Excerpt: God did not annul His word but, in Paul’s day, elected a remnant from Israel to receive Abraham’s call. Israel’s promises and covenants remain intact, but are now for those that are regarded as children, which include believing Gentiles. The chosen remnant is a continuation of Israel of the Old Testament; not a new entity with new founding principles.
This is a summary of the article on Israel in Romans 9 to 11. While the main article works more or less sequentially through Romans 9 to 11, this article discusses these chapters thematically.
TO: Full article: Israel in Romans 9 to 11
The purpose of the article is to explain the Jewish references in the book of Revelation. In particular, the goal is to determine what “Israel” means in the New Testament (NT). Romans 9 to 11 are the most important chapters in the New Testament for this purpose. The article assumes that “Israel” in Revelation has the same meaning as in Romans 9 to 11, particularly in the statement, “All Israel will be saved” (Rom 11:26). The purpose of this article is, therefore, particularly to understand what “all Israel” means in Rom 11:26.
There are two major views, namely:
(1) “Israel” always refers to the ethnic nation of Israel, and “all Israel will be saved” refers to an end-time Jewish revival.
(2) Ethnic Israel is no longer part of God’s plan. “Israel” refers to the church. “All Israel will be saved” does refer to an end-time Jewish revival, but it will be a revival of the Jews within the church.
Neither of these views is supported by this document.
A SINGLE MAJOR CONCEPT
Read superficially, it may seem as if Paul’s writings jump around from one topic to another, 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 and that all the arguments, examples and quotes in a particular section are related. This article offers an interpretation based on the conclusion that all of Romans 9 to 11 explains one single major concept. This requires a high-level view of these chapters, emphasizing the interrelatedness of the various parts.
WHY DID ISRAEL FAIL?
In Old Testament times, Israel was God’s unique and special people, but God called Paul and gave him to preach equality of Jew and Greek. For example, “Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing” (1 Cor 7:19). This article argues that the purpose of Romans 9 to 11 is to explain that dramatic shift in how God deals with people. At the end of Romans 8, Paul wrote that nothing can separate us from the love of God, but at the beginning of Romans 9, his thoughts turn to Israel that has, in a sense, been separated from the love of God, and he explains this separation in Romans 9:6 with the statement:
But it is not as though the word of God has failed.
For they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel
In ither words, Israel did not fail because of a failure in God’s word. Rather, Israel failed because “they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel.” It is argued below that all of Romans 9 to 11 elaborates on this statement. The key purpose of Romans 9 to 11 is, therefore, to explain why Israel failed, OR Why was Israel separated from the love of God?
BECAUSE GOD CHOSE A REMNANT
Romans 9 and 11 answer this question by stating that God elected a remnant out of Israel. In other words, Israel failed due to election: it was God’s decision. In Romans 9, the election of Jacob and the potter-illustration informs us of this election decision. The election of a remnant is directly stated in Romans 11:
There has also come to be at the present time a remnant according to God’s gracious choice (Rom 11:5).
What Israel is seeking, it has not obtained, but those who were chosen obtained it, and the rest were hardened (Rom 11:7).
SOME KEY ASPECTS
The discussion will now interpret certain less obvious aspects of Romans 9 to 11 that are required to formulate the subsequent conclusions.
THE TWO PHASES OF THE POTTER
Romans 9 uses a potter, making different types of vessels from the same lump of clay, to illustrate the election. This illustration consists of two phases. The second phase (Rom 9:22-24) differs significantly from the first (Rom 9:20-21):
- The vessels for honorable and common use of the first phase are replaced by vessels of mercy and wrath.
- The second phase includes non-Jewish Christians (Rom 9:24) in the elected group for the first time in this chapter.
- While the previous verses, including the first phase of the illustration, only contain general principles and examples from history, Romans 9:22-24 is an application of these principles to Paul’s day.
The second phase can therefore also be called the application phase.
A key issue in Romans 9 is the identification of the vessels of wrath in the potter illustration. Most commentators believe that these vessels represent believers in general. In contrast, it is proposed here that the vessels of wrath represent ethnic Israel, for the following reasons:
1. Ethnic Israel is the subject and focus of the entire Romans 9 – 11, and should therefore also find a place in the potter illustration, and in this illustration, it can only be the vessels of wrath. (See the section ‘Rom 11:25-26: Explain true Israel’ for more detail.)
2. The purpose of Romans 9 is to explain that Israel failed due to election. Since the potter illustrates election, the symbol in the potter illustration that is rejected, namely the vessels of wrath, must be ethnic Israel.
3. The “lump”, from which the vessels are made (Rom 9:21), is used in 11:16 to represent Abraham’s descendants. Since the mercy-vessels represent the chosen remnant, the wrath-vessels must be the rest of Israel.
