The Letter to the Romans
COLLEEN MOORE TINKER
41. All Israel Will Be Saved
Paul has been explaining that many Jewish branches of the olive tree of God's people and purpose have been broken off because of unbelief. This thinning out of the branches has created places into which the Gentiles have been grafted into the tree. Paul warns the Gentiles, however, against being arrogant at their new position as part of His people and reminds them that just as they were grafted into the tree, so the Jews can be grafted back in if they come to faith.
Paul's use of the word "mystery" in verse 25 is significant. "Mystery religions" were rampant during that time-religions which gained control over the people by promising special power derived from the special knowledge available only to the initiated. The people understood the idea of mystery. In this passage, however, Paul is using the familiar word in a different way. Rather than promising special knowledge to initiates, he is saying that the mystery of God's purposes has always existed but has not been revealed until know. The "mystery" of the fact that Israel is being divinely hardened for a time while God reveals Himself to the Gentiles and brings them into His purposes has never been revealed before now to anyone-although it is a fact that had been established from eternity.
Further, this mystery is being revealed now as a result of Christ's completed work. It is a fact accessible to anyone who believes in Jesus. No one is excluded from believing, and the reality of the Jews' resistance and the Gentiles' receptivity is apparent to anyone who observes.
"Mystery" is a word Paul uses many times in different contexts. Always his use of the word denotes something hidden from mankind but revealed when the time is right. In Romans 16:25, for example, Paul pens a doxology to God, praising Him for establishing believers by the gospel and by the proclamation of the Lord Jesus "according to the mystery hidden for long ages but now revealedthrough the prophetic through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God, so that all nations might believe and obey him." To the Corinthians he wrote about the "secret wisdom" that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began (1 Corinthians 2:7). Paul spoke of himself when he wrote that people ought to consider him (and those working with him) as "servants of Christ and as those interested in the secret things of God" (1 Corinthians 4:1). In Epehsians 3:8-11 Paul explains that God gave him the grace of preaching to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ. Further, he was entrusted with "making plain to everyone the administration of this mystery" that had, for ages past, been hidden in God but which had now been accomplished in Christ Jesus.
In these verses Paul refers to eternal truths which have existed from eternity, but he points out in these texts that the reality of the gospel and its provision for the salvation of all men was not know until Jesus came. He stresses that he is a servant of God to proclaim these secret things, these mysteries of God.
In Ephesians 6:19 and Colossians 4:3 he asks the saints to pray for him that he will have words from God to proclaim the mystery of the gospel as he should.
In 1 Corinthians 15:51 Paul revealed another, related mystery: "We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed." Here Paul proclaims the resurrection, a concept not clearly taught in the Old Testament because it was hidden from humanity's understanding before Jesus came and "brought life and immortality to light" (2 Timothy 1;10).
He revealed further specifics of the eternal mystery of God in related passages. Ephesians 1:9-10 identifies the "mystery of his will" as God's eternal plan to "bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ." In chapter 3:3-4 and 6, Paul defines this "bringing together" as the fact that "Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together of the promise in Christ Jesus."
Paul describes this mystery still further in Colossians 1:26-27 where he writes that for ages and generations God hid the eventual reality of "Christ in you, our hope of glory". In other words, the new birth-Christ literally indwelling us through the Holy Spirit (see Ephesians 1:13-14) is our hope, and this reality was not revealed until after Christ's death and resurrection. In Ephesians 5:32 Paul drives home this reality by comparing Christ's union with us, His people, to marriage. A man leaves his parents, Paul writes, and unites with his wife, and they become "one flesh". Then he writes, but "I am talking about Christ and the church". He stresses that Jesus has united with humanity and has become one flesh with us in a permanent union. Not only does He share "flesh", but He shares His Spirit by indwelling us. The mystery of Christ is beyond mere human imagining.
These mysteries of Christ's intimate interaction with us stem from the mysteries of who He is: God incarnated into human flesh. Colossians 2:2 says the mystery of God is "Christ in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge." To Timothy he wrote (1 Timothy 3:9) that believers must keep hold of the "deep truths of faith" with clear consciences. The "mystery of Godliness is great." Paul further identified this mystery of godliness in verse 16: Jesus "appeared in a body, was vindicated by the Spirit, was seen by angels, was preached among the nations, was believed on in the world, [and] was taken up in glory."
There are a few other references to mystery which further identify truths hidden from human knowledge by the sovereignty of God. In 1 Corinthians 14:2 Paul talks of speaking in tongues and says if he speaks in tongues, he is speaking mysteries in his spirit. In this passage Paul's point is that speaking in tongues is a phenomenon that, apart from interpretation and orderly presentation, has little usefulness communicating the gospel truths to others.
