Romans 11 has some important concepts for us to understand, as it lays out for the Gentiles how Israel fits into the plan of God in the future even though much of Israel rejected the gospel of Christ in the meridian of time.
This chapter is very hard for most Christians to understand. Some choke on the idea that Israel might be converted again. Others are okay with that, but choke on the idea that all Israel will be saved. I think it is worth it to go through the chapter and discuss how the Book of Mormon and the doctrine of scattering and gathering Israel helps us make sense of this chapter.
1 I say then, Hath God cast away his people? God forbid. For I also am an Israelite, of the seed of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin.
2 God hath not cast away his people which he foreknew…
Paul knows God has not entirely cast away His people because some of Israel (including Paul) were converted to Christ. Paul’s case is a brilliant example because as we know, Paul was previously a rabid opponent of the Christians. God could have allowed Paul to go on in his unbelieving condition, but instead He appeared to him to stop his persecutions. God foreknew Paul would be a great instrument in bringing people to Christ.
…Wot ye not what the scripture saith of Elias? how he maketh intercession to God against Israel, saying,
3 Lord, they have killed thy prophets, and digged down thine altars; and I am left alone, and they seek my life.
4 But what saith the answer of God unto him? I have reserved to myself seven thousand men, who have not bowed the knee to the image of Baal.
5 Even so then at this present time also there is a remnant according to the election of grace.
Then Paul uses the example of Elijah who, after the deity duel with the priests of Baal, complained about Israel killing the prophets and destroying the true places of worship. Elijah was concerned that there was no one left of Israel to follow the Lord, but the Lord reassured Elijah that there was still a remnant of faithful people.
Similarly, there was still a remnant of faithful people among the Israelites in Paul’s day who would be saved. This remnant would be those who were able to lay hold on the atoning and enabling power (grace) of Christ. Paul calls this group “a remnant according to the election of grace.”
6 And if by grace, then is it no more of works: otherwise grace is no more grace. But if it be of works, then is it no more grace: otherwise work is no more work.
7 What then? Israel hath not obtained that which he seeketh for; but the election hath obtained it, and the rest were blinded
8 (According as it is written, God hath given them the spirit of slumber, eyes that they should not see, and ears that they should not hear;) unto this day.
9 And David saith, Let their table be made a snare, and a trap, and a stumblingblock, and a recompence unto them:
10 Let their eyes be darkened, that they may not see, and bow down their back alway.
11 I say then, Have they stumbled that they should fall? God forbid: but rather through their fall salvation is come unto the Gentiles, for to provoke them to jealousy.
For verse 6, we have to keep in mind that Paul was previously talking about the election by grace in v5. So in v6 he is talking about election by grace versus election by works.
We can understand this verse by asking ourselves, “Does conversion to Christ happen because of how we respond to miracles or our own good works, or does it happen because of how we respond to the power of God (grace) through the Holy Ghost?” I think we can answer that question ourselves. Miracles awe us, but the effect is not lasting. And our own works tend to blind us to the need for more of God. But power felt through the power of the Holy Ghost through testimony is lasting. “mine elect hear my voice and harden not their hearts.” (D&C 29:7)
Israel certainly hasn’t obtained what it was seeking for. What was Israel seeking for in Paul’s time? It was looking for a Messiah that would lead them to victory against the Romans and restore Israel to power and prosperity. They certainly didn’t get that military leader in Christ at that time. Israel was also seeking to be justified by the Law of Moses. They didn’t get that Christ was Jehovah who gave the law and that the Law was meant to point them to Him. They didn’t get that they had to believe in Christ and repent to be justified of their sins.
The elect, on the other hand, because they were able to see Christ as the fulfillment, obtained both Messiah and salvation.
Paul also notes it was the mistake of Israel in rejecting Christ that brought salvation to the gentiles. Jewish persecution pushed many Christians out of Israel into surrounding areas, which led to the Gentiles hearing and accepting the gospel. Paul hoped that when the Jews saw the blessings coming to the Gentiles through Christ they might be jealous enough to seek the same blessings themselves.
12 Now if the fall of them be the riches of the world, and the diminishing of them the riches of the Gentiles; how much more their fulness?
Here Paul points out that if the mistakes of the Jews and Israelites can bring such spiritual riches and blessings to the rest of the world, then we can expect the positive effect for the rest of the world to be compounded when the Jews and Israelites finally come to a fullness of belief in Christ.
Most Christians read this verse as merely speculative. However, since we know the gospel will eventually be accepted by the Jews and Israelites, we see this as Paul matter-of-factly speaking of what is to come.
