There’s a scene in C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe where the children realize that this great figure named Aslan—the Christ figure in the story—is a lion. Here’s how the conversation goes between Mr. and Mrs. Beaver and these children:
“Is—is he a man?” asked Lucy.
“Aslan a man! said Mr. Beaver sternly. “Certainly not. I tell you he is the King of the wood and the son of the great Emperor-Beyond-the-Sea. Don’t you know who is the King of Beasts? Aslan is a lion—the Lion, the great Lion.”
“Ooh!” said Susan, “I’d thought he was a man. Is he—quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”
“That you will, dearie, and no mistake,” said Mrs. Beaver, “if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”
“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.
“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver. “Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”1
What Lewis captured in that dialogue is, I believe, something of what Paul wants us to see in the text we’re looking at this morning: Romans 11:11-24. I mentioned last week that my aim throughout these three sermons on Romans 11 is to move us to know our God more deeply, understand his ways more clearly, and love and worship him more earnestly, and the reason I noted that is because that’s where this chapter concludes, with Paul exclaiming, “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! . . . To him be glory forever. Amen” (vv. 33-36). And if that’s how Paul is moved by these truths, then it is a model for how we are to be moved by these truths as well.
But specifically what we get to see in this middle section of the chapter that we’re looking at this morning—something that Lewis captured so well—is the complexity and incomprehensible nature of our God. Lewis captured it in a lion who was by no means safe but at the same time was good. Paul, in our text, wants us to note the similar realities of “the kindness and the severity of [our] God” (v. 22).
Paul highlights the nature of our God in this text, however, not by wandering away from his theme of ethnic Israel and their rejection of the gospel but by diving into God’s ways and purposes in ordering salvation history as he has. Consequently, I only want to make two points this morning: the first is about the nature of God’s saving work and the second is about the character of God revealed in his saving work and purposes. First, then, let’s note from these verses that:
God is carrying out a plan of saving his people from among Jews and Gentiles
Paul begins by asking a very similar question to what he asked at the beginning of this chapter. In verse 11, he writes, “So I ask, did they stumble in order that they might fall?” In other words, Paul is saying, “When Israel, as a corporate ethnic people rejected the gospel—by and large—did that happen so that God might cast them off and be done with them, allowing them to remain in their unbelief forever?” And Paul’s answer, as we’re accustomed to, is, “By no means!”
But before showing that God’s purpose is to perform an amazing saving work among ethnic Israelites, he first wants us to see that the rejection of the gospel by Israel simply opened the door for Gentiles to be saved. He writes, “Rather, through their trespass salvation has come to the Gentiles, so as to make Israel jealous” (v. 11).
And I’ll deal with this phrase “so as to make Israel jealous” in a moment, but let’s first note that in God’s sovereign purposes, Israel’s rejection of the gospel was not only part of his plan, but it was the doorway for the gospel to go to the Gentiles. When Israel heard and rejected the gospel, the Lord did not say, “Then the mission must stop.” Of course not. Rather, as the gospel was proclaimed in Jerusalem, so also he ordered it to be proclaimed in Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.
We see this reality in how Paul began this letter to the Romans, noting that gospel is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (1:16). And that priority of Jew first and then Greek is how Paul carried out his own ministry. For example, in Acts 13:44-48 we read: “The next Sabbath almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord. But when the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy and began to contradict what was spoken by Paul, reviling him. And 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. For so the Lord has commanded us, saying, ‘I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.’ And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed.”
That is precisely Paul’s point. Israel’s rejection of the gospel was not the end of the story. In fact, it merely opened the door for Gentiles to hear the gospel and be saved, which happened in large numbers in Paul’s day and is happening in our day as well. And Paul wants us to see that this was all part of God’s saving plan (which is even apparent in Acts 13:44-48—i.e. “as many as were appointed to eternal life believed”).
But that’s not the end of God’s saving plan, as if the rejection of the gospel by Israel and its acceptance among the Gentiles is the final word. In fact, even the Gentiles’ acceptance of the gospel was part of God’s plan for ultimately saving more Israelites.