Another place Paul refers to mystery is in 2 Thessalonians 2:7 where he prophecies that the "secret power of lawlessness" that is already at work in the world will be revealed when the one restraining it will be taken out of the way. In this passage Paul refers to what we often call the "antichrist". His identity and revelation are still not revealed, but when the time is right, God will reveal even this great mystery of evil. It is not something only a few people will experience; it is something that will be universally seen when God chooses to uncover it. Not all may understand it, but all will experience it.
The word "mystery" in Paul's writings, in summary, refers to eternal truths rooted in the purposes of God which are hidden from humanity until the fullness of time comes. The mystery of salvation, the gospel, and godliness were hidden until Christ came and revealed the truth about redemption and eternal life.
As Paul explains the mystery of Christ breaking down the barrier between Jew and Gentile and including the Gentiles in the olive tree of God, he warns them not be become conceited and arrogant. The Jews, he has told them in verses 17-21, were broken off because of unbelief. They had failed to honor God's sovereignty and had, instead, viewed themselves as intrinsically worthy to be the branches of God's tree because of their ethnic heritage. God reminded them that the figurative olive tree was not about them; it was about God and his purposes. Because they saw themselves and not God as the subject and object of God's intentions, God cut them out of the tree.
Now Paul reminds the ingrafted Gentiles that they, too, can be pruned out of the tree if they take their attention away from honoring God and begin living for themselves. In chapter 12 Paul will remind them that they must live in harmony with all people, not just with those who are socially well-placed. As members of God's family, they must bless and not curse those who persecute them. They must be willing to associate "with people of low position", and they must not be proud or conceited. Their ingrafting is not a statement of their worth or excellence. Rather, it is entirely a revelation of God's grace and mercy to people who have no inherent qualification to be part of God's family.
The Gentiles' as well as the Jews' inclusion in God's olive tree is a revelation of God's goodness and mercy, not a statement of their own worth.
No one who is part of God's family has any room for conceit or self-congratulation. As children of God through the blood of Christ, we are to honor God by being forgiving and merciful to others-even the repugnant-just as Jesus was.
After admonishing the Gentile believers not to be arrogant about their inclusion in God's family, he explains that Israel's apostasy is not permanent. "Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in," he states. This "hardening" is the same kind of hardening Paul says the unbelieving Gentiles experienced. In verses 7-8 of this chapter He stated that Israel did not obtain "what it sought so earnestly". In other words, they did not obtain the blessing and righteousness they to which they believed they were entitled. Because they were God's chosen people and given the responsibility of holding His law and promises and having His presence among them, they believed God would vindicate them and honor them. They didn't honor God with faith, however; they kept their eyes on their own comfort and privilege instead of on God's honor and glory. Because they focused on themselves instead of on God's glory, they did not acknowledge their Savior when He came.
Because of their self-centered blindness, "God gave them a spirit of stupor, eyes so they could not see, ears so they could not hear, to this very day" (Romans 11:8 quoting Deuteronomy 29:4, Isaiah 29:10). Just in case we think God "wouldn't" harden hearts and create a barrier between a person and living faith in God, Paul states in Romans 9:18 that God has mercy on whom He wants to have mercy, and He hardens whom he wants to harden.
This apparently arbitrary action on God's part, however, is not without human involvement. In Romans 2:5 Paul wrote about the Jews that because of their stubborn, unrepentant hearts, they are storing up wrath against themselves for the day of God's judgment and wrath, the day His judgment is revealed. In verses 17-24 of the same chapter Paul points out that the Jews consider themselves to be superior because of they have and teach the law. In spite of their privilege, however, they do the things they denounce in their preaching, and God's name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of them.
Romans 1:18-19 explains that already God's wrath is being revealed against all godlessness and wickedness, but men are suppressing their knowledge of God because of wickedness. Because of God's general revelation of Himself through all creation, however, no one is without excuse. Because they didn't retain their knowledge of God but indulged in the "cravings of [the] sinful nature" (Ephesians 2:3), God "gave them over" to their own depravity to do every kind of wickedness. Even though they know the evil they do deserves death, they continue to do it and to approve others who do these things (Romans 1:28-32).
Ephesians 4:18-19 describes the way the Gentiles historically had become entrenched in evil. "They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the darkness that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts," Paul writes. "Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so that they might indulge in every kind of impurity with a continual lust for more."