4. The potter illustration is followed by three quotes explaining the vessels. One quote from Isaiah concerns destruction, and therefore must apply to the “vessels of wrath prepared for destruction”, but this quote is about ethnic Israel.
5. The section after the quotes, starting in Rom 9:30 and continuing until the end of Romans 10, further explains 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.
6. The description “vessels of wrath prepared for destruction” fits the description of ethnic Israel in Romans 9 – 11 well. Ethnic Israel is described as failed (Rom 11:12) and fallen (Rom 11:11, 12, 22), predicted to be destroyed like Sodom and Gomorrah (Rom 9:29), stumbled (Rom 9:32), not obtaining what it sought, hardened (Rom 11:7, 25), rejected (Rom 11:15), broken off (Rom 11:17, 19) and under God’s severity (Rom 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.
7. In the application phase of the potter illustration, Paul wrote that God “endured” (past tense) the “vessels of wrath”, but has now made known His glory upon the Christians (Rom 9:22-23). God is therefore no longer enduring the vessels of wrath. They have already been ‘destroyed’, and therefore cannot be non-believers in general.
8. At the end of Romans 10, Paul wrote that God all the day long stretched out His hands to Israel (Rom 10:21). This is equivalent to saying that the vessels of wrath were “endured with much patience”, and thereby confirms that the vessels of wrath represent ethnic Israel.
HIS PEOPLE WHOM HE FOREKNEW
Many commentators propose that “His people whom He foreknew” (Rom 11:2) refers to the entire nation of Israel, but the following indicate that this refers to the chosen remnant:
1. Paul uses himself as proof that God did not reject “His people” (Rom 11:1), and he is not an example of all Jews. He is specifically an example of the Jewish Christians; a subset of the Jews.
2. The word “foreknew” was used in Rom 8:29 to describe the people that were “predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son.” This is not the entire nation.
3. The words “Or do you not know” (Rom 11:2), with which the example of the 7000 starts, makes the 7000 an example of the people “whom He foreknew”. Furthermore, the words “in the same way” (Rom 11:5) make the chosen remnant (Rom 11:5) 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 Israel.
4. The word “foreknew” (Rom 11:2) indicates that the “His people whom He foreknew” has been elected and the word “choice” (Rom 11:5) indicates that the “remnant according to God’s gracious choice” has also been elected. Since both have been elected, they must be the same.
5. In Romans 9, the present-day application of the potter (Rom 9:22-24) explains the chosen remnant 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”. Since the present-day application in Romans 9 explains the remnant, it implies that the present-day application in Romans 11 also explains the remnant, which means that “His people whom He foreknew” is the remnant.
OLIVE TREE; ABRAHAM’S DESCENDANTS
Believing Gentiles become “Abraham’s descendants” (Gal 3:7, 29). This is depicted in the olive tree as Gentiles being grafted into the tree. Non-believing Jews are not regarded as Abraham’s descendants (Rom 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.
Ephesians 2 says to the Gentiles:
“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”
“So then you are no longer strangers and aliens,
but you are fellow citizens with the saints,
and are of God’s household” (Eph 2:19)
The olive tree is may be called 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 do become part of the commonwealth of Israel and fellow citizens with the saints.
The root of the tree is either the fathers or the promises given to the fathers. The main issue 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. Believing Gentiles, on the other hand, are attached to the wealth of the root through grafting in, and have become heirs of the promises. This is what matters.
OLIVE TREE; EXPLAIN TRUE ISRAEL
The olive tree is an illustration of the transition from ethnic Israel in Rom 9:6 to the true Israel of 9:6, as indicated by the parallels:
- 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” (ethnic Israel) of Rom 11:1.
- The unbelieving branches that are broken off represent Israel that “are not all Israel” (9:6). This is the same as the “rest” that “were hardened” (Rom 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” (Rom 11:2), and as the remnant (Rom 11:5).
Gentiles are then added to the tree, and therefore to the true Israel. This is similar to the addition of Gentiles to the vessels of mercy, which also represent true Israel.
In Romans 11:13 Paul starts to address Gentiles directly. He warns them, with respect to unbelieving Jews:
- Do not be “arrogant” (Rom 11:18);
- Do not be “conceited” (Rom 11:20);
- Do not be “wise in your own estimation” (Rom 11:25).
Verses 16 to 33, which include the olive tree illustration and the debated Rom 11:25-26, can be divided into a series of seven consecutive warnings against Gentile arrogance:
1. Jews are holy (Rom 11:16).
2. The faith of Gentiles Christians is based in the Jewish inheritance (Rom 11:17-18).
3. Gentiles may be cut off like the non-believing Jews were (Rom 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 (Rom 11:23-24).
5. A partial hardening has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in (Rom 11:25-27).
The purpose of the hardening is, therefore, to allow Gentiles to come in. This principle is stated several times elsewhere in the passage, such as “they are enemies for your sake” (Rom 11:28) and “branches were broken off so that I (Gentile) might be grafted in” (Rom 11:19).
