From Barabbas - A. Blake White

Israel in Romans Eleven

An excerpt from my forthcoming book on the
church and Israel: Israel in Romans 11

New Covenant Essentials

All Israel Will Be Saved

Romans 11 is often misread, assumed, and thrown about as if it closes the conversation on the church/Israel topic. I can’t count how many times I have been told, “But Romans 11 teaches the future restoration of ethnic Israel.” Full stop, as if that undemonstrated assertion is all there is to say. Now, this is a dense chapter and many solid exegetes disagree on how to interpret it. Again, I do not claim to have the new covenant view, but I hope to show this reading best fits the hermeneutic that has been shown throughout.[1]

One main question is driving Paul in Romans chapter 11: “Has God completely rejected Israel?” That’s how he starts: “I ask, then, has God rejected his people” (Rom. 11:1)? To feel the force of it, we could paraphrase it as, “Has God completely rejected his people?” Lest his readers lose track, he repeats himself in verse 11: “So I ask, did they stumble in order that they might fall?” Again, we could read it as “That they might totally fall?” His answer to the question in both instances is the same: no way.

But the question is a legitimate one that doubtless many in that day were asking. Paul himself says in the previous verse that all day long God had held out his “hands to a disobedient and contrary people” (Rom. 10:21). In 1 Thessalonians 2:16, we read that God’s wrath has come on the Jews forever (eis telos). Jesus had told the Jews, “The Kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruit” (Matt. 21:43). In his rebuke of the Jewish leaders, Jesus said, “Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers” (Matt. 23:32, cf. Gen. 15:16) and “on you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar” (Matt. 23:35). Jesus pleaded with the Jews: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing” (Matt. 23:37)!

The pagan Pilate (and his lady-friend) was hesitant to crucify Jesus and gave the Jews a chance to change their mind. Pilate would release Jesus and crucify Barabbas if they agreed. But the leaders told the Jewish people to “destroy Jesus” (Matt. 27:20). They “all” said, “Let him be crucified” (Matt. 27:22)! Pilate again hesitates and they shout, “all the more, ‘Let him be crucified’” (Matt. 27:23)! Pilate literally washes his hands and says this is on them and not him. Astonishingly, “all the people (pas ho laos) answered, ‘His blood be on us and on our children’” (Matt. 27:25)! John records the Jews threatening Pilate. They say, if you don’t put him to death, you are no friend of Caesar. Pilate asks them, “Shall I crucify your king?” Astoundingly, they reply, “We have no king but Caesar” (John 19:15). The Jewish people calling Caesar their only king? Bone-chilling. After the Jews reviled Paul and his message, he said, “Your blood be on your own heads” (Acts 18:6)! Luke closed his second volume with Paul telling the Jews that their hearts were dull and now “this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will listen” (Acts 28:28). So asking whether or not God was totally done with the Jews is a legitimate question. In Romans 11, Paul shows how salvation is still available to any Jew who trusts in Christ. They, indeed, anyone who trusts in Christ can and will be saved.

Another overlooked fact is the abundance of time indicators in the chapter. Interpreters often assume that Romans 11 is about the future but Paul repeatedly makes it clear that his concern is a present one. Paul’s focus is on the 1st – not the 21st – century:

  • “Has God rejected his people? By no means! For I myself am an Israelite” (Rom. 11:1). Paul in the first century is current proof that God has not totally rejected Israel.
  • “So too at the present time there is a remnant” (Rom. 11:5, my italics).
  • Now I am speaking to you Gentiles” (Rom. 11:13, my italics).
  • “I magnify my ministry” (Rom. 11:13, my italics). He is focused on his ministry in the first century.
  • “For just as you were at one time disobedient to God but now have received mercy because of their disobedience” (Rom. 11:30). Now in the first century.
  • “So they have now been disobedient” (Rom. 11:31, my italics).
  • “By the mercy shown to you they also may now receive mercy” (Rom. 11:31).

So it is clear that this chapter is not about the future, but Paul’s present.

