Israel and the Divine Purpose
—Present and Future
Israel Saved by the Deliverer from Zion
Dr. S. Lewis Johnson, Jr., serves as a Bible teacher at Believers Chapel, Dallas, Texas, and also on the visiting faculty of Grace Theological Seminary, Winona Lake, Indiana, and Tyndale Theological Seminary, Amsterdam, Holland.
This is his fifth study in his series on Romans 11.
We have turned the corner toward home and the conclusion of our study of Paul and the purpose of the ages. I realize that the depth and technicality of the theme is not easy for the average student of Scripture, and I hope that it has not been too much for you.
The story that Alexander Maclaren often told comes to mind. He enjoyed telling about the old verger of St. Mary’s Church, Oxford, a well-known university church where the famous Bampton Lectures are given. As the verger was taking a party of sightseers through the church he commented. “I’ve heard every sermon and every lecture given in this ‘ere church for the past forty years, and thank God I’m a Christian still.” I hope you, too, have managed to hold on to your faith as we’ve investigated the story of Israel and the nations in this complex chapter.
The importance of the subject, however, demands a careful treatment. As we noted in an earlier study Professor Berkouwer excused a separate chapter on Israel in his book, The Return of Christ, for two reasons. First, he referred to the renewed attention to Israel arising from the “tragic outbursts of antisemitism in our age.” And then he pointed to the rise of the Jewish state in Palestine. This second fact, particularly, calls for an intensive treatment of the biblical chapters dealing with matters related to the State of Israel.
The theodicy of Paul in Romans nine through eleven is certainly one of the crucial sections in the Word of God that touch Israel and the purpose of God. In the theodicy, his vindication of God’s ways with the nations according to the principles of justice, Paul has made these points:
1. First, he made the point that God is sovereign in His grace and elects whom He will (9:1-19).
2. Second, since that is not the whole truth, he then explains that Israel’s own disobedience led to her downfall (9:30-10:21). Human responsibility necessarily follows divine sovereignty inseparably.
3. Third, these two points, however, are not the final word on Israel. Her fall, while real, is not total, nor is it final, and that is the substance of Paul’s message in chapter eleven (11:1-36).
The figure of the olive tree in the preceding context is designed primarily to be a warning to the Gentile believers not to presume on the Lord’s mercy to them in the present age. But it taught the fall of Israel, the blessing of the Gentiles, and the probability of the reception of Israel again into the redemptive purpose and plan of God in grace (cf. vv. 12, 15, 23-24).
What he had shown as possible, since faith is the only thing hindering Israel’s return to covenantal blessing from the human standpoint (cf. v. 23), as probable, since it is easier to believe that the natural branches shall be grafted into the olive tree than the unnatural, he now prophesies in his thrilling words, “And so all Israel shall be saved.” We turn to them now.
The Hardening of Israel
The admonition (25a-b). One must remember in going through the section that the apostle has the nations in the foreground and individuals in the background. He is reasoning over the relation that God has established in His eternal plan between the nation Israel and the Gentiles.
The “for” with which verse twenty-five begins, introduces the fundamental ground for the hope of Israel’s regrafting into the olive tree. It is found in Scripture. The apostle does not want his Gentile readers to succumb to ignorance and pride and overlook that fact.
Israel’s hardening is subject to two limitations, which sum up the chapter. First, it is in part, the phrase being used extensively, not intensively. All men, including Israel, are equally depraved, but the depravity of some in Israel has been overcome by God’s effectual grace in them. He refers, of course, to the remnant of Jewish believers in this age (cf. vv. 5, 17).
And, second, the hardening is temporary, being “until” the fullness of Gentile salvation takes place. The apostle calls these things a “mystery,” that is, a divine secret, something that may be known only by divine revelation. Here it encompasses the divine program in its several steps.
Paul’s concern over his reader’s possible ignorance of these matters reminds me of one of Josh Billings’ sayings, “The trouble with most folks isn’t so much their ignorance, as knowing so many things that ain’t so.” Well, there are many who “know” Israel has no ethnic future, but it just “ain’t so,” Scripture affirms.