13 For I speak to you Gentiles, inasmuch as I am the apostle of the Gentiles, I magnify mine office:
14 If by any means I may provoke to emulation them which are my flesh, and might save some of them.
15 For if the casting away of them be the reconciling of the world, what shall the receiving of them be, but life from the dead?
Paul hoped that his example as an apostle to the gentiles would show his people what they needed to be for the world and that his example would save some of them. We see that he anticipates that the unbelief of Israel would lead to the rest of the world accepting the gospel and even speculates that when Israel accepts the gospel it would be a time of general resurrection.
16 For if the firstfruit be holy, the lump is also holy: and if the root be holy, so are the branches.
The lump Paul talks about here is the main part of the harvest that comes after the first fruits.
He essentially says that it doesn’t matter what order peoples accept the gospel in or the ethnicity of the missionaries, as long as people get it, period, because it all depends on faith in Christ anyway (not faith in ancestry or faith in who is the first to accept the gospel).
17 And if some of the branches be broken off, and thou, being a wild olive tree, wert grafted in among them, and with them partakest of the root and fatness of the olive tree;
18 Boast not against the branches. But if thou boast, thou bearest not the root, but the root thee.
19 Thou wilt say then, The branches were broken off, that I might be grafted in.
20 Well; because of unbelief they were broken off, and thou standest by faith. Be not highminded, but fear:
21 For if God spared not the natural branches, take heed lest he also spare not thee.
22 Behold therefore the goodness and severity of God: on them which fell, severity; but toward thee, goodness, if thou continue in his goodness: otherwise thou also shalt be cut off.
Here Paul makes use of olive tree imagery as an allegory for the situation of the Jews and Gentiles in the church. Because we have Jacob’s quotation of Zenos’s extended allegory of the olive tree in Jacob 5 we are in a very good position to understand what Paul is saying.
Having been grafted into the church, the Gentiles might be tempted to boast that they were better than the Jews. However, Paul warned them that pride would get them in trouble because during all the time that they might think they were bearing the root (Jews), the real root (Christ) was bearing them. The same unbelief that afflicted the Jews could easily begin to afflict the Gentiles as well, and they could be cut off as the Jews had been.
As it happened, the severity of God upon the Jews had resulted in good coming to the Gentiles, but that blessing continuing was contingent upon their continued faith.
23 And they [the Jews] also, if they abide not still in unbelief, shall be grafted in: for God is able to graft them in again.
24 For if thou wert cut out of the olive tree which is wild by nature, and wert grafted contrary to nature into a good olive tree: how much more shall these, which be the natural branches, be grafted into their own olive tree?
Paul seems to want to prevent the Gentiles from looking down on the Jews. He predicts that when the Jews’ time comes to accept the gospel, it will be seem so much more natural to them than it was for the Gentiles.
25 For I would not, brethren, that ye should be ignorant of this mystery, lest ye should be wise in your own conceits; that blindness in part is happened to Israel, until the fulness of the Gentiles be come in.
26 And so all Israel shall be saved: as it is written, There shall come out of Sion the Deliverer, and shall turn away ungodliness from Jacob:
27 For this is my covenant unto them, when I shall take away their sins.
The time when the Jews will accept the gospel is rightly referred to as a mystery, but Paul wants the Gentiles to know it will happen sometime when “the fullness of the Gentiles be come in” so that they don’t make the mistake of scorning the Jews in pride.
28 As concerning the gospel, they are enemies for your sakes: but as touching the election, they are beloved for the fathers’ sakes.
29 For the gifts and calling of God are without repentance.
Paul notes that even though the Jews were fighting against the gospel, the Lord still loved them for the sake of their righteous fathers, particularly Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The proof of this love is the gift and calling they were given by God to be born into the house of Israel. They were given the scriptures and the teachings and even if they never repented, those gifts would forever prove the love of God toward them. (Of course, repenting and believing in Christ opens the door to additional great blessings, as we know.)
30 For as ye in times past have not believed God, yet have now obtained mercy through their unbelief:
31 Even so have these also now not believed, that through your mercy they also may obtain mercy.
32 For God hath concluded them all in unbelief, that he might have mercy upon all.
33 O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out!
34 For who hath known the mind of the Lord? or who hath been his counsellor?
35 Or who hath first given to him, and it shall be recompensed unto him again?
36 For of him, and through him, and to him, are all things: to whom be glory for ever. Amen.
You start to get the sense that Paul himself got became astonished the more he thought about how the Lord used an unbelieving people to accomplish His purposes in bringing the gospel to others.
And when you stop to think about it, it seems downright incredible and amazing that the Lord can use, not just His servants, but also His enemies to push His plan along.