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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible
Romans 11

 

 

Verse 1

‘I say then, Did God cast off his people? Certainly not. For I also am an Israelite, of the seed of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin.’

In his usual manner Paul raises a question in order to answer it. His question is, ‘did God cast off His people’, and it is asked on the basis of the quotation in Isaiah which he has just used, ‘all day long have I held out My hands to a disobedient and obstinate people’ (Romans 10:21). His initial answer is that this cannot possibly be so because he himself is one of ‘His people’ and has not been cast off (the ‘for’ confirms that this is the initial part of his argument in this passage). Thus it is not true Israel who has been cast off, only unbelieving Israel. Indeed a good proportion of the church in 1st century AD were recognised as Jewish Christians. They were ‘the remnant according to the election of grace’ (Romans 11:5). They could have been cited as added evidence that God had not cast off His true people, the elect to whom His promises were made (Romans 9:6 onwards). But this was probably something which Paul expected his readers to infer.

So here Paul is powerfully arguing that Israel does continue to exist, even though God has purged it. It continues on in Paul and in the elect among the Jews. It is they who are the true Israel. In contrast modern man disinherits this Israel, and opts for unbelieving Israel as representing Israel. But to Paul ‘Israel’ as an existing, continuing, and vibrant entity was represented by believing Jews, supplemented by Gentile converts. While modern man looks to Palestine for Israel (the old unbelieving Israel which was cast off), God (and Paul) looks to the true congregation of Jesus Christ around the world. Here in fact was Paul’s dilemma. In order for men to understand what he was saying he had to refer to the old cast off Israel as Israel, for there was no other way in which to identify them. But to him the genuine Israel was the renewed Israel under the Messiah.

‘For I also am an Israelite, of the seed of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin.’ In these words Paul establishes his credentials. He is an Israelite (compare Romans 9:4), he is ‘of the seed of Abraham’ and he is ‘of the tribe of Benjamin’. These were credential which could be demonstrated tangibly. Whilst he may well not have been able to prove that he was a direct descendant of Abraham, something which few Jews could do, he could certainly prove that he was accepted as such on a basis satisfactory to Jews. The fact that he was recognised as being of the tribe of Benjamin explains why he was originally named Saul, for King Saul had been of the tribe of Benjamin.


Verses 1-10

God’s Purpose For Israel Is Being Fulfilled Through A Remnant (11:1-10).

Paul now deals with the question as to whether Israel has been ‘cast off’. And his reply is ‘certainly not’, and this reply is based on the fact that many true Israelites, like Paul, are still acceptable to God. This, therefore, demonstrates that the whole people have not been cast off. And he then ties this in with his previous argument about God’s elective purpose within Israel (Romans 9:6-29). Israel has not been cast off as a whole. It is only that part of Israel which did not believe in the Jesus the Messiah (Romans 9:30 to Romans 10:21), which has been cast off. And one reason why this has occurred is in order that salvation might come to the Gentiles in order to provoke them to jealousy (Romans 11:11). Here the distinction between believers (the elect) and unbelievers (the hardened) is made crystal clear (Romans 11:7). And it is the former who make up the true Israel. The same distinction was made apparent in Romans 9:18 against the background of Romans 9:6-13.


Verses 1-36

God’s Purpose With Regard Both To The Jews and The Gentiles (11:1-36).

Paul now carries forward the doctrine of the Israel within Israel, and evidences it again from Scripture, making clear that those who were saved in Israel, in other words were the true Israel, were always a remnant. He then brings out that in accordance with Scripture God has removed from Israel the unbelieving and unfruitful branches, (those who did not believe in the Messiah), and has replaced them with believing branches from among the Gentiles. This is an advance on the idea in John 15:1-6 where Jesus had represented Himself as the True Vine, the true Israel, for their Gentiles were not specifically in mind, but the idea is the same. Believers received their life from the vine. Unbelievers were broken off. Both the vine (in the person of Jesus as ‘the true vine’) and the olive tree in some way represent Israel.

Indeed Jeremiah brings out that the olive tree is the representative of Israel par excellence, for in Jeremiah 11:16, speaking of Israel/Judah, we read, ‘The LORD called your name “a green olive tree, fair with goodly fruit”.’ We should note the phrase ‘the LORD called your name’. ‘The LORD called your name --’ is patterned on Genesis 5:2, where God ‘called their name Adam’. Thus in being especially named in this way as ‘a green olive tree’ Israel were following in the footsteps of Adam. They were being revealed as being chosen as an entity (although not as a whole as Jeremiah’s prophecy makes clear). So in so ‘naming Israel’ God was, therefore, revealing that through them His purposes of restoration would be fulfilled. They would accomplish what Adam had failed to accomplish, a people true to God. But even in Jeremiah’s day branches were being broken (Jeremiah 11:16). It was not the whole of Israel who would be fruitful and would remain as the olive tree.

This passage can be divided up as follows:

· God’s purpose for Israel is being fulfilled through a remnant (Romans 11:1-12 compare Romans 9:7-13)).

· God has removed from the olive tree of Israel the unbelieving branches (the unbelieving Jews), and has replaced them with wild olive branches (the Gentiles), who stand by faith (Romans 11:13-24; compare Romans 9:6; Romans 9:24).

· In the end the whole of God’s Israel will be saved (Romans 11:25-32).

· The expression of incomprehensible (to man) wonder at what God has done. Who would have thought that He would establish an Israel from within Israel, supplemented by Gentile believers? (Romans 11:33-36).

We should note in this respect that Paul speaks of four ‘Israels’:

1) There is the whole of Israel, of which there is a remnant, the elect. It is noteworthy that when using ‘Israel’ in this sense as ‘the whole of Israel’ the ‘elect’ or ‘remnant’ are in one way or another mentioned in every use ( Romans 9:6; Romans 9:27; Romans 11:2-7), thus it includes believing and unbelieving Israel, but with the elect or remnant seen as in some way separate.

2) There is unbelieving Israel (Romans 9:31 to Romans 10:2; Romans 10:19; Romans 10:21), which excludes the true Israel. In Romans 9:31 to Romans 10:2 their way of attaining righteousness is contrasted with the way in which believing Gentiles attain righteousness, and Paul is concerned that they might be saved. In Romans 10:19; Romans 10:21 they are contrasted with all believers, both Jew and Greek (Romans 10:14).

3) There is the true Israel, the Israel within Israel which is the elect, that is, believing Israel (specifically called Israel in Romans 9:6, and implied in Romans 9:27; Romans 11:4-7).

4) There is the olive tree, the remaining branches of which, once it has been pruned, represent the Israel within Israel, which is then extended by the Gentiles who have been grafted in. All unbelieving branches having been broken off. This is the purified Israel. Here Israel includes both believing Jews and believing Gentiles (Romans 11:25-26).

It Isaiah 3). which is Paul’s specific theological definition of Israel as found in Romans 9:6, which is then in chapter 11 increased by the addition of believing Gentiles. The references to Israel in 1). and 2). arise from the fact that he has no alternative but to use the title in order to make his point understood. How else was he to distinguish them from the Gentiles? Especially as he clearly hesitates about using the term ‘Jew’ (only in Romans 9:24; Romans 10:12, where believing Jews are very much in mind). But they are not his theological view of Israel. That view is that theologically speaking the true Israel are the elect within physical Israel (Romans 9:6), as later supplemented by the Gentiles. Thus the true continuation of Israel in God’s eyes consists of believing Jews and believing Gentiles, with those who have rejected the Messiah being excluded. Israel in 1). refers to an entity to which God still shows favour. 2). is man’s definition of Israel

There is also a mention of Jews as a whole, which includes Messianic Jews (Romans 9:24; Romans 10:12). In these cases the point is that from the Jews as a whole certain Jews become Christian Jews. Note with regard to the unbelieving Israel that, in Romans 10:14-21, it is not contrasted with the Gentiles, but with all believers (both Jew and Greek - Romans 11:12). It is therefore contrasted with the combination of believing Israel plus believing Gentiles. Open to question is the meaning of the ‘all Israel’ in Romans 11:26 who ‘will be saved’. As there it is used theologically there are good grounds for suggesting that it signifies ‘the elect within physical Israel’, which is the theological definition in Romans 9:6, supplemented by the Gentiles who have been grafted in (Romans 11:17-24). This can be seen as supported by the fact that ‘it is (only) the remnant who will be saved’ (Romans 9:27). But the question then is, can we really see it as including believing Gentiles?

We must ask this question because in Romans 11:17-24 it is indicated that believing Gentiles become a part of the olive tree, that is, of Israel. This is then in favour of seeing ‘all Israel’ as signifying both believing Jews and believing Gentiles. And this would remove the contradiction which would otherwise occur between Romans 11:25-26 and Galatians 3:28. In Galatians 3:28 Paul says that in the church there is ‘neither Jew nor Greek’ indicating that the distinction has been removed. Can we really then see Paul distinguishing between ‘the fullness of the Gentiles’ and ‘all Israel’ when considering the final days of the age? He would be restoring the distinction that he claimed had been removed. On the other hand if ‘all Israel’ includes believing Gentiles then the problem is removed.

This is especially so as elsewhere Paul calls the whole church, ‘the Israel of God’ (Galatians 6:16), and the same idea is present in 1 Corinthians 10:1-13. In Ephesians 2:19 Gentiles are ‘no longer sojourners and strangers, but -- fellow-citizens with the saints and of the household of God’. The distinction between ‘the circumcision’ and ‘the uncircumcision’ is removed in terminology which indicates that both are included in Israel. To Peter the church is ‘the elect race’ and ‘the holy nation’ (1 Peter 2:9; compare Exodus 19:6 where Israel is the ‘holy nation’). It is ‘the dispersion’ (1 Peter 1:2; a term used for worldwide Jewry). To James it is the twelve tribes of Israel (James 1:1). According to Paul to belong to Messiah is to be Abraham’s seed and heirs according to the promise (Galatians 3:29). For as Jesus said to the Jews, ‘the Kingly Rule of God will be taken away from you, and will be given to a nation bringing forth its fruits’ (Matthew 21:43), that is the new nation built on the Apostolic preaching. See also John 15:1-6.

This is not to say that the church replaces Israel. The contention is that it IS Israel. It is the genuine continuation of the true elect Israel, with unbelieving Israel being cast off. Israel had been severely pruned, and was being renewed. We can compare the severe pruning of Israel here with what happened as a result of the different captivities (first the Galilean - 2 Kings 15:29, then the Samarian - 2 Kings 17:6; 2 Kings 18:11, then Judah, as their cities were taken one by one - 2 Kings 19:8; then Jerusalem - 2 Kings 24:14-16; 2 Kings 25:11), when large parts of Israel were absorbed into the Gentile world. The renewed Israel is founded on the Messiah as a new congregation (Matthew 16:18) and on the twelve Jewish Apostles (Ephesians 2:20), with large numbers of followers of Jesus in Galilee as a result of Jesus’ ministry (e.g. the five thousand and the four thousand who had partaken in the covenant feasts) and initially made up almost exclusively of Jews (Acts 1-9), with ‘proselytes’ eventually being accepted from among the Gentiles, but without the need for circumcision because they have received the circumcision of Christ (Colossians 2:11). See also Ephesians 2:11-22. . Note our excursus on ‘Is the Church Israel’ at the end of this chapter which examines the question more fully.


