The Conversion Of The Jews
Stumbling Of Israel
In a Brief Survey of the Epistle of Paul to the Romans
Based on sermons preached in PCC Worship Services, July 2003 to Sep 2005
Part 53a of 83

11 I say then, Have they stumbled that they should fall? God forbid: but rather through their fall salvation is come unto the Gentiles, for to provoke them to jealousy.…” (Romans 11:11-16).

We have entered into another controversial chapter in the book of Romans.

The most prevalent opinion today about this chapter is that it teaches us that God has not rejected Israel PERMANENTLY.

According to this opinion, there will come a time when God will deal with Israel as a nation again.

We are living in the time of the Gentiles, it is said. During this time, God has two people: Israel and the Church. God has a special providence for both His people. He is saving His Church. And he is protecting and blessing Israel as a nation—until the whole nation is ready for salvation.

When the “fullness of the Gentiles be come in” (v. 25), THEN “all Israel shall be saved” (v. 26)! This will happen after a great tribulation. After the tribulation, the hearts of the Jews would be so softened that they will regret what they did to Christ, and they will be converted en masse.

But we saw in the previous study, that Israel as a nation is no longer the people of God, and in fact, the apostle Paul is not really dealing with what will happen to Israel in the future in this chapter. He is concerned, rather, with what was happening in Israel in his own time, or throughout the whole period of time until the Last Day when Christ returns.

In the first ten verses, which corresponds to the first of five major paragraphs in this chapter, Paul teaches us three things:

1.  God has not cast away Israel TOTALLY, for He has a remnant according to the election of grace.

2.  God has not cast away Israel completely, but being an Israelite does not make one more ‘saveable’.

3.  God has not cast away Israel completely, but the nation is being judged and most of her members will remain in unbelief.

In the present study, the Lord helping us, we want to consider the second major paragraph from verse 11 to 16.

Now, the common interpretation of this paragraph is that God has not cast away the nation permanently and God will restore the nation fully one day. That is, God will deal with the nation as a whole distinctly, and every, if not, most of the Jews, will be converted.

But as we shall see, this interpretation is impossible and does not make sense. We shall see that Paul is not speaking about a national conversion of the Jews, though he does speak about how desirable the conversion of the Jews will be; and he is encouraging us to desire the conversion of the Jews. We should never boast against the Jews, much less persecute them. We should rather desire that good may come upon them in our own time.

Now, because the popular interpretation of this paragraph is so deeply lodged in the minds of most Christians, it can be very difficult to understand it. But it is important for us to disabuse our minds of the errors. So do bear with some exegetical considerations as we go along.

With this in mind, we may understand this paragraph by considering how it answers three implied questions. First, …

1. Why Did Israel, as a Nation, Stumble?

11 I say then, Have they stumbled that they should fall? God forbid: but rather through their fall  salvation is come unto the Gentiles, for to provoke them to jealousy.

Israel as a nation has stumbled. They stumbled at the stone of stumbling, even Christ, the rock of Salvation (Rom 9:33). By and large the Jews according to the flesh were not converted. Why did God allow that to happen?

Well, the most common reading of what Paul is sayings is that the Jews have not fallen beyond recovery, but that God is doing something to try to provoke the whole national to repent and to be converted unto Him. How is He doing so? He is doing so by the salvation of the Gentiles, they say. God’s original intention is to save the nation of Israel; but since they have rejected him, He is now saving the Gentiles so that hopefully the Jews might get jealous and be provoked return to the Lord as a nation.

But is this what he is saying? Well, I don’t think so. Why? Because if this is the purpose of God, then it appears to have failed many times over, for more than fifty generations of ethnic Jews have lived and died since the time of Paul and still the nation is not converted.

Let me put it this way: If Paul was thinking that the conversion of the Gentiles would result in the national conversion of the Jews, then it was wishful thinking. Because that simply did not happen! It did not happen in his generation. It did not happen in the next fifty generations. Millions and millions of Jews have entered a Christ-less eternity since the Gentiles began to be added to the Church.

Our critic immediate objects: It will happen towards the last day. The majority of the Jews would be provoked to jealousy and be converted then. But that seems rather strange, isn’t it? Could it be that God only intend to provoke to jealousy that final generation of Jews and not the fifty generations that have already perished? And where does Paul say that God is not concerned about the present generation of Jews?

What then? What is Paul saying? Well, the word of God cannot be broken.

In the first place, we must realise that Paul is not asking, in verse 11, as the NIV suggests, whether Israel “stumbled so as to fall beyond recovery.” He is only asking “Have they stumbled that they should fall?” The words, “beyond recovery” in the NIV simply do not exist in the text! The translators of the NIV have inserted a popular idea into the verse that is simply not there. Paul is not suggesting that the nation of Israel will be recovered. He is simply asking: Have the Jews stumbled for the purpose of falling? Has God allowed them to fall, for no other reason but so that they fall?

