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Bible Commentaries

William Barclay's Daily Study Bible

Romans 11



Verses 1-36

Chapter 11

THE CALLUS ON THE HEART (Romans 11:1-12)

11:1-12 So then, I ask, "Has God repudiated his people?" God forbid! I, too, am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. God has not repudiated his people whom long ago he marked out for his purposes. Do you not know what scripture says in the passage about Elijah? You remember how he talked to God in complaint against Israel: "Lord, they have killed your prophets; they have torn down your altars; and I alone am left and they are seeking my life." But what was the answer that came to him? "I have kept for myself seven thousand men, who have not bowed the knee to Baal." So, then, at this present time too, there is a remnant chosen by his grace. And if they were chosen by grace, their relationship to God is no longer dependent on works, for, if that were so, grace is no longer grace. What then? Israel has not obtained that for which she is searching; but the chosen remnant has obtained it, while the rest have been made so dull and insensitive in heart that they cannot see. As it stands written: "God gave them a spirit of lethargy--eyes not to see, ears not to hear--down to this day." And David says: "Let their table become a snare, and a trap, and a thing to trip them up, and a retribution for them. and let their backs be bent for ever." So, I say, "Have they stumbled that their fall might be complete?" God forbid! So far from that, salvation has become a gift for the Gentiles because of their fall, so as to move them to jealousy of the Gentiles. If their fall has brought wealth to the world, if their failure has brought wealth to the Gentiles, how much more shall the whole world be enriched, when they come in, and the whole process of salvation is completed?

There was a question now to be asked which any Jew was bound to ask. Does all this mean that God has repudiated his people? That is a question that Paul's heart cannot bear. After all, he himself is a member of that people. So he falls back on an idea which runs through much of the Old Testament. In the days of Elijah, Elijah was in despair (1 Kings 19:10-18). He had come to the conclusion that he alone was left to be true to God. But God told him that, in fact, there were still seven thousand in Israel who had not bowed the knee to Baal. So into Jewish thought came the idea of The Remnant.

The prophets began to see that there never was a time, and never would be, when the whole nation was true to God; nevertheless, always within the nation a remnant was left who had never forsaken their loyalty or compromised their faith. Prophet after prophet came to see this. Amos (Amos 9:8-10) thought of God sifting men as corn is in a sieve until only the good are left. Micah (Micah 2:12; Micah 5:3) had a vision of God gathering the remnant of Israel. Zephaniah (Zephaniah 3:12-13) had the same idea. Jeremiah foresaw the remnant being gathered from all the countries throughout which they had been scattered (Jeremiah 23:3). Ezekiel, the individualist, was convinced that a man could not be saved by either a national or an inherited righteousness; the righteous would deliver their own souls by their righteousness (Ezekiel 14:14; Ezekiel 14:20; Ezekiel 14:22). Above all, this idea dominated the thought of Isaiah. He called his son Shear-Jashub, which means The Salvation of the Remnant. Again and again he returns to this idea of the faithful remnant who will be saved by God (Isaiah 7:3; Isaiah 8:2; Isaiah 8:18; Isaiah 9:12; Isaiah 6:9-13).

There is a tremendous truth beginning to dawn here. As one great scholar put it: "No Church or nation is saved en masse." The idea of a Chosen People will not hold water for this basic reason. The relationship with God is an individual relationship. A man must give his own heart and surrender his own life to God. God does not call men in crowds; he has "His own secret stairway into every heart." A man is not saved because he is a member of a nation or of a family, or because he has inherited righteousness and salvation from his ancestors; he is saved because he has made a personal decision for God. It is not now the whole nation who are lumped together as the Chosen People. It is those individual men and women who have given their hearts to God, of whom the remnant is composed.

Paul's argument is that the Jewish nation has not been rejected; but it is not the nation as a whole, but the faithful remnant within it who are the true Jews.