This fifth warning contains the debated verses 25 and 26. What it means will be analyzed below. For now it is sufficient to note that this is actually the fifth in a series of seven warnings against Gentile arrogance.
6. Jews are beloved for the sake of the fathers (Rom 11:28-29).
7. Because of the mercy shown to Gentiles the Jews also may now be shown mercy (Rom 11:30-33).
Since it is possible to group these 18 verses so neatly into seven consecutive warnings against Gentile arrogance, the main message of this part of Romans 11 is a warning to Gentiles.
Since the strong warnings imply that the believing Gentiles in Rome had a tendency to be arrogant toward Jews, we should ask why. Rome was the capital of the Roman Empire, and Israel a rebellious subject. Rome destroyed Jerusalem in AD70 and banned all Jews from the city. The Empire strove 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 other letters because the tendency to put down Jews was particularly strong in the capital of the Roman Empire.
So far some foundational concepts in Romans 9 – 11 have been discussed. The following sections include some transversal conclusions.
ROMANS 11:25-26 EXPLAINS TRUE ISRAEL
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 Isaac and Jacob as examples of true Israel.
Verses 17 and 18 use Pharaoh to explain the hardening of “the rest” (Rom 11:7) of ethnic Israel.
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 the present day. Israel is now “vessels of wrath prepared for destruction” because its election has been destroyed. True Israel is now “vessels of mercy” because it has now been elected for honorable use.
Romans 9:30-10:21 starts and ends with quotes (Rom 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 (Rom 9:22-24), and therefore still explain these vessels, which explain the two Israels.
“His people” in Rom 11:1 refer to ethnic Israel, but the “His people whom He foreknew” in Rom 11:2 refer to the “remnant” (Rom 11:5), which is the true Israel. Romans 11:1-10, therefore, continues the discussion of the two Israels in Rom 9:6.
The focus in the last part of Romans 11 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 have been broken off, is the true Israel. The tree remains “their own olive tree” (Rom 11:24). It therefore still represents Israel, but now the true Israel.
The entire Romans 9 to 11, therefore, explains the two Israels of 9:6. Romans Rom 11:25-26, which is part of that explanation, therefore also explain the two nations of Israel.
ROMANS 11:25-26 SUMMARIZES THE OLIVE TREE
Romans 11:25-26 follows immediately after the olive tree illustration. The word “for”, with which v25 starts, implies that 11:25-26 is the conclusion of that illustration. This is confirmed by the parallels between v25-26 and the olive tree:
- The tree, before any branches are broken off, is the Israel of verse 25.
- The cultivated branches that are broken off are called Israel’s partial hardening (11:25).
- The wild branches that are grafted in are the coming in of the Gentiles (11:25).
- Even after believing wild branches have been grafted in, the tree remains Israel’s “own olive tree” (11:24). Therefore this tree also represents the “all Israel” in verse 26.
Romans 11:25-26, therefore, summarizes the olive tree illustration, while the olive tree illustrates the two Israels of 9:6.
ISRAEL NOT THE CHOSEN NATION
Few people would dispute that Romans 9 – 11 explain that Israel failed because God elected a remnant, but this principle is applied differently by different people. Dispensationalists argue as follows:
The remnant consists exclusively of ethnic Jews. There always was a chosen remnant, and the fact that there still is a remnant chosen from Israel means that Israel is still the chosen nation. This remnant is proof that God’s word did not fail (Rom 9:6), and the guarantee that God did not reject ethnic Israel (Rom 11:1). Through the remnant, the covenants and promises remain applicable to the entire Jewish nation, and this remnant will become the conduit through which God will bless the entire nation. Ethnic Israel, therefore, remains the chosen nation.
In response it is argued here that Israel is no longer the chosen nation:
1. It is not logical to say, if a subgroup is chosen from a bigger group, that the entire group still is chosen. If ethnic Israel previously was elected, the election of a remnant automatically means that Israel corporately has been de-elected.
2. By saying that God elected a remnant from Israel (Rom 11:2-5), when the question is about entire ethnic Israel (Rom 11:1), Paul implies that the nation is currently not the chosen nation.
3. By describing the chosen remnant as “Israel” (Rom 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. (See also Romans 2:25-29.) The same thing happens in Romans Rom 11:1-5. By describing the remnant as “His people”, Israel is redefined.
4. Similarly, the true Israel or chosen remnant is “regarded as descendants” (9:8). This means that the non-believing Israelites are not “regarded as descendants” (of Abraham).
