Almost in the perfect center of the north end of the city of Paris, the hill of Montmartre and its grand white Cathedral of “Sacré-Cœur” (Sacred Heart) seem perched above the city. From the church you are afforded one of the most magnificent views of the “city of lights” that doesn’t require going up in a rickety elevator on an old “erector set” called the Eiffel Tower. Montmartre is noted for several things, but probably best known for the quarter’s daily working street artists. Gathered near the square due west of the church, these artists sit in front of easels painting either in oils or watercolor, while others around them are sketching, chalking and creating in a host of artistic media. Though I could not do what they do, I confess that I love to walk around and see artists at work.
One of the most fascinating parts of the experience of watching an artist develop a picture is what I would call the “layering” of the picture. For a long time, the artist of a landscape (and even many who detail the background of a portrait) may work on the background of a picture with a variety of colors and shades that have no discernible purpose at all to the lesser trained eye. Often, I cannot make “heads nor tails” of the picture as they develop it in the early stages. Yet, if I wait patiently and don’t distract them, the artist will carefully offer an amazing transformation of the canvas – and the scene will begin to assemble and make itself known…
Let’s face it: One of the best ways to describe God may well be that He is the greatest of all Artists. He is the author of art – just as He is the Author of all things. He works the background of something, sometimes for hundreds of years, before anything becomes clear at all. He works very carefully on every detail of the setting, so that His picture becomes clear. In fact, there are many words that describe God, but none sweeter than the word “patient”. If you watch Him work the canvas of history, you get the same thrill as standing over the artist’s shoulder. That is one of the things that His Word affords us – the longer view of history from the Artist’s perspective! Watching His work, it becomes readily apparent that God works through the eons of time to tell His story and is meticulous about every detail- because each layer will affect the later story – and all of it is a singular picture. I mention that truth because our lesson comes from a text that exposes this very idea… Paul’s writing in Romans 11 teaches this central truth…
Key Principle: God is working a plan to show Who He is through His historic people – and it is being artistically sculpted from materials that do not look now like they will look when He is finished.
Because that is true, we find that God’s work with the Jewish people, in spite of their rejection of Messiah’s first coming, is not finished. He wants His estranged bride to return to Him, and see the gift He has given for them. As a result, their rejection of God is…
Not total: There is a remnant!
Paul made the point that NOT ALL Jews refused to see the work God did in Messiah for them. Some believed and remained people of faith…for God was not done with the Jewish people. He wrote:
Romans 11:1 I say then, God has not rejected His people, has He? May it never be! For I too am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin. 2 God has not rejected His people whom He foreknew. Or do you not know what the Scripture says in [the passage about] Elijah, how he pleads with God against Israel? 3 “Lord, THEY HAVE KILLED YOUR PROPHETS, THEY HAVE TORN DOWN YOUR ALTARS, AND I ALONE AM LEFT, AND THEY ARE SEEKING MY LIFE.” 4 But what is the divine response to him? “I HAVE KEPT for Myself SEVEN THOUSAND MEN WHO HAVE NOT BOWED THE KNEE TO BAAL.” 5 In the same way then, there has also come to be at the present time a remnant according to [God’s] gracious choice. 6 But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace is no longer grace.
Before we go too far into our lesson, let’s remember something: It is easy to “tune out” to passages that don’t seem immediately relevant to “us”. Don’t do it! Be patient with the Artist – He has something profound and wonderful to show us! The earliest layer to the picture was a time when Jews pointed the way to God. The atonement sacrifices brought temporary, but real peace with God. The nations made their own false gods, while the Jewish people were endowed with the revealed truths of the Creator Who had been rejected by the sons of the sons of Noah. The first layer was the layer of joy from a people of the Law, a layer with Mount Sinai in the background.
Over that was a “second layer” of the historical canvas – the layer of the Cross. The Jewish people were represented on that dark part of the canvas by some leaders who were bitter and self-interested. They rejected Jesus when He stood before them, and they had no place for the work of the people of the Way – who seemed as “upstart Jews” who were unwilling to follow Jerusalem and the Temple leadership. They sought to shut down the message of the nascent group, and they hounded the steps of Paul as he led people to Jesus’ teachings and the work of cleansing through His death. Paul opened Romans 11 with a question: “Is this the last layer of the canvas?” His answer was a loud and clear: “No!”
