The mystery of Israel’s salvation: A study of Romans 11:26
In Romans 9 through 11, Paul deals with the respective place of Jews and Gentiles in God’s plan of salvation. While contrasting Israel’s rejection of Jesus as the Messiah with the acceptance of Him by the Gentiles, the apostle makes the striking statement: “And so all Israel will be saved” (11:26). Taken at face value, these words would seem to indicate that at some time in the future, and in some way, the entire Jewish nation will be saved. Quite a number of interpreters believe just that. They foresee a kind of apocalyptic conversion of the literal nation of Israel and the restoration of the Davidic kingdom right before the second coming of Jesus.1 Some even suggest that God values the Jews so much that He will eventually save them on a basis different from that of Gentiles.2 Others have argued that “Israel” in this passage stands for the full number of believing Jews through the ages, or the Jewish-Christian remnant.3 Another interpretation, which goes back to the early Christian centuries, is that “Israel” represents the new, spiritual Israel, that is, the church, comprised of all who are saved by the grace of God, whether Jews or Gentiles, of all ages and races.4
What is Paul really saying in this passage?
The meaning of “Israel”
Though still quite popular in some circles,5 the idea that “Israel,” in Romans 11:26, refers to the church at large has little if any exegetical warrant. While it is true that elsewhere Paul seems to allude to what is customarily referred to as “the spiritual Israel” (Rom. 2:28, 29; Gal. 3:6–9, 26–29; 6:16; Eph. 2:14), the decisive argument against reading this concept into this passage is the context of Romans 9–11. Here the term Israel indisputably refers to ethnic Israel in each of its occurrences, 6 especially the immediate context in chapter 11, which clearly distinguishes Gentiles from Israel (v. 25). First of all, the failure of ethnic Israel to obtain salvation is what was called for in chapters 9–11. Moreover, earlier in chapter 11, Gentiles are explicitly distinguished from ethnic Jews: Gentiles are being grafted onto the olive tree while the Jews, as the natural branches, are being broken off. Indeed, to argue that Israel, in verse 26, includes believing Gentiles, requires Paul to jump to a new meaning for the term Israel, for, in verse 25, he says that a partial hardening has come upon Israel until the fullness of believing Gentiles is reached. It seems obvious, then, that, in verse 26, “Israel” refers to ethnic Israel as distinguished from Gentiles. This is confirmed by verse 28 where the distinction between ethnic Jews and Gentiles is still present.7
As for the claim that the term “Israel” in this passage refers only to the Jewish-Christian remnant, or the elect within ethnic Israel, the main objection comes also from the context. There is no question that the remnant motif is prominent in Scripture, particularly in Romans 9–11 (9:6–8, 27–29; 11:1–6), but in these chapters the remnant is not Israel. It is only a part of Israel, for it does not include “the rest” (11:7), that is, those who have not believed in Jesus. More significant, however, is the fact that what concerns Paul in these chapters is not the remnant, but the rest, the unbelievers of Israel. For Paul, the remnant only shows that God’s mercy continues and Israel, as a whole, has not been rejected (vv. 1–5). It is exactly because some have believed, including Paul himself, that he anticipates a full inclusion of Jews who remain in unbelief (v. 12). This means that the remnant does not exhaust the meaning of verse 26. To confine the expectation of all Israel to the remnant already saved would render the entire chapter 11 irrelevant.8
“All Israel will be saved”
With regard to the word all, it seems clear that it does not mean every” individual Jew and therefore cannot refer to a national or wholesale salvation of Israel. Such a position can also be demonstrated from the context, for Paul’s expectation was not “all” but that only “some” would be saved (vv. 14, 17), and that, too, if they did not persist in unbelief (v. 23). For Paul, the salvation of the Jews is not inevitable, nor is it collective, but individual and has to do with each deciding to accept Jesus Christ.9 Some have observed that the necessity of believing in Jesus for salvation is not mentioned in Romans 11, implying that the Jews can be saved on a different basis, namely, by obedience to the law. Romans 11, however, cannot be snatched away from the context of Roman 9–11 and the epistle as a whole. What troubles Paul is that his own people are separated from Christ (9:3). He charges Israel at length for failing to believe in Christ (9:31–10:8) and proceeds to argue that salvation for both Jews and Gentiles comes only through Christ (10:9–13). Paul does not know of any other way to salvation except through faith in Jesus (cf. 1:16, 17).10
It is important to highlight that the salvation Paul talks about here is essentially spiritual, not material or political. In chapters 9–11, the terms salvation and to save are used repeatedly (9:27; 10:1, 9, 10, 13; 11:11, 14, 26), with their spiritual sense clarified by synonyms and related motifs, such as justification, reconciliation, acceptance, mercy, kindness, compassion, and grace. In the very passage of 11:26b, 27, Paul depicts Israel’s salvation as a taking away of sins by the Deliverer. And it could not be different: since Israel’s failure was the rejection of Christ (10:1–4), Israel’s salvation and restoration has to be understood specifically in relation to Christ, so it must be spiritual by nature rather than material; eternal rather than temporal.11