In Romans 9-11, Paul explains that Israel’s rejection of their Messiah is not failure on God’s part. He never promised to save every Israelite, but only the elect. There is an Israel within Israel. “Not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel” (Rom. 9:6). There are children of promise and children of the flesh withinthe physical offspring of Abraham (Rom. 9:6-13). God has not “rejected his people whom he foreknew” (Rom. 11:2). Part of Israel has been hardened, but not all! “What then? Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking. The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened” (Rom. 11:7).

The point of Romans 11 is that Israel’s fall is not total. No, through their trespass salvation has come to the Gentiles to make Israel jealous and “some” of them will be saved (Rom. 11:14). Some ethnic Jews – not all. Lest the Gentiles become arrogant about this new situation, he warns them. In doing so, he says that Gentiles are wild olive shoots grafted in and now share in the nourishing root of the olive tree. This word for “share” (sygkoinōnos) is similar in form to the words Paul uses when speaking of the same reality in Ephesians 3:6: “The Gentiles are fellow heirs (sygklēronoma), members of the same body (syssōma), and partakers (symmetocha) of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” Each of these words begins with syn, which means “together with.” The Gentiles are together with Israel in the root, in the inheritance, in the body, and in the promise. In other words, like the prophets prophesied, Gentiles have been grafted into Israel.

Now we come to the controversial passage. Romans 11:25-27 reads,

Lest you be wise in your own sight, I do not want you to be unaware of this mystery, brothers: a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. And in this way all Israel will be saved, as it is written, “The Deliverer will come from Zion, he will banish ungodliness from Jacob”; “and this will be my covenant with them when I take away their sins”.

Paul doesn’t want his audience to miss this. A partial hardening has come upon Israel. Many interpreters wrongly read this hardening in temporal rather than quantitative terms. It literally reads, “a hardening from part in Israel” (pōrōsis apo merous tō̧ Israēl). Part of Israel has been hardened “until (arxi) the fullness of the Gentiles has come in.”[2] With “until,” Paul is saying this will be the state of things throughout this present era. He uses the same word with regard to the Lord’s Meal, when he says we proclaim the Lord’s death “until” he comes (1 Cor. 11:26). Or later he says that Jesus must reign “until” he has put all his enemies under his feet (1 Cor. 15:25). So this hardening of a portion of Israel will endure during this whole present era until its goal is reached at the end of history.[3]

The fullness of the Gentiles refers to the full number of elect Gentiles in history.[4] At this stage in salvation history, most Jews have been hardened but not all. The elect obtained it but the rest were hardened (Rom. 11:7). “Some” will be saved as Gentiles are being saved (Rom. 11:14). “And in this way all Israel will be saved.” Again, interpreters often take “in this way” as temporal. So they read it as, “Gentiles will be saved then all Israel will be saved.” But that is not what the wordhoutōs means, here or elsewhere! The ESV nails it here; it is modal not temporal.In this way all Israel will be saved. Paul is explaining the manner in which all Israel will be saved. God has hardened part of Israel, is saving Gentiles, which is causing some Jews to become jealous and so be saved – and in this way, all Israel will be saved. We will unpack just who “all Israel” is below.

Then Paul provides important OT grounding:

As it is written, “The Deliverer will come from Zion, he will banish ungodliness from Jacob”; “and this will be my covenant with them when I take away their sins”.

Here, Paul is combining several OT promises. Getting these verses right is crucial because 11:26b explains 11:26a. In other words, we learn what “all Israel will be saved” means from learning what these OT promises mean. The main passage Paul is drawing on should not surprise us at this point: Isaiah 59, where God promises to rescue his people, reign as king, and dwell with his people. Right after the verse Paul quotes, the LORD speaks of this future covenant where God will do the inward work that Jeremiah and Ezekiel spoke of as well (Isa. 59:21). So Isaiah 59 is a “new covenant” promise. This is what Jesus came to accomplish in his first coming.

