Two Biblical Pictures of God’s Purpose in Sin, Unbelief, and Hardening by John Piper

5PIPER12xx.jpgThis is a sermon by John Piper entitled

Did Israel stumble in order that they might fall? 

Romans 11:11–16

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. 12 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! 13 Now I am speaking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch then as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I magnify my ministry 14 in order somehow to make my fellow Jews jealous, and thus save some of them. 15 For if their rejection means the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance mean but life from the dead? 16 If the dough offered as firstfruits is holy, so is the whole lump, and if the root is holy, so are the branches.

Before we are done I want to talk about 1) how to make Israel jealous of the fact that the people of Christ are inheriting the promises of Abraham, and 2) how the picture of God’s sovereignty in Romans 11 helps you trust in his sometimes very roundabout purposes.

Who Is „They” in the Question: „Did They Stumble in Order That They Might Fall?”

But first let’s look closely at a couple verses: Who is „they” in verse 11? „So I ask, didthey stumble in order that they might fall?” To see who it is, we read the preceding verses:

Romans 11:7-10

What then? Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking. [That’s a reference to Israel as a whole corporate, ethnic Israel taken as a people who failed to obtain right-standing with God.] The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened. [So „the rest” are treated by Paul as corporate Israel: they failed to obtain a right-standing with God; in stead they were hardened. This is the „stumbling” that Paul wonders about in verse 11: „Did they stumble in order that they might fall?” This generation of Israel stumbled, except for the elect. The people as a whole are lost.]

[Now verse 8:] As it is written, „God gave them a spirit of stupor, eyes that would not see and ears that would not hear, down to this very day.” 9 And David says, ‘Let their table become a snare and a trap, a stumbling block and a retribution for them.” [In other words, let them stumble over their bountiful table, and let them be bent down for generations, burdened by the law until the hardening is removed (11:25)] Let their eyes be darkened so that they cannot see, and bend their backs forever.”

In other words, the „they” in verse 11 („Did they stumble in order that they might fall?”) is corporate, ethnic Israel as a whole in a condition of ongoing hardness and lostness from generation to generation. As Romans 9:3 said, They are „accursed and cut off from Christ.”

Did Israel Stumble in Order They Might Fall?

So what’s the answer to Paul’s question in verse 11: „So I ask, did they stumble in order that they might fall?” He answers: „By no means!” I take this to mean; the purpose of God in the stumbling-the hardening-of Israel is not the final abandonment of Israel as a whole. I think that’s the general idea in verse 11: „Did they stumble in order that they might fall [i.e., for the purpose of falling]?” Answer: the stumbling led to lostness and judgment in some generations of Israel, but the final lostness and judgment on the people as a whole was not the purpose of God. That was not the purpose of hardening in (verse 7).

This becomes really clear as we read on in verses 11 and 12. „So I ask, did they stumble in order that they might fall? By no means!” That’s not the purpose of their stumbling. What was? Paul answers in verse 11b, „Rather through their trespass [=their stumbling] salvation has come to the Gentiles. . .” God’s purpose for Israel’s unbelief and hardness and rejection of the Messiah is that salvation might come to the Gentiles.

Two Biblical Pictures of God’s Purpose in Sin, Unbelief, and Hardening

I know that for many, speaking of God’s purpose in sin and unbelief and hardness is difficult. But keep two biblical pictures in your mind:

1) The story of Joseph’s abuse by his brothers, selling him into Egypt, because the point of the story in Genesis 50:20 is: „You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.”

2) The crucifixion of Jesus, because this was sinful and planned by God for our salvation (Acts 4:27). God is always doing more than one thing. Hardening yes, but Oh, so much more! By means of the hardening and the stumbling and the trespass, God is guiding history in such a way that the Gentile nations would receive salvation.

Jesus’ Teaching on the Rejection of Israel and the Salvation of the Gentiles

Jesus said this several times in his teaching. For example, after the parable of the wicked tenants, where the owner sends his own Son to get the Father’s fruit, and they kill him, Jesus said the upshot is that God will remove these tenants, and „let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons” (Matthew 21:41). Which Jesus interprets like this: „Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits” (Matthew 21:43). In other words, Israel’s trespass, in rejecting the Messiah, happened so that God might give the kingdom the heritage of Israel to those who follow him.

Jesus says it again in Matthew 8:11-12. After seeing the faith of the Gentile Centurion, Jesus says to those who followed him, „I tell you, many will come from east and west [that is, Gentiles] and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, 12 while the sons of the kingdom [most of Israel] will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” So Israel is hardened, and the Gentiles are coming into the kingdom. Salvation is coming to the nations.

