All Scripture quotations are from the 1901 American Standard Version (updated) unless otherwise noted.
Like Romans 9, Romans 11 is one of the most important chapters in the New Testament regarding the doctrine of election, Israel and the Church. This discussion – that actually began in Romans 8 (especially verses 28-39) – ends with this chapter. Therefore, to gain a proper understanding of chapter 11, it must in the scope of that broad context.
This chapter reveals the following:
- That election is both corporate and individual.
- That Israel continues in Christ as a spiritual people (the Church).
- That both corporate election and the continuation of Israel in Christ and His Church is revealed through Paul’s illustration of a tree — the tree of Abraham, which represents both national and spiritual Israel, which in the case of the latter, is made up of both believing Jews and believing Gentiles. This can only describe the Church. Since this is a tree of salvation, spiritual Israel is primarily in view.
- That only a remnant of ethnic Israel will be saved, and not the whole nation as many believe.
- That true saving faith will endure.
- That the hardening of unbelieving Israel is not beyond the salvation of individual Jews, that all of us are spiritually blind and hardened to the truth until the Holy Spirit opens our eyes.
(Ro 11:1-2) 1 I say then, Did God cast off his people? Certainly not! For I also am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin. 2 God did not cast off his people which he foreknew. Or do you not know what the scripture says about Elijah? How he pleads with God against Israel:
Paul is referring to the ethnic people of Israel (Ro 10:21). The entire context makes it clear that he’s talking about those who are of the natural offspring of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Paul says that he himself is an “Israelite.” Therefore, he’s saying that God has not “cast off” everyone who is of the natural offspring of Israel. He makes that more clear in the next verses.
(Ro 11:3-5) 3 Lord, they have killed your prophets, they have torn down your altars; and I am left alone, and they seek my life. 4 But what was God’s answer to him? I have left for myself seven thousand men, who have not bowed the knee to Baal. 5 Even so then at this present time also there is a remnant according to the election of grace. 6 But if it is by grace, it is no more of works: otherwise grace is no more grace.
ESV – 5 So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace.
Paul answers the concern that the “casting off” of Israel was all-encompassing. Paul makes it clear that salvation is still available to individual Jews. These are the “elect,” those chosen by the sovereign “grace” of God. Verse 4 confirms this, where Paul quotes 1 Kings 19:18, “I have left for myself seven thousand men.” Where the LORD says “I have left for myself,” this is an emphatic statement of God’s sovereign intervention, where He chose seven thousand individuals out of Israel for Himself. To view this as anything but God’s unconditional choosing of specific individuals, is to ignore the obvious truth about the nature of election.
As in Paul’s day (“present time”), only a “remnant” of Jews will be saved throughout the Church age (Ro 9:27-28) — just as it was under the Old Covenant. In other words, in context, Paul is saying that God will choose a remnant of Jews for salvation. God deals with Israel the same as He does with the rest of the world. The nation of Israel is in the same place as any other country. God is choosing a remnant of people unto Himself from every nation (Rev 5:9; Rev 7:9). Although God’s focus has turned away from the nation of Israel itself, and onto the people worldwide, salvation to individual Jews is still available — as God chooses them according to the “election of grace” (vs. 5).
“chosen by grace”
Notice Paul does not say salvation by grace, but chosen by grace. There’s difference. Chosen for what? Chosen for salvation. Being chosen for salvation is totally God’s grace. Salvation, from start to finish, is a work of God’s grace, which includes election. Many understand grace to be merely the granting of salvation in the absence of works in the presence of faith. But Paul is clear that grace includes election, the election of those who will believe (in the absence of works). That is the way Ephesians 2:8-9 is to be understood:
(Eph 2:8-9) 8 For by grace you are saved through faith, and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God; 9 it is not from works, so that no one can boast. NET
I think that when most Christians see “grace” in this passage, they think only of salvation, because Paul does indeed talk a lot about grace and faith for salvation vs. works (Ro 4; Ro 10; Ga 2:16-21; Ga 3). However, in this Ephesians passage, the focus is on grace in the context of election — the choosing of those who will believe unto salvation. Paul’s discussion of election and predestination that he started in Ephesians 1, continues into chapter 2, which includes these verses. Therefore, grace in verse 8 must be interpreted with this overall context in view.
