We said last time that Paul is dealing with the question he himself raised in v. 1: “Did God reject his people?” Did the fact that the Jewish people rejected the Messiah mean that God had rejected them? And Paul’s answer to that question is a resounding “No.” His first proof or demonstration that God had not rejected his people Israel, which he gave us in vv. 1-10 of chapter 11, is that there remains a remnant of believers among the Jews. The Lord has not left himself without a witness among his ancient people. He has set apart a number – Paul being one of course – for himself. That there continue to be Jewish Christians is proof that God has not forsaken Israel. But there is a second argument and Paul now proceeds to make it.
v.13 This is an important thing to remember if we are to understand these verses correctly. Paul has Gentile Christians in view as he writes. They are tempted to think proudly that they have become the people of God, that they have replaced the Jews in God’s heart. They are tempted to look down on God’s ancient people because they did not believe in Jesus. Paul does not want them to do that. Indeed, in vv. 18, 20, and 25 he is going to say that the argument he is making is designed to prevent Gentile Christians from becoming conceited because of their new place in the plan of God and because of their having largely displaced the Jews among the people of God. He doesn’t want Gentile believers to make the same mistake the Jews made: take their place in the Kingdom of God for granted.
v.22 In other words, Gentile believers should take care that they do not repeat the Jews’ mistake and fall away from the Lord. If they do, the same thing will happen to them as happened to the Jews. Indeed, this has happened to untold generations of the Gentile church through the ages since.
v.27 What is significant about the texts that Paul cites to prove his point that there is a future for Israel in God’s plan of salvation is that they are representative of a great many texts promising a great day of salvation in the future for the people of God. We know, from Paul’s use of some of those texts here, that the entire class of such texts refers to a future day of salvation, a great consummation of salvation for the human race, both Jew and Gentile.
Now a straightforward reading of these verses seems to lead us to this conclusion: in Paul’s day the age of the Gentiles had begun, that the church was going to be for some time a largely Gentile affair. Jesus, you may remember, spoke of the coming era as “the times of the Gentiles” (Luke 21:24). That is, the Jewish branches of the olive tree – the olive tree an image of the church or the people of God – have been broken off and Gentile branches have been grafted in. But, at some point in the future the Jewish branches will be grafted in again; that is, there is a great day of salvation for Israel still to come near the end of the age, a time when it may be fairly said that “all Israel will be saved.” This then would be Paul’s second argument to prove that God had not rejected Israel. He still has great plans for Israel’s salvation, a great day of salvation, the greatest in all of Israel’s history. God is by no means done with his ancient people. There is the proof that he has not rejected them! Remember, populations grow geometrically not arithmetically and it may well be that because of the great day of salvation at the end of history, the largest part of all the Jews who have ever lived in the world will be saved!
Now perhaps you are aware that this is a text that has been worked over very carefully by many scholars through the ages. It is one of the most important texts in the Bible for determining one’s eschatology, one’s view of how things will come to pass at the end of history. And one of the most important issues or questions of biblical eschatology is: what is to become of the Jews? One’s answer to that question depends almost entirely on how one reads these verses in Romans 11. Is there to be a great time of salvation at the end of the age, a time when virtually the whole of Israel will be swept up into the kingdom of God, when virtually every Jew will become a Christian believer? Or does the Bible not teach us to expect such a grand finish to the history of God’s ancient people?
As you may remember there are basically three schools of thought regarding the end of history. Neither Luther nor Calvin expected a grand revival among the Jews at the end of the age and their interpretation of Romans 11 became the interpretation of what is called the amillennial school. Amillennialists do not look for a golden age of salvation – for Gentiles or Jews – in history either before or after the return of Christ, and so they do not interpret Romans 11 as the forecast of an unprecedented revival among the Jews and, as Paul may seem to be saying in 11:15, a consequently still greater ingathering among the Gentiles. Both postmillennialists and premillennialists, on the other hand, look for a great or golden age of salvation at some point near the end of history and so both regard Romans 11 as forecasting a great spiritual transformation in Israel at the end of the age. The postmils see it as a revival unprecedented in scope and effect, and premils usually see this great day of salvation among the Jews as being brought to pass as the direct result of the Lord’s second coming.
After the generation of Luther and Calvin postmillennial and premillennial views of the future became more common, perhaps especially postmillennial views. For example, the notes of the Geneva Bible, an important 16th century English translation of the Bible, take Paul here to be prophesying the conversion of the Jews as a people and this became the general view of the English Puritans, with some exceptions of course. This interpretation is enshrined in our Westminster Larger Catechism which reads, in Question 191:
“What do we pray for in the second petition of the Lord’s Prayer?” “We pray that the kingdom of sin and Satan may be destroyed, the gospel propagated throughout the world, the Jews called, the fulness of the Gentiles brought in, etc.”
