No Hopeless Cases
June 12, 2007
I first met Jacob Gartenhaus about forty years ago. When I was a teenager growing up in a small town in Alabama, our pastor invited Dr. Gartenhaus to speak to us on the subject of Jewish evangelism. It was the first time I had ever heard a Jewish Christian speak. It was also the first time I had heard anybody discuss the subject of Jewish evangelism. It was all new and different to me because I only knew of one Jewish family in our community. Years later when I went to college in Chattanooga, Tennessee, I discovered that the headquarters of the International Board of Jewish Missions was located across the street from the campus. Dr. Jacob Gartenhaus was the head of the organization. He had been raised in an Orthodox Jewish home where he had been taught the Old Testament and the Talmud. After coming to Christ through a series of remarkable miracles, he was set on fire to reach his countrymen for Jesus Christ. He started the first Southern Baptist effort to do Jewish Evangelism. Later he began an independent work. Because he was just across the street from the college, he often spoke in chapel. During his long and fruitful ministry, He wrote a number of books, including “Unto his Own,” “Traitor? A Jew, a Book, a Miracle,” and “Christ Killers, Past and Present.”
One thing Dr. Gartenhaus said has stayed with me across the years. “If you win a Jew, you win a missionary.” It is so hard for them to come to Christ because of their background, the work is so difficult and so time-consuming, when they finally come to Jesus Christ, their eyes are opened, the burden is lifted, and suddenly they are set free from years of trying to get to heaven by good works. When Jews come to Christ, they embrace him as a countryman and as a friend. That one thought was the animating vision of Jacob Gartenhaus, and it is the vision of all those who today labor in the field of Jewish evangelism. Win a Jew and you win a missionary.
In two thousand years of Christian history, there is no better example of that principle than the Apostle Paul. He is Exhibit A of the transforming power of Jesus Christ. Dr. Gartenhaus liked to say, “If you want to know what happens when a Jew comes to Jesus Christ, read the New Testament. Read the book of Acts. Read the Epistles of Paul because those are the stories of a man who once was a persecutor who became an evangelist of the gospel of Jesus Christ.” That is why whenever Dr. Gartenhaus preached, he always came back to Romans 1:16, “to the Jew first,” because he always believed that if you could just reach enough Jewish people, they would get on fire and reach the rest of the world for Jesus Christ.
We can see the truth of those words as we study Romans 9-11, three great chapters written by a man who was an opponent who became a proponent. A terrorist who became an evangelist. A persecutor who became a preacher. In these chapters we discover the heart of the Apostle Paul for his own people. This is the man who said, “My heart’s desire and cry to God is for my brethren according to the flesh, that they might be saved.” He even went so far as to say, “I would be willing to go to hell if I could, if that were possible, in order to bring my countrymen to Jesus Christ” (see Romans 10:1 & 9:1-3). As a Jewish believer in Jesus, Paul wrestled mightily with this question: If Jesus is the Messiah, why did so many of his own people reject him? That same question can be asked today because the situation is largely unchanged.
Romans 11 focuses on Israel’s future in the plan of God. Here Paul wrestles with the implications of Israel’s rejection of Christ. Has God rejected Israel because Israel rejected Christ? (see verse 1). The answer is no, God forbid, by no means. And Paul offers two answers:
Answer # 1: Israel’s rejection is not total (vv. 1-10).
Answer # 2: Israel’s rejection is not final (vv. 11-24).
I. Three Results of Israel’s Present Rejection
In this sermon we are looking at the first part of his second answer: If Israel’s rejection is not final, what does it mean for us today? Verses 11-16 answer that question three ways.
Result #1: God has now opened salvation to the Gentiles.
