PURPOSE: TO EXPLAIN ISRAEL IN REVELATION
The focus of this website is the prophecies of Daniel and Revelation. In order to explain the references to Jews in Revelation, such as the 144000 from the twelve tribes of Israel (Rev. 7:4; 14:1), the purpose of this article is to determine what “Israel” means in the New Testament (NT).
Interpreters generally agree that Romans 9 to 11 are the most important NT chapters for a study of Israel’s current position and future role. The name “Israel” is used 11 times in Romans 9 – 11, but not a single time in any of the other chapters of Romans. The other chapters use the term “Jew” or “Jews”. Generally “Israel” is contrasted with Gentiles, while “Jews” are contrasted with Greeks, for example Rom. 10:12; “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek”. The use of the name “Israel” in Romans 9 – 11 confirms that the author has now moved away from a discussion of individual salvation to discuss the fate of the Jewish nation.
Some of the most controversial verses in Romans 9 – 11 are:
Rom 11:25 For I do not want you, brethren, to be uninformed of this mystery—so that you will not be wise in your own estimation–that a partial hardening has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in; 26 and so all Israel will be saved … (NASB)
The key statement is “All Israel will be saved.”
The purpose of this study is particularly to understand what is meant by “All Israel” in 11:26.
These are very complex chapters, and few people find the time to do an in depth analysis of these chapters. Most are happy to read, accept and preach what other people wrote. Over time a number of species of alternative interpretations have evolved from which people select. What this article offers is a fresh perspective based on an original and an in depth analysis of the text itself.
MAJOR VIEWS OF ISRAEL
One major view is that “Israel” in the Bible always refers to the ethnic nation of Israel; and that the references to Jews in the book of Revelation should be understood literally:
In this (dispensational) view all living Jews will, after a period of intense tribulation during the seven years before the return of Christ, accept Jesus as Messiah. This view is primarily based on the divine promises made to the Jews in the Old Testament (OT). In this view these promises have not been completely fulfilled and must be unconditionally fulfilled in the literal nation of Israel. The Lord promised to never “cast off all the offspring of Israel For all that they have done” (Jer. 31:35-37). The Lord also promised that descendants from David will always “be rulers over the seed of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” (Jer. 33:25-26).
The best New Testament support for this view is from Romans 9 – 11. In these chapters we find statements such as:
It is not as though the word of God has failed (9:6).
Paul made this statement after mentioning his deep sorrow for the lost condition of his fellow Jews (9:1-3; cf. 10:1), and after mentioning the gifts and privileges they have received (9:4-5). Romans 9:6 must therefore be understood to say that God’s promises to Israel did not fail.
God did not reject His people (11:1)
In the context this refers to Israel.
They did not stumble as to fall (11:11)
This statement follows after an explanation of Israel’s failure (11:7-10). The “they” therefore refers to non-believing Jews. “Stumble” refers back to 9:32-33 where Jesus is described as a Stone of stumbling over which Israel stumbled. Romans 11:11 therefore implies that non-believing Jews could recover from their stumble.
a partial hardening has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in; and so all Israel will be saved. (11:25-26)
The “partial hardening” refers back to 11:5-7, where it is said that God chose a remnant from Israel in Paul’s day, and hardened “the rest”. Noting the word “until”, 11:25-26 is understood by many to say that, after the last Gentile has come to faith (a few years before the return of Christ), and after a period of intense tribulation, the partial hardening will be removed and all remaining ethnic Jews will accept Jesus as Messiah.
From the standpoint of God’s choice they (Jews) are beloved for the sake of the fathers; for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable (11:28-29).
The other major view is that ethnic Israel is no longer part of God’s plan, and that, in Revelation, the name “Israel” refers to the church. This view is primarily based on the New Testament, which redefines the term “Jew” not only to exclude non-believing Jews, but also to include believing Gentiles. Paul wrote “For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly … But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart” (Rom 2:28-29) and that Abraham is “the father of all who are uncircumcised but believe, and the father of all who are circumcised and follow in the steps Abraham” (Rom 4:11-12 abbreviated).
Many that hold to this view also believe that 11:25 predicts an end time Jewish revival, but it will be a Jewish revival within the “church”. They do not foresee a separate future role for ethnic Israel apart from believing Gentiles.
HOW TO STUDY PAUL’S WRITINGS
Chapters 9 to 11 of Romans include some of the most difficult passages in the whole Bible. Romans 9 is well known as a key chapter on predestination. Romans 11 is a key chapter on the status of Israel. Both these chapters have resulted in conflicting interpretations over the past 2000 years. Peter wrote that some of the things that Paul wrote are “hard to understand” (2Pe 3:16). This must include Romans 9 and 11.
Paul’s writings may seem to jump around a bit, and it is not always easy to follow the flow of thought from one verse to the next. But the key to reading Paul is to know that he does not jump around. Paul often has a major concept in mind, and uses various arguments, examples and quotes to explain that major concept. This also applies to Romans 9 to 11. The key in linking these arguments, examples and quotes is to identify the major concept.
To do this one should read the text many times over until the main issue becomes clear. Some well-read interpreters are able to write books about individual words, quoting the original language, but that sometimes only makes things worse if it makes it more difficult to clarify the main issue. This document emphasizes the overall flow of thought in these chapters.
WHAT IS THE QUESTION? (8:38-9:6)
Romans 9:6 is perhaps the most important verse in Romans 9:
But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel;
It is important to understand the context of this verse. In the Old Testament times, Israel was God’s unique and special people. God revealed His awful presence to them on Sinai. He spoke in an audible voice to them. To them alone did He give His “fiery Law”. He gave them the temple with His presence in the Holy of Holies. He separated Israel from all other nations and “declares His words … His statutes and His ordinances to Israel. He has not dealt thus with any nation” (Ps. 147:19, 20 NASB).
Has anything been done like this …? Has any people heard the voice of God speaking from the midst of the fire, as you have heard it, and survived? Or has a god tried to go to take for himself a nation from within another nation by trials, by signs and wonders and … by great terrors, as the LORD your God did for you in Egypt before your eyes? (Deut. 4:32-34 NASB)
The church arose from within Israel. As explained in the article on Daniel 9, for the first 3 or 4 years after the Cross the church consisted only of circumcised Israelites, and the gospel of Jesus Christ was preached to them only and the Holy Spirit was given only to them. They saw themselves as part of Israel, and they did not associate with non-Jews. But when Israel once again rejected their Messiah by persecuting His Spirit-filled messengers, some years after the Cross, God guided the Jewish believers to share the gospel of the Jewish Messiah for the first time with Gentiles.
As the same time God called Paul and gave him to preach equality of Jew and Gentile; “Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing”, he wrote (1Cor. 7:19). The first eight chapters of Romans explain this message, without retaining any unique place for the Jew (Rom. 1:16; 10:12). These chapters preach salvation and blessings apart from the Jewish Law, and by simple faith. For us the first 8 chapters of Romans are old news, but for the Jewish Christians of Paul’s day this message must have been astounding.
After assuring us, at the end of Romans 8, that nothing can separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord (8:38-39), Paul’s thoughts turn to Israel, who has been separated from the love of God:
Rom 9:1-3 I have great sorrow … For I could wish that I myself were accursed, separated from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh, (NASB)
The Jews were Paul’s worst enemies. They harassed and persecuted him from town to town, stirring up lies and violence against him. Yet he still loved them passionately.
The main message of 9:1-3, for the purpose of our study, is that (most) Jews are lost. His willingness to be “separated from Christ”, for the sake of his fellow Jews, indicates that they are currently “separated from Christ”. Only a remnant of Israel will be saved (9:27). His heart’s desire and his prayer to God for them is for their salvation (10:1), and he would like to “save some of them” (11:14). They are unable to attain “righteousness” because they do not believe in Jesus Christ, but rather strove for righteousness through the works of the law (9:30-10:5).
Verses 4 and 5 list 8 special blessings which Israel received:
Rom 9:4-5 who are Israelites, to whom belongs the adoption as sons, and the glory and the covenants and … the Law and the temple service and the promises, whose are the fathers, and from whom is the Christ according to the flesh, who is over all, God blessed forever.
These blessing make their rejection of Christ all the more serious. Israel is “separated from Christ” in spite of everything they have received. To whom much is given, much is required (cf. Luke 12:48)! Israel received much, and will therefore be judged severely:
Nevertheless I say to you, it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon in the day of judgment than for you. (Mat 11:22; see also 10:15)
Then the key verse in Romans 9 follows:
Romans 9:6 But it is not as though the word of God has failed.
For they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel;
7 nor are they all children because they are Abraham’s descendants …
8 … it is not the children of the flesh who are children of God,
but the children of the promise are regarded as descendants.
Many people mistakenly propose that the fundamental question here is whether the word of God failed. But this issue is only addressed 9:6, and was summarily dismissed. Given the preceding verses, as discussed above, the correct, although unspoken, question behind 9:6 is: Why was Israel separated from the love of God? OR Why did Israel fail?
TWO ISRAELS EXPLAIN ISRAEL’S FAILURE. (9:6-8)
Paul gives us both a wrong and the right answer to this question. The wrong answer is that the word of God failed. This was not the cause of Israel’s failure.
The correct reason for Israel’s failure is stated four times:
- For they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel (9:6)
- nor are they all children because they are Abraham’s descendants (9:7)
- it is not the children of the flesh who are children of God (9:8)
- the children of the promise are regarded as descendants (9:8)
These statements contrast the same two groups of people, but describe them using different words:
Children of God
Children of the flesh
Children of the promise
Romans 9:6 therefore says that Israel failed, not because God’s promises failed, but because not all Israelites are “children” or “children of God” or “children of the promise”.
Dispensationalists hold that Israel always means ethnic Israel, but Romans 9:6-8 describes two different Israels.
This document refers to these two Israels many times. The second Israel is here often called ethnic or literal or physical Israel, while the first Israel, representing God’s true children, is often called the true or spiritual Israel.
The first occurrence of the name “Israel” in the letter to the Romans (in 9:6) is therefore this spiritual Israel, and the first mention of anything in the Bible is important for understanding later references. Since there are two different “Israels,” care must be applied to determine which “Israel” is intended when we read the name later.
ISAAC AND JACOB: ELECTED CONTINUANCE (9:7-13)
Two examples are then used to explain the principle in 9:6-8; Isaac (9:7-9) and Jacob (9:10-13). These examples are linked to 9:6 by connecting words:
- The example of Isaac (9:7-9) is linked to the principle in 9:6-8 by connecting words “nor”, “but” “that is”, “but” and “for”.
- The example of Jacob is linked to 9:6 by the starting words “and not only this, but”, and other connecting words and phrases.
Isaac was Abraham’s promised son and Jacob was Isaac’s chosen son. Isaac and Jacob inherited the covenant promises God made to Abraham. Since they serve as examples of the true Israel, it means that the true Israel was promised and chosen to inherit the calling (mission given to Abraham) and promises (made to Abraham).
Ishmael was Isaac’s brother and Esau was Jacob’s brother. Abraham’s firstborn son (Ishmael) was excluded from the covenant promise (Gen. 17:18-21) by the election of Isaac, and Esau was excluded by the election of Jacob. Ishmael and Esau serve as examples of the rest of ethnic Israel in Paul’s day. This means that the rest of Israel of Paul’s day was excluded from sharing in the calling or promises by the election of true Israel. The rest of Israel today has the same status as Ishmael and Esau.
To return to the fundamental question “Why did Israel fail?”, these examples teach that, in general, physical descent from Abraham does not give one a right to Abraham’s calling and gifts, but more specifically, Israel failed because God chose true Israel, which is, in 9:6, a subset of ethnic Israel.
ELECTED FOR THE MISSION (9:13-21)
The example of Jacob is concluded as follows:
Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated. (9:13)
This sounds harsh and unfair, and Paul is quick to explain that election does not depend on what the individual wants or does (9:16), but only on God’s mercy (9:15):
He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires. (9:18)
These verses comment on the election of Jacob, which is an example of the election of the true Israel (9:6). God had mercy on Jacob, but hardened Esau. Applied to 9:6, it means that God had mercy on the true Israel, but hardened the rest of Israel. Romans 11:7 summarizes the election in Romans 9 well:
What Israel is seeking, it has not obtained, but those who were chosen obtained it, and the rest were hardened …
There is no need to read election to salvation into these verses:
- These verses explain the election of Jacob, and Jacob was not chosen for salvation. The election of Jacob never meant that he and his offspring are saved, as Paul makes clear in 9:27. The election of Jacob was a corporate election to perform a specific mission for God on earth, namely to be the vehicle for the promised blessings to “all the families of the earth” (Gen 12:3). In particular, God selected Israel as the nation from which the world’s Messiah, Jesus Christ, will be born, which is the ultimate blessing promised via Abraham (see Rom 15:8; 2Co 1:20; Gal 3:16 and Gal 3:29).
- Neither does the election of Jacob mean that his non-elected and hardened brother, Esau, and Esau’s descendants, and all other people on earth, are lost. Many examples can be listed from the Old Testament of non-Israelites that were saved. Nebuchadnezzar and Cyrus were kings from foreign nations that were probably saved. The Gentiles that “do instinctively the things of the Law”, even though they do not have the law, are saved (Romans 2:14).
- There is not a single word about salvation in these verses. People read salvation into these verses.
- Divine election is such an important issue in Romans 9 that most articles on Romans 9 are about divine election. But it is important to remember that the purpose of Romans 9 is to explain why Israel failed. Election is actually a secondary concept in Romans 9. The fact that election is so important in this chapter, which explains why Israel failed, means that Israel’s failure was God’s decision. But while God corporately hardened Israel, this does not mean that they are eternally lost. It is quite possible that God might save somebody whom He hardened to achieve a specific purpose. Paul’s whole point in Romans 11:11-15 is, for example, that the hardened Israelites can still be saved.
- This hardening of Pharaoh was not to eternal damnation. God’s purpose for hardening Pharaoh was to save, not to send Pharaoh to hell. Pharaoh was probably already beyond the point of no return when God hardened him. He hardened Pharaoh to show His power and to reveal Himself to Egypt and, by implication, to the whole earth (cf. Rom. 9:17). God used Pharaoh to reveal Himself to a needy world. God made Pharaoh dull so that he would not understand the implications of the miracles he was experiencing.
