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Still How Much More...

November 15, 2015, More from this speaker 更多关于此讲员: Rev Enoch Keong (Romans 11:11-24) For more of this sermon series 更多关于此讲道系列: Romans
Preached at a Bilingual (Mandarin-English, Sunday) service

Tags: Romans, 罗马书

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Bible passage (ESV) of the sermon can be found at the bottom of the page.

Date: 15 & 22 Nov 2015
Preacher: Rev Enoch
Title: Still how much more…

Are we special in the eyes of God? If our answer is a ‘yes’, then let’s try a slightly more difficult question, to what extend are we special? I am sorry for not being able to hear our answers if we did entertain my question. All I can say is that we may get a letter from the apostle Paul if he is still up and walking, and if the our answers to the second question is off the mark somehow.

The scripture verses we just read and the earlier 10 verses that Rev Xiaohui expounded upon last week are in fact portions of Paul’s letter sent to a sub-group of Christian in the Roman church, who know that they are special but had an incorrect understanding as to the extent in which they are special. The Roman Gentile Christians back then thought that since it was they, and not most of the Jews that were saved by the gospel, God must have therefore rejected the Jews as the people of God. In place of the Jews are the ones who are saved by the gospel: the non-Jews, the Gentiles, the new and special group of people in the eyes of God.

Friends, it is only right to think that we are special in God’s sight, but this sort of thinking, if we are less careful, can be misconstrued as it is us only who are special in God’s sight and not the others. We see this in history. Israel as a nation was the first to have harbored such a mindset, and now the Gentiles Christians. And, we know, that we ourselves are equally capable of being at rest with the thought that we are special, and think no more about others around us.

To address this incorrect mindset, Paul first asked in Romans 11:1 if God has rejected his people, and he gave there an emphatic ‘no’ as the answer. In verse 11, he pushes the issue further by asking if the Jews have stumbled to the point of beyond recovery. And the answer is again, “absolutely not!”

Paul didn’t just assert, he explain his assertion by giving 2 explanations. First, he referred to Torah to say that Gentile salvation was to promote jealousy among the unbelieving Jews, “They have made me jealous with false gods, enraging me with their worthless gods; so I will make them jealous with a people they do not recognize, with a nation slow to learn I will enrage them.” (Deut 32:21)

Paul is saying here that God did not choose to see Israel’s sin as being the reason to terminate the relationship with them, but instead as a starting point of a process to lead the unbelieving back to his blessings. This is something that Roman Christians failed to see. As for us, we know these longsuffering and loving aspects of God; we don’t actually need Paul to remind us. Yet, why is it that we can–at the same time–be at rest with the thought that we are special and then think no more about others around us?

To further address the Gentiles’ incorrect mindset, Paul went on with his second explanation by using a metaphor: Gentiles believers are like wild olive branches grafted into the cultivated olive tree, says Paul. The metaphor is apt because the Gentiles had failed to see that their faith was dependent on the root; they have failed to see that Gentile Christians can become God’s people only because the Patriarch Abraham first responded to God in faith, and that theirs is a continuation of that legacy of faith. In other words, Paul is saying that “Christian Gentiles’ salvation is inseparable from that of Israel! ... [And Paul is somehow implying that ultimately Jews and Gentiles] are saved together or not at all.” (Keck 271) [1]

The two explanations total up to say one thing: God is sticking to plan A, which is to save the world, including the original elects. The rejection of the Jews, if the Gentiles Christians had taken greater care to examine, was in fact God’s mercy and kindness at work. God is prepared change the action steps based on human’s response, in working out his salvific plan. He will exercise kindness and harshness as the situation would call for to bring Plan A to completion. And since that’s the way God operates, Paul says the right attitude would be one of fear instead of arrogance, and the way forward can only be to continue in God’s kindness, which is Paul’s way of saying to continue or to remain in faith.

Paul’s encouragement here has actually generated quite a fair bit of concerns, worries and uncertainties among Christians. The need for him to encourage Christians to continue in faith seems to imply one can end up as the next drop out, as in losing one’s salvation.

Do we ask about the possibility of losing our salvation? My cell group on Friday evening has just raised their concerns on this subject. What does the bible has to say? Firstly, Paul does warn about losing one’s salvation, and not only in Romans. He warned the Corinthians about losing their salvation should they practice idolatry and sexual immorality (1 Cor 10:1-12). He warned the Galatian church against undergoing circumcision, for Christ would no longer benefit them if they should do that (Gal 5:2-4). He warned the church in Thessalonica against giving up because of afflictions (1 Thes 3:1-5). So, our salvation is at stake?

N. T. Wright, the New Testament scholar and retired Anglican Bishop, has this say concerning the subject: He points out that Paul in the Book of Romans has also assured believers about sharing the glory of God (5:2; 8:30). It would then be rather strange for Paul to give assurance in one moment and warns about losing faith and salvation in another. Wright therefore thinks Paul was trying to warn the church as a whole against boasting, which is the very blunder committed by both the Jewish and Gentile groups in the Roman church, for a church as a bad witness might not last (cf. Rev 2-3).