It happened all through the book of Acts. For example, in Antioch of Pisidia the message of Paul and Barnabas was rejected, and the effect was a powerful mission among the Gentiles: „Paul and Barnabas spoke out boldly, saying, ‘It was necessary that the word of God be spoken first to you. Since you thrust it aside and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we are turning to the Gentiles. . . . And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed” (Acts 13:4648; see 18:6; 28:19-20).

What Paul makes clear in Romans 11, that may not be as clear in these other texts, is that the spill over of the Gospel to Gentiles did not just result from Israel’s trespass -as though this took God off guard, and he had no plan in it. Instead there was divine design behind it. Verse 7: It was God who hardened. And it was the hardening the trespass (v. 11b) that brings salvation to the Gentiles. „Through their trespass salvation has come to the Gentiles.” This is God’s unfathomable wisdom being worked out in history and shown to us in Romans 11.

The Purpose of the Hardening: Salvation to the Gentiles

You can see the purposefulness of it most clearly perhaps in Romans 11:30-32.

Just as you [Gentiles] were at one time disobedient to God but now have received mercy because of their [Israel’s] disobedience [that’s the point of verse 11: „through their trespass salvation has come to the Gentiles”], 31 so they [Israel] too have now been disobedient in order that [purpose!] by the mercy shown to you [Gentiles] they also may now receive mercy. 32 For God has consigned all to disobedience, that [here is unmistakable purpose summing up the whole chapter] he may have mercy on all.

So we ask again, verse 11:

Did they stumble in order that they might fall? [Was that the purpose?] By no means! [What then was the purpose?] Rather through their trespass salvation has come to the Gentiles.

The divine purpose of Israel’s hardening and trespass and rejection was to save a fullness of the Gentiles. There is a merciful purpose in the hardening. He consigned them to disobedience he hardened them that he may have mercy (v. 32).

The Purpose of the Hardening: Israel’s Jealousy and Salvation

God’s ways appear even more unfathomable at the end of verse 11. Was the purpose of their stumbling final rejection? No. The purpose was so that „through their trespass salvation [might] come to the Gentiles.” And then amazingly he adds, „so as to make Israel jealous.” Purpose upon purpose: The hardening and trespass of Israel are designed to bring salvation to the Gentiles. And Salvation to the Gentiles is designed to make Israel jealous. Why? So that Israel will return and lay claim on her Messiah, and become part of Church of Jesus Christ.

The Purpose of the Hardening: The Return of Christ and Resurrection from the Dead

And if we think that’s the end or climax of God’s design in redemptive history (salvation for Gentiles and Israel), verse 12 stuns us again with a further purpose.

Now if their [Israel’s] trespass means riches for the world [which we have seen it does, by God’s design], and if their failure means riches for the Gentiles [which it does, namely, salvation], how much more will their full inclusion mean!

God’s purpose in the trespass of Israel is salvation for the Gentiles. And his purpose for the salvation of the Gentiles is to make Israel jealous, so that she wakens to the greatness of Christ and embraces her Messiah. And then he adds, the purpose of the salvation of all Israel „their full inclusion” is something even greater.

Something glorious follows the full number of the Gentiles and the full number of Israel. Verse 15 says what it is:

For if their [Israel’s] rejection means the reconciliation of the world,
what will their acceptance mean but life from the dead?

I take this to mean that when God’s mission to the Gentiles is complete and the hardening of Israel is removed, then the Lord will come and the dead will be raised, and we will enter the kingdom with everlasting joy.

Now this is all very weighty and I am sure seems remote to some of you. So let me move toward a close with two applications for your life.

Implications for the Jealousy of Israel Because of the Salvation of the Gentiles

First, consider the implications that God means to make Israel jealous by our Gentile salvation. Verse 11:

Through [Israel’s] trespass salvation has come to the Gentiles,
so as to make Israel jealous.

How can we advance this purpose of God?

I think one of the keys is to understand and make much of the fact that the Church the followers of Jesus Christ is the true Israel and that we Gentile Christians will inherit all the promises of Israel by faith in the Messiah, Jesus Christ. We have to see this and make much of this, if our Jewish friends are ever (by grace) going to feel jealousy that we inherit their promises. The whole spirit of our interaction should be like the Father to the elder brother: Come on in to the party. You belong here!

Paul explains the Gentile inheritance of Israel’s promises like this in Ephesians 2:12-1319:

Remember that you [Gentiles] were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise . . . 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. . . . So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.

By faith in Jesus Christ, the Messiah, we have become the true Jews (Romans 2:28-29).Galatians 3:7, „Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham” (seeGalatians 3:16).