He made a few points:
First, God’s curtain of spiritual blindness that fell on the Jewish people as a whole did not include all of them – for he was an example of a small piece of the original cloth of the Jewish people: he and other Jewish believers were pieces of remnant fragments of the nation. That should remind us that the message of the Lord is not MORE TRUE because His Word is MORE POPULAR. As our culture moves from its Christian moorings back toward a rebirth of paganism, don’t underestimate the power of God to revive His message at any time. The Bible promises that even in the darkness of the Great Tribulation, yet there will be a remnant of witnesses that will proclaim a walk with God – even to their own peril.
Second, this wasn’t a strange work of God – but a familiar theme from the earlier canvas. God was probably NEVER held by the majority on a personal and intimate level, and at times, it seemed like believers were almost ALONE in their following of God. Elijah was provided as an example in verse two. God’s reply in verses three and four help set things in perspective: I have always had more in my fold than people could obviously tell. That is an important truth: often when it comes to the believers and their strength – things aren’t what they appear to be. Sometimes we look much weaker than we are. Remember that in the days ahead… the world will call our message as “defeated” – a relic of the time past. Yet, they will not know how many draw their personal strength from a personal and vital walk with the Lord and His Word.
The end of the short passage encouraged people who believed that there were others who also found refuge in the faith that brought life. Their belief in the sacrifice of Jesus became the basis of their walk with God, and they were now living examples of the remnant – in spite of the rejection of the majority of their people. Herein is a great lesson: The greatest “take away” to this short view of a snapshot from the history of the relationship between God and Israel is this: It doesn’t matter what you have done, if you are still alive, you can turn back to God – because of His grace.
That isn’t a lesson for someone else from some other time and place: it is a lesson for us right now. You haven’t done anything to get too far from God. He is still beckoning you to come to Him if you haven’t made that choice. He still wants you, no matter how profound your rejection has been, and no matter how deliberate you have been at defying His Word. Grace is unmerited favor. Faith is seeing it His way. Salvation is embracing His forgiveness – given in grace and accessed by faith. Here is the truth: It doesn’t matter what brought you to this point – you are still invited to have a relationship with God through the completed work of Jesus – until you breathe your last breath – and then time runs out. The people of Israel committed many heinous acts against God – but He kept coming at them. In the same way, it could be that He is coming at you right now, once again, to get you to respond. Don’t back away. Israel has been an example of God’s patience – and you can be the benefactor of responding to a patient God!
Yet, that isn’t all! God’s work in Israel is not total – there were SOME who believed even at the time of Paul (just as there are some now)! Yet, Paul offered more…God’s rejection of those who led Israel, and the dark curtain He placed over many of their hearts is not the final layer of the canvas. His veiling is…
Not final: There is a promise!
God STILL has a future for the Jewish people. Paul wrote:
Romans 11:7 What then? What Israel is seeking, it has not obtained, but those who were chosen obtained it, and the rest were hardened; 8 just as it is written, “GOD GAVE THEM A SPIRIT OF STUPOR, EYES TO SEE NOT AND EARS TO HEAR NOT, DOWN TO THIS VERY DAY.” 9 And David says, “LET THEIR TABLE BECOME A SNARE AND A TRAP, AND A STUMBLING BLOCK AND A RETRIBUTION TO THEM. 10 “LET THEIR EYES BE DARKENED TO SEE NOT, AND BEND THEIR BACKS FOREVER.” 11 I say then, they did not stumble so as to fall, did they? May it never be! But by their transgression salvation [has come] to the Gentiles, to make them jealous. 12 Now if their transgression is riches for the world and their failure is riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their fulfillment be!
Paul returned in verse seven to a familiar theme of the past few chapters, because it was an argument being pressed by those who were drawing men and women to defect from their faith in Jesus. The argument was this: “How is it possible that the God of Abraham would draw many pagans to Himself, while those who stood in long Temple lines in Jerusalem were largely blinded from a true and vital walk with Him?” Paul’s answer was clear: God promised that would be the case in the prophets.
