Does this mean, then, that God is so fed up with Israel that he'll have nothing more to do with them? Hardly. Remember that I, the one writing these things, am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham out of the tribe of Benjamin. You can't get much more Semitic than that! So we're not talking about repudiation. God has been too long involved with Israel, has too much invested, to simply wash his hands of them.
Do you remember that time Elijah was agonizing over this same Israel and cried out in prayer?
God, they murdered your prophets,
They trashed your altars;
I'm the only one left and now they're after me!
And do you remember God's answer?
I still have seven thousand who haven't quit,
Seven thousand who are loyal to the finish.
It's the same today. There's a fiercely loyal minority still—not many, perhaps, but probably more than you think. They're holding on, not because of what they think they're going to get out of it, but because they're convinced of God's grace and purpose in choosing them. If they were only thinking of their own immediate self-interest, they would have left long ago.
And then what happened? Well, when Israel tried to be right with God on her own, pursuing her own self-interest, she didn't succeed. The chosen ones of God were those who let God pursue his interest in them, and as a result received his stamp of legitimacy. The "self-interest Israel" became thick-skinned toward God. Moses and Isaiah both commented on this:
Fed up with their quarrelsome, self-centered ways,
God blurred their eyes and dulled their ears,
Shut them in on themselves in a hall of mirrors,
and they're there to this day.
David was upset about the same thing:
I hope they get sick eating self-serving meals,
break a leg walking their self-serving ways.
I hope they go blind staring in their mirrors,
get ulcers from playing at god.
The next question is, "Are they down for the count? Are they out of this for good?" And the answer is a clear-cut no. Ironically when they walked out, they left the door open and the outsiders walked in. But the next thing you know, the Jews were starting to wonder if perhaps they had walked out on a good thing. Now, if their leaving triggered this worldwide coming of non-Jewish outsiders to God's kingdom, just imagine the effect of their coming back! What a homecoming!
Every time I read Romans 11 I am moved by Paul’s sense of sadness. He wants his people, his family, his friends, his neighbors, his mentors, to come to faith. In the midst of this I often hear his self talk: Paul you’re not alone. There are others. There will come a day when people will understand. Hang in there bud. Don’t give up.
Perhaps I’m reading too much into this, but I don’t think so.
Paul by invoking Elijah calls us to think about his story and the utter despair that Elijah experienced. Things were bad in Israel. King Ahab and Queen Jezebel had led the Northern Kingdom astray spiritually. Everyone, it felt like, had given themselves over to Baal. God, in his grace, reminds Elijah that he’s not alone, there are 7,000 others that have not bowed the knee to the false god.
I imagine that Paul must have been feeling alone. He had been through some really hard times before writing this letter and most of them had been at the hands of his Jewish brethren. The majority of people who were beginning to follow Jesus through Paul’s preaching were the outsiders, the Gentiles. I don’t think it’s a hard stretch to imagine Paul’s heartbreak and loneliness.
Throughout Paul’s writing we see that his understanding of Jesus is that of fulfillment. He believed and taught that Jesus was the fulfillment of the story of Israel. He was the culmination of the whole thing. There was finally a faithful one. Someone who had been faithful to the covenant that God made with Adam and that had been developed through the ages. The frustration for Paul was that so many others chose not see it.
So, here we are and he is reminding people that God’s heart for the people of Israel hasn’t changed. There are many, probably more than anyone realizes that have embraced the faithful one. There is a remnant, Paul says.
In our own day and age it feels as though many who claim the name “Christian” have lost the plot. They have missed the reality that they are not the ones who determine in and out. Ours is the message of grace, truth, love, mercy, and hope. The call is to proclaim the excellencies of a crucified and risen king. But, this has given way to arguments about “worldview” and “politics” and all kinds of secondary things.
One of the things that I particularly appreciated about N.T. Wright’s treatment of Paul in the biography he wrote is that Paul was concerned about teaching those he was writing to to think. This was why he emphasized having the “mind of Christ.” It wasn’t about new rules and dogmas. It was about learning how to engage the world as Christ had done. This demanded a new way of thinking.
We need all these reminders. Those of us pursuing the the gracious, truthful, merciful, loving Christ need to remember we are not alone. There are others. We also need the reminder that we need to continue to learn how to think as Christ did.
As one of my favorite poets puts it,
So keep'em coming these lines on the road
And keep me responsible be it a light or heavy load
And keep me guessing with these blessings in disguise
And I'll walk with grace my feet and faith my eyes
- Derek Webb