Verse 2

‘God did not cast off his people whom he foreknew.’

The idea of God casting off His people is taken from Psalms 94:14 where it says, ‘YHWH will not cast off His people, nor will He forsake His inheritance’, but this is then defined as referring to ‘the upright in heart (Romans 11:15), in contrast with ‘the workers of iniquity’. Thus it indicates that God will not cast off the faithful in Israel, the Israel within Israel (Romans 9:6).

‘His people Whom He foreknew.’ On the basis of Romans 8:29 this could be seen as referring to the remnant, and be saying that those whom God foreknew, i.e. had entered into relationship with beforehand (the true Israel), He did not cast off. In other words the ones he cast of were those whose unbelief and disobedience demonstrated that they were not of the elect, that they were not a part of the true Israel. This can be seen as supported by his argument in Romans 2:28-29 that the only true Jews were those who were circumcised in heart, in the spirit, a firmly established Old Testament principle (Leviticus 26:41; Deuteronomy 10:16; Deuteronomy 30:6; Jeremiah 4:4; Jeremiah 9:26). And we should note that it had always been the case that those in Israel who broke the covenant would be ‘cut off from among the people’ (e.g. Genesis 17:14; Exodus 12:15; Exodus 12:19; Exodus 30:33; Exodus 30:38; Exodus 31:14; Leviticus 7:20; Leviticus 17:4; Leviticus 9:14; Leviticus 8:29; Leviticus 19:8; Leviticus 22:3; Leviticus 23:29; and often). Thus it could be argued that by refusing to accept God’s Messiah, it was the unbelieving in Israel who were cutting themselves off from Israel. The rejecting of the Messiah was a crime far more heinous than those described in the references given. And this interpretation can be seen as supported by the illustration that follows where Paul demonstrates that among the nation of Israel there had always been a righteous remnant.

Some, however, see ‘foreknew’ as referring to Israel as a whole, with the idea being that they were still as an entity His ‘chosen people’, a people whom He had known before He chose them (Amos 3:2 a), and that Paul is saying that they have not been wholly cast off, but have had their election temporarily suspended. This on the basis of verses like 12, 15-16, 23-24, 26. They then cite Romans 11:28 which says, ‘as touching election they are beloved for the fathers’ sake, for the gifts and calling of God are without repentance’, which, according to their interpretation, is seen as indicating God’s concern for unbelieving Israel, for the first part of the verse refers to ‘the enemies of the Gospel’. But even if that interpretation was accepted it would merely be saying that these unbelievers, who have been cast out of Israel, are still loved by God in a certain way because of their connection with the fathers. They are like the lost sheep. It is not, however, saying that they belong now to what God sees as the nation of Israel. They are rather seen as those who, having been cast out, are still beloved of God because of their connection with the fathers whom God loved so dearly. Thus they are those whom He still longs to win them to Himself

We must not overlook the fact that the true Israel was seen by Paul as in existence. He saw it as the nucleus of Israel which had believed in the Messiah and had become ‘the church’ (ekklesia), the word which was also used in LXX for ‘the congregation of Israel’. They were the branches of the olive tree as described in Romans 11:17-24 which had not been cut off. It was not, therefore, that God had cast off Israel. Rather He had cut off those who had proved themselves not to be ‘true Jews’ (Romans 2:25-27). Israel itself, consisting of all who had responded to the Messiah, had been built on the foundation of Jesus Christ, and His teaching concerning His Messiahship (Matthew 16:18), and their incorporation of Gentiles into Israel, was just what Israel had always done. So those who had been ‘cast off’ were merely those who had refused to believe in the Messiah, a heinous enough crime against God, and they were cast off in the same way as many who claimed to be His people had been throughout their history in consequence of their disobedience, even though they were often in the majority. It should be kept in mind that ‘the nation of Israel’ is not a New Testament expression. Israel are simply spoken of as ‘Israel’, a notion which, as we have seen, is much more fluid. Indeed Paul speaks of an ‘Israel after the flesh’ referring to those who still partake of sacrifices, presumably in contrast to ‘Israel after the Spirit’ who partake of the bread and wine at the Lord’s Supper (Holy Communion - 1 Corinthians 10:18). This was necessary as there was no way of speaking of the old nation except as Israel. But that did not mean that they were the Israel of the promises. For that Israel was made up of the elect, as Paul has already demonstrated (Romans 9:6-24). The concept is illustrated in 1 Corinthians 10:1-13. For the whole question see excursus at the end of the chapter.


Verses 2-4

Paul then illustrates the fact that not the whole of Israel has been cast off by reference to 1 Kings 19:10; 1 Kings 19:14; 1 Kings 19:18. It was in the portion read in the synagogues under the heading ‘Elijah’ (compare Mark 2:26, ‘epi Abiathar’). There the Scripture states that when Elijah had thought that he was left on his own as the only one who was faithful to God, God had replied that ‘I have left for myself seven thousand men, who have not bowed the knee to Baal.’ These were the faithful, the elect remnant who constituted the true Israel with whom God was ready to deal. It is significant that, as Paul was well aware, a hundred or so years later the nation as a whole would be swept away in a number of captivities, with large numbers soon no longer owing allegiance to YHWH. And we must remember that they had been swept away because of their idolatry which demonstrated that they had turned their backs on YHWH. Only the upright in heart would take steps to continue their allegiance to YHWH in the conditions which ensued. Note that Paul’s citation is an abbreviation of the relevant verses in LXX.

‘Baal’ has the feminine article. This was a practise among the Jews. The purpose of it was in order to warn a reader not to pronounce the name but to substitute it, possibly by ‘bosheth’ (thing of shame). At one stage using the name of Baal was considered a thing of shame. As it is doubtful if Paul followed the practise it must have been in the copy of the LXX that he was utilising.


Verse 5

‘Even so then at this present time also there is a remnant according to the election of grace.’

Paul then defines these 7,000 as ‘a remnant according to the election of grace’ (a description demonstrated as applying to them by the use of ‘also’), who can be seen as similar to the present ‘remnant according to the election of grace’, those who by their faith in Jesus Messiah ‘at this time’, have demonstrated that they are among God’s elect, as described in Romans 9:6-29, a position which they have obtained through the unmerited, active favour of God. This ‘remnant according to the election of grace’ is the same as the Israel within Israel (Romans 9:6) supplemented by believing Gentiles (Romans 9:24)


Verse 6

‘But if it is by grace, it is no more of works, otherwise grace is no more grace.’

Paul then relates this back to his previous arguments in Romans 3:24; Romans 3:27-28; Romans 4:2-5; Romans 4:16; Romans 5:15-21; Romans 6:15; Romans 8:31-39. They have been chosen in accordance with the unmerited, active favour of God, without any deserving of their own. For if they had deserved it in any way through their ‘works’ of any kind, grace would cease to be grace, it would no longer be unmerited favour. The whole point of grace is that it is free and unmerited. It thus excludes any effort being made to be worthy of it. Thus when Israel were delivered from Egypt it was by the grace of God. They had done nothing to deserve it. That was the basis of the covenant (Exodus 20:2). And this had continued throughout their history. Every prophet who was sent to them was raised up by the grace of God. It was all due to God electing to save some of them in order to carry forward His purposes into the future. And as we have seen in chapter 9 that election was completely determined by the will of God. It was totally as a result of His goodwill and favour, freely given without cost to us (compare Isaiah 55:1-3). This incidentally is Paul’s definition of grace. God’s favour revealed freely through His activity on our behalf and without cost to us. Thus whenever we see the word elsewhere we must always interpret it in the light of this verse.


Verse 7

‘What then? What Israel seeks for, that he did not obtain, but the election obtained it, and the rest were hardened,’

What then are we to conclude from this? The conclusion must be that Israel as a whole failed to obtain what ‘it is seeking for’ (compare Romans 9:31; Romans 10:3). Unbelieving Israel was, and still is, seeking for a righteousness which would make it acceptable to God, but it failed in its purpose. Only the election obtained such a righteousness, because they sought it by faith. The rest were instead ‘hardened’, that is, their hearts were covered over with a hard substance preventing them from responding. The word originally refers to hard substances which develop in the body. The use of the passive verb (‘were hardened’) often denotes the activity of God. The aim of using the passive tense was in order to prevent the use of God’s name unnecessarily. Thus as Romans 11:8 declares, it was God Who hardened them. ‘Whom He will He hardens’ (Romans 9:18; for although a different verb is used there, it contains a similar idea). This does not necessarily mean that they were hardened from birth, only that at some stage, because of their intransigence, God hastened the process, as He did with Pharaoh at the Exodus. God has so ordained that by proceeding in a course of action we form a habit hard to break. This was why so many of the Rabbis and Pharisees could not respond to Jesus. They were hardened in their ways.


Verse 8

‘According as it is written, “God gave them a spirit of stupor (Isaiah 29:10), eyes that they should not see, and ears that they should not hear, to this very day (Deuteronomy 29:4).’

Paul then provides two citations from Scripture in order to support his diagnosis. The first is a Pauline concoction and is mainly based on Deuteronomy 29:4 (3 LXX), ‘Yet the Lord God hasnot given youa heart to know, andeyes to see, and ears to hear, until this day.’combined with elements from Isaiah 29:10 (LXX),‘For the Lord has made you to drink a spirit of stupor,and he will close their eyes.’ In accordance with Isaiah 29:10 he makes the statement positive, bringing out that it is God’s doing. The spirit of stupor has prevented them from seeing and hearing. The word ‘stupor’ is rare, occurring here and in Isaiah 29:10; Psalms 59:4 (LXX Psalms 60:4). It is as though they have drunk something which prevents them thinking properly. The consequence is that they neither see nor hear.

Paul’s alteration of ‘made you to drink’ to ‘gave you’, while conforming with the opening verb in Deuteronomy 29:4, may be intended to contrast this experience of ‘gave you the spirit of stupor’, with ‘the giving of the Holy Spirit’ (John 3:34; John 7:39; 2 Corinthians 1:22; 1 Thessalonians 4:8; 1 John 3:24) to those who believed in Jesus Messiah, the spirit of stupor having in mind ‘the spirit now at work in the sons of disobedience’ (Ephesians 2:2), ‘the god of this world who has blinded the eyes of those who do not believe’ (2 Corinthians 4:4). ‘To this very day’ emphasises the direct application to the unbelieving Jews of Paul’s day.


Verse 9-10

And David says, “Let their table be made a snare, and a trap, and a stumblingblock, and a recompense to them, let their eyes be darkened, that they may not see, and bow you down their back always.”