- Similarly, the purpose of the hardening of Israel was not to damnation, but to save. God hardened the nation of Israel by allowing non-believing leaders in the Jewish hierarchy to influence the nation’s decision against Jesus. By using the right person at the right time, for instance in the way that He used Moses, God could have caused Israel to accept Jesus, despite the fact that most of them are eternally lost. But God decided to harden the nation. The purpose is salvation. It was God’s decision to harden Israel (11:5), and through their hardening there came riches and reconciliation for the Gentiles (11:12, 15). God purposefully hardened Israel to make the gospel available to non-Jews. Therefore, whether He elects or whether he hardens, God does everything to save.
Someone argue that the very intensity of the arguments in these verses must mean that they are about salvation. Not so. Everywhere he went, Paul first spoke to the Jews, and Israel’s election was very important for them. To teach the Jews that they are no longer the chosen nation was no small matter.
POTTER PHASE I:
Verse 18 reads:
He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires. (9:18)
When Paul said this previously to the Jews, he probably received the response recorded in verse 19:
Why does He still find fault? For who resists His will?
To respond to the amazingly arrogant objection that God’s election of human instruments is unfair (9:19), Paul uses a potter to illustrate God’s right to make, from the same lump, one for common use and another for honorable use (9:20-21). Paul received the image of a chosen vessel from God. With reference to Paul, the Lord said:
he is a chosen vessel unto me, to bear my name before the Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel (Act 9:15)
The lump from which the vessels are made (9:21) is used in 11:16 as a symbol for Abraham and his descendants. The potter illustrates the dividing of Abraham’s descendants into two groups.
The potter illustration is still a further explanation of the election of Jacob above Esau (9:10-13), which is an explanation of the election of the true Israel above ethnic Israel. This means that, through His mercy, God elected true Israel for honorable use. They were to be His spokesmen on earth. But He hardened the rest of ethnic Israel to common use. They do not have any special role in God’s plan.
In this document 9:20-21 is called the first phase of the potter illustration, to distinguish it from the next three verses, where the potter illustration continues, but applied differently.
People that support predestination use these verses as proof that God is not unfair to elect who should suffer in hell for all eternity, irrespective of what the man does or want. In my view this is a horrible distortion of God’s word. God does not predestine people to hell, and hell is not senseless eternal torment.
POTTER PHASE II (9:22-24)
Rom 9:22 What if God, although willing to demonstrate His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction? 23 And He did so to make known the riches of His glory upon vessels of mercy, which He prepared beforehand for glory, 24 even us, whom He also called, not from among Jews only, but also from among Gentiles.
In this document, 9:22-24 is called the second phase of the potter illustration. It differs significantly from the first phase:
- The vessels for honorable use and common use are now replaced by vessels of mercy and wrath.
- Non-Jewish Christians (9:24) are now brought into the picture for the first time in this chapter.
- While the previous verses only contain general principles and examples from history, 9:22-24 specifically applies to Paul’s day.
Up to verse 21 Paul explains the dividing of Abraham’s descendants into a group that inherits his call, and the rest that do not. Most commentators believe that 9:22-24 changes the subject from Israel to the whole world. They propose:
- that the vessels of mercy represent all believers,
- that the vessels of wrath represent all non-believers, and
- that the destruction of the vessels of wrath is the punishment of hell.
In contrast, it is proposed here that 9:22-24 continues the discussion in the previous verses of Israel specifically. It is proposed here that the distinction between the wrath-vessels and the mercy-vessels is not only another explanation of the distinction between the two Israels of 9:6, but the main explanation of the two Israels, for the following reasons:
- In Romans 9, only 9:6 and 9:22-24 describes Paul’s present day. Everything else in Romans 9 is examples from history, or quotes from the Old Testament, or general principles.
- The vessels of wrath represent ethnic Israel. This point requires a more substantive discussion, and is therefore discussed under the next heading:
VESSELS OF WRATH REPRESENT ETHNIC ISRAEL.
The following are offered as proof that the vessels of wrath are a symbol for ethnic Israel:
(A) Ethnic Israel is the subject and focus of the entire chapters 9 and 10.
The purpose of the chapter is to explain why Israel failed (9:1-6). Paul explains the failure of ethnic Israel by differentiating between two Israels; ethnic Israel and spiritual Israel (9:6), with Isaac (9:7-9) and Jacob (9:10-13) as examples of the true Israel. The discussion of election (9:14-21) is an extension of the Jacob-example, and therefore also explains why Israel failed. Ethnic Israel is also the focus in the quotes after the potter illustration (9:25-29), and in the subsequent discussion of the contrast between salvation by faith and salvation by works (9:30-10:21). Ethnic Israel is therefore the subject and focus of the entire chapters 9 and 10, and we should expect to find ethnic Israel in the potter illustration. Why would non-believers in general abruptly find a place in the middle of this chapter?
(B) The purpose of Romans 9 is to explain that Israel failed due to election.
Some seems to suggest that the main topic of Romans 9 is election, with Israel used as an example. It is the other way round. The purpose of Romans 9 is to explain why Israel failed. OR: Why was Israel separated from the love of God? (8:39) The Jacob-example indicates that Israel failed due to divine election; it was God’s decision. The subsequent explanation of election only elaborates on the Jacob-example. This is followed by the potter-parable, which is an illustration of how election works. Therefore, since the purpose of Romans 9 is to explain that Israel failed due to election, and since the potter is an illustration of how election works, the symbol in the potter illustration which is rejected by election, namely the vessels of wrath, should be ethnic Israel.
(C) Throughout Romans 9 Abraham’s descendants are divided into two groups.
Throughout Romans 9 Abraham’s descendants are divided into two groups. The one group inherits Abraham’s mission and promises; the other has no further involvement. The first, in 9:6, is the distinction between the true Israel and physical Israel. Next follows Isaac versus Ishmael, then Jacob versus Esau. Then it is the vessels for honorable use and vessels for common use. The word “use” indicates that this differentiates Abraham’s descendants on the basis of earthly function.
The vessels represent Abraham’s descendants because the entire chapter is about Abraham’s descendants. This is also indicated by the “lump” from which the vessels are made (9:21), which is used in 11:16 to represent Abraham’s descendants. The vessels of wrath and mercy therefore also divide Abraham’s descendants into two groups.
Since the vessels of mercy are the faithful Jews, the vessels of wrath must represent the unfaithful Jews. Ethnic Israel becomes “vessels of wrath prepared for destruction” because its election for honorable use is destroyed, and it became “for common use.” The Jews that represent true Israel (9:6) are vessels of mercy because they are “for honorable use.”
(D) The quote that explains the vessels of wrath is about Israel.
The potter illustration is followed by three quotes from the Old Testament (9:25-29). The word “for” with which these quotes start indicates that these quotes explain the vessels of mercy and wrath in 9:22-24. These vessels represent three people groups: vessels of wrath, believing Jews and believing Gentiles. The quote from Hosea (those who were not My people will be called My people) explains the inclusion of the Gentiles in the vessels of mercy. The first quote from Isaiah (only a remnant of the Israelites will be saved) may explain the remnant of Jews included in the vessels of mercy. The second Isaiah quote concerns the destruction of ethnic Israel (9:29). The only vessels to which this quote may apply are the vessels of wrath. Since the quote is about ethnic Israel, these vessels must also refer to ethnic Israel.
(E) The next section also explains the vessels, and distinguishes between Israel and the Christians.
The next section, that starts in 9:30 and continues until the end of Romans 10, starts with the words “What shall we say then?” This implies that this section further explains the previous section in different words. Furthermore, the similarity of the quotes at the end of Romans 10 (make you jealous by that which is not a nation; found by those who did not seek me; Israel … all the day long I have stretched out My hands to a disobedient and obstinate people) with the quotes in 9:25-29 confirms that everything in-between these two sets of quotes elaborate on the quotes. Like the quotes, 9:30-10:21 therefore explain the vessels. Since this section explains the distinction between ethnic Israel and the believers, and since the believers are represented by the mercy-vessels, the wrath-vessels must represent ethnic Israel. The table illustrates the contrasts:
Vessels of mercy
Vessels of wrath prepared for destruction
Those who were not my people, become “beloved.”
Of Israel, the remnant will be saved.
Unless the Lord had left to Israel a posterity, it would have become like Sodom and Gomorrah.
Gentiles … attained righteousness … by faith
Israel, pursuing a law of righteousness
found by those who did not seek Me
Israel … all the day long I have stretched out My hands to a disobedient … people
(F) The description “vessels of wrath prepared for destruction” fits ethnic Israel well.
In Romans 9 to 11 Israel is described as failed (11:12) and fallen (11:11, 12, 22), predicted to be destroyed like Sodom and Gomorrah (9:29), stumbled (9:32), not obtaining what it sought, blinded or hardened (11:7, 25), rejected (11:15), broken off (11:17, 19) and under God’s severity (11:22). The example of Jacob implies that they are excluded by the election of the faithful remnant. The redefinition of Israel in 9:6 as people who are circumcised in their hearts (Rom. 2:28-29) implies that they no longer are the true Israel. The later references to a nation that will make Israel jealous (10:19; 11:11, 14) imply that Israel lost their privileges. Throughout Romans 9 to 11 ethnic Israel is therefore represented as being destroyed. The description “vessels of wrath prepared for destruction” fits ethnic Israel well.
(G) God “endured” the “vessels of wrath.
9:22-23 is a bit difficult to follow, but it clearly distinguishes between vessels of wrath and vessels of mercy. It further distinguishes between the past and the present. God “endured” (past tense) the “vessels of wrath” (9:22), but He has now made known the riches of His glory upon the vessels of mercy (the Christians). This implies that He is no longer enduring these vessels of wrath, which means that they have already been “destroyed”, and therefore cannot be non-believers in general.
(H) The “all the day”-quote links Israel to the vessels of wrath.
God said “as for Israel”, “all the day long I have stretched out My hands to a disobedient and obstinate people” (10:21). This is similar to the vessels of wrath being “endured with much patience”, confirming that the vessels of wrath represent ethnic Israel.
TRUE ISRAEL INCLUDES GENTILES.
It was argued above that 9:22-24 is a more detailed explanation of 9:6 because, in Romans 9, only 9:6 and 9:22-24 describes Paul’s present day, and because the vessels of wrath represent ethnic Israel. However, the mercy-vessels include Gentiles (9:24), while the true Israel in 9:6 does not mention Gentiles. It is proposed here that the true Israel of 9:6 is the same as the mercy-vessels, even though these vessels include Gentiles, argued as follows:
(A) Romans 9:6 does not prohibit the inclusion of Gentiles into the real Israel.
Romans 9:6 simply says that not all Israelites belong to the real Israel. This certainly does not prohibit the inclusion of Gentiles into the real Israel.
(B) Only 9:6 and 9:22-24 explain the present time.
Most of Romans 9 is examples from history, general principles (of election) and supporting quotes from the Old Testament. The only place in Romans 9 where these examples, principles and quotes are practically applied to the present time, apart from 9:6, is in the second phase of the potter illustration in 9:22-24. Therefore the two classes of vessels in v22-24 explain the two Israels of 9:6. Since the vessels of wrath represent the ethnic Israel of 9:6, the vessels of mercy is the true Israel of 9:6.
(C) Both the true Israel and the vessels of mercy result from election decisions in Paul’s day.
Romans 9:6, supported by the examples from history and the potter illustration, teaches that true Israel has been elected. The second phase of the potter illustration (v22-24) indicates that the Christians have been elected. Therefore, both true Israel and mercy-vessels (Christians) were elected in Paul’s day, and in both elections ethnic Israel lost its position of privilege. Surely then these must be the same election decision, and the true Israel must be the same as the vessels of mercy.
(D) Both true Israel and the mercy-vessels are described as children of God, promised and chosen.
Romans 9 applies the characteristics of true Israel to the vessels of mercy:
- True Israel is the “children of God” (v8), while the vessels of mercy are the “sons of the living God” (9:24-26).
- Like Isaac (9:8), the vessels of mercy were promised (prepared beforehand for glory – v23).
- Like Jacob, the vessels of mercy were chosen (us, whom He also called – v24).
(E) Both the true Israel and the Christians in Galatia (Gal. 1:2), including Gentiles, are described as “like Isaac … children of promise” (Gal. 4:28, compare 9:7-8).
Rom 9:6 … they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel; 7 nor are they all children because they are Abraham’s descendants, but: “THROUGH ISAAC YOUR DESCENDANTS WILL BE NAMED.” 8 That is, it is not the children of the flesh who are children of God, but the children of the promise are regarded as descendants.
To the churches of Galatia (Gal 1:2) … you brethren, like Isaac, are children of promise (Gal. 4:28)
(F) Both the true Israel and Christian non-Jews are “regarded as descendants”.
Ethnic Israel is described as “Abraham’s descendants” and as “children of the flesh” (9:6-8), while the true Israel is “regarded as descendants” (9:8).
Other Scriptures teach that believing Gentiles are also regarded as “descendants” (Rom 4:16) or as “Abraham’s descendants” (Gal. 3:28-29, 7) or as Jews (Rom 2:28, 29). For instance:
So if the uncircumcised man keeps the requirements of the Law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? (Rom. 2:26)
Paul often describes Jews as “the circumcision”. The “uncircumcised man” (2:26) is a Gentile. Romans 2:26 therefore effectively says that if a Gentile man keeps the Law, he is regarded as a Jew. The word “regarded” (Strong G3049) in 2:26 is the same as the word used in 9:8.
Both the true Israel and Christian non-Jews are therefore “regarded as descendants”. It follows that the latter are included in the true Israel of 9:6.
Many try to understand Romans 9 against the current situation, where the church is completely dominated by non-Jews. But, when Paul wrote, the core and leadership of the church were Jews. For instance, Paul described the “most eminent apostles” (2Co 11:5) as Hebrews, Israelites and (literal) descendants of Abraham (2Co 11:22). To this core of Jews a growing fringe of Gentiles was added. Paul’s description of true Israel, as consisting primarily of faithful Jews, should be understood against this context. The implication for the present day Church is altogether another topic.
QUOTES EXPLAIN THE VESSELS. (9:25-29)
An overview of these quotes was given above in the section dealing with the wrath-vessels. These quotes from Hosea and Isaiah follow immediately after the potter illustration, and help us to understand the vessels of wrath and mercy.
