Thursday, February 27, 2014

God Has Been Faithful

Paul begins Romans 11 with this question: “I ask, then, has God rejected his people?” It sure seems that way. Paul finished chapter 9 talking about how Israel has stumbled because they pursued the law incorrectly. He expanded on that idea further in chapter 10 and concluded by echoing Isaiah’s words that they are a disobedient and contrary people. So surely Israel’s time has come to an end, right? They will be replaced by God’s new people, a mostly Gentile people, since his old people have failed to respond to his Messiah, won’t they?

Paul’s answer is a resounding “No!”. We’ve noted many times throughout Romans how central Paul’s own experience - the experience of persecuting the Church out of obedience to the law only to have Christ directly intervene and call him to true obedience and faithfulness - has been to his understanding of all that God is doing through Christ with both Jews and Gentiles. We find he is doing the same thing here as he puts himself on display as exhibit A in his own people’s defense. He is himself an Israelite and God has not rejected him even though God had every reason to do so. Paul had not only rejected Christ but was actively persecuting his followers, entirely “ignorant of the righteousness of God” (10:3). But God in Christ intervened on the road to Damascus to show Paul the way. This is what Paul means when he says it is by grace and not by works. It had nothing to do with what Paul was doing. It had everything to do with Christ stepping in.

And Paul says that the same thing has happened for many other Jews just like him. Perhaps their stories were not all as dramatic as his but it could be no less a matter of God revealing God’s own righteousness to them through Christ. Just as God had reserved 7000 in Israel who had not bowed to Baal in the days of Elijah, likewise God was now preserving a remnant in Paul’s own day even when it looked like all of Israel was rejecting God’s work in Christ.

But neither is this remnant the end of God’s work with Israel. In v. 25, Paul finally spells out for us what he has been hinting at and building up to for a couple chapters now. He says “ Lest you be wise in your own sight, I want you to understand this mystery, brothers: a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. And in this way all Israel will be saved.” Despite all that Paul has said in these chapters about his fellows Jews and their failure to perceive God’s purpose or to pursue the law properly, he still believes that God is not done with them. God has only hardened his countrymen to give the Gentiles a chance to respond. This response by the Gentiles along with the remnant of Israel that is responding to God’s Messiah will in turn provoke his fellow Jews to jealousy. This, Paul believes, will ultimately cause them to come to Christ as well. God has not abandoned his people.

Somewhere along the way, however, we begin to realize that this is not merely about Israel, as vastly important as that is to Paul. This runs much deeper than just a concern for Israel. It is a concern about the very character of God. It is a concern with whether or not God has kept his promises. So many hundreds of years before, God had made a promise to Abraham. God renewed that promise with Isaac and with Jacob and with the slaves freed from Egypt. Generation after generation of people, of families, of a whole nation depended upon those promises. Their faithfulness was founded on the idea that God would be faithful to them and the promises God had made to their fathers. Paul has told us repeatedly in Romans, from the first echo of Habakkuk but especially in chapters 9-11, that even though God has done something radically, cosmically new and unexpected in Christ, that newness has not negated the old promises. It has fulfilled them. God kept his promises to Israel and that is a point that bears repeating because it means that God will keep his promises to us. It means that God is faithful.

That single idea, the faithfulness of God, is like a character who has been hovering in the background almost unnoticeable through all of act one only to be revealed as the main character here in act two. Without having realized it at first, now that our character has come front and center we realize that he is the one who has been driving the plot all along. Paul hinted at it in his reference to Habakkuk in 1:17. He highlighted the need for faithfulness in light of human unfaithfulness. He told us a new righteousness had been revealed through the faithfulness of Christ. He told us that God had been faithful to deliver from us our exile in sin. Paul told us God had been faithful to deliver him in spite of all he had done. He told us that nothing could separate us from the faithfulness of Christ. Now that Paul has specifically brought to the forefront of our minds that God is faithful to keep his promises, we realize that is exactly what Paul has been saying one way or another throughout Romans. Despite the strangeness of the almighty God working through a crucified Messiah, despite the distressing lack of response by Paul’s fellow Jews, despite it being in a way no one would have ever expected, God has been faithful to keep his promises through Messiah Jesus.

It is fitting then that this unit of Romans 9-11 and the intense theological reflection of chapters 1-11 conclude with a poetic reflection on the mysterious ways of God.

 “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgements and how inscrutable his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor? Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid? For from him and through him and to him are all things.

God promises a nation of descendants to an elderly and childless couple. Then when they finally have a child, God asks for the child’s life. God promises to cleanse his people but decides to do it by a pagan and godless horde of vicious Babylonians. God promises deliverance through a Messiah only to see that Messiah executed like a shameful criminal. God chooses a people only to have those people reject God while others find God. Over and over again, it seems there can be no way forward with the promises of God. Surely this is the moment when the present circumstances will force God’s promise to bend to the breaking point. Then impossible conception happens. Then resurrection happens. Then revelation on the road to Damascus happens. And God’s promises move forward in ways that we never could have imagined were possible. Unsearchable and inscrutable, indeed. But it is out of this faithfulness that the righteous will live. 

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