We may wonder whether Paul was puzzled or discouraged by the Jews’ reaction. I do not know the answer. I do not know whether Paul was discouraged or not. When we preach the Gospel even under the most adverse circumstances, we preach optimistically. We expect God to work. Since Paul met with this very strong resistance, it may be that, humanly speaking, Paul was discouraged or downcast. But he was not puzzled. The reason is that he had worked through the problem of Israel’s rejection of the Gospel.
For Paul this must have been an enormous problem. He was a Jew himself. Jesus was the Jews’ Messiah. Jesus had done what was prophesied about Him in the Jewish Scriptures. The apostles had proclaimed the Gospel, but for the most part the Jews were rejecting the message. How could that be? How could it be that the Messiah of Israel should be rejected by Israel? Did it mean that God had cast off His people? Did Jewish unbelief show that God was being unfaithful to the promises He had made to the Jewish nation? In Romans 9-11, Paul carefully worked out the answer to this problem.
First, he says that no one is ever saved except by the electing grace of God (Rom. 9:6-18). The choice is always with God. So if God elects many Jews at one period of history but not at another, and many Gentiles at still a different period of history, well, that is God’s business. Salvation is never guaranteed simply by being Jewish or by any other line of descent.
Second, the rejection of the Messiah by a large portion of Israel had been prophesied in the Old Testament (Rom. 9:19-29). This meant that Jewish unbelief should not have been unexpected. Paul quotes from Isaiah 10:22-23 and 1:9 to show that only a remnant of the nation would be saved.
Third, although it had been prophesied that a majority would reject the Messiah when he came, the rejection nevertheless would be the unbelievers’ fault (Rom. 9:30-10:21). Why? Because they would pursue salvation without faith and by means of their own righteousness, rejecting the righteousness of God. In other words, the Jews of Paul’s day wanted God to praise them for how well they were doing. That is exactly the error people of all ethnic backgrounds also make today. They do not want grace from God. They want to achieve salvation by themselves.
Fourth, although most of the Jews were rejecting Jesus, not all were (Rom. 11:1). Some had believed. Paul cites himself as an example. “I am an Israelite myself,” he says.
Fifth, this is not new. It has always been this way. Even in the days of Elijah, not all but only 7,000 Jews remained faithful to God. The rest had become apostate (Rom. 11:2-10).
Sixth, although God is moving primarily among Gentiles in this age, in the final analysis even this is for Israel’s good (Rom. 11:11-24). Paul speaks of the conversion of the Gentiles as provoking Jews to jealousy. This was intended to lead some of them to consider the case for Jesus being the Messiah and thus eventually to believe on Him.
Seventh, the end of this process is very good, because in the end “all Israel will be saved” (Rom. 11:22-32). That means that there will yet be a future time of great national blessing for Israel, when many—the great masses of the Jewish people—will turn to their Messiah.
Someone has said that God never closes one door in our lives but that He opens another one. This happened here. The door to the Jewish community was closing. Not many Jews believed. But the door was opening to the Gentiles. Paul himself said, “I want you to know that God’s salvation has been sent to the Gentiles, and they will listen.” It is with the recognition of this truth that Acts ends, saying, “For two whole years Paul stayed there in his own rented house and welcomed all who came to see him. Boldly and without hindrance he preached the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ.”
That new door to the Gentiles (and perhaps now in a new way also a new door to the Jews) is open today. Acts ends as it does because throughout this age, until Jesus Christ returns, the Gospel door is open. As long as that door was open, Paul was going to preach through that open door to the Gentile community. If he was going to do that, then we must do it too. It is our opportunity. If God opens a door to your neighbor, walk through it. Wherever you go, if people will listen, tell them about Jesus, because this is the day of Christian proclamation. It is by the preaching, teaching and sharing of the Word of God that people are brought to Jesus.