of sin and turn their backs on the ONE who has the power and desire to rescue and LIBERATE them. They stated they would believe Jesus if He came down from the cross, but they refused to believe when He remained there and achieved God’s purpose through the cross and then came out of the tomb victorious over sin and death.
In a similar fashion, we often make our obedience to God conditional on a false interpretation of or misunderstanding of God’s will. In essence, the Jewish religious leadership said; “We will bow to Jesus when God does things our way” and we often respond in the same way. We want and expect God to follow our lead instead of us following His lead. Instead of viewing our current situation as a part of God’s plan to shape us and make us into the image of Christ, we view it as destructive. Instead of seeing ways that we can obey God and demonstrate the love of Christ to our neighbors, we view our neighbors as the enemy instead of viewing them as victims of the enemy.
In our focal passage, the Gentile churches in Rome seem to be growing conceited and unwilling to recognize God’s unfinished plan for Israel. Now that they’ve been grafted in, they appear to see themselves as supplanting Israel instead of working alongside Jewish Christians and continuing to reach both Gentiles and Jews with the Gospel. In many ways, the American church has done the same. We see our cultural-ized version of Christianity as the “best and most accurate” version of following Christ and any other version is just not as advanced or as spiritual as ours. But Paul points out that God is at work and “all Israel” will be saved in the same manner – through faith in Christ.
Very quickly, let me point out that “all Israel” does not mean each and every one but is simply referencing the collective whole. We often use similar language when we talk about the church, other Christians or even our fellow countrymen. We are trying to be inclusive without being exclusive. We want to include all but we recognize that some will be excluded by their own choice. We could also state it this way, all Israelites who will be saved are going to be saved in this manner – through faith in Jesus Christ. They are still loved by God because of the patriarchs – the root that sustains even the Gentile churches. Just like we were once disobedient and have received mercy, they too are being disobedient so that they may be recipients of God’s mercy.
“For God has imprisoned all in disobedience, so that He may have mercy on all.” (Romans 11:32 HCSB)
Read that again. Let it sit on your mind and in your heart for a few moments. Meditate on it. Jesus said, “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” (Lk 5:32) Did Jesus mean that some people were righteous and not in need of His salvation? No, it was meant to prick the hearts of the scribes and Pharisees – and you and me. In other words, you self-righteous Pharisees stand there and call these people sinners but I’ve come for all who are willing to recognize their own sinfulness – including you! Now, re-read Paul’s statement. God has imprisoned ALL in disobedience, so that He may have mercy on ALL. Some see that statement as “universalism” or that every man will be eventually and eternally saved. While I must agree that it is God’s will that none would perish but all would come to repentance (see 2 Peter 3:9), not all will come to repentance and, thus, not all will be saved.
We can never accept God’s gift of mercy until we are ready to admit our need of it. We are all prisoners of sin and disobedience so that we may all be recipients (and prisoners) of God’s grace and mercy. Just like Paul’s statement that “all Israel will be saved” the intent of God’s mercy is inclusion, not exclusion. Everyone is included in sin and disobedience so that all may be included in God’s gift of mercy. However, some have excluded themselves from God’s mercy by denying their guilt and sinfulness. So, no man or woman is never excluded from God’s mercy because of some contrived act of exclusion by God – He has rejected me or refused to forgive me – but only because of their own act of exclusion – I don’t need God’s redemption or forgiveness because I’m not guilty of anything. I have no need of a liberator, I’m not a prisoner.
It is only when we truly recognize ourselves under sin’s condemnation that we are able to see ourselves covered by Christ’s liberation. In a similar way, it is only when we see others as being under sin’s condemnation that we are able to see them in need of Christ’s liberation and worthy of God’s gift of mercy. That’s Paul’s desire for the Roman church and it’s his desire for us, too. As I pointed out earlier, when I began to see my brothers as being like me and not as competitors in a physical race or competition then I began to value their friendship and their skills alongside my own. When we recognize our neighbors, friends, family and coworkers as being like us, sinful men and women walking alongside us in this journey we call life and not competitors in some cosmic race, then we will begin to value them and recognize their need for what we’ve found – God’s liberation from sin and gift of mercy.
God has imprisoned all of us in disobedience, so that He may have mercy on all. We are all in need of God’s mercy. You’re in need of it. I’m in need of it. Our friends, neighbors, coworkers and even those we label our enemies are in need of God’s mercy. Are we willing to admit we are prisoners of disobedience so that we can become prisoners of God’s mercy? As prisoners of God’s mercy are we willing to tell others of His boundless love and life changing forgiveness? Better yet, are we willing to become conduits of God’s love?