Years ago, I bought my first laptop. Being gifted at dropping things, I made sure to buy the protection plan as well. The protection plan, however, did not cover everything. “We won’t cover the repair,” the sales associate told me, “If you do something foolish and your laptop breaks.” My foolishness would allow them to opt out of their promise.
In Romans 9-11, Paul addresses questions about God and Israel. God had committed himself by a promise to be their God. But Israel, like Adam before them and many after them, acted foolishly and rebelled against God. Now, Paul says, they have heard and understood the gospel message but disobeyed rather than repented and believed. “But of Israel he says, ‘All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and contrary people” (Romans 10:21). Paul raises the question everyone would ask: Has God rejected Israel? Does God choose to opt out of the relationship because of their foolishness? The obvious answer would be yes. After getting the cold shoulder for so long, who could blame God for walking away? But God is not like us, “By no means!” has he rejected Israel (Romans 11:1). He has not taken back his promise, but he actively keeps a remnant from Israel and will reap a large harvest one day (Ro 11:5, 25-26).
Paul marches out two pieces of evidence to defend his case. His conversion takes the stand first. God has not rejected all Israel because Paul is an Israelite. “For I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin” (Romans 11:1). Does one person prove anything? If it only takes one fly to spoil your drink and one grumpy person to suck the joy from a party, one Israelite means plenty. The case cannot be closed and tossed out if one Israelite belongs to Jesus. Paul’s salvation proves that God has not slammed the door on Israel.
Was Paul a token Israelite? Did God save Paul so he could flick away an uncomfortable question about Israel? By no means. Paul calls Scripture and history to the stand next to show that God never has a token person but a whole remnant.
He turns to Elijah. “Do you not know what the Scripture says of Elijah, how he appeals to God against Israel? ‘Lord, they have killed your prophets, they have demolished your altars, and I alone am left, and they seek my life” (Romans 11:2-3). Elijah is lonely and dejected. Despite his preaching, the nation turns on the Lord and swears allegiance to Baal. His work appeared unfruitful and made him a wanted man. Ahab and Jezebel followed his scent like starving bears ready to devour. Finally, it all wears him down. He cries out to God because he feels all alone.
Elijah is not alone in his loneliness. Stories of failure make enticing clickbait. Stories of pastors getting fired for abusive leadership or former evangelical celebrities turning their backs on Christianity hover around us like storm clouds. We feel like there is no light, no real Christians anywhere. Like a college freshman walking onto campus for the first time, we, like Elijah, feel alone. God, however, is doing more than we can see. He says to Elijah, “I have kept for myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal” (Romans 11:4). He was one of seven thousand. A small number compared to all of Israel, but a massive assembly compared to his lonely heart. Not every story is clickbait failure; some are Christ-like faithfulness.
In Elijah’s day, God kept a faithful remnant. All Israel appeared to have bowed before Baal, but God kept his promise and, therefore, kept his people. Paul asserts God has not changed. As he kept a remnant in Elijah’s lifetime, “so too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace” (Ro 11:5). Because the Lord stands guard over his remnant, Baal cannot kidnap them, and Satan himself cannot rip them from God’s hand. No matter how impossible it seems, God always keeps his people.
Kept By Grace
A shot of pride swims through our veins, and we strut with a little swagger when chosen for something exceptional. When my hockey team chose me as team captain, I skated with more confidence and talked more trash. Awards usually reveal the excellence of the recipient, but salvation is different. The present remnant, like all believers, are chosen by grace, not rewarded for their exceptional achievements. Salvation is undeserved, so it reveals the excellence of the giver, not the recipient. It reveals the excellence of God as his grace stabs through the clouds and shines upon a remnant.
God’s unyielding commitment to magnify his glory by graciously keeping a remnant was the backbone of Paul’s confidence in praying for his fellow Israelites (Romans 10:1). We likewise can have the same confidence. No matter how much unbelief bakes itself into a culture, God has people there. Keep on praying and keep on sharing the gospel with confidence in the God who keeps his people.