The “gift of God” is not merely the grace of granting salvation in the absence of works — via faith in Christ. Everything Paul says here: “For by grace you are saved through faith,” is to be understood as the “gift of God.” The “gift of God” is the giving of not only salvation, but also the faith required for salvation. In other words, God’s grace is the election of those who will believe in His Son — not by works, but by the faith that God Himself provides.
To be clear, faith is not merely “enabled” as many believe – where one is “freed” to believe or not believe (prevenient grace) – but is given as a total gift to those whom God has chosen for it. Everyone who hears the voice of Christ will respond in faith (Jn 10:26-28; Jn 8:47; Jn 6:44-45,64-65). That’s the true grace of God. The process of salvation – which includes both election and faith – is totally God’s doing, from beginning to end.
It must be understood that the decision of God to grant salvation through faith in His Son, is not election. It’s grace, but it’s not election. Election is the choosing of those who will believe unto salvation. Thus grace applies not only to salvation, but to election for salvation.
Paul’s own conversion reveals the nature of grace and election. In the same context of this account of Elijah and the seven thousand, Paul includes himself among the “remnant chosen by grace” (vs. 1), as he does in Ephesians 1:4-5 and 2 Timothy 1:9. In the book of Acts we see how Christ intervened in Paul’s life, how He revealed Himself to Paul (Acts 9:1-19; 22:6-21; 26:12-18). He was not seeking Christ, but the very opposite. He was in the midst of persecuting Christ’s followers when He came to him. In the midst of Paul’s blindness and rebellion, Jesus intervened and revealed the truth about Himself to him. This is the total grace of God, where God had already elected Paul for salvation, and then sovereignly intervened in Paul’s life to reveal the truth about Jesus to him.
Paul’s conversion is an outward, physical and visual picture of that which occurs for the rest of us spiritually. In Acts 26:19, Paul said that he “was not disobedient to the heavenly vision.” That’s because he was among the elect sheep of Christ (Jn 10). When Jesus calls His sheep unto salvation, His sheep recognize His voice and follow (Jn 10:25-28; 2 Ti 1:9). That’s what sheep do, they’re obedient to the voice of their shepherd.
(Ro 11:7-10) 7 What then? That which Israel sought, it did not obtain; but the elect obtained it, and the rest were hardened: 8 according as it is written, God gave them a spirit of stupor, eyes that they should not see, and ears that they should not hear, to this very day. 9 And David says, Let their table be made a snare, and a trap, And a stumbling block, and a retribution to them: 10 Let their eyes be darkened, that they may not see, And bend their backs always.
The “rest” refers back to “Israel,” whom Paul just mentioned. The nation rejected Christ, seeking to establish their own righteousness that is based on the law, rather than on the righteousness that is based on faith in Christ (Ro 10:3-6). Thus God judged the nation for their unbelief (vs. 20) by “hardening” the nation as a whole. We also see God’s judgment upon the nation via the Roman armies in AD 70, where Jerusalem and its temple was destroyed. This hardness, and this inability to “hear” and “see” of national Israel will never cease (Ro 11:25-26), — rather they will “always” be under the heavy burden of the law they cling to (vs. 10).
This hardening prevents Israel as a nation from ever experiencing what they could have experienced when Jesus revealed Himself to them — had they only recognized and received Him as their Messiah. That opportunity is forever gone. God has turned away from ethnic, national Israel, and has turned to all nations worldwide.
However, individual “elect” Jews still came to faith in Christ (believing remnant), as it is to this day, and will continue to be so up till the return of Christ. The nation of Israel is now no different than any other nation. All have individuals who obtain salvation, while there will never be any nation where every person gets saved. Thus there will always be a remnant of Jews who will embrace Jesus as their Lord and Savior, just as there will always be a remnant of Gentiles from every other nation.
Something important to understand about this hardening and blindness is, that we all come into the world blind and hardened to the truth. We’re all totally depraved (Acts 26:18; Col 1:13; Eph 2:1-5; 1 Cor 2:14). Our eyes are only opened to the truth as the Holy Spirit reveals it to us. Whether we’re Jews or Gentiles, we’re all spiritually blind and hardened to the truth until the Holy Spirit opens our eyes — which He does at some point when He calls His elect unto Christ.