In this we should revel! Bethlehem, „the Israel of God” (Galatians 6:16)! All the covenants, all the promises belong to us and all who will one day trust the Messiah. All the promises of God are yes in Jesus Christ. And we are in Jesus Christ by faith alone. Know your Jewish inheritance and glory in it. That’s what Paul did in verse 13b – 14, „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.” Let’s join Paul in the enjoyment of Jewish promises. When you are with Jewish people this Christmas, say: „I love the descriptions of Christ in your Bible: ‘For unto us a child is born, unto us a Son is given; and the government shall be upon his should and his name and shall be Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace’ (Isaiah 9:6).”

God’s Roundabout Way to Provide Mercy

And the last application I would draw out is that God is sovereign even in the hardening and trespass and failure of whole peoples, and his aim in the end by his own unsearchable wisdom is mercy. None of us deserves to be saved. But God is gathering a people through faith in Christ from all the peoples of the world. And one day mercy will triumph over the Israel’s hardness, and she will come by faith in Christ to her own inheritance.

It may seem to us a very roundabout way to bring mercy to Israel and the nations. But we are not God. He knows what kind of history must take place to reveal the fullness of his wisdom and his mercy against the backdrop of his justice and wrath.

The effect this should have on us, I believe is to keep us faithful and patient, even when it looks as though unbelief has the upper hand. God is in control-unfathomably, unsearchably. And everything will work for mercy to those who trust the Christ.

PAUL (Part 1) on the ROAD to DAMASCUS

(via) Paul’s call to the ministry of the Way is intertwined with Peters efforts to reach out to the Gentiles in the formative years of the Church. Below is an excerpt (from pp 462-465) of the narrative mostly from Acts of Paul’s ministry before he made his first missionary journey (which will follow in a future post).

Now as he was approaching Damascus…suddenly a light from  heaven flashed around him.  Acts 9:3.

(from The Tyndale Handbook of Bible Charts & Maps. Copyright 2001 (c) by Neil S. Wilson & Linda K. Taylor.) (Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Wheaton, Illinois)

The road from Jerusalem to Damascus owes its fame to an event occurring along it about the year A.D. 34. Acts gives us the most famous account of Paul’s “Damascus Road experience.”    The great persecutor, “still breathing threats and  murder against the disciples of the Lord” (Acts 9:1), is on his way to the city, claiming the high priest’s authority to arrest any disciples of Jesus he should find there. But this journey will take an unexpected turn.
Roads and journeys are important throughout Luke and the Acts of the Apostles. The Gospel’s central section (Luke 9:51-19:27) describes Jesus’ last journey to Jerusalem, during which He prepares His disciples for what is to come. But life-changing experiences also happen on roads out of Jerusalem. It is on  the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus that Cleopas and his companion encounter the risen Lord (Luke 24:13-35). On the road connecting Jerusalem with Gaza, Philip encounters the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26-40). Now it is on another road from Jerusalem that the persecutor Saul of Tarsus will be transformed into Paul, Apostle to the Gentiles. Given the significance of journeying, it is not surprising that the earliest followers of Jesus were known as people who belonged to the Way (Acts 9:2).

Conversion  or  Call?

Paul most likely followed the major thoroughfare through the Jordan valley, before turning to the northeast from Galilee toward Damascus, the snow capped Mt. Hermon to the north. As he drew near to Damascus, the dramatic event occurred.  Although Christians have come to speak of Paul’s conversion, the story told by Acts, and the allusion to it in Paul’s letters, suggest another possibility.
In that it was so life changing, shaking the very foundations of his Pharisaic worldview, it is appropriately called a conversion. Yet this did not mean a transfer from one religion to another. Rather, Paul prefers the language of a prophetic call: he is being commissioned for a particular task. He believes, like Jeremiah and Isaiah before him, that he has been prepared for this new role since before his birth (Galatiians 1:15); see also Isaiah 49:1; Jeremiah 1:5). His call near Damascus is understood to include a direct charge to preach God’s Son among the Gentiles (Galatians 1:16).

Paul in Damascus

Damascus is located in an oasis in southern Syria, approximately 135 miles (217 km) northeast of Jerusalem. The city was completely rebuild in the Hellenistic period, on a grid system. The one exception to the right-angled layout was the colonnaded “Street called Straight,” which crossed the city from east to west. Its name probably reflects a local joke, for it was not straight but slightly crooked. Here Paul will reside with a fellow Jew named Judas.
When Paul finally arrives in Damascus, a Christian Jew, Ananias, seeks him out. Paul later describes him as “a devout man according to the law and well spoken of by all the Jews living” in Damascus (Acts 22:12). Acts does not state how the Christian  message reached Damascus, though that might be due to missionaries scattered following Stephen’s martyrdom (Acts 8:1). Ananias restores Paul’s sight, and brings him by baptism into the messianic community.  He boldly addresses as “brother Saul” one who, only days before, was intent on persecuting people such as him. He is another of the unsung heroes of the early Church, who disappears from Luke’s story as quickly as he entered it.

