Paul’s Understanding of the Great Commission

This post is part of the Series "Israel and the Great Commission"

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We have seen how the Old Testament introduced the Great Commission. We also saw how Jesus understood Israel’s salvation and the salvation of the nations as one divine plan. In this session, we will look at how Paul summarizes his own understanding of God’s divine plan. Paul recognized a divine story was unfolding that would result in both the salvation of Israel and the nations. He also recognized that Israel and the nations were deeply intertwined in that plan and that the Great Commission was God’s means of bringing it to pass.

Romans 9-11 is one of the most significant passages in the New Testament regarding Paul’s understanding of the Great Commission and the outcome of the preaching of the gospel to the gentiles. Paul built his understanding of his mission off of his understanding of what must happen for the age to end. There are two key things about Paul’s view of the end of the age to recognize:

  1. Paul assumed the mission and eschatology (“the study of the end times”) of the Old Testament. Romans 9-11 is filled with eschatological ideas and for Paul all those ideas come from the Old Testament. To prove the point, he quotes Old Testament verses in their context to back up his eschatological conclusions.
  2. Second, it is critical to see that Paul applied what the Old Testament says about the future to his mission. Paul searched the Scriptures regarding the end of God’s plan and then used those Scriptures to understand his mission. By studying Paul we can see the correct way to apply our understanding of the end of the age to the mission of the church.

Paul’s best summary of how he understood the mission to the gentiles is found in Romans 9-11. This passage is not only a conversation about Israel; it is Paul’s explanation of his apostolic mission to the gentiles. In short, it is Paul’s grand summary of the Great Commission. We can understand the foundational elements of Paul’s missiology by surveying the broad outline of Romans 9-11.

Paul explains his mission by summarizing prophecies in the Old Testament and using them to provide a Scriptural basis for the commission he was given from heaven. It is particularly important in this section to understand that when Paul quotes the Old Testament he assumes that his audience understands the context surrounding the verses he is quoting. To understand what Paul is saying we have to understand the context of the passages he references and how he applies these passages to his mission.

Paul’s Meditation on God’s Faithfulness

Romans 8 sets the context for Paul’s introduction to his mission. Paul begins by explaining the burning desire of his heart that is driving his mission.

37No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:37–39 ESV)

In the first half of Romans 8, Paul describes the groan of the Spirit and of creation for redemption (Romans 8:21-23, 26), and he reminds us that the Holy Spirit has been given to us as a promise that full redemption is coming (Romans 8:23, 29-30). As Paul considers both the tragic nature of our current situation and the certainty of God’s salvation, he launches into a meditation on the strength of God’s love. Even in the midst of severe suffering (Romans 8:36), Paul is convinced that nothing is stronger than God’s love and His commitment to fulfill his promises. Nothing can derail His purposes and plans.

It is Paul’s meditation on the strength of God’s love and the certainty that God will fulfill all His promises that launches Paul into the explanation of His mission and the salvation of all Israel.

Paul’s Grief

Paul begins Romans 9 with sober words.

1I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit— 2that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. 3For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh. 4They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. (Romans 9:1–4 ESV)

Paul’s statement in verse 2 is so extreme in verse 1 he makes three strong statements about the truth of his statement. He says he is speaking the truth in Christ, he is not lying, and that His conscience bears witness in the Holy Spirit meaning that the Holy Spirit agrees with him on this issue. The fact that Paul has to tell us three times that he is telling the truth reveals the gravity of these verses. There is nowhere else in Scripture does Paul introduce a statement like this. Paul makes these statements because he wants to make sure that his statement is understood as a literal statement and is not treated by his audience as hyperbole.

Paul says he has “great sorrow” and “unceasing anguish” (ESV, NIV) in his heart over the issue of Israel. The depth of Paul’s pain here is difficult to comprehend. The word anguish is the Greek word ὀδύνη. It can be defined as follows:

  • “ὀδύνη, ης f: (a figurative extension of meaning of ὀδύνη ‘physical pain,’ not occurring in the NT) a state of severe emotional anxiety and distress—‘great distress, intense anxiety.’ καὶ ἀδιάλειπτος ὀδύνη τῇ καρδίᾳ μου ‘great distress in my heart is endless’ Ro 9:2.”[1]
  • odýnē means a. ‘physical pain’ and b. ‘mental distress.’ odynáō is ‘to cause pain or sorrow,’ passive ‘to feel pain,’ ‘to suffer.’ The main LXX use is for deep grief of soul, as in Zech. 12:10; Is. 38:15; Am. 8:10; Prov. 17:25; Ezek. 21:11. In the NT Paul uses odýnē in Rom. 9:2 for his distress that his compatriots are shut off from salvation. In 1 Tim. 6:10 the reference is to pangs of conscience that afflict those who defect through love of money. odynáomai occurs four times in Luke and Acts. In Lk. 4:28 it is anxiety for a beloved child, in Lk. 16:24 torment at eternal loss, in 16:25 the anguish of remorse, and in Acts 20:38 the sorrow of final parting from the apostle.”[2]

We have often attempted to think what Paul thought about Israel, but we cannot think what Paul thought about Israel until we first examine what Paul felt about Israel. Paul’s burden was a passionate burden. Because he understood the redemptive plan, Paul was not merely burdened, confused, or bothered he was in anguish. His pain over Israel caused him deep mental, emotional, and physical pain.

