This entry is part 105 of 134 in the series: Tough texts
- Genesis 1:26 – Why a plural name for God?
- Genesis 1:27 – a hint of male headship?
- Genesis 2:23 – Does naming imply authority?
- Genesis 3 – traditional and revisionist readings
- Genesis 3:16b – ‘Your desire shall be for your husband’
- Genesis 5 – the ages of the antedeluvians
- Genesis 6:1f – ‘The sons of God’
- Genesis 6-8 – A worldwide flood?
- Genesis 9:20-25 – the ‘Curse of Ham’
- Genesis 12:3 – ‘I will bless those who bless you’
- Genesis 15:16 – ‘The sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its limit’
- Genesis 19 – What was the sin of Sodom?
- Genesis 22 – “Abraham, kill your son”
- Exodus – Who hardened Pharaoh’s heart?
- Exodus 12:37 – How many Israelites left Egypt?
- Leviticus 18:22; 20:13 – Homosexual acts prohibited?
- Leviticus 19:18 “Love your neighbour as yourself”
- Deuteronomy 23:6 – ‘Never be kind to a Moabite’?
- Joshua 6 – the fall of Jericho
- Joshua 10 – Joshua’s ‘long day’
- Judges 19:11-28 – The priest and the concubine
- Ruth 3:6-9 – Did Ruth seduce Boaz?
- 1 Samuel 16:14 – ‘An evil spirit from the Lord’
- 1 Samuel 28:7-14 – Did Samuel visit from the grave?
- 2 Samuel 1:26 – ‘More special than the love of women’
- 2 Sam 24:1, 1 Chron 21:1 – Who incited David?
- 1 Kings 20:30 – ‘The wall collapsed on 27,000 of them’
- Psalm 105:15 – ‘Touch not my anointed’
- Psalm 137:8f – ‘Happy is he who dashes your infants against the rocks’
- Isaiah 7:14/Matthew 1:23 – “The virgin will conceive”
- Isaiah 14:12 – Is Satan a fallen angel?
- Daniel 7:13 – ‘Coming with the clouds of heaven’
- Jonah – history or fiction?
- Mt 1:1-17 and Lk 3:23-38 – the genealogies of Jesus
- Matthew 2:1 – ‘Magi from the east’
- Matthew 2:2 – The star of Bethlehem
- Matthew 2:8f – Can God speak through astrology?
- Matthew 2:23 – ‘Jesus would be called a Nazarene’
- Mt 3:17/Mk 1:11/Lk 3:22 – What did the voice say?
- Matthew 5:21f – Did Jesus reject the Old Testament?
- Matthew 7:16,20 – ‘You will recognise them by their fruit’
- Matthew 8:5/Luke 7:3 – Who asked Jesus to help?
- Matthew 8:5/Luke 7:7 – son? servant? male lover?
- Matthew 8:22/Luke 9:60 – ‘Let the dead bury their dead’?
- Matthew 8:28 – Gadara or Gerasa?
- Matthew 10:23 – ‘Before the Son of Man comes’
- Mt 10:28/Lk 12:4f – Whom should we fear?
- Matthew 10:28 – ‘destroy’: annihilation or everlasting punishment?
- Matthew 10:34 – ‘Not peace, but a sword’?
- Matthew 11:12 – Forceful entry, or violent opposition, to the kingdom?
- Mt 12:30/Mk 9:40/Lk 11:23 – For, or against?
- Matthew 12:40 – Three days and three nights
- The Parable of the Sower – return from exile?
- Mt 15:21-28/Mk 7:24-30 – Jesus and the Canaanite woman
- Mt 16:28/Mk 9:1/Lk 9:27 – “Some standing here will see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom”
- Matthew 18:10 – What about ‘guardian angels’?
- Matthew 18:20 – ‘Where two or three are gathered…’
- Matthew 16:18 – Peter the rock?
- Matthew 21:7 – One animal or two?
- Mt 24:34/Mk 13:30 – ‘This generation will not pass away’
- Matthew 25:40 – ‘These brothers of mine’
- Matthew 27:46/Mark 15:34 – Jesus’ cry of dereliction
- Matthew 27:52f – Many bodies raised?
- Mark 1:41 – ‘Compassion’, or ‘anger/indignation’?
- Mark 2:25f – ‘When Abiathar was high priest’
- Mark 3:29; Luke 12:10 – The unpardonable sin
- Mark 4:31 – ‘The smallest of all the seeds’?
- Mark 6:45 – ‘To Bethsaida’
- Mark 12:41-44/Luke 21:1-4 – ‘The widow’s mite’
- Luke 2:1f – Quirinius and ‘the first registration’
- Luke 2 – Was Joseph from Nazareth, or Bethlehem?
- Luke 2:7 – ‘No room at the inn’
- Luke 2:8 – Shepherds: a despised class?
- Luke 2:39 – No room for a flight into Egypt?
- Luke 4:16-19 – An incomplete quotation?
- Luke 7:2 – ‘Highly valued servant’ or ‘gay lover’?
- Luke 14:26 – Hate your family?
- Luke 22:36 – ‘Sell your cloak and buy a sword’
- John 1:1 – ‘The Word was God’
- John 2:6 – symbol or history?
- Mt 1:24f/13:55/Jn 2:12 – Did Mary bear other children?
- Mt 21/Mk 11/Lk 19/Jn 2 – When (and how many times) did Jesus cleanse the Temple?
- John 3:16f – What is meant by ‘the world’?
- John 4:44 – ‘His own country’
- John 7:40-44 – Did John know about Jesus’ birthplace?
- John 7:53-8:11 – The woman caught in adultery
- John 10:8 – “All who came before me were thieves and robbers”
- John 10:34 – “You are gods”
- John 14:2 – “Many dwelling places”
- John 14:6 – “No one comes to the Father except through me”
- John 14:12 – ‘Greater deeds’
- John 20:21 – “Just as the Father has sent me, I also send you.”
- Jn 20:22/Acts 2 – How many Pentecosts?
- John 21:11 – One hundred and fifty three fish
- Acts 1:6 – a misguided question?
- Acts 5:1-11 – Ananias and Sapphira
- Acts 5:34-37 – a (minor) historical inaccuracy?
- Romans 1:5 – ‘The obedience of faith’
- Romans 1:18 – Wrath: personal or impersonal?
- Romans 1:26-27 – ‘Natural’ and ‘unnatural’ sexual relations
- Rom 3:22; Gal 2:16 – faith in, or faithfulness of Christ?
- Romans 5:18 – ‘Life for all?’
- Rom 7:24 – Who is the ‘wretched man’?
- Romans 10:4 – ‘Christ is the end of the law’
- Romans 11:26a – ‘And so all Israel will be saved’
- Romans 16:7 – ‘Junia…well known to the apostles’
- 1 Corinthians 7:14 – Sanctified spouses, holy children
- 1 Corinthians 14:34 – ‘Women should be silent in the churches’
- 1 Corinthians 15:28 – ‘The Son himself will be subjected to [God]’
- 1 Corinthians 15:29 – ‘Baptized for the dead’
- 1 Corinthians 15:44 – ‘Raised a spiritual body’
- 2 Corinthians 5:21 – ‘God made Christ to be sin for us’
- Galatians 3:17 – How much later?
- Galatians 3:28 – ‘Neither male nor female’
- Galatians 6:2 – ‘The law of Christ’
- Galatians 6:16 – The Israel of God
- Ephesians 1:10 – ‘The fullness of the times’
- Philippians 2:10 – ‘The name that is above every name’
- 1 Cor 11:3/Eph 5:23 – ‘Kephale’: ‘head’? ‘source’? ‘foremost’?
- Colossians 1:19f – Universal reconciliation?
- 1 Thessalonians 2:14f – ‘The Jews, who killed Jesus’
- 1 Thessalonians 4:17 – a pre-tribulation ‘rapture’?
- 1 Timothy 2:4 – ‘God wants all people to be saved’
- 1 Timothy 2:11f – ‘I do not allow woman to teach or exercise authority over a man’
- 1 Timothy 4:10 – ‘The Saviour of all people’
- Hebrews 6:4-6 – Who are these people?