(Ro 11:11) 11 I say then, Did they stumble that they might fall? Certainly not!: But by their fall salvation has come to the Gentiles, to provoke them to jealousy.
“They” refers to Israel as a whole, and throughout the Church age until Jesus comes back. So Paul asks, “did they stumble that they might fall?” In other words, did everyone in the whole nation fall? Paul already answered that, and the answer is no. As was true then, it’s true now, there’s still a remnant of believing Jews (Ro 11:5,23). Accordingly, to “provoke them to jealousy,” refers to individual Jews. It was Paul’s desire that the grace shown to the Gentiles, would make the Jews jealous (vs. 14), and cause them to reconsider their view of Jesus, and thus “save some of them.”
(Ro 11:12) 12 Now if their fall is the riches of the world, and their loss the riches of the Gentiles; how much more their fullness?
ESV – 12 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!
“how much more”
In other words, if the “fall” and “loss” of unbelieving Israel means salvation to the Gentiles of the world, “how much more” for believing Jews of ethnic Israel as “natural branches” (vs. 24), through whom Christ and salvation came?
“will their full inclusion mean!”
In regard to the phrase “full inclusion,” I think it’s apparent that Paul is simply referring to the fact that Jews are already part of ethnic Israel, and so when they (individual Jews) turn to Christ as “natural branches” (that were broken off), they would then be full members of Israel — both ethnic Israel and spiritual Israel (true Israel or New Israel), which is the Church in Christ (Ro 9:6-8).
A question comes to mind about all this. What if the people of Israel as a whole had embraced Jesus as their Messiah, Lord and Savior when He appeared to them? What would that mean for them as a nation and as a religion?
First of all, the salvation of the Gentiles was always in God’s plan. Even under the Old Covenant, non-Jews were saved by embracing the the Jewish religion of the true God (Judaism). In regard to Israel, if they had received Jesus as their Lord and Savior as one people, under the New Covenant, the center of God’s program would still be on Christ and the Church (believing Jews and believing Gentiles), rather than on national Israel, as we see in the Old Testament.
Had all of Israel turned to Jesus of Nazareth, then Judaism would have been recognized by the Jews as having its fulfillment in Him, and Israel would still be recognized and received by God as those who are in Christ and members of the Church. That means there would not be two different religions, but one in the same. Judaism would be seen as having its fulfillment in Christianity. Therefore, there would not be the divide between Jews and Christians that we see today. But by their rejection of Jesus, God rejected them, and so now the total focus is on the entire world.
(Ro 11:13-14) 13 But I speak to you that are Gentiles. Inasmuch then as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I glorify my ministry; 14 if by any means I may provoke to jealousy them that are my flesh, and may save some of them. 15 For if the casting away of them is the reconciling of the world, what shall the receiving of them be, but life from the dead?
Again (vs. 11), it was Paul’s hope that with the focus of God’s program being on Christ and the Church as it reaches out to the Gentiles of the “world,” this would provoke the Jews to reconsider the message of Jesus, resulting in the salvation of “some of them” (Ro 9:27) — “life from the dead.” In other words, it was Paul’s hope that when the Jews saw that God’s favor had turned to the Gentiles, it would make them feel left out, thereby causing them to reconsider what they believed as descendents of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
“reconciling of the world” to God
(see 2 Cor 5:18-19)
(Ro 11:16-17) 16 And if the firstfruit is holy, so is the lump: and if the root is holy, so are the branches. 17 But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, being a wild olive, were grafted in among them, and did become partaker with them of the root and of the richness of the olive tree;
ESV – 16 If the dough offered as firstfruits is holy, so is the whole lump, and if the root is holy, so are the branches.17 But if some of the branches 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,
Paul presents an illustration of a tree that is very revealing and highly significant. This is both a tree of election and a tree of salvation, depending on how you look at it. We can also call it “Abraham’s Family Tree,” because Abraham is the “holy root” — in Christ, who is the “true vine, and we are the branches” (Jn 15:1-6). Accordingly, it’s the Church that is pictured here, for the Church is spiritual Israel in Christ (Ro 9:6-13; Gal 3:16; 26-29). In Christ, His Church is New Israel of the New Covenant.
