Israel and the Divine Purpose
—Present and Future
Dr. S. Lewis Johnson’s teaching ministry not only centres on Believers Chapel in Dallas, Texas, but also involves annual visits to Grace Theological Seminary, Winona Lake, Indiana and Tyndale Theological Seminary, Amsterdam, Holland.
This is Dr. Johnson’s sixth detailed study on Romans 11.
Calling Immutable and Mercy Inexhaustible
The knowledge of the divine purpose is an absolute essential for the reading, the understanding, and the living of Scripture. In most endeavours of life the knowledge of the proper, or best, plan of action is a necessity. No general would think of approaching a battle without a battle plan. No athletic coach would think of beginning a contest without a game plan. No teacher should come to a class session without a lesson plan. It is reasonable, and true to Scripture, to expect God would have a plan in accomplishing His purpose, the greatest of all plans.
The Bible states that He has such a plan. In Ephesians 3:11 Paul, in his marvellous words to the Ephesians about God’s purpose through him to bring the good news to Gentiles, refers to “the eternal purpose (lit., the purpose of the ages) which He purposed in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
The divine purpose, like any real world-view, has its beginning in creation, its stages of unfolding in the developing history of the future (cf. Gen. 1:1 — 2:4; Heb. 1:1-2; Rev. 21:1 — 22:5).
No biblical writer has unfolded all the details of the plan of the ages in his work. Rather, many authors have each made contributions in their several works. That is true of Paul, of course, and Romans eleven may be his greatest concentrated contribution to the subject. His particular stress lies in the light thrown on the relation of the nation Israel to the Gentile nations. We have been seeking to elucidate that contribution.
This study concentrates attention upon verses twenty-eight through thirty-two. The key-words in the chapter now become gifts, calling, and mercy.
The word mercy is found four times in this brief section, and perhaps a word about its sense will aid in the exposition of the verses. The verb means “to have compassion, be sorry for, show compassion, be merciful.”1 The derived noun eleemosyne referred to the act of kindness that followed compassion, and then to alms, or a contribution to the poor. We speak in English of eleemosynary institutions, such as the United Fund, the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, and the American Cancer Society. Thus, the idea of living from others came to be associated with the idea.
A story told by Dr. Donald Grey Barnhouse illustrated its sense for him. “My research assistant,” Barn-house has written, “told me the following incident which illustrates clearly our Greek word for mercy. When he was pastor of a church in metropolitan New York, he had a Scotch lady come in each Wednesday to take care of the manse for him. She always brought the children to lunch since the school was just across the street from the parsonage. Without fail, after the grace she would say, ‘Eat up, it’s on the pastor; we do not have to pay for it today!’ This expression was but an evidence of a Scotsman’s thrift. On one of these occasions my assistant said to the woman: “You know, when we say,” Eat up, it’s on the pastor; we do not have to pay for it today!,” you make me think of a verse of Scripture from Ephesians, “But God, who is rich in mercy, for His great love wherewith He loved us” (2:4). Because of His mercy, we can say, ‘Eat up, it’s on the Lord; we do not have to pay for it today.’”2
To make it easy to distinguish mercy from grace, we might speak of the differences in this simple way: Grace is for the guilty, while mercy is for the miserable. Both are for sinners.
Israel’s Inevitable Future
The declaration of it (28). Paul has concluded his argument for the future of ethnic Israel. He has contended that the falling away of Israel that reached its climax in the rejection of the Messiah had as its ultimate purpose Gentile salvation. Further, the present opening of the door to the Gentiles had as its goal Jewish jealousy and consequent reception into God’s favor which, in turn, would lead to a broader world-wide salvation of the Gentiles (cf. vv. 11-15). The parable of the olive tree illustrated the matter (vv. 16-25), and the quotations from Scripture sealed the evidence for Israel’s return to covenantal blessing (vv. 25-27).
This whole scheme of things naturally raised the question of the broad plan of God, or the purpose of the ages as that purpose affects the nation and the nations. Thus, Paul now obliges his readers in Rome by surveying the broad sweep of God’s dealing with the nations (vv. 28-32). The result is Paul’s greatest passage on God’s plan of the ages. We look into it now.
One notices immediately in the original text the absence of the customary connecting junction or phrase, a practice very near and dear to anyone writing Greek. The Greeks habitually joined their sentences with such connectives, for they generally liked a logical flow in their argumentation. When the connectives were missing, more than likely there was a reason, such as strong feeling or an abrupt change of direction in their theme. In the present case, in the light of the apostle’s personal concern with the theme of these chapters it is probable that, as Barrett comments, he writes “with care as well as feeling, and his words must be carefully marked.”3 We shall pay careful attention to them.