The second citation is an adaptation from Psalms 69:22-23 which in LXX reads, ‘Let their table before them be for a snare, and for a recompense, and for a stumblingblock. Let their eyes be darkened that they should not see; and bow down their back continually.’ The reference to ‘a trap’ is incorporated from MT, but may have been in Paul’s LXX text.

The main reason for selecting this verse is the reference to ‘let their eyes be darkened’ tying in with the previous citation. But as the idea of them stumbling is taken up in the next verse Paul clearly has the whole citation in mind. The ‘table’ would have been a piece of leather unrolled and spread on the floor, which explains how it could become a snare, and a trap and a stumblingblock. The idea behind the whole citation is that what they would normally see as something joyous and beneficial (like a feast piled up on a table) is to become a snare, a trap and a stumblingblock to them. This is precisely what has happened to the unbelieving Jews with the Law. They want to eat of the table that they have set for themselves, with the result that they are not willing to eat at God’s table. They want righteousness by the Law. But this has proved to be‘a snare, and a trap, and a stumblingblock, and a recompense to them’.All it can do is entrap them and make them stumble on in their ignorance.

Some see ‘the table’ as referring to the altar in which case there is the idea that they have allowed their ritual to be a snare to them and to cause them to stumble. Compare Isaiah 1:11-18.

We note that in accordance with Rabbinic practise Paul underlines his point from the Law (Deuteronomy), the Prophets (Isaiah), and the Holy Writings (the Psalms), the three division of the Jewish Scriptures.


Verse 11

‘I say then, Did they stumble that they might fall? Certainly not, but by their false step salvation is come to the Gentiles, to provoke them to jealousy.’

‘I say then --’, followed by a question, is one of Paul’s indicators of the commencement of a further stage in his argument (compare Romans 11:1). And what follows is a declaration that salvation has come to the Gentiles, and that it was for this reason (among others already revealed in previous chapters) that the Jews had been allowed to stumble. And it is then stated that this salvation that has come to the Gentiles is intended to provoke the unbelieving Jews to jealousy, so that they too might turn back to their Messiah. Thus this opening verse includes both the main and the secondary themes of the passage.

This salvation that has come to the Gentiles will be the main theme of the passage that follows. It follows the equally important statement that there is a remnant according to the election of grace who have arisen among Israel, who have found what they were seeking for (salvation through the Messiah - Romans 10:9-10), and leads up to the final consummation when ‘the fullness of the Gentiles will have come in, and in this manner all Israel will be saved’ (Romans 11:25-26). It is, however, noteworthy for interpreting what follows, that the only people who are actually spoken of in this subsection as enjoying salvation in presumably large numbers are the believing Gentiles, (Romans 11:11) together with ‘some Jews’ (Romans 11:14). This may be seen as having implications concerning the meaning of ‘all Israel will be saved’ which is what caps the subsection (does it refer to believing Jews + believing Gentiles, or does it just refer to believing Jews?). The implication is that it includes those of whose salvation the passage has spoken, the Gentiles, seen as incorporated into Israel through being united with Jesus Messiah in the olive tree, along with those who are of ‘the remnant according to the election of grace’ (Romans 11:5).

The secondary theme is raised in the description of the stumbling of the Jews, which has resulted in their being broken off from Israel, and an assurance that they can still change their minds and respond to the Messiah and thus again become a part of the true Israel.

The point here is that a new Israel is being formed out of the old (Matthew 21:43). Israel is to be purged of unbelievers, while it is to open its doors to all who come to believe in the Messiah, whether they be Jew or Gentile. Those who are to be cast out are no longer Israel, even though they might call themselves it. They are no longer true Jews (Romans 2:25-29). Thus the nation of Israel in Palestine today is named as such by man not by God. But in God’s eyes Israel is His believing people. Men can therefore only become Israel by responding to Jesus Messiah.

But now as a result of their rejection of the Messiah salvation has come to the Gentiles. It should, of course, be remembered that Gentiles had always been welcome to become children of Israel. Proselytes from among the Gentiles were regularly initiated into Israel, having been circumcised and instructed in the Law (see Exodus 12:48). Indeed Jesus had criticised the Pharisees for making proselytes twice the children of Gehenna than they were themselves (Matthew 23:15). Note how Jesus sees unbelieving Jews as ‘children of Gehenna’ (branches cast out in order to be burned). Thus there was nothing unusual about Israel absorbing Gentiles. On the other hand, unbelieving Israel (with a few exceptions) made no great effort to win the Gentiles. They sat in their synagogues and waited for the Gentiles to come to them. Nevertheless many Gentiles had become proselytes and had therefore become part of Israel, the old unbelieving Israel who had now in the main rejected their Messiah. But now there was a new outreach to the Gentiles in the form of Paul and his fellow-labourers. It was not this, however, which caused the trouble (except occasionally). What caused the trouble was the basis on which Gentiles were being welcomed, on terms of faith in the Messiah without circumcision.

So the question is, does ‘the stumbling’ of the majority of the old Israel, which has been referred to in Romans 11:10, mean that they have irrevocably fallen, with no hope of salvation? ‘Certainly not’, says Paul. The truth is rather that through their false step salvation has come to the Gentiles. Paul was very much aware of the truth of this for he himself had been caused to turn to the Gentiles because of the obstinacy of the Jews, when he had gone to their synagogues with a great desire to win them to their Messiah (Acts 13:42-47, which brings out that many Jews and proselytes did believe, but that the majority in the synagogue rejected the Gospel). Compare Acts 14:1-3; Acts 18:4-7; Acts 19:8-10; Acts 28:23-29.

And Paul adds to this argument the point that one of the consequences of this was to provoke the Jews to jealousy. Presumably his point is that as a result of seeing the blessing that Jesus Messiah and His salvation brings to believing Gentiles, many of the Jews will become jealous and will be persuaded to return and respond to Him (Romans 11:14). He is greatly concerned lest the idea become prevalent that Jews are not to have the Gospel preached to them, or lest Jews see themselves as excluded. (It is possible that such an idea had grown up among some in Rome when all Jews were expelled from Rome leaving the Gentile church on its own. Some may well have interpreted it as signifying God’s promotion of Gentiles as opposed to Jews).


Verse 11-12

Unbelieving Israel’s Fall Is Not Necessarily Permanent (11:11-12).

Paul now makes clear that the fall of unbelieving Israel is not necessarily permanent. As he will point out, they can be regrafted onto the olive tree (Romans 11:23). This theme then raises a question about the main emphasis in Romans 11:11-32. Is the main emphasis that the conversion of Gentiles is intended to bring Israel to the Messiah (Romans 11:11-12; Romans 11:14-15; Romans 11:23-24), or is it that a new Israel has been formed including in it the nucleus of the elect of Israel (Romans 11:5) and all the Gentiles who have responded to the Messiah (Romans 11:17; Romans 11:22-24), so that all might enjoy God’s salvation? There really is no contest, for while the former is an undoubted fact that underlies what is said, there can really be no doubt that Paul’s main purpose is to bring a new revelation concerning the incorporation of the believing Gentiles into the true Israel, based on what he has already revealed in Galatians 6:16 (that the church is the Israel of God). And this is finally evidenced in that it builds up to the dramatic statements in Romans 11:25-26, and the final conclusion in Romans 11:32. It is just that, being Paul, he cannot resist using what he is saying for the practical purpose of arousing Gentile Christians to seek the conversion of Jews to their Messiah, and to correct their attitudes towards them. Thus we would contend that the main aim of the subsection is to give teaching concerning the forming of the new Israel, with its final triumph in view, resulting in salvation for all, both Jew and Gentile (Romans 11:25-26).

In order to demonstrate this further let us consider what Romans 11:11 ff. tell us about the Gentiles who come to the Messiah:

· The stumbling of the unbelieving Jews was so thatsalvationmight come to the Gentiles (Romans 11:11).

· The casting away of the unbelieving Jews was to result in thereconciliationof the world i.e. the Gentiles (Romans 11:15).

· The receiving of the converted Jews was to result inlife from the deadfor all, thus including the Gentiles (Romans 11:15).

· The breaking off of the branches was so that the Gentiles might be grafted in so as to fully partake ofthe goodness of the olive tree(Romans 11:17), in other words so that they might enjoy the benefits of being Israelites.

· The root of Israel hasborne the branches, thus making them a part of redeemed Israel (Romans 11:18).

· God’s goodness is revealed towards the Gentilesand they must continue in that goodness (Romans 11:22.

· The aim was that both Jews and Gentiles begrafted in to the one tree(Romans 11:24), thus becoming the Israel which the olive tree represented, and thus being part of the ‘all Israel’ which will be saved (Romans 11:26).

· Thefull number of the Gentileswere to come in (Romans 11:25).

· They have nowobtained mercy (Romans 11:30).

· God will havemercy on all(Romans 11:32).

It is clear then that the theme of Gentile salvation, viewed from different aspects, is what is primarily proclaimed throughout the passage.

The secondary theme, although an important one, is that of reaching out to unbelieving Israel to seek to incorporate them into the true Israel. Thus:

· The aim is to provoke them to jealousy (Romans 11:11). But this is because salvation has come to the Gentiles.

· Their fall has resulted in riches for the world/Gentiles, how much more then will their fullness (Romans 11:12).

· Paul is speaking to the Gentiles, partly with a view by any means of provoking Israel to jealousy (Romans 11:13-14), because the receiving of them back will be ‘life from the dead’ (Romans 11:15).

· The Christians from among the Gentiles are not to glory over unbelieving Israel, who have been broken off from Israel, but are to recognise that if they do not continue on steadfastly they will go the same way (Romans 11:17-22).

· If unbelieving Israel do not continue in their unbelief they will be regrafted in (Romans 11:23-24).

· The hardening of Israel has occurred so that the full number of Gentiles responding to Christ will ‘come in’ (Romans 11:25).


Verses 11-32

God Has Established A True Israel Based On The Remnant Who Have Responded To The Messiah, With The False Israel Being At Least Temporarily Cast Off, To Be Restored If They Turn To The Messiah And Rejoin The True Israel (11:11-32).

We now commence with a new subsection, commencing as so often in Romans with a question, although one that continues the theme of Romans 11:8-10. In it we have the clearest evidence of the fact that the ‘true church’, consisting of all true believers, is the continuation of Israel. It is not that the church has replaced Israel. Rather it IS the continuation of the Israel that was validated by God at Sinai, in the same way as a branch grafted into an olive tree becomes the olive tree. It is now unbelieving Jews who are not a part of Israel. The Gentile believers are incorporated into the true Israel, into that Israel which has believed in the Messiah, on the same basis as they have always been, by submission in faith to the (new) covenant (compare Exodus 12:48). So what man sees as Israel is no longer so in God’s eyes. True Israel is composed of all true believers in the Messiah. (See excursus at the end of the chapter).