- Hebrews 12:1 – Who are these witnesses?
- 1 Peter 3:18-20 – Christ and the spirits in prison
- 2 Peter 1:4 – ‘Partakers of the divine nature’
- 2 Peter 3:9 – ‘The Lord wishes all to come to repentance’
- 1 Jn 5:16f – The sin that does, and the sin that does not, lead to death
- Jude 7 – ‘Unnatural desire’
- Revelation 7:4 – The 144,000
- Revelation 14:11 – ‘No rest day or night’
Background and context
“And so all Israel will be saved” – Romans 11:26a
Romans 9-11 should, as Douglas Moo, Tom Wright and others insist, be seen as an integral part – the climax even – of Paul’s argument in this letter. The church in Rome consisted mainly of Gentile believers. They were prone to look down their Jewish fellow-believers, and even entertained the notion that God had washed his hands of his historic people.
In this section of the letter, he expresses deep love and concern for his fellow-Jews. God has not abandoned his historic people. And, after all, the Christian church remains fundamentally and permanently a Jewish institution. The church of Jesus Christ is, in fact, simply the Jewish faith come to its full and proper expression. It is the completion of all the the patriarchs had been promised, of all that the law had pointed to, of all that the prophets had hoped for.
Consider Israel as an Olive tree, says Paul in Romans 11:6ff. Many of the natural (Jewish) branches were fruitless, and so were cut off. They were replaced by wild (Gentile) branches, which were grafted in. But if God was able to graft onto the Jewish stock these wild branches, how much more readily can he graft the natural (Jewish) branches back on? And in this way the tree will be complete, the full number of God’s people will be completed.
If the practical centre of this passage is found in Romans 11:18a (where Paul urges his predominantly Gentile readers – ‘do not boast over those branches’), then the theological climax is reached in Romans 11:25b, 26a – ‘Israel has experienced a hardening in part’ (or, ‘for a while’), ‘until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. ‘And so all Israel will be saved.’
At least two distinguished commentators on Romans – Douglas Moo and Bob Yarbrough – have identified this verse as the most difficult to interpret in the entire book.
The meaning of each word or clause in this short statement has been disputed:-
“And so” – is this (a) temporal (“and then”); or (b) causal (“thus”; “in this way” [TNIV]; “that is how” [Wright]); or even, (c) both temporal and causal (“and only then”)?
“All” – does this mean (a) every Israelite, without exception; or (b) “Israel” as a corporate entity?
“Israel” – does this refer to (a) ethnic Israel; or to (b) Jewish and Gentile believers, viewed as ‘the true Israel’ or ‘the new Israel’?
“Will be” – is this (a) a continuing process; or (b) an event to take place at some point in the future?
“Saved” – is this (a) through the ‘normal’ means of faith in Jesus Christ; or (b) by some other means? And does this have any implications regarding ‘the land’?
The answers that we might give to some of these questions depend on the answers we might give to others. For example: if “and so” means “and then”, this strengthens the case for regarding “well be” as pointing to a future event. It seems best, then, not to deal with each word or clause in order, but to focus on the central question, namely the identity of “all Israel” in this passage.
Given the battery of questions raised by this text, some have concluded that we cannot penetrate its meaning. Origen, for example, exclaimed, ‘What “all Israel” means or what the fullness of the Gentiles will be only God knows along with his only begotten Son and perhaps a few of his friends.’
Kreutzer thinks that this section may reflect ‘an unresolved tension within Paul’s own thought, one which cannot quite seem to abandon faith in God’s promises to historical Israel, yet one which is challenged by the redefinition of Israel into spiritual terms demanded by the Christ event.’ (DPL, art. Eschatology).
It is, however, an exaggeration to say with Staples that ‘most commentators have found Paul’s confident assertion…impenetrable’. Noted critic of Zionism Stephen Sizer reviews various interpretative options (and shows the case for the ‘minority view’ advocated here to be cogent), but then, rather strangely, concludes that ‘perhaps we can accept whichever interpretation sounds most convincing and motivates us to love and good deeds.’
The question is of considerable practical importance. Our view on the relationship between the gospel of Jesus Christ and the Jewish nation impacts on our general attitude towards that nation in these post-Holocaust years, towards mission and evangelism, towards the right of Jewish people to occupy ‘the land’, towards biblical teaching concerning the ‘end times’, and on whether God has a single-track, or a double-track, plan and purpose for Jews and Gentiles.
There are two main options regarding the meaning of the expression ‘all Israel’, although there are various sub-options too. I shall refer to these main options as ‘the majority report’ and ‘the minority report’ respectively, for obvious reasons.
The majority report
‘Israel’ means ‘ethnic Israel’
Justin Martyr (c. 100-165) taught that Israel would be gathered and restored in fulfilment of the prophecies of Zechariah.
Tertullian (c. 155–230) urged Christians to rejoice in the coming restoration of Israel.
Origen (185–254) believed that God would call Israel to himself in the end times.
John Chrysostom (349-407) taught that the prediction of Isa 59:20 (quoted by Paul in Rom 11:26) had not yet been fulfilled, and so we were to look forward to a future fulfillment.
Augustine (354–430) wrote: ‘It is a familiar theme in the conversation and heart of the faithful, that in the last days before the judgment the Jews shall believe in the true Christ.’ (The City of God)
John Gill: ‘And so all Israel shall be saved – Meaning not the mystical spiritual Israel of God, consisting both of Jews and Gentiles, who shall appear to be saved in the Lord with an everlasting salvation, when all God’s elect among the latter are gathered in, which is the sense many give into; but the people of the Jews, the generality of them, the body of that nation, called “the fulness” of them, ( Romans 11:12 ) , and relates to the latter day, when a nation of them shall be born again at once; when, their number being as the sand of the sea, they shall come up out of the lands where they are dispersed, and appoint them one head, Christ, and great shall be the day of Jezreel; when they as a body, even the far greater part of them that shall be in being, shall return and seek the Lord their God, and David their King; shall acknowledge Jesus to be the true Messiah, and shall look to him, believe on him, and be saved by him from wrath to come.’
Charles Hodge maintained that the majority of Christian teachers down the ages have taught this view, with the exception of those who lived around the time of the Reformation. Hodge cites the well-known hostility of Martin Luther against the Jews.
Most scholars have come to think that “Israel” here means ‘ethnic Israel’, the Jewish people. They argue that ‘Israel’ usually has this meaning in the New Testament. Moreover, they point out that it is clear that Paul very much has his fellow-country-men on his heart in the present passage (Romans 9-11). And because, it is argued, the reference in Romans 11:25 (‘Israel has experienced a hardening in part’) must be to ethnic Israel, then in the absence of any clear signal from Paul to the contrary ‘Israel’ must have the same meaning in the following verse. Goldingay (New Dictionary of Theology) is emphatic: ‘as is the case each time ‘Israel’ appears in these chapters, the reference must be to Israel herself, not to the church).’
Bruce thinks that a reading which entertains a transition from an ethnic Israel in v25 to a ‘spiritual’ Israel in v26 is ‘impossible’. Stott is of the same mind, as is also John Murray.
Schreiner also emphasises context: ‘Romans 11:28–29 confirms that ethnic Israel is the subject of Romans 11:26, for they are enemies of the gospel, but they are beloved by God and the recipients of God’s irrevocable promises because of God’s covenantal promises to the patriarchs. Paul does not restate his argument in Romans 11:28–29 by conceiving of Israel in a spiritual sense, as if Israel comprises believing Jews and Gentiles. Rather, he emphasizes again that ethnic Israel is the object of God’s saving and elect love because of God’s sovereign and effective grace. No contextual warrant appears for widening the definition of Israel. The climax of the mystery is that God will pour out his grace again on ethnic Israel, the children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.’
Bloesch asserts: ‘When Paul confesses that “all Israel will be saved,” he is indubitably thinking of the future restoration of ethnic Israel.’