Well, that’s the way biblical scholars struggle with the issue. I personally struggled on it some 15 years ago. I believe I did a few things back then in trying to find a proper understanding concerning the subject, but I finally ended the struggle with a rather cartoony theological reflection, which I thought of sharing with us this morning. One morning, when I was on my way to work, I suddenly had this picture of a gigantic name list in the form of a billboard in my mind. The billboard looks like the big board we find at Changi airport displaying the fight status, but bigger. On the billboard are names of people who are saved. The next thing that came to mind was that my name appeared on the board and it disappeared and then it reappeared. The picture in my mind just doesn’t make good Christian sense. Because if I were to keep falling in and out of the list because of my own faith and life choices, then Christ death would appear to be rather inconsequential, or ‘boh power’. Cartoony theological reflection, yes, but Christ’s death to have no efficacy and my choices would have a bigger say than the death of God the son, no way. So while the biblical scholars continue their debate, I choose to believe what the Presbyterian Church believes, that we are once saved, always saved. And today’s passage tells us that we are saved by being grafted into the cultivated olive tree.

Friends, as Christian we may be very used to listening and quoting this metaphor. But people are well versed with planting of olives would tell us that Paul is not making sense. What farmers would do is to graft cultivated branches into wild olive tree stems, and not the way that Paul puts it. The reasons are fairly simple, Wild olive trees are strong, so the cultivated branches when grafted into it can rely on its strength. Secondly, Wild olive trees are known for not being able to produce good fruits. So it doesn’t make good sense to graft the wild olive branches into the cultivated tree.

But I suppose this is the very point that Paul seeks to make with the metaphor. Just as wild olives branches are grafted in not because of their desirability, Gentiles Christian, then and now, are included into the kingdom not because we are so special, but because God is still sticking to plan A, on saving the world and the original elects. And by his grace we are given a part to play in his grand plan. The arrogant Gentiles Christians needed to hear this message and it also a good reminder for people today who are getting ever more sophisticated and better equipped.

But what is our part? Allow me to reiterate, to continue in God’s kindness, to remain and stand firm in faith, to be shaped and reshaped through continuing in faith, for by doing so we witness to the goodness and grace of God.

But let’s be honest, 2000 years has passed, Christian churches have stood and some have become heritage properties, still we don’t see the grand plan coming to completion. Will plan A ever see success?

A resounding ‘yes’ from Paul. ‘Yes’ because the Christian God is able and willing to save. Paul stresses this understanding through using repeatedly a phrase to describe what God had done and will do. Allow me to refer us to a few verses:

“For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, how much more, since we have been reconciled, will we be saved by his life?” (Rom 5:10)

“For if the many died through the transgression of the one man, how much more did the grace of God and the gift by the grace of the one man Jesus Christ multiply to the many!” (Rom 5.15b)

“For if, by the transgression of the one man, death reigned through the one, how much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one, Jesus Christ!” (Rom 5:17)

In today’s passage

“Now if their transgression means riches for the world and their defeat means riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their full restoration bring?” (Rom 11:12)

And finally,

“For if you were cut off from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these natural branches be grafted back into their own olive tree?” (Rom 11:24)

Grafting dropped off, dead and dried up branches back to its tree sound only more absurd than to refer to Gentile Christians as wild olive branches being grafted. But that’s the project God has undertaken and is set to see it finished.

Again, our part is to continue in faith.

And our faith, understood in light of God’s grand plan, carries a significance and meaningfulness that is beyond us. Friends, we are here today perhaps after a busy and tiring week. We might have received recently some faith trying news concerning ours or our loved ones’ health, or employment situation, or some other areas in life. Whether if we are the ones currently going through all these, I believe we would agree that weariness, weakness and difficulties has that tendency of making people question the meaningfulness of pressing on in life and in our faith journey.

Why? Because man has a need for significance, which is commonly associated with ability, status and even enjoyment, and setbacks in term of health or otherwise may cause one to question one’s significance. Lives have to be lived with a sense of significance. And so, we see a person who has big things to handle, handling the big things. And a person who only has small things to deal with tends to make the things sound big, “I want my char kuay teow, now!” “I need the Wi-Fi connection!”

But brothers and sisters in Christ, we who have experienced the kindness of God are called to live lives not by worrying day in and day out about our and our families’ needs and wants–although it is only right that we do our best to meet these needs. Our lives, our life lived by faith, carries inherently a much greater significance. Our life of faith serves as signposts for the lost that God is still calling to come home to him. Our, being in faith and living by faith, is for our gain, and also for God’s use to fulfil his purpose of salvation.

If we came in this morning asking, “What has been installed for me here today?” May we walk out with a much broader perspective having heard Paul’s words, perhaps we can ask a question such as, “How would God want to use my life of faith to serve as a signpost for him?”

[1]Keck, L. E., Abingdon New Testament Commentaries: Romans, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005. 271

Romans 11:11–24 (Listen)

11 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.

17 But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, although a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing root of the olive tree, 18 do not be arrogant toward the branches. If you are, remember it is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you. 19 Then you will say, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” 20 That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but fear. 21 For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you. 22 Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God's kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off. 23 And even they, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again. 24 For if you were cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these, the natural branches, be grafted back into their own olive tree.

(ESV)