The description of the hardening (25c). The apostle now describes the hardening. The word Paul uses is derived from a Greek word meaning a callous. In a metaphorical sense it denotes a dullness, an insensibility, or a hardening. The Authorized Version’s “blindness” is not correct, but Paul’s word includes the sense of spiritual blindness.
The hardening has been judicially inflicted on a part of Israel, the mass, but not all. And it is the result of the rejection of the Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ. The nation as a whole, centering their attention on the prophecies of the Messiah’s glory and the victory He would accomplish for them, failed to give proper attention to the prophecies of Messiah’s sufferings, the ground of atonement and the forgiveness of sins. Passages such as Isaiah fifty-three and Psalm twenty-two were a mystery to them, due to failure to recognize their sinful state and need of redemption from guilt.
Like the little boy, waiting in a London hospital for a visit from King George V and failing to recognize him, when he came, because he did not wear his crown as King of England, Israel, too, failed to recognize their King when He came. He did not have His crown on; He came in His suit of suffering. His crown was not golden, but of thorns! The day is coming, however, when He shall come again in His royal apparel. Then the whole world will recognize and acknowledge Him as ruler of the kings of the earth.
The culmination of her hardening (11:25d). Several important points are made by the apostle in the last clause of the verse. First, the “until” suggests an end to the hardness of hearts (cf. 1 Cor. 11:26; 15:25). And that which is implied is stated in the next verse.1
And, second, note carefully the term, “the fullness of the Gentiles.” The word “fullness” usually means the full number, the whole body.2Sanday and Headlam have “the full completed number.”3 The term must be distinguished from another familiar eschatological term, “the times of the Gentiles” (cf. Luke 21:24). That term covers the period of time from 605 B.C. when Nebuchadnezzar captured Jerusalem to the second coming of Jesus Christ (cf. Dan. 2:1-45). The term in the text here is a soteriological term, referring to the time of Gentile salvation during the present age.
Paul’s words, “be come in,” better rendered shall have come in, refer to entrance by regeneration and faith into the community of the Lord’s people signified by the olive tree. They enter into the possession of the blessing of the unconditional covenantal program of the Old Testament Scriptures (cf. . Acts 15:14; Rom. 15:16, 18; cf. 11:12).
The Salvation of Israel
The number of them (26a). Before us now is the important statement, “And so all Israel shall be saved.” The enemies of Israel cry out still, like the enemies of Old Testament times, “Come, and let us cut them off from being a nation; that the name of Israel may be no more in remembrance” (cf. Psa. 83:4). Just recently the Syrian president, Mr. Assad, boasted that when the Syrians finished with Israel the Golan Heights would be in the middle of Syria. He fails to reckon with God and His Word. They say, “Thus saith the Lord, who giveth the sun for a light by day, and the ordinances of the moon and of the stars for a light by night, who divideth the sea when its waves roar; the Lord of hosts is his name: If those ordinances depart from before me, saith the Lord, then the seed of Israel shall cease from being a nation before me forever” (cf. Jer. 31:35-36).
But what is meant by “all Israel”? A study of such passages as 1 Kings 12:1, 2, 2 Chron. 12:1-5, and Daniel 9:11 will show that Paul meant Israel as a national whole, not every individual Israelite. The nation as a whole, that is, its leaders and the majority of the people, will turn to the Lord in the latter days. This meaning is confirmed by the fact that in rabbinic literature “all Israel” has this force. Often cited is the statement from the Mishnah tractate, Sanhedrin (x. 1), “all Israel has a portion in the age to come,” which is followed in the tractate by a lengthy passage listing the kinds of Israelites who do not have a portion in the age to come (Sadducees, heretics, magicians, etc.)
The meaning of the term Israel. John Calvin referred the term “Israel” to “all the people of God,” drawn from both the Gentiles and ethnic Israel, although he gave to Israel “the first place” in “the whole Israel of God.”4 Cranfield comments, “That pas Israel here does not include Gentiles is virtually certain,”5 unusual confidence for a modern commentator! The evidence, however, is overwhelmingly against Calvin. Israel elsewhere always refers to ethnic Israel. The term occurs ten times previously in Romans 9-11 and always in that sense (cf. v. 28, “fathers”). Further, it surely is questionable hermeneutically to give the term a sense different from that which it has in the immediately preceding verse. Try reading verses twenty-five and twenty-six, giving Calvin’s sense to the word “Israel,” and the impossibility of the view plainly emerges. Calvin, therefore, was not always right.
