What is the role of the nation of Israel in the world? What is the role of Israel in the church? What will be the role of Israel in the end times? These questions are a great mystery and have been debated through the generations. Surrounded by countries that would like nothing more than its annihilation, Israel has long enjoyed the status of being an ally of the United States. Although at times she seems capable of defending herself quite well, the backing of a world super power has certainly been beneficial.
Televangelists often express a great interest in Israel—especially when they speak about the great apocalypse. Therein lies the mystery. Paul writes that “Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in” (Rom. 11:25). Paul opened the chapter by describing the judicial blindness that came over all but the elect of the Jewish nation. It was, then, a partial hardening of the direct descendants of Abraham, not a hardening of the entire nation. What Paul reveals in this section of Romans 11 is that this is the way it will continue until the Lord returns. Each new generation of Jews will prove God’s divine truth: they have become hardened to the gospel—but only partially so. There will always be a remnant whom God will graft into the olive tree according to the election of grace until “the fullness of the Gentiles has come in.”
Commentaries disagree about whom “all the Jews” are who will be converted when the number of the Gentiles is completed.
1. All the Jews without exception. Those living in Paul’s time and all the generations that follow will be saved, including the millions of Jews living today. It is obvious that Jews today, as in the days of Paul, find the cross to be an offense. They continue to deny that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah promised to their forefathers. By failing to acknowledge Jesus as the Son of God, they also reject the Father who sent Him. “Jesus said to them, ‘If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came here from God and now am here. I have not come on my own; but he sent me’” (John 8:42).
According to this view, the Jews, both during Paul’s time and today, are, as a nation, still in some way beloved of God. God had made a covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, of whom they are physical descendants. Through this connection, God still regards the entire nation as His people whom He loves.
This interpretation seems to ignore the context of the passage. The “they” who are elect and loved by God in verse 28 are those Paul had already referred to in the preceding verses. They are the “all Israel” that God in His grace has called out of their hardened state and by the Holy Spirit led to confess Christ as Savior. Repeatedly the Bible insists that no one is righteous, no not one. Repeatedly the Bible insists that the only way to become righteous is by being clothed with the righteousness of Jesus Christ. Interviewer Larry King’s oft repeated question “Do the Jews need Jesus?” must be answered with a resounding yes! There is not one way of salvation for the Jews and another for Gentiles. They must place their faith and hope in the fulfilled promises given to the patriarchs. If not, it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for them (Matt. 10:14–15).
Paul writes to the church in Thessalonica:
For you, brothers, became imitators of God’s churches in Judea, which are in Christ Jesus: You suffered from your own countrymen the same things those churches suffered from the Jews, who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and also drove us out. They displease God and are hostile to all men in their effort to keep us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved. In this way they always heap up their sins to the limit. The wrath of God has come upon them at last (1 Thess. 2:14–16).
The Jews whose hearts God has hardened are not loved by God. On the contrary, they displease God and will face His wrath.
2. The Jewish people as a whole will be converted to Christ in the last days. This seems to be the view of most Pentecostal and Baptist churches. Just before Christ comes again, there will be a great awakening among the nation of Israel, and all Jews will call upon the name of Jesus Christ, seeking their salvation through Him. Once converted to Christ, the great battle of Armageddon will take place, and Christ will return to rule the world from Jerusalem.
This view is certainly more in line with the context of the passage, as it interprets “all Israel” to mean every Jew living in Israel just prior to Christ’s return. Contrary to the first view, in which all Jews will be saved regardless of what they believe, this view insists that salvation must come through Christ. Those seeking to usher in the kingdom of God would make missions to Israel a huge priority.
However, it is difficult to understand why only end-time Jews would be loved by God “on account of the patriarchs.” Why would God pass over the innumerable generations that perished in their unbelief in all the centuries prior to Christ’s return, converting only those in the last days? They, too, were children of the patriarchs. It is difficult to see how this particular generation of Jews living just before Christ’s second coming could be called “all Israel.” Just think how miniscule their number is compared to the many generations of millions of hardened Jews that have passed into eternity without Christ for the last two thousand years.
Finally, Paul writes in the present tense. “As far as the gospel is concerned, they are enemies. . . . They are loved” (Rom. 11:28). Paul is addressing the situation as it exists not only in the future but in the present as well.