Not only was Paul in anguish, he was in “unceasing” anguish. In other words, Israel’s condition constantly affected Paul. It was always on his mind. It influenced everything he did. He could never escape it. He carried a burden for the gentile churches and wept over them, but this was something different. It weighed on him all the time. He would pour into gentile churches and teach leaders late in the night, but his pain over Israel was always pressing his mind and emotions. He carried the kind of internal pain that can spill out uncontrollably.

What makes Paul’s anguish so unusual is that he was an apostle to the gentiles. The Lord had given him a specific assignment to the gentiles and yet his soul was still in deep anguish over Israel. As we will see in a minute, Paul still considered Israel part of God’s Great Commission. If God were finished with Israel, Paul would not be in this kind of anguish over their situation.

Paul was under the same burden as the Old Testament prophets and his language is very similar to their language. He gave his life to see the gentiles receive the gospel, but he could say Jeremiah, “Oh that my head were waters, and my eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night for the slain of the daughter of my people!” (Jeremiah 9:1 ESV) This is the pain that caused Paul to go to the synagogue when he first entered a city. Going to the synagogue was more than expediency; Paul had a burning desire for Israel’s salvation and recognized that it remained part of the Great Commission.

Considering that Paul is bold enough to claim that he did not receive his gospel from any man but by direct revelation from Jesus (Galatians 1:12) and that the Holy Spirit bears witness to his burden (Romans 9:1), it is clear that Paul’s burden is the Lord’s burden for his people. Paul’s unceasing anguish was an anguish he received by the Holy Spirit.

Paul’s anguish for Israel is not in conflict with his burden for the salvation of the gentiles. Just as Paul did not choose one over the other, neither do we have to choose. Like Paul we need to carry both parts of God’s heart.

We need to recognize what the Lord did with Paul so that Paul could carry the Lord’s full heart. Paul always had zeal for his people. This zeal is what caused him to persecute the early Christians. He persecuted them because he was concerned they were following a false Messiah and would lead Israel into deception. Paul always had a zeal for his own people and, after he met the Lord, this zeal was transformed into anguish over their true condition.

However, Paul’s zeal for Israel was not the fullness of God’s heart. In order to give him the fullness of God’s heart, God took Paul, as a man with zeal for Israel, and sent him to the gentiles. This assignment seems extremely unusual, because Paul would have been the perfect man to send to Israel. However, God wanted Paul to receive and express God’s full heart for the nations. Paul needed to love Israel and the nations and so in order to give Paul His heart, God sent Paul to a people that he previously despised.

No doubt as a Jew under oppression, Paul was raised to look down on the gentiles. However, after Jesus radically transformed and commissioned Paul he was sent to the very people group he would not have chosen. Not only was he sent to them, Jesus even told Paul he was going to have to suffer tremendously for the sake of the gentiles. In other words, he was going to have to love them in a deep and tangible way.

As Paul carried the gospel to the gentiles he developed deep affection for them, and throughout the New Testament Paul expresses his deep emotions over the gentile believers he labored for. He suffered tremendously for their sakes and in the process of being obedient to his commission to go to the gentiles, Paul ended up developing deep emotions for a people group that he previously had no desire for. By being sent to the gentiles, the seasoned apostle of Romans 9 was able to carry the full expression of God’s heart. He was still in anguish over his own people, but he also developed deep affection for the gentiles. Both of these together express the full heart of God and provide the proper vision to labor in the Great Commission.

Paul’s Predicament

In Romans 9, Paul also addresses a specific issue that he faced throughout his apostolic ministry: Paul was traveling among the gentiles preaching that Israel’s Messiah and King had appeared and all the nations must submit to Him. The challenge for Paul was that he called gentiles to submit to Israel’s Messiah even though Israel had not yet embraced their own Messiah. It seemed as though Israel’s Messiah had failed to bring Israel into her promises. Therefore, how could the gentiles be certain that He was the true Messiah?

We can only understand Romans 9 in its proper context when we understand that Paul is writing to gentiles and Jews to explain how Israel will embrace the Messiah and be saved as the Old Testament prophets prophesied (Deuteronomy 30:1-6; Isaiah 4:3; 45:17, 25; 54:13: 59:21; 60:21; Jeremiah 31:34; 32:40; Ezekiel 20:40; 39:22, 28-29; Joel 2:26; Zephaniah 12:13). Paul’s grief and explanation regarding Israel’s present failure to acknowledge Jesus is in light of their unique role in the redemptive plan.

