Any Christian with a touch of sensitivity knows that it is difficult these days to respond to the Jews. We live in the aftermath of the Holocaust, and the collective Western guilt felt over the ill-treatment of the Jews down through the ages. It is fair to say that the prevailing response to such events is that the way of peace is served by not interfering with any other people’s belief system. In some politically correct circles, even to suggest evangelising Jews is to run the risk of being accused of advocating literal or cultural genocide. Scholars such as Rosemary Radford Ruether and Samuel Sandmel have even accused the New Testament of being anti-Semitic.[1]

Then we have the complicating factor of the re-establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. President Clinton himself – hardly a wild-eyed premillennial fundamentalist – declared in 1994 that ‘it is God’s will that Israel, the biblical home of the people of Israel, continue for ever and ever.’[2] Fundamentalist Christians, especially in the United States, often support Israel because they believe that Christ will come and reign literally from Jerusalem for a thousand years. And to top it all off, we have the interpretation of Romans 11 – does Paul teach that God will reclaim the people of Israel, that Jews in massive numbers will become Christians?

It is thus an apt time to ask: What was the attitude of the apostle Paul to the Jews? Jesus had said that the kingdom would be taken from the Jews and given to others (Matt.21:43). Because of the sin of rejecting their Messiah the Jews fell under the judgment of God. So Paul writes:

For you, brethren, became imitators of the churches of God which are in Judea in Christ Jesus. For you also suffered the same things from your own countrymen, just as they did from the Judeans, who killed both the Lord Jesus and their own prophets, and have persecuted us; and they do not please God and are contrary to all men, forbidding us to speak to the Gentiles that they may be saved, as always to fill up the measure of their sins; but wrath has come upon them to the uttermost (1 Thess. 2:14-16). 

A scholar as cautious and as generally conservative as F. F. Bruce winces at this, and declares such sentiments to be ‘incongruous’ and probably unauthentic. That conclusion is based on sentiment, not evidence. Granted its authenticity, do we then interpret Paul as an anti-Semite? By no means! The evidence is clear.

Paul preached to the Jews first.

It is common to think of Paul as the apostle to the Gentiles – rightly so (Acts 9:15; Gal.2:7-8; Eph.3:8) – but it is clear that he sought to reach the Jews first with the gospel. This was his declared aim (Rom.1:16). And this was his invariable practice as recorded in the book of Acts. Paul would go to the synagogue first, preach the gospel to the Jews, and when trouble came, as it invariably did, Paul would form a fledgling church which consisted largely of those members of the synagogue who had become convinced that Jesus of Nazareth is indeed the Messiah (Acts 13:14-15; 14:1; 16:13; 17:1, 10; 18:4; 19:8-9).

Only when the Jews as a whole rejected this message did Paul go to the Gentiles (Acts 13:46; 18:6). This was not just something which Paul thought was a good idea. He was divinely commissioned to go to the Jew first. Paul told the Jews at Pisidian Antioch: ‘It was necessary that the word of God should be spoken to you first’ (Acts 13:46). It was God’s plan that Paul go to the synagogue first, then the market-place or the philosophers’ hill. So for Paul there was a divine priority that the gospel go first to the people of the old covenant.  

Paul preached that Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament.

To the Gentiles, Paul preached first that God is the creator, sustainer and judge of all the world, who has revealed Himself in the man Jesus whom He raised from the dead (Acts 17:22-34). To the Jews, Paul preached that Jesus fulfils the whole of the Old Testament. In the synagogue in Antioch ‘towards Pisidia’ Paul proclaimed that ‘God raised up for Israel a Saviour – Jesus’ (Acts 13:23). He identified with his fellow Jews but also challenged them: ‘Men and brethren, sons of the family of Abraham, and those among you who fear God, to you the word of this salvation has been sent. For those who dwell in Jerusalem, and their rulers, because they did not know Him, nor even the voices of the Prophets which are read every Sabbath, have fulfilled them in condemning Him’ (Acts 13:26-27). Paul cites Old Testament references to the coming Messiah (Acts 13:33-35). That is the pattern for preaching to the Jews. God has revealed Himself in the Old Testament. The man Jesus fulfils that Old Testament, and this proves that He is both Lord and Christ.

I once taught English at a high school, and there was a Jewish woman on staff. One day she gave me a lift into Sydney University, and on the way, I asked her what she made of Isaiah 53. At first she said that it could have referred to Jeremiah who suffered greatly. When I raised my eyebrows, and pointed out that Jeremiah could not be said to bear the iniquity of us all, she finally admitted that the passage fitted Jesus of Nazareth better than anybody else. However, she was quick to add: ‘But I don’t like to think about it.’ She made it clear that the conversation was thereby ended. Towards the end of the year 2000, I was talking to a converted Jew, and he said that as a Jew he refused to even look at the New Testament, but as he was reading the Old Testament, he came to Isaiah 53. This chapter gripped him, and he became a Christian. 