Interestingly, Isaiah 59:20 says “A Redeemer will come to Zion.” Paul says, the redeemer “will come from Zion (ek Zion).” Did Paul just slip? No, the Spirit is moving him along. With “from Zion” Paul is making a couple of points. First, he is quoting a passage that is future from Isaiah’s perspective but past from his own perspective. The Messiah came from Zion. He is Israel’s Messiah for the world. Second, with “from Zion,” Paul is alluding to two other prophecies. Psalm 14:7 speaks of the future restoration of Israel. It reads, “Oh, that salvation for Israel would come out of Zion (ek Zion)! When the LORD restores the fortunes of his people, let Jacob rejoice, let Israel be glad.” The other prophecy is from Isaiah’s earlier vision where he describes, in poetic form, what the world will look like when God restores Israel. Isaiah 2 is a vision of the latter days where the Lord’s mountain will be the highest, the nations will flow to it,  “for out of Zion (ek gar Zion) shall go the law” (Isa. 2:2-3, cf. Micah 4:2). Rather than seeking the instruction of the Lord (Torah) coming from Zion, the Apostle sees the fulfillment in the King coming from Zion since Christ is the “culmination of the law” (Rom. 10:4 NIV).

Another passage Paul includes in Romans 11:26-27 is Isaiah 27:9.[5] Isaiah 27 is about the deliverance of Israel. God promises that “in days to come Jacob shall take root, Israel shall blossom and put forth shoots and fill the whole world with fruit” and “the guilt of Jacob will be atoned for” and the fruit of this atonement will be the removal of idols (Isa. 27:6, 9). He then speaks of Gentiles being included within Israel: “those who were lost in the land of Assyria and those who were driven out to the land of Egypt will come and worship the LORD on the holy mountain at Jerusalem” (Isa. 27:13).

The last passage alluded to here in Romans 11:26 is Jeremiah 31 and the promise of the new covenant. When any Jew heard language of “taking away sin” and “covenant” they would immediately think of Jeremiah’s grand promise:

Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more. (Jeremiah 31:31–34)

Again, this passage finds fulfillment in the first coming of Jesus. This is what the church celebrates every time we celebrate the Lord’s Supper. The Deliverer has come and forgiven our sins. Many interpreters assume these verses are about the future but it should be clear from the OT background that this verse about the coming redeemer is referring not to the second coming, but the first coming of Jesus. These are new covenant passages and the new covenant was inaugurated with the first coming of Jesus.[6] They are also all passages that speak of the inclusion of Gentiles within the people of God.

Now we are at a place to answer the question, “Who is all Israel in Paul’s summary statement of these chapters?” Before answering that question, it is important to state what is emphatically not in this chapter: a rebuilt temple, anything about the land, a reconstitution of geopolitical Israel, a millennial kingdom for ethnic Israel, etc.[7] These sorts of things are often assumed to be included but these things are not what Paul has in mind. Contrary to many (especially American) interpreters, this chapter is not about a future millennium for the nation of Israel. These things are simply not found in this chapter.

Context makes it clear that there are three legitimate options for who “all Israel” is. Many interpreters take the view that all Israel refers to “all” ethnic Jews who will trust in Christ at the last day when Christ returns.[8] It is important to say that these interpreters do not separate the church and Israel. They view these Jews as those who will join the church at the second coming and so be saved in a future mass conversion. Most don’t think “all” means “all” here.[9] But “many” Jews will be saved at this last minute altar call given by the Lord Jesus himself.[10]

Others would agree with my view of the “present” concern of the chapter, and define “all Israel” as all elect Jews who will come to Christ throughout history.[11] They would agree with much of what I have articulated, but would say the immediate context lends toward viewing “all Israel” as only ethnic Jews. A good case can be made for this view.