The manner of Israel’s salvation (26a). We must now give attention to the warmly discussed phrase, “and so.” The phrase may be understood in several different ways.
It has been given the temporal force of and then. The rarity of the usage, however, argues against its sense here. The phrase may be taken inferentially and rendered by and thus (— therefore), but that sense is also rare in the New Testament. And, third, it may be taken correlatively with the following as in “as it is written.” The rendering would then be, and so all Israel shall be saved, (just) as it stands written (cf. Phil. 3:17).6 Finally, since the most common sense of the adverb rendered here by “so” is a comparative adverb, I think it is best to take it in that sense.7 The full significance of this will appear when we discuss the alternative interpretations of the statement shortly.
That brings us to the interpretation of the declaration as a whole. Among the views contending for acceptance are the following three.
(1) First, we may dispense with the view that Paul is referring to the salvation of “spiritual Israel,” composed of elect Jews and Gentiles together. Aside from the usage of terms referred to previously, the antithesis in the overall and immediate context between Israel and the Gentiles forbids this interpretation.
(2) Second, a view that gained a body of support among amillennial students, namely, that “all Israel” here refers to elect Jews down through the ages who are converted to Christ, demands some consideration simply by reason of the names supporting it. The view was held by Melanchthon, I believe, and it has found contemporary support among such amillennial theologians as Herman Ridderbos, G. C. Berkouwer, William Hendrikson, Anthony A. Hoekema,O0. Palmer Robertson and others. Building upon the comparative phrase, “and so,” and yet admitting that “all Israel” can only refer to ethnic Israelites, they have sought to show that the phrase can only refer to all Israelites saved through the ages — a kind of soteriological “trickle down” theory! The salvation of “all Israel” is simply the salvation of all the remnants of the past. Forgetting that Paul was the apostle to the Gentiles, and that outside of Romans 9-11 Paul only uses the term Israel about six times, Ridderbos demands that Paul speak of Israel’s conversion in other places. He forgets what Paul has said in Romans 3:1-4 about their present “advantage,” what he said in 9:3-5, and how he insisted that the purpose of Christ’s coming “as a minister of the circumcision in behalf of the truth of God” was to “confirm the promises made to the fathers” (15:8). Notable is Ridderbos’ failure to handle verses eleven through fifteen, the parable of the olive tree with its future reference (cf. vv. 23-24), and the time reference of the biblical citations of Paul in verses twenty-six and twenty-seven.
Still other objections may be raised to Ridderbos’ view, but I have space only for a few. First, the passage stresses the reversal of fortune experienced by Israel (cf. vv. 7, 11-12, 15, 23-24), and a change of status before God in the future. In the view of Ridderbos there is simply the continual saving experience of a minority of elect Jews through the church’s history. There is no reversal of fortune at all.
(2) Further, the truth that the elect shall be saved is so obvious that one would have to ask why would the question, “God has not rejected His people, has He?,” ever have arisen in the first place?
(3) The third, the “much more” (a fortiori) argument of verse twelve and the statements in verses eleven, fourteen and fifteen, taken together with the future sense of the passage, support the ethnic future of Israel. The view of Ridderbos, Berkouwer and others has no real “casting away” and “receiving,” no imposition of judicial hardening and no lifting of it.
Finally, the view cannot explain why Paul is so concerned with Israel, when they are no different from anyone else.
What, then, is Paul saying? Simply that Israel’s hardening is temporary, and at the same time the occasion of the opening of the door of a world-wide salvation of the Gentiles. This very exercise of mercy toward the Gentiles, however, shall result in the salvation of ethnic Israel as a whole, for Gentile salvation shall provoke them to jealousy. It is in this manner that the mystery unfolds.
