STUDIES IN ESCHATOLOGY No. 8
“The Salvation of the Jews”
July 20, 2003
After a hiatus of several weeks we return tonight to our studies in the Bible’s doctrine of the future, or what is called “eschatology.” We have learned that the Bible is shot through with eschatology, that its teaching is in every way future-driven and was from the very beginning. We have noticed that a good deal of what, earlier in the Bible, was forecast or predicted, has already come to pass. Much remains yet to be fulfilled. But the Bible’s way of teaching the future characteristically mixes together both the realized future and the unrealized future. It does this by means of various motifs or dominant themes in which it casts its vision of the future, motifs that leave room for steps and stages of fulfillment. It also mixes the already and the not yet by means of what we have called the prophetic perspective, or prophetic foreshortening according to which the future is seen from the past as a whole, in its entirety. In this way the emphasis falls not on the details, as if the Bible’s point were to satisfy our curiosity or prove to us over and over again that it knows precisely how the future will unfold; rather the emphasis falls on the great meaning and purpose and result of the events that are to come to pass. We are not shown the various stages by which that future unfolds; we typically see those only after the fact. But we see the future unfolding in its great meaning and significance. Among the motifs we have so far studied are the seed, the land, the Day of the Lord, the salvation of the nations (which was our introduction to the question of the millennium), the last days, and the Servant of the Lord. Each one of them is set forth in the Bible in prophetic perspective. Each of them is fulfilled in a succession of steps and stages that is not at all obvious when the motif is first introduced and made a theme of the Bible’s vision of the future. But each motif, in its own way, provides for the unfolding history of salvation in God’s establishment of Israel as his people, in his dealing with his people in judgment and salvation, in the coming of the Messiah, the progress of the gospel through the world, and the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.
Our next motif, and a very important one and a very controversial one, is that of the restoration of Israel, the future salvation of the Jews. The question, as you may know, is whether the Bible teaches us to expect a time in the future when the Jews as a people will embrace the gospel of Jesus Christ. Can we look forward to a time in history when the Jews will repent of their unbelief in Jesus Christ, acknowledge him as Lord and Savior, and become once again the faithful people of God, making common cause as Christians with the rest of the believing church, a church that has been for two millennia mostly Gentile with only a few Jewish believers?
You know, of course, from your reading of the Bible that when Israel deserted and betrayed the Lord, embraced other gods and practiced other religions, and at the same time as the Lord promised to punish her for her unbelief and rebellion, we find, side by side with the prophecies of judgment, promises of future restoration. There are a great many of these.
1. Some of them are simple statements, such as the one in Isaiah 59:20: “‘The Redeemer will come to Zion, to those in Jacob who repent of their sins,’ declares the Lord.”
2. Some of them are more elaborate and sweeping promises of future salvation, such as Jeremiah’s prophecy of a new covenant in 31:31-34: “‘The time is coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them,’ declares the Lord. ‘This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time,’ declares the Lord. ‘I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God and they will be my people. No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, “Know the Lord,” because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,’ declares the Lord. ‘For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.’”
3. Some are more elaborate still, as in Ezekiel 40-48 where the prophet envisions a restored Israel, with a rebuilt temple, with all 12 tribes prospering in the land.
Dispensationalists, who champion the idea of what they call biblical literalism, have for almost 200 years argued that if it says Israel then it must mean Israel as a nation, if it says Zion it must mean the literal city of Jerusalem, and so on. And so they have preached that the Bible foretells a day when Israel will return to the land (fulfilled, so they say, beginning in 1948), when the temple will be rebuilt in Jerusalem, and even when the sacrificial ritual of the temple will be renewed.
