Romans 11 will turn its attention to the present and future purposes of God with regard to Israel. Paul’s argument can be traced in five steps: a discussion of the remnant that is today finding salvation (1-6), but an acknowledgement that the majority are blinded to the truth (7-10), followed by a reason for the setting aside of national Israel (11-21), and a reminder of the promised restoration of God’s salvation program to Israel (22-32), all of which is bound up in the mystery of the wisdom of God (33-36). There is no doubt that Paul is discussing national Israel.
Paul again begins his discussion with a question: “Did God reject His people whom He foreknew?” According to the New Testament, Israel was apparently replaced (Matt. 21:43) by a “nation” (ethnos and not genan) that would bear fruit. Christ’s words were mostly critical of the current first century generation of Jews who had not produced fruit. The reference to “another nation” is a reference to the present form of the kingdom, the Church, a nation called out of the nations (1 Pet. 2:9,10). But Israel still had the oracles—their promises and their advantages were not nullified because the Lord turned to the Gentiles to bear fruit. Paul will ask, “Did Israel fall irrevocably?” (11:11)—Not at all! was his answer. This was another chapter in God’s dealings with Israel: God made promises to Israel, and although the majority of Israelites time and time again had sinned and been sent from the land, the promises remained.
So in the chapter Paul will point out that the rejection of Israel is not complete (there is a remnant of believers) and not final (all Israel shall be saved). His discussion will be essentially in two major parts, both begun with “I ask then” (vv. 1 and 11).
So Paul’s first question, “Did God cast them out?” (v. 1) relates to 10:21, the nation hardened in unbelief. It might appear from that discussion that they rebelled and God cast them out. (By the way, the church fathers in the early centuries saw in that quotation from Isaiah 65:2 a prophecy of the cross visibly represented).
Paul’s typical response is a direct rejection—”God forbid!” He presents himself as an example—he is a Jew, and he is a believer in Jesus, part of the remnant, part of the present form of the kingdom, the nation bearing fruit. And this is not strange, because God has not finally cast of His people. His explanation is that God foreknew them. If this means “to know beforehand” that Israel would believe, then there is no problem in asking “Has God cast them away?” But if it means “chosen,” then there is a more significant matter. Does past election guarantee the future, with sin in between? The idea of foreknowledge means essentially “to enter into intimate relationship beforehand.” Thus, Paul knows that God has a future goal based on love for the people of Israel—some future generation.
In order to show that God has not cast off His people Paul can show that there has been a remnant of believers in every age, even when national Israel was thrown off or exiled or was in sin. He makes the analogy with Elijah.1 At that time apostasy was general, but not universal. Elijah thought he alone was left faithful; but God had reserved for himself several thousand who had not bowed to Baal.
Paul’s conclusion is that today there is a remnant chosen by grace. This is not “the” remnant of prophecy that will be especially prominent in the latter days. It is an element within the Church that is Jewish by nationality. Concerning this Galatians 6:16 is important. There Paul uses the expression “peace on them and the Israel of God.” Some want to translate this “even the Israel of God,” to make the Church and Israel one and the same entity. So the meaning of the conjunction “and” (kai) in this line is critical; it is used very rarely for “even” (Ellicott says never). Galatians were Gentiles troubled by Jews. Paul was saying that there should be peace on the Gentile Christians who walk this way, as well as on true Jews who believed in Jesus and walk according to grace. They are the “Israel of God”—Jewish converts, not Judaized Gentiles. Paul here in Romans likewise is talking about a true remnant of Jews, true believers, followers of the Christian faith (or completed Jews since the Messiah was their Messiah). The Church is made up of Gentiles and Jews, and in the first century there was a good deal of tension about how this was to work—the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 being one sample of the tension. So the word “Israel” in Galatians would mean “Israel,” as obvious as that might sound, and not Gentiles now known as “Israel.” This fits the normal meaning of “Israel,” the normal meaning of “and,” and the situation in the first century Church. Those who have decided that all the promises to Israel have been and will be fulfilled in the Church attempt to make “Israel” here mean the Church, the “true” Israel. But that seems awfully forced.