In rejecting the view that ‘all Israel’ means ‘the whole Church’, Moo says that Paul’s purpose here is almost the opposite of that in Gal 4 (and Rom 4). In these other passages, he is arguing that Gentiles can receive the Abrahamic promises and become full members of the people of God. But here in Rom 11 he is opposing the tendency of Gentiles to appropriate exclusively to themselves the rights and privileges of the people of God.
But does this mean the elect among the Jews, or the Jewish nation as an entity?
Within this perspective, there is disagreement about whether Paul is thinking of (a) the complete number of the elect among the Jewish people; or (b) the Jewish nation as an entity.
Christopher Zoccali, in his review of this passage and its interpretative history, concludes that Paul is indeed thinking of the total number of the elect of Israel. Kruse, in his recent commentary, agrees: ‘by “all Israel” Paul means the Jewish elect of all ages. At that time the “fullness of the Gentiles” (Rom 11:25) will stand alongside the ‘fullness’ of the Jews (Rom 11:12). Paul was contributing directly to bringing in the ‘fullness of the Gentiles’ by his mission to the Gentiles. He hoped to contribute indirectly to bringing about the ‘fullness’ of the Jews by provoking Jewish people to jealousy as they saw Gentiles enjoying the blessings first promised by God to them.’ Berkhof, Reymond, and Lloyd-Jones take the same view.
It is argued, however, that Paul refers to the salvation of Israel as a ‘mystery’, v25. If he simply meant that all the elect will be saved, there is no mystery. I.H. Murray cites the Puritan Elnathan Parr: ‘Paul saith that he would not have the Gentiles ignorant; of what? That all the elect should be saved? Whoever doubted it? But of the calling of the Jews there was a doubt. He calls it a secret or mystery; but that all the elect shall be saved is not secret.’ However, a case will be made later for understanding ‘mystery’ here as referring, as it does so often in Paul’s letters, to the God’s plan to jointly save Jews and Gentiles (which is precisely what he has just been setting out in his Olive tree analogy).
I.H. Murray notes that ‘This same belief concerning the future of the Jews is to be found very widely in seventeenth-century Puritan literature. It appears in the works of such well-known Puritans as John Owen, Thomas Manton and John Flavel. … It is also handled in a rich array of commentaries, both folios and quartos – David Dickson on the Psalms, George Hutcheson on the Minor Prophets, Jeremiah Burroughs on Hosea, William Greenhill on Ezekiel, Elnathan Parr on Romans and James Durham on Revelation: a list which could be greatly extended.’ (The Puritan Hope, p43)
The list could indeed be greatly extended. Wilson maintains that the Apostle does not mean ‘spiritual Israel’ here, meaning Jewish and Gentile Christian believers, for this would be no mystery; nor would it be any consolation to the Jews whom Paul is now addressing. He means, ‘the Nation of Israel’, as in the rest of the present passage. Not every individual Jew, but ‘the greater part of them’. It will happen that ‘towards the end of the world, the nation of the Jews shall be converted unto Christ, that they may believe in Christ, be justified by faith, and be saved.’
Most interpreters, then, think that by ‘Israel’ Paul means the Jewish nation as an entity, although not necessarily all individual members of it.
EBC: ‘It must be understood to mean the nation Israel as a whole, in contrast to the present situation when only a remnant has trusted Christ for salvation. The language does not require us to hold that when this final ingathering of Israel occurs, every living Israelite will be included, but only that Israel as a nation will be saved.’
Moo says that if Paul is now saying that ‘all the elect within Israel will be saved’, then that looks like a truism. Moreover, it requires an awkward and unsignalled shift from ‘Israel as the nation as a whole’ in 25b to ‘Israel as the elect’ in v26a. He concludes that Paul is here referring to the nation as a whole. He notes that Paul does not say that ‘every Israelite will be saved’. He is referring to the nation as a corporate entity. Paul could well mean that ‘a large and representative portion of Israel will be saved’, and this would be consistent with the usage of the relevant expression in the LXX. It would analogous to the way in which we might say, ‘the whole school turned out to watch the match.’
Kruse cites the Church Father Diodore: ‘Just as we say that the whole world and all the nations are being saved because everywhere and among all nations there are those who are coming to faith, so also all Israel will be saved does not mean that every one of them will be but that either those who were understood by Elijah or those who are scattered all over the world will one day come to faith’.
Matthew Henry: ‘Not every individual person, but the body of the people.’
Matthew Poole: ‘By all Israel is not meant every individual Israelite, but many, or (it may be) the greatest part of them.’
Albert Barnes, 19th-century commentator: ‘He does not mean to say that every Jew of every age would be saved; for he had proved that a large portion of them would be, in his time, rejected and lost. But the time would come when, as a people, they would be recovered; when the nation would turn to God; and when it could be said of them that, as a nation, they were restored to the divine favour. It is not clear that he means that even then every individual of them would be saved, but the body of them; the great mass of the nation would be.’
W.S. Plumer thinks that it is ‘pretty certain’ that ‘”all Israel” [means] the mass of the Jewish nation…It simply designates the great body of Jacob’s descendants, who shall be living when the Jews shall turn to the Lord and accept their Messiah.’
Charles Hodge: ‘The restoration here foretold is not to be understood as including every individual of the Jewish people, but simply that there is to be a national restoration.’
John Brown: ‘All Israel is not every individual Israelite, but it is Israel as a body: the great majority of that people shall embrace the Gospel, and by doing so be delivered from all the evils under which they have so long groaned, in consequence of their having rejected it.’
Denney: ‘Paul is thinking of the historical people, as the contrast with Gentiles shows, but he is not thinking of them one by one. Israel a Christian nation, Israel as a nation a part of the Messianic kingdom, is the content of his thought. To make [“all Israel”] refer to a “spiritual” Israel, or to the elect, is to miss the mark: it foretells a “conversion of the Jews so universal that the separation into an ‘elect remnant’ and’ the rest who were hardened’ shall disappear” (Gifford).’
Berkhof: ‘”All Israel” is to be understood as a designation not of the whole nation, but of the whole number of the elect out of the ancient covenant people.’
F.F. Bruce: ‘it does not mean “every single Jew without exception”, but “Israel as a whole.”’
Moo: ‘As a survey of the Old Testament and Jewish literature quickly reveals, this phrase does not usually refer to all Jews, or even to all Jews alive at a given time. It has a representative significance, as in, for instance, Joshua 7:25, where “all Israel” is said to have stoned Achan. Romans 11:26 gives no support for even a qualified universalism.’ (In Hell Under Fire. Zondervan Academic)
Kostenberger: ‘not necessarily every single Jew alive at that time, but the nation as a whole as represented by its leadership’.
John Murray, too, thinks that Paul is referring here to Israel as a collective entity: ‘Paul envisions a restoration of Israel as a people to God’s covenant favour and blessing. In Romans 11:15 this viewpoint is inescapable. The casting away of Israel (apobole) is the rejection of Israel as a people collectively (see Matt 21:43). The rhetorical question which follows implies that there is to be a reception of them again (proslempsis), a restoration of that from which they had been rejected. But the same collective aspect must apply to the restoration; otherwise the contrast would lose its force.’ Again: ‘“All Israel shall be saved” (Rom 11:26) is to be interpreted in terms of the fullness, the receiving, the ingrafting of Israel as a people, the restoration of Israel to gospel favor and blessing…In a word, it is the salvation of the mass of Israel that the apostle affirms.’
‘All Israel’ is ‘comprehensive, but not all-inclusive’ (Hard Sayings of the Bible), just as ‘the fullness of the Gentiles’ does not mean that every single Gentile will believe. For similar uses of the word ‘all’, see Rom 5:18–21; 11:32.
‘Paul declares…that “all Israel will be saved” (Rom 11:26)—not thereby claiming that every single Jew will go to heaven, but certainly affirming his conviction that Israel as a whole, ethnic Israel, will find there is a place for her in the final salvation’ (Theological Interpretation of the New Testament)
Dunn: ‘There is now a strong consensus that pas Israēl [‘all Israel’] must mean Israel as a whole, as a people whose corporate identity and wholeness would not be lost even if in the event there were some (or indeed many) individual exceptions.… For Paul, who has stressed the power of his gospel to all who believe (Rom 1:16), that his apostleship was for the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles (Rom 1:5), and that the promise to Abraham was to all the seed (Rom 4:16), it was clearly important to be able to say all Israel’.’