Paul noted that salvation has come to the Gentiles “so as to make Israel jealous.” And he’ll expand on this idea in verses 13-14, writing, “Now I am speaking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch then as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I magnify my ministry in order somehow to make my fellow Jews jealous, and thus save some of them.” Paul obviously believed that if the unbelieving Jews saw the Gentiles rejoicing in the reality that Israel’s promised Messiah has saved them and given to them the promises of salvation that God made to Abraham, surely it would move some of them to jealousy and to want to take part in these saving blessings that come through faith in Christ. Thus, he hoped this jealousy would lead to the salvation of some Jews.
But the salvation of some Jews—which is happening in each generation—isn’t the end of the story. Paul also seems to suggest (and will say outright in the end of chapter 11) that there is a day coming with a great number of Jews will be saved. He first brings the notion up in verse 12, as he writes, “Now if their trespass means riches for the world, and if their failure means riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their full inclusion mean!”
Do you see Paul’s logic? If God’s purpose in using Israel’s rejection of the gospel (again, generally speaking) has meant that salvation came to the Gentiles, then surely he would do something even more glorious if the Israelites, by and large, were to accept the gospel. And though he doesn’t outline what exactly that would be, he repeats the idea in verse 15, giving us a greater picture. Almost repeating the idea of verse 12 exactly, he writes in verse 15, “For if their rejection means the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance means but life from the dead?”
If their rejection has meant people from all over the world coming to believe and be reconciled to God, Paul notes that their acceptance will mean “life from the dead.” But what does he mean by that? Well, the phrase itself almost always refers in the Bible to the resurrection of our bodies on that day when Christ returns, and that is precisely what most trustworthy commentators think that Paul means here.2
In other words, its seems that God’s plan of working our salvation throughout history is going to conclude with a massive number of Israelites being saved in the generation right before the return of Christ. And their acceptance of the gospel will be followed by the resurrection and glorious new creation. Thus, what we need to see is that God’s plan throughout history is to save a people as his own—his children—throughout history, and that people will include many Jews and Gentiles. And, as always, God’s plan will not be thwarted.
But Paul isn’t simply about detailing God’s saving plans in history. He also wants us to recognize something about God’s character and ways in light of how he has worked, is working, and will work in the future. Specifically Paul notes that:
We should recognize in this plan God’s kindness and severity
We see this exhortation in verse 22: “Note then the kindness and the severity of God.” But in order to understand how Paul gets to that exhortation, we need to understand a metaphor that Paul is using. He writes in verse 16, “If the dough offered as firstfruits is holy, so is the whole lump, and if the root is holy, so are the branches.”
Now, actually these are two metaphors, the first bit of dough and whole lump and the root of a tree and its branches. But whereas this could be overwhelming that Paul begins by mixing his metaphors, it actually serves as an aid for us in understanding what he means. Let me try to show you why I think this is the case. The first metaphor of the firstfuits of the dough is drawn from Numbers 15:17-21 where the Lord tells the Israelites to give an offering of the firstfruit of the dough used in baking bread. And the idea is that if the first bit is dedicated to the Lord (i.e. holy) then so is the whole lump. But what do the firstfruits and lump of dough symbolize? Well, I think answering that is helped by the second metaphor of the root and branches.
As Paul goes on to argue, it is clear that the branches refer to Jews, natural descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He’ll speak of them having been broken off of the tree because of their unbelief, which fits everything he’s noted about Israel in this section. He’ll also refer to wild olive branches being grafted onto this tree of salvation, by which he clearly means Gentiles who come to faith. So, if the Jews are natural branches and the Gentiles are the wild branches grafted on, then what is the root? The root, it seems, is a reference to the patriarchs (i.e. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob).
I say that for two reasons. First, if the root is the patriarchs, then it makes sense why the Jews are called “natural branches.” They are, after all, natural, physical descendants of these men, while the Gentiles have no natural, physical relationship to the patriarchs (and thus need to be grafted on). Second, Paul will specifically bring up the patriarchs in verse 28, noting that God is saving Israel because of his love for their forefathers according to the flesh (i.e. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob). Therefore, we can now follow Paul’s argument, understanding that these realities: root = patriarchs, natural branches = Jews, and wild branches = Gentiles.