These texts explain the type of hardening Paul identifies Israel as experiencing in Romans 11:25. Because they suppressed the knowledge of God by their wickedness, because of the hardening of their hearts, God gave them over to their own evil and self-indulgence, keeping them for a time in a place of experiencing the depravity and godlessness of their apostasy. Their sin is especially egregious because they not only suppressed the knowledge of God given through general revelation; they suppressed the knowledge of God they received by the special revelation of the law, the prophets, and the physical presence of God among them in the shekina glory. Because of their persistent unbelief, the nation of Israel is under God's discipline for a time, and collectively God is keeping them in the blindness of their wickedness.
Israel reached this state of hardening by pursuing righteousness not by faith but "as if it were by works"(Romans 9:30-33). They didn't just set out to become righteous by working hard, according to the suggestion of this text, but they adopted an attitude of superiority, deciding that they would pursue righteousness on their own terms without submitting to God. In Romans 10:1-4 Paul further explains that Israel is zealous for God, but their zeal "is not based on knowledge". They sought to establish their own righteousness, he says, and they "did not submit to God's righteousness." They completely bypassed the reality that true righteousness is not based on physical circumcision but on the circumcision of the heart-and it's not attainable by observing the "written code" (Romans 2:28-29).
Full number of Gentiles
Paul now introduces a time frame for Israel's partial hardening. It will last until "the full number of the Gentiles has come in." What that "full number" is and when it will be reached are mysteries known only to God. The idea, though, that Israel would take a back seat to the Gentiles during the proliferation of the church was suggested in prophecy and also by Jesus Himself.
First, shortly before His death Jesus warned his disciples that as they went out into the world as His representatives, they would be arrested and persecuted, but "the gospel must first be preached to all nations" before the end of the age (Mark 13:9-10). In other words, those who knew Jesus, beginning with the apostles and the Jews who believed at Pentecost, would actively take the gospel to people including Gentiles.
Jesus told a parable about a vineyard left in the care of tenants while the owner was in a far country. The owner kept sending agents to check on the vineyard and to inform the tenants of the owner's wishes, but the tenants consistently killed all the owner's emissaries. Finally the owner sent his son to speak to the tenants and to look after the condition of the vineyard, but the tenants even killed the son.
The owner, reaching the limit of his patience, said he would kill the tenants and give the vineyard to others (Luke 20:14-16).
The tenants represented the Jews who had been entrusted with the revelation of God and of His salvation of mankind. For generations they had held the knowledge of God's grace and mercy and forgiveness and justice in their hands as His agents on earth. They had the law, the prophets, and the physical presence of God in the shekinah glory among them.
In their arrogance, however, they began to believe that they were special because they had custody of God's revelation instead of feeling humbly responsible to God for being entrusted with His gifts and for being in charge of caring for His people and His program on earth. Because of their self-centered absorption, they rejected the prophets God sent to warn them and spiraled into increasing self-indulgence and apostasy.
Finally, God sent Jesus-and they killed Him as well. At the point that Israel rejected Jesus, the Son of God, their fate was sealed. God would take the vineyard-the revelation of His salvation and grace in the lives of those who trusted Him-and entrust it to new tenants. God removed the Jews from the lead position of representing God on earth and gave that function primarily to Gentiles after Jesus' ascension. Ever since the days of the apostles, the church has burgeoned among the Gentiles of the world while the Jews have largely remained unresponsive to the gospel.
In the next chapter of Luke, Jesus tells his disciples what to watch for as the time of the end approaches. In a warning about the approaching destruction of Jerusalem He tells them that there would be distress in the land and wrath against "this people", or the Jews. They would fall by the sword and be taken prisoner to all nations, He said, and "Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled" (Luke 21:23-24).
Now, in Romans 11, Paul refers to a time during which the Gentiles are coming into the kingdom of Christ and of God, and he states that a time is coming when the "full number of Gentiles" will come in. The Bible is not clear exactly when this time will come, but Jesus' prophecies and Paul's words tell us that a day is coming when the domination of the Gentiles in the church will end, and God will again soften the Jewish people to respond to Jesus and become part of His vineyard.
All Israel will be saved
Paul echoes prophecies of Isaiah and Jeremiah when he says, "And so all Israel will be saved." Isaiah 45:15-17 records the prophet addressing God as the Savior of Israel. "Israel will be saved by an everlasting covenant," Isaiah says, and he observes that God will never be put to shame or disgrace. Jeremiah 31:31-34 contains the famous prophecy stating the reality of the new covenant. In it God address the "house of Israel", including both Judah and the northern kingdom of the ten tribes of Israel. He promises a new covenant in which He will put His law inside them in their hearts rather than outside as an external standard and measuring rod. He promises to be their God and says they will be His people. God will forgive their sins and remember them no more.