The Old Testament is not the holy book of Judaism. The Old Testament, rightly understood, is a Christian book – it points infallibly to Jesus as the Christ (Luke 24:25-27, 44). Paul knew this, and used the Jewish holy book in the way it was meant to be used – to proclaim the Messiah. Christianity is the fulfilment of Judaism; a true Jew is a Christian.

Paul loved the Jews.

We often miss out here; we do not love as we should. Paul longed to see Israel saved (Rom.9:1-2; 10:1). Paul is very solemn here and eager that people believe him. He speaks the truth in Christ and in the Holy Spirit. He is deeply sorrowful because, for the most part, Israel does not believe in Jesus as the Messiah. People talk about having a burden for the lost, but few have equalled the intensity of Paul. In fact, Paul uttered the extraordinary declaration: ‘I could wish that I myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh’ (Rom.9:3). Martin Luther comments that this is ‘the strongest and utmost kind of love: utter self-hatred becomes the sign of the highest love for another.’ Many people think that Paul was a hard-hearted man who only preached judgment and hellfire, and delighted in such a message. Not so – Paul knew what he was saying here. Paul was saying that he was prepared to be accursed from Christ or ‘anathema’ (‘forever damned’ – Living Bible) provided that Israel was saved. Paul knew what the word ‘anathema’ meant (he uses it in 1 Corinthians 12:3; 16:22; Galatians 1:8-9).

Paul also knew that it could not happen (he had just written Romans 8:38-39). To that extent, what he said was hypothetical. But it shows us the heart of a man who loved his people (see Gen. 44:33; Ex.32:31-32; 2 Sam.18:33). So great was Paul’s love that he was prepared to forfeit his own salvation for the sake of his fellow-countrymen. Compared to Paul, we are so cold in our evangelism. It is such a burden to us. We hardly appreciate what it means to be saved and what it means to be lost. At the very least, we must say with Robert Haldane that ‘No man can be a Christian who is unconcerned for the salvation of others.’ Edward Elton put it more strongly in 1653: ‘we are bound to love and honour the Jews, as being the ancient people of God, to wish them well, and to be earnest in prayer to God for their conversion’.[3]

To evangelise the Jews is not to be anti-Semitic. Paul stood firmly against the Judaizers who distorted the gospel of free grace (the ‘dogs’ of Philippians 3:2, the ‘mutilators’ of Galatians 5:12), but it is clear that the great apostle, ‘a Hebrew of the Hebrews’, as he called himself (Phil.3:5), loved the Jewish people intensely. It is noteworthy that the Galatian churches which were embracing a Judaizing gospel were originally Gentiles (Gal.4:8-9). In opposing the Judaizers, Paul was, in Galatia at least, opposing Gentiles who wanted to be more Jewish than the Jews!

Precisely because of this intense, self-sacrificing love, Paul could be very flexible on secondary issues – hence Paul circumcised Timothy in order that he might proclaim Christ to the Jews (Acts 16:1-3). He sought to present the whole counsel of God, without any compromise, in a way that did not needlessly offend any, Jew or Gentile (cf. 1 Cor. 9:19-23; 10:32-33). He was flexible without compromising, and intelligent without relying on his own wisdom. To keep the peace at Jerusalem, Paul was prepared to enter the temple to make sacrifices for four men who had taken vows (Acts 21:23-26; see too Acts 18:18). As F. F. Bruce comments on Paul: ‘Where the principles of the gospel were not at stake he was the most conciliatory of men.’[4]

The Church at her best loves the Jews. Handley Moule referred to Charles Simeon’s work for the Jews as ‘perhaps the warmest interest of his life’.[5] On behalf of the Jews, Simeon visited the Continent twice – Holland in 1818 and France in 1822. Even as he lay dying in 1836, Simeon dictated a paper on the conversion of the Jews. In 1838-9 Robert Murray M’Cheyne and three other Church of Scotland ministers visited Palestine. Early in his career, ‘Rabbi’ Duncan worked as a missionary amongst the Jews at Budapest. 

As Anti-Semitism gained an increasing hold over much of Europe in the latter part of the nineteenth century, Franz Delitzsch produced a Hebrew translation of the New Testament, and declared that ‘those who do not show love to the People who gave birth to Him have no true love for Jesus himself.’[6] When this Anti-Semitism took hold in Germany, in the midst of the terrible battle with Nazism and the Nazified German Christians, Dietrich Bonhoeffer spoke up: ‘No one has the right to sing the Gregorian chants unless by the same voice he shouts for the Jews.’[7] Salvation is of the Jews, says the Lord Himself (John 4:22).