As a consequence of the predominance of Gentiles in the church (which was inevitable once the Gospel was proclaimed to the Gentiles, simply on the grounds of statistics), and of the antagonism of those who ‘say they are Jews and are not’ (Revelation 2:9), this truth has in the main been lost sight of, except by some scholars, but the reason why all the Old Testament promises belong to the church is not by transfer, but is precisely because the church is the continuation of the true Israel, based on the true vine (John 15:1-6). It is not a matter of replacement, but of continuation. It is not that the church is ‘spiritual Israel’ or has ‘replaced Israel’, with Israel continuing in existence separately. It is that in God’s eyes the church is thegenuine continuation of the pre-Christian Israel. Hundreds of thousands of Jews, who had been very much of a part of the ‘old Israel’, were now the foundational material of the ‘new Israel’. The remnant were the true Israel (Romans 9:27). The remainder had been cast out of Israel. So all the promises now belong to the new congregation (church) which is composed of both Christian Jews and Christian Gentiles, who together form the true Israel.

We must not overlook what the huge importance of the coming of the Messiah has been. The whole of Israel’s thinking had been focused on His coming (compare John 1:1-18). Thus when He came the existence of Israel was dependent on their response to Him. His coming had been a main purpose for God’s choice of them. It was from the womb of Israel that He came (Romans 9:5). Thus His coming separated off the unbelievers in Israel from the true Israel (Matthew 21:43), and it was the true Israel which in God’s eyes were Israel, His ‘new nation’. And that was revealed by Jesus as those who were fruitful branches of the true vine, with the false branches being cut off (John 15:1-6), or, as Paul would have said, of the olive tree (Romans 11:16-24; Paul had to alter the illustration to an olive tree because no one grafted branches into a vine, and both were seen in the Scriptures as pictures of Israel).

In the days following Jesus’ death and resurrection the true Israel was revealed, and it was revealed on the basis of response to the Messiah. In God’s eyes it was not the Christian Jews, the believers, who were cut off from Israel. It was the unbelievers, even though they were in the majority. It was these who were cut off from the true Israel, founded on Jesus Christ (Matthew 16 18), as Paul will shortly make clear. And God’s true Israel has continued on through the centuries in the form of the church, which IS the continuation of the true Israel. The early church never ceased thinking of themselves as Israel, and God never ceased looking on them as Israel. It is unbelieving Israel that has been rejected. It is no longer Israel in God’s eyes even though it might be so in its own eyes. Compare Acts 4:25-28 where it is made clear that the majority of the people of Israel were now aligned with the nations in antagonism towards God’s Messiah. So while God may still look on the unbelievers with favour because of His love for the Patriarchs (Romans 11:28, but depending on how we interpret it)), He nevertheless does not look on them as consisting of the true Israel. They can only become a part of the true Israel by responding to Jesus Messiah.

Paul does, however, emphasise that God has not finally closed the door on Jews, only on their mind set. Their position was not totally lost. If they would but come to Christ then they too could become a part of the true Israel, God’s elect, and could bring into it all the riches of their culture. But their fall had been necessary in order that salvation might come to the Gentiles, for their way of thinking would never have allowed the kind of outreach achieved by the church of Christ. And it is unquestionable that that fall (partly through the persecution that it produced) resulted in the riches of Christ going out into the world (Acts 8:1; Acts 8:4; Acts 11:19-26; Acts 13:45-46; Acts 13:50-51; Acts 14:19-25). Thus their loss contributed to the riches of the Gentiles in that many of the Gentiles came to believe and enjoy the full riches of Christ (2 Corinthians 8:9; Ephesians 1:7; Ephesians 1:18; Ephesians 2:7; Ephesians 3:8; Colossians 1:27; Colossians 2:2). However, God’s hope was that when the unbelievers saw the new spiritual freedom in the church, and recognised the glorious liberty of the new children of God and the greatness of their blessings, they would become jealous, and would determine to have them for themselves by responding to Christ. For if only they were willing to submit to Christ their contribution could be so great.


Verse 12

‘And if their false step is the riches of the world, and their loss the riches of the Gentiles, how much more their fullness?’

For the false step of the unbelieving Jews in rejecting their Messiah, has resulted in riches for the world, because it has resulted in the Messiah being proclaimed more widely to the world so that the Gentiles have received the riches of His salvation. But at the same time it has caused loss to the unbelieving Jews as a result of their rejection (as being in God’s eyes no longer Israel). It has resulted in riches for the Gentiles, because it has caused more emphasis to be laid on the conversion of Gentiles to the Messiah, but if this be so how much more will their restoration to full belief in the Messiah result in even greater riches for the world, as they once more join Israel and use their religious zeal in proclaiming the Messiah.

This idea of ‘spiritual riches’ permeates this section. God has made known the riches of His glory on the vessels of mercy which He has beforehand prepared for glory (Romans 9:23). God is rich to all who call on Him whether Jew or Gentile (Romans 10:12). Now the fall of the unbelieving Jews has provided riches for the Gentiles, the riches of the glory that God purposes for His own, which are receivable by calling on Him in faith.

‘How much more their fullness.’ This could be seen as referring to the unbelieving Jews coming to ‘a full knowledge of Christ’, their Messiah, so that through their deeper understanding of the Scriptures they might increase the riches received by the Gentiles. We must ever remember that the Gentiles were relatively new to the Scriptures, and could not consult them with ease, whereas the Jews had been brought up to them from babyhood (see 2 Timothy 3:15). So once they have knowledge of the Messiah in their hearts through faith, what knowledge they could contribute, and what evangelists they will be!

Others see ‘fullness’ as referring to ‘achieving their full number’, with the idea being that the future would at some stage see an acceleration of the conversion of the Jews to a recognition of their Messiah. Compare ‘the fullness of the Gentiles’ in Romans 11:25. But either way the point is that the conversion of many Jews to Jesus Messiah will be a good thing for God’s people. What happened to Jerusalem later may well have caused many Jews to recognise that Jesus was the Messiah, because He had so clearly predicted it, and there have been other events through history which may well have resulted in conversions to Christ among the Jews. Their achieving their fullness does not necessarily require an end of age revival. It is just something that we can hope for. After all if there was only one more Jew elected to be converted, his conversion would bring Israel to its fullness, as in the case of the Gentiles. But Paul’s attitude may certainly be seen as giving the impression of something special.


Verse 13-14

‘But I speak to you who are Gentiles. Inasmuch then as I am an apostle of Gentiles, I glorify my ministry, if by any means I may provoke to jealousy those who are my flesh, and may save some of them.’

Paul now turns his comments specifically to the Gentile element in the church at Rome. He explains to them that, as the Apostle to the Gentiles, he glorifies his ministry in the hope by any means of provoking his fellow-Jews to jealousy, so that some of them might respond and be saved. It is quite clear from this that he does not see them as already saved. Their only hope, as with everyone else, is to truly believe in the Messiah. And that is what he is seeking to make them do.

‘I glorify my ministry.’ He makes it out to be a glorious ministry, something which he genuinely does believe, so as to arouse the jealousy of Jews in order that they might come back to the Messiah. He wants them to know that he has a great concern (already expressed - Romans 9:1-3; Romans 10:1-3) for the unbelieving among the Jews.

‘May save some of them.’ We must remember that Paul has a different perspective from us. He does not see two thousand years lying ahead. Like all the early church he is anticipating Christ’s soon return. Thus the fact that he only expects ‘some’ Jews to be saved is significant. This appears to contradict the idea that ‘all Israel’ will be saved as in Romans 11:26. But as we shall see, in our view ‘Israel’ there includes the believing Gentiles. So while he is certainly confident that some Jews will be saved, and passes that confidence on in his words to the Gentile Christians in the Roman church, it is apparent here that he clearly is not expecting a huge revival among them in his lifetime.


Verses 13-24

The Illustration Of The Olive Tree (11:13-24).

‘The Olive Tree’ is the name of Israel specifically given to it by God. In Jeremiah we are told “YHWH called your name ‘a green olive tree’, fair, with goodly fruit” (Jeremiah 11:16). The formula ‘YHWH called your name’ is significant. It is the one used concerning YHWH’s naming of Adam as the representative of mankind (Genesis 5:2). Thus it is indicating the official pronouncement of a permanent reality. Mankind was called ‘Man’ by God. Israel is called by God ‘the green olive tree’, probably with a view to it benefiting the world with what it produces. Olive oil was a major Israelite export. But as with the true vine in John 15:1-6, fire would come against it and disobedient branches would be ‘broken’ (Jeremiah 11:16). YHWH who had planted it would bring evil against it. The continued existence of its people would depend ultimately on its faith and obedience.

Thus when Paul speaks of the olive tree from which branches would be broken off and into which branches would be grafted there is no doubt concerning what is primarily in mind. It is the Israel chosen by God, but as represented by those who are obedient, the ideal Israel in mind in Jeremiah 2:2-3. There is no room in such an olive tree for broken and unfruitful branches. They have to be removed. Here is a clear indication that it is the Jews who have believed in the Messiah who form the true Israel. Those of old Israel who have been disobedient and unbelieving are cast off. Believing Israel remain as branches in the olive tree. And, as Paul makes clear, the true Israel will be supplemented by Gentiles who also believe in the Messiah. They too become a part of the true Israel, the genuine continuation of the old Israel. When the cast off branches gather together and call themselves Israel, it is not as genuine Israel. They are not of the elect.


Verse 15

‘For if the casting away of them is the reconciling of the world, what will the receiving of them be, but life from the dead?’

And if he is successful in stirring the Jews to seek the Messiah this can only be for the good of the world. For if their casting off by God has resulted in the reconciling to God of men from the world, that is, from the Gentiles, how much more will their being received back result in life from the dead, new spiritual and abundant life, both for them and for many more. Bringing Jews to Christ can only be beneficial for the church. It is clear from Romans 6:13 that being ‘alive from the dead’ signifies the new spiritual life received when we receive Christ. There may also be in mind here that the dead branches which are cut off from the olive tree become alive again when they are engrafted in, and give renewed life, to the olive tree, which was the purpose of grafting in branches (Romans 11:17; Romans 11:23).

Some, however, see this as having the deeper meaning that as their casting away has brought salvation to many Gentiles, so the receiving back of them by God will hasten the final resurrection, and the following life of bliss. This thus being an indication that prior to Christ’s coming and the general resurrection there will hopefully be a great turning to Christ of the Jews, something which will trigger the end of all things, and issue in eternal life for all God’s people. But while the resurrection is regularly described as ‘from the dead’, it is never described as ‘life from the dead’. And we notice in all this that Paul makes no such promises. What he does say is an expressed hope rather than a certainty. This does not sit well with his seeing his words, ‘all Israel will be saved’ as signifying a huge revival at the end of the age. For in Romans 11:26 he speaks of certainty. Thus any interpretation of it which limits it to Jews converted in the final days of the age must be looked on with suspicion and must take into account the fact that Paul appears unaware of it until he gets to Romans 11:26.


Verse 16

‘And if the firstfruit is holy, so is the lump, and if the root is holy, so are the branches.’