DAMASCUS. By the Rev. Dr. PHILIP SCHAFF and Miss M. E. ROGERS Gardens and Rivers of Damascus.

Escape from Damascus

Apart from describing his synagogue preaching in Damascus, Acts is silent about what happened next. We do know from Galatians, however, that after his call he spent some time in Arabia before returning to Damascus (Galatians 1:17).  “Arabia” refers to the area to the south, the kingdom of Nabataea. Its capital was the famous rock city of Petra. ( See a short video of this ancient city that still exists today here.) Paul declines to spell out his reason for heading to Arabia/Nabataea and he seems to have made enemies there. Some time after returning to Damascus, he is forced to flee for his life. Under cover of night he is forced down from the city’s wall in a basket (Acts 9:25), and makes his way back to Jerusalem. Although Acts views the Jews of Damascus as the rime movers against him, Paul sees the real threat as “the governor under King Aretas” (2 Corinthians 11:32). The king in question is Aretas IV, king of the Nabataeas from 9 B.C. to 40 A.D. Damascus remained firmly under Roman control  until Tiberius’s death in March 37 A.D. Paul’s reference suggests the city then came under Nabataean control, thus giving an approximate date for his escape.
So Saul returns to Jerusalem a changed man. It is not surprising that the Church there suspected a plot to infiltrate their ranks. Later, Paul relates that he  met Peter (Cephas) and James the Lord’s brother ( Galatians 1:18-20) and the Cypriot Joseph Barnabas emerges out of the shadows to show his worth as a true “son of encouragement” (see Acts 43:6). The stories of Barnabas and Saul will be inextricably linked in the chapters to follow.

Opening to the Gentiles

Bab Kisan Gate where Paul escapes persecution.

Having prepared the ground for Paul’s future work, Luke now returns to the leader of the Jerusalem apostles, Simon Peter. Although Paul is remembered as the great apostle to the Gentiles, Acts shows how his work is already anticipated in Peter’s ministry. Somewhat reluctantly, but in accordance with the divine will, Peter opens a door for the Gentiles; Paul and Barnabas will use this opportunity to great effect, and on a far wider canvas.

Healing on the fringes

Peter continues Christ’s healing ministry here in two further healings (Acts 9:32-43). Yet as important as continuing Jesus’ healing of those “on the margins” is the fact that Peter is also moving to the geographic margins.

Joppa, prophet Jonah boarded ship here to run away

The locations of the two miraculous events,  Lydda and Joppa, are away from Jerusalem on a coastal plain.  Beyond them is the great sea, the Mediterranean. Soon Paul and Barnabas will sail across that sea to bring the good news to Cyprus and Asia Minor.
Lydda, the ancient Lod, was a large town or city located on the road linking Jerusalem  with Joppa about 10 miles (16 km) inland from Joppa. The port town of Joppa (from a Canaanite word meaning “the beautiful”) although inhabited by Jews, was a Greek city, stressing again Peter’s move to the boundaries. Here he resides with Simon the tanner, an occupation despised by many pious Jews.
The story of the healing of Aeneas in Lydda echoes Jesus’ healing of a paralytic at Luke 5:18-26. Although Aeneas is not a Jewish  name, he fact that Peter’s dealings with him are uncontroversial (unlike those with Cornelius) suggests he is a Jew, probably a Christian Jew. Part of Peter’s motive in traveling seems to have been to encourage the disciples living on the edge of Judea. Aeneas’s healing leads to conversions among the (Jewish) population of  Lydda and “the Sharon,” the coastal plain located between the sea and the central hill country.  Peter’s second healing, at Joppa, certainly involves a disciple. When Tabitha, or Dorcas in Greek (“gazelle”), is raised from the dead one is reminded of Jesus’ raising of Jairus’s daughter (Luke 8:49-56). Acts 8:40 hints that both Lydda and Joppa were evangelized by Philip on his way from Azots to Caesarea.