I take “all Israel” as referring to anyone – Jew or Gentile – who trusts in Christ. In other words, it is all the elect. In yet other words, all Israel is the church. Though both of these last options are viable, five reasons cause me to believe that Paul is referring to the church with “all Israel” in Romans 11:26.[12]

First, the immediate context. He has just finished saying that Gentiles are grafted into Israel. This is what we saw again and again in the prophets. The olive shoots are grafted into the olive tree (Rom. 11:17). When Paul says that part of Israel has been hardened “until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in” (Rom. 11:25), he means, “until all elect Gentiles come into Israel.” In chapter 10, Paul wrote that everyone who believes in Jesus will not be put to shame “for there is no distinction between Jew and Greek” (Rom. 10:11-12). He just said there is no distinction between Jews and Gentiles in Christ, which is exactly what I am saying Romans 11:26 says. Paul uses very similar language in Romans 10:13 as he does in Romans 11:26. In the former he writes that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved (sōthēsetai). In the latter he says that all Israel will be saved(sōthēsetai). All Israel consists of everyone who calls on the name of the Lord. They will be saved. Romans 10:18-21 quotes the OT a few times to speak of the ends of the world, the nations and Israel’s jealousy, and the Lord being found by the nations. He closes that section saying, “But of Israel he says, ‘All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and contrary people” (Rom. 10:21).

Second, the larger context of Romans. Paul has already redefined Jewishness at the beginning of the letter. Readers of chapter 11 mustn’t forget the earlier chapters. A Jew is no longer one outwardly but inwardly (Rom. 2:28-29). Romans 4 spoke of Abraham as the father of both Jews and Gentiles. Romans 9 quoted Hosea to refer to the inclusion of Gentiles in Israel. So by the time we get to Romans 11, new covenant Israel has already been defined as including Gentiles.

Third, the even larger context of Pauline theology. We have only looked at Galatians so far, but will see much the same below. All over the place, Paul defines Israel around the Messiah. If you are of Christ, then you are the children of Abraham (Gal. 3:29). He concludes his letter to the Galatians by calling Jews and Gentiles “the Israel of God” (Gal. 6:16).[13] We will demonstrate this with other texts in the next chapter.

Fourth, the meaning of “mystery” in Paul’s letters. In Romans 11:25, Paul writes that he does not want the Romans to be unaware of “this mystery.” The mystery is that part of Israel is hardened, which leads to the salvation of Gentiles, and in turn some Jews will be saved, and in this way all Israel will be saved (Acts 13:46, 18:6). “Mystery” in Paul does not refer to something hard to understand but to revelation. It is something that was previously hidden but now revealed. He uses the word again at the close of this letter:

Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but has now been disclosed and through the prophetic writings has been made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith— to the only wise God be glory forevermore through Jesus Christ! Amen.
(Rom 16:25–27)

The mystery was kept secret but now disclosed to all nations. The command was to bring about the “obedience of faith.” Paul sandwiches this letter with this apostolic goal. Romans 1:5 says that he was given his commission to “bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations.”

Paul uses this same word in the same way in Ephesians to speak of the inclusion of Gentiles within the Israel of God: “This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel”(Eph. 3:6). We’ll unpack the specifics of this verse below but here Paul says the mystery is Gentiles becoming fellow heirs with Israel and members of the same body. Paul’s theology of the people of God in Romans is consistent with his theology of the people of God in the rest of his letters.

Fifth, the OT grounding.[14] We saw above that Paul explains what all Israel being saved means by quoting passages about the first coming of Jesus to establish the new covenant, which includes Jews and Gentiles. In Paul’s theology, the removal of sin from the people of God occurs at the cross and resurrection, not the second coming. As he put it a few chapters earlier, there is therefore now no condemnation for those in Christ (Rom. 8:1).

So Paul answers the question that started the whole section by saying that God has not abandoned his people. Rather, he always only promised to save the elect and in the new age he has expanded Israel to include Gentiles. How should one conclude such a section? One cannot improve on the way the Spirit moved Paul to do so: “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways” (Rom. 11:33)!

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[1] Solid theologians who have a similar hermeneutic as this book, but who hold a “futuristic” view of this chapter include Tom Schreiner, Doug Moo, John Piper, and Jason Meyer, to name a few.

[2] 2 Corinthians 3:14-16 says, “But their minds were hardened. For to this day, when they read the old covenant, that same veil remains unlifted, because only through Christ is it taken away. Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their hearts. But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed.”

[3] O. Palmer Robertson, “Is There a Distinctive Future for Ethnic Israel in Romans 11?” inPerspectives on Evangelical Theology ed. Kenneth S. Kantzer and Stanley N. Gundry (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979), 219-20; idem., The Israel of God, 179-81.