3. Jews are being saved in Paul’s generation and in every generation that follows for as long as the world shall last. These Jews were at first enemies of Christ, calling for His blood to be upon them and their children. Children brought up in the Jewish religion are taught that Jesus may have been a good teacher, but He is not the promised Messiah. They still seek the fulfillment of the promises given in the Old Testament. Paul had known a time when he hated the gospel and persecuted the followers of Jesus Christ. In God’s grace, he learned to love the gospel. He had learned that it was the power of salvation.
In the context of Romans 9–11, those whom the Father calls to Himself out of the nation of Israel are loved for the patriarchs’ sake. God’s word to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob has not failed (Rom. 9:6–27). His promise to them has been fulfilled (and continues to be fulfilled) in their descendants, whom God calls by His grace. They are the elect of God, chosen already before the foundations of the world. They are the loved of God. Certainly that can be said of only those whom God has graciously chosen to be His people through His Son, Jesus Christ.
This interpretation gives a more satisfactory meaning to the word “so” in verse 26. Earlier Paul had written that “Not all who are descended from Israel are Israel” (Rom. 9:6). In the Old Testament, not every Israelite was saved—only those who believed in the promise yet to be fulfilled. Paul pointed out earlier that there was at one time only a remnant of Israel that remained faithful (Rom. 11:4). Now the promise has been fulfilled in God’s Son’s atoning sacrifice on the cross. By calling out of every generation of hardened Jews a remnant unto Himself and declaring them to be the true Israel, God is ever faithful to His word.
Grafted into the true Israel are all who believe the Old Testament promises are fulfilled in Christ. They are the Israel of God (Gal. 6:16). Because they believe the promises, all Israel shall be saved—not some of them or even most of them, but all of those to whom God has shown mercy.
Objects of Mercy
Paul goes on to remind the Gentile Christians that they, too, are objects of God’s mercy. Once they had been disobedient; they had been transgressors of the law. Salvation was granted to them not because they were better than the Jews but because they also are objects of mercy. It should humble us to think that we who are wretched sinners are saved by the grace of God. It is nothing in and of ourselves, whether Jew or Gentile. Through the disobedience of the Jews, the gospel came to the Gentiles that, through the gospel, they might be saved.
How great is the mercy of God! Although the vast majority of Jews and Gentiles remain hostile to the gospel, God calls His church out of them. He sets apart from the world a people unto Himself out of every tribe and nation to be His. Let the Gentile Christian never forget that God’s purpose for showing mercy is that through them the Jews may be reached and saved (Rom. 11:11–15).
Paul began Romans 9 with a deep sorrow over the many Jews who rejected God’s grace by rejecting God’s Son. He ends this section rejoicing over the way God has made salvation possible for both Jews and Gentiles. In Romans 11, Paul clearly explains how Israel’s belief is partial in that some will be saved (vv. 1–10); it is purposeful for the conversion of the Gentiles (vv. 11–16); and it is temporary, as by God’s grace many may come (vv. 25–32). All this leads Paul to burst into praise to God for His incomprehensible character:
Oh, the depths of the riches of the wisdom and
knowledge of God!
How unsearchable his judgments;
and his paths beyond tracing out!
“Who has known the mind of the Lord?
Or who has been his counselor?”
“Who has ever given to God, that God should repay him?”
For from him and through him and to him are all things.
To him be the glory forever!
Amen (vv. 33–36).
Both wisdom and knowledge are specific terms. Both are infinite, and we catch a small glimpse of them in God’s dealings with the Jews. We can only stand in awe of a great God who, by hardening the Jews’ hearts, brought the gospel to us. In His wisdom, God used His infinite knowledge to work out a means for our salvation.
Paul quotes from Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Job to support his claim that no one can fathom the mind of God. Nor can any human teach God or claim that God owes them anything. He concludes his doxology by declaring that all glory be given to God forever, for from Him and through Him and to Him are all things.
Soli Deo Gloria!
Rev. Wybren Oord
is the co-pastor of Trinity United Reformed Church in Lethbridge, AB, and the editor of The Outlook.
Points to Ponder and Discuss
1. What is the great mystery that Paul refers to in the opening verse of this passage?
2. Explain the three approaches to this passage. How do they fit in context with the rest of what Paul has written?
3. Explain how each interpretation of this passage would affect the way those adopting it would view the nation
4. How do you understand the little word “so” in Romans 11:26?
5. What dual purpose do the Jews have for the Christian church?
6. What connection do you see behind man’s disobedience and God’s mercy?
7. Can we make any claims on God? Do we possess anything that we have not received from God?
8. In what different ways does Paul describe the greatness of God in his doxology?