The Tree of Israel (Part I) – Romans 11:1-15

by Roger McCay
1 March 2020
Sermon Passage: Romans 11:1-15
Link to Audio Version

Many Christians throughout history have turned their back on the Jews. Anti-Semitism has simmered under the surface for two-millennia, and at times has expressed itself as open hatred, with the Jews being called “Christ-killers” and “the rejected by God.” This is a stain upon our history.

The history is way too extensive to even begin to get into here, but consider this example: At a time when the “Jews had been expelled from England in 1290, from France in 1394, and from Spain in 1492,” [1] Martin Luther (revered by many for his amazing stand and fueling the fire of the Reformation) published a pamphlet called “On the Jews and Their Lies,” in 1543. Luther wrote:

“What shall we do with this rejected and condemned people, the Jews?”

“First, to set fire to their synagogues or schools and to bury and cover with dirt whatever will not burn so that no man will ever again see a stone or cinder of them. This is to be done in honor of our Lord and of Christendom, so that God might see that we are Christians, and do not condone or knowingly tolerate such public lying, cursing, and blasphemy of his Son and of his Christians.” [2]

He also recommended that the houses of Jews be, “razed and destroyed,”; the Talmud (their Scriptures) taken away from them; and that Germany should, “emulate the common sense of other nations such as France, Spain, Bohemia, etc., compute with them how much their usury has extorted from us, divide this amicably, but then eject them forever from the country.” [3]

One man sums up the sentiment, “The Jews, because of their stiff-necked rejection of the Christ, have in turn been rejected by God. The mantle has passed from Jew to Christian. Christians are the new ‘chosen people.’ The Church is the ‘New Israel.’” [4] While partly true, this is a misunderstanding and a twisting of the truth. God has not and never will abandon the Jews. He has left himself a remnant of Jews, who make up a part of the whole people of God. Salvation is not closed to them. They are saved based on the same principles that the Gentile Christians are saved—faith in Jesus Christ.

On a side note: if you are not sure what a Gentile is, if you are not a Jew, you are a Gentile.

Now, it is a temptation for Christians to think of themselves in some superior way. After all, we are “God’s children,” “His chosen,” the “elect.” From that can come arrogance towards those who are considered outside that special fold—towards the Jews, Muslims, Atheists, or anyone not a Christian. But with that attitude, Christians fall to pride by thinking that there is something in themselves that make them special.

Paul addresses that problem here in Rom. 11 by focusing on and explaining how the Jews remain part of God’s plan, and how, from the ethnic Jews, will come many true Israelites who are God’s people. Paul interweaves this with a discussion on the Gentile Christians, who are also God’s people and part of true Israel. Hence, God’s people include both Jews and Gentiles—one people in Christ—together the true tree of Israel.

So, what did Paul ask about the Jews? Verse 1 – Has God rejected his people? Did God reject his people—the whole Jewish nation? “By no means!” Paul declares. As the Psalmist said, “For the LORD will not forsake his people; he will not abandon his heritage” (Ps. 94:14).

What proof is there of this?  Paul gives us four proofs:

First, he gives himself as an example in v. 1:

11:1c For I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin.

Paul is a Jew and he was not rejected. He was even a persecutor of the church. Yet, by God’s grace, the Lord saved him (Acts 9). If even Paul can be saved, there is hope for the Jews.

Secondly, in v. 2, Paul gives a theological answer:

God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew.

Does this reference to “his [God’s] people” mean every single Jewish person? Recall Romans 8:29. There Paul teaches that those whom God foreknew are his chosen people, his elect. All God’s elect will be saved – guaranteed—glorified (Rom. 8:30) as good as done. Paul later states in Romans 9:6, “not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel.” Then add in from Rom. 11:2 (our passage today), “His people whom he foreknew.” Follow that with the context of the remnant Paul further describes in vv. 3-10.

Logic concludes that Paul is not referring to every single Jew as being “God’s people.” He is referring specifically to the elect Jews who make up part of true Israel. Thus, since God did not reject the remnant of Jews, he has not rejected “His people.”

So, what about this remnant? Paul elaborates in his third and fourth proof that God will not abandon his people.

The third proof that God did not reject his people is a biblical example—from Elijah—vv. 2-4. Here Paul quotes from 1 Kings 19:1-8. Elijah had fled from Jezebel into the wilderness, and was extremely frustrated. At Mt. Horeb, the Lord came to Elijah, assuring Elijah that he was still working out his plan for Israel. The Lord told him, “I have kept for myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal.” Way back then the great mass of Israel was apostate, similar to the time of Paul. Yet, God had preserved a remnant—a group of Jews who continued to trust in Him.