Keener likewise thinks that Paul is thinking of ‘Israel as a people, a collective unit, without specifying that every Jew will be saved.’
Stott says: ‘At present Israel is hardened except for a believing remnant, and will remain so until the Gentiles have come in. Then ‘all Israel’ must mean the great mass of the Jewish people, comprising both the previously hardened majority and the believing minority.’
A number of commentators cite, in support of this view, a rabbinic tract (Sanhedrin X, 1), where the statement “all Israelites have a share in the world to come” is immediately qualified by a list of exceptions, such as the Sadducees, heretics, magicians and so on.
The 19th-century commentator Robert Haldane was unwilling to countenance any restriction on the expression ‘all Israel’: ‘Then the people of Israel, as a body, shall be brought to the faith of the Gospel. Such expressions as that “all Israel shall be saved,” are no doubt, in certain situations, capable of limitation; but as no Scripture demands any limitation of this expression, and as the opposition here stated is between a part and all, there is no warrant to make any exception, and with God this, like all other things, is possible.’ Hodge appears to take a similar view: ‘The nation, as such, shall acknowledge Jesus to be the Messiah, and be admitted into his kingdom.’
To summarise: if Paul reference to ‘all Israel’ is to ethnic Israel, then there is a strong argument for thinking that he means ‘Israel as a whole’, not ‘the elect within Israel’.
Is this to take place at the end of time, or as a continuing process?
Within this ‘majority’ position, there is further debate over whether Paul envisages the salvation of ‘all Israel’ as taking place at the end of time, or as a continuous process.
The general view in the Patristic period was that of a large-scale turning of Jewish people to Christ in the last days.
Jeremy Cohen cites Origen to the effect that the reintegration of the Jews into the people of God ‘remains a vital, indispensable component of the ultimate salvation.’
Augustine (City of God): ‘It is a familiar theme in the conversation and heart of the faithful, that in the last days before the judgment the Jews shall believe in the true Christ, that is, our Christ, by means of this great and admirable prophet Elias who shall expound the law to them. . . . When, therefore, he is come, he shall give a spiritual explanation of the law which the Jews at present understand carnally, and shall thus “turn the heart of the father to the son,” that is, the heart of the fathers to the children.’
Cyril of Alexandria: ‘At the end of time our Lord Jesus Christ will be reconciled with Israel, his ancient persecutor, just as Jacob kissed Esau after his return from Haran. No one who listens to the words of holy Scripture can actually doubt that with the passing of time Israel also will have to be received again into the love of Christ through faith.’
Cassiodorus (c. 485-585), commenting on Psa 102:9 – ‘This verse can be applied also to the Jewish people, who we know are to be converted at the world’s end. On this Paul says: Blindness in part has happened in Israel, that the fullness of the Gentiles should come in, and so all Israel should be saved.’
The celebrated 18th-century commentator Matthew Henry was undecided on when this large-scale conversion would take place. Some, he said, thought that there was just such a large-scale turning of Jewish people to Christ around the time of the destruction of Jerusalem, AD 70. ’Others,’ he says, ‘think that it is yet to have its accomplishment towards the end of the world-that those Jews which yet wonderfully remain distinct from the rest of the nations by their names, customs, and religion, and are very numerous, especially in the Levant parts, shall, by the working of the Spirit with the word, be convinced of their sin, and brought generally to embrace the Christian faith, and to join in with the Christian churches, which will contribute much to their strength and beauty.’
On the basis of such an expectation that the last days would see a substantial turning of God’s historic people to Christ, Evangelical leaders such as Charles Simeon, J.C. Ryle and C.H. Spurgeon gave strong support to missionary endeavours amongst Jewish people. Preaching from Rom 11:25-27, Simeon asserted that the Scriptures speak ‘much’ on the subject of ‘the future restoration of the Jews.’
John Murray argues that just as the termination of Israel’s hardening has a time reference, so also must their salvation: ‘The apostle is thinking of a time in the future when the hardening of Israel will terminate. As the fullness, receiving, ingrafting have this time reference, so must the salvation of Israel have.’
Cranfield (Shorter Commentary) mentions three things about this clause: ‘First, “thus” is emphatic: it will be in the circumstances obtaining when the first two stages have been fulfilled, and only to and then, that “all Israel shall be saved”. Secondly, the most likely explanation of “all Israel is that it means the nation of Israel as a whole, though not necessarily including every individual member. Thirdly, we understand “shall be saved” to refer to a restoration of the nation of Israel to God at the end of history, an eschatological even in the strict sense.’
Morris agrees that ‘the nation of Israel as a whole will ultimately have its place in God’s salvation’, and that ‘this may well’ take place at the end time. Moo maintains that Paul places this clearly at the end of time. The apostle envisages a large-scale conversion of Jewish people at the end of the present age. Witherington is of the same mind.
The popular writer Warren Wiersbe says: ‘“All Israel shall be saved” does not mean that every Jew who has ever lived will be converted, but that the Jews living when the Redeemer returns will see Him, receive Him, and be saved.’ Wiersbe finds support in Zech 12-13.
According to Steve Motyer, ‘The conversion of the last Gentile will be followed by a huge revival among the Jews, so that all Jews then alive will be ushered into the kingdom…” All Israel” in Rom 11:26, I believe, is the entire company of those “from the Jews” whom God wills to call “my people”, in fulfilment of his purposes of election.’
In support of this, we have (a) the order of events which Paul sets out: first the in-grafting of the Gentiles, and then that of the Jews; (b) the future tenses of v23, 24, 26; (c) the statement in v25 that ‘Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in’. Additionally, it might be observed that no conversion of Jewish people has yet occurred on such a scale as could be described as ‘all Israel’ being ‘saved’, and therefore we look to a time that is yet future for this to happen.
Piper agrees that the meaning of Rom 11:26s is ‘that someday the nation as a whole (not necessarily every individual…) will be converted to Christ and join the Christian church and be saved.’
Others, however, think that what is in Paul’s mind is a logical, rather than a temporal, sequence. Kruse, for example, says: ‘It is unlikely that Paul means that there will be a last minute national turning to Christ on the part of the last generation, something that would have no significance for those many generations of Jews who had come and gone in the meantime.’ Hendriksen says that Paul ‘is not thinking about the time but about the way or manner in which “all Israel” is saved.’ Merkle argues similarly, as does Zoccali.
Reymond suggests a number reasons in support of his view that the conversion of the Jews takes place contemporaneously with that of the Gentiles, and that they reach their ‘full numbers’ simultaneously:- (a) Paul’s emphasis on Jews and Gentiles being grafted into the same olive tree again, with the implication that there is no separate process or program for each group; (b) the expression ‘until’ in Rom 11:25 carries no implication that the hardening will be followed by their salvation (for similar usage, Mt 24:38; Acts 22:4; 1 Cor 11:26; 15:25; Heb 4:12); (c) the expression ‘and so’ in Rom 11:26 does not mean ‘and then’, but rather ‘thus’, or ‘in this way’; (d) Paul’s strategic use of the word ‘now’ in Rom 11:30-31; (e) the summary statement in Rom 11:32 confirms that current significance of the gospel of Jews and Gentiles alike. Reymond cites Berkhof, Berkouwer, Ridderbos, Hoekema, O. Palmer Robertson and others in support of this view. Hendriksen also takes this view.