There has been much discussion among Christians about the identity of Israel in verse 26 where Paul says, "And so all Israel will be saved." The key to understanding this passage is the context around it. Paul is, in chapter 11, referring exclusively to ethnic Israel whenever he uses the name "Israel". In verses 1-2 he identifies himself as an Israelite descended from Abraham. He continues by recounting Israel's apostasy and the fact that only the elect, not the majority of the nation, achieved God's grace because most of Israel stumbled over Jesus.
In verse 11 Paul persists in examining Israel's falling away and asks if they fell beyond recovery. "Not al all!" he emphasizes. They fell away and the Gentiles received salvation-but this situation was designed to incite jealousy among the Israelites so they would return to their God and Savior. Paul uses the metaphor of the olive tree to paint a word picture of Israel being pruned out of God's plan and purposes so wild Gentile branches could be grafted in. In verses 22-25, however, he declares that if Israel does not persist in her unbelief, they can be grafted back in, and he warns the Gentiles not to be arrogant or they, too may be cut off.
In verses 28-32 Paul will again state that although Israel is the enemy as far as the gospel is concerned on account of the Gentiles, still as far as election is concerned, they are loved on account of the patriarchs because God's gifts and call are irrevocable.
Give the context of chapter 11, Paul's use of "Israel" in verse 26 cannot refer to "spiritual Israel" including the Gentiles. To be consistent with the context and meaning of the word as Paul uses it in this chapter, we have to read, "All Israel will be saved" as referring to the descendants of the children of Israel-today's Jews.
This passage is not saying that every single Jew will be saved. Rather, Paul goes on in verses 31-32 to explain that the apostatized Israelites will have to come back into God's purposes by the same route all Gentiles come: in repentance for their disobedience and as recipients of God's mercy. Verse 32 shows that God saves all people the same way: "God has bound all men over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all."
Israel's hardening is only "in part"; in other words, even now Jews individually are coming to know and receive Jesus as their Savior. The entire scattered people of the Jews, however, are hardened and are being restricted from receiving the fullness of God's blessing. They are being disciplined for their rejection of Jesus. As a group of people, however, the day is coming when God will un-harden Jewish hearts, and the entire population of Jews will see clearly who Jesus is. At that point they will have the opportunity either to accept or reject Jesus.
This passage does not suggest that God will bring all Jews into relationship with Him regardless of their receptivity to Jesus. Rather, Paul is saying that when the hardening is lifted from the Jews, all of them will be able to make truly free choices about Jesus. They will be able to see clearly Who He is. There will be an awakening among the Jews that will be historically unprecedented. All Israel-all the elect of the Jews on the earth-will then be saved and grafted back into the olive tree of God's people and purposes.
Deliverer from Zion
Once again Paul quotes or refers to the Old Testament prophets to make his point about Israel ultimately being saved. He quotes Isaiah 59:20-21 in verses 26-27 where the word "deliverer" is rendered "Redeemer". The study notes in the NIV Study Bible say this, "The Talmud understood the text to be a reference to the Messiah, and Paul appears to use it in this way." Using the traditional rabbinic understanding of this passage, Paul quotes it to emphasize that the Messiah-Jesus-would ultimately turn godlessness away from Israel and make a new covenant with them in which He would take away their sins.
Other prophetic passages also foretell the Messianic intervention in Israel's experience. Isaiah 11:1-5 told of a shoot coming from Jesse-David's father-on whom wisdom, understanding, and the Spirit of the Lord would rest. He would judge the righteous and strike the earth with the "rod of his mouth". Righteousness would be his belt, and faithfulness his sash.
Ezekiel further prophesied that God would take Israel out of the nations and bring them back to their own land, and He would put a new spirit in them. God would remove their hearts of stone and give them hearts of flesh. He would put His Spirit in them and move them to follow His ways. Israel, Ezekiel prophesies, would live in the land, and God would prosper them and save them from their uncleanness (Ezekiel 36:24-30).
Ezekiel's prophecy sounds much like Jeremiah's in 31:31-34 where he foretells the new covenant in which God would write His laws on Israel's heart and be their God. He would forgive them from their sin, and they will know Him.
Paul refers to the wealth of Old Testament prophecy to make the point that God is not finished with the people of Israel. He has promised to make a new covenant with them and to give them new hearts in which He dwells by the Spirit-just as He does for all who accept Jesus' sacrifice with saving faith.