4They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. (Romans 9:4 ESV)

Paul’s affirmation of Israel’s promises in Romans 9:4 sets the context for Romans 9:6-33 and the rest of Romans 9-11 as Paul describes how Israel will come to inherit her promises. Paul’s message is that though Israel is presently in crisis God will bring them to the point where they receive their salvation. Just as God reaffirmed His promises to Israel in the wilderness after she broke covenant with the golden calf (Exodus 33:1), Paul reaffirms God’s promise to deliver Israel even after her rejection of Jesus (Romans 9:4; 11:26-27).

26And in this way all Israel will be saved… (Romans 11:26 ESV)

In Romans 9:6-12 Paul highlights critical junctures in Israel’s history where those who were positioned to inherit the promise lost it. Both Ishmael and Esau should have received a blessing because they were born into the family, but both lost their blessing. Paul is illustrating the fact that many who were born into Israel should have inherited salvation through Jesus, but instead rejected Him and lost their birthright (Romans 9:6). Paul uses very specific examples of individuals who lose their participation in Israel’s covenant blessings because it illustrates significant points related to Israel’s salvation: This is not the first time in Israel’s history that those who were positioned to participate in the promises of God suffered loss due to their rejection of God’s plan.

God divinely elects individuals for His specific purposes. When we reject His divine election and purpose we can be cut off entirely from His redemptive purposes. Both Ishmael and Esau suffered tremendously because they rejected God’s decision to choose their brother for a unique redemptive role. Stephen’s sermon in Acts highlights the fact that Israel’s rebellion in the wilderness was connected to a rejection of Moses as God’s chosen leader (Acts 7:35-53). Paul also uses these tragedies to lay a foundation for a warning he will issue in Romans 11 (Romans 11:19-20; 23-25) that the gentiles, if ignorant or offended of God’s divine election of Israel, can end up being cut off from their participation in God’s salvation.

To have a full picture of the gospel, we need to recognize both the seriousness of rejecting God’s plan and God’s merciful commitment to redeem our failures. For example, Ishmael and Esau ended up cut off from God’s plan because one rejected Isaac’s role and the other rejected Jacob’s role. However, God also made a solemn promise to Ishmael’s mother Hagar, that Ishmael would become a great nation.

16Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot, for she said, “Let me not look on the death of the child.” And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept. 17And God heard the voice of the boy, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. 18Up! Lift up the boy, and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make him into a great nation.” (Genesis 21:16–18 ESV)

Understanding God’s desire to redeem nations is critical to having a proper perspective of His plan. God will fulfill His promises to Israel, but God is so merciful He made a promise in Genesis 21 to redeem Ishmael’s failure and make him into a great nation. This has not yet happened and we must contend for promises like this to be fulfilled. Just as God is going to redeem the nations in the midst of His judgments, so also He will redeem Ishmael though Ishmael experienced judgment for mocking Isaac (Genesis 21:8-10). Just as God took Paul, a Jew, and gave him a heart for the gentiles, so also we need God’s heart for Isaac, Ishmael, Israel and the nations to have God’s true heart.

In Romans 9 Paul acknowledges that Israel as a nation, though born to receive the gospel (Romans 9:4-5), has rejected Jesus and suffered a tremendous loss in the process. However, that is not the end of the story. God is weaving a story in which Israel and the nations will be brought to salvation together through the fulfillment of the Great Commission. In Romans 10-11, Paul explains God’s plan to resolve Israel’s crisis through the Great Commission.

Paul’s Missiology

After summarizing his theological crisis, Paul begins to define the biblical response to this predicament. In Romans 10, Paul explains his missiology and puts the mission to the gentiles in the context of God’s plan to fulfill all His promises. He begins chapter 10 by reinforcing his burden from Romans 9:1-3 emphasizing that chapter 10 is a continuation of Paul’s apostolic burden for Israel.

1Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved. 2For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. (Romans 10:1–2 ESV)

Paul emphasizes that God has opened a window of mercy for all those who call upon Him (Romans 10:12-13). The Great Commission – the preaching of the gospel to all people is ultimately what will resolve Israel’s condition. God’s offer of mercy to everyone is what is going to ultimately bring His plan to pass.

12For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. 13For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Romans 10:12–13 ESV)

As Paul continues, he quotes several Old Testament passages. We need to carefully look at how Paul quotes Old Testament passages and how he expects his readers to interpret those passages. To understand Paul’s interpretation of these passages we have to keep two things in mind:

  • We must remember the original context of these passages. Paul does add new meaning to these passages but he does not completely reinterpret them. Understanding that is key to grasping all that Paul is saying.
  • We also have to keep in mind the overall context and the overall point Paul is making. Paul is explaining how Israel will be saved and what the Old Testament says about Israel’s present crisis and its resolution.