Paul next brings that concept to his present situation in v. 5 with his fourth proof:

So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace.

There was a remnant in Elijah’s time; there was likewise a remnant in Paul’s time. While most of the Jews were apostate, God, by his grace, had left for himself a chosen remnant.

How big a remnant? Fairly sizable. In Acts 21:20 James gave an estimate of how many had believed in Jerusalem: “You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed….” Clearly, God had not abandoned His people.

What was so special about this remnant? Were they better than the other Jews? Verses 6-7:

But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace. What then? Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking. The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened,

Does anything sound familiar here? Grace, perhaps? Salvation by God’s grace received through faith. Paul pointedly explains that salvation, righteousness, citizenship in the Kingdom of God, being part of the tree of true Israel, has absolutely nothing to do with Israel’s intrinsic merit or achievement. The remnant is God’s chosen, his elect, according to his grace (period).

Salvation is God’s initiative, not the Jewish remnant’s initiative, nor our initiative. The Jews are no different than the Gentiles in how they are saved. The remnant’s election has nothing to do with whether they are better than the reprobate Jews. God chose to save some, and he chose to harden some.

Paul addressed this concept in detail in Romans 9-10. We looked at Rom. 9 in detail over the last four weeks. Consider again Rom. 9:22-24:

22 What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, 23 in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory— 24 even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?

This is exactly what God did. Hence, the reference in Rom. 11:7 is to the chosen remnant, which comprises those who obtained the salvation that all of Israel pursued. For the rest of the Jews, in their denial of Christ, their hearts were hardened against Christ. Hence, Rom. 9:18: God “has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.” Furthermore, Romans 9 informs us that the hardening of the Jews hearts was a punishment for their unbelief.

Paul now, in Romans 11:8-9, emphasizes this hardening with quotations from all three of the main divisions of the Jewish Scriptures: The Law from Deuteronomy 29:4, The Prophets from Isaiah 29:10, and The Writings from Psalm 69:22-23.

Romans 11:8 is reminiscent of Jesus’ explanation for why he spoke in parables in Matthew 13. He said the Jews hearts had become calloused, and, as such, they could not hear because they would not listen and would not see because they closed their eyes. Thus, he deliberately spoke to them in parables that they could not grasp.

In v. 9, Paul next quotes David’s calling upon God to punish his enemies, and applies this sentiment to the hardened Jews, who had made themselves enemies of Christ.

There is danger in hearing God’s Word and not responding to it. The time could come when a person becomes incapable to respond to it. Kent Hughes, out of his extensive preaching experience, comments, “As a pastor preaches week after week to a congregation, he senses that over the years there are some who are dead to the Word of God, and that is a terrifying thing.” [5]

With the vast majority of Jews in a state of apostasy with only a remnant saved, Paul asks another question:

11 So I ask, did they stumble in order that they might fall?

Are the rest of the Jews beyond recovery? Paul emphatically answers: “By no means!”

Well, then what is God up to with them? In vv. 11-12, Paul gives the general explanation of what the Lord is doing. In order to achieve his purpose in bringing salvation to the Gentiles, God hardened the majority of the Jews.

How so? Paul, explains in v.11. Through the Jews rejection of Christ (their trespass),  the Lord worked to bring salvation to the elect Gentiles. John Stott points out, “The first event took place with a view to the second. God thus overruled the sin of Israel for the salvation of the Gentiles.”[6]

The Lord did this also with a purpose—to inspire jealousy in the Jews. We see this process historically in the book of Acts. Four times, it is recorded, the Jews rejection of the gospel led to its offer and acceptance by the Gentiles. Acts 13:44-46, for example, tells of an incident after Paul and Barnabas had gone to the synagogue in Psidian Antioch, preached the gospel and were rejected by the Jews. Later, when they spoke to the whole city—the Gentiles—the Jews became jealous and spoke abusively against Paul’s message. In response,

46 … Paul and Barnabas spoke out boldly, saying, “It was necessary that the word of God be spoken first to you. Since you thrust it aside and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we are turning to the Gentiles.

Even more, it’s a circular effect. The Jews reject Christ. So, the Gentiles hear and believe. Then Jews seeing Gentiles being saved get jealous. As a result of their jealousy, some Jews then, by God’s grace, receive Christ. This latter part of the circle is the Apostle Paul’s expressed intent (vv. 13-14):

13 Now I am speaking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch then as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I magnify my ministry 14 in order somehow to make my fellow Jews jealous, and thus save some of them.