“Again I ask: Did they stumble so as to fall beyond recovery? Not at all! Rather, because of their transgression, salvation has come to the Gentiles to make Israel envious” (v. 11). Although Jesus was a Jew, and all his apostles were Jewish, and the early church was 100% Jewish, only a tiny percentage of the Jewish population in the first century become followers of Christ. Eventually the church became overwhelmingly Gentile as it spread beyond Galilee and Judea to the nations of the world. That was inevitable simply because the world population is overwhelmingly Gentile. That’s what Paul means when he says that salvation has come to the Gentiles. When Paul refers to “their transgression,” he means that the Jewish nation (through its leaders) rejected Christ, putting him to death on the cross. Because of their transgression, because they said no, God has now opened the door to the rest of us. It is as if God had said to the Jewish people, “Alright, I am going to give you a chance. I am going to give you Jesus. I am going to give you the prophets. I am going to give you the Old Testament. You are going to have the first opportunity for salvation.” They said, “We don’t want it.” God said, “Alright, if you don’t want it, I am going to take the message of my love, and I am going to give it to somebody who does want it. If you won’t listen, I’ll give it to somebody who will listen. If you won’t pay attention, then I’ll give it to somebody who will pay attention.”
It reminds me of the story that Jesus told in Luke 14:15-23 about a certain rich man who invited many guests to come a great banquet at his house. But one by one the guests made excuses. “No, I’m sorry. I’ve got to check my fields.” “No, I’m sorry. I just got married.” “No, I’m sorry. I’m too busy.” No, I can’t, I can’t, I can’t. They all had their reasons for saying no. All the excuses and all the reasons. So what did the rich man do? He said, “Go out and find the lame, the halt, the blind, the infirm and the poor. Invite them to come.” So they went out and found all the poor people, they found the homeless, they found the blind and the lame and they brought them in. Still there were empty seats. The rich man said, “I don’t want any empty seats at my banquet table. So go out and compel them to come in. Go up and down the highways and the hedges and find the people. I want my banquet table filled with people.” This is the world as we know it. In this present age the table has been spread, the gospel has been offered to the Jewish people, and by and large they have offered reasons why they want no part of it.
It is as if God said, “Well, I’m going to tell you what we’re going to do. Let’s go out and get the riff-raff and bring them on in. Let’s get the people who don’t really belong. I want my table filled up.” Brothers and sisters, as shocking as it may be to us, we are the riff-raff. The table wasn’t set up for us in the beginning. The table was set up for the people of Israel and when they said no, that opened up some room for us and we just came in. We have been eating at the banquet table ever since then.
Result #2: God uses Gentile salvation to provoke envy in the Jews.
“I am talking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch as I am the apostle to the Gentiles, I make much of my ministry in the hope that I may somehow arouse my own people to envy and save some of them” (vv. 13-14). This is an amazing thought. Salvation has come to the Gentiles in order to make Israel envious. What does that mean? One of the problems of the Jewish people, according to the Bible, is that they were too proud to bow the knee. They were hooked on their own religious activity so they said, “Well, we don’t want this man dying on the cross, that’s humiliating, that’s degrading. We’re not going to follow a man who was crucified. We want no part of this.” They thought they were above it. So now God has gone after people like you and me, and he has said, “Come on in.” Here we see the heart of the divine plan. God intends that we would live lives of such great beauty and holiness and lives that are so utterly transformed that our Jewish friends would see us and go, “Wow! I’m missing something.”
Think of it this way. God wants to use your life to make Jesus beautiful so that your unbelieving friends will look at you and become thirsty for the Water of Life and hungry for the Bread of Life.
Do you make people thirsty for Jesus?
Does your life make anyone hungry to know the Lord?
Do you exhibit such joy that people want to know where it comes from?
A satisfied customer is always the best advertisement for any product. One person whose life has been changed makes more difference than a dozen people who know the right words but lack the inner reality. Oftentimes lost people make excellent theologians because they can spot a phony a mile away, and they know the real deal when they see it. They may not understand the intricacies of salvation, but they will believe a man who says with conviction, “Once I was blind, but now I see,” especially if they knew him when he was still blind.
So God uses the salvation of the Gentiles in order to provoke Jewish people to be hungry for the gospel of Christ. I’ve met Jewish believers in Jesus who said, “I had a friend who witnessed to me and it made me angry. I said, ’Shut up with all this Jesus talk,’ But then they would say, “I could answer the arguments, but I couldn’t answer their life.” Even if people can answer your arguments, they shouldn’t be able to answer your life. Your life ought to be so different and so beautiful that it makes people want to know what makes you tick. So I ask you, “What do you see in your own life? What impact are you having? Are you making people hungry and thirsty for Jesus?”
Result #3: God intends to some day save Israel and thus bring a rich blessing for the whole earth.