Paul preached one Gospel and one Church for all.  

We have seen that Paul’s heart desire and prayer for Israel was that they would be saved (Rom.10:1). In Christ, there is neither Jew nor Greek (Gal.3:28). Anti-Semitism was far removed from Paul’s character; Paul was in fact one of the most passionate lovers of the Jewish people that history has ever seen. In this he revealed the heart and mind of Christ who wept over Jerusalem, and yearned that God’s ancient people might know the salvation to be wrought by their Messiah (Matt.23:37-39; Luke 19:41-44).

Because there is one God, one Christ, and one gospel, there is but one body of Christ. (Ephesians 2:14-18). There cannot be one church for Gentiles and another church for Jews (Eph.3:6). To have two churches would ultimately mean to have two gospels, and imply two Christs. That cannot be, so Paul is adamant on this point. The reconciliation is not only with God but between His people, all those who have repented of sin and put their whole-hearted trust in Christ. The Church is therefore the Israel of God (Gal.6:16). There is not one covenant with Israel and one with the Church. There is one new covenant which fulfils all that the old covenant promised. And there is one new covenant people of God, not two or more.  

Paul expected that God would turn many Jews to the Messiah.

Tom Wright says: ‘Romans 9-11 is as full of problems as a hedgehog is of prickles.’[8] True enough, but for all that, there is no need to invent problems, as Wright is prone to do. Romans 9-11 raises the questions: Where does Israel stand in relation to God? And how is God faithful when His people have fallen away? God is one who cannot lie, and who must keep His covenant promises, so how do we explain the sad spiritual condition of Israel?

Salvation is of the Jews (John 4:22), and Israel possessed God’s covenant privileges (Rom.9:4-5). But where did Israel stand before God in the New Testament period? From Romans 9:30-10:21 one might draw the conclusion that God is finished with Israel. God has not failed Israel, but Israel has failed God. Yet this is not the end of the story. Hence Romans 11:1a: ‘I say then, has God cast away His people? Certainly not!’ Paul is very decided in his answer – God has not rejected Israel completely. God is by no means finished with Israel. Paul begins then to unfold the mystery of Israel.

a. Paul the Israelite, and the Situation in Elijah’s Day

Paul’s point in 11:1b is that if God were finished with Israel, Paul himself would not be an apostle. The New Testament tells us that most Jews rejected Jesus as the Christ, but it also tells us that much of the early Church was made up of Jews. All of the apostles, for example, were Jews. Paul, the great apostle to the Gentiles, had impeccable Jewish credentials, and that shows that Israel was not completely rejected (note 2 Cor.11:21-22; Phil.3:3-8).

Paul then goes on to give a history lesson (vv.2-4). ‘His people’ here are not the foreknown and predestined elect of Romans 8:29 but the covenant people of God. The story is found back in 1 Kings 19. Elijah was emotionally drained and depressed. He was not thinking too clearly, and he convinced himself that he was the only faithful person left – an easy trap to fall into in times of declension. But God corrected him: ‘Elijah, there are 7,000 men who have not bowed the knee to Baal.’ With women and children, there may have been a remnant of about 25,000 – not a huge number but a lot more than what Elijah thought. God will never allow His cause to sink without a trace. There will always be a remnant who are close to His heart and who belong to Him. That was true of Israel in Elijah’s day and it was true also in Paul’s day.

b. Salvation is by the Election of Grace, not of Works

This is stated in Romans 11:5-6. In Paul’s day there was a remnant according to the election of grace. God chose a remnant and kept them to the end. If it were of works, then grace would not be grace. If it is of our works, we would be our own saviours and salvation would not be of grace. Here the contrast with works is not faith – as it is in Romans 3-4 – but election.

The remnant consists of sinners who are saved by the electing grace of God. There is no other way of salvation, and there never has been any other way. Verse 5 begins, ‘Even so then’ or ‘So too’ (NIV) or ‘In just the same way’ (NEB) or ‘Today the same thing has happened’ (Jerusalem Bible). What was true in Elijah’s day was true in Paul’s day and is true in our own. Salvation comes by God’s choosing, not ours. Robert Haldane put it well: ‘When men are saved they are saved by the sovereign grace of God, and when they perish, it is by the appointment of God (Jude 4) through their own fault.’

c. Paul Applies This to Israel in His Own Day

In verses 7-10, Paul weaves together quotations from Isaiah 29:10; Deuteronomy 29:4 and Psalm 69:22-23. Israel sought God’s righteousness by works (Rom.9:31-32; 10:3). Hence God hardened them, and they were left in their sins. They could not see grace or hear grace. They had a spirit of stupor – they were energetic for everything else but not to know the grace of God. They were bowed down like slaves, with their backs bent, serving the devil, enslaved to him, without realising it (v.10). This is God’s hardening of them.