Longenecker (cited by Pate with approval), offers a nuancing of this argument, suggesting that by ‘all Israel’ Paul is thinking of a unified Israel, comprising those Jews who have been Christians since the time of Christ, and those who have strayed in unbelief but who will turn in substantial numbers to their Messiah: ‘In 11:26 Paul is thinking exclusively of an ethnic entity, and moreover, of that entity as a whole. Throughout 9–11, Paul draws out the disparate courses of two groups—believing and unbelieving—within ethnic Israel. By the inclusive “all” in 11:26, he joins both groups together. Thus Paul looks forward to the time when not only the remnant of Israel who have believed but also those of Israel who have strayed from the course of their unbelief will be saved. When Paul speaks of “all Israel” in 11:26, what he has in mind is an ethnic group whose members at present are schismatically divided. In this sense, his point is not so much that all Israel will be saved, but that all Israel will be saved.
To summarise: if ‘all Israel’ means the Jewish nation as an entity (although not every individual Jew within that nation), then it is probable that their ‘salvation’ will consist or (or at least, include), a large-scale turning to God in the last days.
How will they be saved, and will this involve a restoration to the Land?
The absence of Christological language in Rom 11 has suggested to some that the method of salvation will not be by faith in Jesus Christ but adherence to the Mosaic covenant. Krister Stendahl, for example, pointed out that Jesus Christ is not mentioned between Rom 10:18 and Rom 11:36, and that Paul does not say that ‘all Israel’ will believe in Jesus as Messiah, but rather that they will be ‘saved’. But this two-covenant theory is quite alien to Paul’s teaching: he has expended a great deal of time and energy establishing the suitability of the gospel of Christ to all – to the Jew first and then also to the Gentile. Any future conversion of the Jews will be by means of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Stott says: ‘It is clear…that the “salvation” of Israel for which Paul has prayed, Rom 10:1, to which he will lead his own people by arousing their envy, Rom 11:14, which has also come to the Gentiles, Rom 11:11, cf Rom 1:16, and which one day “all Israel” will experience, Rom 11:26, is salvation from sin through faith in Christ.’
Some who stand within this overall ‘majority’ position link it with a hope of a latter-day return of Jewish people to the Land. This was a minority view among the early Fathers of the Church, and also among the Puritans.
Preaching from Romans 11:26a the noted 19th-century evangelical J.C. Ryle confessed: ‘To my eyes, the future salvation of Israel as a people, their return to Palestine and their national conversion to God, appear as clearly and plainly revealed as any prophecy in God’s Word.’
Ryle’s famous contemporary, C.H. Spurgeon, said: ‘There will be a native government again; there will again be the form of a body politic; a state shall be incorporated, and a king shall reign. Israel has now become alienated from her own land. Her sons, though they can never forget the sacred dust of Palestine, yet die at a hopeless distance from her consecrated shores. But it shall not be so for ever, for her sons shall again rejoice in her: her land shall be called Beulah, for as a young man marrieth a virgin so shall her sons marry her. “I will place you in your own land,” is God’s promise to them . . . They are to have a national prosperity which shall make them famous; nay, so glorious shall they be that Egypt, and Tyre, and Greece, and Rome, shall all forget their glory in the greater splendour of the throne of David . . . I there be anything clear and plain, the literal sense and meaning of this passage [Ezekiel 37:1-10]—a meaning not to be spirited or spiritualized away—must be evident that both the two and the ten tribes of Israel are to be restored to their own land, and that a king is to rule over them.’
Spurgeon, it will be noted, was preaching from an Old Testament passage. And it is almost exclusively to the Old Testament that supporters of a return of Israel to the Land must appeal. But, given the teaching of the New Testament on this question (where it seems impossible to find any affirmation regarding a latter-day return to the Land), we must conclude that there is a fundamental hermeneutical error here on the part of Spurgeon and his modern Christian Zionist counterparts.
Geisler is among those who argue that God’s promises to his ancient people that they would inherit the Land must still literally apply, since he gave it to them by unconditional oath, Gen 12:1–3; 13:15–17; 15:7–21; 17:8. Paul reminds his readers that ‘the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable’ in the very passage – Romans 9-11 – where he is speaking of the salvation of ‘all Israel’. This understanding of the restoration of the Jews to the Land receives further support from our Lord’s answer to the disciples’ enquiry in Acts 1:6, from his promise that his disciples would judge the twelve tribes of Israel (Mt 19:28), and from the redemption out of the tribulation of 144,000 of all the tribes of the children of Israel, Rev 7:4.
However, regarding the passage in Romans 11, Stott: ‘It is not a national salvation, for nothing is said about either a political entity or a return to the land. Nor is there any hint of a special way of salvation for the Jews which dispenses with faith in Christ.’
N.T. Wright comments that it would be odd for Paul to predict a return of the Jews to their land, since they had not left it in the first place. The contributor to Hard Sayings of the Bible, however, points out that in Paul’s time there were already more Jews living outside the land than were living in it. Nevertheless, he agrees that ‘there is no indication anywhere in these chapters of Romans that Paul has in view the conversion of Israel as a nation-state, located on a particular piece of real estate…What Paul does envision is a time when the gospel will be heard and accepted by his people as a whole, scattered throughout the world but, nonetheless, a unique, identifiable people whose identity is rooted in the great historical events of redemptive history and whose future is guaranteed by the God who has saved his people and will again save them by “banishing unGodliness” and “taking away their sins”.’ (Rom 11:26-27)
In summary: most scholars think that “Israel” here means ‘the nation of Israel’ understand the expression “and so all Israel will be saved” as referring to a latter-day, large-scale turning of Jewish people to faith in Christ, but without linking this to an expectation of a divinely-ordained return to the land.
The minority report
‘All Israel’ means ‘the new covenant people of God, both Jews and gentiles’
We turn now to consider the possibility that the reference in Romans 11:26a is not to ethnic Israel, but to the ‘new Israel’, constituted of Jewish and Gentile believers.
According to Staples, this was the prevailing opinion in the patristic period. However, Origen (as previously noted) was agnostic on this question, and Cyril of Alexandria saw a distinction between ethnic Israel and the Gentiles in this passage.
Augustine: ‘Not all the Jews were blind; some of them recognized Christ. But the fullness of the Gentiles comes in among those who have been called according to the plan, and there arises a truer Israel of God … the elect from both the Jews and the Gentiles’. (ACCS)
Theodoret of Cyrrhus: ‘All Israel means all those who believe, whether they are Jews, who have a natural relationship to Israel, or Gentiles, who are related to Israel by faith’. (ACCS)
For Calvin, ‘all Israel’ is equivalent to ‘the Israel of God’ in Gal 6:16, and refers to ‘all the people of God’, in the sense that, ‘When the Gentiles have come in, the Jews will at the same time return from their defection to the obedience of faith. The salvation of the whole Israel of God, which must be drawn from both, will thus be completed, and yet in such a way that the Jews, as the first born in the family of God, may obtain the first place.’
According to Moo, ‘this view became especially widespread among Protestant Continental theologians in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.’
The New Testament scholar Ralph Martin was of this view, as also was Karl Barth.
Thiselton gives caution support to this view, saying that ‘most probably “all Israel” includes the co-equal Israel and gentile believers whom God purposed to be saved.’ Unfortunately, this respected scholar does not explain or justify his position on this disputed point.
It is unfortunate that some who reject this interpretation appear to do so without properly considering the weight of argument in its favour. Popular authors such as Kent Hughes maintain that ‘there is no way “Israel” here can be spiritualized, considering the context of chapters 9–11. It clearly refers to ethnic Israel, the Jewish people.’ Simon Ponsonby thinks that ‘such an interpretation stems from a wider a priori theology in which Christ and the church have now fulfilled or even replaced the place (sic) of Israel in God’s economy.’ But this is both to neglect the exegetical arguments in favour of this position and to suppose that replacement theology and fulfilment theology are pretty much the same thing.
Iain Murray, although not supporting this view, nevertheless concedes that ‘this spiritualization of the term “Israel” does is not as strained as some have alleged.’ He notes that in Rom 9:6 Paul has stressed that race per se does not make a true Israelites, and in Gal 3:29 Gentile believers are recognised as belonging to Abraham’s seed. Murray also notes the important reference to the term “Israel of God” in Gal 6:16, where it describes the whole Church. Other relevant passages include Rom 2:28–29; 4:1-17; 1 Cor 10:18; Phil 3:2–3; Gal 3:1–9, 26–29.