People are always surprised by God when He does EXACTLY what He promised for generations in the prophets. God told them that a “spirit of stupor” would overcome them spiritually. They would stop seeing, in spite of the fact they would have the Scriptures all around them. The Word would become tradition, the miracles of their dramatic rescue from Egypt would become mere relics of memory. Verse ten explained they would stop “bending their backs” – they wouldn’t worship and fall down before God. They would have all the trappings of a grand cathedral in Europe that bears nothing more than a museum of art themes of the Bible. In Christian terms – the Cross would become jewelry, the hymns a form of entertainment. Even the grandest memories of worship, the very “Hallelujah Chorus” of Handel, would become a warm memory of times with family – not a pricking memory of deep worship of God. That is what happened to the Jewish people long ago, but it has happened to my people in my lifetime – so it is not nearly so remote and strange. I understand how it happens… I have seen it happen. When people play with holy things and don’t treat them as unique and distinct – they become common. Even the very sharp and powerful Word of God can become a source book for scholarly quotation, rather than a guide for our daily walk in worship and service of God.
Yet, that isn’t the end of these verses. There is a wonderful conclusion to the ancient paragraph that reveals something of the character of God. He closed his thought with the fact that God had OTHER PROMISES as well. Not everything God promised was judgment – it was directed at warning. It was given to draw people back from their sin. God promised that a new relationship would rise from the darkness like a living Phoenix from the pile of dry ashes. Verses eleven and twelve press the case – Israel will again live. They will go through a time of jealousy, unable to understand how the God of Israel could become the God of so many others and yet feel distant from them. That nagging jealousy would eventually result in their own return! How could that be??? Here is the truth: God isn’t just about where people are, He is about where He is taking them. This is the encouragement to the parent who is sobbing at night because of the hardness in the heart of their grown child: God isn’t done with them yet!
People often don’t get to their destination by all good experiences and good feelings. Sometimes events scare them and put them back where they belong.
I am thinking of the story of the man who stumbled into an open grave when cutting across the cemetery to get home more quickly. You see, he was in a hurry, and he thought he could take a short cut. He lived nearby, and wasn’t easily spooked because he had passed through the cemetery hundreds of times. This time was different. He didn’t see it coming. An open grave came upon him and his foot fell where he thought ground would be – only to find himself stuck in a hole. Startled, but unhurt, he tried climbing out of the hole… but each time he clawed the sides to boost upward, the earth crumbled in his hands and he tumbled back into the grave. After several unsuccessful and painful attempts, he sat down in a corner and decided to wait for help to come, or the sun to rise when the workers would return to the hole. What must have been a few hours passed. Another man wandered into the cemetery, also one who had been there many time. He was a street drunk, and like a movie “on cue” he stumbled thru the cemetery and fell into the grave. After a few misguided attempts to jump and claw and climb his way out… he also concluded there was no way to get out. The first resident of the hole said nothing as he watched the drink struggle for a bit, and then quietly said to him: “You’re never going to get out of here.” Yet, in a burst of fear and energy – the old drunk DID!
Take a moment and think about the words of verse twelve: Romans 11:12 “Now if their transgression is riches for the world and their failure is riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their fulfillment be!” Can you see the promise in the verse. Jews WILL again have a relationship, as a people, to the God of their past. He has affirmed they will come home to Him. Their long struggle in man-made rules and intricate laws will finally be broken by a path back to His arms – for He has declared it!
How can that be? The answer is simple. God is at work in them even when it appears He is not. Paul continued…God’s work is…
Not haphazard: There is a plan!
Romans 11:13 But I am speaking to you who are Gentiles. Inasmuch then as I am an apostle of Gentiles, I magnify my ministry, 14 if somehow I might move to jealousy my fellow countrymen and save some of them. 15 For if their rejection is the reconciliation of the world, what will [their] acceptance be but life from the dead?
It is hard for us to hear this truth, but it is important: Sometimes the time spent in darkness defines God’s future uses of us in the light. Sometimes the years our children spend walking in the world as though we had not taught them of Christ are exactly what God will use to shape their heart for outreach in the future. Perfect Christians cannot reach fallen neighbors. Only those who have felt the pull of temptation can help others recognize the prints of her icy fingers on their heart. I am in no way justifying some “sowing of the wild oats” theology – but am making a simple point: Our experiences, for good or bad, shape us as a tool in the hand of God. It could be that your son or your daughter today walk in defiance of the Lord – but today isn’t the last day. Ask some of the great leaders of our time if Christian kids are always examples on the way to being leaders of the faith? You know the answer!