What of the others? It is here that Paul has a terrible thought. He has the idea of God sending a kind of torpor upon them, a drowsy sleep in which they cannot and will not hear. He puts together the thought of a series of Old Testament passages to prove this (Deuteronomy 29:4; Isaiah 6:9-10; Isaiah 29:10). He quotes Psalms 69:22-23. "Let their table become a snare." The idea is that men are sitting feasting comfortably at their banquet; and their very sense of safety has become their ruin. They are so secure in their fancied safety that the enemy can come upon them all unaware. That is what the Jews were like. They were so secure, so self-satisfied, so at ease in their confidence of being the Chosen People, that that very idea had become the thing that ruined them.

The day will come when they cannot see at all, and when they will grope with bent backs like men stumbling blindly in the dark. In Romans 11:7 the King James Version says, "they have been blinded." More correctly, it should be, "they have been hardened." The verb is poroun (Greek #4456). The noun porosis (Greek #4457) will give us the meaning better. It is a medical word, and it means a callus. It was specially used for the callus which forms round the fracture when a bone is broken, the hard bone formation which helps to mend the break. When a callus grows on any part of the body that part loses feeling. It becomes insensitive. The minds of the mass of the people have become insensitive; they can no longer hear and feel the appeal of God.

It can happen to any man. If a man takes his own way long enough, he will in the end become insensitive to the appeal of God. If he goes on sinning, he will in the end become insensitive to the horror of sin and the fascination of goodness. If a man lives long enough in ugly conditions he will in the end become insensitive to them. As Burns wrote:

"I waive the quantum of the sin,

The hazard of concealing;

But och! it hardens a' within,

And petrifies the feeling!"

Just as a callus can grow on the hand, a callus can grow on the heart. That is what had happened to the mass of Israel. God save us from that!

But Paul has more to say. That is tragedy, but out of it God has brought good, because that very insensitiveness of Israel opened the way to the Gentiles to come in. Because Israel did not want the message of the good news, it went out to people who were ready to welcome it. Israel's refusal has enriched the world.

Then Paul touches on the dream which is behind it all. If the refusal of Israel has enriched the world by opening a door to the Gentiles, what will the riches be like at the end of the day, when God's plan is fully completed and Israel comes in, too?

So, in the end, after tragedy comes the hope. Israel became insensitive, the nation with the callus on her heart; the Gentiles came by faith and trust into the love of God; but a day will come when the love of God will act like a solvent, even on the callus of the heart, and both Gentile and Jew will be gathered in. It is Paul's conviction that nothing in the end can defeat the love of God.


11:13-24 Now I speak to you Gentiles. You well know that in so far as I am the apostle to the Gentiles, I magnify my office, for somehow I want to find a way to move my own flesh and blood to envy of the Gentiles, so that I may save some of them; for, if the fact that they are cast away has resulted in the reconciliation of the world to God, what will their reception mean? It can only be like life from the dead! If the first part of the dough is consecrated to God, so is the whole lump; if the root is consecrated to God, so are the branches. If some of the branches have been cut off, and if you like a wild olive have been grafted in among them, and if you have become a sharer in the rich root of the olive, do not allow yourself to look down boastfully upon the branches. If you are tempted to act like that, remember you do not bear the root but the root bears you. You will say: "Branches have been broken off that I may be grafted in." Well said! They were broken off because of their lack of faith; and you stand because of faith. Do not become proudly contemptuous, but keep yourself in godly fear; for if God did not spare the branches, which were natural branches, neither will he spare you. See, then, the kindness and the severity of God. On those who fell there comes the severity.. on you there comes the kindness of God, if only you remain in that kindness. If you do not, you, too, will be cut away. But they, if they do not continue in their lack of faith, will be grafted in; for God is able to graft them in again. For, if you were cut from the olive, which is by nature a wild olive, and, if, contrary to nature, you were engrafted into the garden olive, how much more will the natural branches be engrafted into the olive to which they really belong?