In this tree, there are three types of branches:
living natural branches: believing Jews
dead natural branches: unbelieving Jews
unnatural living branches: believing Gentiles
“if some of the branches were broken off”
Paul does not mean to imply that these “broken branches” (dead natural branches) were saved Jews who fell into disbelief, and therefore, broken off. Because if he did, that would mean that every Jewish person of national Israel would have been saved at one time. But we know that is not true. It just means that this tree has Jewish roots, and therefore, Jews are individual “natural branches” (vs. 21) who were broken off from their own tree because of their disbelief.
But how can an unsaved Jew be a branch of a tree of salvation, which pictures true Israel, which is the Church (spiritual Israel)? The answer lies in the fact that Abraham is the root of this tree. It has Jewish roots. Abraham is the father of both ethnic Israel and spiritual Israel — those who share his faith. Therefore, even though a Jew may be an unbeliever, he is, nonetheless, a natural branch of this tree — but he’s a dead branch, because he does not share the faith of the root (Abraham). Believing Jews and believing Gentiles are living branches, who share the faith of Abraham (the root).
Furthermore, it was the whole nation of Israel that was viewed as the chosen people of God under the Old Covenant — consisting of believers and unbelievers. It was the nation of Israel that represented the true God and true religion. It was the nation of Israel that God chose to reveal Himself to and through. It was from the nation of Israel that God chose prophets to speak through. It was to the nation of Israel that the Ten Commandments and the whole Law was given. It was through the nation of Israel that God chose to bring His Son into the world. Etc. (Ro 9:4-5; Ro 3:2; Eph 2:12).
As a nation, Israel was to be all that God had called them to be, to be faithful to the God they represented. It was the true God and the truth they represented that gave them their identification. Therefore, it wasn’t just the believing Jews that had their identification in Yahweh. To suggest such a thing would be contrary to the common understanding of the Old Testament. Accordingly, when a Jew didn’t fulfill what God ordained and commanded, it’s in that sense that they were broken off (as unbelievers) from this ideal chosen tree — referring to natural Jews who believe in Jesus, who become spiritual Jews.
This tree gives us a very clear picture of corporate election. However, election is both corporate and individual. This tree as a whole, represents corporate election — the corporate Body of Christ, while the branches represent the elect individual members which comprise the Body.
It’s significant that both ethnic Israel and spiritual Israel (the Church) are a part of this picture. The pattern for corporate election is given to us in the Old Testament in the choosing of corporate national Israel, which consists of both believing and unbelieving Jews. In this tree we have both corporate national Israel (physical offspring of Abraham) and corporate spiritual Israel (spiritual offspring of Abraham). Therefore, what this picture teaches couldn’t be any clearer, that the OT pattern of corporate election continues into the NT with the choosing of the Church, of which Christ is the Corporate Head, and for whom He died (Col 1:18; Eph 5.23-25).
Corporate national Israel is a type of corporate spiritual Israel, which is the Church. Ephesians 5:22-33 and Revelation 19 gives us a picture of a Bride chosen for Christ. Thus the Church is the corporate elect people of God, for whom Christ “gave Himself up for,” and “is Himself its Savior.” However, the Body of Christ is composed of individual members (Eph 4:11-16; 1 Cor 12:12-27). Therefore, the manner of election of the individuals members must be the same as it is for the corporate Body, which is according to God’s sovereign choice. What must be understood, is that when God chose the Church and when Christ died for the Church, it was a completed Church (Rev 5:9-10; Rev 7:9-10; Rev 19:6-10; Rev 21:1-3, 9-11). Jesus did not die for merely an idea or for mere possibilities, but for actual specific people who comprise His Church. Therefore, election is not only both corporate and individual, but also according to the same manner of election, which is according to God’s own unconditional choosing of individuals, whom He foreknew in eternity past (Ro 8:29-30; Eph 1:4-5; 1 Pe 1:1-2; 2:4-10).
“grafted in among them” (vs. 17)
It needs to be made clear that believing Gentiles are “grafted in among” believing Jews (“remnant,” Ro 9:27; 11:5). Together, they are spiritual Israel, not national Israel. In order for Gentiles to be grafted into the nation of Israel, they would have to become ethnic Jews. They would have to come through the same physical line of Abraham as those who are born into it. We have to keep in mind that this is a tree of salvation, consisting of believing Jews and believing Gentiles — who are of the faith of Abraham. Accordingly, this is a spiritual tree.
