(Rom. 11:25-26a ESV) 25 Lest you be wise in your own sight, I do not want you to be unaware of 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 … .
So, believe it or not, we’re just now getting to the really hard part of chapter 11. As we covered a few posts ago, “mystery” refers to something that was once hidden but is now revealed. Paul’s explanation of how the salvation of the Jews and Gentiles is coming about is the revelation of a profound truth that used to be hidden.
In v. 25, the “partial hardening” of Israel will continue until “the fullness of the Gentiles has come in.”
What, then, has happened to Israel? An attentive reader of 9:6–11:10 could have answered without difficulty: a hardening has come upon them. Paul has already said this in 11:7, summing up the sequence of thought in 9:14–24. And such a reader could also have said what this means: such a “hardening” is what happens, through the forbearance of God, to those who do not accept the gospel.
“Hardening” is what happens when otherwise immediate judgment is postponed but people do not avail themselves of the chance to repent and believe. According to the regular Jewish tradition represented here by 2:1–11, such “hardening” has only two results. Either the person comes to their senses, recognizes God’s forbearance, and repents; or they are fitted the more fully for the judgment that will ensue.
N.T. Wright, “The Letter to the Romans,” in The Acts of the Apostles-The First Letter to the Corinthians (vol. 10 of New Interpreters Bible, Accordance electronic ed. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002), 688.
Does that mean “until all the Gentiles come in”? Or “until a large number of Gentiles come in”? Or “until the gospel has reached all the nations”?
Consider Rom 10:18; Col 1:6, 23
(Rom. 10:18 ESV) 18 But I ask, have they not heard? Indeed they have, for “Their voice has gone out to all the earth, and their words to the ends of the world.”
(Col. 1:5b-6 ESV) Of this you have heard before in the word of the truth, the gospel, 6 which has come to you, as indeed in the whole world it is bearing fruit and increasing — as it also does among you, since the day you heard it and understood the grace of God in truth,
(Col. 1:23 ESV) if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister.
Now, Paul obviously wasn’t speaking of the literal planet earth. But neither does he think the fullness of the Gentiles is thousands of years in the future.
As we noted before, Paul does not envisage that all Gentiles everywhere will believe the gospel, any more than they have done so far. He believes, rather, that there is a mode of “completion” (perhaps, when the gospel has been announced to all the nations?) in God’s mind. (It is less likely that he imagines God to have a complete mathematical number of future Gentile converts in mind.) Until this has been reached, final judgment will be delayed, leaving those still impenitent in their state of “hardening.” And this “hardening,” as we saw, leads to judgment, unless those subject to it come to their senses, repent, and believe (2:3–6).
N.T. Wright, “The Letter to the Romans,” in The Acts of the Apostles-The First Letter to the Corinthians (vol. 10 of NIB, Accordance electronic ed. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002), 688.
In v. 26, Paul declares, “And in this way all Israel will be saved.” All Jews? Or all Israel as reconstituted in Jesus, that is, faithful Jews together with faithful Gentiles? N. T. Wright concludes that Paul is referring, not to ethnic Israel, but to Israel reconstituted. “Israel” is the Kingdom.
The lengthy quotation for his commentary on Romans that follows is but a sample of Wright’s argument. He also makes the case in his book Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision.
God will save “all Israel”–that is, the whole family of Abraham, Jew and Gentile alike; this will take place during the course of present history; it will happen through their coming to Christian faith.
The principles of sound exegesis include reading short phrases in their contexts. We shall come to vv. 26b–27 presently; that is part of the puzzle, though as we shall see it strongly supports the view of v. 26a that I shall propose. But we must be clear. The weight of the whole argument of Romans is on the side of the reading I propose. If v. 26a does indeed teach a special kind of salvation for all or most Jews, with or without Christian faith, awaiting them at the end of time, then it is exegetically out of step with the passage before it (11:1–24) and, as we shall see, with the one that follows (11:28–32); it is theologically incompatible with the entire argument of 9:6–10:21; and it undermines what Paul has emphasized again and again in Romans 1–8. If Paul has indeed, while writing the letter, received as some have suggested a fresh revelation to the effect that the whole Jewish race will at the last be saved by some special means, he did the wrong thing by adding it to what he had already written. He would have done better to put the previous eleven chapters on the fire.
In addition, there are more problems with the prevailing view than normally recognized. It is not clear why saving only the final generation of Jews would get God off the hook. That is a bit too reminiscent of some secular utopias that have justified the evils of history by reference to what will happen when progress has finally achieved its goals. But if a large-scale salvation of ethnic Jews is envisaged, that is what we would have to postulate: Paul clearly does not believe that most of his own contemporaries are being or will be saved (if he did, 9:1–5 is a sham and 10:1 a mere formality). Nor is it clear why switching modes of salvation at the last moment would make God look any the less arbitrary; that is exactly what Paul has argued that God has not done up to now.
