The Quandry of Romans 11

abraham-face-starsjpgOk, I am finally wrapping up my thoughts on Israel. Yes, finally!!

In all, my conclusion has been that, first and foremost, Christ is the great fulfiller of Israel. Jesus came and fulfilled the role of Israel to the T. Therefore, knowing Christ is the great Israel, I also concluded that all of those who are in Christ are now the Israel of God. Therefore, the church (or better word – ekklesia) of Christ, consisting of both believing Jew and Gentile, make up the new covenant Israel of God. This, I believe, is the holistic teaching of the New Testament, which is itself the greater interpreter of the Old Testament.

But, when considering such a topic, one of the biggest objections to the teaching that the ekklesia (or ‘church’) is the Israel of God today is found in Romans 11:25-32. These words of Paul are below:

25 Lest you be wise in your own sight, I want you to understand this mystery, brothers: a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. 26 And in this way all Israel will be saved, as it is written,

“The Deliverer will come from Zion,
he will banish ungodliness from Jacob”;

27 “and this will be my covenant with them
when I take away their sins.”

28 As regards the gospel, they are enemies of God for your sake. But as regards election, they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers. 29 For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. 30 For just as you were at one time disobedient to God but now have received mercy because of their disobedience, 31 so they too have now been disobedient in order that by the mercy shown to you they also may now receive mercy. 32 For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all. (Romans 11:25-32)

In these verses, Paul does definitely distinguish between physical Israel and the Gentiles (presumably ‘the Gentiles’ refers to non-Jews who have come to Christ). And, thus, it is believed this passage can be used to show that God still differentiates between physical Israel and the church, with many emphasising that the church is mainly made up of Gentiles.

Now, let me say from the start that I know what the easy thing for me could be: Just push this passage aside. Or I could label it as somehow subservient to every other Scripture I have pointed to in the previous six articles (kind of like Luther did with the book of James as compared to the words of Paul). Or, even better, I could be very ‘spiritual’ and explain it all away with statements like, ‘Well, Paul really didn’t mean that, he meant this.’

That would easier for me. And you know what else? We do develop theological systems. And I don’t believe that is not evil in and of itself. It is obvious that I work from a more covenantal understanding of Scripture. Therefore, when approaching certain passages that challenge the ‘system’, we can do those things I mentioned above. And let’s just go ahead and admit, that would be easy for me. Yet we must guard against forcing a passage into our system.

But I really want to proceed forward with some carefulness as to try and be faithful to what the text says in Romans 11. But, I also want to see how I can consider this text in the fuller picture of the teaching of the whole New Testament. I think that is fair, though I am still aware I will approach things with a bias based upon the theological system from which I work.

So, here we go……

When considering this difficult passage, Romans 11:25-32, I think it would be good to bear in mind a few points already stated by Paul in this particular letter:

  • Paul had already laid out the reality that a true Jew is one who had been circumcised in heart by the Spirit (Romans 2:28-29).
  • We are told that Abraham was the father of all who believe, even for those who had never been circumcised in the flesh (Romans 4:11).
  • Paul also made clear that all Israel was not truly Israel (Romans 9:6-7). Just because someone was born a physical Jew, such does not immediately make that person a part of God’s people of faith. Again, in line with Romans 2:28-29, something internal must take place.
  • God has in no way completely rejected those who are Israelites, as Paul uses himself as an example (Romans 11:1).
  • Paul lets us know that only a partial hardening had come upon Israel (Romans 11:25). God has always been in the business of saving Jews. Matter of fact, they should be at an advantage with all that they have received in the past (Romans 9:4-5).
  • Paul distinguishes between the ‘elect’ within Israel (those who were of faith) and the rest who had been hardened (who were not of faith) – Romans 11:7.
  • There is only one true olive tree, in accordance with the illustration Paul uses in Romans 11:17-24.

Those are seven important points I see in regards to the question of who the true Israel is. They form a helpful foundation, at least for me, when proceeding forward on this issue.

Again, I point out that I do not believe God has completely rejected physical Israel. In all reality, God continues to draw Jews to Himself. This is what Paul concluded:

28 As regards the gospel, they are enemies of God for your sake. But as regards election, they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers. 29 For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. (Romans 11:28-29)

This shows that God’s desire has always been to save Jews and have them incorporated into His ekklesia of faith (or His qahal of faith). But I must make clear that I believe in no way does this mean physical Jews get a ‘free pass’ into the kingdom. I believe the holistic teaching of the New Testament, Romans, and even Romans 9-11 shows that one does not simply become a part of God’s people through physical birth itself. Whether one is physically Jew or Gentile, one must be born again (John 3:3, 5), one must become part of the new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17; Galatians 6:15), one must be circumcised by the Spirit (Romans 2:28-29), and one must follow in the footsteps of our father of faith, Abraham (Romans 4:11). If such does not happen, then I cannot see how one is truly part of the people of God.

But going back to Romans 11:28-29. I will be forthright and honest: this passage creates a great deal of problems for me. It almost seems that Paul is asserting that all physical Jews, because of their physical line connection with the forefathers (mainly Abraham, Isaac and Jacob), are called as God’s people. Such a calling for physical Israel is irrevocable. That seems the plain reading, right?