Paul now uses the illustration of the firstfruit and the root. The firstfruit as connected with ‘the lump’ comes from Numbers 15:17-21 LXX where the first of the dough is offered as a heave-offering to YHWH, leaving the lump for use by the offerer, although it is nowhere said that the lump is thereby made holy. The idea of ‘the root’ (hriza) is found in Isaiah 11:10 and Isaiah 53:2 where it refers to the son of Jesse and the Servant of YHWH respectively, an idea connected with Jesus in Revelation 5:5; Revelation 22:16. Equally important is that Paul elsewhere cites Isaiah 11:10 in Romans 15:12 (which see). The question then arises as to what these refer to, and why this illustration is used here. The fact that the ensuing lump and branches are holy implies that with regard to these we are dealing with those whom God had made holy, and in context that is the Gentiles in Romans 11:11 to whom salvation has come, and those among the unbelieving Jews who are received as a result of believing in the Messiah, becoming ‘life from the dead’ (Romans 11:15).

It may well be that the firstfruit is to be seen as those of Israel who initially believed in the Messiah, for ‘the firstfruit’ often indicates those who first believe (Romans 16:5; 1 Corinthians 16:15), possibly seen in terms of the original ideal Israel who were ‘the firstfruit of His increase’ (Jeremiah 2:2-3). These latter being ‘holiness to YHWH’ (Jeremiah 2:3). This would tie in with the firstfruit being holy. The lump then becomes those who spring from the firstfruit, namely elect Jews (Romans 11:5), the Gentile believers who experience salvation (Romans 11:11), and the unbelieving Jews who later believe and are grafted in again (Romans 11:15; Romans 11:23-24). In the same way the root could be seen as indicating the initial believers in the Messiah from whom the whole tree grew. They are, however, nowhere described as the root.

There is, however, One Who is described as both firstfruit and root, and is also spoken of as ‘holy’ (Acts 2:27; Acts 3:14) and as having ‘the spirit of holiness’ (Romans 1:4), and as making His people ‘holy (1 Corinthians 1:2; 1 Corinthians 1:30). In 1 Corinthians 15:20; 1 Corinthians 15:23 Christ (the Messiah) is seen as the Firstfruit from the dead by His resurrection from the dead, the Firstfruit Whose resurrection guarantees the resurrection of those who have died in Him. This figure could easily be transferred to indicating Him as the firstfruit from Whom the whole lump of believers receive their holiness, for He is made unto them holiness (1 Corinthians 1:30). Furthermore ‘the root’ was a recognised title of Christ, which is referred to in Romans 15:12. See also Isaiah 11:10; Revelation 5:5; Revelation 22:16. This idea is especially significant as the root is connected with the branches, and in context these must surely be seen as the branches of the olive tree (Romans 11:17-24). It would thus tie in with the idea of the Messiah as the True Vine Whose true attached branches prove fruitful, and Whose false branches are removed and burned (John 15:1-6).

Added to this is the fact that it is man’s relationship to the Messiah which lies at the root of Paul’s message throughout Romans, and especially as exemplified in the previous passage in Romans 9:30 to Romans 10:21. There the concept of the need for faith in the Messiah for both Jews and Gentiles (i.e. for them to be grafted in to Him) is pre-eminent, with the stark contrast being made with unbelieving Jews who refuse God’s entreaties (and to be grafted into the Messiah). Whilst the fact that unbelieving Israel are accursed from the Messiah, and therefore cut off from Israel, is Paul’s great concern in Romans 9:1-5. All would tie in with the idea of the olive tree representing the Messiah.

Jesus was, of course, seen as the One Who summed up the true Israel in Himself (e.g. Matthew 2:15), and His own words in John 15:1-6 confirm this. He is the true Vine in contrast with the false vine (e.g. Isaiah 5:1-7), representing an Israel which will retain its fruitful branches whole casting off its unfruitful. Thus it may well be that Paul intended us to combine these two ideas of ideal Israel as the firstfruit who were holiness to YHWH, and the Messiah of Israel as the Root, with the branches of the olive tree which remain being seen as those who sprung from them, that is, believing Israel made up of believing Jews and believing Gentiles, who were made holy in Him (1 Corinthians 1:2; 1 Corinthians 1:30; etc.).

One principle that lies behind the illustration is that holiness produces holiness, and there is no doubt that the Messiah as the Holy One, is the One who has made His people holy. Another is that of fruitfulness and provision. The dough would produce bread, the tree would produce fruit (John 15:1-6). Thus the firstfruit and the root are to produce what is satisfying to mankind, even though mankind may not be aware of it. They are to fulfil the promises given to Abraham (Genesis 12:3).

This combining of the ideal Israel with the Messiah (Who did represent the ideal Israel) is very similar to seeing the church as one body ‘in Christ’ (Romans 12:4-5). The ideal Israel, as personified in the early disciples, has the Messiah in its midst, just as the church has Christ in its midst, and the ideal Israel is ‘in the Messiah’, in the same way as Paul was (Romans 9:1), and this in the same way as the church is ‘in Christ’. Furthermore Paul elsewhere stresses that ideal Israel partook of the Messiah (1 Corinthians 10:4), with the unbelieving being overthrown in the wilderness (1 Corinthians 10:5). The picture of Israel in 1 Corinthians 10:1-4 could be seen as very much that of ideal Israel as described in Jeremiah 2:2-3

On the other hand we must also probably see Romans 11:16 as the lead in to Romans 11:17-28, for Romans 11:17 demands some kind of prior introduction, so as to form a basis for its argument, while ‘And if the branches --’ (Romans 11:17) must surely refer back to ‘the branches’ (Romans 11:16). Furthermore the passage that follows is looking towards the downfall of unbelieving Israelites, as branches that will be broken off (because they are not holy), and asking questions about its possible future restoration, something which would tie in well with this verse, which includes the illustration of the root and the branches, the holy root producing holy branches.

Thus Paul’s point is that because the firstfruit, the ideal Israel (Jeremiah 2:2-3), and the root, the Messiah (Romans 15:12; Isaiah 11:10; Revelation 5:5; Revelation 22:16), were holy, so are those who spring from them. Holiness begets holiness. This may be positional holiness, seen as passed on, or genuine moral holiness, demonstrating what is expected of the lump and the branches. It is because of this that the unbelieving branches have to be remove from the olive tree.

EXCURSUS. Who Did Paul Have In Mind As The Firstfruits Lump Of Dough And The Holy Root?

In view of the controversy about this subject we must now consider in more detail the question as to who Paul had in mind when he spoke of the holy firstfruits lump of dough and the holy root? And connected with this must be the question as to who the olive tree represents, for the passage immediately goes on to assume that Paul is speaking of an olive tree growing its branches. Indeed it is most probable that the root which produces branches in Romans 11:16, is to be seen as equivalent to the olive tree which produces its branches, for in Romans 11:18 it is said to be the root which produces the branches of the olive tree. And this being accepted, there are good grounds for seeing the olive tree as representing Israel in some form or another (Jeremiah 11:16). This would favour all being seen as representing ideal Israel, a holy Israel as seen in the mind of God (compare Exodus 19:6), possibly as combined with the One Who sums up in Himself the true Israel.

In this regard we should note that Romans 9:1 to Romans 11:10 have emphasised 1). an Israel within Israel, 2). election through the Patriarchs, 3). salvation in the Messiah of both believing Jews and Gentiles, 4). a salvation of the elect remnant from within Israel, and it is clear that he has in mind in each of these the same people. It would not therefore be strange if the idea of the olive tree included all these concepts.

There are seven main answers which are supported by different scholars which we should now consider:

1) That they represent the patriarchs, or the patriarchal promises. This might be seen as favoured by the fact that the patriarchs are often seen as the source from which Israel sprang (e.g. Isaiah 51:1-2), while Israel constantly looked back to the promises, as indeed Paul has done in Romans 9:6-29. But the case is very much weakened by the fact that hriza (root) is never used in LXX to refer either to the patriarchs or to the promises (although it is used of the root of Jesse (Isaiah 11:1), and of the Servant as a root out of the dry ground (Isaiah 53:2)). The patriarchs are, however, seen as the root of Israel in Jewish tradition (1 Enoch 93:5; compare Philo Heir 279 of Abraham; Jubilees 21:24 of Isaac). But that then raises the question as to whether Paul himself would look to this source, and whether he would expect the Gentile Christians in Rome to be aware in detail of Jewish tradition about the Patriarchs, or even to consider it, something that must be considered doubtful. Also a further problem to this view is that the Patriarchs are never seen in Scripture as the firstfruits. Abraham is rather the rock from which they were hewn (Isaiah 51:1-2). Thus neither firstfruits nor root Scripturally apply to the patriarchs, or to the patriarchal promises.

More specifically it also does not fit well with the idea of their being ‘the firstfruits lump taken from a larger lump of dough’, for this suggests the two as existing at the same time, unless a). we see the dough as representing God’s elect people from the beginning, or b). we see Israel or the elect of Israel as being in their fathers’ loins. The latter would certainly be a Scriptural concept, but one problem with it is that the fathers were only fathers by blood to a limited number of Israelites, as God and Paul both well knew. In Paul’s day demonstrating pure descent in Israel was something that was seen as of high importance, so he would have been well aware of the lack of evidence for descent among the majority of Israel, and he would equally have been aware of the references that demonstrated that not all Israelites were directly descended from the fathers by human descent. It would fit better if the lump and the branches represented Abraham’s spiritual descendants. But the overall fact is that the fathers are never described as the firstfruit of anything, and are never spoken of in Scripture as the root.

On the other hand there are certain things in favour of this interpretation. In Romans 11:28 we learn that, ‘as touching the election they are beloved for their fathers’ sake’, which clearly does indicate a connection between the fathers and whoever are seen as beloved, a connection which results in a benefit being passed on. But this was a connection that arose because of God’s love for their fathers, not from their being the firstfruits. One interpretation of Romans 11:28 has it as saying that while He had cast the enemies of God’s people out of Israel, His love still reached out to them because they had once been part of Israel, and were thus connected with the fathers on whom He had set His love. This would, of course, favour the fathers as a whole, being seen as the root, rather than just Abraham. But this interpretation is at least questionable.

Also in favour Isaiah 9:6-21 where the elect, including both Jews and Gentiles, are traced back to their source in Abraham and Isaac. In this case the whole lump and the branches would represent the elect (Romans 11:24).

Also in favour would be Romans 11:1-2 where Paul looks back to his roots in Abraham and Benjamin, with their fruit being seen in the people whom God foreknew, which we have argued are the elect, but which others see as notional Israel as an entity.

But very much against this interpretation as indicating the fathers is the fact that it does not fit the later illustration. The fathers are nowhere likened to an olive tree, while this passage assumes that this verse is building up to the olive tree. (Unless, of course, we see the fathers as representing the ideal Israel. See 5). below). And indeed if we equate the patriarchs, or the promises made to them, with the olive tree, we have the difficulty of explaining why, on the one hand, the unbelieving Jews are broken off from them (Romans 11:17), while at the same time on the other hand benefiting from their relationship with them, as described in Romans 11:28. The point in Romans 11:28 is surely that they have not been broken off from the promises. So this interpretation is inconsistent with what follows.