It is to the Jews that Paul has been talking up to this time, and now he turns to the Gentiles. He is the apostle to the Gentiles, but he cannot ever forget his own people. In fact he goes the length of saving that one of his main objects is to move the Jews to envy when they see what Christianity has done for the Gentiles. One of the surest ways to make a man desire Christianity is to make him see in actual life what it can do.

There was a soldier who was wounded in battle. The padre crept out and did what he could for him. He stayed with him when the remainder of the troops retreated. In the heat of the day he gave him water from his own waterbottle, while he himself remained parched with thirst. In the night, when the chill frost came down, he covered the wounded man with his own coat, and finally wrapped him up in even more of his clothes to save him from the cold. In the end the wounded man looked up at the padre. "Padre," he said, "you're a Christian?" "I try to be," said the padre. "Then," said the wounded man, "if Christianity makes a man do for another man what you have done for me, tell me about it, because I want it." Christianity in action moved him to envy a faith which could produce a life like that.

It was Paul's hope and prayer and ambition that some day the Jews would see what Christianity had done for the Gentiles and be moved to desire it.

To Paul it would be paradise if the Jews came in. If the rejection of the Jews had done so much, if, through it, the Gentile world had been reconciled to God, what superlative glory must come when the Jews came in. If the tragedy of rejection has had results so wonderful, what will the happy ending be like, when the tragedy of rejection has changed to the glory of reception? Paul can only say that it will be like life from the dead.

Then Paul uses two pictures to show that the Jews can never be finally rejected. All food, before it was eaten, had to be offered to God. So the law laid it down (Numbers 15:19-20) that, if dough was being prepared, the first part of it must be offered to God; when that was done, the whole lump of dough became sacred. It was not necessary, as it were, to offer every separate mouthful to God. The offering of the first part sanctified the whole. It was a common thing to plant sacred trees in places sacred to the gods. When the sapling was planted, it was dedicated to God; and thereafter every branch that came from it was sacred to God.

What Paul deduces from that is this--the patriarchs were sacred to God; they had in a special way heard God's voice and obeyed God's word; in a special way they had been chosen and consecrated by God. From them the whole nation sprang; and just as the first consecrated handful of dough made the whole lump sacred and the dedication of the sapling made the whole tree sacred, so the special consecration of its founders made the whole nation sacred in a special way to God. There is truth here. The remnant in Israel did not make themselves what they were; they inherited faith from their forefathers before them. Every one of us lives to some extent on the spiritual capital of the past. None of us is self-made. We are what godly parents and ancestors have made us; and, even if we strayed far away and shamed our heritage, we cannot totally part ourselves from the goodness and fidelity that made us what we are.

Paul goes on to use a long allegory. More than once the prophets had pictured the nation of Israel as the olive tree of God. That was natural, because the olive tree was the common est and most useful tree in the Mediterranean world. "The Lord once called you a green olive tree, fair with goodly fruit" (Jeremiah 11:16). "His shoots shall spread out; his beauty shall be like the olive" (Hosea 14:6). So Paul thinks of the Gentiles as branches of wild olive engrafted into the garden olive tree which was Israel. From the point of view of horticulture Paul's picture is impossible. In horticulture it is the good olive that is grafted into the stock of the wild olive so that a fruit-bearing olive may result. The process that Paul pictures was never used in actual practice, because it would have served no useful purpose. But the point Paul wishes to make is quite clear. The Gentiles had been out in the deserts and the wildernesses and among the wild briars; and now, by the act of God's grace, they are engrafted into the richness and fertility of the garden olive tree.

Out of this picture Paul has two words to speak.

(i) The first is a word of warning. It would have been easy for the Gentiles to develop an attitude of contempt. Had not the Jews been rejected that they might enter in? In a world where the Jews were universally hated such an attitude would have been all too easy. Paul's warning is still necessary. In effect, he says there would have been no such thing as Christianity unless there had been Judaism first. It will be a bad day when the Christian Church forgets its debt to the root from which it sprang. It has a debt to Judaism which it can never pay by any other means than by bringing Christianity to the Jews. So Paul warns the Gentiles against contempt. Grimly, he says that if the true branches were lopped off because of their unbelief, still more can that happen to the branches which were only grafted on.

