Romans 11 -- "All Israel Will Be Saved"
In Romans 9 and 10, Paul describes a theological problem: Most Jews are rejecting the gospel. Not only are they missing out on salvation, it makes other people wonder whether God is faithful to his promises. In chapter 11, Paul affirms that God has a surprising plan for the people of Israel.
The remnant of Israel
At the end of chapter 10, Paul described Israel as a people who heard the message but refused to accept it even though God pleaded with them. So Paul asks, Did God reject his people? (11:1). And he answers: By no means! I am an Israelite myself, a descendant of Abraham, from the tribe of Benjamin. Paul is living proof that God has not abandoned his people.
God did not reject his people, whom he foreknew (v. 2). Foreknow does not refer to advance knowledge, as if God knew more facts about the Jews. Rather, it refers to a relationship that God had with the Jews. His covenant with them is no longer valid as a source of laws, but the promises God made to them will still be kept. God has not given up on the Jews.
|Elijah, shown here with widow's son. Julius Schnorr|
Don’t you know what Scripture says in the passage about Elijah — how he appealed to God against Israel: "Lord, they have killed your prophets and torn down your altars; I am the only one left, and they are trying to kill me?”(vv. 2-3, quoting from 1 Kings 19:10, 14). Elijah thought that everyone else had gone astray.
What was God’s answer to him? Paul asks in verse 4. “I have reserved for myself seven thousand who have not bowed the knee to Baal." [1 Kings 19:18] So too, at the present time there is a remnant chosen by grace (vv. 4-5). The situation wasn’t as bad as Elijah thought it was. In Paul’s day, too, thousands of Jews believe in Christ. There is a remnant, a small percentage, of Jews who are following what God is doing.
They are chosen by grace, not by their zeal for the law. And if by grace, then it cannot be based on works; if it were, grace would no longer be grace (v. 6).
Some were hardened
What then? Paul asks in verse 7. What the people of Israel sought so earnestly they did not obtain. The Jews sincerely wanted to be righteous, but their works did not achieve what they wanted.
The elect among them did obtain righteousness, Paul says, but the others were hardened, as it is written: "God gave them a spirit of stupor, eyes that could not see and ears that could not hear, to this very day” (vv. 7-8, adapting Deut. 29:4 and Isa. 29:9-10). The minority accepted the gospel; the others did not because God gave them over to their own inclinations.
However, Paul said in chapter 10 that they heard and understood, and that God pleaded with them, but they refused. And Paul will soon say that he works hard so that some of them might be saved (v. 14). God has not decided that these people will be lost. But they rejected Christ, and God let them have their own way. But the blindness will eventually be removed.
In verses 9-10, Paul quotes a stronger passage in Psalm 69:22-23: And David says: "May their table become a snare and a trap, a stumbling block and a retribution for them. May their eyes be darkened so they cannot see, and their backs be bent forever.”
In this psalm, David asks God to punish his enemies — even to blot them out of the book of life! But Paul is not asking that, for the Jews have not stumbled beyond recovery, and Paul works hard so that some might be saved. Paul is not quoting the psalm for eternal punishment, but only for its comment about eyes that cannot see.
Arousing the Jews to envy
In verse 1, Paul asked a question as a springboard for his discussion, and in verse 11 he does it again: Again I ask: Did they stumble so as to fall beyond recovery? Not at all! Rather, because of their transgression, salvation has come to the Gentiles to make Israel envious.
The Jews who reject Christ are not hopelessly lost — they can still be saved. But in the meantime, salvation is being offered to Gentiles. Paul is alluding here to Deuteronomy 32:21: “I will make you envious by those who are not a nation; I will make you angry by a nation that has no understanding.” Contrary to what most Jews thought, God would bless the Gentiles so much that the Jews would be envious.
In verse 12, Paul reasons from a less-than-ideal situation to a better one: But if their transgression means riches for the world, and their loss means riches for the Gentiles, how much greater riches will their full inclusion bring! If Jewish failure has brought blessings to others, won’t Jewish success bring even more? Paul is implying that there will come a day of success, when most Jews will accept Christ.