We would not, however, dismiss this idea totally. For there is no question but that the promises to the fathers were basic to the establishment of Israel, and indeed that those promise are basic to the election of the true line (the branches that remain in the olive tree), and the removing of those who were not of the true line (Romans 9:7-13), the branches which were removed. Thus Paul would no doubt have seen these as indicating incipient Israel. But the basic idea of the olive tree must, in Scriptural terms, have reference to Israel.

2) That they represent Jesus Messiah Who spoke of Himself as the true vine (John 15:1-6), the source of blessing to His people in making them holy, a very similar picture to the olive tree. This interpretation has the advantage that the one who is coming is in Scripture called the root (hriza) of Jesse to whom the nations will seek (Isaiah 11:10; compare Romans 15:12), and a ‘root (hriza) out of dry ground’ (Isaiah 53:2). See also Revelation 5:5; Revelation 22:16 which demonstrates the emphasis placed by the early church on Jesus as ‘the Root’. It would also tie in with Jesus as being the true vine from which branches would spring, and from which branches would be cut off. Furthermore this view has the advantage that Jesus Christ is also seen by Paul as the firstfruit of the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:20; 1 Corinthians 15:23), with believers being the later ‘lump’ who would be raised en masse, having already been raised spiritually (Romans 6:4; Romans 7:4; Ephesians 2:1-6). The idea of the firstfruits aspartof the lump which is made holy would also fit well with the idea that Christ’s people are ‘in Him’ (1 Corinthians 12:12-13), and made holy in Him (1 Corinthians 1:30), so that they and He are seen together. And certainly Jesus as the Messiah is seen in Romans as the source of the holiness of His people (Romans 6:22). Jesus is nowhere, however, likened to an olive tree. Had Paul spoken of a vine it would have been decisive. But we could argue that this is simply because Paul altered the illustration in order to suit his argument.

Added to this is the fact that it is man’s relationship to the Messiah which lies at the root of Paul’s message throughout Romans, and especially as exemplified in the previous passage in Romans 9:30 to Romans 10:21. There the concept of the need for faith in the Messiah for both Jews and Gentiles (i.e. for them to be grafted in to Him) is pre-eminent, with the stark contrast being made with unbelieving Jews who refuse God’s entreaties, and fall away from the Messiah, whilst the fact that unbelieving Israel are accursed from the Messiah, and therefore cut off from Israel, is Paul’s great concern in Romans 9:1-5. All would tie in with the idea of the olive tree as representing the Messiah.

It can also be pointed out that Jesus is also described continually as ‘representing’ Israel. In other words Israel was summed up in Him as the Messiah. Thus it was as representing Israel that He was called out of Egypt (Matthew 2:15), and possibly as representing ideal Israel that He then went into the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11). And as we have already seen it was that idea which lay at the root of John 15:1-6. And this was confirmed when He spoke of establishing ‘His congregation’ (a word signifying Israel in the Old Testament) on the foundation of Peter’s Messianic statement (Matthew 16:18). Furthermore the Kingly Rule of God was to be taken away from old Israel, and given to a new nation producing its fruit (Matthew 21:43) which would be founded on a new Cornerstone, which would be Jesus Himself (Matthew 21:42). This is why, as the true vine, He could well have been seen by Paul in terms of the olive tree, for Paul would have seen the change as necessary because branches are not engrafted into vines. After all, in the Old Testament Israel were seen as both the vine and the olive tree.

Additional to all this is that there is the emphasis throughout the letter that the church is ‘in Christ’ (e.g. Romans 11:1), with its members therefore being branches of the olive tree (Romans 11:16-24) and of the true vine (John 15:1-6). We should note in this regard that in Romans there is a stress on the idea of our oneness in Christ in Romans 5:12-21; Romans 12:4-5. There is the stress on our being united with Christ in Romans 6:5 seen in the light of its context. There is the idea of our being ‘joined with Him’ in Romans 7:4. There is the continual emphasis on the fact that our righteousness comes from our being in Christ (see especially Romans 10:6-10). There is the clear comparison between the olive tree ‘receiving’ those who are grafted in (Romans 11:15) and Christ ‘receiving’ His people (Romans 15:7). And finally there is the pointer to Jesus as the coming Deliverer Who would take away ungodliness from Jacob (Romans 11:26). There is thus a strong case for seeing the ‘root’ and the ‘olive tree’ as representing the Messiah, from whom branches are cut off (John 15:1-6), and into Whom other branches are engrafted.

3) That they represent the ideal Israel in its notional form as the holy nation (Exodus 19:5-6). This should be seen in parallel with 4). In Jeremiah 2:2-3 we read, ‘You went after Me in the wilderness, . . Israel was holiness unto YHWH, the firstfruits of his increase.’ The picture here is, of course, an ideal one as Israel in the wilderness were far from holy, so here it is the ideal Israel which is likened to the firstfruits. Furthermore, in Isaiah Jacob was to take root, and Israel to blossom and bud and fill the face of the world with fruit (Isaiah 27:6), while the remnant of Israel (thus an ideal Israel), was to take root downwards and bear fruit upwards (Isaiah 37:31), a description which fits well with Romans 11:18. Here then we may see the ideal Israel as doubly connected with the idea of a holy root, especially as in Paul’s mind the root is linked with the tree (Romans 11:18), and there is no doubt that an ideal Israel fits well the illustration that follows. What is more the close connection between Romans 11:16 and Romans 11:17, with Romans 11:17 clearly referring to the branches of an olive tree, suggests that Romans 11:16 is speaking of the root and branches of an olive tree, i.e. of Israel.

4). That they represent Israel within Israel (Romans 9:6). As we have seen in Jeremiah 2:2-3 we read, ‘You went after Me in the wilderness, . . Israel was holiness unto YHWH, the firstfruits of his increase.’ The picture here is, of course, an ideal one as Israel in the wilderness were far from holy, so this may well be seen as speaking about the Israel within Israel (those who ‘went after YHWH’) as the firstfruits and root of Israel. Additionally early converts were regularly described as the ‘firstfruit’ (e.g. Romans 16:5; 1 Corinthians 16:15), although those were not specifically Israelites. It was the remnant of Israel who were to take root downwards and bear fruit upwards (Isaiah 37:31). This identification also fits well with what follows, except that branches could not be cast off from the elect Israel, unless it is seen as the early Jewish church containing good and bad. But that is not Paul’s view of the elect who are those chosen by God and would therefore continue faithful For example, he would not have seen Ananias and Sapphira as part of the elect (Acts 5:1-11). It would need, therefore, to be combined with one of the other ideas.

5) That they represent Israel itself in its early stages. Jeremiah 2:2-3 also fits here, thus seeing them as the firstfruits, and part of the lump. But the same stricture also applies about what Israel in the wilderness really were, and it is better to think of the ideal Israel, because that was what Jeremiah had in mind. It would, however, fit well with the illustration that follows.

6) That they represent the early Jewish church as the firstfruits of the Spirit (see Romans 8:23), and the root from which the later church came. They too could look back to Jeremiah 2:2-3, and apply it to themselves, as also with Isaiah 37:31. But in their case the branches that were cast off would be nominal Christian Jews, and that is not what Paul has in mind. He was thinking of unbelieving Jews as the whole passage makes clear.

7) That they represent believing Jews and Gentiles as the root and firstfruits of the later church (Romans 8:23). This again has the disadvantage of not fitting fully the later illustration for similar reasons to 6).

It is true that as the passage goes on to deal with the ‘history’ of the later church ending at the consummation (Romans 11:25-26) we would be justified in looking forward to the later church in our interpretation as in 7). But this is unnecessary. It appears to us, in the light of the specific background, and in the light of the illustration of the olive tree that follows, that the reference is to the notional ideal Israel, possibly conjoined with the ideal Israel in its early stages and the Israel within Israel, (which in a sense is the ideal Israel), an Israel which has to be kept pure, these as depicted as the olive tree spoken of by Jeremiah. This would tie in nicely with the fact that the following verses assume that in mind is the olive tree i.e. Israel. But it may be argued that the branches that are broken off are fatal to this identification. We could, however, reply that they were broken off precisely because they could have no part in the notional ideal Israel. Whilst the olive tree could theoretically be seen as physical Israel, physical Israel as it was in Paul’s day could neither be seen as a holy root or holy branches. What is in mind is therefore a hypothetical Israel, we could say an Israel in the mind of God, that has to be kept pure. This ties in nicely with Jeremiah’s depiction in Jeremiah 2:2-3. But it would be a brave person who denied a connection with Jesus as the Messiah in view of the evidence. With His being, as He was, the true representative of Israel (Matthew 2:15; and the fact that He probably accepted baptism for this reason) we may probably see Him as combined with ideal Israel. He was after all the full representative of ideal Israel. Thus the olive tree could be seen as the ideal Israel as personified in the risen Messiah. Compare Paul’s similar picture of the church as united with the risen Christ, forming one body (Romans 12:4-5; 1 Corinthians 12:12-27). And clearly the promises to the Patriarchs were an essential part of what ideal Israel was. Thus we may see the Olive Tree as arising out of the promises to the Patriarchs, as representing an Israel being purified, and as incorporating the Messiah, the root of Jesse.

But what then do the lump and the branches represent?

Again there are a number of possibilities:

1) They indicate the Israel within Israel (Romans 9:6). In favour of this is that they are stated to be ‘holy’, that is, set apart to God. This is especially so as in the New Testament ‘being holy’ almost always indicates being morally pure, either positionally in Christ, or literally. Against it is that in the illustration that follows some of the branches, those which are broken off, are clearly not holy in this way. On the other hand Paul may well in Romans 11:16 have had in mind the branches which were permanent. Certainly if we see the fathers or ideal Israel as the firstfruits and the lump, then Romans 9:6-27 and Romans 11:1-2 do suggest that the elect are in mind, the latter depending on how we interpret ‘foreknew’. If Jesus Christ is in mind the same would apply. Also against it, however, is the fact that the following illustration clearly includes both Jews and Gentiles as branches. This would point to 3).

2) They indicate physical Israel seen as an entity, but not necessarily as a whole, i.e. not as necessarily including every Israelite. In favour of this is that in the illustration that follows there are both branches that are retained and branches that are broken off. The branches that are grafted in would be seen as not in mind in Romans 11:16, although they may be seen as becoming a part of physical Israel in the same way as proselytes do. Against this, if the fathers are seen as the firstfruits and the root, is that Romans 9:6-27 and Romans 11:1-2 are against it. Those passages speak only of the elect in Israel. (Or if we see Israel as an entity as foreknown in Romans 11:2, then simply Romans 9:6-27). Also against is that the lump and branches in Romans 11:16 are seen as ‘holy, but it may be argued that what is in mind is not moral holiness but positional holiness in the sense that they are favoured by God.

3) They indicate God’s elect, both Jew and Gentile, as the true Israel of God. Greatly in favour of this is that the illustration that follows includes both Jews and Gentiles. Against is that the illustration that follows includes branches that are broken off. But again these may not have been in mind in Romans 11:16. It would also fit the context which includes the idea of the salvation of the Gentiles (Romans 11:11).