Understanding the “mystery”
Before stating that “all Israel will be saved,” Paul refers to what he calls a “mystery” (11:25), which has a threefold aspect: “Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full numbers of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved” (vv. 25b, 26a, NIV; emphasis supplied). By using the word until, Paul does not indicate that the hardening of Israel is temporary and will be reversed one day, but rather that the situation would prevail through the end of time as the “fullness” of the Gentiles is reached,12 which certainly does not mean more than a large Gentile conversion. The “fullness of the Gentiles” stands in parallel with “all Israel.” It is not possible to expect each Gentile to be saved but all that accept Jesus will be saved. In other words, the principle remains the same for “all Israel.” One expression explains the other.13
Another aspect of the mystery is that Gentile conversion would function as the manner or way in which Israel would be saved. This shows what the expression “and so” means. Thus, Paul was able to envisage a divine purpose behind the conversion of Gentiles in relation to Israel. He went as far as to concede that the hardening of Israel was caused by God Himself (9:18; cf. 11:7, 17),14 but the point he wants to make is that God is in control, and even if something goes wrong, He still can turn it into a blessing, of which even Israel can partake (v. 23; 11:11, 12). Rather than destining some people to salvation and some to damnation, God’s ultimate purpose includes showing mercy on all (v. 32). Hence, the failure of Israel became the opportunity for the Gentiles (v. 30), and now He wants to use the conversion of the Gentiles as an opportunity for Israel (v. 31). By being provoked to jealousy (vv. 11, 14), Israel, or at least some of Israel, would repent and return to God (vv. 14, 23).15 Being so, God’s saving purpose would be fulfilled, but in the opposite way from that which had been anticipated by the prophets, and in a sense, by Paul himself (cf. 1:16). That is, the Gentiles would not be attracted to God by the people of Israel (Isa. 2:2–4; Mic. 4:1–5) but the other way around.
The time frame of the mystery
A major problem in relation to this mystery is the time of its fulfillment. It is true that several times in chapter 11 Paul used the future tense when referring to the salvation of Israel (vv. 14, 23, 24, 26), but he set no fixed time line as to when this would occur. The phrase out of Zion (vv. 26b, 27, NKJV) does not apply to Jesus’ second coming, as some argue,16 but to His first advent and its effects, which are the basis for the salvation of Israel. In addition, by using the word now three times in verses 30 and 31, Paul seems to conceive the preaching of the gospel to the Gentiles and the carrying out of God’s purpose for the people of Israel as having a present fulfillment.17 He does not suggest an order of successive dispensations, nor a sudden event in a distant future, but rather a dynamic process within the framework of the present era of salvation, which, already in his days, Paul considered to be essentially eschatological (cf. 1 Cor. 10:11). Being so, Romans 11:25, 26 assumes a course of events already in progress in Paul’s time (vv. 13, 14), which, of course, will not be finished before this era of salvation itself comes to an end. When the full number of believing Gentiles will have been gathered in, then the full number of believing Jews will also be gathered in.18 The process, therefore, still awaits its consummation.
This does not, however, mean that the process may not increase in intensity as the end draws near. Nothing in Romans 11 excludes a possible large-scale conversion of Jews in the future. As long as the meaning of verse 26 is not restricted to the future or is not argued that this conversion should occur only after the full number of Gentiles has been gathered in, there is no reason why it could not happen.19 Though Paul does not explain how this would work, there is no question that he sees the conversion of the Jews, and of the Gentiles, only in connection to the preaching of the gospel (10:14, 15; cf. 1:16). Therefore, many more conversions among the Jews might be expected if, for example, as part of an eschatological revival, the “Gentiles” increase their missionary efforts towards them.20
At any rate, the salvation of Israel in this passage seems to be conditional by nature. From the Old Testament one learns that both prophecies and promises may be conditional even when the conditions are not made explicit (John 3:1–10; 1 Kings 21:19–29; Jer. 18:7–10). In the case of Israel’s salvation, however, Paul identifies it as an expression of his “heart’s desire and prayer to God” in Romans 10:1 and also in Romans 11:14, 27, 31, 32. The Greek used in the five references in chapter 11, is in the subjunctive mood, indicating the apostle’s wishes or possible actions, not necessarily real actions. This matches verse 23, where Paul says that God has the power to graft them back onto the olive tree, and that He will do this, “if they do not persist in unbelief” (NIV; emphasis supplied) This is the condition. Everything depends on their attitude in relation to Jesus Christ.
