Paul introduces the notion of “jealousy” at the end of Romans 10. He has been discussing how Israel stumbles in their pursuit of God’s justice because they pursue it by works. Gentiles attain that justice because they trusted in the faithful One, Jesus.
Israel hears, but doesn’t heed. And so Paul says, quoting the song of Moses (Deuteronomy 32), God makes good on His threat to provoke Israel to jealousy “by that which is not a nation” (Romans 10:19).
From that point, “jealousy” becomes a keynote of Paul’s justification of God’s dealings with Israel. But first he makes a few other moves.
Has God rejected His people? Of course not, Paul says. Paul himself is a Jew and a disciple of Jesus (Romans 11:1). God didn’t reject Israel during the days of Elijah. On the contrary, the Lord had preserved seven thousand who had not bowed to Baal or kissed him (11:2-4).
The fact that there’s a remnant according to grace is a sign that God hasn’t rejected His people. In Paul’s mind, even if everyone else in Israel had abandoned Yahweh for Baal, the faithfulness of seven thousand was sufficient to show that “God has not rejected His people whom He foreknew” (11:2).
Just so, in the first century, the fact that thousands of Jews (Acts 4:4; 21:20), including many priests (Acts 6:7), became disciples of Jesus is sufficient proof that God’s gracious choice has prevailed over Israel’s stumbling (11:5).
I will examine Romans 11:26 in another essay, but we can note this for now: In the post-exilic books, the phrase “all Israel” sometimes refers precisely to the remnant preserved through exile and restored to Jerusalem (Ezra 2:70; 6:17; 8:25; Nehemiah 7:73; 12:47).
Paul has more to say about what is happening in Israel, but if he had ended the chapter at verse 6, he would have justified the ways of God with Israel. Since “not all Israel is of Israel,” the salvation of a remnant is the preservation of Israel.
But, as I say, Paul does have more to say, and what he has to say revolves around “jealousy.” Granted, Israel’s stumbling doesn’t lead to a fall. Still, why should Israel stumble in the first place? What’s God on about?
Paul answers in terms of the dynamics of jealousy. Jews are the natural branches in the olive tree whose roots are the fathers. They are broken off, and Gentiles are grafted in. God’s aim in this is to provoke Jews to jealousy (11:11).
As Deuteronomy 32 indicates, this is a just judgment: When Israel provokes Yahweh with other gods, He provokes them by devoting His attention to other nations. He did it in the time of Jonah, and He’s doing it again in the first century.
Presumably, the aim is to provoke Israel to return to her Lord. Jealousy is a virtue in Scripture, a dimension of love. Lovers rightly desire one another’s attention. That zeal to protect what belongs to you is jealousy. Jealousy also expresses itself in outrage at a treacherous lover. Jealous anger is wounded anger, the anger of unrequited love.
Yahweh wants Israel’s exclusive devotion, and Israel the Bride should want to have Yahweh’s attention and care. Israel goes astray because she isn’t jealous. She doesn’t devote herself to Yahweh, and doesn’t care whether or not Yahweh devotes Himself to her.
Her lack of jealousy provokes Yahweh to jealousy, and He punishes by provoking Israel. When Israel becomes jealous, filled with the zeal of the Spirit’s love, she returns to her Husband.
That is why Paul is hopeful that his own ministry will provoke Israel to jealousy (Romans 11:13-14). He wants to move them to jealousy in order to “save some of them” (v. 14).
According to Acts, Paul succeeds in provoking, though not always with salvific effect. After his first sermon, the Jews are “jealous” of the size of Paul’s audience and contradict him (Acts 13:45). Importantly, this sermon takes place in Antioch, and “nearly the whole city” of Gentiles listens to Paul (13:44, 46-49).
Of course, this isn’t the jealousy that leads to life. But it’s structurally analogous to what Paul describes in Romans 11: Paul preaches; Gentiles receive the word eagerly; the Jews are provoked to zeal. Unfortunately, their zeal is murderous (cf. 13:50-52).
The pattern plays out again in Thessalonica: Some Jews along with “a large number of God-fearing Greeks” and women join Paul and Silas. In jealous fury, Jews form a mob, attack Paul’s host, and drag them before the city rulers (Acts 17:1-9).
As Paul says, “they have a zeal for God, bur not in accordance with knowledge” (Romans 10:2). Paul knows whereof he speaks. Ignorant zeal once drove him to persecute Jesus (cf. Galatians 1:14).
These episodes show that Paul’s ministry provokes Jews. They don’t indicate that Paul’s ministry provokes them to salvation. But we do learn late in Acts that thousands of Jews have come to Jesus. The account is worth quoting:
“After we arrived in Jerusalem, the brethren received us gladly. And the following day Paul went in with us to James, and all the elders were present. After he had greeted them, he began to relate one by one the things which God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry. And when they heard it they began glorifying God; and they said to him, ‘You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed, and they are all zealous for the Law” (Acts 21:17-20).
Paul is back in Jerusalem, meeting with the Jerusalem church. He relates the success of his ministry among Gentiles, and the Jewish leaders respond by reporting on the large number of Jewish converts, believers who are “jealous” for Torah. The Jerusalem elders convince Paul to purify himself in the temple, to allay fears that he’s teaching Gentiles to abandon Moses (21:21-26).
Luke uses a form of “jealous” (zelotes) to describe these believing Jews. While he doesn’t directly link the success of Paul’s Gentile mission with the belief and zeal of the Jews, the connection is perhaps implied. The verbal overlap between Acts 21 and Romans 11 is suggestive.
Whether or not we can make a direct connection between Romans 11 and Acts 21, the overall shape of Acts indicates that Paul’s ministry brings salvation to both Jews and Gentiles. Paul’s ministry among Gentiles is indeed magnified (Romans 11:13), not only because Gentiles are saved but because thousands of Jews are also saved.
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