Which interpretation we take will partly depend on how we interpret what follows, especially Romans 11:25-28, something that we will now consider.

End of Excursus.

Taking up our suggestion that the firstfruit and root represent ideal, spiritual Israel, probably seen together with the Messiah, the root of David, and that the lump and the branches represent the true people of God (including both Jews and believing Gentiles), the unworthy having been cast off, the illustration is indicating that the holiness of God’s ideal people (Jeremiah 2:3), and probably of the Messiah, will be passed on to God’s people in Paul’s day, supplying them with provision and fruitfulness, which would be why the false branches have to be rooted out. This process is now described further with regard to the root and the branches.


Verse 17

‘But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, being a wild olive, were grafted in among them, and became partaker with them of the root of the fatness of the olive tree,’

It is in this verse that we first learn that the olive tree is in mind, certainly in so far as Romans 11:17 onwards are in mind. It is difficult, however, to avoid the conclusion from the phrase ‘but if some of the branches were broken off’ that these words assume that the branches of the olive tree have already been referred to in some way, i.e. in Romans 11:16 as ‘the root and the branches’, especially as Romans 11:18 refers to the root of the olive tree as though it represented the tree, and sees the branches as arising from it. The passage might just, however, be seen as standing apart from Romans 11:16. But, however we see that, the olive tree is certainly in mind from now onwards, and that points to Jeremiah 11:16 where ‘the green olive tree’ is specifically the name by which God calls Israel (‘He has called your name “Green Olive Tree”). Compare also Hosea 14:6 and Jewish tradition which both compare Israel to an olive tree. It will be noted in Jeremiah 11:16 that as such it is burned and its branches are broken, a picture indicating the parlous state of Israel at that time. That was, of course, the situation in Jeremiah’s day, not necessarily the permanent situation of the olive tree as representing Israel. But it does indicate a tree that was marred.

The point being made here is that branches have been broken off the olive tree, and it is clear from the context (e.g. Romans 11:20) that this refers to unbelieving Israel who have rejected their Messiah. A similar picture is given by Jesus in John 15:1-6 where ‘abiding in Messiah’ is the test, that is hearing Him and responding to Him and His words, whilst those who do not abide are removed and burned. Additionally in Paul’s illustration other wild olive branches are engrafted in, who clearly represent Gentile believers. The Gentile believers then commence partaking of the root of the fatness of the olive tree, in other words of all its benefits. They begin to partake of the Messiah, and of the ideal Israel that He represents. They have become a part of Israel, for it must be noted here that these branches now become a part of the olive tree, and thus a part of Israel (however defined). From now on they‘are Israel’. Thus Israel now consists of Jews and some Gentiles as indeed it did before, but the difference now is that their faith is in the Messiah rather than in the Law. The olive tree in its entirety continues to be ideal Israel. The broken off branches cease to be a part of Israel. Here the true Israel in God’s eyes is seen to be finally composed of the elect, both Jews and Gentiles, as in Romans 9:24.

It should be noted how all this parallels chapter 9, where the chosen remain within the promises of God (Romans 9:7-13), including later the Gentile believers (Romans 9:24), whilst those who are not chosen are separated off (Ishmael, the sons of Keturah, Esau), whilst in chapter 10 it is by being engrafted into the Messiah that men find salvation, whilst those who do not respond to the Messiah are cut off, they fail to hear the report about the Messiah.

Paul has been criticised for not recognising that it is not sound horticulture to graft wild olive branches into a good olive tree, but in fact it is known that exactly this principle was carried out by certain ancient horticulturalists, the wild olive branches revivifying the olive tree. But that is beside the point, for Paul is using an illustration in order to get over a point, not claiming that it is good horticultural practise in real life.


Verse 18

‘Do not glory over the branches. But if you do glory, it is not you who bears the root, but the root you.’

The assumption here might be that Gentile Christians in Rome have been gloating over the situation as regards unbelieving Israel. It may, however, simply be that Paul foresees the danger of that happening (having seen it elsewhere) and is simply trying to prevent it. But that there were differences between Jewish and Gentile Christians in Rome comes out in chapters 14-15. Whichever way it is, his point is that they should not so glory in themselves, but should rather remember what they owe to Israel as the producer of the Messiah (Romans 9:5), and the preserver of God’s oracles (Romans 3:2). They owe what they now are to the root. Let them rejoice in what their salvation has brought. But let them not despise those who already had the word of God, even though they did hold it in unbelief. For their blessing has come from the root of Israel in one way or another. It is significant that the branches are seen as being borne by the root rather than the tree, for this closely connects the root with the tree and therefore connects with Romans 11:16, ‘and if the root be holy so are the branches’.


Verse 19

‘You will say then, “Branches were broken off, that I might be grafted in.” ’

He then forestalls an objection which he sees as possibly arising (and which he may have heard said among certain carnal Gentile Christians), and that is, said rather gloatingly, that the branches were broken off so that they as Gentiles might be grafted in. Said without gloating that would be perfectly true. But it is a sad reflection that we can admit that the gloating might well have been true, although it must be recognised in mitigation that it might have been in retaliation to the gloating of certain Jews over them as Gentiles. The fact is that carnal Christians can have a tendency to gloat over the benefits that God has given them, rather than simply receiving them with heartfelt gratitude and praise. Compare Romans 3:27; Romans 4:2. And this just as the Jews tended to gloat over the Gentiles. What we must always remember is that anything that we have received has been by the unmerited favour of God. While we may glory in it in the sense of having gratitude to God for the wonders that we have received, we should not gloat over it. Thus they (and we) are to beware of gloating over their privileges.


Verse 20

‘Well, by their unbelief they were broken off, and you stand by your faith. Do not be highminded, but fear,’

So Paul reminds them that the Jewish branches were broken off because of their unbelief, whilst they themselves have been engrafted in, by faith in the Messiah. Thus they should not be highminded, seeing themselves as something special by their own merits, but should rather recognise that they owe it all to Christ. Indeed they should be on their guard, ‘working out’ their salvation with fear and trembling as God works it within them (Philippians 2:12-13), recognising that it is only through faith in God’s goodness and Christ’s sacrifice that they enjoy the position that they are in.

We see in these verses the clear interconnection between the major theme of the salvation of the Gentiles through being incorporated in the olive tree, and the secondary theme of behaving in a godly manner towards the unbelieving Jews.


Verse 21

‘For if God spared not the natural branches, neither will he spare you.’

For let them recognise that they are only allowed to be in the olive tree as a consequence of their faith in the Messiah. Let that faith but cease (demonstrating that it was not genuine, compare Mark 4:16-17) and they will soon discover that they are not spared.


Verse 22

‘Behold then the goodness and severity of God. Towards those who fell, severity; but towards you, God’s goodness, if you continue in his goodness, otherwise you also will be cut off.’

So their current position should make them recognise both the goodness and severity of God. Goodness towards those who continue in His goodness by continuing faith and obedience, and severity towards those who had fallen through not believing in the Messiah. But those who do not continue to benefit from His goodness through faith will inevitably find themselves also cut off.

We too should recognise the goodness and severity of God. The problem with the church at the present day is that so many rejoice in His goodness, without recognising His severity. We need to hold the two in balance. This is not to suggest that somehow we must seek to maintain our faith by ourselves, for it is God Who maintains our faith if we are His (John 10:27-29; 1 Corinthians 1:8-9; Philippians 1:6; Jude 1:24; 1 Peter 1:7). It is rather to warn that if we do not continue to truly believe it will be a sign that our faith was not genuinely in Him, otherwise He would have maintained it.


Verses 22-32

The Gentile Christians Are To Recognise Both The Goodness And Severity Of God (11:22-32).

So the Gentile Christians are to recognise both the goodness and the severity of God. Towards the unbelieving Jews who had rejected His Son, the Messiah, He showed severity. Towards the Gentiles He had shown goodness. But if they did not continue in that goodness by faith and obedience, they too would be cut off from the true Israel, and therefore from salvation. They too would experience His severity. Meanwhile if the unbelieving Jews changed their minds and began to believe in the Messiah they would be grafted in again. And the hardness which has happened to part of Israel will continue until the consummation, when the full number of the Gentiles will have come in to join the number of the elect, and will have responded to Christ (Messiah), at which point it will mean that all the elect have been gathered so that all who were to be part of the true Israel, including the full number of the Gentiles, will have been saved, and that in accordance with Scripture.


Verse 23

‘And they also, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again.’

And the inference is that if those Jews who have been cut off through unbelief begin to have faith in the Messiah, they will be regrafted in. They will become a part of the true Israel. And consequently they will be saved. All is dependent on the electing grace of God.


Verse 24

‘For if you were cut out of what is by nature a wild olive tree, and were grafted contrary to nature into a good olive tree, how much more will these, which are the natural branches, be grafted into their own olive tree?’

Indeed, Paul points out, in the realm of the spirit the natural branches will ‘take’ better than the branches which were wild, and therefore not so well adapted to the olive tree. While this may not be good horticulture, it is certainly true in the realm of spiritual things. The Jews had at that time the built in advantage of having a greater familiarity with the Scriptures which could only be an aid to them in coming to the Messiah. How easily then would they adapt, as their changed attitude towards their Messiah resulted in the Scriptures that they knew, and that they were brought up on, coming alive to them.

We must once again underline here that if the olive tree in any way represents Israel, and it is difficult to see how it does not in one way or another, then by Paul’s illustration believing Gentiles are seen as becoming a part of Israel. TheybecomeIsrael just as prior to Christ’s coming Gentile proselytes were seen as becoming a part of Israel. This also ties in with the idea that Jesus is revealed as the representative Who embodied Israel in Himself, in which case Gentiles who become ‘in Christ’ are necessarily made part of Israel in Him. See further on the question of whether the Gentile converts become Israel, the excursus at the end of this chapter.

God’s Final Purpose.

Paul now emphasises that God’s final purpose is that ‘the full number of the Gentiles will be gathered in, in this way all Israel will be saved’. We have seen in context that the elect of Israel at the time have become acceptable to God, i.e. have been saved (Romans 11:5), (and we can therefore assume that that applies to all the elect of Israel through the ages) and that Paul is hopeful for the conversion of ‘some’ more (Romans 11:14), and that salvation has also come to the elect Gentiles (Romans 11:11). Taken together in line with the illustration of the olive tree this would indicate that all ‘elect Israel including elect Gentiles’ have been saved.