In Romans 11:26, therefore, Paul is talking about the salvation of ethnic Israel, which would take place, not necessarily at some time in the future, but throughout the history of salvation. Thus, “all Israel” does not mean Judaism of the last days. Even if “all” meant “every,” Paul could hardly be thinking only of the fraction of the Jews who would be alive at the end of time. This only reinforces the idea that Romans 11:26 does not refer to political or geographical deliverance prior to Jesus’ second coming but to spiritual salvation.
God has not rejected Israel forever (v. 2). He still loves them (v. 28) and is still committed to them (v. 29), as the conversion of the remnant demonstrates. But God does not want to save only the remnant. He wants to save “all Israel,” and He is more than able to do so, as long as they turn to Jesus. Provision has been made for this to happen. In a complete reversal of Old Testament expectations, Paul trusts that the great Gentile ingathering may incite the Jewish people to jealousy and thus bring them to salvation. If they come, says Paul, this will have a powerful impact on the Christian world itself comparable to “life from the dead” (v. 15, NIV).
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1 This view is particularly associated with Dispensationalism, which sees Israel and the church as two totally separate entities (see, for example, The Scofield Study Bible, 1504). Others, though not talking in terms of a material or political restoration of Israel, do maintain that in this passage Paul means exactly what he says, that is, that the entire Jewish nation, with no exception, will be saved (for example, Robert Jewett, Romans: A Commentary, Hermeneia [Minneapolis: Fortress, 2007], 702). John C. Brunt also seems sympathetic to this idea (Romans: Mercy for All, ALBA [Boise: Pacific Press, 1996], 202). Otfried Hofius comes to the point of suggesting that the salvation of Israel will take place at Christ’s return, when all the Jews will resurrect and “hear the gospel from the mouth of Christ himself” (“ ‘All Israel Will Be Saved’: Divine Salvation and Israel’s Deliverance in Romans 9-11,” Princeton Seminary Bulletin, Supplements 1 : 19–39).
2 Also known as the Two (or Dual) Covenant Theology, this position is held, for example, by Krister Stendahl, Meanings: The Bible as Document and as Guide (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984), 215n1, 243; John G. Gager, Reinventing Paul (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 128–142. C. H. Dodd goes as far as to draw universalist conclusions from Paul’s words, affirming that somehow God’s “love will find a way of bringing all men into unity with him” (The Epistle to the Romans [London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1954], 184). Dodd even includes a diagram in his commentary showing how exactly every member of the human race, as well as the
fallen angels themselves, will eventually be reconciled to God and saved (187).
3 For example, G. C. Berkouwer, The Return of Christ, trans. James van Oosterom (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972), 349; Herman Ridderbos, Paul: An Outline of His Theology, trans. John R. DeWitt (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975), 354–361; Christopher Zoccali, “ ‘And so All Israel Will Be Saved’: Competing Interpretations of Romans 11:26 in Pauline Scholarship,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 30 (2008): 289–318.
4 This view, which appears already in some second-century church fathers (Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria) and
became rather popular in the Middle Ages, as well as in the Reformed tradition, has found less support within
contemporary scholarship. Modern proponents include Ralph P. Martin, Reconciliation: A Study of Paul’s Theology (Atlanta: John Knox, 1981), 134, and N. T. Wright, The Climax of the Covenant: Christ and the Law in Pauline Theology (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1991), 249–251.
5 See the recent publication by the Biblical Research Institute: Clinton Wahlen, “Will All Jews Be Saved? Romans
11:26,” in Interpreting Scripture: Bible Questions and Answers, ed. Gerhard Pfandl, Biblical Research Institute Studies 2 (Silver Spring, MD: Biblical Research Institute, 2010), 351–355.
6 The references are 9:6 (2x), 27 (2x), 31; 10:19, 21; 11:2, 7, 25, 26. If in 11:26 the term meant something different, it would be the only case in the entire context of chaps. 9–11. Wahlen’s claim that in 9:6, 7 Paul “modifies the normal definition of Israel away from an exclusively ethnic-based notion” (351) is not correct, as in that passage the apostle is only talking about the remnant within ethnic Israel.
7 As F. F. Bruce states, “It is impossible to entertain an exegesis which takes ‘Israel’ here in a different sense from ‘Israel’ in vs. 25 (‘blindness in part is happened to Israel’)” (The Epistle to the Romans, rev. ed., Tyndale
New Testament Commentaries [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986], 209). This also applies to Jacques Doukhan’s unique interpretation according to which “Israel” in v. 26 takes on a new meaning: the “eschatological Israel,” in
which “all the redeemed people,” comprising both ethnic Jews and Gentiles, “will be found” (The Mystery of Israel
[Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 2004], 27–34).