So Paul is saying there is a remnant who are saved by grace and not by works, for as always, everyone is saved by grace and not by works. The principles of law and grace are contrasting and conflicting. The remnant is by grace according to election—it is a work of God. Thus, God has not cast off His people—Paul could clearly witness to that, as well as thousands upon thousands of early believers in jesus who were Jewish.
The logical question to follow is “What, then? What Israel so earnestly sought it did not obtain, but the elect did.” The elect of God, whom we recognize as the true believers, have received righteousness. The rest have only attained blindness—they have no spiritual understanding and have not come to the faith.
These other Israelites were hardened. The metaphor is drawn from the word for a petrified stone—a heart that has become callous. They do not see, they do not accept. Verse 25 will say that Israel was “hardened in part”—people like Paul and Timothy were not hardened. The majority of the Jews were hardened in unbelief. Some will say, “Oh God did not do that.” But verse 8 says that God did do it. God’s laws are operative: when people do not respond to the Word of God, they will be hardened to it (as C. S. Lewis said, if people will not say to God, “Thy will be done,” God will say to them sometime, “Thy will be done”). One cannot hear the Gospel without some effect. It never has the same effect twice. You never hear the truth the same way, for truth never simply passes by. It is serious to hear the Word and not respond by faith. Paul in 2 Corinthians 3 will explain that while the Law (the Bible) is read in the synagogue service, a veil lies on the hearts of the people and they are blind to the truth of God’s revelation as it is directing them to the Messiah, the sacrificial atonement, and the gift of eternal life. They can understand a good deal about the text they hear, but they miss the main point of revelation. Only by God’s grace does the Spirit break through and bring liberty; and at that moment when they turn to Jesus the Messiah by faith, the veil is removed so that they can behold his glory and be changed into that glory. But because they are blind, it has to be a work of God to break through and inspire faith. Indeed, salvation is a work of God, for all of us, Jew or Gentile, were dead in trespasses and sins until the Spirit quickened us, made us alive. It was at that moment that we believed that the Spirit was actually working in us to regenerate us. And Paul knows that many Jews like himself believed in Christ when the Spirit opened their hearts—but many, many did not believe.
National or ethnic Israel’s rejection is not final, only temporary. Paul has shown already that it is not complete, for not all Jews rejected Jesus. In fact, down through the history of the Church, or perhaps we may say down through the first phase of the New Covenant, many Jewish people have served as great preachers, theologians, missionaries, or the like in the cause of Christ. But now Paul considers the majority who have stumbled, those who have not believed in Christ.
He reflects on the ultimate purpose of Israel’s fall in the grand plan of God, and the ultimate purpose is twofold, both the salvation of the Gentiles and the future restoration of the Jews. God has used the failure of Israel to bring salvation to the Gentiles. But Paul affirms that Israel’s stumbling was not beyond recovery. National Israel failed to believe, and so God rejected them to turn to the Gentiles. But Paul explains that if the rejection of Israel brought such blessing to people throughout the world, what may we expect at the restoration? This question indicates something great is going to happen, something that is the opposite of their rejection of the Savior. The words “fullness” (v. 12) and “acceptance” (v. 15) point to the future restoration of Israel to the promises of God. There is coming a day when those Jews who are alive will turn in faith to follow Jesus as their Messiah and Savior.
