All Israel will be saved” (Rom. 11:26).1 Confronted with this statement, commentators usually ask, “Which Israel, physical or spiritual?” “Physical Israel” is Jews who are physical descendants of Abraham, considered by many to still be God’s chosen people. “Spiritual Israel” is believers in Jesus. Those who hold to a “spiritual Israel” concept will often believe that physical Israel was once God’s people, but their rejection of Jesus meant that God moved on. He offered the gospel to all the nations, and the community of faith in Jesus became “spiritual Israel”; spiritual in the sense that they have no physical ancestry in Abraham but are counted as God’s people by faith.
Is the concept of “physical Israel,” either now or in Old Testament times, biblical? I believe the answer is no.
Though Abraham had at least eight biological sons (Gen. 16:11; 21:3; 25:1, 2), one became part of the covenant, the others did not (Gen. 21:10; cf Gal. 4:30; Gen. 25:6). Conversely, others not biologically related to Abraham became part of the covenant: “He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised, every male child in your generations, he who is born in your house or bought with money from any foreigner who is not your descendant . . . . And My covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant” (Gen. 17:12, 13, emphasis supplied).
Indeed, one of the reasons God chose Abraham was that he would teach not only his children but all people in his household irrespective of background: “ ‘For I have chosen him [Abraham], that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord’ ” (Gen. 18:19, ESV).
Abraham’s household was large, numbering probably over a thousand; on one occasion he armed 318 men “born in his own house” (Gen. 14:14) to liberate Lot. That his household may have shared his faith is indicated by the fact that he trusted one of his servants with finding a wife for Isaac and did so by having him swear “ ‘by the Lord’ ” (Gen. 24:1–3).
The direct physical descendants of Jacob who entered Egypt numbered 70 (Exod. 1:5). At the Exodus, Israel numbered 600,000 men of military age (Exod. 12:37; cf. Num. 1:46), plus women, children, and elderly men, making a total of somewhere between two million and three million people. No realistic biological growth rates could have produced such growth.
But if we understand Israel inclusively in the sense that Abraham’s household was inclusive, then it is much easier to understand the amazing numerical growth. The two to three million who left Egypt then were not biological offspring of Abraham, but all attached to Israel’s household, by joining the faith—wives, husbands, servants, helpers, of any and every national background.
Indeed, at the time they left Egypt, a mixed multitude joined Israel (Exod. 12:38), partaking fully of the covenant. The full integration of believing foreigners was evidenced by the fact that one of them, Caleb, became the leader of the largest tribe of Israel, the tribe of Judah (Num. 13:3, 6). There is no reason to assume that such accessions to Israel took place only during the Exodus and not before, albeit in smaller numbers.
When God renewed the covenant with Israel (Exod. 19–24), it was an open covenant. Participation was voluntary. Numerous individuals who had no direct descent from Abraham became part of the covenant. Joseph had married an Egyptian (Gen. 41:45); Moses a Midianite (Exod. 2:16–21); Caleb, already mentioned, was a Kennizite (Num. 32:12); Rahab a Canaanite (Josh. 2:1, 2); Ruth a Moabite (Ruth 1:4); Uriah a Hittite (2 Sam. 11:3). King David himself was only partially Israelite (Ruth 4:17).
Not only individuals but whole groups of foreigners joined the covenant. In addition to the “mixed multitude” already mentioned, Canaanites not destroyed or expelled were eventually integrated, with the Rechabites becoming especially respected for their fidelity to God (Jer. 35:1–19). David’s elite bodyguards were Philistines (1 Chron. 18:17) who had presumably converted, for it is hard to imagine David’s palace filled with pagans.
Throughout the monarchy there were thousands of foreigners in Israel (1 Chron. 22:2; 2 Chron. 30:25) whom the Septuagint (LXX) calls prosēlutoi, converts.2 In Solomon’s time their number was 153,600 (2 Chron. 2:17).