Paul is a Jewish teacher so he expects his audience to understand the original context of the passages he quotes. It was a common teaching style in Paul’s day to refer to a part of a passage and expect the audience to understand the entire context and use that understanding to interpret what is being taught. Paul is teaching along these lines and he expects us to both understand the original context of the passage and the new light on the passage that he brings.

It is common in modern preaching to use a verse out of context as a proof text for a topical teaching. We tend to assume that Paul is either doing that same thing or he is taking an Old Testament verse and completely reinterpreting it. In reality neither are completely true. Paul expects his readers to understanding the original context of any passage he quotes and understanding that context helps us understand Paul’s thinking and his arguments. Understanding the Old Testament passages Paul quotes in his writings gives us tremendous insight into Paul’s thinking. There are reasons he thinks about certain passages as he addresses certain topics. The context of those passages reveals what Paul is thinking about a subject as he writes his letters. Therefore, unless Paul explicitly states something otherwise, the original context of a verse Paul quotes should be assumed to still be true along with whatever new revelation that Paul adds.

We tend to look for the new insight Paul adds and either ignore or reject the original application but we need to look carefully at both to understand everything Paul is saying. Because Paul expects you to understand the original context that context is part of His teaching. It is not written out because Paul assumes his readers either have that understanding or will seek it out in order to fully understand the passage.

Many modern preachers use a verse as a text for a topical teaching and do not necessarily deal with the original context of a passage. Because we are used to that it can be easy to assume that Paul is simply using verses to back up a point he wants to make in Romans 10-11 but that is not true. To fully understand what Paul is saying we need to understand the complete context of each passage Paul quotes. In Romans 10:11, Paul begins to make a shift in his argument. He introduces the way in which the Romans 9 crisis is going to resolved and Israel will be saved.

11For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” 12For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. 13For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Romans 10:11–13 ESV)

In verse 11 Paul refers to His statement in Romans 9:33:

33as it is written, “Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense; and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.” (Romans 9:33 ESV)

Romans 9:33 is a combination of Isaiah 8:14 and Isaiah 28:16.

14And he will become a sanctuary and a stone of offense and a rock of stumbling to both houses of Israel, a trap and a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem. (Isaiah 8:14 ESV)

16therefore thus says the Lord God, “Behold, I am the one who has laid as a foundation in Zion, a stone, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone, of a sure foundation: ‘Whoever believes will not be in haste.’ (Isaiah 28:16 ESV)

Paul puts these two passage together to make an important statement. First God has become a cornerstone of deliverance for Israel in the person of Jesus. However, that cornerstone is also quite controversial and has become a means of stumbling and offense to many in Israel. In other words, Paul both affirms God’s offer of salvation and the prediction that it will be controversial and many in Israel will reject it.

In verse 12, Paul expands the offer of salvation to anyone – Jew or gentile – who call on the Lord. He recognizes that God’s offer of salvation to Israel is also being made available to the nations through the person of Jesus.

In verse 13, Paul quotes Joel 2:32.

32And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved. For in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those who escape, as the Lord has said, and among the survivors shall be those whom the Lord calls. (Joel 2:32 ESV)

Joel 2:32 is in the middle of an apocalyptic prediction by Joel. It describes the time when God will restore Israel’s fortunes (Acts 1:6), judge the nations, and pour out His Spirit on the entire nation. This verse was one of Israel’s great hopes. Paul quotes it here as an introduction to his explanation of how God is going to fulfill Joel 2:32 and how He is going to save Israel. In the mystery of God’s plan, it is “everyone” both Jew and gentile (Romans 10:12) calling on the name of the Lord that is going to result in “everyone” in Israel at the end of the age (Joel 2:32) calling on the name of the Lord. Paul is not removing the special application of Joel 2:32 to Israel, he is doing something creative. He is stating God’s intention to save Israel and the nations and simultaneously introducing the stunning thought that God’s offer of salvation to the nations is directly tied to His plan to save Israel and bring Joel 2:32 to pass.

Paul next quotes Isaiah 52:7 in Romans 10:14-15.

14How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? 15And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” (Romans 10:14–15 ESV)

Paul has emphasized that Israel must be saved (Romans 9:1-3; 10:1-2) and he introduces how that will come to pass by quoting Isaiah’s reference to a messenger carrying “good news” to the Jews in exile (Isaiah 52:7). The original context of the passage was preaching to Israel in the nations about the greatness of their God and His deliverance. In the verses that follow this we will see that Paul argues for this interpretation. Preaching in the nations will ultimately be for the good of Israel and a reminder to Israel of God’s faithfulness. However, this preaching in the nations will also save gentiles.

In Romans 10:21-21 Paul is going to introduce a revolutionary concept. The preaching that must happen to Israel is going to happen in part through gentile believers in the nations. For the nations to speak to Israel about the good news (Romans 10:15) it means the nations themselves must receive that good news first. This is why when we look at Romans 10:14-18 in context it remains an exhortation from Paul to preach the gospel to Israel, but Paul recognizes for that to come to pass the gentiles must receive the gospel as well (Romans 15:20).