Only the elect could see grace, hear grace, respond to it, and be set free (John 8:31-36). After the American Civil War (1861-5), some of the slaves in the South refused to go free. They had become accustomed to slavery, and preferred it to the unknown alternative of freedom. Similarly, Jesus pointed out that true freedom was to be found in Himself, but the Jews preferred to be slaves. Only the Holy Spirit can make us see our need to be set free from sin.

Has God cast off Israel? It might have looked like it (Rom.9:3, 31-32; 10:2, 21), but Paul says an emphatic ‘No’. Paul himself had been preserved, so too had 7,000 men plus women and children in the dark days of Elijah. There has always been a remnant according to the election of grace. There have been acrimonious disputes over how to understand the rest of Romans 11, but it seems to teach that God has yet greater plans for Israel. This is so too in Isaiah 49 where Isaiah says that God will lift up His hand to the nations, and bring in His people, the Jews (Isa.49:22-23). In a mysterious way, the Gentiles will preserve the Jews, and then serve the Jews, that Israel would know that God is the Lord.

Up until this point, Paul has been dealing with the issue of God and Israel (v.1a). In verses 1-10 Paul showed that this rejection was not complete, and in verses 11-36 he shows that this rejection is not final. Tom Wright thinks that Paul is only asserting the continuing possibility of salvation for Jews, but Paul is surely asserting more than that. Not only will a remnant be preserved but God Himself will draw Israel back to Himself.

d. God’s People as an Olive Tree

The Jews are the natural branches, the Gentiles are the wild branches which are grafted in (vv.17-24). The picture here is that God’s people (not the Jewish nation as such) are like an olive tree (see Jer.11:16; Hos.14:5-6). Apparently the wild olive tree was notoriously unfruitful. Some of the branches (Jews) were broken off, and Gentile branches were grafted in. Israel and the Church belong to the same olive tree; there is a continuity between them. Israel is the Old Testament Church; the Church is New Testament Israel (Gal.6:16). There was a significant change at Pentecost but it is not as though the Church is a radical new idea in the scheme of salvation. The covenant with Israel is fulfilled in the Church.

Paul’s picture of the olive tree and grafting in has been ridiculed by many Biblical critics who say that Paul did not know anything about horticulture. One of my university lecturers in theology (who might have read C. H. Dodd) went on and on about it, even after I pointed out verse 24 to him. Paul says clearly that ingrafting is ‘contrary to nature’. That is the whole point; it is a work of God, not of nature.

e. Fear God and Walk Humbly before Him

Paul clearly has the Gentile Church in mind (cf. v.13). Verse 19 refers to the Gentiles, but it is said with some complacency: Gentiles were sure that they were now grafted into the olive tree. Hence Paul has to lay it on the line in verses 20-22. We who are Gentiles ought to learn the lesson, that if God did not spare the natural branches, there is no reason why He should spare the wild branches. 

This means that we are required to stand by faith (v.20) – to humbly trust the grace of God and to fear Him. Some have said that it is unworthy for Christians to fear God, but that is not what God says (see Heb.4:1). God is merciful and gracious, true, but He is also severe (Rom.11:22). He is gracious to sinners who repent, but severe towards those who do not. Complacency is the most dangerous spiritual attitude of all. What happened to Israel could happen to any Gentile church (vv.21-22b). The seven churches in Revelation 2-3, for example, are now largely defunct as the area is under the sway of Islam. We need to realise that we cannot rest on our laurels. Humble faith and fear constitute the appropriate response to God. Paul’s theology has a place for fear and for assurance in the life of a Christian.

f. The Future of Israel

We need to be careful here, and to be aware that not all Christian commentators have been convinced that God will turn Israel back to Himself. However, Paul does seem to be holding out the hope that God’s ancient people will return to Him through faith in Jesus as the Messiah. The key verse is the promise in verse 26: ‘And so all Israel will be saved’.

What Paul says before verse 26 is meant to lead up to it, and to highlight it. Regarding the future conversion of the Jews to Christ, we should note:

(1) Paul holds this out as a definite possibility (vv.11-12). The Jews are meant to be provoked to jealousy. Their fall is riches for the world, and their failure riches for the Gentiles, but that does not appear to be the end of it. Paul adds: ‘how much more their fullness!’ Even Calvin, who baulks at getting too excited in verses 25-26, reads verses 11-12 in an optimistic way. The possibility of the restoration of Israel to God’s favour is a definite and real one, in Calvin’s view. O. Palmer Robertson identifies the remnant and the fullness, and says that Paul is not necessarily referring to a small group.[9] There is no compelling reason at all to identify the remnant and the fullness.

