When the Fullness Comes

Addressing the rejection of the gospel by ethnic Israel, in the first century, the Apostle Paul wrote:
Again I ask, Did they stumble so as to fall beyond recovery? Not at all! Rather, because of their transgressions, salvation has come to the Gentiles to make Israel envious. But if their transgression means riches for the world, and their loss means riches for the Gentiles, how much greater riches will their fullness bring. (Romans 11:11-12)
Have you seriously pondered the "much greater riches" argument of Paul in these words? How often do you consider verse 23 which speaks of God "grafting them in again" at a future point? These arguments are meant to stimulate your hope. They should fill you with confidence as you pray for the prosperity of God's work in the world. They ought to create utter amazement at the prospect of what God may yet do for both His ancient people Israel and the Gentile nations.

What really is the future of this little planet? Will human civilisation end with a nuclear holocaust destroying life as we know it? Will societies collapse or the church be reduced to a tiny group with no effect upon the masses of perishing people? Is the pessimism of much twentieth century prophetic emphasis correct? Will the church end in disarray and powerlessness? Or does this text encourage us to think differently?

A strong hope

The thought of Puritan Thomas Goodwin is enlightening in regard to our question. He was confident of a different end to this age when he wrote, "There will come a time when the generality of mankind, both Jew and Gentile, shall come to Jesus Christ. He hath had but little takings of the world yet, but he will have before he hath done." Or consider the view of Thomas Brooks, another Puritan divine, who said, "There will come a time when in this world holiness shall be more general, and more eminent, than ever it hath been since Adam fell in paradise." Or ponder the hope of James Renwick, who wrote in a time when Scotland was actually seeing revival, "There have been great and glorious days of the gospel in this land; but they have been small in comparison of what shall be."

This same hope fuelled the heart fires of godly David Brainerd in America, who wrote, "I had a strong hope, that God would 'bow the heavens and come down' and do some marvellous work among the Heathen." Do you have such a hope?

The basis for this kind of thinking about revival, over the centuries, has almost always been Paul's words in Romans 11. But is there really an exegetical basis for these conclusions and for particular hope of great revival? I believe so.

In the preceding verses of Romans 11 Paul's thesis is apparent. Although Israel as a whole had been disobedient, a remnant still remained and this proved that God had not cast off His people entirely. This rejection was not complete. In Romans 11:1ff. we learn that this rejection is not final either.

The question the text poses is: "Did [Israel] stumble so as to fall beyond recovery?" The answer is in the strongest possible expression, translated elsewhere as "God forbid" (cf. 6:2), or "May it never be!" The mass of ethnic Israel did stumble (cf. 9:32,33) and this fall had immense consequences for Israel. The question here is one of purpose and the purpose in view is plainly God's sovereign purpose in grace. The "fall" here would best be understood by the words "their trespass". What is in view clearly is Israel's rejection of Jesus as their Messiah. But this rejection actually brought salvation to the Gentiles, especially after 70 AD.

But if this is all you see in verse 11 you miss an important element of what Paul is saying. The salvation of the Gentiles is actually for a greater end, namely to "provoke jealousy" in Israel so that ethnic Jews might yet be saved.

John Murray, in his important commentary on Romans, writes, "The ethnic distinction between the Gentiles and Israel appearing earlier in these chapters (cf. 9:25,26,30,31; 10:19,20) is here again brought to the forefront. The saving design contemplated in 'to provoke them to jealousy' has in view, therefore, the salvation of Israel in their distinct racial identity."

It is true, as Murray concludes, that in the church there is no longer Jew and Gentile but "it does not follow that Israel no longer fulfils any particular design in the realisation of God's world-wide saving purpose."

God's ultimate purpose

But what does envy have to do with God's purpose? The idea seems to be this: ethnic Israel, observing the blessing of God upon the Gentiles in the gospel of Messiah, will be moved at some future time to desire ("become envious") the Lord Jesus Christ as their own Messiah. We can all agree that this has not yet happened on any large scale, though it appears that Jews have come to believe the gospel on an almost unprecedented scale in recent days.