Obviously the Westminster divines saw the conversion of the Jewish people as one of the events still to occur before the consummation. To the question posed by Romans 11 the Westminster divines gave a postmillennial answer. Before the second coming the Jews would be saved en masse. As the generations have passed the interpretative situation has remained much the same. Amils must reject the idea that Rom. 11 predicts a great end-time revival, because that is virtually an admission that there is a golden age of salvation still to come in history, which is what amillennialism denies. Postmils and Premils, who both look for wonderful things still to come in history, take Rom. 11 to be a prophecy of one part of that glorious future triumph for the gospel in the world, and, in fact, see in it both the salvation of the Jews in some great number and, by implication, especially in v. 15, still greater gospel triumph in the Gentile world.
So, we have this difference of interpretation. Now there are basically three ways to take Paul’s remark that “all Israel will be saved” in v. 26.
- First, “all Israel” can be taken to mean that all the elect, Jews and Gentiles alike, will be saved. “All Israel” as Paul uses the phrase in v. 26 thus means “the sum total of the complete church.” Israel here then would be a synonym for “church” as it is in Galatians 6:16. In other words, Israel here is being used in its spiritual meaning as the people of God, the true believers in Christ whether Jew or Gentile. Paul is saying simply that the result of the unfolding of God’s plan for his kingdom will culminate in the salvation of all his chosen people.
- Second, “all Israel” can be taken to mean all the elect Jews through the ages, from Paul in the first century, to Alfred Edersheim in the 19th century, to Moshe Rosen, the Byes, and Sandy Milton in the 20th century. That is, God will see to it that all of his elect from the Jewish race will be gathered in before the end. It seems to me that alternatives one and two are substantially the same; they both regard “all Israel” in v. 26 as a community formed over the entire reach of salvation history and not at some point still in the future.
- Third, “all Israel” can refer to the Jewish people as a whole – without necessarily meaning every single individual Jew (Paul says that Israel was rejected without meaning every single Jew) – at some time in the future.
Now were I to enumerate for you all the arguments made on behalf of each interpretation and all the counter-arguments offered by the defenders of each interpretation, we would lose ourselves in the morass of details. So let me give you instead a broad summary of the situation by referring to the work of two able and authoritative scholars.
Some of you may be familiar with Anthony Hoekema’s magisterial study of biblical eschatology, The Bible and the Future. Anthony Hoekema was a Dutch Reformed minister and professor of theology – he died in 1988 – and so was confessionally amillennial. That is, he was committed to amillennialism as the teaching of the Bible by the theological standards of his church, the Christian Reformed Church. All CRC ministers are required to be amillennialists. As an amillennialist, one knows in advance that Prof. Hoekema is not going to take Rom. 11:25-26 as the prophesy of a future conversion of the nation of Israel in nearly its entirety, so great a revival among the Jews, so extensive and so complete that it could fairly be said that at some point in the future “all Israel will be saved.”
Rather he argues that when Paul writes in Rom. 11:25-26 that “Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved,” the Apostle means only that, while the gospel is being preached throughout the world, elect Jews will be converted and added to the church and, at the last, the whole number of the elect from the nation of Israel will have been saved. In other words, there is no promise here at all of a great revival in Israel near the end of the age or after the coming of Christ, only the promise that, in the course of time, all the elect among the Jews will be brought to faith together with all the elect from among the Gentiles.
Now Hoekema is a careful scholar and if you read his argument I don’t think you can say that he has not taken the text seriously. It is, I think, possible that his interpretation is correct. That, however, is far from saying that it is likely to be correct. So Anthony Hoekema.
John Murray was the author of a magisterial commentary on Romans and one of the most influential and important evangelical theologians of the twentieth century. What is interesting in the present case is that Murray once held Prof. Hoekema’s view. Indeed, when Murray lectured on eschatology during his years as professor of theology at Westminster Theological Seminary, he defended the amillennial position and interpreted Rom. 11 in the typical amillennial fashion, the interpretation we find in Hoekema’s study. However, when Prof. Murray came to write his commentary on Romans his views underwent a change and he abandoned his former exegesis of Romans 11, calling it in his commentary “unnatural,” “indefensible,” and a view that “does exegetical violence” to the text. It would have been more impressive, I think, if Prof. Murray had admitted in his commentary that the view he was rejecting was the very view he himself had taught for many years! Prof. Murray came to believe that Romans 11 clearly teaches a great day of salvation for the Jews at the end of history.