Paul desperately hopes that somehow, due to his own ministry to the Gentiles, which he magnifies before all—Jew and Gentile; he hopes that his “in your face” technique will arouse his own people to jealousy for the express purpose that some would come around and trust in Jesus as their Messiah, Savior, and Lord. This is one of the reasons Paul is so tireless in his ministry. Furthermore, as Paul was an Apostle of Jesus Christ, this was surely a Holy Spirit inspired strategy—effective towards bringing many of the elect remnant of the Jews to faith in Jesus.

Hence, for the hardened Jews who rejected Christ, hope is not lost. Many will never receive Christ; many will eventually receive Christ. Their hardening was/is partial and not permanent. Although they are now apostate, they are still elect; they just have not yet been born again.

What a call for ministry amongst the Jews! Far from rejecting them as forsaken by God and as Christ-killers, Paul’s example is for Christians to deliberately evangelize the Jews. There is greatness in such an endeavor. Like Paul exclaims in v. 12, if their transgression and loss led to riches for the world and Gentiles, imagine what it will be like when all the Jews, who are of true Israel, receive Christ and are saved. Paul hints that it will be something wonderful (v. 15):

15 For if their rejection [by God] means the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance [by God] mean but life from the dead?

Through a rhetorical question, Paul states that if what looked like God’s rejection of the Jews, as shown in their unbelief; if that seeming rejection turns out to not be actual rejection, then it is something wonderful.

When the elect remnant of Jews who were hardened, along with and just like the reprobate Jews; when their hardening is shown, by God’s grace, to only be an initial hardening; when they are shown to actually be accepted by God (included) in Christ (the elect); when they finally submit in faithful obedience to the gospel, then it is something wonderful. It is a resurrection— “life from the dead”—born again. Such is in line with the passage in Ezekiel 37:3-6 of the dry bones:

3 And he said to me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” And I answered, “O Lord GOD, you know.” 4 Then he said to me, “Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD. 5 Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. 6 And I will lay sinews upon you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live, and you shall know that I am the LORD.”

What was true in Paul’s day is true today. Many of the Jews, having heard the gospel, having seen the effects of the gospel among the Gentiles such as the blessings of salvation: reconciliation to God, forgiveness, love, joy, and peace through the Spirit, many of those Jews will believe and be saved. They were spiritually dead, but by the Holy Spirit they will be made alive—spiritually alive by God’s grace received through faith—born again. This process will endure until Christ returns. Jews will continue to turn to Christ until they reach their fullness and the full complement of the elect Jews—the true Israel of the descendants of Israel (Rom. 11:26).

With that said, how will any Jew trust in Christ if we don’t minister to them—evangelize? How are we going to make them jealous if we don’t live our lives for Christ?

Now, in Monroeville, we don’t have any synagogues, nor an established Jewish community, of which I’m aware. Yet, who are the Jews (or like the Jews) in our community of Gentiles? They are pew-sitters, and, perhaps, even some pulpit-standers. People who have embraced religion, doing something for salvation (going to church, partaking of the sacraments, or what have you). They are people who are comfortable in the Bible belt, assuming that they are saved by association with true Christians, perhaps even filling a pew occasionally or often. So, they think they are good. Yet, while such a person might not be overtly hostile to, perhaps even embracing religion, a socially “Christian lifestyle” and fellowship, that person has hardened his or her heart against following Jesus and is dead to the Word of God. 

Does this describe anyone you know? Does this describe you? Furthermore, fellow disciples of Christ, how is anybody going to follow Christ in obedience of faith if we don’t evangelize and live our lives consistent with the calling that we have in Christ?

People watch us. If they know you are a Christian, they will often only know the benefits of God’s grace in Christ (what it means to be a citizen in God’s Kingdom) by what you say and what you do.

Whether the person is inside or outside of the church, are they jealous of your Christian life? Or, are they indifferent because your life is no different than theirs, and you don’t even bother to talk to them about it?

Let us live our lives as Jesus called us to live; let us follow him in obedience of faith. God will bless our lives through this. Even more, through our obedient discipleship, God will bless the lives of those he foreknew, yet who do not yet know him.

Because God does not reject His people, Christians must live to draw them to Christ.


[1] Thornton, Ted, History of the Middle East Database; Persecution of the Jews in Europe;, 9/22/2007

[2] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, trans. by Martin H. Bertram (Philadelphia, 1971), 288.

[3] ibid, 272

[4] Thornton, Persecution of the Jews in Europe.

[5] R. Kent Hughes, Romans: Righteousness from Heaven, Preaching the Word (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1991), 195.

[6] John R. W. Stott, The Message of Romans: God’s Good News for the World, The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 295.