So I ask, did they stumble in order that they might fall? By no means! Rather through their trespass salvation has come to the Gentiles, so as to make Israel jealous. 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! 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. For if their rejection means the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance mean but life from the dead? If the dough offered as firstfruits is holy, so is the whole lump, and if the root is holy, so are the branches. – Romans 11:11-16 ESV
At one time, the Jewish people had been the apple of God’s eye, His chosen possession and the sole recipients of His favor. He even sovereignly ordained for His Son and their Messiah to be born as one of them, a descendant of Abraham and David. But when Jesus came, His own rejected Him. “He came to his own people, and even they rejected him. But to all who believed him and accepted him, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:11-12 NLT). As Paul has already illustrated with his own life, there had been a small remnant of Jews who had accepted Jesus as their Messiah and Savior. But the vast majority of Jews had chosen to reject Him, refusing to acknowledge Him as having been sent by God and unwilling to admit their need for a Savior to rescue them from their sins.
We see this scenario illustrated by Jesus Himself in His parable about the two sons. In Luke 15, Jesus told the story of a rich man who had two sons. One day, the younger of the two brothers came to his father and demanded his inheritance. Graciously, his father gave the son what he asked for and, immediately, the younger son “packed all his belongings and moved to a distant land, and there he wasted all his money in wild living” (Luke 15:13 NLT). In time, he found himself living in abject poverty, attempting to make ends meet with his job feeding pigs. But ultimately, the young man came to his senses and recognized the gravity of what he had done. “…he said to himself, ‘At home even the hired servants have food enough to spare, and here I am dying of hunger! I will go home to my father and say, “Father, I have sinned against both heaven and you, and I am no longer worthy of being called your son. Please take me on as a hired servant”’” (Luke 15:17-19 NLT). Upon his return home, he received an unexpected welcome. His father ran to him with open arms, embraced him and welcomed back with joy. His return was met with joy, love and forgiveness from his father. The father responded, “We must celebrate with a feast, for this son of mine was dead and has now returned to life. He was lost, but now he is found’” (Luke 15:23-24 NLT). There was no anger. No recriminations. No retribution.
But the reception he received from his brother was quite different. He responded in jealousy and anger. He refused to join in the festivities, and when his father begged him to come and celebrate alongside them, the older son angrily responded, “All these years I’ve slaved for you and never once refused to do a single thing you told me to. And in all that time you never gave me even one young goat for a feast with my friends. Yet when this son of yours comes back after squandering your money on prostitutes, you celebrate by killing the fattened calf!” (Luke 15:29-30 NLT). His response revealed his self-righteous attitude and his jealousy at seeing his rebellious younger brother treated with forgiveness and mercy. His father assured him, “Look, dear son, you have always stayed by me, and everything I have is yours. We had to celebrate this happy day. For your brother was dead and has come back to life! He was lost, but now he is found!” (Luke 15:31-32 NLT).
In Jesus’ story, we do not see what happens to the older brother. We know he represents the Jewish people who were determined to place their hope in their own self-righteousness. They saw themselves as sinless and therefore, in no need of a Savior. The only response the older brother had was jealousy and indignation. The same kind of response Paul refers to in his letter to the Romans. In this case, Paul is saying that the rejection of Jesus by the Jews was necessary for God to take the gospel to the Gentiles. “They were disobedient, so God made salvation available to the Gentiles. But he wanted his own people to become jealous and claim it for themselves” (Romans 11:11 NLT). For generations, the Jews had lived with the idea that they were God’s chosen people, blessed because they were descendants of Abraham. They belonged to God and He belonged to them. They viewed themselves as privileged and protected because of their unique relationship with God. But when Jesus came, He called them to repent. Repent of what? That word in the Greek is metanoeō and it means “to change one’s mind.” Jesus was demanding that they change their minds regarding God and how they viewed Him. They had long lost their fear of God and an awe for His holiness. Jesus was also calling them to change their minds about their view of sin and their own self-righteousness. They saw themselves as in no need of a Savior because they thought they were perfectly right with God just like they were. Jesus said of them, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor–sick people do. I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners” (Mark 2:17 NLT).
So when the “healthy” Jews rejected Jesus, crucifying Him on the cross, God sent His message of redemption to the Gentiles. And, as Paul has shared, some Jews embraced the good news of Jesus Christ as well. But the real objective behind God’s embracing of repentant Gentiles was to bring His people to the point of jealousy – godly jealousy. Even Paul said that in his ministry to the Gentiles, he had an ulterior motive – “in order somehow to make my fellow Jews jealous, and thus save some of them” (Romans 11:14 ESV). Paul will go on in this chapter to explain how the God-produced jealousy among His chosen people will turn out in the end. As usual, God has a plan. He has a purpose behind all that He does. His efforts are never in vain. Which led Paul to say, “ Oh, how great are God’s riches and wisdom and knowledge! How impossible it is for us to understand his decisions and his ways!” (Romans 11:33 NLT).