Paul quotes Isaiah to say that only a remnant of Israel will be saved (9:27). Isaiah ministered prior to the Babylonian captivity to the two southern tribes; known as the kingdom of Judah. The remnant that will be saved probably in the first place referred to the small number of Israelites that returned to Jerusalem after the Babylonian captivity, but is here applied by Paul to the remnant in His day.
Paul also quotes Isaiah saying that if it wasn’t for this remnant, the entire Israel would have been destroyed, like Sodom and Gomorrah (9:29). This supports the proposal that the wrath-vessels, prepared for destruction, refers to Israel.
Paul quotes Hosea concerning people that previously were “not My people”, but who will become “beloved” and “sons of the living God” (9:25-26). A study of the book of Hosea will show that the “not My people”, that will be called “My people”, originally were Israelites, in particular the faithless Northern Ten Tribes, that collectively were called Israel. Hosea refers to the Northern Ten Tribes as “not My people” on account of spiritual adultery. Therefore some dispensationalists propose that Paul here applies these words to Jews. However, the following indicate that Paul uses this quote here to support the inclusion of Gentiles into the mercy-vessels:
- The quotes are connected to the mercy-vessels and to the Gentiles by the linking words “As He says also in Hosea”:
vessels of mercy … us, whom He also called, not from among Jews only, but also from among Gentiles. As He says also in Hosea (9:23-25).
- The Isaiah quotes clearly deal with Israel, represented by the wrath-vessels. If the Hosea quote also deals with Israel then there would be no quote in support of the mercy-vessels, and the inclusion of the Gentiles into the mercy-vessels, which is unlikely.
- After the quotes, from 9:30 onwards, Paul contrasts Israel’s salvation by works with the Gentiles’ salvation by faith. Therefore, if both the sections before and after the quotes explicitly include Gentiles (the vessels of mercy), then the quotes must cover Gentiles as well.
THE SAVED AND THE CHOSEN WERE THE SAME IN PAUL’S DAY. (9:30-10:21)
Romans 9:30-10:21 explains salvation by faith (9:30) by contrasting it with the pursuit of righteousness through works (9:32). In sharp contrast to the first part of Romans 9, this section does not use election language at all.
Since Romans 9:30-10:21 further explains the vessels, the mercy-vessels (us, whom He also called, not from among Jews only, but also from among Gentiles) also are the people in 9:30-10:21 that pursue righteousness by faith.
Above it has been argued that the election in Romans 9 is election to a mission, not to salvation. But if this is the case, why are the elected (the mercy-vessels) the same as the saved?
It is explained here as follows: There always was a vast difference between the saved and the chosen nation in OT times (Israel). Few of the chosen nation were saved and many non-Jews were saved. Through the crisis around Jesus as the messiah a remnant came to be (11:5), and God elected to use this remnant as His new chosen nation. At that point in history the elected chosen nation (chosen for a mission) and the saved were the same, to a large extent. Given this historical context Paul could correctly imply that they are the same. As the new chosen nation (the remnant) developed into formal organizations and adopted heathen teachings and customs, it became socially more acceptable, and unconverted people joined its ranks. The Christian movement became similar to Israel of the OT, with a vast difference between the saved and those that call themselves Christians. Few church members are saved while many non-church members are saved.
THE TWO FOCI OF ROMANS 9 TO 10
Romans 9:6 made a distinction between two groups of Jews, and the subsequent texts up to verse 21 only refer to Jews and contrast these two groups of Jews.
After the historical examples and general principles in the previous verses, 9:22-24 returns to a discussion of Paul’s present day, and includes Gentiles for the first time in the chapter. From that point forward, until the end of Romans 10, the contrast is between Israel and the believers, explaining the inclusion of the Gentiles.
It is therefore proposed here that Romans 9 is like an ellipse with two foci; 9:6 and 9:22-24. 9:6 is the key verse. Romans 9:22-24 restates the difference between ethnic Israel and the true Israel in 9:6, using the election language of the potter illustration. Everything else in Romans 9 (and 10) rotates around and explains these two foci.
Romans 10 ends by describing Israel as “disobedient and obstinate” (10:21). But in the next verse Paul declares:
God has not rejected His people, has He? May it never be! (11:1)
Paul uses himself as proof:
For I too am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin (11:1)
Paul then modifies his previous statement by adding “whom He foreknew”:
God has not rejected His people whom He foreknew. (11:2)
Paul continues to explain the “His people whom He foreknew” using the example of Elijah’s 7000, and concludes the example in verse 5:
5 In the same way then, there has also come to be at the present time a remnant according to God’s gracious choice.
A remnant (11:5) of a cloth is the portion that remains after most of the cloth has been cut off. The remnant of Israel is what remains after most of Israel has been cut away.
Most commentators, believing this verse refers to election to salvation, manage to spend much time on the 11:6:
But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace is no longer grace.
Romans 11 starts by referring to “His people”, which is Israel in general, with Paul himself as proof that God did not reject them (v1). Then it moves to “His people whom He foreknew”, using the 7000, which God kept for Himself (v2-4) as example of the present time chosen remnant (v5-7), which proofs that God did not reject “His people whom He foreknew”. The next four verses (7-10) shift the focus to the rest of Israel:
7 What then? What Israel is seeking, it has not obtained, but those who were chosen obtained it, and the rest were hardened; 8 just as it is written,
“God gave them a spirit of stupor,
eyes to see not and ears to hear not
9 … let their table become a snare and a trap …
10 … and bend their backs forever.”
Verse 7 therefore summarises all ten verses by dividing Israel into two groups; the chosen remnant and the hardened rest. This is the essence of these 10 verses.
The remnant is chosen (v6). The rest of Israel has been hardened. The rest of Israel is therefore not part of God’s chosen people. This is consistent with Romans 9, where the Jacob-example and the potter illustration identified the true Israel as elected, and the rest of Israel hardened, having the same status as Ishmael and Esau.
“HIS PEOPLE WHOM HE FOREKNEW” IS THE REMNANT. (11:1-5)
Many commentators propose that “His people whom He foreknew” (11:2) refers to the entire nation, because the entire nation was foreknown:
You only have I chosen among all the families of the earth … (Amos 3:2)
It is, however, shown below that the “His people whom He foreknew” is a subset of ethnic Israel:
Paul as example (11:1)
Paul uses himself as proof that God did not reject Israel, but Paul here does not represent all Jews. He is specifically an example of the Jewish Christians; a subset of the Jews.
Foreknew earlier in Romans
The word “foreknew” was used in 8:29 to describe the people that were “predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son.” This cannot be the entire nation.
The linking words
The words “Or do you not know” (v2), with which the example of the 7000 starts, links the 7000 to the people “whom He foreknew”. Furthermore, the words “in the same way” (v5) makes the chosen remnant (v5) the conclusion of the example of the 7000 and therefore the explanation of the “His people whom He foreknew”. Since both Elijah’s 7000 and the “remnant” are subsets of Israel, the people that God “foreknew” in verse 2 must also be a subset of the Jews.
The word “foreknew” (11:2) indicates that the “His people whom He foreknew” have been elected and the word “choice” (11:5) indicates that the “remnant according to God’s gracious choice” has been elected. Since both have been elected, the “His people whom He foreknew” must be the
same as the remnant. And since the remnant is a subset, the people “whom He foreknew” must also be a subset. Furthermore, the phrase “I HAVE KEPT for Myself” (11:4) is also an election concept, strengthening the link between the “His people whom He foreknew” and the remnant.
Present day application
In Romans 9 the present day application (v22-24) elaborates on the definition of the true Israel in 9:6. Romans 11:1-10 follows a similar pattern. It first defines His true people, then it gives historical examples, and then it makes a present day application; “In the same way then, there has also come to be at the present time a remnant”. Both present day applications elaborate on the definition of His true people, which means that His true people (His people whom He foreknew) is the remnant.
THE MESSAGE AND PATTERN OF ROMANS 9 REPEATED
In both Romans 9 and Romans 11:1-10 the key question is about Israel as God’s chosen people, and the two passages follows a similar pattern:
A: Both start with a categorical denial. Romans 9 denies that God’s word failed. Romans 11 denies that God rejected His people.
B: Both devote most of the space to a justification of these denials, and in both a remnant of Israel explains the denials (9:6; 11:5). In Romans 9 the remnant is the true Israel within ethnic Israel (9:6). In Romans 11 the word “remnant” is explicitly used (11:5) and explained (11:7).
C: Both contrast this remnant with the entire nation. In Romans 9 the contrast is between ethnic Israel and true Israel (9:6). In Romans 11 it is between His people and His people whom He foreknew (11:1-5).
D: In both chapters this contrast, and particularly the true Israel, is justified by means of historical examples. In Romans 9 it is Isaac and Jacob. In Romans 11 it is Paul himself and Elijah’s 7000.
E: Both are dominated by election language, therefore explaining ethnic Israel’s failure as God’s decision.
In Romans 9 election is explained as the contrasts between love and hate (9:13), and between mercy and hardening (9:18). The election of the true Israel (the remnant) is further explained with the example of Jacob and the illustration of the Potter’s vessels (9:19-21).
Romans 11:1-10 uses election language to describe the remnant as “His people whom He foreknew” (v2), “a remnant according to God’s gracious choice” (v5) and as those who were “chosen” (v7). The “rest” of Israel, which is the part of Israel that has been cut off, is described as hardened (v7).
F: In both chapters the contrasts and examples of election are concluded with present day applications. In Romans 9 it is the vessels of wrath and mercy in the potter illustration (9:22-24), where the mercy-vessels represents “us” (9:24). In Romans 11 “there has also come to be at the present time a remnant according to God’s gracious choice” (11:5).
The message and pattern of 11:1-10 is therefore similar to that of Romans 9. God did not reject Israel, and His promises to Israel did not fail. Rather, He elected a remnant out of Israel. They are His chosen people. The rest He hardened. They are not part of the chosen people.
REMNANT CHOSEN TO A MISSION (11:6)
Election in Romans 9 was national and corporate. That election therefore was not to salvation. It was easy to sidestep the onslaught of our brothers that believe that God sovereignly decides who are saved and who are lost. But the election in Romans 11:1-10 is not a group of people, like a nation. Election in Romans 11:1-10 is individual. God has kept for Himself (v4) a remnant (v5), which is just a group of individuals. Does this prove that God elect individuals to salvation?
No. Paul uses himself as an example of the election in Romans 11. He serves as an example of the remnant. People speak about Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, but that was not his conversion. It was his call to a mission.
the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of Mine, to bear My name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel; for I will show him how much he must suffer for My name’s sake.” (Act 9:15-16)
For Paul Damascus was a change of facts, not a change of heart. Conversion is not learning new facts. Satan never doubted God’s existence or goodness, but still he sinned. Having the right facts does not save you. Previously Paul was convinced that Jesus was a deceiver. That was what his teachers told him, and he believed them. His facts were wrong. When his facts were changed on the way to Damascus, it did not immediately change his heart. He was the same old fire-breathing Saul. The new facts found fertile soil in his heart, but he had a long way to go before he could stand before God on the basis of mercy only, not on works, as he was brought up to believe. Until he came to the realisation that he was the foremost of all sinners (1Tim 1:15), he was in danger of eternal loss. He was eventually saved, but not on his way to Damascus. God confronted him on the road to Damascus because he was the right man for the job. That was his call to a mission.
Paul serves as an example of the chosen remnant that has been called in the same manner to the mission of taking the gospel of Jesus to the world. To be chosen does not guarantee salvation.
As indicated by 11:6, the remnant did not deserve to be called. Nobody deserves to be chosen by God. Paul did not deserve to be chosen. After he was confronted by Jesus on his way to persecute the believers in Damascus, he would have often been tempted to think that God chose him on the basis of merit, but from this text it is clear that he eventually realised the call which he received was pure grace.
HARDENED JEWS CAN STILL BE SAVED. (11:11)
In response to the frightening description of the hardened Jews in verses 7 to 10, verse 11 starts the final section of Romans 9-11 with a third denial:
11:11 I say then, they did not stumble so as to fall, did they? May it never be! But by their transgression salvation has come to the Gentiles, to make them jealous.
“Stumble” refers back to 9:31-33, where Jesus was described as a stumbling stone, over which Israel stumbled.
All of the discussion in Romans 9 to 11 up to this point is about past events that gave rise to the present situation. There was nothing about future possibilities. Future possibilities are mentioned for the first time in 11:11.
The meaning of “fall” must be determined by the context, and the verses that follow contain many indications that it is still possible for hardened Israelites to be saved:
- salvation has come to Gentiles to make Israel jealous (v11, 14) (so that they may desire that which God’s chosen obtained – see verse 7);
- their “fulfillment” (v12) as opposed to their “transgression” and “failure”;
- their “acceptance” (v15) as opposed to their “rejection”;
- Paul wish to “save some of them” (v14).
- God is able to graft them in again (v23).
- All Israel will be saved (v26).
“Fall” therefore mean to permanently remain stumbled, without the hope of returning to God. Paul indicates that, although they have been “hardened” (11:7), they still can return to God.
People that argue that 11:26 refers to ethnic Israel often also argue that the denial in 11:11 applies to ethnic Israel as a corporate entity. In other words, they read this verse as saying that ethnic Israel has not stumbled to fall, which means that ethnic Israel corporately may or will be revived. The question is what “they” in 11:11 refers to. Consider the text:
Verses 8 to 10 contain quotes in support of verse 7. It is proposed here that the “they” in verse 11 does not refer to anything in the quotes, but to something in verse 7. Verse 7 divides Israel into two groups; the chosen remnant (see also v5) and “the rest”, and uses the pronoun “it” (singular) for ethnic Israel. If verse 11 was referring to Israel, it would also have used the singular “it”, which is the appropriate pronoun for Israel corporately. “They” (plural) therefore refers to the hardened “rest” (11:7). Verse 11 must then be understood as saying that these individuals can still be saved.
This conclusion is supported by Paul’s use of the word “jealous” in both verses 11 and 14. According to verse 14 Paul wants to make the Jews jealous to save some of them. Since jealousy is also the method in verse 11, we expect the same result in verse 11. Verse 11 should therefore be understood to say that hardened Israel did not stumble as to fall because some of them can still be saved.
The question in verse 1 is therefore not the same as the question in verse 11. The question in verse 1 is about the election of ethnic Israel corporately to a mission. The question in verse 11 is about salvation of individual Jews.