During Esther’s time after the collapse of Haman’s plot, “many of the people of the land became Jews” (Esther 8:17). Esther 9:27 indicates that this wave of conversions continued even after the momentous events described in the book. Artaxerxes authorized Ezra to appoint judges for the people in the province “beyond the River” who knew the law, and to teach “those who do not know” (Ezra 7:25), possibly an authorization to convert people of other nations.3
During the intertestamental period, the Jewish king, John Hyrcanus, converted the whole nation of the Idumeans (Edomites) to Judaism on the point of the sword.4 Out of them came the notorious family of Herod.5
In New Testament times, the Pharisees were known for their missionary zeal (Matt. 23:15). Synagogues were filled with foreign converts or God-fearers (e.g. Acts 13:16, 26; 16:14; 17:17). Foreigners flocked to Jerusalem to worship during the feasts (John 12:20), with 15 nations mentioned, both “Jews and proselytes” (Acts 2:9–11), as participating in the feast of Pentecost.
God intended the covenant to be open to all nations: “ ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations’ ” (Isa. 56:7). The fact that for a few such as the Moabites there were certain limitations on when they could enter the covenant (Deut. 23:3) indicates that for others access was unhindered.
Not only could any person of any background join the covenant, but those within it could opt out or be forcefully ejected. To be “cut off” from the people of Israel was a punishment for a number of sins (e.g. Exod. 30:33, 38; 31:14; Lev. 7:20, 21, 25, 27). To what extent this was carried out we do not know, but the provision was there. The word apostasy, or “falling away from the faith,” is not uncommon in the LXX to describe Israel’s sometimes rebellious attitude towards God (e.g. Josh. 22:22; 2 Chron. 29:19).
It is evident, then, that any person of any background could join the covenant and hundreds of thousands (millions?) did so throughout Israel’s history; and that anyone of whatever background could choose to exit the covenant.
In today’s language we could say that Israel functioned in many ways like a church—people joining and people leaving. Indeed, ekklēsia, “church,” is the very word Peter chose to describe Israel of old: “This is he who was in the congregation [ekklēsia] in the wilderness” (Acts 7:38). Lest one be tempted to consider this a lone example, the LXX uses ekklēsia 77 times, almost exclusively as a reference to Israel.
In light of the evidence above, it is unbiblical to speak of “physical Israel,” Abraham’s physical descendants. Though Israel did exist for much of its Old Testament history as a nation, in God’s eyes true membership of Israel depended not on ancestry but on faith (cf. Rom. 2:29). Paul acknowledges this when he points out that out of the whole nation of Israel during the time of Ahab, only 7,000 had remained faithful to God, a remnant, and it was they who constituted the true Israel (Rom. 11:1–5). Biblically therefore, Israel was a spiritual community to/ from which people were added and/ or removed with no consideration of ancestry or race.6
With such a background in mind, we can understand Paul’s statement that all Israel will be saved, and the context.
The parable of the olive tree
In Romans 11:16–24 Paul takes this concept of spiritual identity and develops this in order to explain the relationship between the nascent church and Jews who had rejected Jesus. He does so through the parable of the olive tree.
The parable draws from Jeremiah 11:16, 17, where Israel is compared to a “ ‘ “green olive tree, beautiful with good fruit” ’ ” (11:16, ESV). But because the people had done evil following after Baal, God would burn some of the branches with fire. Part of the reason for this punishment was that they had rejected the warning messages of Jeremiah (Jer. 11:17–23).
Paul employs this parable to explain the relationship between the nascent church and Jews who had rejected Jesus. The olive tree, representing Israel, a covenant community, was once beautiful and complete. But, like Israel rejected Jeremiah—that “gentle lamb” (Jer. 11:19, ESV)—so would they reject another much gentler and greater Lamb, the Lamb of God, Jesus, and lead Him to slaughter. Not only that, but after He rose from the dead and His disciples proclaimed the good news of the resurrection, many Jews still rejected Him.
Paul compares the unbelieving branches in Jeremiah’s time that would burn, those Jews who had rejected Jesus, to olive branches “broken off” (Rom. 11:17) “because of unbelief” (11:20). To be broken off means to be excluded from the family of God (11:20, 21).
Two things are important here. First, only dead branches—individu-als who failed to believe—are broken off. The tree itself was not rejected; indeed, it continues to be holy (11:16), to nourish, and to support the remaining branches (11:18). Second, since the tree represents Israel and the unbelieving branches are broken off, it follows that they are no longer part of the tree, no longer part of Israel. No unbelieving branch is part of the true Israel.