William Hendriksen and R. C. H. Lenski think that Israel’s fullness was attained in Paul’s day. But Paul only makes moderate claims for his own ministry in verse 14 – some are being saved through his ministry as a contrast to the fullness mentioned in verse 12. The conversion of Israel to Jesus as the Messiah is held out here in verse 12 as a great blessing to the Gentiles. As John Murray says: ‘”The fulness of the Gentiles” denotes unprecedented blessing for them but does not exclude even greater blessing to follow.’

There is no necessary reason to think that the fullness of the Gentiles should be achieved at a specific time, then to be followed by the conversion of the Jews. It is possible, for instance, that the two events may overlap, and be achieved over a number of decades.

(2) Verse 15 also tells of hope for the Jews: ‘For if their being cast away is the reconciling of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead?’ The acceptance of the Jews would mean life from the dead. The ‘if’ could well be translated ‘since’. Paul may not be speaking hypothetically at all. C. E. B. Cranfield, Geerhardus Vos and Thomas Schreiner say that ‘life from the dead’ refers to the literal resurrection. F. F. Bruce also believed that it means that Israel’s conversion will usher in Christ’s return and the general resurrection of the dead. In many ways, there would be fewer problems with this writer’s interpretation of Romans 11 if that were so. But Calvin, Charles Hodge, Robert Haldane and John Murray all understand the passage to be figurative – and that seems the better interpretation. 

Paul appears to be referring to a revival of the Christian cause. The acceptance of Israel will be like life from the dead for the world. Handley Moule even speculates that ‘In that great period of blessing, the work of missions may (shall we not say, probably will?) be very largely taken up by Hebrew Christians.’[10] Paul is not necessarily linking the conversion of the Jews with the second coming and the resurrection of the dead. The conversion of Israel does not necessarily usher in the second coming. There is room for further blessing and declension and apostasy before Christ comes again.

 1 Thessalonians 2:16 says that wrath has come upon the Jews eis telos (‘to the end’). This has often been seen as an argument against any hopes for the Jews entertained in Romans 11. However, the contrast between the present sad, indeed desperate, condition of the unbelieving Jews and their future blessing can be seen as one the main motifs of Romans 11.

(3) The covenant is still in operation (v.16). Cranfield says the firstfruit is Jewish Christians while Karl Barth says it is Christ, but surely it is Abraham and the patriarchs (as it is in v.28). God made a covenant with Abraham, and that covenant is not finished yet. Details of it are superseded, but the fact that Israel is special to God is not. This does not guarantee salvation to all, but it does give hope that God has not cast off all Israel. In some limited sense the Israelites are still God’s chosen race – enemies of the gospel but set apart nevertheless. This is not to open the door to any two-covenant theology; there is only one covenant of grace, and only one people of God.

(4) God is more readily able to convert Israel than He is the Gentiles (vv.23-24). That sounds odd, but Paul is almost saying that it is easier to convert the Jew than the Gentile. The Jewish branch can be more readily grafted again into the olive tree.

If Paul did not mean to teach that literal Israel would be saved, it is mystifying why he keeps raising the possibility in verses 11-24. H. L. Ellison, a Hebrew Christian, believed that the number of Jewish converts to Christ is growing. These may be but small tokens of something far greater. When we pray for missions, we should reserve a special place for the Jews.

            Let Zion’s time of favour come;

            O bring the tribes of Israel home;

            And let our wondering eyes behold

            Jews and Gentiles in Jesus’ fold.

                          (William Shrubsole)

Has God cast away His ancient people? No, says verse 1. Have they stumbled that they should fall? No, says verse 11. All through, Paul hints that something greater is coming (vv.12, 15, 16, 23-24). The whole context breathes out hope. It is not speaking of a restoration of an earthly Davidic kingdom or national Israel (the latter was achieved in 1948). Romans 11 is about the conversion of Israel.

g. All Israel Will be Saved (vv.25-26a)

Paul deliberately draws attention to what he is about to say: ‘I do not desire, brethren, that you should be ignorant of this mystery.’ A mystery is an important spiritual truth which is being revealed (cf. Rom.16:25-26; 1 Cor.15:51). Paul is drawing his argument to its climax. It would be rather deflating if Paul was only saying that all elect Jews or all the elect will be saved. John Murray makes the valid point: ‘that all the elect will be saved does not have the particularity that “mystery” in this instance involves.’ Martyn Lloyd-Jones tells of how a man at the 1937 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America, in the aftermath of all the drama associated with separation from apostasy, cited Ezekiel 1:20-21, and then told of how an office had been obtained and how much the furniture cost.[11] It was something of an anti-climax. One can hardly believe that Paul would have done the same thing. Paul is surely going to announce something surprising and wonderful in verses 25-26.