The reasons, in my judgment, for rejecting the view that “all Israel” means either all the elect or all the elect Jews from all periods of history, that is, for rejecting Prof. Hoekema’s amillennial view, are these:
- First, there is nothing “mysterious” about the idea that all the elect will be saved or all the elect Jews will be saved. That is a biblical commonplace. If all Paul means in v. 26 is that the elect will be saved, the conclusion of his lengthy argument is nothing but an anticlimax. Paul calls the salvation of “all Israel” a mystery, which usually in Paul refers to what would not and could not be known apart from revelation. But it does not take a special revelation of the future to know that the elect will be saved; that is what it means to be elect, whether Jew or Gentile.
- Second, the alternating places of Jew and Gentile in the economy of grace truly is a mystery, something that cannot be simply read out of the prophesies of the Old Testament. That the gospel should come to the Jews and be rejected, that it should be taken to the Gentiles with tremendous effect, and that at the end of the age the Jews would finally be made ready and willing to embrace it themselves: this is a mystery in the biblical sense and the Pauline sense of the term.
- Third, the term “Israel” in the context is clearly and, I would say, beyond doubt a reference to the racial and ethnic population of the Jews. To take it, in v. 26, in a way very different than its use in all the instances leading up to v. 26 is very unnatural and unlikely. The whole of the chapter to this point has been a discussion of the relative places of Jew and Gentile in the economy of grace. We certainly are given no reason to think the reference of the term “Israel” has changed in v. 26 from what it has been in the chapter of to this point. Paul is talking about the Jews when he says “all Israel will be saved.” He is not talking about the few Jews who are true Christians nor is he talking about the elect of God whether Jew or Gentile. He is talking about Jews and Gentiles as wholes and their respective positions in the economy of God’s grace and their collective future. Any other interpretation, it seems to me, violates the context and does not do justice to what Paul is obviously talking about in chapter 11.
- Fourth, in this entire argument Paul is dealing with an objection that he knows has been raised against the Christian gospel. If the church is now becoming almost exclusively Gentile, does that mean that God has rejected his people Israel, and, if so, does that mean that he has betrayed his covenant with them, his promise to be their God forever? This, as I said, is the question with which chapter 11 began: “Did God reject his people?” And Paul offers two replies to prove that God has not proved unfaithful and has not rejected Israel.
- First, there has always been a remnant of grace among the Jews. After all, Paul himself was a Jew and many Christians were in that first century and there have always been some ever since, people who were both Christians and Jews. Paul looks back to other times when the true people of God were only a remnant of the whole of Israel, as in Ahab and Elijah’s day (vv. 2-5). So it is in Paul’s day. There is a remnant in Israel, chosen by grace. That is Paul’s first argument: the fact that there are Christians among the Jews is proof that God has not rejected Israel.
- But Paul has a second argument: God is not finished with Israel. This is Paul’s second answer to his hypothetical question. God did not abandon his ancient people because he still has plans to win them to himself at some later day. For now the Jewish people have been grafted out of the olive tree and the Gentile grafted in; but the day will come when the Jews will be grafted in again (so vv. 17-24). In context, in answer to the question he himself has raised, surely this is Paul’s answer and it is a decisive answer. The proof that God has not rejected Israel is that he still has plans to save his ancient people in a great day of salvation in the future.
All of this makes it very difficult for me to avoid the rather straightforward sense of Paul’s words here. The Jews are out now but will come back in again. A great day awaits when God’s grace will draw the nation and people back to himself through faith in Jesus Christ.
This expectation is deeply rooted in much of Reformed piety. Here is Samuel Rutherford:
“Oh to see the sight, next to Christ’s coming the most joyful! Our elder brethren, the Jews, and Christ fall upon one another’s necks and kiss each other! They have been so long asunder, they will be kind to one another when they meet: O longed for and lovely day, dawn! O sweet Jesus, let me see that sight that will be as life from the dead, thee and thy ancient people in mutual embraces!” [Letters, L, 122-123]
Rutherford is even willing to say, in another place:
“I could stay out of heaven many years to see that victorious triumphing Lord act that prophesied part of his soul-conquering love, in taking into his kingdom the greater sister, that kirk of the Jews…” [CCXCVI, 599-600]
It was concern for the Jews and the expectation of their eventual turning to the Lord that animated the interest in Jewish evangelism in the 19th century, an interest that sent John Duncan, the famous Rabbi Duncan, from the Scottish Free Church to Hungary and Robert Murray McCheyne and Andrew Bonar on a long trip to the Holy Land. Last May Florence and I several times walked by a Church of Scotland sanctuary in Tiberias, on the Sea of Galilee. It is there because long ago Scottish Presbyterians were deeply interested in the conversion of the Jews and they took both their obligation to evangelize the Jews and their hope of its success from Romans 11.
Now we are all aware of what some evangelicals do with all of this. They make it the basis for the political support of the nation of Israel in its battle with the Palestinians. There is nothing in the Bible that obliges any Christian to take the view that we must support Israel right or wrong. She obviously is in rebellion against God. There is more freedom for the gospel and many more Christians in Palestinian territories than in Israel herself. We ought to care that justice is sought and done by both sides.