“For if their rejection is the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead?” (v. 15) If you think it is good now, imagine what it is going to be like when the Jewish people in great numbers come to Jesus Christ and bow the knee to him. There will be a world-wide party. There will be a celebration that is going to stretch to the ends of the universe because then not only will the prodigal son (the Gentiles) have come home, the elder brother (Israel) will have come home als. Then God is going to have all of his children gathered around his table. As our sons are growing older and moving on with life, I can understand this more and more. When they were younger and all living at home, we took for granted that the whole family would be together at Christmas and Easter and Thanksgiving and during vacation. But as I write these words Josh and Leah are in Chicago, Nick is in Alabama, Mark is in China, and Marlene and I are in Mississippi. It occurred to me recently that the whole family has not been together since last July, and since Mark is coming home from China and getting married next month, and then Josh and Leah are leaving for China in early August, our whole family will be together for only two or three days this year. That’s hard for me to think about, so to be honest, I don’t think about it often.
I remember how my mother said that she and my father never felt like they had to keep their four sons at home forever. They knew we would scatter to the four winds. And truthfully, I’ve done the most scattering of the four sons. Now my sons are following my example so I can hardly complain about it. When I was younger, I never thought much about how much my parents would miss us when we were gone. They didn’t talk about things like that, and then my father died a few weeks after we got married, and everything changed. But I always knew my dad expected his four sons to fly away and explore the world outside the small town where we grew up. In that respect, my parents were ahead of their time. So now my mother and father are both gone, and our boys are getting launched in life. As I sit here typing these words, I am thinking about how proud I am of them and how good it will be for all of us to be together for a few days next month. And that is a portent of things to come. Those moments when we are all together become fewer and fewer as the years pass, and I suppose it must be that way, and who am I to complain since I have done my share of globe-trotting. But oh, how happy will be the day when all our sons (and now Leah and Vanessa too!) will be together for a few brief days. I am fighting back the tears as I write these words, but they are happy tears, if that makes sense.
How wonderful to have your family gathered round the table at last. On earth it doesn’t happen very often. But there is coming a day when all of God’s children will be together around his table forever. In that glad day, we will never say goodbye again. When that day comes, we will sing and laugh and celebrate and we will enjoy each other and together we will praise the name of our God who always planned to have a big family and always intended that one day his family would be together at last. Today we are scattered in many places, and part of the family won’t come to the reunions. They return the invitation with the word “REFUSED” written in big red letters. But it will not be that way forever. God’s plan has always included Israel, and it still includes Israel, and one day the Jewish people will look upon him whom they have pierced, and they will mourn over their sins, and a fountain of salvation will be opened to the whole nation.
That day has not yet come, but it is coming. And what a happy day it will be when God’s ancient people will be raised from the dead spiritually and brought around the table of the Lord to celebrate with all the Gentiles who have been brought in on a free pass by God’s amazing grace. If you think it is good now, think what it will be like when God has all his children around his table. There will be riches and celebration and joy for the whole world. It will be like life from the dead. When a Jew comes to Christ, it’s like a resurrection in front of your very eyes. It is a down payment (like the first fruits offering in the Old Testament) of greater things to come (v. 16).
II. Two Powerful Implications
Implication # 1: Don’t judge God by the things you see around you.
I received an email from a woman who has been witnessing to a Jewish friend for over 30 years. It’s not that her friend is hardened against the gospel. It seems to be more the case that her friend simply isn’t interested in talking about Jesus. She is Jewish, and Jesus is for Christians, not for Jews. The woman who wrote doesn’t wish to offend her friend, but she wants to find a way to share Christ with her. If you go all the way to the bottom line, the problem and the answer both lie inside the heart, and since only God can change the heart (Proverbs 21:1), the ultimate answer lies with him. It is easy to think of some friends who don’t know the Lord and go, “No way. It will never happen.” Don’t be so sure about that. Some of you have been praying for years for your loved ones to come to Christ. Every Sunday for years we received a note in the offering that said, “Pray for my wife’s salvation.” As I write these words, I cannot tell you if his wife has come to Christ or not. But I will tell you something. That man understood that you don’t judge God by what you see in the present.