Do you see the cycle? The failure of Israel to believe led to the salvation of the Gentiles—most of us, which God intended to use to provoke the Jews to jealousy, so that they might be restored by faith in Him. (Unfortunately, the Church has done very little to make Jewish people jealous, to make them want the Savior. In fact, many times the Gospel as been presented as a triumphalism—you had it and lost it, we now have it! And Jesus was not always clearly presented as Jewish—their Messiah). One of the reasons that the Church has given Israel very little to be jealous about is because ever since the reformation (at least) most biblical scholars have missed or ignored the promises to Israel and the hope of their restoration. Instead, a Christian theology of replacement has taken hold, so much so that in commentaries about the Israelites in the Old Testament the word “Church” is used to describe those who believed, as in “the Old Testament Church.” That can be a little confusing. But it is clear in the Old Testament as well as the New Testament, that the Gentiles who come to faith in the LORD would be the means of restoring Israel through their salvation. The Jews, down inside, are deeply concerned about the crucifixion and the Catholic charge (and absolution of the charge) of deicide. When Christ is presented correctly and compassionately, the witness has proved to be the most effective.
Paul’s reasoning is that the rejection of Israel (“their” in verse 12 is used three times; it refers to Israel collectively, as a whole nation2) brought reconciliation to the world, that is, when Israel rebelled God turned to the Gentiles (as He had prophesied He would in the Old Testament—see for example Mal. 1:11) to make Israel jealous; so then in the future the restoration of Israel as a believing people will be “life from the dead”—an even greater miracle in God’s working of salvation in the world (v. 15). Many simply interpret this to be the doctrine of resurrection. But it is a figure of speech in this context, a spiritual coming alive or quickening, stating what it will be like for great nations to come to spiritual life. Nations, vast numbers of people, that are now in opposition to Christ will believe when Israel is restored (see Isa. 60:1-6; Acts 15).
Verse 16 is difficult. Paul says “If the part of the dough offered as firstfruits is holy, then the whole batch is holy; if the root is holy, so are the branches.” From usage and from the immediate context the figures of first fruit and root seem to refer to Israel, consecrated to God for divine purposes. The whole lump is to be consecrated. The present, early converts are the firstfruits; there is more to come.
The root seems to be Abraham, or at least the patriarchs and their covenant. If the root is the Abrahamic covenantal blessings, then that is the basis for expectation. We who are Gentiles have no such covenant, but the basis for our blessing (=salvation) is the Israelite heritage. We are “among them” or “fellow partakers” of the Abrahamic blessing; we partake of Jewish blessings. We stand on the basis of the promises to Abraham, grafted in as in the place of the natural branches.
In verses 17-21 the apostle offers some stern warnings based on this teaching about the tree and the branches. Christians who are Gentiles should not boast because they have been grafted in whereas Israel failed. Their (our) salvation was a work of divine grace that resulted from the failure of Israel. If we do not produce fruit, that is, practical righteousness and obedience, then we too could be removed from the place of blessing as was ancient Israel (and this is the warning of John to the seven churches in revelation 2-3, that if they did not repent and do what they were supposes to do, God would remove the lampstand from them). So Paul is warning his readers to learn from Israel’s mistake; fear the Lord and live righteously if you want to have the sense of security of salvation. Paul has spoken a good deal in this epistle about grace and faith and election; but he has never presented it as an “easy believism” without evidence of a changed life. The evidence of divine election is perseverance in righteousness—a person who comes to faith and lives a changed life and produces righteousness will be recognized as part of the elect of God.
Paul warns his readers that the security they have in God’s kindness is conditioned upon their perseverance—the evidence of saving faith. If the Gentiles who have been grafted in do not persevere, they could be cut off like Israel was. And if Jewish people come to faith in Christ Jesus, they can be grafted back into the program—be partakers of their New Covenant. In fact, Paul affirms, God is eager to graft the natural branches back in to the tree.
According to verse 25, Paul affirms that Israel has experienced this hardening in unbelief in part “until the full number of the Gentiles has come in.”3 This is a mystery according to Paul, that is, a divine secret that must be revealed, a hidden truth. The hardness and the blindness of the nation was in part—not every Israelite refused to believe. And the hardness of Jews in their rejection of Jesus was temporary—”until” the fullness of the Gentiles. The idea Paul has is in this expression “their fullness”; it means the full complement, the full number, or the whole body of Gentiles who are to be saved will have been saved. The expression is a soteriological description, meaning the full, completed number.