AND HOW WONDERFUL WOULD IT BE! 12-15
12 Now if their transgression is riches for the world and their failure is riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their fulfillment be! 13 But I am speaking to you who are Gentiles. Inasmuch then as I am an apostle of Gentiles, I magnify my ministry, 14 if somehow I might move to jealousy my fellow countrymen and save some of them. 15 For if their rejection is the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead?
Verses 12 and 15 belong together. They both say how wonderful it would be should Israel be reconciled to God. The two verses between verses 12 and 15 also belong together. They say that Paul magnifies his ministry in the hope that Jews would become envious, and therefore be lured to become Christians.
Nowhere in these verses does it say that Israel corporately or Israelites individually will return to God. This is only stated as a wonderful possibility.
Throughout Romans 9 to 11 Paul moves effortlessly from putting the blame for Israel’s failure on God (His election) and on man (their transgression). Most of Romans 9 put the blame for Israel’s failure on election (God’s choice). Romans 10 (actually from 9:30 onwards) put the blame on man’s choice. Romans 11:1-10 put the blame on election again. Verses 11 and 12, using words such as “transgression” and “failure”, put the blame on Israel. Verse 15 returns to the principle of election with the words “rejection” and “acceptance”. In verse 32 Paul combines the two concepts in a single sentence:
God has shut up all in disobedience
THE OLIVE TREE REPRESENTS THE PEOPLE THAT ARE REGARDED AS ABRAHAM’S CHILDREN.
If the tree is Israel, then it means that these broken off Jews no longer are part of Israel, while the believing Gentiles became part of Israel. Dispensationalists hold that the name “Israel” in the Bible always refers to all the physical children of Jacob, even the unfaithful ones, and never includes Gentiles. To defend this strict separation of Jew and Gentile, Dispensationalists oppose the idea that the tree is Israel. They propose that the natural branches are Israel, while the root is the promises and covenants given to the fathers, in which all believers share. In this way non-believing Jews, represented by the broken off branches, remain part of Israel. It would also mean that believing (in-grafted) Gentiles do not become part of Israel.
But this is not the main issue. The main question is who are linked to the wealth of the root. The broken off branches (non-believing Jews) are detached from the root and its wealth, which means they no longer have a right to the promises. They have no promises. Gentiles, on the other hand, are attached to the wealth of the root through grafting in. Even though they do not become literal Jews, they have become heirs of the promises. This is what counts.
Believing Gentiles become “Abraham’s descendants” (Gal 3:7, 29). This is depicted in the olive tree as Gentiles being grafted into the tree. The non-believing Jews not regarded as Abraham’s descendants (9:8), and are broken off from the tree. The tree therefore represents Abraham’s spiritual descendants; the people that are “regarded” as his children.
Romans 11 joins believing Jews and Gentiles together in a single olive tree. A passage of Scripture that must be read with the olive tree is Ephesians 2:12 and further, because it also joins, like the olive tree, believing Jews and Gentiles into a single entity; a single man (2:15), a single body (2:16; 3:6), a single household (2:19), a single building (2:20) and a single temple (2:21). This passage adds useful information because it tells us what the Gentiles previously did not share in, but now share in, namely:
Eph 2:12 remember that you were at that time separate from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.
Eph 2:19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household,
The olive tree is therefore the “commonwealth of Israel” and “citizenship with the saints”. The tree is not literal Israel, and Gentiles do not become part of literal Israel, but they did become part of the commonwealth of Israel and they became fellow citizens with the saints. This effectively means that they became part of Israel.
This leaves us with a less important question, namely whether the root represents the fathers or the covenants and promises. The first verse of the parable reads as follows:
If the first piece of dough is holy, the lump is also; and if the root is holy, the branches are too. (11:16)
The distinction in this verse is between the first and the latter parts. The fathers came before the promises. The promises were given to the fathers. This implies that the root cannot represent the promises. It rather represents the fathers.
Further evidence is that the first piece is part of the lump, and the lump represents people; Abraham’s descendants. The first part, which is equivalent to the root, must therefore also be people, and cannot be promises. The root must therefore represent the fathers.
Since the root represents the fathers, the wealth of the root (11:17) may be the covenants and promises.
Romans 11:11 starts a new section by declaring that the hardened Israelites can still be saved. But Paul is not satisfied with a simple denial. He uses the remainder of the chapter to motivate the believing Gentiles towards an appropriate attitude towards the unbelieving Jews. He wants the Gentiles to have something of the love he has for the Jews (9:1-3), so that they may take the gospel to the Jews. Verse 13 indicates that this section is specifically addressed to Gentiles. He warns them, with respect to unbelieving Jews:
- Do not be “arrogant” (11:18);
- Do not be “conceited” (11:20);
- Do not be “wise in your own estimation” (11:25).
Verses 16 to 33, which include the olive tree illustration, can be divided into a series of seven consecutive warnings against Gentile arrogance:
1. Jews are holy (v16-17).
Because “the first piece” of the lump is holy, the entire lump (all Jews) is holy (11:16).
2. The faith of Gentile Christians is based on the Jewish inheritance (v17-18).
It is not the believing Gentiles that support the root, but the root supports believing Gentiles (11:17-18).
The root of the tree is the fathers and/or the blessings they received, for instance as listed in 9:4-5, such as the covenants and promises. This is the Jewish inheritance. Gentiles share in this incredible wealth. The remnant, to which Gentiles are added, is not a new entity founded on new principles. Their faith is founded on all that the Jewish fathers received. This is the Jewish root principle.
3. Gentiles may be cut off like the non-believing Jews were (v19-22).
Gentiles stand by faith, which means they stand by grace alone. If they fail to continue to stand by faith, God will break cut them off as well (11:19-22).
4. It would be easier to graft unbelieving Jews back “into their own olive tree” (v24), than what it was to graft Gentiles into the tree (v23-24).
5. A partial hardening has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in (v25-27).
The purpose of the hardening is to allow Gentiles to come in. This principle is stated several times elsewhere in the passage, such as “they are enemies for your sake” (v28) and “branches were broken off so that I (Gentile) might be grafted in” (v19).
This warning contains the controversial verses 25 and 26. What it means will be analyzed below, but for now it is sufficient to note that this is actually the fifth in a series of seven warning against Gentile arrogance.
6. Jews are beloved for the sake of the fathers (v28-29).
This concept is similar to the first warning above of the Jews being holy because the first part is holy (v16). Both claim a special status for present day Jews because of their ancestry. In verse 16 they are holy because the root (the fathers) is holy. In verses 28-29 they are beloved for the sake of the fathers.
7. Because of the mercy shown to Gentiles the Jews also may now be shown mercy (v30-33).
This is a further response to the question in verse 11, namely whether the hardened Jews may still be saved. This is the question behind the whole passage, and has, for instance, been addressed in warning four (11:23-24), which explains how easily Jews may be grafted in again.
Warning 7 indicates that future mercy to Jews is dependent on the current mercy to Gentiles. This is similar to verse 11, which states that salvation has come to Gentiles to make Jews jealous.
Since these 18 verses can so neatly be grouped into seven consecutive warning against Gentile arrogance, the main message of this part of Romans 11 is a warning to the Gentiles.
The warnings can be categorized as follows:
- Warnings to Gentiles with respect to their own position; they might also be cut off. These are warning 2 and 3, covering verses 17 to 22. Note the frequent use of the pronoun “you” in these verses.
- All the other warnings relate to the special status of Jews. Note the frequent use of the pronoun “they” in these verses.
The way in which Paul describes the Jews in 11:11 and following seems to imply that Jews enjoy a priority position amongst God’s people on earth. But if these statements are analyzed properly, they do not imply a priority for Jews:
Before they are broken off, the branches are declared to be holy (11:16), which means to be set apart for special use (honorable use – 9:21). Since the branches derive their holiness from the root (11:16), they lose their holiness (honorable use) when they are broken off from the tree.
They may be “beloved for the sake of the fathers” (v28), but while separated from the holy root they are no longer used by God for a special purpose. They have become like Ishmael and Esau. They are “beloved” in the sense that they are advantaged by their ancestry. (See discussion below.)
The gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable (v28-29), but only those that are regarded as children (9:7) inherit these gifts and the calling. (Also see discussion below.)
It is “their own olive tree” (11:24), but they have been broken off, and Gentiles have been grafted in, and are now part of that tree. Non-believing Jews no longer share in the fatness of the root.
It would be easier to graft them in than it was to graft in Gentiles (11:24) simply because Christianity is a continuation of the OT religion. The NT community of believers is not some new entity based on new principles. Some of the outward rituals have changed, but the principles remained the same. Therefore it should be easy for Jews to become Christian. (Unfortunately the church today has adopted many heathen practices and teachings, making access for Jews very difficult.)
Therefore, these verses do not allocate a special or separate place for the Jew. In fact, since Paul is warning Gentiles not to be arrogant, conceited or “wise in your own opinion”, it actually means that the Gentiles thought of themselves better than non-believing Jews. Paul is simply trying to counter the developing arrogance against Jews in the church in Rome. Paul loves the Jews very much (9:1-3) and he wants Gentiles to have the same attitude towards them.
Since the strong warnings imply that the believing Gentiles in Rome had a tendency to be arrogant toward the Jew, we should ask why. Rome was the capital of the Roman Empire, and Israel a rebellious subject. Rome eventually destroyed Jerusalem in AD70 and banned all Jews from the city. The Empire strived to eliminate everything that was Jewish. This attitude towards Jews made its presence felt in the church in Rome, and Paul wrote to counter this trend. We do not find the same message in Paul’s letters to the Galatians, Ephesians and other places because the tendency to arrogance was particularly strong in the capital of the Roman Empire.
Paul ends Romans 9 to 11 where he started. He started these chapters by expressing his sincere love for the Jews (9:1-3). He ends these chapters convincing Gentiles to see Jews not as their enemies, but rather as loved by God (11:28).
He does not want Gentiles to be “arrogant” (v18), “conceited” (v20) or “wise in your own estimation” (v25) with respect to the non-believing Jews. He wants the Gentiles to realize that God hardened Israel (11:7) so that He may show mercy to Gentiles. This is a main message of Romans 11:11-33, and is stated several times in different words:
- by their transgression salvation has come to the Gentiles (11:11)
- their transgression is riches for the world and their failure is riches for the Gentiles (11:12)
- their rejection is the reconciliation of the world (11:15)
- Branches were broken off so that I (Gentile speaking) might be grafted in. (11:19)
- From the standpoint of the gospel they are enemies for your sake (11:28)
- You (Gentile) … now have been shown mercy because of their disobedience (11:30)
- a partial hardening has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in (11:25).
Paul also motivates Gentiles to love the Jews and to work for their salvation. He argues that the salvation of the Gentiles actually was a means to a goal, and this goal was the redemption, via jealousy, of the Jews. It is therefore now the Gentiles’ opportunity to work for the Jews:
- “Through your mercy they also may obtain mercy” (v31 KJV).
- “Salvation is come unto the Gentiles, for to provoke them to jealousy” (v11).
We therefore note three sequential stages:
I: The first is the stumbling (11:11) of the Jews over Jesus Christ (9:33), also called transgression (11:11, 12), failure (11:12), rejection (11:15 – from an election perspective) and disobedience (11:30). In the olive tree illustration it is represented, using election imagery, as God breaking off branches due to unbelief (11:19, 23). This stumbling is the same as the partial hardening of Israel in 11:25, and the hardening of 11:7:
What Israel is seeking, it has not obtained, but those who were chosen obtained it, and the rest were hardened
II: The second is the mercy (11:30) which came to the Gentiles because of the Jew’s unbelief. This mercy for the Gentiles is also called salvation (11:11), riches (11:12) and reconciliation (11:15) for the Gentiles. In the olive tree illustration it is represented, again using election imagery, as God grafting in wild olive branches (11:19) into the cultivated olive tree.
III: The third is mercy for Israel through the mercy shown to Gentiles (11:31, cf. 11:11), which would hopefully result in Israel’s fulfillment (11:12) and acceptance (11:15).
The remainder of this document discusses 11:25-26 specifically.
Rom 11:25 For I do not want you, brethren, to be uninformed of this mystery—so that you will not be wise in your own estimation–that a partial hardening has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in; 26 and so all Israel will be saved … (NASB)
The word “that” (oti; Strong number G3754) indicates that the mystery is “that a partial hardening has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in”. Of the 32 translations that were checked for this purpose, almost all confirm this, either with the word “that”, as in the NASB quoted above, or by a colon, for instance in the Today’s New International Version:
I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers and sisters, so that you may not think you are superior: Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in,
The mystery consists of 3 concepts
1. Partial hardening of Israel
It is not all individual Jews that have been partly hardened. It is Israel as a nation that has been partly hardened.
2. Coming in of the Gentile
In the context they come into the olive tree. Romans 11:25 follows immediately after the olive tree illustration.
3. Until the fullness
The hardening of Israel will continue until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in.
No interpreter requires “fullness of the Gentiles” to mean every Gentile. Everyone sees this phrase as being equal, more or less, to ‘when all the Gentiles which God has purposed have believed and come to the redemption’. As in the parable of the wine and wine skins: “Fullness” is the filling of the wineskins.
The big question is: What happens when the fullness of the Gentiles has come in? Is this the return of Christ, or is it followed, as proposed by many, by a period of time, before the return of Christ, during which Israel will no longer be hardened, and Israel will see a revival as never before? This question is addressed below.
ROMANS 11:25-26 IS 11:11-32 IN COMPACTED FORMAT.
Some find a tension between the teaching about Israel in 11:25-32 and the earlier parts of Romans 9-11. They propose that the mystery is a brand new teaching introduced only in verse 25. But it is not a new teaching. Rather, the principles in 11:11-32 are found in compacted format in 11:25-26:
Firstly, the purpose of the statement is 11:25-26 is the same as the purpose of the entire section (11:11-32), namely a warning to Gentiles to “not be wise in your own estimation” (11:25). Romans 11:25-26 is the fifth warning is a series of seven.
Secondly 11:25-26 puts forward the same three related stages found in Romans 11:
- First it mentions the unbelief of the Jews (part blindness), but adds an end point by adding the word “until”.
- Then it mentions the mercy to the Gentiles (come in), but adds the concept of “fullness of the Gentiles.”
- Then it implies mercy to the Jews with the statement “all Israel shall be saved”.