God fearers converted

Now that Peter is on the Holy Land’s geographic fringes, the stage is set for the next major transition in the spread of the gospel. Cornelius, a Roman centurion of the Italian cohort stationed at Caesarea, will receive the Holy Spirit and be baptized. Archaeological evidence attests a “Second Italian Cohort” in the area later in the century, though none has been found for Cornelius’s time. The Caesarea in question is the Caesarea Maritima (distinguishing it from other cities named after the emperor such as Caesarea Philippi). Formerly Strato’s tower, it had magnificently been rebuilt by Herod the Great. Ruins have survived of a fine artificial harbor, a Roman theater and an aqueduct.
Luke frequently speaks of Roman officials who are favorable toward the Christian  message. Cornelius is described as “a devout man who feared God with all his household” (Acts 10:2). In this he resembles the centurion who built the synagogue in Capernaum (Luke 7:1-10). The first step toward the Gentiles will be to one who is already on the fringes of the synagogue. Although Peter is instrumental here, what validates this dramatic step is divine revelation. Cornelius’ visitation from an angel is followed by a trance-induced vision, in which Peter sees a sheet containing all varieties of creatures. Through this vision, Peter comes to see that God is now over/riding the traditional clean/unclean distinction. As he is to learn, this applies not simply to animals and food, but to the distinction between Jews and Gentiles.
Hence, on returning to Jerusalem later (See Acts 11:1-18), he is prepared to justify the action taken at Caesarea. In Cornelius’s house, Peter’s preaching prompts divine activity, as the Holy Spirit descends even upon the “unclean” Gentiles. The Spirit was the expected gift of the new age, and its possession was a sign of being God’s people. Faced with heaven’s approval of pious Cornelius and his family, Peter cannot refuse them baptism.  Indeed, Luke has him seal this by accepting their hospitality for several days. Nevertheless, the full implications of this are not worked out immediately, either for Peter or for the Church. Later, at Antioch, Paul will challenge Peter over his decision to no longer eat with Gentiles, again treating them as unclean (Galatians 2:11-14).

Another Herod persecutes the Church

Back in Jerusalem, hostility directed toward the Church continues. Now it is associated with King Herod (Acts 12:1-5), who executes James, son of Zebedee, and also takes action against Peter. Herod Agrippa I was the grandson of Herod the Great, born in 10 B.C. and educated in Rome, where he became friends with the future emperors Gaius and Claudius. He inherited his uncle Philip’s tetrarchy in A.D. 38, adding Antipas’s Galilee and Perea two years later. He ruled as King of Judea between 41 and 44 A.D.
Acts portrayal of Agrippa is negative, influenced by the memory of his action against the Way. Though a promoter of Hellenism like his grandfather, at home Agrippa was a pious Jew. Acts has a most dramatic account of his untimely death, in which the crowds acclaim him as a god, and he develops a fatal illness. The tragic demise of a figure of royal power (Acts 12:20-23) contrasts powerfully with the escape from prison of the fisherman he sought to destroy and the inexorable progress of the message he wished to quash.

photo from – In this aerial photo you can see the western layout of the city, with Herod’s theater on the bottom side, Herod’s palace on the left side, the Hippodrome and the Roman city in the center, and the Crusaders and port on the top side.

Caesarea Maritima („by the Sea”) is located on the shore in the center of Israel,  in the middle between Haifa and Tel-Aviv. It is the site of one of the most important cities in the Roman World, the Roman capital of the province of Judea at the time of Jesus, and a Crusader fortress along the road from Acre to Jerusalem.  The followin – towards the end of Paul’s life also takes place in Caesarea Maritima:

Acts (25: 11-14, 23) – Paul appeals to Caesar

In 58AD the Apostle Paul, accused of causing a riot, was sent to Caesarea to stand trial before the governor. As a Roman citizen he requested to be heard by the Emperor , and so he sailed to Rome from Caesarea harbor. There, he was tried and executed after several years.

25:11 For if I be an offender, or have committed any thing worthy of death, I refuse not to die: but if there be none of these things whereof these accuse me, no man may deliver me unto them. I appeal unto Caesar.

25:12 Then Festus, when he had conferred with the council, answered, Hast thou appealed unto Caesar? unto Caesar shalt thou go.

25:13 And after certain days king Agrippa and Bernice came unto Caesarea to salute Festus.

25:14 And when they had been there many days, Festus declared Paul’s cause unto the king, saying, There is a certain man left in bonds by Felix:

25:15 About whom, when I was at Jerusalem, the chief priests and the elders of the Jews informed me, desiring to have judgment against him.

25:23 And on the morrow, when Agrippa was come, and Bernice, with great pomp, and was entered into the place of hearing, with the chief captains, and principal men of the city, at Festus’ commandment Paul was brought forth.

26:32 Then said Agrippa unto Festus, This man might have been set at liberty, if he had not appealed unto Caesar.

The „place of hearing”, where this all happened,  is located near Herod’ palace.

to be continued…

next in this series is Paul’s first missionary journey.



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