Because Paul was Jewish, the idea of Israel being in exile and hearing good news in the nations would imply that Israel was under judgment because exile is a part of God’s covenant discipline (The end of Israel’s discipline includes Israel’s full possession of the land in peace and safety.) Therefore, if Israel is spread in the nations it remains under divine discipline. Paul’s point is that the response of the gentile church to Israel’s judgment, in this case Israel’s rejection of Jesus as a nation, should be to take the gospel to them where they are. Most of the gentile church assumed God was done with Israel after AD 70 because the Jewish people were spread into the nations. This assumption was incorrect and the response of the church was also incorrect.

If Israel is in a season of judgment outside their land, our responsibility to them is to remind them of their covenant and preach “good news” to them. Tragically the church has more often ignored or persecuted Israel when Paul would say the result of the Great Commission should be preaching good news to Israel. This is why the Great Commission involves discipling the nations (Matthew 28:19) into understanding God’s redemptive plan.

Not only does Paul call for continued preaching to Israel, he also makes the case that the Great Commission is going to create a context for the Jewish people to both hear the gospel and to be provoked by the salvation of the gentiles. Furthermore, Paul reveals that this is precisely what the Old Testament always predicted and this is why Paul said back in Romans 9 that the Word of God has not failed.

6But it is not as though the word of God has failed…  (Romans 9:6 ESV)

Paul takes the mission he introduces in verses 14-15 and he develops it in detail in verses 19-21 by explaining his understanding of how the Bible predicts the nations will provoke Israel to salvation. He begins by quoting Deuteronomy in verse 19.

19But I ask, did Israel not understand? First Moses says, “I will make you jealous of those who are not a nation; with a foolish nation I will make you angry.” (Romans 10:19 ESV)

20And he said, ‘I will hide my face from them; I will see what their end will be, for they are a perverse generation, children in whom is no faithfulness. 21They have made me jealous with what is no god; they have provoked me to anger with their idols. So I will make them jealous with those who are no people; I will provoke them to anger with a foolish nation. (Deuteronomy 32:20–21 ESV)

Moses prophesied a time period when Israel will reject God and He will “hide His face” from them. Israel’s idolatry will move God to jealousy and anger. The Bible often speaks of God’s relationship to Israel as a marriage and Moses predicts He will be as jealous as a bridegroom at Israel’s unfaithfulness. However, Deuteronomy 32:21 finishes with a shocking prediction. Israel’s sin will provoke God to jealousy and anger, but He will provoke them to jealousy and anger as well. Their provocation of God was unto judgment, but His provocation of them will be unto life and mercy.

Moses is predicting that Israel will join herself to the gods of the nations and, in response, God will join Himself to the nations. Israel will break covenant and God will respond by expanding His covenant. However, God’s embrace of the nations is not a rejection of Israel it is ultimately part of a divine plan that will both save the nations and cause Israel to return to her God.

Moses is outlining God’s mercy strategy to Israel. Though He appears to hide His face, He will provoke Israel to jealousy by showing mercy to those who are “not a nation” – i.e. gentiles. When Israel sees gentiles experiencing the benefits of Israel’s inheritance, it will cause them to return to God. It is the classic situation of the child who does not care about an old toy until they see someone else playing with their toy. Seeing someone else with what should be theirs causes them to respond with emotion. In the same way, Moses predicted that God’s method for bringing Israel back to Him would be bringing gentiles in relationship with Him.

In verse 19, Paul is answering the question he raised in verse 18. In verse 18, Paul summarized Israel’s condition by asking the rhetorical question, “Have they not heard?” knowing of course that Israel has heard. God’s answer to the question, “have they not heard?” is a firm answer – “I will provoke you to jealousy by those who are not a nation.” He will make sure they hear again, and one of the ways they will hear is through gentile prophets and preachers in the nations of the earth. These gentiles will be anointed by the God of Israel.

Paul continues to build his missiology by quoting Isaiah 65:1-2 (Romans 10:20-21) to enforce the point he makes in verse 19. Just as Moses prophesied that gentiles would provoke Israel, Isaiah also prophesied that gentile peoples who had not sought God would find Him and subsequently be a witness to Israel.

