Israel’s Jealousy: Envy or Anger?

Reading: Romans 10–11

So I ask, did they stumble in order that they might fall? By no means! Rather through their trespass salvation has come to the Gentiles, so as to make Israel jealous. (Rom 11:11 ESV)

Early in my Christian walk I heard a preacher say, “God wants to make the Jews jealous by saving Gentiles. Do you think if you are driving a beat-up old car or are poor and broke, anyone is going to be jealous?” The idea is that in order for this verse to come to pass Christians must be more prosperous than unconverted Jews. Becoming envious of the prosperity, they will get saved. Another angle I’ve heard is that God is saving the Gentiles, who through Christ will walk in the law so fully that the Jews, seeing it, will become envious and want to convert.

The point is: every time I hear this verse discussed on the popular level, Israel’s jealousy is assumed to be a positive response that leads to their salvation. What if jealousy, here, is a negative reaction to the Gentiles getting saved? That would change everything.
In Acts 17, we read about salvation coming to Gentiles and the Jews becoming jealous. This gives us insight into understanding what Paul is saying in Romans. Acts 17:4-5 illustrates what Paul is talking about in regard to Israel becoming jealous in Romans 10–11.

After Paul preaches for three Sabbaths in the synagogue about Jesus being the Christ, we read of the following results.

(4) And some of them (the Jews) were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women. (5) But the Jews were jealous, and taking some wicked men of the rabble, they formed a mob, set the city in an uproar, and attacked the house of Jason, seeking to bring them out to the crowd. (Act 17:4-5 ESV)

Paul preaches the Gospel in the synagogue to a mixed audience (Jew and Gentile). “Some out of them”believe. But a lot of Gentiles were also saved. This leads to the (rest of the) Jews becoming jealous. But this is not a jealousy that results in their desire to get saved, it is angry jealousy that results in wicked schemes and attacks. This is illustrative of the very point Paul is making in Romans.

After talking about how the Gospel must be preached in order for anyone to come to faith, which comes through hearing the Gospel (Romans 10:14-17), in a hypothetical debate Paul answers the question, “Then why aren’t all these Jews getting saved? They’ve heard the Gospel.” Paul’s answer is that they have both heard and understood (Romans 10:18-19), and then the discussion of jealousy begins.

First Moses says, “I will make you jealous of those who are not a nation; with a foolish nation I will make you angry.” (Romans 10:19b)

Quoting Moses (Deuteronomy 32:21), Paul sets jealousy and anger as equivalents. The jealousy that will come because of the Gentiles (the foolish nation) becoming part of the people or nation of God is also called anger. It is the same kind of jealousy described in Acts 17. (Also see Acts 13:44-47.)

Next (Romans 11:1-5), Paul addresses the question, “Has God then rejected His people?” Paul’s answer is, “No,” reminding them of his own salvation. Then Paul illustrates with the story of Elijah who thought all Israel had rejected God. God responded, “I have reserved for myself 7,000 who have not bowed their knees to Baal.” Finally, Paul concludes by saying that God has not rejected his people as shown by the fact that there is a remnant from amongst them that are saved. In other words, God has not rejected His people because He continues to save some of them. Then Paul shows how this offense of the Jews to the Gospel is the fulfillment of the Scriptures (Romans 11:7-10).

This leads back to the verse in question.

So I ask, did they stumble in order that they might fall? By no means! Rather through their trespass salvation has come to the Gentiles, so as to make Israel jealous. (Rom 11:11 ESV)

Through the trespass of the Jews (their rejection of the Gospel and subsequent persecution of believers) salvation has come to the Gentiles. In Paul’s ministry, the Jewish rejection of the Gospel always led him to leave the synagogue and preach to the Gentiles, leading to even more Gentiles being saved. This in turn provokes Israel to jealousy—anger.

All of this leads then to 11:14, which at first glance seems to use jealousy in the positive sense. If so, then Paul now uses the word to mean something completely the opposite of what it has meant from the start of the discussion…with no indication that he intended such a shift. I suggest then that we revisit the verse.

Paul says he celebrates his ministry as apostle to the Gentiles…

…in order somehow to make my fellow Jews jealous, and thus save some of them. (Rom 11:14 ESV)

The phrase, “and thus save some of them” can simply be translated, “and save some out of them” (καὶ σώσω τινὰς ἐξ αὐτῶν). The wording is identical to Acts 17:4 above which begins “And some out of them (καί τινες ἐξ αὐτῶν) were persuaded….” In Romans 10:13-14, Paul focuses on his preaching ministry to the Gentiles which provokes his fellow Israelites to jealousy, while simultaneously saving some out of them. In Acts 17:4-5, some out of the Jews believe and are saved resulting in the rest of the Jews becoming jealous, which is to say angry.

If this is the correct understanding, then the Jews being provoked to jealousy in Romans 11:14 isn’t intended to have the effect of saving some of them, but Paul’s preaching to Jews results in some of them being saved, along with more Gentiles, provoking more of the Jews to become angry (jealous). This fulfills God’s promise to anger the Jews through a “foolish nation” and to reveal Himself “to those who did not ask” for Him, explaining why Paul’s readers saw so many Jews resisting the spread of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Love the Gospel, Live the Gospel, Advance the Gospel,

Jerry

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