What is being revealed? That the hardening in part will last until the fullness of the Gentiles. Israel’s rejection of the Christian gospel is not complete and final, but partial and temporary. There will be a change. The fullness of the Gentiles means either the total number of the elect (as Cranfield says) or the expansion of blessing (as John Murray says, pointing to verse 12). Israel’s fullness, mentioned in verse 12, is the same as the ‘all Israel of verse 26. 

‘And so all Israel will be saved’ (v.26a). Douglas Moo calls this ‘the storm center in the interpretation of Rom.9-11 and of N.T. teaching about the Jews and their future’, while Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones calls it ‘one of the most remarkable prophecies in the Bible’.[12] It might be appropriate to quote Origen: ‘What all Israel means or what the fullness of the Gentiles will be only God knows along with his only begotten Son and perhaps a few of his friends, as he said: I no longer call you servants but friends, for I have made known to you everything which I have heard from my Father.[13]

At the outset, it must be admitted that the text does not say kai tote (‘and then’) but kai houtos (‘and so’ or ‘and in this manner’). Hence many scholars say that Paul is not referring to a widespread conversion of the Jews at some future date. Palmer Robertson says that kai houtos has no temporal significance,[14] but Lloyd-Jones sees it as time and method together.[15]

There are three possible ways of understanding ‘Israel’:

(1) ‘Israel’ could be the elect and true Church down through the ages. Augustine, Calvin, Stuart Olyott and O. Palmer Robertson say that Israel is spiritual Israel i.e. the full body of believers. Olyott sees no future conversion of Israel, and is hostile to any Christian favouring of the Israelite nation, seeing this as a hindrance to evangelising the Arabs. Luther, Richard Baxter and O. Palmer Robertson likewise all maintain that there is to be no mass conversion of Israel to faith in Jesus as the Christ. 

(2) ‘Israel’ could refer to elect Jews, as Lenski, Herman Bavinck, Abraham Kuyper, Louis Berkhof, Herman Ridderbos, William Hendriksen, A. A. Hoekema,[16] Robert Reymond,[17] and Ben Merkle think.[18] The problem with this view is that Paul has already said that in verse 5. It is hardly a mystery to be revealed in verses 25-26! 

(3) ‘Israel’ could be literal Israel, Jews as opposed to Gentiles.[19] Martin Bucer, Theodore Beza, William Perkins, Richard Sibbes, Samuel Rutherford, and Thomas Goodwin all believed that Israel would turn to the true Messiah in great numbers.[20] Mayir Vreté says that amongst English Protestant exegetes in the period 1790-1840 the conversion of the Jews was not in dispute and needed no proving.[21] J. C. Ryle argued for it, albeit along with the restoration of Israel.[22] Jonathan Edwards was convinced: ‘Nothing is more certainly foretold than this national conversion of the Jews in Romans 11.’[23] Dietrich Bonhoeffer expressed the hope that ‘the history of suffering of this people that God loved and punished will end in the final homecoming of the people Israel to its God. And this homecoming will take place in Israel’s conversion to Christ.’[24] Charles Hodge, Geerhardus Vos, John Murray and Martyn Lloyd-Jones also held this view, and Douglas Moo leans ‘slightly’ to it. 

Cornelis P. Venema opts for this view in his recent stimulating treatment of the doctrine of the last things in The Promise of the Future.[25] And so too did Thomas Schreiner[26] and Kim Riddlegarger.[27]Actually, Martyn Lloyd-Jones argued for it with considerable vigour in his series on Romans, but in his lectures The Church and the Last Things, he identified all Israel with all believing Jews down through the ages. Then, without any elaboration, he asserted that he thought that there would be many conversions amongst the Jews.[28]

 A Calvinist hesitates to say Calvin is wrong, but ‘Israel’ surely is literal Israel. To make ‘Israel’ mean in verse 26 what it does not mean in verse 25 would normally make for confusion. ‘Israel’ is found twelve times in Romans 9-11, and in almost all cases – admittedly not all cases, as Venema mistakenly says[29] – it refers to literal Israel. Merkle,[30] Tom Wright,[31] and Palmer Robertson point out that ‘Israel’ is used in two different senses in Romans 9:6. True enough, but the distinction in Romans 9:6 is clear and obvious. If that is what Paul meant in Romans 11:25-26, he could have expressed himself much more clearly. 