8 It should also be noted that when Paul talks about the remnant of Israel (9:6–8, 27–29; 11:1–6), he alludes
specifically to the eschatological event of Jesus’ first coming as the Messiah of Israel. In other words, the remnant was the Jewish believers of Paul’s own time. “At the present time,” he says, “there is a remnant” (v. 5). To ascribe the remnant of Israel a continuous existence throughout Christian history is to draw within the community of faith some ethnic boundaries which are foreign to Paul’s thought (cf. 3:22, 23, 29, 30; 10:12; Gal.
9 From the syntactical standpoint, it is perfectly correct to understand the Greek adjective translated as “all” (pas),
when used without the article and followed by a noun in the singular (“all Israel”), as a reference to the whole,
without any sense of individual (see BDF, §275). It has, therefore, a corporate meaning, as in these passages from the Septuagint (LXX): 1 Sam. 7:5; 1 Kings 12:1; 2 Chron. 12:1; Dan. 9:11. In addition, by saying “all Israel,” Paul may also be using a fixed rabbinic formula that occurs several times in Jewish literature. In the Mishnah, for example, which is a compilation of the Jewish oral law dating from approximately the turn of the second century, the salvation of “all Israel” was clearly expected not in relation to the sum of individuals without a single exception, but Israel as a whole (see m. Sanh 10.1).
10 “Whatever form the salvation of Israel takes, it is clear that the terms of salvation must be the same as those for the Gentiles: faith in Jesus as the crucified and risen Messiah” (George E. Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament, rev. ed. [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993], 584, 585). For a comprehensive critique of the idea that the Jews will be saved in a different way other than through faith in Jesus, see Reidar Hvalvik, “A ‘Sonderweg’ for Israel: A Critical Examination of a Current Interpretation of Romans 11:25–27,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 38 (1990): 87–107.
11 For an introductory discussion on dispensationalism, see Vern S. Poythress, Understanding Dispensationalists, 2nd ed. (Phillipsburg: P&R, 1994). Still valuable is Hans K. LaRondelle, The Israel of God in Prophecy: Principles of Prophetic Interpretation, Andrews University Monographs, Studies in Religion 13 (Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press, 1983).
12 The emphasis lies not on a new beginning after a termination point in time, but rather on the continuation of the present situation for Israel until the end of time (see the discussion by Ben L. Merkle, “Romans 11 and the Future of Ethnic Israel,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 43 : 715, 716).
13 For a succinct and helpful case against a universalist reading of Paul, see Thomas R. Schreiner, Paul, Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ: A Pauline Theology (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 182–188.
14 Since in the book of Exodus the first reference to God’s actual hardening of Pharaoh’s heart (9:12) comes after
references to Pharaoh’s hardening of his own heart (8:11, 28), perhaps the simplest explanation for the hardening of Israel is that it represents “a protological way of expressing divine reaction to persistent human obstinacy against him, a sealing of a situation arising, not from God, but from a creature that rejects divine invitation” (Joseph A. Fitzmyer, Romans, Anchor Bible [New York: Doubleday, 1993], 568).
15 Although the expression “and so” (v. 26a) may also have a temporal sense, in which case the meaning would be “and then” (see Pieter W. van der Horst, “ ‘Only Then Will All Israel Be Saved’: A Short Note on the Meaning of kai hout s in Romans 11:26,” Journal of Biblical Literature 119 : 521–525), the modal sense is far more common and, in the case of this passage, required by the immediate context (vv. 11–24; cf. vv. 30, 31), as correctly highlighted by Douglas J. Moo (The Epistles to the Romans, New International Commentary on the New Testament [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996], 720).
16 In Rom. 11:26b, 27a, Paul quotes the prophecy of Isa. 59:20, 21 (LXX). As Fitzmyer points out, “Not even the future hoxei [“will come”] necessarily implies the second coming; reference to the parousia is nowhere made in chaps. 9-11” (625).
17 There is a question whether “now” (nun) in v. 31b (“they too may now receive mercy”) is original or represents a latter addition to the text. Though the earliest known Greek manuscript of Romans, the Chester Beatty Papyrus (3rd cent.), does not include this word, the combined evidence of Codices Sinaiticus and Vaticanus (4th cent.), reputedly the most accurate New Testament manuscripts, seems to favor its presence in the text.
18 William Hendriksen, Israel in Prophecy (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1968), 48–51. As Merkle declares, when referring to the hardening of Israel in v. 25, as well as in v. 7, “Paul is speaking quantitatively (‘in part’) and not temporarily (‘for a while’)” (715).
19 See Anthony A. Hoekema, The Bible and the Future (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), 147.
20 Ellen G. White says, “The Lord has declared that the Gentiles shall be gathered in, and not the Gentiles only,
but the Jews. There are among the Jews many who will be converted, and through whom we shall see the salvation of God go forth as a lamp that burneth” (Evangelism [Washington: Review and Herald, 1946], 578).