If you’ve spent any great amount of time in the letters of Paul, you’ve probably realized that his letters to churches follow a consistent pattern: the first part of the letter is theology, and the second part is application of that theology to the life of the church and its members. Biblical scholars like to borrow terms from grammar and talk about this as the indicative and the imperative; for those who aren’t grammar geeks, the indicative mood in language is the basic form, telling you what is—this is a chair, that is a window, and so on—while the imperative is the command form: sit down! Shut that window! You get the idea. In these terms, Paul begins by laying out the indicatives of the gospel—what’s true about God and Jesus and us and our salvation—before moving on to the imperatives of the gospel—this being true, how should we then live?
This is important, for reasons we’ll talk about later in this series; for now, the important point is that this passage brings the theological arc of this letter to its close. The story Paul has been telling of the work of God in redeeming a people for himself comes to an end here, as the apostle turns to look forward to the grand conclusion of history; he turns from explaining what God has already done to proclaim what God is going to do. He’s been dealing with the problem of the Exile, with God’s rejection of Israel and his banishment of his people from the land of his presence; but as Paul has argued in the first part of chapter 11, the Exile was never going to be permanent, for God promised even before sending Israel away that he would bring them home.
Now, in hearing this, you need to understand that from the Jewish perspective, the Exile never really ended. Sure, they got back to Jerusalem, but that’s only part of what they expected—God made all sorts of other promises about what would happen when he brough his people back from exile, and most of those remained unfulfilled in Paul’s day, and still in ours. There was no great gathering of the nations to worship God, there was no return of the king of the line of David to the throne in Jerusalem, there was no return to glory for Israel—they weren’t even an independent nation, except for a brief period. Clearly, they had returned physically from exile, but the Exile wasn’t really over, and so many Jews came to believe that when Messiah came, that would be when all these promises would finally come true.
They were right in many ways, except for one major thing: when Messiah came, only a minority in Israel recognized him, and so the nation’s exile did not come to an end. Thus the question returned: was this the end for Israel? Was this the point when God finally gave up on them for good and turned them away forever? And as we saw last week, Paul says definitively: no. The Exile will be longer and worse than anyone expected, but there is still an end in sight. God has promised that in the end, he will come to Israel and take away their sins, he will banish their ungodliness and idolatry and redeem them, and that promise still holds.
As we saw last week, part of Paul’s purpose here is to warn the Gentiles in the church not to make the same mistake Israel had made before them. The Jews as a whole had fallen prey to spiritual pride, coming to believe that they were better than the rest of the world, and that because they were part of the nation of Israel, their salvation was guaranteed. They were wrong. Now Gentiles in the church were being drawn by that same temptation, coming to feel themselves superior to the Jews and to presume that because they were part of a Christian congregation, their salvation was guaranteed; to them Paul says, if God didn’t spare Israel for that, he certainly won’t spare you either. Just going to church won’t save you any more than just being a Jew will. Only Jesus.
Not all who look like Israel are part of the true Israel; not all who look like Christians are part of the true church. We can’t judge by external appearances who truly belongs to God; we can’t know in chapter 4 how anyone’s story will turn out, however great or lousy they may look at that point. Fortunately for us, we don’t need to, because that’s their story, not ours; it’s for us to look to our own story, and our own growth. What we do know is that it’s not about our merit, or anyone else’s: it’s about the grace of God, who freely chooses to save the undeserving—and everyone is undeserving.
This is why Paul can say that when God’s work among the Gentiles is completed, Jesus will come to Israel and they will turn in faith to him whom their ancestors rejected, and they will at last find his salvation. Given Paul’s quotation here from Isaiah 59, it seems clear that this will be when Christ returns—they missed him the first time, but when he comes again they will recognize him as Messiah and Lord. As Zechariah 12-13 says, they will look on him whom they have pierced, and they will grieve in deep repentance; and they will find his grace and forgiveness. At the end, God will bring Israel back to himself, and they will be saved—not every Jew throughout all time, and not by following the Law, but through Christ alone.
The key here is beautifully put by New Testament scholar Thomas R. Schreiner, who writes, “God has designed salvation history in such a way that the extension of his saving grace surprises those who are its recipients. Gentiles were elected to salvation when the Jews were expecting to be the special objects of his favor, and the Jews will be grafted in again at a time in which Gentiles will be tempted to believe that they are superior to ethnic Israel. By constructing history in such a way God makes it evident that he deserves the praise for the inclusion of any into his saving promises. Indeed, this theme matches beautifully with chapter 9, for there Paul argues similarly that God’s election inverts human expectations. He chose Isaac, not Ishmael; Jacob, not Esau; the Gentiles, not the Jews. Similarly, at the end of salvation history, when the Gentiles are in danger of becoming self-assured, confident that they are the special objects of God’s love, he will surprise them again by reinstating the people of his covenant promises.”
That’s the key: God has designed his plan so that his salvation takes us by surprise, so that we clearly see that the praise is to him alone. He doesn’t do what we expect, and he doesn’t call those whom we think worthy; instead—well, let me turn this over for a minute to a bunch of Cornish fishermen:
It’s not exactly the same, but that’s the gospel invitation: “Come all you no-hopers, jokers, and rogues.” Set aside your faith in the world and its ways; give up the idea that you can earn your way to heaven; realize just how much greater God is than you, how unfathomably vast and deep are his wisdom and knowledge and plans, stop trying to bargain with him or put him in your debt, and just worship him. In the end, all we can say is what Paul says here at the end:
Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable his judgments,
and his paths beyond tracing out!
“Who has known the mind of the Lord?
Or who has been his counselor?”
“Who has ever given to God,
that God should repay him?”
For from him and through him and to him are all things.
To him be the glory forever! Amen.