(ii) The second is a word of hope. The Gentiles have experienced God's kindness; and the Jews his severity. If the Gentiles remain in faith they will remain in that kindness; but, if the Jews come out of their unbelief and enter into belief, once again they, too, will be engrafted in; for, says Paul, if it was possible for a wild olive to be engrafted into the garden olive tree, how much more is it possible that the olive tree's own natural branches can be grafted in again? Once again Paul is dreaming of the day when the Jews will come in.

Much in this passage is hard to understand. It thinks in pictures which are out of our world altogether; but one thing is crystal clear--the connection between Judaism and Christianity, between the old and the new. Here is the answer to those who wish to discard the Old Testament as merely a Jewish book which is irrelevant for Christianity. He is a foolish man who kicks away the ladder which raised him to the height which he has reached. It would be a foolish branch which cut itself off from its stem. The Jewish faith is the root from which Christianity grew. The consummation will come only when the wild olive and the garden olive are one, and when there are no branches at all left unengrafted on the parent stem.

THAT ALL MAY BE OF MERCY (Romans 11:25-32)

11:25-32 Brothers, I do want you to grasp this secret which only those who know God can understand, because I do not want you to become conceited about your own wisdom. I want you to understand that it is only a partial hardening which has happened to Israel, and it will last only until the full number of the Gentiles shall have come in. And then, in the end, all Israel will be saved, as it stands written: "A Saviour will come forth from Zion; and he will remove all kinds of wickedness from Jacob. This is the fulfilment of my covenant with them when I take away their sins." As far as the good news goes, they are enemies of God--but it is for your sake. But as far as God's choice goes, they are beloved of God, for their fathers' sakes, for the free gifts and the calling of God can never be gone back upon. Once you disobeyed God, but now you have found his mercy because of their disobedience; just so, they have now disobeyed, so that they now may enter into the same mercy as you have now found. For God has shut up all men to disobedience, that he may have mercy upon all.

Paul is coming to the end of his argument. He has faced a bewildering, and, for a Jew, a heartbreaking situation. Somehow he has had to find an explanation of the fact that God's people rejected his Son when he came into the world. Paul never shut his eyes to that tragic fact, but he found a way in which the whole tragic situation could be fitted into the plan of God. It is true that the Jews rejected Christ; but. as Paul saw it, that rejection happened in order that Christ might be offered to the Gentiles. To maintain the sovereignty of God's purpose, Paul even went the length of saying that it was he himself who hardened the hearts of the Jews in order to open a way to the Gentiles; but, even then, however contradictory it might sound, he still insisted on the personal responsibility of the Jews for their failure to accept God's offer. Paul held fast at one and the same time to divine sovereignty and human responsibility. But now comes the note of hope. His argument is a little complicated, and it will make it easier if we try to separate the various strands in it.

(i) Paul was sure that this hardening of the hearts of the Jews was neither total nor permanent. It was to serve a purpose, and when that purpose had been achieved, it would be taken away.

(ii) Paul sets out the paradox of the Jewish place in the plan of God. In order that the Gentiles might come in and that the universal purpose of the gospel might be fulfilled, the Jews had arrived at a situation where they were the enemies of God. The word that Paul uses is echthroi (Greek #2190). It is difficult to translate, because it has both an active and a passive meaning. It can mean either hating or hated. It may well be that in this passage it has to be read in the two meanings at the one time. The Jews were hostile to God and had refused his offer, and therefore they were under his displeasure. That was the present fact about the Jews. But there was another fact about them. Nothing could alter the fact that they were God's chosen people and had a special place in his plan. No matter what they did, God could never go back upon his word. His promise had been made to the fathers, and it must be fulfilled. It was therefore clear to Paul, and he quotes Isaiah 59:20-21 to prove it, that God's rejection of the Jews could not be permanent; they, too, in the end must come in.