Paul writes, “But if some of the branches that were broken off, and you, although a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing root of the olive tree, do not be arrogant toward the branches. If you are, remember it is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you” (vv. 17-18). In other words, as Paul has already shown, the natural descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (to whom God first made his promises) heard the gospel and rejected it, and thus, these natural branches were broken off of the tree. But this opened the door for others (i.e. Gentiles) to get in on God’s salvation. Thus, as Gentiles believed, though they have no natural connection with the patriarchs, they were made children of Abraham. We, believing Gentiles, are true sons of Abraham, his offspring, those represented by the stars in the sky that night when God told him to look up because his descendants would be as numerous as the stars.
But don’t for one second think that affords us, as believing Gentiles, the opportunity to boast before a Jew or be arrogant in his presence. After all, who are we? We aren’t saved because of anything about us. We’re not the reason God first made these gracious promises to Abraham. We get to benefit from the promises God made to him, not the other way around. In other words, we’re supported by the root.
Yet Paul notes in verse 19 that a believing Gentile could say, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” Again, Israel rejected the gospel as part of God’s purpose and plan so that the gospel might come to Gentiles and they be saved. And Paul notes, “That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith” (v. 20). That is true.
But far from being proud, Paul envisions another response. He writes, “So do not become proud, but fear” (v. 20). But wait a second, we might say, why fear? Paul answers in verse 21: “For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you.” That is to say, if God is willing to judge and pour out his wrath on unbelieving Jews—who are actual, natural, and physical descendants of Abraham—then don’t think we are beyond his judgment. If you or I do not continue in repentance and faith, we will face judgment.
Now yes, we could say, but doesn’t God preserve his people? Certainly he does. Remember Romans 8:29-30. All those whom he calls he justifies and all those whom he justifies he glorifies. There is never a justified person who is not glorified. But, at the same time, we can say that someone who is truly justified manifests that by persevering in repentance and faith. Justified people keep believing, and justified people keep repenting. There will be no doubt be many who profess faith but end up being like those about whom John writes in 1 John 2:19 when he says, “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.”
Do you see John’s thinking? He knows that those who are true believers continue in faith. Therefore, when he sees some not continuing in the faith but walking away, he concludes, “They were not of us. If they had been, they would have continued. But they didn’t continue so that it would be apparent that they were not genuine believers.”
It is in light of this warning that Paul then writes in verse 22: “Note then the kindness and the severity of God; severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness toward you, provided you continue in his kindness [i.e. provided you continue in repentance and faith]. Otherwise, you too will be cut off.”
Yet, at the same time, for one who has walked in unbelief, he can repent, believe, and find God’s saving grace. That’s what Paul is noting, even about all the unbelieving Jews, as he writes, “And even they, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again. For if you were cut off from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these, the natural branches, be grafted back into their own olive tree” (vv. 23-24). Obviously God can and will show his saving grace to all unbelieving Jews who will repent and turn from their unbelief to faith in Christ.
But let’s pause here for a second and obey the exhortation of verse 22, noting the kindness and severity of God. Brothers and sisters, I want us to spend our lives resting in and rejoicing in the kindness of God. He’s brought us salvation that we didn’t deserve. He did everything necessary for us to be saved, sending his Son to live, die, and be raised for us. He loves us, delights in us, and sings over us. Rejoice in his kindness and rest in it.
But, at the same time, if you’ve decided that sin and unbelief isn’t a big deal, then fear. Don’t forget who our God is. If you’re saying to yourself, “I don’t really want to let go of this clear sin in my life,” then let the fear of God grip your heart this morning and repent and look to Christ in faith. As Lewis will later say in another book in the Narnia series, Aslan is “no tame lion,” so we are never to forget that our God is a just and merciless judge toward those who do not repent and believe.
So, never forget, never lose sight of, the kindness and severity of our God. Live your life rejoicing and resting in his kindness, but let fear of his severe judgment grip your heart at the slightest second of thinking that you want to trifle with sin. “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:31), and doesn’t that magnify the grace we’ve been shown to get to know that we’re loved by that God, forgiven by that God, and given the privilege of loving and obeying him? May faith, love, and obedience be our response to him even this morning, and may we visibly demonstrate that response as we come to the table. Amen.
2 For example, Moo, Schreiner, Kruse, Cranfield, Thielman. Schreiner notes, “The physical resurrection of the dead and the climax of history are almost certainly in view” (forthcoming revised Romans commentary in the BECNT).