20Then Isaiah is so bold as to say, “I have been found by those who did not seek me; I have shown myself to those who did not ask for me.” 21But of Israel he says, “All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and contrary people.” (Romans 10:20–21 ESV)

1I was ready to be sought by those who did not ask for me; I was ready to be found by those who did not seek me. I said, “Here I am, here I am,” to a nation that was not called by my name. 2I spread out my hands all the day to a rebellious people, who walk in a way that is not good, following their own devices; (Isaiah 65:1–2 ESV)

Isaiah, like Moses, reveals God’s unusual strategy. He is going to use the nations to provoke Israel. To understand this strategy, we have to understand the context of Isaiah 65:1-2. Isaiah 65 is the answer to Isaiah 64. In Isaiah 64, Isaiah is in great distress over Israel’s judgment and condition. This is why Isaiah 64 opens with an intercessory cry:

1Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains might quake at your presence— (Isaiah 64:1 ESV)

Isaiah was given the revelation of Jesus as the great deliverer of Israel destroying all of God’s enemies (Isaiah 63:1-6). Isaiah 64 is an intercessory prayer for the deliverer of Isaiah 63 to come and deliver Israel.

1Who is this who comes from Edom, in crimsoned garments from Bozrah, he who is splendid in his apparel, marching in the greatness of his strength? “It is I, speaking in righteousness, mighty to save.” (Isaiah 63:1 ESV)

Isaiah 64 opens with an intercessory cry and contains a passionate petition for the Lord to have mercy on Israel and bring her back to Himself.

9Be not so terribly angry, O Lord, and remember not iniquity forever. Behold, please look, we are all your people…12Will you restrain yourself at these things, O Lord? Will you keep silent, and afflict us so terribly? (Isaiah 64:9, 12 ESV)

Isaiah poured out his heart in Isaiah 64 and then stood before the Lord looking for a reply. He ended his intercession in the chapter with the painful question, “Will you keep silent?” To understand Isaiah 65:1-2 we have to understand that it is the answer to Isaiah’s intercession.

Isaiah stood waiting for an answer to his intercession and Isaiah 65:1 records God’s shocking answer to Isaiah’s intercession: God will reveal Himself to the gentiles. Isaiah interceded for Israel and God answered that intercession with a promise for the nations. This must have been incredibly confusing for Isaiah but God explains how the nations relate to Israel’s future in verse 2. In Isaiah 65:2, God tells Isaiah He will stretch out His hands all day long to a disobedient people. This is a reference to Israel and Paul explains for us how God will stretch out His hands to Israel. He will use gentiles who have embraced the gospel to minister to Israel and proclaim their salvation to them.

Isaiah 65 tells us that God’s answer to Isaiah’s intercession for Israel will be to reveal the gospel to the gentiles so that they can minister to and serve Israel. Isaiah is predicting deep connection between the gentiles and Israel as a result of the Great Commission. Paul’s argument in Romans 10:19-21, from the prophecies of the Old Testament, is that the gentiles play a significant role in bringing Israel to salvation. Therefore, Israel will not be saved as a nation until there is a gentile church that is substantial enough to minster to her in the nations and to provoke her to return to God.

Romans 10 is Paul’s biblical explanation for his divine commission to go to the gentiles. He had great anguish to see Israel come into her promises (Romans 9:1-3), however he understood from the Scripture that Israel would come into her promises by being provoked by a gentile church in every nation (Romans 10:14-21), therefore Paul was laboring among the gentiles for the sake of the nations and Israel. In other words, Paul is revealing that the Great Commission in the nations is ultimately designed to bring Israel into her promises.

In Paul’s generation, there was not a gentile remnant in the nations who loved Jesus and could provoke Israel to jealousy, so the most effective way for Paul to labor for the salvation of all of Israel was for him to labor among the gentiles until they were able to provoke Israel to jealousy. As Paul labored among the gentiles, his heart grew with deep love and affection for them and Paul’s burden for Israel was expanded to include Israel and the nations. In many cases we now have a burden for the nations, but need the Lord to expand our hearts with a burden for Israel’s salvation.

Paul expressed his anguish specifically for his Jewish people (Romans 9:1-3), but deep in that anguish is something even larger than the salvation of Israel. Paul knew the Scriptures well enough to know that the salvation of all Israel was the grand climax to this age and the event that would catapult this age in to the Messianic age – the time when Jesus would rule over the nations from Zion.

Paul understood that the return of Jesus and His rule over the nations was inseparably bound to the salvation of Israel. He knew Jesus had warned the Jews that He would not enter Jerusalem as its King until He was welcomed by Israel (Matthew 23:39).

While we do not want to minimize Paul’s pain for his Jewish kinsmen, there is more at work in Paul’s apostolic heart than the salvation of Israel. Paul is working backwards from the Scripture in order to understand everything that is necessary to complete the mission in this age and prepare the earth for the return of Jesus. Paul’s burden drove him into the Scriptures, under the anguish of God, to see what was required for Israel to be saved. As he searched the Scriptures, Paul discovered the glory of the Great Commission. The nations would have to hear the gospel before Israel was saved and this task had to be finished for the salvation of Israel and for the ultimate goal of this age – the return of Jesus.