God declared that the temporary and partial rejection of the Jewish people of Him brought benefits to the world – but it did something more. Through time it showed them graphically that there is no one like the Lord. There is no one Who would love them in spite of their sin and deliberate rebellion against Him! There is no one who would see all of the darkest and most selfish parts of them, and yet still conclude they are worth giving all to embrace. You are loved as Israel is loved – and so is your wayward child or grandchild. It hurts to see it – but remember this: God knows that hurt. He has lived with more of it than any of us can imagine!
At this point in his argument, Paul changed his tone a bit. He saw a problem emerging that has become profound in the centuries… the conceit of pagans who come to Christ in the face of kicking and rebellious Jews who await a promised return to God. Paul warned we of the church must walk…
Not with conceit: There is danger!
There is a temptation to see what God is doing in US as the APEX of what God desired to do in the ages. Every figure, when painted onto the canvas, can begin to feel as though the whole picture frames ONLY THEM. Paul made the problem clear:
Romans 11:16 If the first piece [of dough] is holy, the lump is also; and if the root is holy, the branches are too. 17 But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, being a wild olive, were grafted in among them and became partaker with them of the rich root of the olive tree, 18 do not be arrogant toward the branches; but if you are arrogant, [remember that] it is not you who supports the root, but the root [supports] you. 19 You will say then, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” 20 Quite right, they were broken off for their unbelief, but you stand by your faith. Do not be conceited, but fear; 21 for if God did not spare the natural branches, He will not spare you, either. 22 Behold then the kindness and severity of God; to those who fell, severity, but to you, God’s kindness, if you continue in His kindness; otherwise you also will be cut off. 23 And they also, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again. 24 For if you were cut off from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and were grafted contrary to nature into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these who are the natural [branches] be grafted into their own olive tree?
God delights in using broken people and broken things. All of us who have a walk with God know that we don’t deserve His love – and we can easily make as big a mess out of our lives as any of our lost neighbors are doing right now. We are not better than others. We are not more loveable. We are not more stable. We know ourselves…
Here is the truth: A walk with God brings delight – but it can also bring arrogance. We can look down on others because we feel a specialness that was designed for our encouragement, not for our hard-hearted exclusion of others. When we see ourselves as the center of God’s plan – but we must also be wary that we don’t make more of ourselves than we ought!
In this history of the church, it is obvious that those from a pagan background felt superior to the Jewish people, probably as an initial reaction to the Jewish attacks on the early faith. We must admit this history of Anti-Semitic tradition within the church and move to seeing them again as a people of future promise. That was Paul’s point.
At the same time, we must apply that principle to many others around us. God is at work in people that we may easily disdain. That philandering man at the office, now on his fourth wife and seeking yet more “action on the side” is falling through life trying to find happiness in the bedroom – but it isn’t there. That gay neighbor who believes their whole being is somehow tied to their feelings of attraction may not seem a likely candidate for a close friendship, but God is at work there. The lonely and fearful prisoner, sitting in a jail cell and surrounded by strangers may not seem the best investment of your time on earth, but if God leads – you would be wrong about that! That young hyperactive child with the frazzled and underpaid single parent may not seem like fertile ground for the Gospel – but you are wrong. God has already planned a spouse and five more children slated for a family of the future that will be an example of godliness in their future neighborhood. What is missing from the recipe? Your participation!
Let’s face it: People who are too good to get involved in the lives of other people are of little good to the Kingdom. The church of our day needs to take this to heart. People are the center of God’s outreach plan. Those of us with a walk with God are the people assets of outreach, and lost people are object of God’s affection. If we get so busy running the church programming to suit the believers, we can forget that the church wasn’t given to the believer to give him a place to feel at home – it was primarily given to the community so that a people of witness would be equipped. We are left on earth for those who do not know Him, but desperately need to know Him. He is there only hope for fulfillment now and “forever peace” in the future.
Let’s not get arrogant about God’s work in us – and become more focused on God’s work THROUGH us. The Jewish people have a future because God declared it so. Yet, so do a great many others – if we will not be TOO GOOD to reach into their lives! The tricky part about God’s work is this…It is often…
Not obvious: There is a secret!
Paul knew his people were going to be renewed to a walk with God. Yet, he knew that believers who only looked at the current attempts of Jewish leadership to discourage and dissect the early church could not see the bigger program of God. He saw it, because his view wasn’t based on the news – but on the Word of God.