Verses twenty-eight through thirty-two, Cranfield says, “draw out, and sum up, the implications of the preceding verses.”4 The older, but excellent, commentator, William G. T. Shedd says that the verses “recapitulate” what has been said in verses eleven through twenty-seven, but with a broader sweep.5 Plainly stated it is this: Israel has been cast away, but awaits a restoration.
The section bears all the signs of careful writing on the apostle’s part, and I believe that Barrett has noted this so well that I am repeating what he has said, “The paragraph is brought to an end with two balanced sentences, each constructed on the same pattern. Each contains a pair of antithetical clauses explained by a ‘for’ clause. Thus:
A — Enemies, for your advantage (v. 28).
B — Beloved, on account of the fathers (v. 28).
C — For God does not .(v. 29).
A — You once … but now (v. 30)
B — The now … but now (v. 31)
C — For God has shut up .. . (v. 32)”6
Israel’s inevitable future is set before the reader in the words of verse twenty-eight, “As concerning the gospel, they are enemies for your sakes: but as touching the election, they are beloved for the fathers’ sakes.” The immutability of the divine choice is declared (cf. Mal. 3: 6) .
In what sense are Israelites enemies now? Probably the word is used passively, that is, they are enemies in the sense that at the present they are under the divine wrath, treated as enemies. The parallelism of the verse indicates this. This enmity, however, is “for your sakes,” that is, for the sake of the Gentiles in the providential dealing of God (cf. vv. 11, 12, 15).
But while the mass of the nation at present is under His wrath, the divine election of Israel still holds (cf. vv. 5, 7). The words “the election” refer to the covenant promises as the following phrase, “on account of the fathers” indicates. The promises shall find their fulfillment in the national restoration of the nation as a whole in the future (cf. vv. 25-27). And, needless to say, the promises are secured to Israel, not on the ground of merit, but solely on the ground of God’s fidelity to His word in grace (cf. 3:3-4; 9:4-5; Isa. 66:22).
The justification of it (29). The “for” of verse twenty-nine introduces the ground of Israel’s status, namely, the immutability of the divine gifts and calling. The words, “without repentance” (lit. , unregrettable, perhaps “unrevocable”7), emphatic by position in the original text, stress the unchangeability of the Abrahamic promises. They are unregrettable, simply because they are irrevocable. The “gifts” are the effects of the call, representing the individual promises (cf. 9:4-5; 3:3; Isa. 66:22). The “calling” represents the particular act of election, and that is the cause of the gifts, as Shedd notes.8
Rabbi Finkelstein, in the Time article cited in a previous study, in the context of military service put it this way, “The choosing by God was like Selective Service.” It is binding on all Jews to the last generation on earth.9
The declaration of it (30-31). The final balanced sentence is also a kind of “reiteration and confirmation”10 of verses eleven through twenty-seven. The “for” introduces an explanation and expansion of the argument. Paul points out that the end of the road for both Jew and Gentile is God’s mercy, and for each of them the road leads to it through disobedience.11
The story of Gentile disobedience in verse thirty conies first. The apostle does not expand on the details of the period of their disobedience, and we can only survey the Scriptures of the Old Testament for some inkling of his thinking12 One would think that the apostle probably has in mind the original fall of man in the Garden of Eden and the consequent fallen condition that has prevailed to the present. While God called Abraham out of fallen mankind and began a new work with him and his seed, the Gentiles remained in their disobedient state (cf. Acts 17:30). This diagnosis finds confirmation in the way the apostle describes the Gentile condition in chapter one, verses eighteen through thirty-two (cf. vv. 24, 26, 28).
Barrett sees the divine will working out His plan in this. “In each case,” he writes, “behind disobedience and mercy, God wills and enacts the one as he wills and enacts the other.”13
The Jewish history follows in verse thirty-one, and the apostle finds a similarity in the comparison of them in the present age with the Gentiles in the past age. They too, although still an elect people, have fallen into disobedience, climaxing in the rejection of the Messiah but continuing still in the present age. The period of time covered is from Genesis twelve up to the present age.
The apostle repeats the scheme of things in the last clause that he has been emphasizing in the earlier verses. The purpose of Gentile salvation is that “because of the mercy shown to you,”14 Israel may eventually be restored.
The “now” of the last clause has occasioned difficulty. The manuscripts differ here, some having the adverb, others not, and still others have later. Some amillennialists find the “now” to be like a line thrown to a drowning man, their last hope in affirming that Israel’s salvation is taking place in the salvation of the remnants through the ages, or “now.”15 The textual question is discussed in an endnote, but I take the “now” to be probably genuine, although early and widespread witnesses favor its omission.16 What does it mean, then? Simply that Israel shall find their national mercy in the present Messianic age, in its concluding scenes that climax with the Second Advent.