Thirdly, despite neglect from some translators, Romans 9:25-32 is linked to the previous section, which is the olive tree illustration, by the word “for”. This “for” indicates that that which follows (v25-32) is a further explanation of that which preceded it.
The mystery therefore fits with the context rather than being in friction with it. Romans 11:25-26 must be interpreted on the basis of the principles in 11:11-32, and particularly the principles in the more immediate section 11:23-32, that argues that the Jews may be grafted in again.
In opposition to both the traditional and the modern interpretations of this passage, it is proposed here that Romans 11 does not predict an end time Jewish revival.
The primary support for an end time Jewish revival comes from 11:25-26, but some find additional support in verses 12 and 15. This section first discusses verses 25 and 26, then the supporting verses 12 and 15, and then presents some other evidence against an end time Jewish revival.
Romans 11:25 … a partial hardening has happened to Israel
until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in;
26 and so all Israel will be saved. (NASB)
This can be understood in two ways. It is often understood as follows:
A partial hardening has happened to Israel.
This will only last until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in.
Then all Israel will be saved.
The underlined words indicate changes to the NASB translation. The words “this will last only” have been added. This makes the hardening temporary. An end will be made to it when the last Gentile “has come in”. This implies that a period of time will follow after the hardening, which leads the reader to expect the next verse to explain this further period. The “and so” in the next verse has been replaced with “and then” to allow the statement “all Israel will be saved” to explain this further period. During this period all Jews will believe and be saved.
Alternatively, it may be understood as follows:
A partial hardening has happened to Israel.
This will remain until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in.
And so all Israel will be saved.
The words “this will remain” have been added. This stresses the permanency of the hardening. The focus is not on the end of the hardening, but on the purpose of the hardening, which is to allow Gentiles to come in. Verse 25 becomes a promise that the partial hardening will not be removed until the last Gentile “has come in”. This is a self-sufficient statement. There is no need for further information. There is no implication of a period of time after the last Gentile has come in. Consequently the statement in verse 26 “And so all Israel will be saved” is a summary of verse 25. “All Israel will be saved” by keeping Israel partly hardened until all Gentiles that must be saved, are saved.
The second interpretation is preferred for the following reasons:
CONSISTENT WITH THE LARGER CONTEXT
It has been argued above that 11:25-26 is a summary of the larger passage of 11:11-32, and that 11:25-26 must be interpreted consistent with this larger passage. Nowhere in the larger passage is there the idea that an end will be made to the hardening, in order to save “all Israel”.
But a fundamental concept in the wider passage is that the purpose of the hardening of Israel is to allow Gentiles in. This principle is a main message of the larger passage, and is stated at least 6 times:
- by their transgression salvation has come to the Gentiles (11:11)
- their transgression is riches for the world and their failure is riches for the Gentiles (11:12)
- their rejection is the reconciliation of the world (11:15)
- Branches were broken off so that I (Gentile speaking) might be grafted in. (11:19)
- From the standpoint of the gospel they are enemies for your sake (11:28)
- You … now have been shown mercy because of their disobedience (11:30)
Romans 11:25-26 is built on this concept. It states that a partial hardening has happened to Israel to allow Gentiles to come in. Since it is based on this cause-effect relationship, the second interpretation is consistent with the larger context.
ISRAEL PARTIALLY HARDENED
TO ACHIEVE THE FULLNESS OF THE GENTILES
When used in sentences, the word “until” specifies a condition at a point in time, preceded by an activity. But it is used in different ways. If I say that I will compete in sport until I am too old and weak to compete, then I am also describing what happens after the condition (old and weak) has been fulfilled, namely that I would no longer compete. But if I say that I will practice until I am able to do it, then I am not saying anything about what happens after the specified condition has been fulfilled. I may either continue to practice, or not.
The difference between the two sentences is that, in the second, the purpose of the preceding activity is to fulfill the condition. In the first it is not the case. (I do not compete to become old and weak.)
Romans 11:25 falls in the second category of “until”-statements because the purpose of the hardening of Israel is to allow Gentiles to come in. This type of “until” sentence structure says nothing about what happens after the condition has been reached. Consequently 11:25 says nothing about what happens after the fullness of the Gentiles.
“AND SO” MEANS THAT ALL ISRAEL IS SAVED
THROUGH THE EVENTS DESCRIBED BY VERSE 25.
Romans 11:26 starts with the words “and so”. Some translations, supposing that the end of the hardening will be followed by all Israel being saved, substitute the “and so” with “and then” (JB) or with “when that has happened” (NEB). But the majority of translations utilize the words “and so”. The Greek never means “then” or “afterwards.” In every other occurrence in Romans it means ‘thus, in this manner, in this way, after this fashion or by this means’ (1:15; 4:18; 5:12, 15, 18-19, 21; 6:4, 11, 19; 9:20; 10:6; 11:5, 31; 12:5; 15:20). The classic use is its first in the New Testament, in Matthew 1:18:
now the birth of Jesus Christ was in this way.
This word is used elsewhere in Romans 11:
After referring to the 7000 faithful Jews in Elijah’s day, Paul wrote “Even so (in like manner)…there is a remnant at the present time.” (11:5)
After referring to the mercy which God showed Gentiles after their disobedience, Paul wrote “even so” (in like manner) the Israelites are now disobedient that mercy may be shown to them. (11:30-31)
The statement “And so all Israel will be saved” therefore describes “how” all Israel will be saved rather than “when” Israel will be saved. In other words, the manner in which all Israel will be saved is indicated by the previous verse, which is by the hardening of part of Israel, which allows Gentiles to come in. When the full number of Gentiles has come in, all Israel will be saved.
Romans 11:25-26 describes three groups of people, each quantified:
- A part of Israel has been hardened
- until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in.
- In this manner all Israel shall be saved.
Read as an equation, verses 25-26 can be expressed as:
Part of the Jews + fullness of Gentiles = All Israel
The fullness of the Gentiles means a part of them. The part of the Jews that has not been hardened is called the remnant in 11:5. Therefore:
The remnant of the Jews + the saved Gentiles = All Israel
THIS KNOWLEDGE SHOULD KEEP GENTILES HUMBLE.
Understanding the mystery must prevent Gentiles from becoming “wise in your own estimation.” Perhaps the idea of an end time Jewish revival might keep Gentiles humble, but the idea that God hardened Israel and will keep them hardened until the last Gentile has come in, is perhaps better able to keep the Gentiles respectful towards the non-believing Jews.
Romans 11:25 therefore repeats the principle that the hardening of Israel is to allow Gentiles to come in, but it projects this principle to the end of time by promising that the partial hardening would not be removed until the complete number of Gentiles has come in.
Romans 11:23-25 is therefore interpreted as follows: Non-believing Jews can still be grafted in (11:23). In fact, it would be easier to graft them in than what it was to graft Gentiles into Israel’s tree (11:24). But the mystery is that God will keep Israel partially hardened until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. Understanding this should humble Gentiles.
11:12, 15; SAVE SOME OF THEM
Many find support for an end time Jewish revival in statement that “they did not stumble as to fall” (11:11), claiming that the “they” and “their” in this section refers to Israel corporately, but it has been agued above that the “they” and “their” in this section refer to the hardened Jews, not to Israel corporately. It simply means that individual Jews can still be saved.
The references to “their fulfillment” (v12) is also often used to support the idea that all Israel will be saved, but “their fulfillment” results from the jealousy (v11), and jealousy will only lead “some” to repentance (v14); not the entire nation.
“Their … acceptance” will be “life from the dead” (v15), but the word “for” with which verse 15 starts links this to the salvation of some of them in the previous verse.
Romans 11:11-15 therefore does not imply that all Jews will be saved.
Furthermore, the “fulfilment” in verse 12 is not stated as a prediction, but as a mere possibility and a wish. Paul wrote “if … their failure is riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their fulfillment be!” The same applies to verse 15, where Paul wrote “if their rejection is the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead?”
ADDITIONAL EVIDENCE AGAINST AN END TIME JEWISH REVIVAL
The following section provides additional evidence against an end time Jewish revival:
Broken off branches do not share in the covenants.
In the olive tree illustration most of the nation has been broken off. They are therefore separated from the rich root, which represents the “covenants of promise”. This illustrates that Israel as a nation has no right to God’s covenants and promises. Consequently they do not have a promise of an end time revival.
Period when no Gentiles would “come in
As interpreted by Dispensationalists, there would come a time, some years before the return of Christ, when all Gentiles that would be saved, have been saved. Then Israel corporately will turn to Christianity. But how could there be a period of time, before the return of Christ, when no Gentile would “come in”? Millions of Gentiles are born each day, and there always will be Gentiles that, for the first time, are learning about the hope of a future perfect life in a perfect universe, ruled by a perfect Creator.
To the contrary, Romans 11:12 promises wonderful blessings for Gentile at the “fullness” of Israel. Therefore, if Israel as a nation converts to Christianity, even more Gentiles would “come in” than before:
Now if their transgression is riches for the world and their failure is riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their fulfillment be! (11:12)
Romans 11 envisaged Jewish salvation in history.
Many interpret Romans 11 to be eschatological, but the only clear eschatological statement in Romans 11 is “until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in”. The main purpose of this chapter is to warn present day Gentiles not to think too highly of themselves. They are warned that they may again be broken off, and, on the other hand, that it would be relatively easy to graft unbelieving Jews back into their own olive tree.
The questions in Romans 11 are not about the distant future, but whether God rejected Israel (11:1-2) and whether hardened Jews may still be saved (11:11) in the present time.
The responses provided also relate to the present time. Paul answers the first question by referring to himself and the present day remnant. The second question he answers by saying that Jews might become jealous of what Gentiles gained (v11), and thus be saved (11:14). His realistic expectation is to save some of them, not at the end of time, but now:
so these (Jews) also now have been disobedient, that because of the mercy shown to you (Gentiles) they (Jews) also may now be shown mercy. (11:31, v14)
These responses to the two questions by no means imply that, at some future date, ethnic Israel will come to believe.
The return of Christ is imminent
Paul did not expect another 2000 years before the return of Christ. If he believed the return of Christ is imminent, and if he consequently expected the soon conversion of all Israel, his intense longing to save a few (11:14) is difficult to understand.
No such revival in other Scripture
No other Scripture has so much as a word regarding a great future revival of Israel. We have no hint of an “apocalyptic” doctrine of national conversion in the whole of Paul’s argument up to this point in Romans 11. It must be very strange that the apostle here discloses a major eschatological event in five words without going into it further or ever alluding to it elsewhere.
Romans 11:26 adds:
and so all Israel will be saved
This doesn’t literally mean every Jew of all time will be saved. When Paul explains his deep love for his fellow-Jews, even willing to go to hell himself if that might save them (9:1-3), he implies that they are lost. Paul would later write that only a remnant of Israel will be saved (9:27), that his heart’s desire and his prayer to God for them is for their salvation (10:1) and that he hope to “save some of them” (11:14).
Neither does “all Israel” refer to all saved Jews of all time, because 11:26 then would mean that all saved Jews will be saved. Such a statement is superfluous and redundant.
One of the variations of the dispensational view is that all Jews that are alive when Christ appears in the clouds, will see Him and believe, and be saved. Gentiles are saved through faith, but in this view the Jews are not converted prior to His return, but at His return simply by predestined grace. Mat 23:39 is used in support of this view:
For I say to you, from now on you will not see Me until you say, ‘BLESSED IS HE WHO COMES IN THE NAME OF THE LORD!’
However, when Jesus returns it will be too late to believe in Him. Jesus said it will be like Noah’s day (Mat. 24:37-39). In Noah’s day the door of the ark closed before the flood came (Gen. 7:16). When the flood came, it was too late. When Jesus comes back, it will be the time of judgment (2 Thess. 1:7-10; Jude 14, 15).
Most Christians seems to believe “all Israel” refers to a future salvation of all or mostJews living immediately prior to the return of Christ. After the “fullness of the Gentiles has come in” (11:25), the remnant of Jews that survive the tribulation will be saved, consistent with the remnant principle in Romans 9 to 11 (11:5). This either means that all non-believing Jews will be killed during the tribulation, or that God will bring all remaining Jews to faith. Some hold the view that “all Israel” refers to literally all Jews. Others believe that “all Israel” does not literally include all Jews, but idiomatically represents ethnic Israel as a collective.
NOT EVERY JEW
It has been argued above that Romans 11 does not predict a special end time Jewish salvation. Thus evidence has been provided against both dispensational views:
- “All Israel” will be saved at the return of Christ.
- “All Israel” will be saved through the events of the final few years before the return of Christ.
But then the question remains, what does “all Israel” refer to?
The phrase “all Israel” appears only in one other place in the NT, namely in 9:6. Romans 9:6 is the first time that the name “Israel” is mentioned in Romans, and in the three chapters this document analyzes. For that reason it is highly likely that “all Israel” in 11:26 has the same meaning as in 9:6. Romans 9:6 states that there are two nations of Israel. “All Israel” refers to the true Israel; the faithful remnant of Jews. It does not include all Jews of any specific generation, such as the final generation before the return of Christ.
Further evidence that “all Israel” does not include all Jews, not even all Jews of a specific generation, include:
1. “There is no partiality with God” (Romans 2:5-11), and it would be an act of partiality to save “all Jews” at the end, but not “all Jews” in history. It would be unfair to the Jews that died before Jesus returns. It would also be unfair to the Gentiles living at the end.
2. The complete conversion of Israel at the end of days is entirely incomprehensible. There never was a time when all Jews were saved. Why would all the Jews at the end of time be saved? To argue, in response, that all unsaved Jews will be killed by the tribulation, and none of the saved Jews, is a bit hard to swallow.
3. For most of history only a minority of Israel was saved. The nation was elected, but only certain individuals were saved. This is possible because election is not to salvation. Election is selection for a mission. In the time of Christ God hardened Israel by allowing unfaithful leaders to lead the nation to reject their messiah. But this hardening does not lead to eternal damnation. Even though the nation has been hardened, individuals are still saved. Should God remove the hardening, He would use a strong leader, like Moses, with miracles and wonders, to convert Israel to Christianity. But Israel would return to its previous condition; with only a minority saved (9:27).
4. Dispensationalists maintain that, by saving all Jews of the last generation, God keeps His promise to Israel. But how could such a limited salvation be a fulfillment of His promise to the entire nation?