‘All Israel’ does not have to mean ‘every last Israelite’ (see Num.16:34; Josh.7:25; 1 Sam.7:5; 12:1; 25:1; 2 Sam.16:22; 1 Kings 12:1; 2 Chron. 12:1; Dan.9:11; Matt.2:3; 3:5). The ‘all’ means ‘a large majority’. Some liberal scholars like Krister Stendahl, Lloyd Gaston, and John Gager maintain a two-covenant view whereby Jews will be saved even if they do not come to faith in Jesus as the Messiah. That is clearly out of order; Paul has already expressed his grief that the Jew was not saved (cf. Rom.9:3).

What Paul is saying is this: Israel is in part hardened now, but when the expansion of blessing has reached the Gentiles, a large majority of Israelites will turn to Jesus as the true Messiah. There will be a large-scale reclamation of Israel. Such a view does not commit one to postmillennialism, Zionism, premillennialism, or the rebuilding of the temple, but it does provide yet another reminder that Christ is both the redeemer and the Lord of all history. Anything less than a large-scale turning of Israel to Jesus as her Messiah and Lord would be an anti-climax. Verse 26 has to be answering the question raised in verse 1. We might also ask whether Acts 1:6-7 implies something greater for Israel.

h. God’s Electing Grace in His Covenant is Still in Operation (vv.26b-29)

The verses that follow from verse 26 confirm that Paul has the literal Jews in mind all through this chapter. Verse 28 speaks of the Jews’ being both enemies of God and beloved of Him by election. The ‘election’ here is not the individual election of people within Israel but God’s choice of Israel as His chosen people (as in 1 Chron.16:13). It is not the same as the ‘election’ of verse 5 anymore that the ‘foreknowing’ of verse 2 is the same as the ‘foreknowing’ of Romans 8:29. Paul does not mean that every Israelite is chosen. He means that every Israelite is of God’s chosen race. 

Now Israelites are God’s enemies – they reject a crucified Messiah. But they are still beloved, still God’s chosen people – not saved but still in covenant (v.28). Why? The answer is in verse 29. God’s gifts and calling are irrevocable. This shows that Paul still has the Jews in mind, and makes it more difficult to interpret ‘Israel’ in verse 26 as being anything other than literal Israel. The covenant cannot be withdrawn. Israel may not fulfil it, but it remains in operation. Israel can fail God, but God will not fail Israel. It is all still in place.

 Justice needs to be done to both parts of verse 28 – as those who do not believe the gospel of Christ crucified and risen, Jews are God’s enemies; as those who are His ancient people, they are beloved. This is not political doubletalk. All Christians are by nature children of wrath (Eph.2:3), yet loved by God (Eph.2:4). It is God’s great love which drew us to Christ, and this love did not begin with our conversion but extends back to before the foundation of the world (Eph.1:4).

i. A Glimpse of God’s Plan (vv.30-32)

The scheme of things is that Israel’s disobedience led to mercy to the Gentiles which will lead to mercy to Israel. The Gentiles were once disobedient (Eph.2:12). But Israel’s disobedience meant that mercy was extended to the Gentiles. The story does not finish there, for God will extend His mercy to the Israelites (many manuscripts have ‘now obtain mercy’ in verse 31). D. W. B. Robinson is one who says that the third nun (‘now’) should be retained. Robinson says: ‘We can hardly suppose that Paul expected no success to attend Peter’s Jewish mission until his own Gentile mission had been completed.’[32] But Paul has already said that even in times of widespread apostasy, there was a remnant by electing grace. The third nun in verse 31 is not as certain as Robinson makes out – Bruce Metzger only gives it a ‘C’ rating[33] – but even if it is authentic may mean no more than that ‘even now, at a time of Israel’s hardening, God is still calling His elect from amongst the Jews’.

Israel may obtain mercy. The Jews have all been committed to disobedience, but they shall all have mercy – such is the grace of God. Again, the ‘all’ is not everybody, but a great majority of Israel. God’s consigning of Israel to disobedience is not the end; the final goal is God’s having mercy on Israel.

j. The Wonder of God’s Ways (vv.33-36)

The is Paul’s climax. Verse 26 cannot be read in an anti-climactic way. Paul has announced a great truth in v.26, and now he cannot contain himself or express himself adequately in this doxology. The doxology is related to the issue which Paul raised back in verse 1. It is to do with the Jews, the ancient people of God. God is beyond us (Isa.40:13; Job 41:11). He is not answerable to us. We do not advise him. He does not owe us anything. But all things are of Him and through Him and to Him. His is the glory forever. 