However, all is not so simple. Clearly, when we come to the New Testament, there is a fusing of the ideas of Israel and the Christian church (with its burgeoning numbers of Gentiles). Paul champions the idea that the true Israelite is not the one who is a Jew racially, but the one who has faith in Christ. “We are the circumcision,” he says to a largely Gentile church in Philippi; “Your forefathers came out of Egypt,” he says to the largely Gentile church in Corinth; he speaks of “Israel after the flesh” (1 Cor. 10:18), suggesting that there is another Israel, an Israel defined not by race but by faith; and, in a letter to the primarily Gentile churches of Galatia, he not only says that the man or women with true faith in Christ is the descendant of Abraham, but he prays for peace to the Israel of God, a reference to the Christian church as a whole. Clearly in the New Testament, the new covenant of Jeremiah 31, even though God says that he will make that new covenant with Israel and Judah, is a promise that applies as well to Gentile Christians. So, might it not be the case that the promises about the restoration of the people of Israel are fulfilled not by a great revival among the Jews at some future time but by the salvation of the nations, by the growth of the church of Jesus Christ, the spiritual Israel of God? Many have thought so!
An important text in this regard is Acts 15:15-18. You remember the setting. The apostles and elders have convened to answer the question, a question made urgent by controversy in the church in Antioch: must Gentile believers practice the primary obligations of Jewish ceremonial piety (circumcision, food laws, holidays) as well as the new obligations (baptism, Lord’s Supper, the Christian Sunday) in order to be Christians in good standing? After lengthy discussion they come to the conclusion that, by the grace and will of God, Gentiles are being admitted to the church as Gentiles and so do not need to become Jews de facto in order to become Christians. The clinching argument leading up to that conclusion was delivered by James, the brother of the Lord and now a leader in the Jerusalem church – the James who wrote the NT letter that bears his name. And the conclusion of his argument was that this was, in fact, the teaching of the prophets, that Gentiles would be gathered into the church as Gentiles. And he cites as an example of that teaching, Amos 9:11-12.
[As a note, the LXX of Amos 9:11-12 does not read as the MT as you can easily see if you compare Acts 9:16-17 in your NIV Bible with Amos 9:11-12 in your Bible. However, there are almost insurmountable arguments in favor of taking the LXX as the original reading of Amos 9. The MT, the Hebrew text of Amos, says the very same thing as the LXX text if only two letters are changed and changed in ways that produce a more likely Hebrew text. The particular letters were often miscopied in just this way. So read Amos 9 as it is read in Acts 15.]
But, what is important to the consideration of our question this evening is that James said that a text that purports to prophesy the rebuilding of David’s fallen tent, understands that rebuilding in terms of the Gentile mission. So the spiritual renewal and reconstitution of Israel prophesied in the OT happens by the ingathering of the Gentiles. That conclusion seems undeniable. Does this suggest that the NT does not really look forward to a day of salvation for the Jews at some future time? Many have said that it does. But wait, the matter is more complicated than at first it may appear. For there is another text to consider.
And the answer that one gives to the question of Israel’s spiritual future is virtually entirely determined by ones interpretation of the argument of the Apostle Paul in Romans 11 and especially vv. 25-32.
READ: Romans 11:25-32
I said that the question is answered here. In fact, there are a few other texts that bear on the question more or less, but in the history of interpretation there has never been a question that the issue is joined here in Romans 11 and the interpretation one gives to this text is the answer that one gives to the question whether there is to be expected a general conversion of the Jews at some future time.
Neither Luther or Calvin expected such a grand revival among the Jews and their interpretation of Romans 11 became the interpretation of the amillennial school. Remember, the amillennialists do not look for a golden age in history either before or after the return of Christ, and so they are less likely to 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 look for the golden age to be fulfilled in history and so both regard Romans 11 as forecasting a great spiritual transformation in Israel. The postmils see it as a revival unprecedented in scope and effect, and premils see it as being brought to pass as the direct result of the second coming. After the generation of Luther and Calvin such views became more and more common, perhaps especially the postmillennial one. The notes of the Geneva Bible on Romans 11 take Paul 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 answer to Question: “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 Jews as one of the events still to occur before the consummation. As the generations have passed the 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, 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, subsequently a still greater gospel triumph in the Gentile world.