Paul, then, has in mind a divine purpose of the ages, from man’s disobedience at the Fall through divine election of Abraham and his seed. That divinely elected nation, however, stumbled over the stumbling stone, the Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ, leading to the opening of the door of salvation to elected Gentiles. They, too, the New Testament Scriptures say, shall conclude their times of divine blessing in apostasy, and Israel, made jealous, delivered and blessed shall be restored to her favored place before God. As an issue of their startling return to the Lord, their witness to the nations shall finally culminate in the world-wide blessing of the Gentiles. Mercy to all is the glorious divine purpose.
The justification of it (32). The “for” of verse thirty-two confirms and explains the sentiments of verses thirty and thirty-one. God will have concluded all, both Jews and Gentiles, under sin and disobedience with the purpose of showing mercy to all. The word translated by “hath concluded” is a very vivid one, used in military contexts for the giving of people over to the sword (cf. Psa. 77:62, LXX), and metaphorically for the catching of fish in Luke 5:6. It was used of prisoners in prison, and Way renders the text here, “God shut the door on them all when they passed into the prison cell of disobedience, only with the intention of having mercy on all.”17 But, conviction is in order to conversion, Shedd points out, and that is the case here.
The clause contains two occurrences of the noun “all” that have been misunderstood by a few interpreters. Some have even sought to find in the text support for universalism, the doctrine that all without exception shall be saved ultimately, a teaching foolishly and immorally embraced by certain of the cults, and now quite popular in mainline churches.
Others, such as the Arminians and quite a few of the “Calminians (an historical designation of those who have tried to combine two irreconcilable systems of theology, Calvinism and Arminianism), have taught that God purposed to save all without exception, but man’s will has defeated His purpose. That view is not only contradicted by Romans 8:29-30, 9:16, 18, and 21, but leaves us with a limited deity, a frustrated God. He then becomes one of whom it cannot be said, as the prophets did say, “My counsel shall stand, and I will do all my pleasure” (cf. Isa. 46:10; 44:28; Dan. 4:35, etc.).
No, the problem really has a simple solution. Paul, as often in the Bible, uses the term in the sense of all without distinction, not all without exception. That becomes clear when we remember that the chapter has to do with nations, Israel and the Gentiles. At this place Paul means that God will have mercy on all, that is, all the nations, both Israel and the Gentiles.
Cranfield, like many, has difficulty with the word, because he takes the first “all” to mean all without exception (a true teaching for all without exception are under sin), and then, of course, he has difficulty in giving “all” a different sense in the last clause.18 He finally winds up with what he calls the view of Karl Barth, namely, that the text does not teach universalism, nor the exclusion of some from the embrace of God’s mercy, a patently inconsistent position.
Oscar Wilde once said, “Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative,” and Ralph Waldo Emerson offered this, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds adored by little statemen and philosophers and divines.” I still like it. And these men had to use it to say they disliked it!
Paul, then, affirms in his magnificent survey of God’s plan of the ages that it shall issue in universal mercy to Israel and the Gentiles. And all the individuals who respond to God’s loving offer shall have the testimony of John Allen of the Salvation Army. “I deserve to be damned; I deserve to be in hell; but God interfered!” Others who know the Lord say the same thing.
1 H. H. Esser, “Mercy, Compassion,” Dictionary of New Testament Theology, ed. by Colin Brown et al (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publish ing House, 1967-1971), II, 594.
2 Donald Grey Barnhouse, God’s Covenants, p. 158.
3 Barrett, p. 224.
4 Cranfield, II, 579.
5 Shedd, p. 349.
6 Barrett, p. 224.
7 Arndt and Gingrich, p. 45.
8 Shedd, p. 350.
9 Time, October 15, 1951, p. 57.
10 Shedd, p. 351.
11 Cf. Barrett, p. 226.
12 Cranfield has no discussion of the opening clause of verse 30, or the adverb — (AV, “in times past”; lit., at one time).
13 Barrett, p. 226.
14 The AV’s “through your mercy” is better rendered by by reason of the mercy shown you (cf. NASB).
15 Herman Ridderbos, Israel, pp. 57-64 trans. by Richard B. Gaffin, Jr. (den Haag: Van Keulen, 1955), p. 3 (59). Cf. Berkouwer, p. 345.
16 Early and widespread witnesses support the shorter reading without the “now.” However, the presence of the “now” can better explain the origin of the other readings, the omission, and the “superficially more appropriate usteron” (Metzer, p. 527). It is not easy to suppose an accidental insertion in the light of the external evidence (but is this certainly so?). If the “now” is genuine, the reference is to the truth of verse 23 (cf. vv. 5, 7), or to the present Messianic age. The latter possibility fully satisfies all questions of an ethnic future for Israel. There is a possibility of an accidental insertion of the adverb, but consideration of it would take us too far afield.
17 Way, p. 138.
18 Cranfield at one point does acknowledge that groups might be in view, even suggesting that the article with panats (AV, “all”) might suggest that sense.