This is an important discussion, because dispensationalists believe that God still has a plan and purpose for the nation of Israel. However, that’s not what this tree reveals and that’s not what Paul taught anywhere else. What he taught was that in Christ, all ethnic and national distinctions are removed. In Him we are a new creation (Eph 2:11-16; Gal 6:15), both individually and corporately. Therefore, what this tree represents is true Israel or New Israel, which is the Church — for believing Jews and believing Gentiles are one in Christ, who are the true offspring of Abraham:
(Gal 3:26-29) 26 for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. 27 For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise. ESV
(Ro 11:18) 18 do not boast over the branches: but if you boast, it is not you that supports the root, but the root supports you.
Abraham is the root of both ethnic and spiritual Israel, from which individual “branches” emerge. Gentile believers have to realize that this is a tree with Jewish roots, so there’s no room for arrogance toward the Jews. This verse unmistakably condemns anti-semitism.
(Ro 11:19) 19 You will say then, Branches were broken off, that I might be grafted in.
Unbelieving Jews were “broken off” from the ideal tree of Abraham (believing ethnic Jews) because of their unbelief. These are dead branches. They are not part of true Israel (spiritual Israel – Ro 9:6-8). Gentile believers, who are “wild olive shoots” (vs. 17) are grafted into this tree.
(Ro 11:20-22) 20 True; by their unbelief they were broken off, and you stand by your faith. Do not be high-minded, but fear: 21 for if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you. 22 Behold then the goodness and severity of God: toward them that fell, severity; but toward you, God’s goodness, if you continue in his goodness: otherwise you also will be cut off.
Where Paul says “if you continue in his goodness,” he’s referring to salvation. That is, continuing in “faith.” To understand what Paul means, we have to consider the manner in which the Jews were cut off. Those who were cut off were not saved. They were natural branches that came through the natural lineage of Abraham. They were unsaved Jews among saved Jews. They were never saved to begin with.
Therefore, to be consistent, that’s how we must understand Paul when he speaks of the Gentiles being “cut off.” In every assembly of believers we can expect to find unbelievers, including those who believe they’re saved but aren’t, or viewed as saved but aren’t. Therefore, it’s likely that Paul has in mind the unsaved among those who are saved. He’s giving warning to those Gentiles who profess Christ to “continue” in their faith. Those who don’t continue, reveal themselves to be false believers, for true faith and true salvation will always continue (endure, persevere). Hence, these false believers will be “cut off” from among the believers that they have identified themselves with. Those who are cut off were never saved to begin with. Those who “continue,” prove themselves to be true believers, to have true saving faith.
To sum up, just because the Jews were of Israel and identified with Judaism, it didn’t make them true believers. Likewise, just because someone is in a local church and identifies with Christianity, it doesn’t make them a true believer. True believers produce the fruit of salvation, and “continue” in what they profess to believe in.
(Ro 11:23) 23 And they also, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in: for God is able to graft them in again. 24 For if you were cut out of that which is by nature a wild olive tree, and were grafted contrary to nature into a good olive tree; how much more will these, which are the natural branches, be grafted into their own olive tree?
Ethnic Jews throughout the Church age are still able to come to faith in Christ. When they do, they’re grafted back into their own tree as “natural branches” — being of both the natural and spiritual offspring of Abraham, as members of New Israel in Christ.
(Ro 11:25) 25 For I would not, brethren, have you ignorant of this mystery, lest you be wise in your own conceits, that a hardening in part has befallen Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in;
NRSV – 25 So that you may not claim to be wiser than you are, brothers and sisters, I want you to understand this mystery: a hardening has come upon part of Israel, until the full number of the Gentiles has come in.
“part of Israel”
“part” (Gr. meros – 3313)
AMG’S Annotated Strong’s Greek Dictionary of the New Testament:
“From an obsolete but more primary form of meiromai (to get as a section or allotment); a division or share (literal or figurative, in a wide application).”