5. Isaac and Jacob are used in Romans 9 as examples of the chosen remnant of Rom 9:6. This means that the chosen remnant, just as Isaac and Jacob, was promised and chosen to inherit the calling (mission given to Abraham) and promises (made to Abraham). Ishmael and Esau were excluded from the covenant promises through the election of Isaac and 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 is excluded from sharing in the calling or promises. Israel failed because God chose a remnant out of Israel to inherit the call and promises God gave to the fathers.
6. As an illustration of God’s election, Romans 9 uses a potter that makes, from the same lump of clay, vessels for honorable use and other vessels for common use. The lump represents Abraham’s descendants (Rom 11:16). The potter, therefore, illustrates how God selects, from Abraham’s descendants, some for honorable use and others for common use. Since this explains the election of Jacob above Esau, which is an explanation of the election of the chosen remnant in 9:6, it means that the rest of Israel is now elected for common use.
7. The second phase of the potter illustration (Rom 9:22-24) is applicable to the present day and presents ethnic Israel as vessels of wrath prepared for destruction. This implies that Israel’s election as vessels for honorable use (chosen people) has been destroyed.
8. The quotes from Hosea and Isaiah in Rom 9:25-29, which follow immediately after the potter illustration, explain the vessels of wrath and mercy. The quote from Isaiah explains the vessels of wrath as Israel destroyed, like Sodom and Gomorrah, apart from the chosen remnant (Rom 9:29).
9. The children of God (Rom 9:8) are explained by the parallel text in Romans 11 as the chosen remnant of the Jews (Rom 11:5, 7), while “the rest” is described as “hardened” (Rom 11:7). “Hardened” refers back to Esau (Rom 9:13, 18). The hardened people are therefore those that God rejected through election.
10. Israel’s rejection is explicitly stated by Rom 11:15.
11. Israel’s rejection is illustrated by the olive tree. Since the hardened Israelites have been detached from the root (the fathers and their promises), they have no right to the promises, and cannot claim to be part of the chosen nation.
12. The promises to the Jews in the Old Testament were founded upon the covenant with Abraham. God declared circumcision to be the sign of the covenant (Gen 17:11). God made provision for any Gentile who wished to do so to join with His covenant people through circumcision, and they became as natives of the land (Exo 12:43-49). But Paul wrote that “If ye be circumcised, Christ shall profit you nothing” (Gal 5:2). Why did Paul refuse Gentiles to become part of literal Israel, if for more than 1000 years it was quite acceptable? The only logical answer is that literal Israel no longer exists in God’s plan. Israel is no longer the vehicle of God’s grace.
If ethnic Israel previously was the chosen nation and has been rejected through the election of the remnant, why does Rom 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 only one of his grandsons (Jacob), God did not reject Israel by choosing the remnant from them. On 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 traveler and 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?
As discussed below, Romans 9 – 11 must be interpreted against the context as it existed in Paul’s day. If Jews still today were the core of the church, as they were in Paul’s day, and one day again might be, the idea of Israel as an entity with a separate standing before God, apart from the church, would never have developed.
Some argue that Israel is still the chosen nation because Romans 11 states they are beloved, holy, and easier to graft in, while “the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable”. To this we may respond as follows:
HOLY AND BELOVED
Before they are broken off, the branches are declared to be holy (Rom 11:16), which means to be set apart for special use (honorable use – Rom 9:21). But 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.
Similarly, they may be “beloved for the sake of the fathers” (Rom 11:28), 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. (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.
EASIER TO GRAFT IN
It would be easier to graft them in than it was to graft in Gentiles (Rom 11:24) simply because Christianity is a continuation of the OT religion. On the basis of Romans 9 – 11 it is argued below in the section titled “continuance” that 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 a Jew to become a Christian. (Unfortunately the church today has adopted many heathen practices and teachings, making access difficult for faithful Jews.)
Since “the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (Rom 11:28), some argue that non-believing Jews still are ‘called’ and heirs of the gifts. But such an interpretation would contradict other scriptures where it is said that non-believing Jews did not inherit (Rom 4:14 and the olive tree illustration), and that one becomes a child and therefore an heir by faith (Rom 4:16; Gal 3:29; Eph 3:6). Given this message, how is Romans 11:28-29 to be understood?
Firstly, the consistent message of Romans 9 to 11 is that “the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable”. The word of God has not failed (9:6) and God did not reject His people whom He foreknew (Rom 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 that call and those gifts. They are used as examples in Rom 9:7-13 of how God selects descendants to inherit the call and promises. The point in those verses is that, just like not all of Abraham’s and Isaac’s descendants are heirs, not all of Jacob’s descendants are heirs either. Only the remnant is regarded as children (Rom 9:8), and only children inherit the call and the gifts (Rom 4:16; Gal 3:29).
To conclude, the call is irrevocable, but only those that are regarded as children inherit this call.
A NEW CHOSEN NATION
Other commentators apply the remnant principle by proposing that the covenants and promises always were only for the invisible and saved minority. This minority remains the real chosen nation. Ethnic Israel is not the chosen nation today because it never was.