5. Both “all” and “fullness” imply ‘a complete number’. Therefore, if the fullness of the Gentiles (11:25) does not include every Gentile, then probably “all Israel” does not literally include every Jew.
“ALL ISRAEL” INCLUDES GENTILES.
Many claim that Israel in 11:26 must be ethnic Israel because the Israel in the previous verse is ethnic Israel. It is often claimed that “Israel” in chapters 9 to 11 always refers to ethnic Israel. For instance, the true Israel mentioned in 9:6 consists exclusively of Jews; the faithful remnant. It is argued that elsewhere in Romans (for instance 4:13-18) and in other letters, where Paul discusses the salvation of individuals, Paul is quite comfortable to include Gentiles as the people of God. But in Romans 9 to 11, where he discusses the status of the entire nation, he does not include Gentiles. Therefore, it is concluded, it seems very unlikely that Paul would have the Church (“spiritual Israel”) in mind in 11:26.
In contrast, it is argued here as follows that “all Israel” includes Gentiles:
1. The entire Romans 9 to 11 explains the two Israels.
To explain how it is possible that the Word of God has not failed, even though Israel corporately rejected Jesus, Romans 9:6 differentiates between ethnic Israel and true Israel. The entire Romans 9 to 11 explains the distinction between these two nations of Israel, as an overview of the text will confirm:
Verses 9 to 16 of Romans 9 use individuals from the seed of Abraham (Isaac and Jacob) as examples of true Israel.
Verses 17 and 18 use Pharaoh to explain the hardening of those from the seed of Abraham that are not part of the true Israel, referred to as “the rest” in 11:7.
Verses 19 to 21 use the potter to illustrate God’s right to “make from the same lump (Abraham’s descendants) one vessel for honorable use (the true Israel) and another for common use (the rest)”.
Verses 22 to 24 apply the potter to Paul’s and our present day. Israel is now described as “vessels of wrath prepared for destruction” because its election has been destroyed. It previously was a “vessel for honorable use” but has now become a vessel for common use. True Israel is now described as “vessels of mercy” because it has now been elected as vessels for honorable use.
Romans 9:30-10:21 starts and ends with quotes (9:25-29; 10:19-21) confirming Israel’s loss and the Gentiles’ gain. These quotes contrast Israel with the Gentiles, similar to the vessels of wrath and mercy (9:22-24), and therefore still explain these vessels. Between these two sets of quotes Paul discusses the difference between righteousness by the works of the law and righteousness by faith. This still explains the difference between the vessels of wrath and mercy.
Up to verse 21 the focus is exclusively on ethnic Jews, dividing them between the true Israel and “the rest”. The next 33 verses, which includes Romans 10, after adding Gentiles to true Israel (9:24), shift the focus to the difference between Israel and Gentiles. But since this is an explanation of the contrast between the vessels of wrath and mercy, and since these vessels represent ethnic and true Israel respectively, these 33 verses still explain the two Israels.
The entire Romans 9 and 10 therefore explain the difference made by 9:6 between ethnic Israel and true Israel.
Romans 9:6 states that Israel’s failure was not due to a failure in God’s word. Romans 11:1 starts with a similar statement, namely that Israel’s failure was not due to God rejecting His people. “His people” in 11:1 probably refer to ethnic Israel, but as argued above, the “His people whom He foreknew” in 11:2 refer to the “remnant according to God’s gracious choice” (11:5), which is the same as true Israel. Romans 11:1-10 therefore continues the discussion of the two Israels in 9:6. The contrasts between ethnic Israel and true Israel is explained by the difference between “His people” (11:1) and “His people whom He foreknew” (11:2).
The last part of Romans 11 changes gears from reverse to forward. While Romans 9 to 11:10 mainly had bad things to say about ethnic Israel, the remainder of Romans 11 mainly has good things to say about them, and elevates the position of Jews within the community of God’s people. But the focus remains on the two Israels, as can be seen in the olive tree illustration. The tree, before branches are broken off, is ethnic Israel. The tree, after the hardened branches are broken off, is the true Israel. Then, similar to 9:24, believing Gentiles branches are grafted in. The tree is now equivalent to the vessels of mercy. But the tree remains “their own olive tree” (11:24). It therefore still represents Israel, but now the true Israel.
It would therefore be fair to conclude that the entire Romans 9 to 11 explains the two Israels of 9:6. Romans 11:25-26 is therefore part of that explanation, and therefore quite likely refers to both Israels.
2. “Israel” is frequently used with different meanings.
The objection that Paul would not give a new meaning to a key term (Israel in 11:26) in close proximity to its more common usage (Israel in 11:25) fails to recognize that Paul routinely does just such a thing. In the following examples he used the terms “circumcision”, “Jew”, “children of Abraham”, “Israel” and “His people” in close proximity with different meanings:
Romans 2:25 refers to physical circumcision, but according to 2:26 only people, including specifically Gentiles, that keep the law, will be regarded as circumcised.
Romans 2:28-29 defines a Jew as one who is one inwardly. Since this statement is linked to 2:25-27 by means of the word “for”, and since 2:25-27 specifically includes Gentiles in the people that are circumcised, this definition of “Jew” includes Gentiles.
Romans 4:13-18 provides a new meaning for the phrase “children of Abraham”, namely not “those who are of the Law” (v14), but “through the righteousness of faith” (v13).
Romans 9:6 redefines “Israel” and uses the name Israel in close proximity for, firstly, true Israel and secondly for ethnic Israel.
Romans 11:1-2 redefines the name “His people”. This name is first used for ethnic Israel, and then for true Israel.
If one recognizes that Romans 9 to 11 at least twice before contrasted ethnic Israel with true Israel in the same or consecutive verses, and that most of Romans 9 to 11 explains the contrast between the two Israels, then it becomes easy to accept that 11:25-26 uses the name “Israel” for both true Israel and ethnic Israel. In fact, with this understanding of Romans 9 to 11 one should expect the two Israels to be contrasted in 11:25-26. To revert to a view that “Israel” refers to all Jews, after Paul labored so much to explain the remnant principle, would do a grave injustice to the text.
3. The olive tree explains the true Israel, and Gentiles are added to the tree.
It has been argued above that 11:25-26 is a summary of 11:11-32. The parallels between the olive tree and the previous sections of Romans 9 to 11 furthermore indicate that the olive tree illustrates the transition from the ethnic Israel in 9:6 to the true Israel of 9:6:
- The tree, before any branches are broken off or added, represents the ethnic Israel of 9:6. This is the same as the “His people” of 11:1.
- The unbelieving branches that are broken off represent the Israel that “are not all Israel” (9:6). This is the “rest” that “were hardened” (11:7).
- The tree, after unbelieving branches have been broken off, represents the true Israel of 9:6. This is the same as “His people whom He foreknew” (11:2), and as the remnant (11:5).
Gentiles are then added to the tree, and therefore to the true Israel.
4. Romans 9 also adds Gentiles to true Israel.
In Romans 9 the true Israel of 9:6 is represented as as vessels of mercy (9:22-24). But the vessels of mercy include Gentiles (9:24). The tree, after believing Gentile branches have been added, is equivalent to the vessels of mercy.
5. Verses 25-26 summarize the olive tree.
The word “for” with which v25 starts implies that 11:25-26 is the conclusion of the olive tree illustration. This is confirmed by the parallels between v25-26 and the olive tree illustration:
Ethnic Israel (11:25) is the tree before any branches are broken off.
Israel’s partial hardening (11:25) is represented as cultivated branches broken off.
The coming in of the Gentiles (11:25) is represented as wild branches grafted in.
Even after non-believing branches have been broken off and believing wild branches have been grafted in, the tree is described as Israel’s “own olive tree” (11:24). Therefore this tree also represents the “all Israel” in verse 26.
The olive tree illustration contrasts ethnic Israel and true Israel and adds believing Gentiles to the true Israel. Since the olive tree illustration is summarized by 11:25-26, one should expect v25-26 to do the same.
6. Whoever owns the promises is regarded as Israel.
Dispensationalists argue that the tree is not Israel, and that the Gentiles do not become part of Israel. That is correct. The tree does not represent ethnic Israel. It illustrates the transition of the chosen people from ethnic Israel to true Israel. Finally it represents the true Israel. Gentiles do not become part of (ethnic) Israel. They become part of true Israel.
The clear message from the olive tree is that the covenants and promises are still valid. These foundational covenants and promises made Israel what it was. Without these covenants and promises Israel would not have been different from any other nation. Therefore, whoever owns these covenants and promises is regarded as Israel.
The real important issue is that true Israel inherited the root and its fatness from ethnic Israel. Believing Gentiles now share in these foundational covenants and promises (fatness of the root). They do not become part of ethnic Israel, but they have inherited the “covenants of promise” (Eph. 2:12), “became partaker with them of the rich root of the olive tree” (11:17 – the rich Jewish heritage) and are regarded as children of Abraham. This is what counts.
Non-believing Jews are the broken off branches. They no longer share in the fatness of the root. In other words, they have no promises. Throughout the letter to the Romans (e.g. 2:25-9) as well as elsewhere (e.g. Philippians 3:2-11), Israel’s privileges and attributes are systematically transferred to the Messiah and his people; the true Israel of Romans 9 to 11.
After unbelieving natural branches (Jews) have been broken off (v17) and believing wild branches (Gentiles) have been grafted in (v17), Paul still calls the tree Israel’s “own olive tree” (11:24), into which it is easier to graft Jews than non-Jews (11:24), and of which Jews are supposed to be jealous (11:11, 14). This is not because the tree represents ethnic Israel. Rather, the tree represents the people to whom the fatness of the root now belongs. This is what Jews should be jealous about. The important issue is not your ancestry, but whether you are an heir of the promises.
It is difficult to understand what Dispensationalists understand to be the remaining unique possession of ethnic Israel. All things have been brought together under one head; Christ (Eph. 1:10). Gentiles are now, with the Jewish saints, citizens of the “commonwealth” (nation) of Israel (Eph. 2:12, 19). They share in the “covenants of promise” (Eph. 2:12). With the remnant of the Jews they form one man (2:15), one body (2:16; 3:6), one household (2:19), one building (2:20) and one temple (2:21). The barrier of the dividing wall has been abolished (Eph. 2:15). They have become part of God’s household which has been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets (2:19, 20). “The mystery of Christ … has now been revealed … that the Gentiles are fellow heirs and fellow members of the body, and fellow partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (Eph. 3:4-6). Like Israel (Rom 9:4-5) believing Gentiles have been adopted as sons (Eph. 1:5). To Israel belongs the glory, but God has made known the riches of His glory on the Gentiles (Rom 9:23). The fathers belong to Israel (Rom 9:4-5), but believing Gentiles have become children of Abraham (Gal. 3:7). If Israel remains separate from believing Gentiles in God’s plan, what remains their unique possession? Every spiritual possession is now shared by believing Gentiles.
Dispensationalists try to split the promises, and limit the Gentiles’ inheritance to the new covenant. But it does not make sense to limit the root or its wealth to the new covenant. They limit Gentiles to be children of Abraham, and not of Jacob. However, Jacob inherited all of Abraham’s promises. If Gentiles are not the children of Jacob, they inherit nothing. But according to Galatians 3:29, “if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise.” It is only through Jacob, and through Jacob’s ultimate Son, that Gentiles are considered to be children of Abraham.
7. All saved in the same way
All are under the same condemnation and God will save all of His people in the same way (Romans 9:30-10:21; 11:30-32):
For God has bound all men over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all. (NIV’s Romans 11:32)
In salvation there is no distinction between Jew and Greek (Gentile) (10:12); all are saved by faith in Christ. Not in mass, or on the basis of nationality; but individually, person by person, those who believe and obey the gospel! Jews will receive mercy only through the mercy which the Gentiles received (11:31), not some special kind of mercy.
Why would Paul suddenly depart from this principle and break up the unity of believing Jews and Gentiles by describing a special salvation for the Jews?
8. AND SO: The completion of the Gentiles completes Israel.
The beginning words of verse 26 (and so) have been discussed above in the discussion of the possibility of an end time Jewish revival, and it has been shown that “and so” means that the number of Israel is completed by the completion of the number of the Gentiles. In other words, “all Israel” includes the fullness of the Gentiles.
The word “fullness” in the phrase “the fullness of the Gentiles” (v25) and the word “all” in the phrase “all Israel” (v26) both mean ‘the complete number’. The mention of these phrases in immediate proximity supports the conclusion that “all Israel” includes the “fullness of the Gentiles”.
GENTILE INCLUSION NOT THE PRIMARY ISSUE
We may think of Gentile inclusion as important, but that is because we try to interpret these verses from the perspective of the situation in the Church today. In Romans 9-11 Gentile inclusion is mentioned only in the two illustrations (the potter in 9:24 and the olive tree in 11:16-24). For Paul the inclusion of the Gentiles was not a secondary issue. In Paul’s day the remnant of the Jews was the core of the Church. The primary issue is that God’s word did not fail (9:6) and He did not reject His people (11:1) because He elected a remnant from Israel. This document interprets the text from his perspective and situation, and does not apply these principles to the present day situation. The only purpose of this document is to understand what is meant by “Israel” in the book of Revelation, and it is assumed that the meaning in Romans 11 is the intended meaning in the book of Revelation.
He will remove ungodliness from Jacob.
The statement “and so all Israel will be saved” is justified in that same verse by the following quote from the OT:
The Deliverer will come from Zion, He will remove ungodliness from Jacob. (v26)
The reference to the name “Jacob” instead of “Israel” is used by some as proof that the Israel in 11:26 is ethnic Israel. However, Jacob’s name was changed to Israel, and Romans 9 to 11 differentiates between two nations of Israel. The context should determine to which “Israel” is referred. Jacob is used in 9:10-13 as an example of the true Israel. Therefore, in verse 26, it probably also refers to the true Israel.
The dispensational system of thinking with respect to Israel is primarily based on the OT. Dispensationalists therefore often interpret NT statements based on the supporting OT quotes, where Israel always means ethnic Israel. However, quotes should not be interpreted to contradict the NT statements they support. In Romans 9 – 11 the status of Israel has been discussed at length and the remnant principle has been explained. After all that has been said and done one should not revert to a simple interpretation of Israel as literal Israel.
They are enemies for your sake.
Verse 28 continues:
From the standpoint of the gospel they are enemies for your sake.