So, we have a difference of interpretation.
Now there are basically three ways to take Paul’s remark that “all Israel will be saved” in v. 25.
1. 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. 25 means “the sum total of the complete church.” 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 people.
2. 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 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 for our purposes this evening; they both regard all Israel as a community formed over the entire reach of salvation history and not at some point still in the future.
3. Third, “all Israel” can refer to the Jewish people as a whole – without necessarily meaning every single individual (Paul says that Israel was rejected without meaning every Jew, so too with all Israel being saved) – all Israel being saved at some time in the future.
In preparation for this message I consulted again 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 only recently – 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. And 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 entirely, so great a revival among the Jews, so extensive and so complete that it could fairly be said that “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 also 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 at the end or near the end of the age, 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 his argument is read and studied, I don’t think that anyone can say that he has not tried to take the text seriously. It is, I think, possible that his interpretation is correct. That, however, is far from saying that it is likely that he is correct.
I take note of the fact that John Murray, the author of one of the 20th century’s finest commentaries on Romans and one of the most influential and important evangelical theologians of our time, once held Mr. Hoekema’s view. Indeed, when Murray lectured on eschatology during his years as professor of theology at Westminster Theological Seminary, he took an amillennial position and interpreted Rom. 11 in the typical amillennial fashion, such as we now find in Hoekema’s study. However, when he came to write his commentary on Romans his views underwent a revolution 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 so categorically was the very view he himself had taught to his classes for so many years!
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 are these:
1. 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. But 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 direct 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.
2. Second, the term “Israel” in the context is clearly and indubitably a reference to the racial and ethnic population of Jews. To take it, in v. 25, in a way very different than its use in all the instances of its use leading up to v. 25 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. 25 from what it had in the chapter up to this point.
3. Third, 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 is the question with which chapter 11 begins as you will see in v. 1: “Did God reject his people?” And Paul offers two replies to prove that God has not proved unfaithful and has not rejected Israel.
a. 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 Christians but 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 one way God has remained faithful to his promise to be Israel’s God.
b. Second, God is not finished with Israel. This is Paul’s second answer to this 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).
All of this makes it seem very difficult to 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 him 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.
Now, however, if we take Paul here to be prophesying a general conversion of the Jews at some future time, which certainly seems to be the meaning of his words, then we must take note of the fact that, like James in Acts 15, so Paul here in Romans 11 argues that this expectation is found in the prophets, and he cites three typical texts in vv. 26-27. Our Romans 11:26 is made up of citations taken from Isa. 59:20 and 27:9 and v. 27 is a citation of Jeremiah 31:33-34.
What this means is that the same class of texts that James used to predict the Gentile mission and the ingathering of the Gentiles into the church as Gentiles, Paul can use to prophesy the spiritual restoration of ethnic Israel at a later day. There is the mystery! This is what we would not know without being told! Just as Paul in several places says that the Gentile mission itself was a mystery, something that God had to reveal, so is the mixture of Jew and Gentile alike in the prophesies of the great day of salvation before the end of history. The great texts throughout the OT that refer to God’s return in grace to his ancient people are fulfilled both first in the ingathering of the Gentiles and a remnant of the Jews, first by the preaching of the Word through the centuries and then by a great time of spiritual harvest near the end, and second by the restoration of Judaism entire to faith in Christ.
[For those of you who are keeping score, I simply note that I find nearly fatal difficulties for amillennialism in Romans 11. They have tried manfully to escape the difficulties Paul makes for them there, but I’ve always felt that their arguments had about them an air of desperation.]
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 Christianity and many more Christians in Palestinian territories than in Israel herself.
But, we are 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 when Israel forsook the religion of grace which had been her inheritance since the days of Abraham, 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 is supposed to have 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 modern world, 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 its future. 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.