But we are certainly right to pray for the conversion of Israel, because of her ancient place in God’s heart; because we owe so much to Israel as Christians, and because, as Paul seems to say here in Romans 11, when she is brought to faith it will bring about a great work of grace in the Gentile world as well.
It is a great thing, when you stop to think about it, that there is a people in the world, now overtly hostile to the Lord and the gospel, whom we know already will someday bow the knee to Jesus Christ and confess him Lord and Savior. It was precisely the conviction that the gospel would triumph in the world that motivated the missionary enterprise of the 19th century, what Kenneth Scott Latourette, the evangelical Yale church historian called, “The Great Century.”
There are many ways in which Christians must believe their faith will have its reward: in the second coming of Christ, in the judgment of the wicked, in the vindication of God’s people. There are many ways, of course, in which we are encouraged that we are not believing without reason. In some ways, nothing more remarkable or more unlikely ever happened than that Israel forsook the religion of grace which had been her inheritance since the days of Abraham and that the Gentiles in huge numbers took over her faith from her. Nothing is more remarkable, in some ways, than that there still is a people of the Jews in the world today and that it stands, as it always has, at the crossroads of world history. Voltaire once asked, “Why should the world be made to rotate around the insignificant pimple of Jewry?” A good question and one that must still be asked today. Why indeed, but that God has kept his people for another day, that his hand of judgment remains upon them even while he preserves them for their day of grace. Frederick the Great asked his court chaplain in a cynical tone, “Herr Professor, give me a proof of the Bible, but briefly, for I have little time.” The chaplain answered: “Majesty, the Jews.”
And so it remains today. Read someday the history that lead up to the formation of the Jewish state. As Paul Johnson put it in his history of the 20th century, Modern Times, “Israel slipped into existence through a crack in the time continuum.”  Why it is that the holocaust, the extermination of the Jews was the defining event of the 20th century? All of this, surely, is a divine fingerprint on the page of human history.
Why do the Jews exist still today? Because God still has plans for his ancient people, and their day of salvation will be a day bringing in a still greater day for the world of mankind. There is something to ponder, to believe, and for which to pray! I say a man or woman who has that expectation, who is looking forward to that day, has that coming event on his or her heart, will live with more faith, more fire, more hope, more zeal, more joy, more confidence than any Christian who spends his time looking down at his feet. There is, or should be, a wonderful largeness to a Christian’s vision of the world and of the world to come. God is at work and has a great plan that is to unfold in due time. We are part of that plan and that we may devote our energy on its behalf is one of the greatest and most wonderful privileges of human life.
Think of what that day will be like. Our own Bob Case, in his work with the World Journalism Institute rubs shoulders with Jewish scholars and writers among the Eastern establishment and he can tell you that they are often quite prickly and very easily offended by the notion that Christians want to convert them, that we think there is something wrong with their Judaism, even that the Christian faith is a more authentic Judaism than theirs.
But just imagine the day when Jews will admit it all: their terrible sin in rejecting the Messiah when he was given to them, their willful blindness to the truth of the gospel, so clearly taught in the Old Testament as it was, and the joy of salvation through faith in Christ. Imagine the great happiness in the church all over the world at the sight of the Jews streaming into the kingdom of God and taking once again their rightful place. There will be no jealousy on the part of Jews or Gentiles, only glad thanksgiving. And, no wonder Paul should say that the ingathering of the Jews will lead to even greater things for the kingdom of God among the Gentiles. How could it not? What more powerful demonstration of the truth of the gospel could be imagined than that its ancient enemies should embrace it in repentance and faith? And what more glorious fulfillment of all of those grand promises in Holy Scripture of the Spirit’s return to Israel and Judah, restoring the Lord’s people to true faith and to fellowship with God.
Ours is a future oriented faith. We live in the present in the sure and certain expectation of things that will happen in the future. And one of those things is the ingathering of the Jews. It changes everything to know that this mighty reversal is still to come. It changes the way we think about the Jews today, it changes the way we think about opposition to the gospel as we face it in our day, it changes the way we pray and we hope and we love. It puts a spring in the step, does it not, just to know this day is coming! And it makes us mindful of the fact, the stupendous fact, that not a single one of God’s promises will ever fall to the ground. What promise of God are you struggling to believe will come true? It will come true. Its fulfillment may be mysterious in some ways, but all God’s promises will be kept. We can count on every word he has spoken to us, every assurance that he will prove faithful to his people. We should be a cheerful, confident, calm, and hopeful people! We should often be thinking of the gospel’s coming triumph. To be so is to honor the faithfulness of our God.