In contrast, it is proposed here that ethnic Israel was the chosen nation, but that God made a new election decision in Paul’s day:
1) The evidence from the Old Testament is that entire ethnic Israel was the chosen nation. Israel alone had – as a nation – a covenant with God. The covenant contains penalties and curses for unfaithfulness (Deut 29:1; 28:1-68; 29:28; Lev 26:14 and further). This means that the old covenants were with the nation as a whole, including the unfaithful. 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.
2) In Rom 9:4-5 Paul acknowledges that the blessings God gave Israel belonged to them nationally.
3) The potter illustrates the election. While the first phase of the potter conveys general election principles, the second phase illustrates a specific election decision. The identification of the mercy-vessels as Christians means this was a recent decision. This second phase of the potter indicates that God “endured” ethnic Israel “with much patience” (Rom 9:22), but it also refers to ethnic Israel as “vessels of wrath prepared for destruction”, which implies that God eventually destroyed its previous election. This is further proof that it was, in Paul’s day, a recent decision.
4) Convincing support for a recent change in the chosen nation comes from the olive tree. 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 the removal of a part of the chosen nation. The grafting in of 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 is therefore concluded here 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 only on the true Israel.
It has now been proposed that ethnic Israel is no longer the chosen nation, but that God elected the faithful as the remnant in Paul’s day. Another matter of dispute is whether this chosen remnant still can claim the covenants and promises God made with and to Israel.
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:
1) The existence of a chosen remnant implies that the promises and covenants remain valid.
2) Isaac was Abraham’s promised son and Jacob was Isaac’s chosen son. They inherited the covenant promises God made to Abraham. Paul uses them as examples of true Israel (Rom 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).
3) 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, by describing the remnant as “His people”, implies continuance.
4) The clearest illustration of continuance is found in the parable of the olive tree, where the root, which represents the covenants and promises, remains the same, while the branches changed.
In opposition to both traditional and 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 Rom 11:25-26, with additional support from verses 12 and 15.
TWO INTERPRETATIONS OF 11:25-26
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. Firstly:
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 added words “this will last only” make the hardening temporary. An end will be made to it as soon as the last Gentile “has come in”. This implies that a period of time will follow after the hardening ended, which leads the reader to expect the next verse to explain this second period. The “and so” in the next verse has been replaced with “and then” to allow the statement “all Israel will be saved” to be an explanation of the second period. During this period all Jews will come to faith and be saved.
Alternatively, Rom 11:25-26 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 added words “this will remain” stress the permanency of the hardening. The focus is now not on the end of the hardening, but on the purpose of the hardening, which is to allow Gentiles to come in. Verse 25 now is a promise that the partial hardening will not be removed until the last Gentile “has come in”. Understood in this way, verse 25 does not need the next verse to explain it. 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” becomes a summary of verse 25. “All Israel will be saved” by keeping Israel partly hardened until all Gentiles that must be saved, have been saved.
The second interpretation is preferred for the reasons below:
CONSISTENT WITH THE LARGER CONTEXT
Some propose that the mystery is brand new teaching introduced only in verse 25. But that is not the case. Rather, the principles of Rom 11:11-32 are found in a compacted form in Rom 11:25-26:
- The purpose of 11:25-26 is the same as that of the entire section (11:11-32), namely to warn to Gentiles to “not be wise in your own estimation” (Rom 11:25). Romans 11:25-26 is the fifth warning is the series of seven.
- Romans 9:25-32 is linked to the previous section, which is the olive tree illustration, by the word “for”. As argued above, 11:25-26 is a summary of the olive tree illustration.
The mystery, therefore, fits the context rather than being in friction with it. For this reason, Romans 11:25-26 must be interpreted consistent with this larger passage, and particularly consistent with the principles in the more immediate section 11:23-32.
The first interpretation of 11:25-26 is not consistent with the context. Nowhere in the larger passage is there the idea that an end will be made to the hardening, in order to save “all Israel”.
A fundamental concept in the wider passage is that the purpose of Israel’s hardening is to allow Gentiles to come in. This is stated at least 6 times (Rom 11:11, 12, 15, 19, 28, 30). Since the second interpretation is grounded on this cause-effect relationship, it is consistent with the larger context.
HARDENING RESULTS IN FULLNESS.
When used in sentences, the word “until” specifies a condition at a point in time, preceded by a period of a specified activity. But it is used in different ways. If I say that I will compete in sport until I am too old to compete, then I am also describing what happens after the condition (old) has been fulfilled, namely that I would no longer compete. But if I say that I will practice until I get it right, 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.)
Romans 11:25 falls in the second category of “until”-statements because the purpose of the Jewish hardening 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, Rom 11:25 does not imply a period of time after the fullness of the Gentiles.
