The jealousy of the Jews and the fullness of the Gentiles

Something jumped out at me several days ago when I was reading Acts 13: it reminded me of Romans 11. And well it should. After all, Acts was written by a fellow who accompanied Paul on numerous missionary journeys and should have been quite in sync with his doctrine and theology.

Interestingly enough, at about the same time I noticed the obvious parallel, my brother-in-law Josh was having an epiphany of his own that was soon manifested in two posts on his site, “Predestination: A Misunderstanding of Jew vs. Gentile In the New Covenant?” and “Predestination Misunderstanding Part II: Vessels of Honor and Destruction“. The subject is clear from his post titles, and they intersect with what I was reading in Acts. Let’s get down to it, shall we?

I have argued elsewhere (as Josh did in the above posts) that God’s purpose in election was not to arbitrarily divide all of humanity into two groups, the saved and the damned, but to further His redemptive purpose in a particular, sharply defined context. One of the great prooftexts of Calvinistic unconditional election/condemnation in Romans 9 concerns the vessels of destruction and honor but is based on a misunderstanding of what was really a temporary first-century, intercovenantal situation. Interestingly enough, Acts 13 hosts the other clincher for so many to adopt a Calvinistic understanding of predestination, verse 48, “…as many as had been destined for eternal life became believers.”

Wow, what a verse. Case closed! How can non-predestinarians get around that? Well, let’s look at the rest of Acts 13, perhaps the most pivotal passage of the whole book.

Romans 9.22-27: What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience the objects of wrath that are made for destruction; and what if he has done so in order to make known the riches of his glory for the objects of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory— including us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles? As indeed he says in Hosea,

“Those who were not my people [the Gentiles] I will call ‘my people,’ and her who was not beloved I will call ‘beloved.’”

“And in the very place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ there they shall be called children of the living God.”

And Isaiah cries out concerning Israel, “Though the number of the children of Israel were like the sand of the sea, only a remnant of them will be saved;

The close of chapter 9 defines the predestination language that precedes it: it’s all a continuous argument. Who are those “objects of wrath”? Half, more or less, of humanity throughout time? We definitely can’t make that claim based on Romans 9, because Paul defines his focus in verses 32 and 33 by asking why Israel after the flesh did not retain their part and parcel status as God’s covenant people.

Why not? Because they did not strive for it on the basis of faith, but as if it were based on works. They have stumbled over the stumbling stone, as it is written, “See, I am laying in Zion a stone that will make people stumble, a rock that will make them fall, and whoever believes in him​f​ will not be put to shame.”

It is the majority of Israel, God’s own people, that He hardened, and for His own purposes. But not all of Israel: after restating the universality of the gospel in chapter 10, Paul continues in 11.1-7:

I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. Do you not know what the scripture says of Elijah, how he pleads with God against Israel? “Lord, they have killed your prophets, they have demolished your altars; I alone am left, and they are seeking my life.” But what is the divine reply to him? “I have kept for myself seven thousand who have not bowed the knee to Baal.” So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace. But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace would no longer be grace.

What then? Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking. The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened

The Calvinist view takes predestination and election as individual in scope and more or less arbitrary in method, while many others have argued that what we have is corporate election (the body of Israel). I think we have something of a hybrid: a more or less corporate condemnation, with individual exemptions. But notice the next section, which is absolutely vital for understanding what’s going on here.

Romans 11.11-16: So I ask, have they stumbled so as to fall? By no means! But through their stumbling​​ salvation has come to the Gentiles, so as to make Israel​​ jealous. Now if their stumbling​​ means riches for the world, and if their defeat means riches for Gentiles, how much more will their full inclusion mean! Now I am speaking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch then as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I glorify my ministry in order to make my own people​ jealous, and thus save some of them. For if their rejection is the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead! If the part of the dough offered as first fruits is holy, then the whole batch is holy; and if the root is holy, then the branches also are holy.

Did you catch that? Two important things we see here:

1) Predestination to destruction has a purpose. Far from arbitrary, it was a means of grace intended to:

a. Allow non-Jews to partake in reconciliation with God
b. Make Israel jealous

2) Predestination to destruction is temporary. It has a time constraint: Paul speaks of a future possibility for the Jews to accept the gospel.

Regarding that future possibility, Paul goes on to say in v 23, “And even those of Israel,​​ if they do not persist in unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again.” This is incredibly significant: once God has stopped hardening the corporate body of Israel, the status quo situation of “believe” rather than “be elect” will be restored.

So we see that this hardening of Israel was to be temporary, whereafter ethnic Jews would be able to believe and be saved. But does Paul give a time frame for the end of that hardening period? He certainly does, in 11.25: “So that you may not claim to be wiser than you are, brothers and sisters,​ I want you to understand this mystery: a hardening has come upon part of Israel, until the full number of the Gentiles has come in.”

Let me summarize a few key points from Romans 9-11 (in logical order).

  • The gospel originated with the Jews.
  • The preaching of the gospel to the Gentiles coincided with the hardening of Israel as a whole.
  • The reconciliation of believing Gentiles to God would be a stumbling block, a point of jealousy for the Jews.
  • The hardening of Israel was temporary, awaiting the conversion of a certain divinely ordained “full number” of Gentiles

Bear that in mind as we turn to Acts 13.

Now, remember that one of the main themes of Acts is the gospel being proclaimed to and received by the Gentiles, and the offense that the gospel was to the Jews. Acts 13 begins with yet more Gentiles being converted, including the proconsul at Salamis (vv 4-12). Later, Paul delivers an impassioned sermon to the Jews at Pisidian Antioch, full of references to the Old Testament: he gave a brief history of the nation of Israel from the Exodus to the Davidic kingdom, and proclaimed that although Jesus fulfilled the hope of Israel, the Jews killed their Messiah. What kind of response did this provoke?

Well, there were many Jews who believed (v 43), and they urged Paul and Barnabas to come back the next week to preach at the synagogue again. When they did, things got interesting.

The next sabbath almost the whole city [the majority of which was Gentile] gathered to hear the word of the Lord. But when the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy; and blaspheming, they contradicted what was spoken by Paul. Then both Paul and Barnabas spoke out boldly, saying, “It was necessary that the word of God should be spoken first to you. Since you reject it and judge yourselves to be unworthy of eternal life, we are now turning to the Gentiles. For so the Lord has commanded us, saying, ‘I have set you to be a light for the Gentiles, so that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.’ ” When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and praised the word of the Lord; and as many as had been destined for eternal life became believers.

Now compare what I underlined in the above passage to my summary of the Romans passages (in narrative order):

  • The reconciliation of believing Gentiles to God would be a stumbling block, a point of jealousy for the Jews.
  • The gospel originated with the Jews.
  • The preaching of the gospel to the Gentiles coincided with the hardening of Israel as a whole.
  • The hardening of Israel was temporary, awaiting the conversion of a certain divinely ordained “full number” of Gentiles

The “full number” of Gentiles was already starting to be filled up. The generation Jesus spoke to that was not to pass away until He returned was nearing its end. The elimination of the Jew/Gentile distinction by fulfilling once and for all the promises of God to Israel and vindicating those awaiting the fullness of a new, better covenant (Jer 31; Heb 8) was completed by the end of the Jewish cultus at the destruction of the Temple in 70. In Revelation’s benediction in chapter 22, we see the situation as it stands following the descent of the Jerusalem from above and the marriage supper:

The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.”

And let everyone who hears say, “Come.”

And let everyone who is thirsty come.

Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.

God’s purpose in election has been fulfilled. All are free to believe and receive the water of life. Praise God for fully accomplishing His redemptive plan for humanity!

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