- that “they”, being enemies of the gospel, must refer to ethnic Israel,
- that its antecedent must be the previous “Israel”, which is the one in 11:26, and
- that “Israel” in 11:26 therefore refers to ethnic Israel.
However, the “they” in v28 cannot possibly refer to the “all Israel” in v26:
- “All Israel” are saved (v26), while “they” are the lost, disobedient enemies of the gospel (v28, 30, 31) that “may now be shown mercy” (v31).
- “It” would be the appropriate pronoun for the literal nation of Israel.
- Verses 28-31 contrast “they” and “you” (v30, cf. v28). If “they” refer to “all Israel”, then “you” should also be represented in verses 25-26. However, the “you” refers to the saved Gentiles that Paul starts to address in verse 13. For this reason we should seek the antecedent for the “they” also earlier than verses 25-26.
To correctly identify the antecedents for “they” and “you”, consider the entire chapter:
In verse 1 Paul refers to the entire Israel as “His people”. The next five verses (2-6) shift the focus to the chosen remnant.
Verse 7 is the key. It says “That which Israel is seeking for, it has not obtained.” “Israel” here therefore refers to ethnic Israel. Then that same verse divides ethnic Israel into two groups; “those who were chosen” and “the rest”. Verses 8-10 describe “the rest” as people that cannot see or hear. The focus, which in verse 5 was on the remnant, has now shifted to the disobedient and obstinate rest (10:21; 11:7).
Verse 11 starts using the pronouns “they”, “them” and “their”. Apart from the quotes in verses 8 to 10, such pronouns have not been used earlier in the chapter, but the use of these pronouns is continued all the way to the end of the chapter. In the context “they” refers to “the rest” (v7). It does not refer to ethnic Israel corporately because the pronoun for ethnic Israel is “it”, not “they”. (See “it” used as pronoun in v7 for ethnic Israel.)
In verse 13 Paul introduces believing Gentiles by writing “I am speaking to you who are Gentiles.” This is the first use of the pronoun “you”. The remainder of the chapter frequently contrast “they” and “you”, and therefore contrasts believing Gentiles with “the rest” of v7, namely non-believing Jews.
In verses 25-26 these pronouns briefly but abruptly disappear. These verses interrupt the contrast Paul is making between the non-believing Jews and the believing Gentiles to reveal the mystery that Israel will remain hardened until “the fullness of the Gentiles”. In so doing the focus is transferred from the present to the entire period until the return of Christ.
In verse 28 the pronouns “they” and “you” re-appear with the statement “they are enemies for your sake”, and continues until just before the doxology in verses 33-36.
Since “they” cannot refer to the Israel of verse 26, and since “you” refers to the Gentiles mentioned in verse 13, “they” in v28 refers to “the rest” in v7.
V25-26 is the pinnacle of salvation.
An argument that must be considered is that it seems as if the climax of the chapter is interpreted here as a mere truism. Notice that most of the chapter seems to be about the salvation of the Jews:
The opening question is whether the hardened Jews can be saved (v11). Paul says they can (v11). In fact, salvation has come to the Gentiles to make the Jews jealous (v11), and through jealousy some of them might be saved (v14). And how wonderful would it be if they are all saved (v12, 15), because, if the first part has been set apart for honorable use (11:16, 9:21), all of them really are set apart for honorable use (11:16). After five verses warning Gentiles of their precarious position (v17-22), Paul returns to the salvation of the Jews, saying they can be grafted back in (v23) and this would be easier than grafting Gentiles in (v24). Verses 26-27 quote the OT about taking away the sins from Jacob. Then Paul repeats the concept already stated in v16 by saying they are “beloved for the sake of the fathers; for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (v28-29). Finally Paul concludes “through your mercy they may also obtain mercy” (v31 MKJV).
Given the emphasis on the salvation of Jews in these verses, the statement “all Israel shall be saved” (v26) seems to be intended as the pinnacle of these redemption promises. In contrast, the interpretation in this document, namely that they will remain partly hardened until “the fullness of the Gentiles” is an anticlimax. It does not seem to do justice to Paul’s wonderful possibilities for the Jews.
To defend the interpretation provided by this document, Romans 11 does not promise that all Jews, or even all Jews of a particular generation, or even most Jews of a particular generation, will be saved:
The current section begins and ends on the same topic, namely that Jews are saved via the mercy received by the Gentiles (v11, 13, 31), not in some other special way.
Verses 12 and 15 do not promise that all Jews will be saved, but only states how wonderful it would be.
Verse 16 and 28-29 both deal with the concept that Jews are special because of their forefathers, but neither promises them salvation. Verse 28 is informative: “Indeed as regards the gospel, they are enemies for your sakes. But as regards the election, they are beloved for the fathers’ sakes.” This contrasts election and salvation, and confirms that, in these chapters, election is not to salvation. Election does not promise that “all Israel will be saved.”
The wonderful possibilities of salvation expressed in this chapter therefore stops short of confirming a literal interpretation of 11:26, namely that all (literal) Israel will be saved. Romans 11:25 has been interpreted above to say that Israel will remain hardened until the end. It is now further proposed that the apparent anticlimax is both the real message and the mystery of 11:25, namely that ethnic Israel, in spite of being considered “holy” and beloved for the sake of the fathers, and in spite of the fact that they can more easily be back grafted in than Gentiles, will be kept hardened to allow Gentiles full and unhindered access, even unto the fullness of the Gentiles.
Rom 11:28 From the standpoint of the gospel they are enemies for your sake, but from the standpoint of God’s choice they are beloved for the sake of the fathers; 29 for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.
Since “the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable”, some argue that non-believing Jews still are called and heirs of the gifts. But such an interpretation would contradict other scripture. For example, the olive tree illustration shows the Jews separated from the wealth of the root, and:
nor are they all children because they are Abraham’s descendants (9:7; also 4:16; Gal 3:29) [The implication is that only children share in the inheritance.]
For if those who are of the Law (circumcised Jews) are heirs, faith is made void and the promise is nullified; … For this reason it (to be a heir) is by faith, in order that it may be in accordance with grace, so that the promise will be guaranteed to all the descendants, not only to those who are of the Law (Jews), but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham (Gentiles), who is the father of us all (Rom 4:14-16)
And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise. (Gal 3:29)
Gentiles are fellow heirs and fellow members of the body (Eph. 3:6)
Therefore, non-believing Jews are not heirs, while non-Jewish believers are. Given this message, how must Romans 11:28-29 be understood?
Firstly, “the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable”. This is the consistent message of Romans 9 to 11. The word of God has not failed (9:6) and God did not reject His people whom He foreknew (11:2). The gifts and the calling of God are still valid today.
Secondly, God gave this irrevocable call and gifts to the fathers, but Ishmael and Esau did not inherit the call or the gifts. They are used in 9:7-13 as examples of how God select descendants to inherit the call and promises. Not all of Abraham’s and Isaac’s descendants are heirs. The argument in Romans 9 – 11 is that not all of Jacob’s descendants are heirs either, but that God elected a remnant. Only the remnant is regarded as children (9:8), and only children are heirs.
To return to Romans 11:28-29; these verses pull Jews into two different directions. Firstly, “they are enemies for your sake.” This principle is mentioned often in this section, namely that Israel has been hardened to allow Gentiles to come in. “For your sake” therefore means ‘for your benefit’.
Consider the remainder of Romans 11:28-29:
from the standpoint of God’s choice they are beloved for the sake of the fathers; 29 for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable
“For the sake of the fathers” points to the fathers as the ones to whom God gave something special, not to the physical descendants.
“From the standpoint of election” explains what the fathers received. They were elected.
“For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” explains election. To be elected is to be called to a mission, and to be given gifts to enable the call to succeed. This call and these gifts will not be revoked, but are inherited by those that are regarded as children.
“Are beloved” describes the consequences for the physical descendants, and means that they have been advantaged (Mal. 1:1-4). As explained by Romans 3:1-2:
Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the benefit of circumcision? Great in every respect. First of all, that they were entrusted with the oracles of God.
To conclude, the call is irrevocable, but only those that are regarded as children inherit this call, and all believers are regarded as children.
— OVERVIEW —
THREE MAIN SECTIONS
Romans 9 – 11 may be divided into three main sections, each initiated by a categorical denial:
- The word of God has not failed (9:6).
- God has not rejected His people (11:1).
- The Jews did not stumble so as to fall (11:11).
The three denials divide the chapters into three sections:
Romans 9 and 10
Since the first denial after 9:6 is in 11:1, Romans 9 – 10 forms a unit. Both chapters explain Israel’s failure:
The first 29 verses of Romans 9 argue that Israel did not fail because of a failure of God’s word or a failure in the promises (9:6), but because it was God’s choice. God’s sovereign election is a major discussion in this section, but it is critical to understand that the main question in this chapter is why Israel failed, and that election is the answer to that question.
From 9:30 until the end of Romans 10 the blame for its failure is put on Israel itself, not on God’s choice. These 25 verses do not mention election at all. But because it continues to explain why Israel failed, it is a continuation of Romans 9.
The second main section is Romans 11:1-10. This section argues that God did not reject “His people”. Although the question is somewhat different, the justification for the denial is essentially the same as in Romans 9, namely that God has chosen a remnant out of Israel.
The remainder of Romans 11, which forms the final unit, changes gears. The previous parts of Romans 9 to 11 mainly had bad things to say about unbelieving Israel, but in this section Paul mainly has good things to say about them. They are “holy” (v16), “beloved for the sake of the fathers” (v28) and the natural member of the community of the believers on earth (v24).
The main message of this section is a warning to the Gentiles not to think that they are better than the non-believing Jews, but to respect Jews for their forefathers, and to be the instruments for their salvation.
THE CHOSEN AND THE SAVED
Election is a major topic in Romans 9 – 11. Election has therefore been discussed in the sections dealing with 9:13-21, 9:30-10:21 and 11:6. In these sections evidence has been provided that election is not to salvation, and that hardening is not eternal damnation. Further evidence can now be provided.
Firstly, the olive tree illustrates the election in Romans 9 and 11:1-10. It symbolizes election by God breaking off (11:17, 20-22) and grafting in branches (11:23-24). The broken off branches are the hardened “rest” of Israel. The remaining tree is the chosen remnant. The image of God breaking off branches from the tree confirms that these chapters do not deal with election to salvation, because, if it was true that God decides who should be saved, then He does not change His mind. Rather, God redefines the chosen nation by breaking off some branches and adding some wild branches.
Secondly, consider the statement in 11:28:
they are enemies for your sake, but from the standpoint of God’s choice they are beloved for the sake of the fathers
They are both enemies and beloved. They are enemies because they are not saved (10:1), but they are beloved because of election. Again the message is that salvation and election are two different things.
Thirdly, some people emphasize the verses in the Bible that speak of God’s sovereignty and put less emphasis on verses that speak about human freedom. But between Romans 9 and 11, with their heavy focus on God’s sovereignty and the fate of the chosen nation, we find Romans 10, with its emphasis on salvation (10:1, 10, 13) and human freedom (10:11, 13), with statements such as:
Whoever believes in Him will not be disappointed (v11).
Whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved (v13).
Both God’s sovereignty and human freedom are realities, but the first determines election to a mission, as indicated by the context in Romans 9 and 11, and the second determines salvation, as indicated by the context in chapter 10.
One must differentiate between the chosen and the saved. These groups overlap, but they are not the same. To be chosen for a mission does not guarantee salvation. Similarly, to be hardened does not guarantee eternal damnation.
The lack of emphasis on election to a mission is a flaw in Dispensationalist thinking. Dispensationalists make Israel the end (purpose) of God’s election, instead of the means to an end. In contrast this document proposes that the gifts and promises God gave to Israel were to make them a blessing to the nations of the world. Through them God sent the Messiah to the world. Through them God maintained His word on earth and wrote the Bible. Through them God sent the gospel into the world. Israel was elected to be a means—to be a tool in God’s plan of salvation—not an end in itself.
We should not be concerned about who will be saved and who will be lost. We must leave that to God. He alone can judge, and we must trust Him to do that perfectly. God continually works in the heart of every person on earth to lead them to accept His principles. Who will be saved and will be lost is a mystery beyond current human understanding. God will clear up the mess on earth and recreate a perfect world in which complete harmony and love will reign:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth passed away, and … I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them, and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.” (Rev 21:1-4)
THREE WAYS IN WHICH THE REMNANT PRINCIPLE IS UNDERSTOOD
The remnant is explained in all three sections of Romans 9 to 11. In Romans 9 – 10 it is the true Israel (9:6), of which Isaac and Jacob are examples, that have been elected by God, just like a potter would make, from the same lump, one vessel for honourable use and another for common use. In Romans 11:1-10 the true Israel is called the remnant (11:5). In the olive tree illustration the remnant is the tree after the non-believing branches have been broken off.
Commentators generally agree that the remnant principle is the answer provided by Romans 9 to 11 for Israel’s status, but they apply it in different ways. They disagree on who the chosen nation was or is, and on whether the OT covenants and promises still are valid, and to whom. Three main views can be distilled:
VIEW I: The covenants and promises always were only for the invisible and saved minority, which remains the real chosen nation, but since the time of Jesus the covenants and promises are no longer required.
There always was an invisible faithful minority, like Elijah’s 7000. Reformed theologians propose that this faithful minority, elected to salvation, was the real chosen nation, and that the covenants and promises really were only for them. Therefore, with respect to the chosen nation, nothing changed with the switch from the old to the new dispensations; the invisible minority continues to be the real chosen nation.
Israel failed because corporately it never really was the chosen nation. Ethnic Israel as a whole is no longer the chosen nation and God did not reject His people (11:1) because the entire ethnic Israel never was the chosen nation.
This view also proposes that the covenants and promises have come to an end at the time of Christ because the word of God (the covenants and promises of the Old Testament) has succeeded (the opposite of the “failed” in 9:6) to achieve its ultimate purpose in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (Gal. 3:16), and are therefore no longer required.
VIEW II: The remnant represents ethnic Israel. Through the remnant the covenants and promises are still valid for the entire ethnic Israel:
Dispensationalists propose that the remnant consists exclusively of ethnic Jews. They argue that, just like there was a remnant in Elijah’s day, there is a remnant in every generation. Consequently they accept this remnant as proof that God’s word did not fail (9:6), and as proof that God did not reject His people (11:1). However, rather than interpreting the remnant as the new chosen people, they interpret the remnant in Romans 9 and 11 as representing the nation, as guarantee that God did not reject ethnic Israel. Through the remnant the covenants and promises still are applicable to the entire Jewish nation, and this remnant will become the conduit through which God will bless the entire nation. In this way ethnic Israel remains the chosen nation.