The NAS New Testament Greek Lexicon:
- a part
- a part due or assigned to one
- lot, destiny
- one of the constituent parts of a whole
- in part, partly, in a measure, to some degree, as respects a part, severally, individually
- any particular, in regard to this, in this respect
I believe the NRSV states it the most clearly and most accurately. The “hardening” is not to be understood as partial – as in degree of hardness – but as in division. This rendering is in perfect harmony with the immediate context and the overall flow of the discussion. A perfect example of this rendering is Ephesians 4:16 (same Greek word):
ESV – “from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.”
(Also Rev 16:19; 21:8; Acts 5:2; 19:1; 1 Cor 12:27; 13:9-10; Eph 4:9)
Therefore, the “hardening” is on part of ethnic Israel, those who are unbelieving Jews. Believing Jews are the other part (believing remnant), whom are members of spiritual Israel (the Church). The gospel message is going out to all the world, so when the last Gentile is saved (“until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in”), then “all [true] Israel will be saved” (vs. 26), which consists of both believing Jews and believing Gentiles.
Simply put, what Paul is saying is, that part of ethnic Israel will always be hardened to the gospel of Jesus Christ — which is represented by Israel as a nation. Also, all true Israel (the Church) will be complete when the last ethnic Jew (believing part, believing remnant) and the last Gentile is saved — which has its completion at the time of Christ’s return. Thus, “all [true] Israel will be saved” (vs. 26).
I believe the “mystery” is that the ethnic, nation of Israel will never obtain what it was seeking (Ro 11:7), because the larger “part of Israel” will always be hardened to the gospel of Jesus Christ. It was a mystery (now revealed) because Israel were God’s chosen people under the Old Covenant. Thus it was expected that they, as a nation, would experience all that the Old Testament seemed to indicate, that they would be fully redeemed as a people and as a nation (as dispensationalism teaches). However, the mystery – now revealed – is that Israel actually has its fulfillment and continuation in Christ and His Church as a spiritual nation. Dispensationalism fails to understand this “mystery.” Rather, it’s a theology that is “ignorant” of its meaning.
Gentiles are not to be “wise in their own conceits” about Israel’s downfall, because God’s plan for Israel will surely be fulfilled when the Church is complete. Indeed, God’s plan for Israel is already complete in Christ and His Church as a spiritual nation (1 Pe 2:4-10). However, God is still adding to His Church, and will continue to do so up to the time Jesus returns. At that time His Church will be complete, when the full number of believing Jews and believing Gentiles have been added — to the very last person. This is revealed in the following verses:
(Ro 11:26-27) 26 and so all Israel will be saved: even as it is written, There will come out of Zion the Deliverer; He will turn away ungodliness from Jacob: 27 And this is my covenant with them when I take away their sins.
The “ungodliness of Jacob” is banished in Christ, the “Deliverer.” Jesus fulfilled the promises to Israel (Gal 3:16). Essentially, He is the fulfillment of all things Israel. Christ is central, not the nation of Israel. Therefore, when Paul says that “all Israel will be saved,” and when he says that He will “take away their sins,” he is saying that this is accomplished in Christ, who is the Savior of His Church (Eph 5:23-25), which is spiritual Israel in Him. “All Israel” is not national Israel, but spiritual Israel (the Church). It’s not that all the people of the nation of Israel will be saved in the end, but that everyone who is of spiritual Israel (New Israel), will be saved. In other words, God’s redemption for His elect people will be totally fulfilled (Ro 11:27). Again, this is the “mystery” about Israel that dispensationalism fails to comprehend.
(Ro 11:28) 28 Concerning the gospel, they are enemies for your sake; but concerning election, they are beloved for the fathers’ sake.
“Concerning the gospel, they are enemies for your sake;”
“They” refers to the nation of Israel, the unbelieving part. They are enemies of the gospel message. They are enemies of Christianity. They are enemies of Christ.
“but concerning election, they are beloved for the fathers’ sake.”
Here Paul is referring to the believing part of Israel. This has in view Israel’s completion in Christ and His Church — His “elect” Church. God’s plan of “election” is complete in His Son, which began with the choosing of Abraham and God’s promises to him. God chose Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to be the founding “fathers” of both national (ethnic) and spiritual Israel, always with Christ in view. Our “election” is in Him (Eph 1:4). God’s promises to Abraham were not forgotten or left unfulfilled.