The burden for Israel’s salvation is not just a burden for Israel; it is a burden for the fulfillment of all of God’s promises. It is a groan for the end of the age and the redemption of the earth. This is why Paul’s teaching on the groaning of the Spirit, creation, and men for full redemption led him into his explanation of the requirement of Israel’s salvation. Israel must be saved if our groaning is to end and our full salvation is to come. If we are in tune with God’s redemptive plan, we are in a groan for Israel’s salvation knowing it is a required part of God’s plan to restore all creation.

22For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. 23And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies…26Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. (Romans 8:22-23, 26 ESV)

Right now the salvation of Israel is the chief obstacle that must be removed for our groaning to end. How is that obstacle removed? By the Great Commission. The good news of the gospel must touch every nation and in turn also bring Israel back to her God.

Paul’s Mission

Paul did not labor among the gentiles because Israel’s promises were irrelevant; he labored among the gentiles because he recognized that the Great Commission was God’s predetermined plan to save his people. Romans 10 is Paul’s most concise overview of his understanding of the mission to the gentiles and of his own apostolic call. When Paul finishes his survey of the mission, He is stunned by the wisdom of God in intertwining the nations in Israel’s salvation.

33Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! 34“For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” (Romans 11:33–34 ESV)

Understanding the mission of Romans 10:19-21 is what helps us better understand Paul’s emphasis on the universal nature of the gospel in Romans 10:9-13.

9because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. 11For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” 12For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. 13For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Romans 10:9–13 ESV)

Paul emphasizes the universal nature of salvation because he understood, from the Scripture, that the gentiles must receive Israel’s spiritual inheritance in such a substantial way that it provokes Israel. If the gentiles are going to receive something that provokes Israel, then they must be reconciled to God apart from the covenant of law made with Israel.

The law was Israel’s tutor, but the law, in Deuteronomy 32:21 already tells us that God is going to open a door of salvation that is beyond the law – a door so wide that it can be received by the gentiles and so substantial that, when the gentiles receive it, it will make Israel jealous because they see their spiritual inheritance being received and enjoyed among the gentiles – those born outside the law and the covenants.

Therefore the gentiles receiving the gospel freely is not to be understood as the end of God’s unique purposes for Israel or the fulfillment of his promises to her, but rather as the unforeseen and shocking means by which God will bring Israel into her inheritance. God loves Israel deeply and will do everything He promised in accordance with her divine election as a people, but He embedded a glorious mystery in the Torah – Israel’s promises and salvation would be inseparably bound to gentiles in the nations obtaining their promises.

God’s plan will bring all the nations to humility. Gentiles are called to submit to the God of Israel and to recognize God’s election of Israel. At the same time, Israel is going to hear good news about her Messiah from gentiles. Gentiles must humble themselves to embrace Israel’s God while Israel has to be humble and receive the word about her God from the gentiles.

Paul’s Warnings

In Romans 11, Paul gives very specific warnings concerning arrogance, pride, and ignorance. He anticipates that his summary of the mission to the gentiles will be misunderstood by gentiles who have no natural affection for Israel and will be tempted to see the blessing they are receiving through Jesus as a statement that God is no longer committed to Israel’s promises. These warnings are sobering and essential to understand, especially if we are on the threshold of being able to finish the mission to the gentiles.

Paul emphasizes that God has not cast off His people. It may appear this way for a season, but this is only because the gospel must spread among the gentiles to fulfill God’s plan of bringing Israel to her salvation.

1I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! For I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. 2God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. (Romans 11:1–2a ESV)

If God has not rejected Israel than this makes Israel a missional subject and a missional priority. Israel can only come into her calling through the gospel, and that’s why Paul makes this point. They have not been rejected, however they must receive the gospel. He expects the gentiles to respond to this by continuing to preach the gospel to the Jewish people.

Paul also uses the story of Elijah to make a crucial warning:

2…Or do you not know what the Scripture says of Elijah, how he pleads with God against Israel, saying, 3“Lord, they have killed Your prophets and torn down Your altars, and I alone am left, and they seek my life”? 4But what does the divine response say to him? “I have reserved for Myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal.” 5Even so then, at this present time there is a remnant according to the election of grace. (Romans 11:2–5 NKJV)

Elijah was in such despair that he believed that he alone was faithful among all of Israel. Paul tells us that God counted this as intercession against Israel. Elijah did not perceive the righteous remnant in the nation. Paul warns us against considering the entire nation to be apostate. Paul knew that if the gentiles considered all of Israel to be apostate that it would become a breeding ground for arrogance and even anti-Semitism towards the Jews.

Paul reminds us that God, in His kindness towards Israel, maintains a remnant by His own grace. This remnant is a witness in every generation that God has not abandoned Israel’s promises or Israel’s future. Just as the open door of salvation to the gentiles brings humility to the Jews so too this Jewish remnant keeps the gentiles in humility.

Paul reminds us to be sober because Israel’s resistance to the gospel is not simply the “ignorance” of the Jews – it is a divinely orchestrated event. Therefore, we should tremble before it, understand the things it sets into motion, and understand how it ends.