[4] In personal correspondence, Douglas Goodin suggests that “the fullness of the Gentiles” refers to the time of the destruction of the Jerusalem temple. He bases his view on the similarity of language used by Paul and Luke. Romans 11:25 reads, “until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in” (arxi hou to plērōma tōn ethnōn eiselthȩ̄) and Luke 21:24, referring to the destruction of Jerusalem, reads “until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled” (achri hou plērōthōsin kairoi ethnōn). So the hardening in his view is temporal. There was a hardening of Israel until God’s full judgment was poured out on Jerusalem through Rome and after that the hardening was removed and salvation is now freely available to all Jews who trust in Christ. This particular reading of Rom. 11:25 would fit my overall reading of the whole section.

[5] The quote is clearer in Greek. The LXX of Isaiah 27:9 reads “hotan aphelōmai autou tēn hamartian.” Romans 11:27 reads “hotan aphelōmai tas hamartias autōn.

[6] David G. Peterson, Transformed by God: New Covenant Life and Ministry (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2012), 130-32.

[7] For example, in his commentary on these verses, John MacArthur says that all Israel are “all the elect Jewish people alive at the end of the Tribulation. . . . the Lord Jesus Christ’s millennial rule will be associated with Mt. Zion.” One wonders where he gets the “Tribulation” or the “Millennium” in this passage. Neither is anywhere to be found anywhere in Romans 9-11, or all of Romans for that matter.The MacArthur Study Bible (Nashville: Nelson, 1997), 1715.

[8] Moo, The Epistle o the Romans,710-29; Schreiner, Romans, 611-623; Jason C. Meyer, The End of the Law: Mosaic Covenant in Pauline Theology (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2009), 177-229; Piper D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, The Church and the Last Things (Wheaton: Crossway, 1998), 113.; Kim Riddlerbarger, Amillennialism: Understanding the End Times (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 180-94.

[9] But as Robertson puts it, “In this context, ‘all’ can hardly mean ‘most.’” Israel of God, 183.

[10] Besides the exegetical difficulty, this brings evangelistic difficulty as well. The view could hinder gospel urgency among Jewish people. It would also seem logical to urge those who reject Christ to consider Judaism since if Jesus returns in our day, presumably they’d be part of the “all” Israel who will get saved at the parousia.

[11] Ben L. Merkle, “Romans 11 and the Future of Ethnic Israel,” JETS 43.4 (December), 709-21; Charles M. Horne, “The Meaning of the Phrase ‘And Thus All Israel Will Be Saved’,” JETS 21.4 (December 1978), 329-34; Storms, Kingdom Come, 303-34. Robertson, “Is There a Distinctive Future for Ethnic Israel in Romans 11?,” 209-227. Note that Robertson later changed his view.

[12] See Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Barth, Hays, Moral Vision 416-17; Wright, “Jerusalem in the New Testament,” 65-67; idem., The Climax of the Covenant (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), 231-57; idem., Paul and the Faithfulness of God, Book Two (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013), 1156-1259; Robertson, The Israel of God, 167-92; Paul Williamson, “Covenant,” in New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, 428.

[13] Hays writes, “The ‘Israel’  of Romans 11:26 is the same as the ‘Israel of God’ in Galatians 6:16, a description of the elect eschatological people of God consisting of Jews and Gentiles together in Christ,” Moral Vision, 417.

[14] Christopher R. Bruno, “The Deliverer From Zion: The Source(s) and Function of Paul’s Citation in Romans 11:26-27,” Tyndale Bulletin 59.1 (2008), 119-34.

Courtesy: Blake White

Read more quality writings by A. Blake White at Cross to Crown Ministries and his own Barabbas blog site.

About A. Blake White
Blake White serves as campus pastor at Austin Ridge Bible Church. He attended SBTS (M.Div) and SWBTS (ThM) and has written ten books, including What is New Covenant Theology, Union with Christ, and Missional Ecclesiology. He is married to Alicia and they have four children: Josiah, Asher, Karis, and Knox.
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