Then, Paul affirms, when that has happened, then “all Israel shall be saved.”4 Here Paul is concerned with the restoration of national Israel to their covenant program with God. He has already shown that it is probable because they are the natural branches. And he has shown it is possible because of God’s kindness. Now he will show that it was prophesied by Isaiah 59:20,21, and 27:9. “All Israel” refers to the nation of Israel as a whole, the Jewish people who are alive at the time when the number of the Gentiles is completed.
The context has been leading up to this. In verse 12 he had referred to the unbelief of the Israelite people as “their fullness” in contrast to “their trespass”; in verses 22 and 23 he spoke of Israel as being unfaithful, but possibly grafted back in; and “they” and “their” in verses 30-32 refers to Israel in the light of the discussion.
So now he looks to the future plan for “all Israel.”
The use of the word “all” in Scripture does not often mean every individual. But “all Israel” means the whole nation, Jews as a whole.5 The nation as a whole was unfaithful (Dan. 9:11), but not every single individual (see 1 Kings 12:1 and 2 Chron. 12:1). Only God knows when a nation can be called apostate, when the majority is in rebellion and only a remnant holds to the true faith. When we say “all Israel rejected Christ” we mean its leadership and its people as a whole, but not every Jew who was there. So we use that idea in the same sense here for their salvation.
When it says they “shall be saved” it means according to the citation from Isaiah that they will be brought back into God’s blessing by the forgiveness and cleansing of sin. Paul, based on Isaiah, sees that in the future there will be a vast conversion of Jewish people to the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus the Messiah. This will occur at the end of the age, prior to or simultaneous with the coming of the Messiah. To say that by “all Israel” Paul now means the Church, that is, when the Gentiles are all saved that will mean that “all Israel” will be saved and fulfill Isaiah’s prediction, simply will not do. It would completely change the flow of the argument in the passage and alter the meaning of “Israel” here in a way that the context will not support.
Besides, any detailed study of Jeremiah. Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Zechariah, among others, will reveal that God will indeed redeem Israel at the end of the age. Those Jews who will be alive at that time, or at his coming, will turn to him, looking on him they have pierced and acknowledging that all they like sheep had gone astray.6 But until then the evangelistic appeal must go out, for they do not know if they will be alive at the end of the age or not. So Paul’s heart’s desire is that they might be saved.
In verse 28-32 Paul offers in summary his philosophy of history. The sentences are written very carefully: two antithetical clauses with explanations, followed by another pair of antithetical ideas and their explanation. “Mercy,” a key term in Romans, is used four times in here. The first antithetical pair concerns the Jews as enemies or beloved—enemies as far as the Gospel is concerned, but beloved because of the patriarchs. The explanation is that the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.7 The promises are secure because they are based on God’s fidelity to His word. What is the “calling” that is irrevocable? It is the calling of Israel as a nation to be the witness to the nations, the means of blessing for all the families of the world. Because God does not change in His choice of election, Malachi says, Israel was not consumed (Mal. 3:16). Paul is relating divine immutability to Israel’s future. God’s plan will be fulfilled, with people who will believe in Christ. The stress in this section is on what God is going to do. God will initiate their salvation: “I will pour out on them my Spirit … and they shall look on Him whom they have pierced.”
God’s covenant promises are eternal and unconditional; but individual participation in them requires faith. There is a future for Israel in God’s plan for the kingdom; but only those who come to faith in Jesus Christ will share in them. Now a few believe; at the end of the age great numbers.
The second pair of antithetical clauses is in verses 30-31. At one time the Gentiles, who were not the elect people, were disobedient, but they have received mercy now as a result of Israel’s disobedience. But on the other hand, Israel’s disobedience will also lead to her obtaining mercy when they realize what God has done for the Gentiles. Here are the two purposes of Israel’s fall reiterated—Gentile salvation and Jewish restoration. The explanation of all this: “for God has bound all men over to disobedience (Romans 1-3) so that He may have mercy on them all.” So Paul breaks down the stages of history into periods of disobedience. The point of it all is the display of God’s mercy.