Palmer Robertson aptly remarks that if in the previous verse ‘the fulness of the Gentiles’ refers to Gentile believers, than it is clear that these believing Gentiles come into Israel: ‘Is that not exactly the point made by Paul earlier in this chapter? Gentiles have been “grafted in among” the Israel of God, Rom 11:17. They have become additional branches, joined in the single stock that is note other than Israel…In other words they have becomes Israelites.’ This is consistent with Paul’s argument in Eph 2:12f; 3:6.
Stephen Sizer (although not committing himself to any single interpretation of the phrase ‘all Israel’) notes that this interpretation parallels Paul’s argument in Eph 2:13f, where Gentiles are described as ‘excluded from citizenship in Israel…but now in Christ…brought near by the blood of Christ.’ They are now ‘heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus’ (Eph 3:6). It is precisely this incorporation of Jewish and Gentile believers together in Christ that constitutes, for Paul, the mystery of the gospel (Zion’s Christian Soldiers?, p60f).
Sizer then notes that Paul, in Gal 4, teaches that unbelieving Jews are the spiritual descendants of Hagar, rather than of Sarah. The promises made to Abraham and his seed are now fulfilled through Christ and those who are in Christ, since they alone are the true children of Abraham and Sarah.
N.T. Wright (The climax of the covenant) rejects the idea that a ‘large-scale, last-minute salvation of ethnic Jews’ is promised in Scripture. In his commentary on Romans, Wright states: ‘I remain convinced that … God will save “all Israel”—that is the whole family of Abraham, Jew and Gentile alike; this will take place during the course of present history; it will happen through their coming to Christian faith.… The phrase “all Israel”, then, is best taken as a polemical redefinition, in line with Paul’s redefinitions of “Jew” in Rom 2:29, of “circumcision” in Rom 2:29 and Phil 3:3, and of “seed of Abraham” in Romans 4, Galatians 3, and Rom 9:6–9. It belongs with what seems indubitably the correct reading of “the Israel of God” in Gal. 6:16’.
As noted above, a number of commentators cite the rabbinic tract (Sanhedrin X, 1), where the statement “all Israelites have a share in the world to come” is immediately qualified by a list of exceptions, such as the Sadducees, heretics, magicians and so on. Wright thinks that Paul, in the phrase presently under discussion, may well be picking up this rabbinical expression: ‘Just as the Rabbis redefined that phrase so that it excluded Sadducees, and other Jews deemed to be beyond the pale, so Paul has redefined it to include (1) Messiah-believing Jews—himself, all others already in that category and, he hopes, a much larger number who come to be ‘jealous’ and so to believe, and (2) Messiah-believing Gentiles (‘to the Jew first, and also equally to the Greek’). But it excludes, as the Rabbis’ own ‘all Israel’ excluded those who were deemed outside, those Jews who, despite being given a space of time by God’s patience and kindness, have stumbled over the stumbling stone and have not picked themselves up, have not become ‘jealous’ in the way Deuteronomy 32 described, have not been provoked by Paul’s own Gentile apostolate, have not come to believe and confess in the way Deuteronomy 30 indicated, have not ‘submitted to God’s righteousness’ (10:3), have not availed themselves of God’s circumcision of the heart, have not joined in the renewal of the covenant and have not grasped at the divine fulfilment of the Abrahamic promises.’ (Paul and the faithfulness of God)
Ladd (ISBE, 2nd ed, art. ‘Eschatology’) remarks similarly that ‘the key to interpretation…is that Paul implicitly redefines “Israel,” both intensively and extensively. He indicates, first, that the true Israel does not include all physical descendants of Abraham but is limited to a believing remnant (9:6–13). Then he indicates that the people of God, the true Israel, is also extended to include Gentiles (9:24); taking promises from Hosea (1:10; 2:23), which in their OT setting referred only to the future of the nation Israel, Paul applies them to the Church (Rom. 9:25f.). Those who were “not my people”—Gentiles—have now become “my people,” “sons of the living God,” by inclusion in the Church. In a real sense, then, the OT promises to Israel are fulfilled in this new definition of the people of God, the Church.’
Ralph Martin notes that there is a consensus that ‘all Israel’ means ‘Israel as a whole’, rather than every individual Israelite. He thinks that the expression ‘certainly’ includes Gentile believers, because they have just been mentioned, in v25, and they they are included in Paul’s thought in v32. Martin concludes that the phrase ‘all Israel’ is ‘The phrase ‘all Israel” looks to be an omnibus expression covering all types of believers: elect Israelites from the beginning; responsive Gentiles who hear the message from Paul’s lips; and (when the Gentiles’ full tally is complete) the ‘Israel-of-the-future’ who in faith will embrace the messianic salvation. Paul concludes, with an Old Testament citation to buttress his eschatological hope, ‘So in this way all Israel will be saved … God has consigned all men (Jews and Gentiles alike in Adam, 1:18–3:20; 5:12–14) to disobedience, that he may have mercy upon all’ (Jews and Gentiles alike in the new Man, Jesus Christ).’
Arguments against this view
Moo (2nd ed.) advances two arguments against this interpretation:-
(a) Paul has used the term ‘Israel’ ten times already in Romans 9-11 (Rom. 9:6b (twice), 27 (twice), 31; 10:19, 21; 11:2, 7, 25). In each of these (with the ‘possible’ exception of Rom 9:6), it is clear that ethnic Israel is meant. ‘This clearly is the meaning of the term in v. 25b, and a shift from this ethnic denotation to a purely religious one in v. 26a—despite the “all”—is unlikely.’
(b) But there is a factor ‘even more damaging’ to this view: ‘the hortatory purpose of Rom 11:11–32. Paul’s view of the continuity of salvation history certainly allows him to transfer the OT title of the people of God to the NT people of God, as Gal. 6:16 probably indicates (see also Phil. 3:3; and perhaps Rom. 9:6). And this same theology surfaces in Romans itself, as Paul argues that Abraham’s “seed” consists of faithful Jews and Gentiles (Rom 4:13–18). But the difference in purpose between Rom. 11 and these other texts makes it unlikely that Paul would make the semantic move of using Israel to denote the church here. In both Galatians and Rom. 4 Paul is arguing that Gentiles, as Gentiles, can become recipients of the blessings promised to Abraham and full members of the people of God. Paul’s application to Gentiles of OT people-of-God language is perfectly appropriate in such contexts.805 But Paul’s purpose in Rom. 11 is almost the opposite. Here, he counters a tendency for Gentiles to appropriate for themselves exclusively the rights and titles of “God’s people.” For Paul in this context to call the church “Israel” would be to fuel the fire of the Gentiles’ arrogance by giving them grounds to brag that “we are the true Israel.”’
To draw together some of the arguments in favour of this view:-
(a) Why Paul refers, almost in the same breath, to ‘ethnic’ Israel and to ‘spiritual’ Israel. To deal first with the strongest objection: we must explain why Paul sometimes uses ‘Israel’ in its ethnic sense (as in Rom 11:25), and at other times in a non-ethnic sense (as in Rom 11:26). How can Paul change the word’s referent so suddenly, without clearly signposting it? But we can agree that v25 definitely refers to Israel as a race, the idea that the reference in v26 is to a ‘spiritual’ Israel is not at all far-fetched. Wright has drawn attention to the chiastic structure of Romans 9-11, with Rom 9:6-29 matched by Rom 11:1-32. Paul has already shown, Rom 9:6, that membership of race does not make a person a true Israelite. As Wright says, this distinction ‘hangs over the rest of the discussion like a puzzling question mark: who then are ‘Israel’, if not all Abraham’s physical children are to qualify? Already this ought to alert us to the fact that pas Israēl in Rom 11:26, close to the balancing point with Rom 9:6 in the rhetorical architecture of the whole section, is not likely to mean ‘all Abraham’s physical children’…The line of thought throughout the whole letter has all along indicated the possibility of a polemical redefinition even of this noble term for God’s people’ (Paul and the faithfulness of God). After all, Paul has already distinguished clearly between ethnic and ‘spiritual’ Israel, Rom 2:28-29. Gal 3:29 refers to Gentile believers as being of Abraham’s seed, and Gal 6:16 to the whole Church of Christ as the ‘Israel of God’. See also Phil 3:3; 1 Cor 10:18. Again, in Rom 10:5-13 (which Wright regards as the centre of the chiastic structure), Paul asserts that ‘there is no distinction between Jew and Greek’ (Rom 10:12). Stepping back, we see that this is consistent with what Paul announces to be the main theme of the epistle: that ‘the gospel is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes’ (Rom 1:18f, my italics). Bearing all this in mind, it becomes more than plausible that Paul has been holding back his radical ‘redefinition’ of the word ‘Israel’ until the climactic summary statement in v26a.
