Lest you be wise in your own conceits, I want you to understand this mystery, brethren: a hardening has come upon part of Israel, until the full number of the Gentiles come in, and so 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' " (Rom. 11:25-27, R.S.V.).
What the apostle Paul intended to say in these verses has long been the subject of confusion and contention among Bible scholars. The dispute has centered around verse 26, in which Paul plainly says that "all Israel will be saved." To whom did the apostle refer? Did he mean literal Israel, those who were (and are) Israelites because of their genetic descent from Abraham? Or did he mean the "Israel of God," to whom he refers in Galatians 6:16, as those who are spiritual Jews by virtue of their faith in Christ, whether or not they are part of literal Israel?
Those who opt for a literal Israel in this verse speak of God's unchanging nature and the immutability of His promises, and they cite the wonderful promises of salvation and deliverance that He made to literal Israel in the Old Testament. Those who believe that Paul refers to a spiritual Israel point out that the apostle was clearly accustomed to thinking in terms of a spiritual Israel (see Gal. 3:29; 6:16), and that twice in Romans itself (chap. 2:28, 29; 9:6-8), prior to his statement in chapter 11:26, he has spelled out for the reader exactly who constitutes Israel in God's sight—specifically stating in both passages that "the Israel of God" do not depend upon descent from Abraham for their status as Jews.
Arguments on both sides of this multifaceted problem have raged for many years, and this article certainly cannot be considered a comprehensive treatment of the problem. Yet we will consider one factor that appears to have gone unnoticed and that seems to have a definite bearing upon the subject. That factor is Paul's attitude toward circumcision.
Those who believe that the "Israel" of Romans 11:26 is literal Israel base their belief upon the divine promises made to the Jews in the Old Testament. These promises were founded upon the covenant that God originally made with Abraham, the sign of which was circumcision (Gen. 17:1-14). It is essential that we understand one extremely important fact about circumcision: It was not a "tradition of the elders" nor one of the "commandments of men" (Matt. 15:2, 9); it was instituted by God Himself as an integral part of His covenant with Israel, and no male who was not circumcised was to be considered a member of the covenant community.
So important did God consider this matter that Moses actually endangered his life when he set out for Egypt with out having circumcised his son. Even though he was going at the express command of God, he was not allowed to proceed until the circumcision of the child was accomplished (see Ex. 3:10; 4:24-26).
During the forty years of Israel's wandering in the wilderness between Egypt and Canaan, the rite of circumcision had been allowed to lapse. But immediately after Israel had crossed the Jordan, before they were allowed to take possession of the land, God commanded Joshua to circumcise all the men of Israel. Only then did God remove "the reproach of Egypt" from them and permit them to eat the fruit of the Promised Land (see Joshua 5:1-9).
John the Baptist, of whom Jesus said there was no greater man born of woman, was circumcised. Jesus Himself was circumcised, and never during His entire ministry did He speak a word against circumcision (see Matt. 11:11; Luke 1:59; 2:21; 7:28).
The Scriptures make it unmistakably clear that circumcision was the sign of the covenant between God and the descendants of Abraham. To be circumcised was to be a member of the covenant community; to be uncircumcised was to be excluded (see Gen. 17:11, 14). Now we must note a very important fact circumcision as the sign of membership in the covenant community did not apply only to born Israelites. God had made provision for any Gentile who wished to do so to join with His covenant people. At the very establishment of the covenant, God specifically commanded Abraham to circumcise his en tire household, not only those who were born members of his family but also all foreigners who had been bought with money, and Abraham carried out this instruction to the letter (see Gen. 17:12, 13, 26, 27).
More than four hundred years later, when God gave to Moses the law of the Passover, He elaborated on this command: "And the Lord said . . . , 'This is the ordinance of the passover: no foreigner shall eat of it; but every slave that is bought for money may eat of it after you have circumcised him. No sojourner or hired servant may eat of it. ... And when a stranger shall sojourn with you and would keep the passover to the Lord, let all his males be circumcised, then he may come near and keep it; he shall be as a native of the land. But no uncircumcised person shall eat of it. There shall be one law for the native and for the stranger who sojourns among you' " (Ex. 12:43-49, R.S.V.).
The significance of this passage in understanding the central position of circumcision in the covenant relationship cannot be overemphasized. No transient traveler could observe the Passover with Israel. No hired servant, who worked for wages, was permitted to observe it. A slave who had been purchased with money, and was therefore considered a member of the household, could observe the Passover, but only after he had been circumcised. The stranger who wished to keep the Passover was permitted to do so only if all the males of his family submitted to circumcision.