With its branches broken, the once beautiful tree now looks tattered. How does God deal with this problem? Branches from other olive trees, wild olive trees, are grafted onto the good olive tree. These branches are individuals from all and any nations who come to have faith in Jesus, both then and now: “you [Christians of all nations], being a wild olive tree, were grafted in among them” (11:17).
An important point needs to be noted here. God does not plant a new tree, the Christian Church. Rather, the once wild branches are grafted onto the same old tree (“grafted in among them” 11:17), which continues to exist and provide nourishment. Since the tree is Israel and the wild branches are grafted onto Israel, they become part of biblical Israel; they are not a new Israel. In a sense, the Israel of the Old Testament that, as we saw, was a spiritual entity, continues to exist and thrive, after it has undergone a process of pruning through the cutting off of unbelieving branches and the adding on of new believing ones.
The tree was once beautiful and complete; then it became tattered because some branches were broken because of unbelief. Now that new branches have been grafted in, the tree is once again beautiful and complete. The new branches become the natural continuation of this wonderful tree.
The church has not replaced Israel. The church is the natural continuation of Israel, just like the branches are the natural continuation of a tree! Believers in Christ are the true Israel.
It is important to note that in taking such an approach, Paul was well within the thinking patterns of his time. The concept of “official” Judaism being in apostasy or “broken off” was not uncommon in the turbulent times of the turn of the era. The Pharisees, who eventually dominated the theological development of Judaism, emerged from pious Jews who rejected the adoption of the high priesthood by the Hasmoneans in the second century Bc and considered themselves as separat-ing from the outlook of the ruling elite.7
Indeed, the name Pharisee derives from the Aramaic, perisa, meaning, “set apart, separated.”8 Likewise, the Essenes, who were contemporaries of Jesus and Paul, considered the Jerusalem temple and its priesthood apostate and themselves to be the true Israel. They separated from mainstream Judaism, not only theologically and ceremonially but also physically, by forming the well-known commune in Qumran.9 When Paul therefore considered Jews who had rejected Jesus to be broken branches and believers in Jesus to be the true branches, he was operating within theological grounds that were very familiar to his contemporaries.
Moreover, at this early stage Paul did not anticipate, or at least discuss, the sharp break between Christians and Judaism that began maturing a generation later. At this early stage, Christians were mostly of Jewish background and operating within the context of the synagogue and Judaism. So to see some participants of the synagogue service as healthy branches and others as broken off would be a familiar concept. That Christians and Jews eventually went completely separate ways perhaps serves to reinforce the paradigm Paul was espousing.
“All Israel will be saved”
Paul concludes his parable of the olive tree with the statement with which we began this study—a statement that is often discussed and nearly always misunderstood: “all Israel will be saved” (11:26). The question that is usually asked is, which Israel will be saved, “physical” or “spiritual?”
The key to understand this actually very simple text is to interpret the words in harmony with the parable of the olive tree of which they form the conclusion.
Israel, God’s people, was once beautiful and complete. But then “blindness” (NKJV) or a “hardening” (ESV) came in part to Israel (11:25). In other words, some of God’s people hardened their hearts (cf. Heb. 4:7).10 They refused to accept the saving work of God in Christ Jesus. The hardening of the hearts parallels the breaking off of some of the branches. So the once beautiful and complete Israel is now tattered, exactly as was the case with the olive tree. The failure of Israel as an Abrahamic covenant community in the rejection of Jesus turned God’s expectation of the olive tree into a disappointment. But God’s intention for the olive tree is that it should bear fruit—fruit from faith in the grace of God manifested through the cross for the redemption of humanity— cannot and must not fail.
How does God deal with this? He brings in “the fullness of the Gentiles” (11:25). Brings into where? Into Israel, of course, to fill the void left by those whose hearts were hardened. The Greek word plērōma, “fullness,” is a verbal noun that indicates something that is partially empty or void being filled up.11 So, the void left by those who failed to believe is filled by the Gentiles who come in and take their place. Paul argues that Gentiles—the wild olive branches, strangers to the covenant—are grafted in, and behold the Christian community of faith—a fruit-bearing tree, gathering in the entire human race.