In verse 12 this theme is elaborated further as Paul speaks of the "riches of the world" coming through this purpose of God in the counsel of His sovereign will. The "fullness" here stated is a reference to the fullness of Israel as a people. Says John Murray once again, "The stumbling was theirs, theirs was the trespass, and theirs the loss. The fullness, therefore, can have no other reference." But what is "the fullness" exactly? The term has several meanings biblically. Whatever the word means elsewhere, here it clearly stands in sharp contrast with "the loss" in previous statements. "Fullness" conveys the idea of completeness. I agree with Murray who adds, "Nothing less than a restoration of Israel as a people to faith, privilege, and blessing can satisfy the terms of this passage ... The 'fullness' of Israel, with the implications stated above, is presupposed and from it is drawn the conclusion that the fullness of Israel will involve for the Gentiles a much greater enjoyment of gospel blessing that that occasioned by Israel's unbelief." The Gentiles, who have experienced the blessings of the gospel during this period of Israel's apostasy, will be blessed beyond any measure of previous blessing. But when? At the time when Israel on a large scale is brought to Messiah.

Now this text, it must be quickly admitted, does not plainly tell us how this will happen. But we do know it will come through the preaching of the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. The text does not, furthermore, tell us when we should expect this to happen. We are within safe bounds, therefore, when we suggest that whatever these enlarged blessings will ultimately be, the 'expansion of the success attending the gospel and the kingdom' is in view (Murray).

A whimper or a bang?

It is for these reasons that I, along with generations of Bible students, believe that this Gospel Age will include a large scale turning to Messiah by a considerable number of Jewish people. This turning, in God's purpose, will result in the pouring out of manifold mercies of revival upon the world-wide church. This prospect of revival, in God's sovereign timing, is a source of immense encouragement that needs to be powerfully reintroduced to the church in these times.

Whatever one's position regarding the millennial reign of Christ, this interpretation of Romans 11 will hold up under careful scrutiny. This is one reason why this understanding has been expressed in numerous commentaries, even though Gentiles have sometimes been slow to respond to their Jewish neighbours in the light of it.

C.H. Spurgeon held to this view of Romans 11:11,12 and had great hope for the coming days of the church as this present age drew to its conclusion. He wrote:
David was not a believer in the theory that the world will grow worse and worse, and that the dispensation will wind up with general darkness, and idolatry. Earth's sun is to go down amid twofold night if some of our prophetic brethren are to be believed. Not so do we expect, but we look for a day when the dwellers in all lands shall learn righteousness, shall trust in the Saviour, shall worship thee alone, O God, "and shall glorify thy name". The modern notion has greatly dampened the zeal of the church for missions, and the sooner it is shown to be unscriptural the better for the cause of God. It neither consorts with prophecy, honours God, nor inspires the church with ardour. Far hence be it driven. (Treasury of David, from an exposition of Psalm 86:9)
This type of radical and believing hope characterised the church in its greatest eras of missionary vision and revival. I pray that it might be used in no small measure to help recall a new generation to the hope expressed in it. It is too easy, in our day of man-centred, market-driven, super-churches, to miss out on what God is truly doing among the Jews and to miss the connection between this vital work and the church's age-old hope of massive revival. Let us be faithful in this day of small things, sowing in hope and looking, in faithful long-term perspective, for the greater blessings to come.

John H. Armstrong is director of Reformation and Revival Ministries, and editor of Reformation & Revival Journal, a quarterly publication. He was a pastor for twenty years and now travels internationally preaching and encouraging the church in doctrinal and practical reformation. He is the author of several books, including the recent titles, Can Fallen Pastors Be Restored? (Moody, 1995) and A View of Rome (Moody, 1995). He lives in Carol Stream, Illinois with his wife of twenty-five years, Anita, and their two children, Matthew and Stacy. He serves CWI on the North American Advisory Group.

This article appeared in our Autumn 1995 Herald

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