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For the past few weeks, we have been studying Romans 9-11. In these chapters, Paul asks why his fellow Jews rejected Jesus and whether this rejection indicates a failure on God’s part. In Romans 10.21, which quotes Isaiah 65.2, Paul describes Israel as “a disobedient and obstinate people.” Israel’s disobedience and obstinacy, then, explain its rejection of Jesus.
But isn’t this a dangerous answer? I mean, haven’t Christian anti-Semites throughout the centuries used Israel’s disobedience and obstinacy as an excuse for their persecutions against Jews? Haven’t pogroms been legitimized by appeals to Jewish incorrigibility? Unfortunately, yes. The history of the church is scarred by the anti-Semitism of many Gentile Christians.
Had those Christian anti-Semites interpreted the Bible correctly, however, they would not have persecuted the Jews. No passage in the New Testament offers warrant for Christians to persecute Jews, and Christians should not tolerate anti-Semitism in any form. Moreover, even though most Jews in Paul’s day rejected Jesus, God has not rejected them. Romans 11 explains that God still loves the Jews. Indeed, verse 26 prophesies that “all Israel will be saved.” Far from being a failure on God’s part, the Jewish rejection of Jesus in the first century turns out to be hinge in God’s plan to extend salvation to all people, culminating in the redemption of Israel too.
Consider Romans 11.1-6, in this regard:
I ask then: Did God reject his people? By no means! I am an Israelite myself, a descendant of Abraham, from the tribe of Benjamin. God did not reject his people, whom he foreknew. Don’t you know what the Scripture says in the passage about Elijah—how he appealed to God against Israel: “Lord, they have killed your prophets and torn down your altars; I am the only one left, and they are trying to kill me”? And what was God’s answer to him? “I have reserved for myself seven thousand who have not bowed the knee to Baal.” So too, at the present time there is a remnant chosen by grace. And if by grace, then it is no longer by works; if it were, grace would no longer be grace.
Although most Jews in Paul’s day rejected Jesus, not all did. Paul is the most obvious counterexample, along with the other apostles and the thriving, first-century community of Messianic believers. These believers constituted “a remnant chosen by grace.”
The remnant is a familiar concept in Old Testament prophecy. In Elijah’s day, so many of the Israelites had begun to worship idols that Elijah felt he was the only true believer left. God revealed to him in fact that he was one of 7000. A small number to be sure, but a small number of committed believers can exercise influence disproportionate to their numbers. Paul saw the Messianic believers of his own day as such an influential minority.
The concept of the remnant teaches us three important lessons. First, contrary to the anti-Semites, disobedience and obstinacy are not Jewish traits, per se. Some Jews believed in Jesus; others didn’t. Some Gentiles believed; others didn’t. Each group made its choices. Second, God never fails, even though it’s sometimes difficult to see his successes. And third, when we don’t see those successes, we shouldn’t despair. In his grace, God is not yet done with us—or with the world.