A: Romans 11:26 starts with the words “and so”. Some translations substitute the “and so” with “and then” (eg. JB). However, the underlying Greek never means “then” or “afterward.” It always means ‘thus, in this manner, in this way, after this fashion or by this means’. All Israel will therefore not be saved (v26) after the fullness of the Gentiles. Rather all Israel will be saved as indicated in the previous verse: by the hardening of part of Israel, allowing Gentiles to come in. When the full number of Gentiles has come in, all Israel will be saved.
B: The word “that” indicates that the mystery is “that a partial hardening has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in.” 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 perhaps the idea that God has purposefully hardened Israel and will keep them hardened until the last Gentile has come in, is much better able to keep Gentiles respectful towards non-believing Jews.
C: In the olive tree illustration some part 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.
D: A period of years, before the return of Christ, when no Gentile would come to Christ, is inconceivable. Millions of Gentiles are born each day, and there will always be Gentiles that are learning for the first time about the hope of a future perfect life in a perfect universe, ruled by a perfect Creator. Actually, Romans 11:12 promises wonderful blessings for Gentiles at the “fullness” of Israel, which means that even more of them will be saved should Jews accept the gospel.
E: Many interpret Romans 11 as generally eschatological, but the only clear eschatological statement in Romans 11 is “until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in”. The rest of Romans 11 envisages Jewish salvation in history, not in the end times. For example, the questions in Romans 11 are not about the distant future, but whether God rejected Israel (Rom 11:1-2) and whether hardened Jews may still be saved (Rom 11:11). These questions are answered with a reference to the present-day remnant and Paul’s expectation to save some of them, not at the end of time, but “now” (v14, 31).
F: Paul did not expect another 2000 years before the return of Christ. He believed the return of Christ to be imminent. If he expected the soon conversion of all ethnic Israel, his intense longing to save a few (Rom 11:14) is difficult to understand.
G: No other Scripture has not so much as a word regarding a great future revival of Israel.
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 will 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 (Rom 11:23). In fact, it would be easier to graft them in than what it was to graft Gentiles into Israel’s tree (Rom 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.
THEY DID NOT STUMBLE SO AS TO FALL.
People that argue that Rom 11:26 refers to ethnic Israel often also argue that the denial in Rom 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 as to fall, which means that ethnic Israel corporately may or will be revived. The question is what “they” in 11:11 refers to. 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. The “they” (plural) therefore refer to the hardened “rest” (Rom 11:7). Verse 11 must then be understood to say 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 of Jewish salvation 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.
FULFILLMENT AND ACCEPTANCE
The references to “their fulfillment” (Rom 11:12) is also often used to support the idea that all Israel will be saved, but “their fulfillment” results from the jealousy (Rom 11:11), and jealousy will only lead “some” to repentance (Rom 11:14); not the entire nation.
“Their … acceptance” will be “life from the dead” (Rom 11:15), but the word “for” with which verse 15 starts links this to the salvation of “some of them” in the previous verse.
Furthermore, the “fulfillment” in verse 12 and “their acceptance” are not stated as predictions, but as mere possibilities and a wish.
TRUE ISRAEL OF 9:6
True Israel has been defined by Rom 9:6 and the subsequent verses. It will now first be shown that this true Israel includes Gentiles. Then is will be argued that the Israel of Rom 11:26 is the same as the true Israel of Rom 9:6, where-after further evidence will be provided for the proposal that the Israel of Rom 11:26 includes Gentiles.
TRUE ISRAEL 9:6 EXPLAINED BY MERCY-VESSELS
The true Israel of Rom 9:6 is explained by the mercy-vessels, argued as follows:
1. In Romans 9, only Rom 9:6 and the second phase of the potter illustration in Rom 9:22-24, with the distinction between the wrath-vessels and mercy-vessels, describes Paul’s present day. Everything else in Romans 9 is examples from history, or quotes from the Old Testament or general principles, explaining the true Israel of Rom 9:6. The wrath-vessels and mercy-vessels is therefore not only another explanation of the distinction between the two Israels of 9:6, but the main explanation of the two Israels.
2. Both the true Israel of 9:6 and the mercy-vessels are explained by Romans 9 to result from election decisions in Paul’s day in which Israel lost its position of privilege. The election of the true Israel of 9:6 is confirmed by the examples from history and the potter illustration. The potter illustrates election, which means that the mercy-vessels have been elected. Surely then these must be the same election decision, and the true Israel must be the same as the vessels of mercy.
3. Both true Israel and the mercy-vessels are described as children of God, promised and chosen (Rom 9:8, 23, 24-26).
4. Both the mercy-vessels and the chosen remnant in 9:6 are contrasted in Romans 9 to ethnic Israel.
TRUE ISRAEL (9:6) INCLUDES GENTILES
The true Israel (the chosen remnant of Rom 9:6) includes Gentiles, argues as follows:
1. The chosen remnant (true Israel) of 9:6 is the same as the mercy-vessels, but the mercy-vessels include Gentiles (Rom 9:24).