So Paul sees that in God’s plan of the ages there will come a time when Israel will be converted, restored to their mission, and enter into all the blessings promised in the Old Tetsament. And, that conversion of Israel will lead to a world-wide conversion of other Gentiles. Truly, the end of the age has some glorious prophecies to be realized.
The reason for the way that God has chosen to call the Jews to service, then reject them and turn to the Gentiles, and then to restore them again through the dealings with the Gentiles and for the greater blessing of the world—all of this is locked up in the riches of the wisdom of God. Paul cites Old Testament passages to show that God’s ways are past searching out; He has never needed the counsel of any one, for His plan is perfect.
This section is pure praise and no argument at all. Yet it may be the greatest argument of all. If you and I do not understand God’s dealings with nations and peoples, it is not because there is not a good and sufficient reason. The difficulty is with our inability to understand the wisdom of God. By weaving ideas from the Old Testament together, Paul affirms several points about God’s wisdom:
(1) No one knows the mind of the Lord [Paul has tried to give a glimpse of the way the mind of the Lord works];
(2) No one can advise the Lord—God never asks for advice from His creatures; Jesus never asked for advice when He was here on earth; and
(3) No one has given anything to God that would put Him in an awkward position of owing anyone anything.
“Because from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory for ever. Amen!” “From Him” means that God is the all sufficient cause and source of everything. “Through Him” means that God is the mighty sustainer and Worker. “Unto Him” means that God must call every creature to account to Him. All glory is indeed due to Him.
1. Think down through Church History about Jewish and Christian relationships! How would you describe them? But on the other hand, think of significant Jewish Christians and their value to the faith.
2. Can you think back through the Bible about “judicial blindness”? Start with the call of the prophet Isaiah in Isaiah 6. And note the immediate and mediate causes throughout Scripture (cf. also 2 Cor. 4:1-6).
3. Think back through the prophetic messages of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Zechariah. How much of that material has to do with the future of Israel in God’s plans?
4. If you have time to delve into some Rabbinic background, note that it is a major belief of Judaism that “all Israel will be saved.” On what basis does Judaism teach this? How does Paul’s teaching differ?
5. How would you understand the “wisdom of God”? Perhaps you might like to read through God’s speech to Job out of the wind at the end of the book of Job to get a fresh appreciation of His plans—you know, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the world, when all the angels shouted for joy … ?” What should our response be to His wisdom?
1 For Paul, the Old Testament has a living, abiding voice: "What says the Scripture?" The words of Scripture are divine words with abiding force for today.
2 These are indications of the promised blessings based on the relationship to all Israel. In the development of the promises, beginning as early as Genesis 9:24-27 and then 12:1-3, Israel was a tool for blessing the nations. When they fell into general sin, they as the tool ceased to be functional, and they were exiled.
3 By the way, this can only work if election is involved. God knows how many Gentiles will come in, and who is the last to come in--then comes the restoration of the program to Israel.
4 Some commentators try to take this to refer to Gentiles, meaning "the Israel of God" will be saved. But that defies the plain meaning of the text, the point of the prophecy in Isaiah, and makes very little sense in the argument.
5 Some folks criticize the interpretation of “all” as being general and not perfectly literal; but our key to interpretation is the usage in the Bible--and “all” means the vast majority of a group in so many cases--such as “all Jerusalem” went out to see him. Likewise, biblical usage of the word “Israel” leads to the natural conclusion that it is ethnic Israel--especially in this chapter where it is contrasted with Gentiles.
6 The purpose of Israel’s restoration at the end of the age includes so much material that it is impossible to include it here. That would take a thorough study of the kingdom of God, and the function of believers in the world to come, or in the eternal state.
7 The Greek term means "not to be regretted." The idea is an after care, an after thought, to change the mind. The point is that God's promises and calling have an ultimate purpose. There is no change in His decisions.