But there is, fortunately, no pressing reason to move in this direction. We are not forced to suppose that “all Israel” must mean “all Jews, or all living at the time of the end.” The phrase “all Israel” is familiar from at least one well-known rabbinic saying, and it is at once followed by a list of exceptions. Indeed, Paul may well be echoing that saying: “All Israel has a share in the age to come”; it would certainly fit with his view of “salvation” to see it as the functional equivalent of the rabbinic “age to come.” And, where the rabbis provided exclusion clauses to indicate that not all ethnic Jews did in fact qualify, Paul, in exactly the way we would guess from not only the whole of Romans but also Galatians and Philippians, modifies the phrase more radically. Abraham’s true family are “not those of the law only, but all who share Abraham’s faith” (4:16); “the Jew is the one in secret” (2:29); “you are all one in the Messiah, Jesus, and, if you belong to the Messiah, you are Abraham’s seed, heirs according to promise” (Gal 3:28–9); “it is we who are ‘the circumcision,’ we who … put no confidence in the flesh” (Phil 3:3–4). These are simply the tip of the iceberg. Paul has spent half his writing life telling his readers that Abraham’s family, Israel, the Jews, the circumcision, are neither reaffirmed as they stand, nor “superseded” by a superior group, nor “replaced” with someone else–that is what he is arguing against in 11:13–24–but transformed, through the death and resurrection of Israel’s own Messiah and the Spirit of Israel’s own God, so that Israel is now, as was always promised, both less and more than the physical family of Abraham: less, as in 9:6–13; more, as in 4:13–25.
In particular, 9:6 gives the lie to the constantly repeated assertion that one cannot make “Israel” in 11:26 mean something different from what it means in 11:25. “Not all who are of Israel are in fact Israel”; Paul opened his great argument with a clear signal that he was redefining “Israel,” and here the argument comes full circle. Romans 11:25 itself notes that a division has come about within ethnic Israel. Nor does this mean that “all Israel” must simply be a subcategory of ethnic Jews. As we saw in 10:1–13, Paul there announced that he was praying for the salvation of his fellow Jews, and described in detail how such salvation would come about, in accordance with Deuteronomy and Joel: all who call on the name of the Lord will be saved (10:13). That verse, as we noted, is actually a clear pre-statement of 11:26a: “All (who call on the name of the Lord; i.e., Israel) will be saved.” Paul intends that sentence both as the answer to the question of 10:1, the question of salvation for presently unbelieving Jews, and as the indication that God’s mode of salvation, held out in Deuteronomy, is one that, as 9:24 had already indicated, would include Gentiles as well. The “all” of 11:26 looks back to the “all” of 10:11–13, and behind that of 4:16 (“all the seed … Abraham as the father of all of us”). Paul does not intend to say something radically different in 11:26 from what he has said already. The “mystery” is not a new revelation, standing over against the previous argument. It is the unveiled righteousness of God, of which Paul believed his kinsfolk to be ignorant (10:3).
In particular, of course, 10:13 looks back to 9:5: the Messiah is “God over all.” The dramatic theological redefinition in 10:13, whereby “the Lord,” which in the original clearly referred to YHWH, now refers to Jesus, undergirds the dramatic redefinition of God’s people, whereby “Israel,” as in 9:6 and Gal 6:16, now refers to the whole people of God, Gentile and Jew together. When, therefore, at the height of one of his most careful and long, drawn-out arguments, Paul declares with dramatic irony that “all Israel shall be saved,” we must stand firm against the irresponsibility that would take the phrase out of its context and insist it must mean something he has carefully ruled out over and over again. However much we might want Paul to have said something else, exegesis will not sustain it.
The phrase “all Israel,” then, is best taken as a polemical redefinition, in line with Paul’s redefinitions of “Jew” in 2:29, of “circumcision” in 2:29 and Phil 3:3, and of “seed of Abraham” in Romans 4, Galatians 3, and Rom 9:6–9. It belongs with what seems indubitably the correct reading of “the Israel of God” in Gal 6:16.
N.T. Wright, “The Letter to the Romans,” in The Acts of the Apostles-The First Letter to the Corinthians (vol. 10 of NIB, Accordance electronic ed. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002), 689-690.
This is, of course, a very controversial conclusion, but Wright is unquestionably right that it’s the only conclusion that is consistent with the rest of Romans (as well as the rest of Paul’s writings).
On the other hand, Paul says that the hardening of the Jews will only last until the fullness of the Gentiles come in. That is, there will be a time when the Jews come to saving faith in Jesus. Perhaps not all, but in much larger numbers than the remnant that entered the Kingdom at the time Paul was writing.
This is not necessarily a Millennial prophecy. It could refer to a fresh influx of Jewish converts following the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD or following the Bar Kochba rebellion of the Jews in the early Second Century when the Jews were forced to leave Jerusalem and suffered severe punishment by the Romans — just to mention a couple of possibilities that we should not ignore.
After all, as mentioned earlier, when Paul says he magnifies his ministry to the Gentiles to prompt them to jealousy and so to enter the Kingdom, he is saying that the “fullness of the Gentiles” might occur even during his lifetime. This is not an end-times prophecy.