A person who says No today might say Yes tomorrow. There are no hopeless cases with God. There are no people who are so bad that they are beyond the reach of the grace of Almighty God. Don’t look at how bad things are around you and say, “Well, God has lost the battle.” He hasn’t lost the battle. Don’t give up praying for your friends and loved ones. Don’t judge God by what you see around you.
Implication # 2: God’s grace is far bigger than anything that we could ever imagine.
Sometimes we put God in a box and say, “The neighbor to my left could probably be saved, but the neighbor to my right is a hopeless case.” We usually say that when we judge the sins of one person to be much greater than the sins of another person. If we are honest, we probably like one neighbor a lot more than we like the other one. We may even say to ourselves, “Jimmy is such a louse. I don’t even want to him to be saved. He deserves to go to hell.” We saw a little bit of that after the death of the terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq. Paul Bigley, whose brother Ken was abducted and later beheaded during an operation planned by al-Zarqawi, said, “The man was an animal, and he deserved what he got, and may he rot in hell.” Statements such as that are understandable given a brother’s grief. Most of us might say the same thing if we were in his place. However, we must not let statements of grief determine our theology or the way we view the lost of the world.
Romans 11 reminds us that not only is God’s grace far greater than we can imagine, it is working in ways that would astonish us if we could peek behind the curtain of his eternal purposes. Think of it this way . .
God intends to save some who today are in rebellion against him.
God intends to save some who at this moment deny his existence.
God intends to save some who will soon commit horrible crimes.
God intends to save some who right now refuse to acknowledge Jesus as Lord.
Let me make it stronger than that …
God is going to save those people, and in the end they will be saved. They don’t know it yet, and if you told them today that one day they will be saved, they would laugh in your face. Or perhaps curse you and walk away. But God will not be hindered by the puny unbelief of his own creation.
Not everyone will be saved. Hell exists for a reason, and those who end up there will be there by their own personal choice. No one goes to hell by accident, and no one goes there except sinners who, having rebelled against God Almighty, persistently refuse his offer of salvation through Jesus Christ. There will be no mistaken destinations in eternity. Everyone in heaven will be there by the free grace of God, and everyone in hell will be there because of their rebellion against the Lord.
But God fully intends to populate heaven with multitudes of people (a vast throng no man could number) who today are living in outright rebellion against him. If you ask, “Why would God save people like that?” I answer, “Who else does he have to work with?” Sinners constitute the only available population for heaven, and since sinners are all God has to work with, that’s who he showers his grace upon. It’s not angels who experience the grace of God in salvation (see 1 Peter 1:10-12), but miserable sinners, rejects, rebels, failures, spiritual flunkies, washouts and losers, which ultimately describes the whole human race. And while you’re wondering about al-Zarqawi or John Wayne Gacy or Hitler or whoever tops your personal hit parade of bad guys, take a good look in the mirror. Study the image you see. What were you before God found you and saved you, if not a sinner standing under God’s judgment, desperately in need of a life jacket from heaven to keep you for sinking all the way into hell? Perhaps you need to pray, “Lord, show me the truth about myself.” That’s a dangerous prayer because if you mean it, God will definitely answer it. Go someplace quiet and ask the Lord to reveal to you the truth about yourself. When we pray that way, the answer will begin to come from heaven. We sit and wait and pray for the Holy Spirit to show us our weaknesses, our faults, our mistakes, our bad attitudes, our foolish words, our pride, our arrogance, our need to be in control, our need to run the world, our need to tell others what to do, our desire to have our own way, our anger, our bitterness, our lack of mercy, our lack of love, our lack of compassion. Let me tell you something from personal experience, if you wait long enough, the Lord will always show you the truth about yourself. Apart from God’s grace, it’s not a pretty picture.
God’s grace is much bigger than we will ever understand, and God’s love reaches out to the very ends of the earth. That includes people and nations and tribes that we have written off, God has not written them off. His grace is bigger than anything that we could imagine.
Someone has said that when we get to heaven, there will be three surprises.
First, we will be surprised that some people are not there that we thought would be there.
Second, we will be surprised that some people are there that we never expected to make it.
Third, our greatest surprise will be that we ourselves are there.
Such is the grace of God that surprises us on every level. As Paul shows us in Romans 11, what seems to be a tragedy (Israel’s rejection) in God’s plan comes to a wonderful and unexpected conclusion. Amen.