In Galatians 4:21-31 Paul, the consummate educated Jew, explains that the covenant God is promising to Israel is not the covenant He made with them at Sinai. That covenant he compares to Hagar the slave woman, and he tells those tempted to go back into its legal requirements to cast out the bondwoman. Sarah and her son of promise, he says, represent the New Jerusalem. Those who are in the line of Isaac-children of promise-are the ones who will inherit the riches of God, not those who live according to the Old Covenant of law.
The author of Hebrews reiterates this point. "If nothing had been wrong with the first covenant," he writes, "no place would have been sought for another." (See Hebrews 8:7-13). The Mosaic covenant God and Israel made in the desert was flawed, and God promises to make a new covenant based on better promises-God's own word instead of including Israel's promises-with Israel.
Before His death Jesus explained how this covenant would be implemented. After His own death, resurrection, and ascension, the Holy Spirit would come and teach His followers and guide them into all truth. The Spirit, Jesus said, would speak to them of the things He hears from Jesus and would bring Jesus glory by making known the things He got from Jesus Himself. Then Jesus added that all He has-all He would give to the Spirit for our edification-He gets from the Father. The entire Trinity is involved in implementing the New Covenant.
Because of Jesus' shed blood of the eternal covenant, we have access to the Triune God through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. This is the New Covenant; this indwelling is the way God writes His law on our hearts. This is the covenant Paul was proclaiming God would still bestow on Israel. The Gentiles have already been admitted to the New Covenant, but Israel has been partially hardened for a time. Through the blood of Christ and in God's time, Israel will experience an awakening, and God will bring them into the New Covenant of His blood as well.
This section of Romans is difficult for many Christians, especially those who learned that the church replaced Israel as God's chosen people. This idea, called "replacement theology", interprets God's promises to Israel as applying to the church today. Individual Jews may come into the church and thus become part of God's people, this idea goes, but as a people, the Jews have lost their privilege. God has turned His attention to a new phenomenon called the church which is largely Gentile.
There is some truth to this theory-that all people, Gentiles and Jews alike, become part of the olive tree of God's purpose and people-by accepting Jesus with saving faith. What Paul is explaining, however, is that God is not yet "finished" with Israel. Because of His unconditional promises to the patriarchs-the promises that underlie the New Covenant we enjoy-He will again awaken the people of Israel. He does not say all will come to the Lord, but Paul does insist that the time will come when God will "unharden" the nation as a whole, and the eventual return of the elect to the olive tree of God will be as glorious as the dead being brought to life.
The challenge for us is to humble ourselves before the sovereign purposes and choice of God. We are tempted to resent the idea that God retains any special loyalty to Israel after their blatant rejection of Jesus. They gave up their right to be chosen, we think. Yet God is not limited by our evil or our logic. We are to submit ourselves to Him and accept the fact that He is sovereign, and He had the right-because He is God-to choose whom He will and to harden whom He will.
We do not have the authority to reason away Paul's partial revelation of the mystery of God. God is God, and our command is to live in continual thankfulness and praise (Ephesians 5:4, 19-20). We are to be grateful for God's call to each of us, for His bringing us to spiritual life when we were dead in our sins. What God does with other people is not ours to understand. Through Paul God has revealed that God is yet awakening the Israelites and bringing them into the new covenant. We can praise God for His faithfulness and for His promises which cannot fail.
Because we see God keeping His unconditional promises to Israel, we have tangible reason to trust His promises to us as well.
Our calling is to trust God's love and mercy and sovereign justice. His faithfulness is our eternal security. We can trust Him even when we don't understand Him. God is not like us in His reasoning; He sees from eternity what we cannot even guess. He created time, and He created us. He also saved us when we deserved to be destroyed. We can trust His plans for Israel, and we can trust His plans for us.
We can praise Him for grafting us into His olive tree, and we can praise Him for being faithful to His original, natural branches.
God is asking you to surrender your pride, your narrow understanding, your resentment to Him. Ask Him to teach you truth with His own Spirit from His own word. Ask Him to keep you rooted in reality and humility, accepting His sovereign will. Ask Him to forgive your arrogance that resists these passages revealing God's eternal purpose for the people of Israel, and thank Him that He is faithful to Himself-and thus to you.
Praise the Father for loving the world and for sending Jesus to redeem it. Praise Jesus for becoming one flesh with us and for redeeming our treachery with His perfection and death. Praise the Spirit for teaching us the truth about Jesus and for revealing the Father's will expressed through His kindness to us in Christ Jesus.
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Spirit!
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