Also, God’s love (“beloved”) for the people of Israel is expressed in a most tender way in the following verse, as Jesus Himself expresses it:
(Matthew 23:37) – 37 O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not! ESV
While the nation of Israel rejected Jesus as their Messiah, the opportunity for individual Jews to receive Christ was still available, and still is — as they “share the faith of Abraham” their father, and “the father of us all” (Ro 4:16).
(Ro 11:29) 29 For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.
The subject of Paul’s whole discussion in this chapter is, the election and salvation of God’s people, both ethnic and spiritual Israel (those who believe). What began in the Old Testament, continues in the New Testament as the Church in Christ. God’s election of both national Israel and spiritual Israel have been accomplished, because “the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” — which refers to the promises of our election and calling and salvation in Christ. These are “gifts” of God’s abundant grace, from start to finish.
(Ro 11:30-31) 30 For as you in time past were disobedient to God, but now have obtained mercy by their disobedience, 31 even so have these also now been disobedient, that by the mercy shown to you they also may now obtain mercy.
“you” = Gentiles
“they” = Jews
(See discussion in verses 12-15. Also Ephesians 2:11-22)
Paul uses the word “disobedience” to refer to faith, or the lack thereof. True faith results in obedience. A lack of genuine faith in Christ results in disobedience. Faith is characterized by faithfulness. The two cannot be separated. A profession of faith that does not bear the fruit of faith, is a false faith.
(Ro 11:32) 32 For God has shut up all to disobedience, that he might have mercy on all.
This term has the idea of being “confined” or “imprisoned,” to enclose on all sides. It doesn’t mean that God made anyone to disobey. It simply means that all, both Jews and Gentiles are totally depraved sinners, and that we are, thus, confined to “disobedience.” As depraved, unregenerate sinners, we can do no less than disobey. We’re all imprisoned by the power of sin and disobedience, and there is no escape except by the “mercy” of God. Furthermore, we’re confined to the consequences of sin and disobedience, which is eternal separation from God. It’s only by the “mercy” of God, through faith in His Son, that we’re delivered from this imprisonment of sin and disobedience, and from its consequences (Gal 3:220-23).
“that he might have mercy on all”
Paul has been discussing the Jews vs. the Gentiles throughout. So within context, Paul has to be referring to these two groups of people when he refers to “all” — which covers all humanity in general.
(Ro 11:33) 33 O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and the knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past tracing out!
As Paul thinks about all that was revealed to him, and passed on to us, he’s overwhelmed by the “wisdom” and “knowledge” of God. God’s plan of election and salvation for the world of sinners, all that is involved in this, is beyond our comprehension.
“how unsearchable are his judgments”
Some commentators believe that “judgments” refer to God’s plans, ways, decrees, methods, proceedings — which very well could be the case. That’s an interpretation that does fit. However, considering the consequences of “unbelief” and “disobedience” that Paul talks about in this chapter, I tend to believe that it means what it normally does, that it refers to God’s “judgments” of those guilty of these things. That is, the consequences of unbelief and rejection of Jesus.
“his ways past tracing out!”
Even though we can have a good understanding of God and His ways and His dealings with mankind through the study of His Word, there’s so much more to learn that we’ll have to wait for until we’re in His presence. Therefore, we should never think that we have it all figured out.
(Ro 11:34) 34 For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counsellor?
The only way we can fully comprehend God and His ways, is to fully know the “mind of the Lord.” However:
(Isaiah 55:8-9) “8 For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. 9 For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” ESV
God’s thoughts and His ways are far above ours, so none of us are qualified to be His counselor or to direct His ways or to tell Him how things should be done. That goes for His plan of election and salvation for the world. We may not be able to fully grasp all that is involved in this, but we’re to praise Him for what we do understand, and rest in the knowledge that God is merciful and just and holy and good in all that He does.
(Ro 11:35) 35 Or who has first given to him, and it shall be repaid to him?
NET – 35 Or who has first given to God, that God needs to repay him?
It’s not we who give to God, but God who gives to us. God doesn’t owe us anything, but He willingly gives to us out of His love, mercy and grace. As disobedient sinners, we have nothing to offer. There’s nothing we can do or give to God to earn His favor.
(Ro 11:36) 36 For of him, and through him, and to him, are all things. To him be the glory forever. Amen.
I like the simple commentary on this verse that The Expositor’s Bible Commentary gives: “He is the source, the means, and the goal of all things.”