(b) Paul habitually emphasises the oneness of those who are in Christ Jesus – Jewish and Gentile believers (cf. Eph 2:14-15). The ‘all’ in the verse presently under consideration then matches the repeated ‘all’ in Rom 10:4,11,13; 11:32. This supports the idea that he is once again speaking of God’s one people – the ‘true Israel’. De Lacey (DPL) notes that in Galatians Paul develops ‘a sustained argument that his converts already enjoy all the blessings of the covenant—they are already children of Abraham (Gal 3:7, 28–29)…In Galatians then—almost certainly one of the earliest extant letters of Paul—we already see…a deep conviction about the nature of the church as the true Israel of God, with Jew and Gentile on equal standing before God and to each other.’ De Lacey add that ‘within this perspective it is more likely than not that in Romans 11:26 Paul reiterates his redefinition of “all Israel” (cf. Rom 9:6) as a new people in Christ, wherein is “neither Jew nor Greek” (Gal 3:28).’
(c) Paul has been teaching that the nature of the Christian church is that Gentile believers have been grafted onto the Jewish stock. Then, he has been saying that the Jewish branches, cut off because of their unbelief, can be grafted back on again. It would make good sense to regard this entire ‘olive tree’, consisting of a Jewish stock with ‘wild’ Gentile branches grafted on, and then ‘natural’ Jewish branches also grafted on (v23), as ‘Israel’. So, once again, the focus is on the one people of God. Wright (Paul and the faithfulness of God) quotes Ross Wagner: ‘This view [that ‘all Israel’ may include believing Gentiles] is certainly a plausible inference from Paul’s language of the Gentiles ‘coming in’, particularly when it is heard in conjunction with the olive tree metaphor, where Gentile ‘branches’ are grafted into the ‘root’, which is Israel … For Paul, ‘Israel’ will be a complete entity only when ‘the fullness of the Gentiles’ comes in and ‘the Redeemer’ comes from Zion to take away ‘Jacob’s’ sins.’
(d) The ‘mystery’ of which Paul speaks (Rom 11:25) is what he usually means when he speaks of ‘mystery’: that Gentile and Jewish believers have together been constituted as the people of God. If this were not the case, the apostle would be introducing here a novel and (for him) paralleled) meaning of the word ‘mystery’. Jason Staples, in his recent (2011) study, argues that ‘all Israel’ implies ‘both houses’ (i.e. the southern tribes of Judah and the northern tribes of Israel/Ephraim). These northern tribes had been dispersed among the nations. But now, with the gathering of the full number of the elect from among the nations along with the gathering of the full number of the elect from among the Jews, ‘all Israel will be saved’. This is consistent with Paul’s use of the word ‘mystery’ at the end of this epistle, where it refers to the revelation of God’s purpose ‘so that all nations might believe and obey him’ (Rom 16:26).
We should add that if the salvation of ‘all Israel’ here refers to ethnic Israel, then the whole idea is novel unparalleled in the Pauline corpus. P.T. O’Brien (DPL, art. ‘mystery’) concedes that ‘an element of new teaching may be in view in Romans 11:25.’ It is also doubtful whether any trace of a salvific future for Israel, conceived as an ethnic entity, can be found anywhere else in the NT: texts such as Mt 23:39 contain merest hints, at most. We should be wary of advancing any significant doctrine where only a single text appears to support it.
(e) The expression ‘and so’, with which this verse begins, also lends support to this interpretation. It means, ‘in this manner’ (Moo); ‘in this way’ (Bruce, Morris, Kruse); that is, in the manner that Paul has just outlined in vv11-24 and summarised in v25b. And the way that Paul has just described is the way in which the salvation of the Gentiles leads to jealousy and salvation on the part of Israel. His ministry to the Gentiles is helping to bring about their ‘fullness’ (v25), and this is leading to the ‘fullness’ of his beloved fellow-Jews (v12), thus making one complete people, one ‘all Israel’.
(f) The very expression ‘all Israel’ has distinct overtones of ‘completeness’ about it. It is an expression that occurs no less than 45 times in Chronicles, where it expresses the conviction that ‘for the Chronicler, there was no more north and south, Israel and Judah, but just “all Israel.”’ (Apologetics Study Bible).
(g) This interpretation reconciles Romans 11:14, where Paul says that he expects “some” to be saved, and Romans 11:26, where he says all Israel will be saved. Rom 11:32 clarifies: ‘God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all.’ ‘God’s mercy extends to all, Jew and Gentile alike, but will all Israel be saved or just some? The answer is found in looking back at the rhetorical center of Romans 9-11, which is Romans 10:9-13: “..If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. For the Scripture says, ‘Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.’ For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”’ (Vreeland, summarising Wright’s argument in Paul and the Faithfulness of God.
Does this mean that the Church is ‘the new Israel’?
If ‘all Israel’ does, in Paul’s mind, consist of all true followers of Jesus Christ, both Jews and gentiles, then the question of the relationship between ethnic Israel and the Christian church needs to be brought into focus.
In addition to the present passage, the following are particularly relevant to this question
Rom 9:6-8 – ‘not all those who are descended from Israel are truly Israel, 9:7 nor are all the children Abraham’s true descendants; rather “through Isaac will your descendants be counted.” 9:8 This means it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God; rather, the children of promise are counted as descendants.’
Gal 6:14-16 – ‘May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. 6:15 For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that matters is a new creation! 6:16 And all who will behave in accordance with this rule, peace and mercy be on them, and on the Israel of God.’
Rev 2:9 – ‘…those who call themselves Jews and really are not, but are a synagogue of Satan’ (also Rev 3:9).
Once again, opinion is divided.
Colin Chapman (p242) says:
‘although Christians often speak loosely of the church as “the new Israel”, this title is not found in the New Testament.’
Chapman quotes Goldingay as saying that although the New Testament applies to the Church various terms that in the Old Testament had been applied to Israel, it does not call the Church ‘Israel’ or ‘the new Israel’. (But see Gal 6:16 and other passages cited in the present section). These authors conclude that the Church shares in the privileges and blessings of Israel, but does not replace Israel.
Writing in the Dictionary of Paul and his Letters, Campbell says that the kai (‘and’) should be noted in Gal 6:16, and the verse translated, with P. Richardson: ‘May God give peace to all who will walk according to this criterion, and mercy also to his faithful people Israel.’ Campbell adds:
‘The problem with terms such as “true Israel”, “spiritual Israel” or even “eschatological Israel” is that all of these may be misused to imply that the church is the only true Israel, and that “historical Israel” is no better than pagan nations, having forfeited her heritage absolutely. It is quite clear that despite Paul’s making a radical distinction within Israel and thereby driving a wedge into the historical people of God, he would certainly have insisted that part of historical Israel is also part of eschatological Israel.’
Chapman, Goldingay and Campbell are right to warn against a crass and simplistic ‘replacement theology’. What their arguments tend to neglect, however, is the fact that it is precisely the Church as comprised of Jewish and Gentile Christians of which Paul speaks so often and so passionately. So, even if he does sometimes speak of the Church as the ‘new Israel’, this by no means implies that in his thinking the Church has ‘replaced’ Israel.