Two very significant statements in this text explain the stranger's status after he was circumcised: (1) "He shall be as a native of the land" (verse 48). From the time of his circumcision, the stranger stood before God in the same position as the born Jew. (2) "There shall be one law for the native and for the stranger who sojourns among you" (verse 49). God specifies that no uncircumcised person may eat the Passover. He does not say "no uncircumcised foreigner," but "no uncircumcised person. " Obviously, this prohibition would include born Jews as well as foreigners. Then follows the statement "There shall be one law for the native and for the stranger." The meaning of the passage cannot be mistaken: the foreigner who submitted to circumcision was thenceforth a full member of the covenant community. In God's sight he was a Jew.
No man knew all this better than Paul, who had studied Hebrew law under Gamaliel, one of the most brilliant and illustrious of the great doctors of the law (see Acts 22:3). As a "Hebrew of the Hebrews . . . , a Pharisee," the history of his people and the intricacies of the Levitical law were second nature to Paul; he himself had been "circumcised the eighth day" in strict accordance with the command given by God to Abraham at the establishment of the covenant (Phil. 3:5). To forestall Jewish prejudice, he had his half-Jewish assistant, Timothy, circumcised, perhaps performing the rite himself, since he was a rabbi.
In view of his undoubted familiarity with both the rite itself and its significance for both Jew and Gentile, it is important to note Paul's attitude toward the suggestion that his Gentile converts be circumcised. To all such suggestions and efforts, Paul had one response, and only one—unflinching, unyielding opposition. He would "not yield submission even for a moment" (Gal. 2:5, R.S.V.) to those who would preach the necessity of circumcision for Gentile Christians.
Trouble over this issue flared first in Antioch and grew into the occasion for a great church council at Jerusalem, at which Peter and James threw their influence on the side of Paul and Barnabas (see Acts 14, 15). When the decision of the council enjoined upon the Gentile converts only four simple requirements, circumcision was not among them (chap. 15:29). Paul had won a great victory, and Gentile Christianity had weathered its first real crisis.
Even so, circumcision for Gentile converts was not a dead issue, as Paul was to discover. Having fought the battle at Antioch and Jerusalem, he had to face the problem yet a second time at Antioch and fight the battle all over again. Here he was forced to take a stand against Peter (who apparently had lost his nerve after the Jerusalem council), and even against his beloved Barnabas, who earlier had supported him at both Antioch and Jerusalem (see Gal. 2:11-14). Later, he was to meet the same problem, and fight the same battle, among the churches of Galatia (see Gal. 5, 6). He even went so far as to tell them, "If ye be circumcised, Christ shall profit you nothing" (Gal. 5:2). The magnitude of this statement becomes apparent only as we consider Paul's total commitment to Christ. For Paul, "it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me" (chap. 2:20, R.S.V.). For Paul, "to live is Christ" (Phil. 1:21). That he could tell the Gentile members of the churches in Galatia that the Lord Jesus Christ, who was his own very existence, would "profit. . . nothing" if they submitted to circumcision indicates, perhaps better than anything else, the depth of his determination to keep them uncircumcised. Paul could not possibly have been unaware of the significance of his attitude. His lifelong familiarity with Jewish law and history makes it certain that he knew exactly what he was doing when he re fused to allow Gentile Christians to be circumcised. He was refusing to allow them to become Jews; he was refusing to allow them to become part of literal Israel.
Is it possible that Paul would have denied circumcision to his Gentile converts, that he would have refused to allow them to become part of literal Israel, if he had believed for a moment that literal Israel had any advantage, so far as salvation was concerned, over spiritual Israel? If Paul had believed that "all [literal] Israel will be saved," is it conceivable that he would have op posed, at every opportunity, the one rite by which his Gentile converts might be come part of that literal Israel?
To answer Yes to these questions is to misunderstand completely the character of the great apostle. Certainly it is true that Paul loved his Jewish kinsmen dearly—so dearly that he could even wish himself "accursed and cut off from Christ" if it would result in their salvation (Rom. 9:3, R.S.V.). But God's command had caused him to devote his life to carrying the gospel to the Gen tiles. In pursuance of this mission, he had endured hardships and persecutions that surely must have daunted any man not driven by a deep love for those for whom he labored (Acts 22:21; 2 Cor. 11:24-28).
In fact, deeply as Paul loved the Jews, the record of his life and writings provides no evidence that he loved the Gentiles any less deeply. To suggest that he would have refused to allow these Gentiles to share in the universal salvation of literal Israel, had he believed that there was to be such a salvation, is to put a stain upon Paul's character completely unsupported in the Scriptures.