Paul believes the majority will be saved — first a remnant of Jews, then a good number of Gentiles, then the majority of Jews, and finally another blessing for the Gentiles — the salvation of the great majority.
I am talking to you Gentiles, he says in verse 13. Inasmuch as I am the apostle to the Gentiles, I take pride in my ministry in the hope that I may somehow arouse my own people to envy and save some of them. Even though Paul was writing to Gentiles, he was addressing a Jewish question. He seems to be rehearsing what he will say on his trip to Jerusalem.
In verse 15, Paul again uses an argument from the lesser to the greater: For if their rejection brought reconciliation to the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead? If the failure of the Jews brought salvation to everyone else, won’t it be even better when the Jews finally accept the gospel? They might be spiritually dead now, but God can raise the dead.
New branches attached to the tree
In verse 16, Paul switches to a different style of argument, using analogies. First, he uses an example from Israel’s system of worship: If the part of the dough offered as firstfruits is holy, then the whole batch is holy… No one could eat from the harvest until the firstfruits had been offered (Lev. 23:14). After they were offered to God, the entire harvest was sanctified.
In context, the firstfruits are the remnant of Israel, the small percentage of Jews who accept Jesus. They are given to God, and this means that the whole Jewish nation is set apart for God.
Then Paul uses another analogy: If the root is holy, so are the branches. The root is probably the patriarchs, and if they are holy, their descendants are, too, and God won’t give up on them.
|Illustrations of cleft graft, used on larger branches.|
Then Paul moves into the analogy of tree-branch-grafting: If some of the branches have been broken off, and you, though a wild olive shoot, have been grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing sap from the olive root…
Paul isn’t giving horticultural advice — he is tailoring his analogy to suit his purposes. The root is the promise of salvation given to Abraham, a promise now given nourishment by Jesus Christ. Many of the Jews are cut off from Christ, and Gentiles are being attached to the tree. The Jews are not superior — but neither are the Gentiles.
But Paul warns those Gentiles in verse 18: Do not consider yourself to be superior to those other branches. That was apparently a temptation for Gentile Christians in Rome. If you think this way, Paul says, consider this: You do not support the root, but the root supports you. Remember that your salvation depends on a promise given to the ancestor of the Jews, Abraham, and to the Messiah of the Jews, Jesus. You didn’t earn the right to be grafted in; it was only a matter of God’s grace.
You will say then, "Branches were broken off so that I could be grafted in” (v. 19). Paul then responds: Even if that’s true, I can still show that you shouldn’t think of yourself as superior to the unbelieving Jews. Granted, he says in verse 20. But they were broken off because of unbelief, and you stand by faith. Do not be arrogant, but tremble. For if God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either (vv. 20-21). You can be broken off just the same as they were.
Paul considers it possible for someone to reject the faith. If salvation were predestined, then people would have no need to tremble, and Paul would not imply that God could break them off. Paul wants people to be confident, but not to assume that everything is guaranteed no matter what they do.
Paul combines God’s grace and judgment in verse 22: Consider therefore the kindness and sternness of God: sternness to those who fell, but kindness to you, provided that you continue in his kindness. Otherwise, you also will be cut off. If we fall away from grace and go into self-reliance, then we will be cut off from the tree of salvation.
The salvation of Israel
And if [the Jews] do not persist in unbelief, they will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again (v. 23). If Jews accept the Messiah, they will be re-attached to the Abrahamic tree — everything can change, according to whether people accept or reject Christ.
Paul then reasons as to how easy it will be for the Jews to be grafted back in: After all, if you [Gentiles] were cut out of an olive tree that is wild by nature, and contrary to nature were grafted into a cultivated olive tree… — if that difficult thing has been done — how much more readily will these [Jews], the natural branches, be grafted into their own olive tree! (v. 24). God can easily put the Jews back in.