(iii) Then Paul has a strange thought. "God," he says, "shut up all men to disobedience that he may have mercy upon all." The one thing Paul cannot conceive of is that any man of any nation could merit his own salvation. Now, if the Jews had observed complete obedience to God's will, they might well have reckoned that they had earned the salvation of God as a right. So Paul is saying that God involved the Jews in disobedience in order that when his salvation did come to them it might be unmistakably an act of his mercy and due in no way to their merit. Neither Jew nor Gentile could ever be saved apart from the mercy of God.

In many ways Paul's argument may seem strange to us and the "proofs" he brings forward unconvincing. Our minds and hearts may even shudder at some of the things he says. But the argument is not irrelevant, for the tremendous thing at the back of it is a philosophy of history. To Paul, God was in control. Nothing moved with aimless feet. Not even the most heartbreaking event was outside the purpose of God. Events could never run amok. The purposes of God could never be frustrated.

It is told that once a child stood at the window on a night when the gale was terrifying in its savage velocity. "God," she said, "must have lost grip of his winds tonight." To Paul, that was precisely what never happened. Nothing was ever out of God's control; everything was serving his purpose.

To that Paul would have added another tremendous conviction. He would have insisted that in it and through it all, Gods purpose was a purpose of salvation and not of destruction. It may well be that Paul would even have gone the length of saying that God's arranging of things was designed to save men even against their will. In the last analysis it was not the wrath of God which was pursuing men, but the love of God which was tracking them down.

The situation of Israel was exactly that which Francis Thompson so movingly portrayed in The Hound of Heaven.

"I fled him down the nights and down the days;

I fled him down the arches of the years;

I fled him down the labyrinthine ways

Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears

I hid from him, and under running laughter.

But with unhurrying chase,

And unperturbed pace,

Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,

They beat--and a Voice beat

More instant than the feet--

All things betray thee, who betrayest me.'"

Then comes the time when the fugitive is beaten.

"Naked I wait thy love's uplifted stroke!

My harness piece by piece thou hast hewn from me,

And smitten to my knee,

I am defenceless utterly."

Then comes the end:

"Halts by me that footfall;

Is my gloom. after all,

Shade of his hand, outstretched caressingly?

'Ah, fondest, blindest, weakest,

I am he whom thou seekest!

Thou dravest love from thee, who dravest me!'"

That was exactly Israel's situation. They fought their long battle against God; they are still fighting it. But God's pursuing love is ever after them. Whatever else Romans 9:1-33; Romans 10:1-21; Romans 11:1-36 may sometimes read like, it is in the last analysis the story of the still uncompleted pursuit of love.


11:33-36 O the depth of the riches and the wisdom and the knowledge of God! How his decisions are beyond the mind of man to trace! How mysterious are his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or, who has become his counsellor? Who has first given anything to him, so that he is due any repayment from God? For all things come from him, and exist through him, and end in him. To him be glory for ever! Amen.

Paul never wrote a more characteristic passage than this. Here theology turns to poetry. Here the seeking of the mind turns to the adoration of the heart. In the end all must pass out in a mystery that man cannot now understand but at whose heart is love. If a man can say that all things come from God, that all things have their being through him, and that all things end in him, what more is left to say? There is a certain paradox in the human situation. God gave man a mind, and it is man's duty to use that mind to think to the very limit of human thought. But it is also true that there are times when that limit is reached and all that is left is to accept and to adore.

"How could I praise,

If such as I might understand?"

Paul had battled with a heartbreaking problem with every resource which his great mind possessed. He does not say that he has solved it, as one might neatly solve a geometrical problem; but he does say that, having done his best, he is content to leave it to the love and power of God. At many times in life there is nothing left but to say: "I cannot grasp thy mind, but with my whole heart I trust thy love. Thy will be done!"

-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)


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These files are public domain.
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Bibliography Information
Barclay, William. "Commentary on Romans 11:4". "William Barclay's Daily Study Bible". 1956-1959.

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