Romans 11 is part of the section of Romans where Paul is specifically addressing Israel and God’s dealing with them. In his commentary, Warren Wiersbe actually says that “We must not apply this chapter to the church today”, and implies that since Paul is addressing Israel, that there is nothing we can learn from it. In the sense that since WE are gentiles, and Paul is addressing the issue of Israel, I agree that we can’t simply apply what Paul says to ourselves without any filtering. However,
This is in the Scripture and I believe, as Paul says to Timothy, ALL of Scripture is useful to us, so since God deemed it important enough to inspire Paul to write it, we have to tease out what WE, as gentile believers have to learn from this.
Firstly, let’s look at what Paul says.
Apostasy and rejection
God did not reject Israel
We read in v1, “did God reject his people? By no means!”, and again in v2 “God did not reject his people”. SO, God did not reject Israel — Israel rejected God! They got it wrong, they blew it and turned God’s law into something it was never meant to be. They prostituted themselves and worshipped other Gods, God himself did not reject them.
They were supposed to model to the nations how to worship God “ in spirit and in truth” (John 4:23), the word was supposed, as Paul has just said, to be “in their mouths and in their hearts” (Romans 10:8), the law they obeyed was never meant to be a straightjacket for them it was supposed to,
- Show them their sinfulness.
- Show them the seriousness of that sin (it brings death).
- Show them THEY had no power to deal with it.
- Point to a saviour—to Jesus.
But we read in various places that they had misrepresented the law, so, for example Jesus says,
- Luke 19:46—“It is written,” he said to them, “ ‘My house will be a house of prayer’ ; but you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’”
- Luke 11:46—“Jesus replied, “And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them”.
- Luke 11:52—“Woe to you experts in the law, because you have taken away the key to knowledge. You yourselves have not entered, and you have hindered those who were entering.”
So, apostasy, is where you abandon or turn your back on something, usually a faith or ideology. It is, if you like, spiritual treason. For Christians and Jews, it is the denial and disobedience of the first commandment which is …
Exodus 20:2–5—“I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. “You shall have no other gods before me.
Which is summarised by Jesus who quotes Deuteronomy 6:4,5 in Matthew 22 and in Mark 12. Here is the Mark 12 summary. Mark 12:29,30—“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength”.
God describes apostasy as prostitution. And it is so serious, most faiths will judge it as deserving of the death penalty.
But note that apostasy is not just a concept in religion. Even non religious groups feel the same about people who abandon them. We have seen lots of this recently in the news with the modern left-wing ‘woke’ movements. For example, think of the hate and vitriol thrown at people on twitter when they depart from the accepted narrative (E.g. J.K.Rowling, & Germaine Greer, long—time advocates of left wing feminist ideology who are facing real hate because of their stance on transgender).
As far as our faith is concerned, we can trace the root of apostasy back to Genesis 3:2, “did God really say?”. Apostasy is found in the whisper that God doesn’t really mean what He says. If you notice, nearly every argument between Christians, nearly every schism in a church denomination centres around the understanding of God’s word in some form. Frequently one or the other (or both) parties in a disagreement have determined that the Bible might appear to say something about a particular issue, but that’s not what it really means – in other words they are, quite literally, borrowing from Satan … “did God really say?” Ultimately, questioning God and His word will result in turning away from God to apostasy.
You will find it everywhere today. Two examples, which are particularly current:
- Some people who are of a particular batch of Christianity will take the New Testament teaching on human sexuality (esp that of Paul), and will declare with great confidence that when Paul talks, he’s not describing our own culture, he’s describing Roman culture of the first century, which is true, and that we therefore have nothing to learn, and can disregard it—which is not true. They may even reinterpret the scripture itself to justify themselves. So again, as an example, some Christians argue that the word translated “homosexual” in the Bible doesn’t carry the same meaning as it does today, and that we must not apply the Scriptural prohibition in the same way as they did in Bible times.
- The huge bulk of people I meet, even Evangelicals who claim to believe in the supremacy of Scripture, yet will disregard Genesis 1–11 as unbelievable because it appears to fly in the face of modern scientific belief. They call it “proto—history” and not to be understood literally. The problem is this … Genesis 1–11 is extensively quoted as history by Jesus and Paul and other writers in the New Testament, and every single Christian doctrine has its foundation there …
- Why do we wear clothes? Genesis 1–11
- Why do we eat meat? Genesis 1–11
- Why is the world not a paradise? Genesis 1–11
- Why do people and things die? Genesis 1–11
- What is the difference between men and women? Genesis 1–11
- How should men and women relate to one another? Genesis 1–11
- What is marriage all about? Genesis 1–11
- Should we work? Genesis 1–11
- Why are we sinful? Genesis 1–11
- What can be done about sin? Genesis 1–11
- Why did Jesus come? Genesis 1–11
- Why did Jesus have to die? Genesis 1–11
And the list goes on
Apart from understanding HOW God will deal with the Jews, whether you have any real interest in the Jews or not, apostasy is as much an issue for the Christian church in the 21st century as it was for the Jews in the first.