Paul then says: I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers and sisters, so that you may not be conceited: Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in, and in this way all Israel will be saved (vv. 25-26).
Paul calls it a mystery, something previously hidden but now revealed — and it is revealed so Gentiles do not think themselves superior to Jews. Israel has been hardened in part — that is, most Jews do not currently believe. But this restriction is temporary — it lasts only until the full number of Gentiles come into faith.
Paul has already argued that the Jews have not stumbled beyond recovery, and Jewish branches can be grafted back in if they believe, so when he says they are hardened until the full number of Gentiles comes in, he implies a temporary hardening. And the following verses say that the Jewish people are still loved, that their calling cannot be revoked, and that God will have mercy on them. Paul believes that most of the Jews will be saved, because Deuteronomy 32 predicts a time when they will accept Jesus as their Savior.
Paul supports his point by blending ideas found in Isaiah 59:20-21; 27:9; and Jer. 31:33-34: As it is written: "The deliverer will come from Zion; he will turn godlessness away from Jacob. And this is my covenant with them when I take away their sins” (vv. 26-27). Isaiah says “the Redeemer will come to Zion, to those in Jacob who repent of their sins,” and Jeremiah promises a new covenant in which God will not remember their sins any more.
Paul knows that the Redeemer has come to Zion — Jesus has come, and Paul is confident that Jesus will accomplish the work he came to do. Even when the nation was a mess, God promised a day of salvation for them, and he promised a new covenant for them. The fact that Gentiles are entering the new covenant does not change the fact that it was promised to the Jews. The promise is not broken — rather, it is expanded to include the Gentiles.
When will this happen? Paul does not say. The Jews can turn to Christ at any time.
Paul gives us his summary and conclusion in verse 28: As far as the gospel is concerned, they are enemies for your sake; but as far as election is concerned, they are loved on account of the patriarchs. The Jews are enemies of the gospel right now, but God still loves them, and they are still part of the chosen people. Why? For God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable (v. 29). God will keep his promises.
In verses 30-31 Paul summarizes it: Just as you who were at one time disobedient to God have now received mercy as a result of their disobedience, so they too have now become disobedient in order that they too may now receive mercy as a result of God’s mercy to you. Mercy is now given to Gentiles; it will also be given to Jews, for salvation is by grace.
Paul’s concluding rationale is in verse 32: For God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all. Everyone has sinned and deserves wrath on the day of judgment, but in Christ all can be made alive. The grace of God “offers salvation to all people” (Titus 2:11) — to all races and nations.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com
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This article was written by Michael Morrison in 2004 and updated in 2011.
What more can Paul say? There is no evidence that this will happen — there is only the promise of God, but he is more faithful than evidence is. So Paul launches into a section of praise. It is a call to theological and intellectual humility — and it is also a reminder that theology, if done correctly, should always lead us to praise and worship. Whenever we catch a glimpse of what God has done or is doing, we should respond with awe and thanksgiving.
Paul started this chapter by talking about human failure, but he ends by praising the God who can be counted on to succeed:
Oh, the depth of the riches of the
wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable his judgments,
and his paths beyond tracing out!
"Who has known the mind of the Lord?
Or who has been his counselor?" [Isaiah 40:13]
"Who has ever given to God,
that God should repay them?"[Job 41:11]
For from him and through him and for him are all things.
To him be the glory forever! Amen (vv. 33-36).
Praise God, who in his grace saves both Jews and Gentiles! He is faithful to his people, and his purpose will stand.
Questions for application
Are there people today who claim to be part of God’s people, and yet seem to ignore him? Would Paul hold out hope for them?
Do people reject the gospel by their own choice (10:21) or because God has blinded them (11:8)?
Can envy really cause people to turn to Christ (v. 13)?
Have I ever felt superior to unbelievers (v. 18)?
Does Paul want me to be confident (8:38-39) or to tremble (11:20)?
When I think about what God has done in my life, do I respond with praise (vv. 33-36)? What would my poem say?