And the answer is absolutely not! God is not capricious. There is a very important reason why they fell: namely, the salvation of the Gentiles!

There is simply no indication that Paul believes the whole nation of Israel would ever be converted as a whole. Well, it is possible that he personally desired that, since they were his kinsmen. But there is no indication here, nor in the verses before or in the verses after that he expects the whole nation of Israel to be converted.

No, no; he is saying that there is a good reason for Israel to stumble, namely, that “through their fall, salvation is come to the Gentiles.” That is: the primary reason for the stumbling of the Jews is that through their fall, salvation would come to the Gentiles.

Now, this is very clearly indicated in the ministry of the apostle Paul.

Three times, the apostle Paul announced to the Jews that the gift of the salvation of God is being taken away from them and sent to the Gentiles.

The first time was during Paul’s first missionary journey. This is recorded in Acts 13:46-48. Paul and Barnabas were in Antioch of Pisidia. They were preaching in the synagogue when the Jew became envious, and began to contradict them and to blaspheme the Lord.

46 Then Paul and Barnabas waxed bold, and said, It was necessary that the word of God should first have been spoken to you: but seeing ye put it from you, and judge yourselves unworthy of everlasting life, lo, we turn to the Gentiles. 47 For so hath the Lord commanded us, saying, I have set thee to be a light of the Gentiles, that thou shouldest be for salvation unto the ends of the earth. 48 And when the Gentiles heard this, they were glad, and glorified the word of the Lord: and as many as were ordained to eternal life believed” (Acts 13:46-48).

This was the first indication that the rejection of the Jews would result in the salvation of the Gentiles.

The second recorded indication brings us to Corinth during Paul’s second missionary journey. This is recorded in Acts 18:6. Here again, Paul was preaching in the synagogue. But we are told:

“… when [the Jews] opposed themselves, and blasphemed, [Paul] shook his raiment, and said unto them, Your blood be upon your own heads; I am clean: from henceforth I will go unto the Gentiles” (Acts 18:6).

Notice how Paul is using the language of Ezekiel. He had done his duty of warning the Jews. The ball is in their court. He is absolved of responsibility towards them.

The third instance occurred in Rome. This is recorded in Acts 28:28. Paul had gathered the Jews to hear him out. But the Jews started to argue with one another instead of receiving the Gospel. Paul then rebuked them by telling them that the prophecy of Isaiah that they would be blinded and harden was being fulfilled. Then he said them:

“Be it known therefore unto you, that the salvation of God is sent unto the Gentiles, and that they will hear it” (Acts 28:28).

The extension of the Gospel to the Gentiles, then, is one the primary reasons, according Paul for the fall of the Jews.

But why does Paul say that the conversion of Gentiles was “to provoke [Israel] to jealousy”? Does this not indicate that the conversion of the Gentiles is for the purpose of provoking the nation of Israel to jealousy so that they might be recovered as a nation?

Well, no! Turn back to chapter 10, where Paul quotes Moses to say that God would provoke Israel to jealousy by the conversion of the Gentile. Verse 19—

“But I say, Did not Israel know? First Moses saith, I will provoke you to jealousy by them that are no people, and by a foolish nation I will anger you” (Rom 10:19).

Do you see what Paul is saying? God’s provoking the nation of Israel to jealousy is punitive rather than gracious. If this is not clear, let’s look at Deuteronomy 32, from where Paul quotes these words:

20 And he [God] said, I will hide my face from them, I will see what their end shall be: for they are a very froward generation, children in whom is no faith. 21 They have moved me to jealousy with that which is not God; they have provoked me to anger with their vanities: and I will move them to jealousy with those which are not a people; I will provoke them to anger with a foolish nation. 22 For a fire is kindled in mine anger, and shall burn unto the lowest hell…” (Dt 32:20-22).

Can you see it? Now, it is true that the word for “provoke to jealousy” in the Greek can also mean “to provoke unto zeal” in the good sense of the word. And this is the way that Paul would use the word in verse 14, and our translation has rightly rendered it there as “provoke to emulation.”

But here in verse 11, it is clear that God is provoking the nation of Israel with a jealous anger. It is punitive rather than gracious. Paul is merely saying in verse 11, that the Jews stumbled that the Gentiles might be saved, and the Gentiles are saved so that the Jews might be provoked to jealousy and anger as part of their just recompense for rejecting God. Let us not read our own ideas into the Scriptures, for that is dangerous.

But now, though it is not true that Paul expects a national conversion of the Jews, he does desire and expect some conversion amongst the Jews.

Indeed, as we saw in our study of the first 10 verses, a remnant of ethnic Jews would be converted for the sake of the fathers.

What can we expect from their conversion, is what Paul is now turning our attention to in verse 12.

…to be Continued Next Issue

—JJ Lim