What are the characteristic of apostasy
Apostates are people who once stood alongside now stand against. Elijah is quoted by Paul here, “Lord, they have killed your prophets and torn down your altars; I am the only one left, and they are trying to kill me” (Romans 11:3).
Note that when a nation becomes apostate, people’s attitudes change, and they dismiss what they once valued and attack what they once defended. In general they attack two things
- They attack the person (‘they have killed your prophets’). And
- They attack the institutions (‘and torn down your altars’).
When we think of the personal attacks that Christians are subjected to, as we see in some nations, they are overt and they are extreme. In the UK, attacks at this point are not physical, but they are there. Even 50 years ago when I was at school, it was social suicide to go to the Christian Union on Friday lunchtimes, and it was particularly true for the young people at Cheddar when we were ministering to them 15 years ago. You only have to open your ears and listen to people in general conversation, and you will be surprised at how they view Christians. If people spoke about black people, or women, or gay people, or transgender people in the same way as they do about Christians, they would be arrested and prosecuted. I know many people who are frightened to speak out about their faith for this reason. Many people will say things like “faith is private and should be kept private” as a justification for not being more open about their faith. The truth is that for many, the real reason they keep quiet about their faith is fear of being labelled and ridiculed.
Rod was here last week speaking about the suffering church, and if you read the Open Doors literature, you will see that attacks on churches are increasing, they are being vandalised and burned down. This kind of attack happens in the western world as well, not just places like Afghanistan, China, or India. I know of many churches which are broken into and vandalised, sometimes beyond repair. Every week on the Facebook group for church leaders I am part of, I see pastors in America, Canada, Australia and the UK reporting such attacks. These are all supposedly “free” countries. How many of these attacks do you see reported? None. But note that attacks against churches and Christians are not just physical here – they are, in fact, generally speaking more frequently ideological. Our laws are being changed to accommodate non Christian lifestyles and beliefs. I would defend anyone’s right to live their life how they want to, but the problem is that they don’t stop there …
You might remember last year (before we started Romans), we looked at Esther, and Haman’s plot to get rid of Mordecai, which was an attack against a person, and an attack on an institution. Remember what Haman did? — he got Xerxes to issue a decree to kill the Jews because “their customs are different from those of all other people, and they do not obey the king’s laws; it is not in the king’s best interest to tolerate them.” (Esther 3:8).
The attack on institutions is not accidental, and we are sidelined in a very specific way which is revealed in Haman’s attempt to kill the Jews …
- Haman introduced a law which separated the Jews from the general population, something which He KNEW they could not comply with because of their faith. This is happening all around us today, laws are being introduced which Christians cannot agree and comply with without capitulating or becoming apostate.
- Haman then took steps against the Jews for not complying with the law. He was then not acting against them “because they were Jews”, but because they wouldn’t comply with the law. This is happening now. It asserts that “no one is stopping you from being a Christian”, so conveniently side-steps religious freedom, but it imposes restrictions on HOW people live, which because of our faith we cannot comply with. So for example, proclamation of the gospel which is commanded by God (the great commission) is in many places her win the UK now forbidden as “hate speech”—and you can see some quite distrurbing clips of people being arrested for street preaching.
We see this approach all around us where Christians are not by and large being singled out “because of their faith”, nor for the foreseeable future will they be, this approach is far more effective. What has happened and what will increasingly be the case is that changes in society will be legislated which we cannot comply with.
When we refuse to buy into the cultural norms of the people around us, we are vilified and hated, sometimes we are prosecuted, we are overlooked for promotions, or even lose our jobs. At the very least, people who have power and influence in our society, the broadcast media, social media and the like ridicule us. At this stage, no one is building gibbets or gallows for us, though don’t believe it can’t happen, it is happening all over the world.
When we look around us, we can be overwhelmed with the threat and feel that we are isolated. Paul references Elijah here who says to God “I am the only one left”. He felt like he was standing alone in the midst of a nation of apostates.
We so often feel like we’re standing alone don’t we? I know that people often view the west as “Christian”, but I have witnessed again and again in place I have worked that Christians are in the minority and they are ridiculed by people around them if they stand up. It started in school when you could count the committed Christians in a school of 1200 in the teens at most – that’s a ratio of possibly one in a hundred. When I was at the City Council, the Valuer’s department had 120 staff and there were three of us. When I worked on the building sites, I was the only Christian almost everywhere I went, at Ringway Signs, I was the only Christian in the factory. At New Wine, Wendy and I pastored the team looking after the 10 and 11 year olds, and in a team of over a hundred, the huge majority of team members came from churches where they were the only believers in their schools.