Again, this passage is not easily understood. Well, it’s easily understood for the common dispensationalist. But it isn’t for me, since I am approaching things from a more covenantal theological viewpoint.

But, when it comes down to it, I really believe that we must keep vs28-29 in context with the whole of Romans 9-11, the whole of Romans, and the whole of the New Testament. What I mean, again, is this: I would be willing to concede that vs28-29 teaches that physical Jews are themselves considered part of the elect of God’s people. But, what I am not willing to concede is that this means they get that ‘free pass’ into the kingdom regardless of their faith response.

I believe that is a dangerous teaching. A Jew cannot simply stand before God and say, ‘I’m a Jew, therefore I belong in the kingdom.’ Nor do I believe a Jew can simply enter the kingdom through a generic Judaistic faith. One only enters into the kingdom by the new birth, which comes about by the Spirit as evidenced in a life of faith in the Messiah, Jesus.

It is Jesus who stands as the final stamp on God’s redemptive revelation. There is no redemption and salvation outside of Jesus Christ. If all physical Jews are to be considered part of God’s elect, that ultimately must be evidenced in a faith in the Messiah. There is no other way into life with the Father (John 14:6).

Still, to say that Paul is teaching in Romans 11:28-29 that all physical Jews are part of God’s elect simply because of their heritage connection to the Old Testament fathers of faith seems to contradict what he previously said in Romans 9:6-7. In all reality, there are physical Jews that are not really Jews. How can I say this? Because they have not stepped into the covenant promises of God through the Messiah of the new covenant. That, my friends, is the stamp of proof that one is part of God’s covenant people – does one have true faith in the Messiah that has now come. There are Jews of the past and present that have had no faith in the Messiah. Maybe I am missing something here, but I believe that without such a faith in the Messiah, no one (Jew or Gentile) can be considered part of God’s people.

One final Scripture people might point to in an attempt to teach that Israel is automatically a part of God’s people is Romans 11:11-12:

11 So I ask, did they stumble in order that they might fall? By no means! Rather through their trespass salvation has come to the Gentiles, so as to make Israel jealous. 12 Now if their trespass means riches for the world, and if their failure means riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their full inclusion mean! (Romans 11:11-12)

Here, Paul states that God’s inclusion of the Gentiles should make Israel jealous. But, even more, some would claim that vs12 points to a ‘full inclusion’ at some future point in history, connecting this to the phrase ‘all Israel will be saved’ found in Romans 11:26.

But Paul never concludes that a full inclusion will take place for certain, as in every single Jewish person will enter the kingdom. What I believe Paul might be doing is asking us to ponder that, if this partial hardening of the Jews (as he would later speak on in Romans 11:25) has brought about the riches of salvation for the Gentiles, then imagine what would happen if they all woke up spiritually and came to Christ. It would be like life from the dead’ (Romans 11:15). Something amazing would take place!

But in all the language of vs11-16, Paul’s desire is to ‘arouse my own people to envy and save some of them’ (Romans 11:14 NIV). With Romans being one of the later letters in his life, Paul is sharing his struggle as he watches so many Hebrew people, of which he is one, reject the Messiah (see Romans 9:1-3). Paul is, therefore, compelled and moved to do what he can to ‘save some of them’. Paul said SOME of them. But there is no absolute assurance that all Jews will turn to Christ.

And one final note in regards to Romans 11:25-27, which I quote again:

25 Lest you be wise in your own sight, I want you to understand this mystery, brothers: a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. 26 And in this way all Israel will be saved, as it is written,

“The Deliverer will come from Zion,

he will banish ungodliness from Jacob”;
27 “and this will be my covenant with them
when I take away their sins.” (Romans 11:25-27)

I believe Anthony Hoekema has penned some very helpful words for understanding these verses:

‘Though Israel has been hardened in its unbelief, this hardening has always been and will continue to be only a partial hardening, never a total hardening. In other words, Israel will continue to turn to the Lord until the Parousia [return of Christ], while at the same time the fullness of the Gentiles is being gathered in. And in this way all Israel will be saved: not just the last generation of Israelites, but all true Israelites – all those who are not just of Israel but are Israel, to use the language of Romans 9:6. Another way of putting this would be all Israel in Romans 11:26 means the totality of the elect among Israel. The salvation of all Israel, therefore, does not take place exclusively at the end-time, but takes place throughout the era between Christ’s first and second coming – in fact, from the time of the call of Abraham.’ (The Bible and the Future)

In all, my desire in expressing that the ekklesia of Christ is the Israel of God of the new covenant has nothing to do with anti-semitism, or hate for Jews, or dislike of dispensationalists, though I do struggle with some of the political mess that has come out of Zionism. But, in all, I believe that the whole teaching of the New Testament has given clarity as to who makes up the true people of God – it is those who are in Christ, whether Jew or Gentile.

Therefore, there has been and always will be only one people, one bride, one qahal, one ekklesia, one olive tree, one Israel of God. And I am only humbled that God would include me into such a people.

Click here for some illustrative charts that I believe will helpfully explain Romans 11.

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