2. Romans 9:6 does not prohibit the inclusion of Gentiles. Romans 9:6 only says that not all physical Israelites are real Israelites. This allows for the possibility that non-Jews are real Israelites.
3. 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 Rom 9:7-8).
4. The true Israel is the people that are “regarded as descendants” (Rom 9:8), but Christian non-Jews are also regarded as descendants (Rom 4:16; Rom 2:26-29; Gal 3:28-29, 7).
5. It has been shown above that the olive tree (after non-believing branches have been broken off) represents the true Israel of 9:6, but then Gentiles are grafted into that same tree.
ALL ISRAEL IN 11:26
Most Christians seem to believe as follows:
“All Israel” refers to the future salvation of all Jews living immediately prior to the return of Christ. After the “fullness of the Gentiles has come in” (Rom 11:25), the remnant of Jews that survive the tribulation will be saved, consistent with the remnant principle in Romans 9 to 11.
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 END TIME JEWS
It is first shown that “all Israel” is not an end-time group of ethnic Jews, argued as follows:
1. The proposal that “all Israel” refers to an end-time group of Jews presupposes an end time Jewish revival, but it has been shown above that Rom 11:25-26 does not predict an end-time Jewish revival.
2. To save all Jews of only a specific generation would be an act of partiality, and “There is no partiality with God” (Romans 2:5-11). It would be unfair to both Jews that died before Jesus returns, and to Gentiles.
3. Never before in history has all Jews of any generation been saved. The salvation of all Jews of the final generation would be without precedent and entirely incomprehensible. To argue that all unsaved Jews will be killed by the tribulation, and none of the saved Jews is a bit hard to swallow.
4. To return ethnic Israel to its previous condition, God would use an inspired leader, such as Moses, to lead Israel to accept Jesus. Israel would then return to the condition in which it was before Christ when only a minority of Jews were saved (Rom 9:27); not all.
5. It is said that an end-time salvation of all Jews will be the fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel, but how could it be? Do God’s promises not apply to all generations of Jews?
6. Paul strives very hard in the letter to the Romans and elsewhere to explain that all are saved in the same way (Rom 9:30-10:21; 11:30-32). Why would he depart from this principle to predict special salvation of Jews at the end time?
7. Nobody requires the “fullness of the Gentiles” (Rom 11:25) to include all Gentiles. Why do we then require the term “all” in “all Israel”, which also indicates numerical completeness, to literally include all Jews?
8. The phrase “all Israel” appears only in one other place in the NT, namely in 9:6. This is also the first time the name “Israel” is mentioned in Romans, and the first reference to anything is always important. For these reasons, it is highly likely that “all Israel” in 11:26 has the same meaning as in 9:6. In 9:6 “all Israel” refers to the true Israel; the faithful remnant of Jews of Paul’s generation, and by implication, of all generations. It is not limited to any specific generation, and definitely not to the final generation before the return of Christ.
THE SAME AS THE TRUE ISRAEL OF 9:6
Since there are two Israels defined in 9:6, we should apply care to determine which Israel is intended when we encounter the name Israel later. The last point of the previous section has argued that the “all Israel” in 11:26 is the same as the “all Israel” in 9:6. This is supported by the following:
- It has been shown above that the entire Romans 9 – 11 explains the true Israel of 9:6. Therefore 11:25-26, as the high point of these chapters, also explain the true Israel.
- It has also been argued above that, firstly, the olive tree illustrates the two Israels of 9:6, and secondly, that 11:25-26 summarise olive tree illustration. This again shows that 11:25-26 is a further explanation of the two Israels. Since ethnic Israel requires no explanation, it is, in particular, an explanation of the newly defined true Israel.
“ALL ISRAEL” IN 11:26 INCLUDES GENTILES.
It has been argued above, firstly, that the true Israel of 9:6 is represented by the mercy-vessels of 9:22-24, and therefore includes Gentiles and, secondly, that the Israel of Rom 11:26 is the same as the Israel of 9:6. The Israel of 11:26 must therefore also include Gentiles. Further evidence for this includes:
A: It has also been argued above that 11:25-26 is a summary of the olive tree illustration, but the latter adds Gentiles to the tree, which represents the “commonwealth of Israel” and “citizenship with the saints”. One should expect 11:25-26 to do the same.
B: A clear message from the olive tree is that the covenants and promises, represented by the fatness of the root, still are valid. These covenants and promises made Israel what it was. Whoever owns these covenants and promises is regarded as Israel. Believing Gentiles now share in these foundational covenants and promises (the root). They inherited the “covenants of promise” (Eph 2:12), and are thus regarded as Israel.