7What then? Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking. The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened, 8as 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.” (Romans 11:7–8 ESV)  

Paul repeats the conclusion he summarized in Romans 10:19-21. The gospel has gone to the gentiles because God has determined that Israel will be brought into her salvation through the provocation of the gentiles. In other words, He wants to save Israel through the Great Commission.

11So 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…13Now I am speaking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch then as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I magnify my ministry 14in order somehow to make my fellow Jews jealous, and thus save some of them. (Romans 11:11, 13–14 ESV)

18do not be arrogant toward the branches. If you are, remember it is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you. (Romans 11:18 ESV)

Paul ministers to the gentiles and magnifies his ministry, because the Great Commission is God’s plan to save the nations and Israel. Paul does not have to choose between God’s plan for Israel and His plan for the nations. The Great Commission will bring both into their promises. This is why Paul is laboring among the gentiles both for the sake of the gentiles and to fulfill both Deuteronomy 32 and Isaiah 65.

Paul summarizes the prophetic hope of Israel – a day is coming when all of Israel is saved and it will be the dawn of the restoration of all creation. The salvation of Israel will be the answer to the deep groaning of Romans 8:18-25.

12Now 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!..15For if their rejection means the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance mean but life from the dead? (Romans 11:12, 15 ESV)

Paul is stunned at God’s wisdom. If God can work such unexpected good out of Israel’s fall, how much more good will He work when the time comes to fulfill all the promises He made?

Paul’s Conclusion

We can summarize Paul’s understanding of Israel by summarizing Romans 11:

  1. Israel is not cast away. All that the prophets prophesied about Israel will come to pass.

1I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! For I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. 2God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew… (Romans 11:1–2 ESV)

  1. The gentiles must provoke Israel for Israel to come into her salvation.

11So 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…14in order somehow to make my fellow Jews jealous, and thus save some of them. (Romans 11:11, 14 ESV)

  1. Israel’s salvation will usher in the dawn of the Messianic age.

12Now 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!..15For if their rejection means the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance mean but life from the dead? (Romans 11:12, 15 ESV)

  1. The gentile church cannot be ignorant of this mystery. If we are ignorant, we will not understand the ultimate goal of the gospel mission and will fall short of the goal of the Great Commission.

25Lest you be wise in your own sight, I do not want you to be unaware of this mystery, brothers… (Romans 11:25a ESV)

  1. Paul gives a grand conclusion to the mission to the gentiles in Romans 11:25-26. God has a brilliant plan to bring together the salvation of the Jews and the gentiles. The Great Commission is going to result in the “fullness of the gentiles” (Revelation 5:9; 7:9) and the salvation of all Israel.

25Lest you be wise in your own sight, I do not want you to be unaware of this mystery, brothers: a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. 26And in this way all Israel will be saved, as it is written, “The Deliverer will come from Zion, he will banish ungodliness from Jacob”; (Romans 11:25–26 ESV)

If we are ignorant, we will also become wise in our own opinion, which, in context, means having an inflated view of the gentile church and an attitude of arrogance, ignorance, or animosity towards Israel. One expression of this is a Great commission focus on the nations that misses the fact that the Great Commission is designed by God to redeem the nations and Israel. Paul understood his own apostolic ministry in light of the Great Commission and we should recognize how Paul applied the Scriptures to understand the mission of God. He recognized God’s redemptive story and embraced missions strategies according to that story. We are called to do the same.

Like Paul, we should long for the salvation of our people but also recognize that God has woven together a global story in which the salvation of people groups depends on other people groups. We are all deeply interconnected. The salvation of our own people group will depend on the obedience of other people groups to play their part in the global mission of God and visa-versa. We are all interconnected and interdependent. The pattern for Israel and the nations is the pattern for the earth. Like Paul, we need God to expand our vision for our people and the nations because God’s plan for Israel and the nations reveals that the salvation of our people is connected to the salvation of others.

Like Paul as we labor for the Great Commission it should cause our hearts to explode in worship:

33Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! 34“For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” 35“Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?” (Romans 11:33–35 ESV)

The Great Commission is the Means of Israel’s Salvation

In Romans 9-11 Paul reveals his understanding of Israel’s present and her future. Paul introduces the Great Commission as God’s solution to the salvation of Israel. The Great Commission does not represent a shift away from Israel’s salvation instead it is a glorious commandment to carry the good news into the nations which will ultimately result in Israel’s salvation.

Paul would say that the Great Commission does not replace Israel, instead it saves Israel. Just because Paul was commissioned to go to the gentiles does not mean that God forgot Israel. On the contrary, it is precisely what must happen to fulfill God’s plan.

[1] Johannes P. Louw and Eugene Albert Nida, vol. 1, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains, electronic ed. of the 2nd edition. (New York: United Bible Societies, 1996), 313.

[2] Gerhard Kittel, Gerhard Friedrich and Geoffrey William Bromiley, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1985), 673.

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