VIEW III: God made, in Paul’s day, though divine election, the covenants and promises applicable only on the true Israel, which includes Gentiles.
To evaluate these three views, the following questions will now be addressed:
- Is Israel today still the chosen nation?
- Has a new nation be chosen in Paul’s lifetime?
- Are the covenants and promises still valid today?
ONE: IS ISRAEL TODAY STILL THE CHOSEN NATION?
To respond to the views above, it is firstly proposed that Israel is not the chosen nation today:
The election of a remnant automatically means that Israel corporately has been de-elected.
Some people declare the main topic of Romans 9 and 11:1-10 to be election, with Israel used as an example to explain election. Actually, it is the other way round. The main topic is Israel, and the emphasis on election in these chapters explain Israel, namely that Israel failed because of election.
The election in these chapters is the election of the remnant of Israel, described as true “Israel” (9:6) and as “us, whom He has called” (9:24), “chosen” (11:5), “kept by God for Himself” (11:4) and “foreknew” (11:2).
It was argued above that election in Romans 9 is not to salvation, but to a mission. Romans 9 uses Jacob as example of the true Israel, and he was chosen from Abraham’s descendants for the mission. This implies that the true Israel (the remnant) has also been chosen—from Abraham’s descendants—for the mission.
If ethnic Israel previously was elected, the election of a remnant automatically means that Israel corporately has been de-elected.
This is also evident from Romans 11. According to 11:2 God did not reject His people “whom He foreknew”, which, as argued above, is the remnant from Israel (11:5). By saying that God elected a remnant from Israel (11:2-5), when the question is about the entire ethnic Israel (11:1), Paul implies that the nation is currently not the chosen nation.
By describing the true Israel as “Israel” (9:6), Israel is redefined.
Since a new Israel is defined, the old Israel—ethnic Israel—is not regarded by Paul as Israel in God’s sight. This is perhaps clearer from some others translations of 9:6:
NRSV: “For not all Israelites truly belong to Israel”
NJB: “Not all those who descend from Israel are Israel”
This is not the first time that this concept appears in Romans. Already in 2:25-29 a Jew was redefined as a person who was circumcised in his heart.
The same thing happens in Romans 11:1-5. In Romans 11:1 Paul argues that God has not rejected His people. This seems to refer to Israel of the flesh. But then Paul explains that God did not reject the people whom He foreknew. This is explained by 11:2-5 as the remnant; the true Israel. In verses 11:1 and 11:2 he therefore makes the same distinction as 9:6; between ethnic Israel and the chosen remnant. By describing the remnant as “His people”, Israel is redefined.
Ethnic Israel is not regarded as descendants.
Similarly, the true Israel is “regarded as descendants” (9:8). This means that the non-believing Israelites are not “regarded” as descendants (of Abraham), and therefore as members of the true Israel, and not as heirs.
Isaac and Jacob as examples imply that Israel has the status of Ishmael and Esau.
Romans 9 uses Isaac and Jacob as examples of the true Israel of 9:6. These examples divide the natural descendants into a chosen sub-group that inherits the call, and a sub-group with no further involvement with the call. The election of Isaac meant that Ishmael was not part of the chosen nation. Similarly, the election of Jacob meant that Esau was not part of the chosen nation. Applying these examples to the two Israels of 9:6 implies that true Israel is elected and the rest of Israel today has the status of Ishmael and Esau; they are not part of the chosen nation. They also are Abraham’s physical descendants, but they have not been elected.
Israel is described as destroyed.
The potter illustrates election. The second phase of that illustration (9:22-24) is applicable to the present day. It says that God endured Israel (vessels of wrath prepared for destruction) with much patience, but now demonstrated His wrath on them to make known His glory on the remnant (vessels of mercy). The fact that ethnic Israel is represented as vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, together with all the other indications of Israel’s destruction (see the discussion of the vessels of wrath), implies that Israel’s election as vessels for honorable use has been destroyed through the election of a new chosen people; the vessels of mercy.
The quotes from Isaiah (9:27-29), used in Romans 9 in support of the election just described in 9:22-24, further confirm the destruction of their election:
though the number of the sons of Israel be like the sand of the sea, it is the remnant that will be saved (9:27)
Israel has been hardened, which means to be rejected.
The “children of God” (9:8) are explained by the parallel text in Romans 11 as the chosen remnant of the Jews (11:5, 7). “The rest” is described as “hardened” (11:7). The hardening refers back to the discussion of election in Romans 9, which states:
He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires. (9:18)
“Mercy” refers back to Jacob (9:15), which means “hardens” refer back to Esau (9:13). The hardened people are therefore those that God rejected through election.
Israel’s rejection is explicitly stated by 11:15.
The Greek word for rejection (casting-away) in 11:15 is not the same as in 11:1 and 11:2, but has a similar meaning.
Israel is detached from the promises.
Israel’s rejection is illustrated by the olive tree. Since the hardened Israelites have been detached from the root, and since the root represents the fathers and their promises, these detached Israelites have no right to the promises. Since the chosen nation is the people that own the promises, the tree represents the chosen nation. The detached Jews therefore cannot claim to be part of the chosen nation.
Believers no longer become part of ethnic Israel.
The divine promises to the Jews in the Old Testament were founded upon the covenant that God originally made with Abraham. God declared circumcision to be the sign of the covenant (Gen. 17:11). Any male who is not circumcised was to be cut off from his people (Gen. 17:14). God had made provision for any Gentile who wished to do so to join with His covenant people through circumcision, and they became as a native of the land (Ex. 12:43-49). When Gentiles first accepted Jesus as their Saviour, “some men … began teaching … ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved’” (Acts 15:1), but Paul wrote that “If ye be circumcised, Christ shall profit you nothing” (Gal. 5:2), and “Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing” (1 Cor. 7:19). If it was the norm for more than 1000 years, why did Paul refuse Gentiles to become part of literal Israel? They only logical answer is that literal Israel no longer exists in God’s plan. Israel was no longer the vehicle of God’s grace.
Ethnic Israel continues to exist as a literal nation, and must go by that name, but the real Israel is something different.
If ethnic Israel previously was the chosen nation, and has been rejection through the election of the remnant, why does 11:1 confirm that God did not reject His people? It is proposed that, just like God did not reject Abraham by choosing only one of his sons (Isaac) and one of his grandsons (Jacob), God did not reject Israel by choosing the remnant from them. To the contrary, by choosing the remnant from them, and not from some other nation, God honored His commitment to Israel, and endorsed His covenants with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Paul is an example of the remnant. He was the most prolific traveller/teacher of the church. He is an example of the Christian Jews that God, through His Holy Spirit, was powerfully using to take the gospel to the world. Therefore, since God is using Jews like Paul as the driving force to take the gospel to the world, how could it be said that God rejected Israel?
The same principle applies to the key statement in 9:6; God’s word did not fail. His promises did not fail. “The gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (11:29). Jesus also said to the Jews: “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people, producing the fruit of it” (Mat 21:43). This kingdom of God remained, but was taken away from Israel, and given to a remnant of Israel. The remnant inherited the irrevocable gifts and calling of God. The exclusion of Ishmael and Esau from the promises did not revoke the promises made to Abraham. In the same way the election of a remnant in Paul’s day did not revoke the promises to the fathers.
If Jews today were still the core of the church, as they were in Paul’s day, and as they hopefully one day again will be, the idea of Israel as an entity with a separate standing before God, apart from the church, would never have developed.
TWO: HAS A NEW NATION BEEN CHOSEN IN PAUL’S LIFETIME?
It should therefore be fairly clear that Israel today is not the chosen nation. The entire message of Romans 9 to 11 seems to be that true Israel (the remnant) has been elected. But then we come to the question whether the faithful in Israel always was the chosen nation, or whether Israel lost its status as chosen nation by the election of the faithful remnant as a new nation in Paul’s lifetime.
It is proposed here that God made a new election decision in Paul’s day, argued as follows:
The evidence from the Old Testament is that the entire ethnic Israel was the chosen nation. There is no indication in the Old Testament of a chosen nation as a subset of the Jews. Israel alone had – as a nation – a covenant with God. Thus we read in Deut. 29:1; “These are the words of the covenant, which the Lord commanded Moses to make with the children of Israel.” Included in the “words of the covenant” were the blessings for Israel upon national obedience (Deut. 28:1-13), and the curses for Israel upon national disobedience (Deut. 28:15-68). The latter includes: “The Lord shall smite thee with madness, and blindness, and astonishment of heart” (Deut. 29:28). The covenant therefore contains penalties and curses for unfaithfulness (see also Lev. 26:14 and further). This means that the old covenants were with the nation as a whole, including the unfaithful. It is therefore not valid to state that God’s word was always only valid for the true subset of Israel. If therefore, ethnic Israel previously was the chosen nation, but the true Israel of 9:6 is now the chosen nation, then an entirely new election decision has been made.
More specific evidence is found in Romans 9 to 11. In 9:4-5 Paul acknowledges that all the blessings God had given to the Israelites belonged to them nationally.
The potter illustrates the election of Romans 9. While the first phase of the potter conveys general principles of election, the second phase illustrates a specific election decision. The identification of the mercy-vessels as Christians classifies this as a recent decision. The second phase of the potter indicates that God “endured” ethnic Israel “with much patience” (9:22), but also refers to ethnic Israel as “prepared for destruction”, which, given the context in which this was written, where Israel was separated from God by stumbling over Jesus Christ (9:33), implies that the destruction of Israel was recent.
Good support for a recent change in the chosen nation comes from the olive tree illustration. It is firstly important to understand that, since the tree is attached to the root, and since the root is or has the promises, the tree represents the chosen nation; whoever has the promises is the chosen nation. The breaking off of the branches is removal of a part of the chosen nation. The grafting in of the wild Gentile branches is their addition to the chosen nation. Since the unbelieving branches are broken off, it means that they were once part of the tree; the chosen nation, but now they no longer are. It would therefore not be correct to assume that faithful minority always was the real chosen nation. Something changed, and the change was recent.
Incidentally, the olive tree and the potter illustrate the same events. The olive tree is the lump from which the vessels are made (compare 9:21 to 11:16). The tree, before branches are broken off, is the vessels previously chosen for honorable use, namely ethnic Israel. The tree, after some branches have been broken off and others added, is the vessels of mercy; consisting of both believing Jews and Gentiles (9:24). Both illustrate a recent change in the chosen nation, to graphically explain Paul’s arguments earlier in these chapters.
It is therefore concluded that the faithful minority was not always the chosen nation. Rather, God made, in Paul’s day, though divine election, the covenants and promises applicable to the true Israel.
It has now been proposes that ethnic Israel is no longer the chosen nation, but that God elected the faithful as the remnant in Paul’s day. The remaining matter of dispute is whether the covenants and promises made to Israel still are valid for this chosen remnant.
As mentioned above, some propose that the covenants and promises have come to an end because the word of God has succeeded to achieve its ultimate purpose in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. However:
The existence of a chosen remnant implies that the promises and covenants remain valid.
Isaac was Abraham’s promised son and Jacob was Isaac’s chosen son. They inherited the covenant promises God made to Abraham. They also serve as examples of the chosen remnant (9:6). The implications of these two examples are the same, namely that the chosen remnant was promised and chosen to inherit the calling (mission given to Abraham) and promises (made to Abraham).
The description of the chosen remnant as “Israel” implies continuance.
Romans 9:6 uses the name “Israel” in two senses; for ethnic Israel and for the chosen remnant. The use of the name “Israel”, that previously belonged exclusively to the ethnic nation, for the remnant, implies that this remnant is a continuation of Israel, which implies the continuance of the covenants and promises.
Similarly, Romans 11:1-2 describes the remnant as “His people”, implying continuance.
The clearest illustration of continuance is found in the parable of the Olive tree.
God did not annul His word (9:6). Rather, in Paul’s day, God elected a remnant from Israel to receive Abraham’s call. Israel’s promises and covenants remain, but now for those that are regarded as children. Believing Gentiles are also regarded as children, which means that the “covenants of promise“ (Eph 2:12) are now also for them. They have been added to the chosen remnant. In the symbolism of the olive tree; the root supports them (11:18).
The NT did not replace the OT. The NT is rather built on the foundation of the OT. Everything in the OT is still relevant and applicable, except to the extent that the NT announces specific changes; mostly to outward rituals, such as circumcision. The chosen remnant is a continuation of Israel of the Old Testament. It is not a new entity with new founding principles.
For the first number of years the church consisted only of Jews. Our Messiah was a Jew. The apostles were Jews. The first Christians were all Jews and considered themselves to be part of Israel, and kept their distance from non-Jews. They were a Jewish “sect”. In fact, they saw themselves as the only true Jews. Paul was a Jew. When God confronted him on his way to Damascus (Acts 9), the church still consisted only of Jews (Acts 11:18). It was only after Peter received the dream of the unclean animals (Acts 10) that these believing Jews understood that the gospel may also be offered to the “uncircumcised” (non-Jews) (Acts 10:19-20). Gentiles were added to their number, but throughout Paul’s lifetime Jews remained the core and leaders of the church. The Bible, including the New Testament, was written by Jews such as Paul, many years after our Saviour died. We should understand what Paul wrote against this historical perspective, not against our current context where we seldom even hear about a Christian Jew.
The church, as we know it today, is very different from the church in Paul’s day. The church has moved away from its Jewish roots, and has systematically replaced OT principles with heathen customs and heathen. Consequently, the Jewish core and leadership has disappeared from the church. The true faith is attacked from outside by theories such as evolution, but even more aggressively from within by a multitude of false doctrines and practices. This document does not defend the view that the present day Church is the new chosen nation. It rather defends the view that the remnant of Israel, with some Gentiles added, as it existed in Paul’s day, is the new chosen nation.
This is the understanding of “Israel” that we should take with us to the book of Revelation, for the interpretation of the Jewish symbols contained there-in.
Perhaps it is a pity that 11:25 does not predict an end time Jewish revival, because a Jewish revival is required to make the Church what it was in Paul’s day. The church must return to its Jewish roots and be cleansed from heathen practices and doctrines, and return to the God of the Bible; both of the Old and the New Testaments.