As Paul has written of God’s electing grace (Rom.9), the universal proclamation of the gospel (Rom.10), and God’s scheme in reclaiming the Jews (Rom.11), he is like Charles Wesley – ‘lost in wonder, love and praise’. The whole plan is perfect in every respect. Paul can only be still and know that God is God. His contemplation of God’s plan leads him to praise – which is how it should be. Paul contemplates the riches, wisdom, knowledge, judgments and the ways of God, and so he is greatly moved. As we understand what God has done and will do, we are moved to worship the Lord. Truth should never leave us the same; it should always affect our whole being.

The ancient people of God will be brought to see their true Messiah. That is a subject for praise indeed. In one of his hymns, Horatius Bonar wrote of the Jews: Forgotten; no, that cannot be. His fellow Free Kirker, ‘Rabbi’ Duncan, once asked what was a Jew. He answered: ‘an expectant Christian.’[34] We pray so, and we have good reason to believe so.

[1] Rosemary Radford Ruether, Faith and Fratricide, Minneapolis: Seabury, 1974; Samuel Sandmel, Anti-Semitism in the New Testament? Philadelphia: Fortress, 1978. Neither work is fair to the New Testament, although both tend to be rather more kindly disposed to the apostle Paul.   

[2] cited in O. Palmer Robertson, The Israel of God, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2000, p.1

[3] cited in Iain Murray, The Puritan Hope, Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1975, p.59.

[4] F. F. Bruce, Paul: Apostle of the Free Spirit, Exeter: Paternoster, 1977, p.186.

[5] H. C. G. Moule, Charles Simeon, London: IVF, 1892, reprinted 1965, p.95.

[6] cited in Graham Keith, Hated Without Cause? A Survey of Anti-Semitism, Carlisle: Paternoster, 1997, p.221.

[7] Edwin Robertson, The Shame and the Sacrifice, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1987, p.145. 

[8] N. T. Wright, The Climax of the Covenant, Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1991, p.231.

[9] O. Palmer Robertson, The Israel of God, p.175.

[10] Handley C. G. Moule, Philippian Studies, London: Pickering & Inglis, n.d., p.156.

[11] Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Romans 11, Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1998, pp.150-1.

[12] Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Romans 11, p.167.

[13] Gerald Bray (ed), Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Romans, VI, Illinois: IVP, 1998, p.298.

[14] O. Palmer Robertson, The Israel of God, p.181. 

[15] Lloyd-Jones, Romans 11, p.182.

[16] A. A. Hoekema, The Bible and the Future, Exeter: Paternoster, 1978, pp.141, 145. 

[17] Robert L. Reymond, Paul: Missionary Theologian, Fearn: Christian Focus Publications, 2000, p.545.

[18] Ben L. Merkle, ‘Romans 11 and the Future of Ethnic Israel’ in Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 43/4, December 2000, pp.709-21. 

[19]  Dispensationalists also understand Israel to be literal, but J. F. Walvoord and J. Dwight Pentecost say the conversion of Israel takes place after the rapture of the Gentile Church. 

[20] On this subject generally, see Iain Murray’s The Puritan Hope. Beza said that he gladly prayed every day for the conversion of the Jews. 

[21] Mayir Vreté, ‘The Restoration of the Jews in English Protestant Thought 1790-1840’ in Middle Eastern Studies, vol 8, 1972, p.23.

[22] See J. C. Ryle, Prophecy, Fearn: Christian Focus Publications, 1867, reprinted 1991. 

[23] Jonathan Edwards, A History of the Work of Redemption, in Works, Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, reprinted 1976, vol 1, p.607. 

[24] cited in Matthew Hockenos, ‘Bonhoeffer and Coming to Terms with Protestant Complicity in the Holocaust, 1945-50’ in Clifford J. Green and Guy C. Carter (eds), Interpreting Bonhoeffer, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013, p.141. 

[25] Cornelis P. Venema, The Promise of the Future, Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2000, pp.134-6. 

[26] T. Schreiner, Paul: Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ, Illinois: IVP, 2001, pp.477-84.

[27] Kim Riddlebarger, A Case for Amillennialism, Michigan: Baker, 2008, pp.180-194.

[28] Martyn Lloyd-Jones, The Church and the Last Things, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1998, pp.112-3. 

[29] Venema, The Promise of the Future, p.136. Venema says 11 times, and he neglects Romans 9:6.

[30] Ben L. Merkle, JETS, p.720.  

[31] N. T. Wright, Climax of the Covenant, p.250.

[32] D. W. B. Robinson, ‘The Salvation of Israel in Romans 9-11’ in Reformed Theological Review, vol XXVI, no 3, Sept/Dec, 1976, pp.94-5.

[33] In the fourth revised edition of the UBS Greek New Testament. This means that its inclusion in the text is by no means certain.

[34] John M. Brentnall (ed), ‘Just a Talker’: Sayings of John (‘Rabbi’) Duncan, Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1997, p.99.