Sunday School Notes: Romans 11:13-15

13 But I say to you, Gentiles: in as much as, therefore, I am an apostle of the Gentiles, I glorify my ministry, 14 if, somehow, I shall provoke to jealousy my kindred and save some of them. 15 For if their rejection [means] the reconciliation of the world, what [is or will be] [their] acceptance if not life from the dead?

Paul speaks directly to the Gentiles in the Roman church now. His comments concerning the position of the Jews, and the fact that God is still remaining faithful to His promises regarding them, have certainly been directed toward the Gentile Christians in Rome, but now he makes it clear that his comments are for them. The term “apostle of the Gentiles” could be taken as a title: “The Apostle to the Gentiles,” a title which certainly fit Paul. Perhaps the Gentile believers had pointed to Paul’s Gentile mission as evidence of God’s turning away from the Jews and focusing His attention on them. Paul says he “glorifies” his ministry to the Gentiles. That is to say, it is something he takes pleasure in, and he is clearly proud of the fact that God has called him to this important work. He is pleased to reach out to the Gentiles, and is probably as amazed as the rest of the Jewish church was to see that God’s plan of redemption extended to them (note: Peter had to have a vision from God before he would accept outreach to a Roman centurion).

We’ve seen that God’s inclusion of Gentiles within His redeemed people is, in part, to provoke Israel to jealousy. In a similar way, Paul hopes that his ministry to the Gentiles, giving them attention, proclaiming the gospel to them, and seeing their lives changed, would be used by God to provoke his “kindred” to jealousy, and as a result save some of them.

We discussed a couple of the terms Paul uses here. First, “kindred” translates the Greek mou tên sarka–literally, “my flesh.” This is a Hebraism, and we see it used in the Old Testament. One occasion is in Genesis 37, when Joseph’s brothers plotted to kill him. Judah objected to the plan on the basis that Joseph is “our brother, our flesh” (Genesis 37:27).

Another term we talked about is the word translated “provoked to jealousy” (Greek: parazêloô). The King James renders this word “provoke to emulation.” Is it that Paul is hoping the Jews will want what the Gentiles have, in the same way we hope that our Christian lifestyle and witness will cause unbelievers around us to desire the peace and assurance we have in Christ? Perhaps “provoke to jealousy” is too strong? My copy of the KJV has a footnote indicating that the word means “jealousy,” so it’s possible that the English word “emulation” has changed its meaning since 1611, or at least it doesn’t mean today what the KJV translators meant back when they did their work. This lead first to a brief discussion about Bible versions, and which is the best to use (I recommended using three or four good versions–e.g., NKJV, NASB, ESV, along with the KJV if you are partial to the KJV–for serious Bible study).

But going back to the text, I think we need to recognize that the situation between the Jews and the Gentiles is not quite the same as it is between a Gentile Christian and a Gentile non-Christian. There is a hostility to the gospel among Jewish people–there certainly was in Paul’s day, and I think it’s true to say such an attitude persists even today. For those who don’t understand the situation that exists between Christianity and Judaism, this might seem surprising, since both faiths come from the same root. However, in just a few verses, Paul will give reason as to why this is the case. Suffice to say, Christianity is generally not as “enticing” to a Jew as it might be to a Gentile. Of course, for both, it takes a work of the Spirit to open the eyes and soften the heart. But humanly speaking, there’s more going on with the Jewish person than the Gentile that predisposes them to be negative to the Gospel. More about that later.

In verse 15, Paul uses a “how much more” comparison: if Jewish rejection by God (at least seeming rejection), because of their rejection of the gospel, means the Gentiles are reconciled with God, how much more will Jewish acceptance mean–even life from the dead. Note that Paul speaks of both Jew and Gentile corporately here. Right now, it seems that the Jews have been set aside, and this means the Gentiles have access to the righteousness of God by faith in Christ. However, Paul anticipates that the situation with the Jews will not last, and one day there will be an acceptance of them. It seems Paul has in mind a broadening of “the remnant”–that is, the number of Jews coming to Christ will, at some point, greatly increase, such that it can be said that Israel has accepted Christ, and, therefore, become acceptable to God.

Paul says this will be “life from the dead.” What does that mean? For a start, it must be something better than Gentiles coming to Christ, which, as we’ve already said, was an amazing  thing in itself. Every conversion is a miracle. That God would convert non-Jews is an incomprehensible blessing. So what is it about the “acceptance” of Israel that will be even more wonderful–“life from the dead,” even?

Is Paul thinking in terms of the end times? Perhaps. We know from Scripture that prior to Christ’s return there will be a resurrection of all those who are his (1 Corinthians 15:20-24; 2 Peter 3:3-9). There was also a belief expressed in Jewish apocalyptic literature of the period that there would be a restoration of Israel before the end times. Of course, what they understood that to mean, and what Paul might understand that to mean are very different!

But might this simply be a reference to the exciting prospect of those who are genetically Abraham’s seed, who have grown up under the Old Testament, and whose lives have been informed by ritual, ceremony, and Law, at last receiving the fulfillment of that in Christ? As wonderful as the Gentile conversions are, there’s something particularly special about Jewish conversions. As Paul says, they are the ones who received the prophets, and the promises, and from whom the Messiah came. Not to minimize how special any and every conversion is, but a Jewish conversion is particularly special. At least, that’s what Paul is possibly saying here. The term “life from the dead” in this context sounds like what the father says about his prodigal son: “he was dead, but is now alive” (Luke 15:24). Or even reminiscent of Ezekiel’s “dry bones” (Ezekiel 37) which was a prophecy about Israel’s revivification. Israel will one day be set free from slavery to sin and the Law, and will be raised to new life in Christ.

Program Note: There will not be a Sunday School class this coming Sunday due to a special church meeting we will be having during that hour. This means there will not be any Sunday School notes next Tuesday. Normal programming will resume the following week.

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