The Scriptural Attestation
Adolph Harnack, the famous German historian, in speaking of Paul’s conviction of the salvation of Israel as yet to come, said, “The Jew in himself was still too strong.” And Luther, of all people — and yet the revered reformer made many exaggerated and foolish statements in his career — once said, “A Jew, or Jewish heart, is so wood-stone-iron-devil-hardened that it can in no way be turned”! And that coming from the man who got his insight into divine grace from a Jew, the Apostle Paul!
No, it was not Paul’s patriotism that led him to prophecy Jewish restoration: it was the Bible. And so in the final verses of the section, in a free blending of Old Testament passages, he supports his view by the Word of God. The passages are interesting, for they are grounded in the truth of the three unconditional covenants of Israel, the Abrahamic, the Davidic, and the New.
In verse 26b the words about the Deliverer from Zion in this context of divine judgment upon the world evidently refer to the Davidic Covenant and its conquering King.
In verse 27a, the opening line of the verse, the words concerning the covenant are a renewal of the covenantal promise made by God to Abraham in Genesis 17:4. They come from the Abrahamic Covenant.
Finally in verse 27b, the final line of the merger of Old Testament texts, either Isaiah 27:9 or Jeremiah 31:33-34 are in mind, but the fact that the forgiveness of sins is in view makes it clear that the New Covenant is in Paul’s mind also (cf. Isa. 59:21).
Thus, remarkable as it may seem, all the unconditional covenants pertaining to divine redemption, which find their fruition in the Second Advent, are linked by Paul with the statement, “and so all Israel shall be saved.” That would seem to clearly indicate that the time reference of the statement is future.
Thus, empirical evidence in the presence of a remnant by the election of grace, divine logic as seen in the example of the olive tree, and now the prophetic Word unite in affirming the restoration of believing ethnic Israel as a whole to saving covenantal blessing. We, therefore, pray to that end.
And with the psalmist we say, “Let Israel hope in the Lord: for with the Lord there is mercy (lit., lovingkindness), and with Him is plentious redemption” (Psa. 130:7).
One final point may be made. Is it not significant that the restoration of Israel is traced to the favor of God as found in the ministry of the Messiah? In other words, there can be no restoration of Israel apart from the coming and cross of the Savior, for only there is found the forgiveness of sins, which underlies all of God’s promises and blessings.
If one were to visit Werden, Germany, he would no doubt notice an image of a lamb carved high up on the old church there. If one asked about it, he would be told about the worker who, while working on the structure, fell to an expected sudden death on the stones scattered on the ground below. He miraculously arose unhurt, because there had been a lamb among the stone-heaps nibbling on some tufts of grass there, and he had fallen on the lamb, which was crushed to death. The man in gratitude carved the memorial to the lamb to celebrate both his deliverance and its ultimate suggestion of the deliverance we have by the Lamb of God. We too have been delivered from judgment by the Deliverer out of Zion, who offered the saving atoning sacrifice at Golgotha, We exalt Him and sing His praises in the words of the living creatures and elders, “Thou art worthy to take the scroll, and to open its seals; for thou wast slain, and hast redeemed to God by thy blood some out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation: And hast made them unto our God a kingdom of priests, and they shall reign upon the earth” (Rev. 51:9-10).
1 I find the exegesis of Palmer Robertson, who follows in other respects the views of Ridderbos, Berkouwer, Hendriksen, Hoekema, and others, quite unconvincing at this point. Cf. O. Palmer Robertson, “Is There a Distinctive Future for Ethnic Israel in Romans 11?”,” Perspective on evangelical Theology, ed. by Kenneth S. Kantzer and Stanley N. Gundry (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1979), pp. 219-21. I have the greatest respect for Dr. Robertson and his skills, but his position and that of the Dutch commentator’s mentioned above, cannot be sustained, in my opinion.
2 J. B. Lighfoot, Saint Paul’s Epistles to the Colossians and to Philomen (London: Macmillan and Company, 1890), p. 258.
3 Sanday and Headlam, p. 335.
4 Calvin, p. 255.
5 Cranfield, II, p. 576.
6 Arndt and Gingrich have suggested this correlative possibility. If correct, the meaning is: All Israel shall be saved, as the prophetic words cited show. The sense is good, and the grammar and syntax, if not Paul’s common usage, are satisfied.
7 Cf. Sanday and Headlam, p. 335; Godet,255-56.