We live in a majority secular nation, not a majority Christian one. This is blatantly obvious when we look around and see how society is disconnecting from Biblical values. If our society ever was Christian, it could very easily be described as apostate now.
What does God say to faithful people in such a society? Well Paul very helpfully tells us …
Romans 11:4 (NIV)
“And what was God’s answer to him (Elijah)? ‘I have reserved for myself seven thousand who have not bowed the knee to Baal’.”
Notice that just like God’s response to Ananias when he expresses fear about being told to go to Paul, God never says “do not fear” to Elijah (read 1 King 19:10–18).
What he does say though is, in effect, you are not alone. There is a remnant, a few in every generation who will not bow the knee to the Gods of that generation, but who will stay faithful to God. The need for a faithful remnant is great nowadays, I can fully understand those who feel like they are shouting in the wind, that they are so few they cannot make a difference. We are a small church, in some respects we are not even large enough to consider ourselves a small church, we are more of a micro—church. Do we feel like the world is pressing in all around?
God says that we are not the only ones, we are not alone, there are others. AND embedded in God’s answer is His sovereignty. What God says to Elijah is quoted by Paul—“I have reserved for myself”. Paul explains that being part of the remnant does not come from effort, but from the grace of God.
When I was younger, I had a major struggle with assurance. Was I really saved? Was I one of those believers who Jesus said would fall away in times of trouble? I struggled and strained to be as holy as I could, to keep my salvation through the things I did. But our faith is not and never has been based on works, on what we do …
“So too, at the present time there is a remnant chosen by grace. And if by grace, then it cannot be based on works; if it were, grace would no longer be grace” (Romans 11:5–6).
The point here is that we don’t have to fight and struggle, we can rely on God’s grace in our faith every bit as much as we do for our salvation. We don’t just “get saved” by grace through faith, we are also kept in our faith by the grace of God.
- “ For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8–9). AND
- “So too, at the present time there is a remnant chosen by grace. And if by grace, then it cannot be based on works; if it were, grace would no longer be grace” (Romans 11:5–6).
Are EQUALLY true.
If, like I used to, you struggle with believing and accepting that you are saved, and that your salvation is assured, take heart from this morning. Not only does your salvation NOT depend on works, neither does its outcome.
We feel like we are fighting alone, but Paul shows at the end, as he quotes Deuteronomy 29:4 and, possibly, Isaiah 29:10
“as it is written:
‘God gave them a spirit of stupor,
eyes that could not see
and ears that could not hear,
to this very day’.”
And He quotes Psalm 69:22,23
And David says:
“May their table become a snare and a trap,
a stumbling block and a retribution for them.
May their eyes be darkened so they cannot see,
and their backs be bent forever.”
This reminds me very much of what Jesus says, “he who has ears, let him hear”, which He says in various places, but one such place is Mark 4:23. The parable of the seed falling on different soils, and one point Jesus makes is that people respond to the same message differently. We should not be surprised at apostasy, in this parable, Jesus describes people accepting the message and then falling away. If people don’t respond, the fault is not necessarily our presentation of the Gospel – it might be, but there are all sorts of reasons why people don’t respond, and if people don’t stay faithful, but fall away and become apostate, it is rarely our fault. It is in them.
Note that Paul had different responses when he preached. Acts 17:32 describes some, “When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.”
Note that the message was the SAME, the way salvation is to be found is the SAME, the maintenance of our faith is the SAME. The gospel for the Jews is the same gospel as the gospel for the gentiles. Paul says in Romans 3:30 that God will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised by that same faith
When people turn away from the truth and preach another gospel, when they become apostates they are preaching and following something which Paul says is really no Gospel at all. (Galatians 1:7–9) :— “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let them be under God’s curse!”
So, just as Jesus talks of the Seed being sown in different soils, we have to understand that some will reject it, some will accept it, but fall away quickly, others will seem to grow, but ultimately will allow the worries of life draw them away, and some will grow and flourish.
Remember that it is the same sower and the same seed, and the weather is unimportant to Jesus – the defining thing – the thing that determines the growth or otherwise of the seed is the ground.
So… don’t change the seed. In other words, don’t adapt or change the word of God into something that ceases to be the word of God, into something that isn’t the Gospel. We serve a consistent God, who is always the same. Culture does not change the message of the gospel, it might change the response of the people, but God’s message of salvation doesn’t change with the ebb and flow of culture and public opinion, we mustn’t change it to suit current fashion. It is the Gospel which should inform and educate culture, not the other way around. Culture doesn’t change the Gospel , the Gospel should change culture.
Ultimately, and we’ll finish with this is those who oppose the things of God almost certainly won’t any longer suffer earthly consequences like they once might have, but their eternity is in jeopardy.
Which is why we are here on a rescue mission. Peter’s message on pentecost is now 2,000 years old, but it couldn’t be more relevant …
“Save yourselves from this corrupt generation” (Acts 2:40).