C: The beginning words of verse 26 (and so) have been discussed above, 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.
“ISRAEL” WITH DIFFERENT MEANINGS
Many people claim that Israel in 11:26 must be ethnic Israel because Israel in the previous verse is ethnic Israel. This objection fails to recognize that Paul routinely use names for Israel with different meanings, in close proximity. 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. This includes Gentiles.
Romans 4:13-18 defines the “children of Abraham”, not as “those who are of the Law” (Rom 4:14), but “through the righteousness of faith” (Rom 4:13).
In 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.
It, therefore, becomes easy to accept that 11:25-26 uses the name “Israel” for both true Israel and for ethnic Israel. In fact, since 11:25-26 explains the two Israels of 9:6, one should expect 11:25-26 to refer to both.
THEY ARE ENEMIES FOR YOUR SAKE
Romans 11:28 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 refer to the “all Israel” in v26:
- “All Israel” are saved (v26), while “they” are lost (Rom 11:28, 30, 31).
- “It” would be the appropriate pronoun for the literal nation of Israel.
To correctly identify the antecedents for “they” and “you”, consider the entire chapter:
Romans 11:7 divides ethnic Israel into “the chosen” and “the rest”. Romans 11:8-10 describe “the rest” as people that are unable to see or hear. The focus, which in Rom 11:5 was on the remnant, has now shifted to “the rest”. Rom 11:11 starts using the pronouns “they”, “them” and “their” and this continues all the way to the end of the chapter. “They” therefore refer to “the rest” of Israel (v7).
In Rom 11:13 Paul starts to address Gentiles directly 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, in the statement “that a partial hardening has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in; and so all Israel will be saved” these pronouns briefly disappear because Paul interrupts his contrasting of the Jews and Gentiles of his time, to make a statement with respect to the entire period until the return of our Savior.
In verse 28 the pronouns “they” and “you” re-appear with the statement “they are enemies for your sake”.
“They” cannot refer to the Israel of verse 26. “You” refers to the Gentiles mentioned in verse 13. The pronoun “they” has been used all the way from verse 11. For these reasons, the “they” in v28 must refer to “the rest” of Israel (11:7).
REMOVE UNGODLINESS FROM JACOB.
The statement “and so all Israel will be saved” is supported in that same verse by the following quote from the OT:
The Deliverer will come from Zion, He will remove ungodliness from Jacob. (Rom 11:26)
The use of the name “Jacob” instead of “Israel” is seen by some as confirmation that 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” Jacob refers. Since Jacob is used in 9:10-13 as an example of the true Israel, it possibly refers to the true Israel in 11:26 as well.
In any case, 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.
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. Given that most of the chapter seems to be about the salvation of the Jews (v11, 12, 14, 15, 23, 24, 26-27, v31), the statement “all Israel shall be saved” (v26) seems to be intended as the pinnacle of these redemption promises. But the interpretation in this document, namely that they will remain partly hardened until “the fullness of the Gentiles”, is an anticlimax.
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:
Jews are saved via the mercy received by the Gentiles (v11, 13, 31).
Verses 12 and 15 do not promise that all Jews will be saved, but only state 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.
The wonderful possibilities of salvation expressed in this chapter, therefore, stop short of confirming a literal interpretation of 11:26, namely that all (literal) Israel will be saved. It is therefore proposed that the apparent anticlimax is both the real message and the mystery (v25), 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 grafted back in than Gentiles, will be kept hardened to allow Gentiles full and unhindered access, even unto the fullness of the Gentiles.
The church today is completely dominated by non-Jews. Many try to understand Romans 9 – 11 against this context, but we should understand what Paul wrote against his historical perspective.
For the first number of years, the church consisted only of Jews. Our Messiah was (is) a Jew. The apostles were Jews. The first Christians were all Jews, 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. 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.
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 the primary issue. 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.
The church, as we know it today, has moved away from its Jewish roots, and has replaced many OT principles with heathen customs and teachings. 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 therein.
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 intact, but now for those that are regarded as children, including believing Gentiles. In the symbolism of the olive tree; they are supported by the root (11:18).
The NT did not replace the OT. Rather, the NT is built on the foundation of the OT. The chosen remnant is a continuation of Israel of the Old Testament. It is not a new entity with new founding principles.
Perhaps it is a pity that 11:25 does not predict an end-time Jewish revival, because a Jewish revival is required for the Church to return to what it was in Paul’s day. The church must be cleansed from heathen practices and doctrines, and return to the God of the Bible; both of the Old and the New Testaments.
ARTICLES IN THIS SERIES
ROMANS 9 AND 11
For a more complete description of these articles, see the List of available articles on Romans. For general discussions of theology, I recommend Graham Maxwell, who you will find on the Pineknoll website.