We are, after all, taught in the New Testament not only about the ‘true Israel’, but also the true circumcision, the true sons of Abraham, the true temple, the new covenant. So, for example, in Eph 2:21 Christ is the new temple, with those who are ‘in Christ’, Jewish and Gentile believers, constituting living stones.
Writing in the New Bible Dictionary, F.F. Bruce says:
‘Whether the expression ‘the Israel of God’ in its one appearance in the NT (Gal. 6:16) denotes believing Jews only, or believing Jews and Gentiles without distinction, is disputed; the latter is more probable, especially if the expression is to be construed in apposition to ‘all who walk by this rule’.
But that the community of believers in Jesus, irrespective of their natural origin, is looked upon as the new Israel throughout the NT is clear. They are
- ‘the twelve tribes in the dispersion’ (Jas. 1:1),
- ‘the exiles of the dispersion’ (1 Pet. 1:1), who are further designated, in language borrowed from OT descriptions of Israel, as
- ‘a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people’ (1 Pet. 2:9).’
We might add Rev 7:4 to this list of references: the ‘144,000 from all the tribes of Israel’ stand (we are persuaded) for the total number of God’s elect.
Ladd, in his Theology of the New Testament, takes a similar view:
‘It follows that if Jesus proclaimed the messianic salvation, if he offered to Israel the fulfillment of her true destiny, then this destiny was actually accomplished in those who received his message. The recipients of the messianic salvation became the true Israel, representatives of the nation as a whole. While it is true that the word “Israel” is never applied to Jesus’ disciples, the idea is present, if not the term. Jesus’ disciples are the recipients of the messianic salvation, the people of the kingdom, the true Israel.’
P. Kyle McCarter (HarperCollins Bible Dictionary) says that the early church understood itself as the
‘legitimate heir to the ancient promises. Paul argued that the Jews who did not accept Christ were in danger of forfeiting these promises, which had come to Abraham through faith, not the law (Rom. 4:13). According to Paul, “those who believe (in Christ) are the (true) descendants of Abraham” (Gal. 3:7). It follows that the early Christian community, like the Qumran community, regarded itself as the true Israel, i.e., “the Israel of God” (Gal 6:16). Other NT writers refer to the church as the “twelve tribes in the Dispersion” (James 1:1; cf. 1 Pet. 1:1). Appropriating language applicable to ancient Israel, the author of 1 Peter addresses his Gentile Christian audience as “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people” (1 Pet 2:9).’
Ridderbos: when Paul speaks of the ‘new covenant’, 2 Cor 3:6 etc., he has in mind the OT promises, Jer 31:33; Ezek 11:19; 36:26. It is in fulfilment of these prophecies that the spiritual privileges of the old covenant pass over to the people of the new covenant, 2 Cor 6:16ff. Out of this fulfillment in Christ a whole cluster of covenant privileges flow as now belonging to his people: they are sons of God, Rom 8:14ff; Eph 1:5; they are heirs according to promises, Gal 3:29; 4:7; they share in the inheritance promised to Abraham, Rom 8:17; they are heirs of God’s kingdom, 1 Cor 6:9f; 15:50; Gal 5:21; they rejoice in the hope of glory, Rom 5:2; 8:21; 2 Cor 3:7ff; Phil 3:19; they experience the splendour of God’s presence, Rom 9:4; they called to worship, Rom 12:1; they serve God in the Spirit, Phil 3:3. Whereas the Gentiles were once alienated from the covenant and the people of the covenant, Eph 2:12, through salvation they have become fellow-members of the household of God, Eph 2:19, and, Jewish and Gentile believers together, are now the people of God’s possession, Eph 1:4; cf. Ex 19:5.
‘In a word,’ writes Ridderbos, ‘the richly variegated designations of Israel as the people of God are applied to the Christian church…The more one views the Pauline epistles from this vantage point, the richer the materials prove to be that characterise the New Testament church in its continuity with ancient Israel on the one hand, and as the church of the New Covenant qualified by the forgiveness of sins and the gifts of the Spirit on the others.’
Thus Wright (The New Testament and the People of God):
‘From the earliest evidence, the Christians regarded themselves as a new family, directly descended from the family of Israel, but now transformed…Those who now belonged to Jesus’ people were not identical with ethnic Israel, since Israel’s history had reached its intended fulfilment; they claimed to be the continuation of Israel in a new situation, able to draw freely on Israel-images to express their self-identity, able to read Israel’s scriptures (through the lines of Messiah and spirit) and apply them to their own life. They were thrust out by that claim, and that reading, to fulfil Israel’s vocation on behalf of the world.’
It is highly likely that support for the ‘majority position’ is motivated by a love for the Jewish people (a love which Paul shares) and by concerns about the theological error of supercessionism (on this, see the article by Bloesch); and the moral error of anti-semitism. But this is not, insists Wright, supercessionism, ‘replacement theology’:
‘Paul is writing, with all the eleven chapters of theology behind him, in order to say that “Gentile Christians” have not “replaced” Jews as the true people of God.’ (Wright, The Climax of the Covenant).
Still less can this interpretation be construed as anti-semitic. In fact Paul’s entire argument in this section of the letter is to correct the incipient anti-semitism of the the Gentile Christians in Rome (Romans 11:13,17-20). And only someone trying to read Romans 11-13 in a darkened room with his eyes shut, could miss Paul’s passionate love for his fellow-countrymen and his desire for their salvation.
So, if talk of a ‘new Israel’ implies too much of a discontinuity with the ‘old Israel’, then perhaps we can agree that the Jewish and Gentile believers who together constitute the Church can legitimately be referred to as the ‘renewed Israel’, or even the ‘completed Israel’. This would be consistent with the most probable interpretation of Romans 11:26f and of the general teaching of the New Testament.
Does this view allow for a large-scale turning of Jewish people to Christ in the last days?
‘When the Gentiles shall come in, the Jews also shall return from their defection to the obedience of faith.’
Calvin again (in his commentary on Isa 59:20):
‘Paul quotes this passage, (Romans 11:26) in order to show that there is still some remaining hope among the Jews; although from their unconquerable obstinacy it might be inferred that they were altogether cast off and doomed to eternal death. But because God is continually mindful of his covenant, and “his gifts and calling are without repentance,” (Romans 11:29) Paul justly concludes that it is impossible that there shall not at length be some remnant that come to Christ, and obtain that salvation which he has procured. Thus the Jews must at length be collected along with the Gentiles, that out of both “there may be one fold” under Christ. (John 10:16) It is of the deliverance from Babylon, however, that the Prophet treats. This is undoubtedly true; but we have said that he likewise includes the kingdom of Christ, and spiritual redemption, to which this prediction relates. Hence we have said that Paul infers that he could not be the redeemer of the world, without belonging to some Jews, whose fathers he had chosen, and to whom this promise was directly addressed.’
Vlack cites Ladd, Erickson, Grudem and Rahner as teaching that although the church is the new ‘spiritual Israel’, the New Testament leads us to expect a future large-scale turning of ethnic Jewish people to Christ.
‘In Romans 9 and Galatians 3, for example, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that Paul regarded the church, Jew and Gentile alike, as the true heir to the promises originally made to national Israel. It does appear that there will be a period of special favor toward the Jews and that they will in large numbers turn to God.’
We conclude, then, that the ‘minority’ position is probably the correct one. An examination of the precise wording of Rom 11:25a allows it, and Paul’s overall argumentation (in Romans and elsewhere) requires it. According to this interpretation, God’s one people will be brought to completion by the gathering in of all who have faith in Jesus Christ – believing Jews first, and also believing Gentiles – into a single people who inherit all the privileges and blessings that once seemed promised only to a single ethnic group. It is in this way that ‘all Israel will be saved’. And this is the reason for the apostle’s great outpouring of praise in Rom 11:33-36.
Commentaries by Calvin, Thomas Wilson (1614), Matthew Henry, Haldane, Hodge, Brown, Denney, Murray, Hendriksen, Cranfield, Bruce, Stott, Dunn, Morris, Moo (1st and 2nd editions), Fitzmyer, Mounce, Kruse, Keener, Pate.
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