Has God rejected his people? By no means! 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. For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. (Rom 11:1-2a, 29)
This coming Sunday, we read two short sections of chapter 11, from Paul’s longest, and most influential letter: the letter he addressed to “all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints” (Rom 1:7). This section of the letter is hugely important.
It hasn’t always been seen in this light. An earlier line of interpretation highlighted Paul’s words about “the righteousness of God” in Rom 3:21-26, or other affirmations in later chapters, as the key to understanding the argument of the letter as a whole.
Such interpreters usually saw the wonderful doxological exclamation of Romans 8:31-39 as the climactic moment of the letter (“[nothing] will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord”). And some interpreters explicitly asserted that what followed after chapter 8 was really in the manner of an appendix, and not part of the main argument.
Today, however, many interpreters would agree that it is this part of the letter, chapters 9–11, which really provide the grand climax to the argument that has been advanced and developed since the first quotation from scripture, at 1:17, where Paul cites the prophet Malachi in support of his argument concerning “the righteous-justice of God”.
In this view, the climax of Paul’s argument to the community of messianic believers in Rome, comes not in the assertion that, “since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (5:1); nor in the claim that “now you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage you get is sanctification” (6:22).
The climax does not come in the exultation that “there is therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (8:1); nor in the doxological outburst that “[nothing] will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (8:39).
In fact, none of these—nor any of the many other theologically-rich, doctrinally-foundation phrases found in Romans 5-8, bring to a close the argument which Paul mounts from 1:16 onwards.
The true climax to the argument is in Romans 9-11, summarised in the following choice quotations, which have featured in the lectionary selections in recent weeks: “it is not as though the word of God has failed” (9:6) … “there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all” (10:12) …“the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (11:29).
The point of the letter is articulated in the sharp question that Paul poses: “has God rejected his people?” (11:1), which he immediately answers: “God has not rejected his people” (11:2). All of the argument in this section of the letter (chs. 9-11) and, indeed, of the whole letter to this point (from 1:17 onwards), can be summed up in one succinct phrase: “[and] so all Israel will be saved” (11:26).
So that you may not claim to be wiser than you are, brothers and sisters, I want you to understand this mystery: a hardening has come upon part of Israel, until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved; as it is written, “Out of Zion will come the Deliverer; he will banish ungodliness from Jacob.” “And this is my covenant with them, when I take away their sins.” (Rom 11:25-27).
“All Israel will be saved” (Rom 11:26). Paul is insistent on this claim. The people of Israel, the Jews, have a valued place within the kingdom of God. They are vitally important in the scheme of things, to God. Faith in Jesus does not mean abandoning the sense that the people of Israel are loved, chosen, and saved, by God. “All Israel will be saved”
This claim plays an important role in how we approach and interpret the letter to the Romans. All the component parts needs to be seen in the light of this overarching framework. Paul was writing to a community where Gentiles had come to believe that Jesus was chosen of God. They had joined with Jews who had already come to the view that Jesus was, indeed, the very Messiah, anointed one, chosen by God from amongst their people, the people of Israel.
Jews and Gentiles coexisted alongside each other in the house churches that had been established in Rome. (All the early churches were house churches; there were no designated ecclesial buildings, so their gatherings took place in the homes of wealthy people, sympathetic to the ethos of the growing movement.) That, it seems, had been the case for some years before Paul dictates this letter to them.
However, a few years earlier, the Emperor Claudius had commanded the expulsion of Jews in the city of Rome—just one of the countless times throughout their history that the people of Israel were rendered homeless, stateless, sent into exile. It would seem that many Jews left Rome, in or around the year 49 by our reckoning. But five or six years later, as Paul dictated his letter, it would seem that Jews had returned to the city.
And amongst those returning Jews, there were Jews who held firm to the conviction that Jesus was Messiah. These Jewish Messianists joined in the fellowship meals and social gatherings and worship experiences where Gentile believers were also to be found.
These gatherings of the followers of Jesus in Rome reflected the all-inclusive nature of the Gospel. God is God of both Jews and Gentiles, as Paul affirmed. Salvation is available to Jews as well as Gentiles, as he clearly states. Paul knows of this rich diversity; he addresses by name 29 people in Rome (in chapter 16 of his letter to the Romans), and there are both Jewish names and Gentile names included amongst those 29 names. (And a good number of women, alongside the men!)
The church in Rome (or, to be precise, the churches in Rome) exemplified the message that Paul consistently articulates throughout this letter: “all have sinned, yet all are justified by God’s grace as a gift” (3:23-24); “is not God the God of Jews, and the God of Gentiles also?” (3:29); the promise is “not only to the aherents of the law, but also to those who share the faith of Abraham” (4:16); God has called people, “not only from the Jews, but also from the Gentiles” (9:24); “there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him” (10:12); “salvation has come to the Gentiles” (11:11); and so, “all Israel will be saved” (11:26), for “God has mercy on all” (11:32).
Paul sounds this consistent theme throughout Romans: God is for all, God has mercy on all, both Jew and Gentile may participate in the full knowledge of God. The church in Rome lives out that message in the daily life of its members. The church in the place where we each are engaged is called, today, to live out that message in the daily lives of all its members.