Romans 11:25 For I do not want you, brethren, to be uninformed of this mystery– so that you will not be wise in your own estimation– that a partial hardening has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in; 26 and so all Israel will be saved; just as it is written, “THE DELIVERER WILL COME FROM ZION, HE WILL REMOVE UNGODLINESS FROM JACOB.” 27 “THIS IS MY COVENANT WITH THEM, WHEN I TAKE AWAY THEIR SINS.” 28 From the standpoint of the gospel they are enemies for your sake, but from the standpoint of [God’s] choice they are beloved for the sake of the fathers; 29 for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. 30 For just as you once were disobedient to God, but now have been shown mercy because of their disobedience, 31 so these also now have been disobedient, that because of the mercy shown to you they also may now be shown mercy. 32 For God has shut up all in disobedience so that He may show mercy to all. 33 Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways! 34 For WHO HAS KNOWN THE MIND OF THE LORD, OR WHO BECAME HIS COUNSELOR? 35 Or WHO HAS FIRST GIVEN TO HIM THAT IT MIGHT BE PAID BACK TO HIM AGAIN? 36 For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him [be] the glory forever. Amen.
A Biblical world view allowed Paul to see what others could not see – that God was at work carefully painting another layer on His picture of human history! God was working an intricate plan, and believers who took their cue from the news would not see what God was doing. That is STILL a major problem with the church of Jesus Christ.
Many in the church see Israel as replaced – but verses twenty-five to twenty-seven make no literal sense in that scenario. Others focus on current Jewish opposition to the Gospel and conclude that because they are hard to reach, the efforts would be better spent elsewhere – but that doesn’t take into account Paul’s answer in verses twenty-eight and twenty-nine.
Here is the simple truth: God doesn’t give up on His plan…He keeps steadily working it out. He works it out when even the believers don’t believe. He plods ahead, unaffected by our doubt and complaint – because He knows what He is doing. He knows where it all ends… in His glory.
Let me ask you a serious and important question before we leave this lesson: “What role to YOU play as the Artist does His work on the canvas?”
This past week I read an article by a man who was part of a team of managers tasked with revitalizing failing departments in the business world that were badly under-performing. He made a remark like:
“One of the first things we did was sit around and watch. A simple seat near the water cooler helped me understand the workers in the office. They were in every office! There was the:
· GOSSIP – Did you hear about so and so?
· WHINER – Did you know the other department got a raise? Can you believe…
· MURMURER – I can’t stand our boss. I hate this company…
· LAZY – Between the restroom and the water cooler, my morning is all booked!
· THIEF – You can go, I will clock out for you later…
He said: Every area had its GOSSIP, its WHINER, its REBEL LEADER IN THE MAKING, its HIDING LAZY PERSON… its THIEF. I was no industry genius, all I had to do was WATCH. If I paid attention – people made their own reputation, day by day.”
Let me ask you plainly again: “What is your role in God’s outreach work? Are you busy doing Kingdom work, or hiding on the golf course and whining at the political media desk? People aren’t won to Christ by outrage – but by loving engagement. Yet, it seems, many prefer to spend the time consuming the next story that will fuel their outrage rather than spending their time engaging in love the people God placed all around them.
Last week is GONE. You cannot recover it. What will this week bring? Are you walking away from this short lesson in the Word anticipating that God wants to work through YOU?
God is working a plan to show Who He is through His people – and it is being artistically sculpted from materials that do not look now like they will look when He is finished.
Isn’t that the best news you have heard in a long time? You may not look the way you will when God is done transforming you, but God is at work on you, just as He is on the whole picture He is making.
You may not know her name, but Martha Graham (May 11, 1894 – April 1, 1991) was an American modern dancer and choreographer with a remarkable career. Her influence on modern dance has been compared to Picasso’s on modern visual arts, Stravinsky’s on music, or Frank Lloyd Wright’s on architecture. Her career longevity was also impressive. She danced and choreographed for over seventy years! Professional dancers experience the same physical wear and tear as other professional athletes. Martha Graham surpassed every standard. Her success and acclaim extended beyond the dance world when Graham was the first dancer ever to perform at the White House and travel abroad as a cultural ambassador. She received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Japan’s Imperial Order of the Precious Crown, and the Key to the City of Paris. Her most famous quote was: “No artist is pleased. There is no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.” (Adapted from a sermon by Rev. Kelly Mitchell, sermon central.com).
Would you be open to the idea that God is still at work on the canvas, because so many are still lost? So many still need to see your life, hear your story and know your God. Some of them are the Apostle Paul’s distant relatives… and a great promise awaits them someday soon!