As regards the gospel, they are enemies for your sake. But as regards election, they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers. For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. For just as you were at one time disobedient to God but now have received mercy because of their disobedience, so they too have now been disobedient in order that by the mercy shown to you they also may now receive mercy. For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all. – Romans 11:28-32 ESV
This is a fascinating and difficult passage. It presents us with a somewhat confusing picture of God’s grace that could easily leave us accusing Him of injustice. For the time being, the Jews are experiencing “a partial hardening” until “the fullness of the Gentiles has come in” (Romans 11: 25 ESV). While Israel had been seeking righteousness, a right relationship with God, they had been going about it the wrong way, by attempting to keep the law in their own human strength. And when the true path to righteousness was revealed, Jesus Christ, they rejected Him. So, “God gave them a spirit of stupor, eyes that would not see and ears that would not hear, down to this very day” (Romans 11:8 ESV). But God did not cause their hardening or spiritual callousness. He simply allowed their hearts to go where they were naturally bent to go. He did not intervene. He did not extend mercy. And if we conclude that God’s treatment of the Jews was unfair or unjust, we misunderstand mercy. Mercy is not required by God. By definition, mercy is a gift, not a requirement. Justice is required. Mercy is non-justice. In other words, when God determines to extend mercy to anyone, He is choosing NOT to enact justice, or to give them what they truly deserve. We see over and over again in Scripture God extending mercy to the people of Israel. Repeatedly, they turned their backs on Him and proved unfaithful as His people. As a result, they deserved His justice, His righteous, holy sentence of just punishment. But instead, God graciously chose to show them mercy, His undeserved kindness, goodness, favor and compassion. And to do so is God’s prerogative. “For God said to Moses, ‘I will show mercy to anyone I choose, and I will show compassion to anyone I choose’” (Romans 9:15 NLT). When God shows mercy, we have no cause to complain or to cry foul. What should amaze us is that God, in His patience and love, chooses to show anyone mercy. Because mercy is never deserved. It is never earned. Paul has made it clear that all men deserve God’s justice: “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23 ESV) and “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23 ESV). So if God chooses to extend His mercy to some, can we accuse Him of injustice? Paul would say, “No!”
“What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.’ So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy.” – Romans 9:14-16 ESV
Which brings us back to our passage. As it pertained to the gospel, the good news regarding salvation through Christ, the Jews were essentially enemies of God, Paul contends. Their rejection of the Jesus as their Messiah had opened the door for the gospel to be preached to the Gentiles. But when it comes to God’s sovereign election or choosing of the nation of Israel, they are still beloved in His eyes. At this point, it would appear that Paul is now talking about the future state of Israel as a nation or a people. It would not appear that he is referring to individual Jews or individual Gentiles in these verses. At one time in history, the Gentile nations had been apart from God. They were separated from Him because of their sin. Paul puts it this way: “Don’t forget that you Gentiles used to be outsiders. You were called ‘uncircumcised heathens’ by the Jews, who were proud of their circumcision, even though it affected only their bodies and not their hearts. In those days you were living apart from Christ. You were excluded from citizenship among the people of Israel, and you did not know the covenant promises God had made to them. You lived in this world without God and without hope” (Ephesians 2:11-12 NLT). But Paul says that something changed all that. “But now you have been united with Christ Jesus. Once you were far away from God, but now you have been brought near to him through the blood of Christ” (Ephesians 2:13 NLT). Notice that he addresses them as a whole, as Gentiles. This does not mean that ALL Gentiles have come to faith in Christ, but that the Gentile nations have now been shown the mercy of God.
The same will be true for the nation of Israel. While they are currently experiencing a hardness of heart and a spiritual callousness toward God and His offer of salvation through His Son, the day is coming when God will show them mercy just as He has done for the Gentiles. “For just as you [the Gentiles] were at one time disobedient to God but now have received mercy because of their [the Jews] disobedience, so they too have now been disobedient in order that by the mercy shown to you they also may now receive mercy” (Romans 11:30 ESV). In other words, Paul wants us to understand that this is not a case of Gentiles replacing Jews as God’s favored people. This is about God extending mercy to those to whom He sovereignly chooses. God’s mercy knows no prejudice. He is an equal-opportunity mercy provider. “For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all” (Romans 11:32 ESV). Again, this does not mean that all will be saved, but that all share a common state of disobedience and alienation from God, and if He does not choose to show mercy, none will be saved – either Jew or Gentile.
Israel’s rejection of the Messiah did not put them beyond God’s mercy. His inclusion of the Gentiles was not a sign of His exclusion of the Jews. It is a matter of timing. Right now, during the period of the Gentiles, His focus is on bringing the full number of those from among the Gentiles to faith in His Son. Then He will turn His attention to the nation of Israel. Yes, this is all hard for us to understand. It is difficult to comprehend why God does things the way He does. But Paul will clarify that for us in the closing verses of this chapter.