Paul then announces: “And so all Israel will be saved” (11:26). The words “and so” indicate a concluding statement. Israel was complete; some fell off because of unbelief; others came in to fill their place; so now Israel is complete again. Paul can happily declare that all Israel will be saved.
“All Israel” therefore does not refer to “physical Israel,” a concept we saw as problematic. “All Israel” refers to all believers of all the ages, from the patriarchs of the Old Testament to believers today; to put it another way, from the roots of the olive tree in the Old Testament, to its last and tiniest branch, believing Christians today. All Israel refers to the totality of the people of God throughout the ages.
Summary and implications
This study has endeavored to establish two main points. First, the term Israel in the Bible is not a referent to physical descent but a term denoting those committed in faith to God; a spiritual, not racial, community.
Second, according to Romans 9, this spiritual Israel has never been rejected. True, the death, resurrection, and rejection of Jesus by members of Israel marked a major turning point in God’s dealings with humanity (cf. Dan. 9:24–27; Matt. 21:43). But it was individuals who were rejected. Israel as a referent of God’s people continues to exist. It is made up of anyone and everyone who accepts Jesus as Lord and Savior irrespective of ancestry or race. Believers in Jesus are the true children of Abraham (Gal. 3:7).
What are the implications? Several, but we will mention three:
- With regard to modern Jews, there is absolutely no room for anti-Semitism. Their Scripture is part of our Scripture, their biblical heritage our heritage. They are not a rejected nation. They are broken branches, brothers and sisters who have failed to believe, and our call is to love them to faith, as we should all fellow humans.
- But neither are they God’s chosen people. God chose and nurtures the tree. The branches that were broken off are no longer part of the tree. They can be reintegrated, but only through faith (Rom. 11:23). God’s purposes will be fulfilled in the tree—believers in Jesus—not the broken branches.
- Christians would do well to re-explore the roots of biblical Israel, including the biblical Sabbath, and see it as fully, not indirectly, our heritage. The sharp break between biblical Israel and the church, which is part of many theologies today, is arbitrary and unbiblical. It has robbed the Christian church of much that is valuable. The church is the natural continuation of Israel just like the branches are the natural continuation of the tree. A fuller rediscovery of our roots can enhance our spirituality and worship.
1 Unless otherwise stated, all Scripture passages are from the New King James Version.
2 Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott, An Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon, s.v. “prosēlutoi” (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1945).
3 Commentators usually understand this text as authorization to minister to lapsed Jews, for they consider it unlikely that Artaxerxes would have authorized open evangelization of pagans. However, the fact that in Ezra 7:23 Artaxerxes recognized God as the “God of heaven” could indicate that the directive had broader application, including a permission to convert non-Jews.
4 Josephus, Antiquities 13.9.1. See also Bernard M. Zlotowitz, “Sincere Conversion and Ulterior Motives,” in Conversion to Judaism in Jewish Law: Essays and Responses, ed. Walter Jacob and Moshe Zemer (Pittsburgh, PA: Rodef Shalom, 1994), 67.
5 E.g., Josephus, Antiquities 14.1.3.
6 Jews today understand this very clearly. Any person who converts to Judaism is considered a full Jew and receives full rights to immigrate to Israel; by contrast, Jews of noble heritage who, say, accept Jesus as their Savior, are no longer considered Jews and lose the right to immigrate to Israel.
7 See Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003), 514.
8 Liddell and Scott, An Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon, s.v. “perisa.”
9 Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 521–531.
10 The Greek apo merous that relates to the hardening can be interpreted either (a) that the hardening was “partial” or (b) that the hardening came to “a part” of Israel as opposed to the whole. The second option is preferred for three reasons. First, the noun meros most naturally refers to one part of a bigger whole. Second, the word for “hardening” is pōrōsis, a strong word that in the two other instances it is used implies rejection of God (Mark 3:5; Eph. 4:18). So it is difficult to speak of a partial hardening (contrast pōrōsis with the softer sklēros and derivatives, often used for hardening that, nonetheless, does not imply rejection). Third, context requires that the hardening came to a part of Israel (the branches that did not believe) as opposed to all branches suffering a partial hardening.
11 Liddell and Scott, An Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon, sv plērōma. Cf. LXX Psalms 23:1; 49:12; 88:12; Jer. 8:16; Rom. 13:10; 1 Cor. 10:26.