Verse 25

‘For I would not, brothers and sisters, have you ignorant of this mystery, lest you be wise in your own conceits, that a hardening in part has befallen Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles be come in,’

Paul now makes clear to the Roman church as a whole, a ‘mystery’, (a secret that has now been revealed) concerning which he does not want them to be ignorant, in order that they might not cherish wrong ideas which might make them conceited (i.e. that the Gentiles among them might feel that they are somehow superior to the Jews). And the revealed secret is that a hardening in part has happened to Israel, until ‘the full number of the Gentiles has come in’, (that is, until all the elect among the Gentiles have become Christians). He has already explained how and why this was true. It was by their being joined with the Messiah and with the true Israel. And it was in order that it might provoke the unbelieving Jews to jealousy, so that they too might seek their Messiah. The hardening is, of course, that hardening which is the consequence of obstinacy and unbelief, which is nevertheless seen as the work of God (Romans 9:18; Romans 11:8-10). It makes them enemies of the Gospel (Romans 11:28). As this hardening is said only to affect ‘Israel’ in part, ‘Israel’ here clearly signifies the whole of Israel, both believing and unbelieving, and there is no reason why we should not see it as incorporating Gentile believers (as it certainly includes Gentile proselytes). It is we who tend to exclude Gentile believers from Israel, not Paul (see the excursus at the end of this chapter). So while there has been a hardening, it has not affected the Israel within Israel as defined in Romans 9:6, nor any believing Gentiles who have been incorporated into Israel.

‘That a hardening in part has befallen Israel, until --.’ It will be noted that such a hardening is mentioned twice in chapter 9-11 and in both cases it is permanent and thus results in judgment. See Romans 9:17-18; Romans 11:7-10; and compare also Mark 8:17. There is thus no reason for thinking that ‘until’ means ‘then once that is over something else will happen’, i.e. the process of saving Israel will begin. It can equally mean that the hardening will go on until the last Gentile has come in, and then will come the judgment. In this respect we should note the uncertainty lying behind Paul’s references to Israelites being restored in Romans 11:12-24. He hopes it will happen, with happy consequences, but he is not sure. There is no confident certainty. See Romans 11:12; Romans 11:14 (note ‘some of them’), Romans 11:15, Romans 11:23-24 (note the ‘if’). This does not sound like a triumphant confidence in the salvation of large numbers of Jews. It is an expressed hope. One cannot but feel that if he was aware that he was building up to declaring that large numbers of extra Israelites would be saved, his expressions in these verses would have been more positive.

‘Until the fullness of the Gentiles be come in.’ In this case pleroma probably means full number. However, if we translate as ‘completeness’ we get the same result. (Either is possible). The point is that all Gentiles who are elect will have been saved as a necessary part of ‘all Israel’ being saved (compare Matthew 8:11). But what then have the Gentiles ‘come in’ to? The most obvious answer in the context is that they have ‘come in to Israel’, that is, into the community of the elect. This is suggested by the context. See Romans 11:16-24 taken in context with Romans 11:6. They have been grafted into the olive tree. They have come into the ideal Israel. In this connection it should be noted that Jewish sects at the time (such as those in Qumran) were also speaking of ‘entering into the elect community’.

Other suggestions are that it refers to ‘coming in to the Kingly Rule of God’ (e.g. Matthew 18:3; Matthew 19:23; Luke 18:7; Luke 18:20; Luke 18:25; ), translated as ‘entering into the Kingly Rule of God/Heaven’, or that it refers to ‘coming in’ to the sphere of salvation (found nowhere in the New Testament), or to ‘coming in to life (Matthew 18:8; Matthew 19:17-18; Mark 9:43; Mark 9:45), or to ‘coming in to their rest’ (Hebrews 3:18-19; Hebrews 4:6). The verb is only rarely used by Paul, see Romans 5:12; 1 Corinthians 14:23-24 neither of which are relevant here, which would suggest that it has to be interpreted by the context, i.e. entering in to Israel , or entering into salvation, compare verse Romans 11:11. On the other hand it should be noted that the latter reference speaks of salvation as ‘coming to them’, which is the common idea in the New Testament, and may therefore exclude our seeing a reference here to entering into salvation. The New Testament nowhere speaks of entering into salvation. It is ‘obtained’ not entered into. Thus the Pauline background suggests that ‘entering in’ means entering into the true Israel.


Verse 26

‘And in this way all Israel will be saved.’

He had made clear in Romans 11:6 that the elect of Israel had, from God’s point of view, been guaranteed salvation. Now he indicates that once the number of the Gentile elect have been made up, it completes the make up of the true Israel. Thus all Israel will have been saved, including the elect Jews of Romans 11:5, and the elect Gentiles of Romans 11:16-24. Together with the elect Jews, the elect Gentiles will form the true Israel, the Israel of God (Galatians 6:16; compare 1 Peter 2:9). It is this Israel which is following the Messiah, and which is now seen as true Israel in God’s eyes. The unbelievers are cut off from Israel (even though for convenience sake having the term Israel applied to them by men). It is noteworthy that in the context of chapter 11 the idea of salvation has previously been specifically applied to the Gentiles (Romans 11:11), with an added hope that some Jews will be saved (Romans 11:14). In Romans 10:10 whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. When the idea of salvation is applied to the Jews it is only a remnant who will be saved (Romans 9:27; Romans 11:14). This would serve to confirm that in mind here are a large number of Gentiles combined with a sizeable remnant of the Jews.

The fact that all Israel being saved occurs at the point at which the full number of the Gentiles have ‘come in’, that is, have entered into the olive tree and have thus been saved (Romans 11:11), in itself makes us recognise that this event of the conversion of the last Gentile must be included in the reference to ‘all Israel’. It is difficult to see how the salvation of large numbers of Jews can be seen as following the salvation of the final Gentile. And if they, were how could they be ‘life from the dead’ to the Gentiles (Romans 11:15)? The resurrection surely follows almost immediately on the conversion of the last Gentile. On the other hand, if ‘all Israel’ includes the believing Gentiles then everything fits perfectly. And we would expect this to be so precisely because believing Gentiles have, by believing, become a part of Israel. They have been engrafted into the olive tree.

Thus as we see from our discussion above this sentence signifies that all the redeemed of both Jews and Gentiles, that is all who truly believe in the Messiah, will at this point, at the final consummation, have been saved and will form what is Israel in God’s eyes. God’s work of grace will have been completed. The full number of the elect will have been made up. All that will now remain is the rapture of the saints, the resurrection of the dead and the final judgment (1 Thessalonians 4:14-18; 1 Corinthians 15:52).

It makes little difference from this point of view whether we translate the opening houtos as ‘and then’ or ‘and so’ or ‘and in consequence of this process’ or ‘and in this manner’. All would result in the same conclusion. ‘In this manner’ is the most likely for grammatical reasons, and Romans 11:25-26 would then be seen as indicating, ‘the fullness of the Gentiles will come in, and in this manner all Israel will be saved’ which confirms what is said above, that the coming in of the fullness of the Gentiles results in all Israel having finally been saved. But we would not want to labour this translation

Romans 11:26-27 ‘Even as it is written, “There will come out of Zion the Deliverer (Redeemer). He will turn away ungodliness from Jacob. And this is my covenant to them, when I shall take away their sins.”

‘Even as it is written.’ Paul now cites Scripture to support his case. The first question here is as to whether this citation is intended by Paul simply to refer to ‘all Israel will be saved’, or whether he sees it as referring to, ‘until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in, and in this manner all Israel will be saved’, thus patently including the believing Gentiles. It seems most probable that he intends to cover by the quotation the totality of what has gone before, otherwise why does he not give a citation supporting the fullness of the Gentiles coming in, something which he has always done previously (Romans 9:25-26; Romans 10:18; Romans 10:20)? Had the verses not been divided up as they have been, this would be more obvious to the casual reader.

The quotation is taken from a slightly altered Isaiah 59:20-21 a LXX supplemented by Isaiah 27:9 LXX. Isaiah 59:20-21 a LXX reads, ‘And the deliverer will come for Sion’s sake (MT ‘to Zion’: Paul ‘out of Zion’), and will turn away ungodliness from Jacob, and this will be my covenant with them ---’ (Isaiah 59:20-21 a LXX). Note the replacement of ‘for Zion’s sake’ by ‘out of’. We do not know where Paul obtained ‘out of’ from (unless it was Psalms 14:7), but if he is applying the verse to the Gentiles we can see the reason for the change. The Redeemer has to come ‘out of’ Jerusalem in order to reach the Gentiles. Isaiah 27:9 LXX reads ‘Therefore will the iniquity of Jacob be taken away; and this is his blessing,when I shall have taken away his sin(Isaiah 27:9 LXX). It will be noted that it is the last part that is cited by Paul, but that the first part mainly parallels the idea in Isaiah 59:20, ‘and will turn away ungodliness from Jacob’, thus being apposite.

The point is that as a result of God’s covenant the Deliverer will come ‘out of Zion’ (He being related to Zion in one way or another in all the texts), and will turn away ungodliness from Jacob, forgiving their sins. Thus as a consequence ‘Jacob’ will be saved. But as we have seen in Romans 11:17-24, and will see in the excursus, ‘Jacob’ includes both believing Jews and believing Gentiles, for the believing Gentiles have been engrafted into Israel/Jacob (Romans 11:17-24). Thus God’s covenant with Israel holds good, and it is finally fulfilled for all of the true Israel as recognised by God, who, whether Jew or Gentile, have responded to their Redeemer, the Messiah (Romans 3:24). This interpretation is confirmed by the verses that follow where the final intention is claimed to be that God ‘will have mercy on all’, both Jews and Gentiles (Romans 11:30-32).

The advantage of the interpretation that we have given is that it takes the ‘all’ in Romans 11:26 as literally meaning ‘all. But is this what Paul is saying? This question will be dealt with in an Excursus.

EXCURSUS. Who Does The ‘All Israel’ Represent In 11:26?

Interpretation of Romans 11:25-26 initially raises the question as to what ‘all Israel’ means. There are four possibilities:

1) That it means all the elect of Israel, including co-joined elect Gentiles who are ingrafted, as explained above.

2) That it means all the elect of Israel as interpreted by the principle in Romans 11:5, that is, the elect from among the Jews. This would include Gentiles who had been circumcised and had submitted to the Law, thus becoming proselyte Jews, who were part of the elect.

3) That it means literally all Jews alive at the time. Some scholars benevolently go for this option, usually because they believe in universal salvation, but it hardly ties in with the remainder of Scripture. There is no precedent anywhere in Scripture for such an ‘all without exception’ when dealing with large numbers. Nor, in our view, can we seriously contemplate every Jew in every part of the world, without exception, responding to the Messiah over a short period. It would go contrary to the whole tenor of Scripture. And that is so even if we leave it to God to determine who should be called a Jew. Indeed even the optimistic Jews do not see ‘all Israel’ in a context like this as literally meaning ‘all Israel’. Thus the Mishnah tractate Sanhedrin Romans 10:1 says ‘all Israel has a portion in the age to come’ and then goes on to list Israelites who are excluded.

4) That it means simply a large number of the Jews alive at the time, who would then become part of the elect. This possibility arises because pas does not always mean ‘all’. It can rather mean ‘a good many’ especially when applied to a noun signifying people. Consider the use of pas (‘all, a good many’) in Matthew 2:3; Matthew 3:5; Matthew 21:10; Mark 1:5; Mark 11:18; Luke 21:38; Luke 24:19; John 8:2; Acts 3:11; Acts 5:34; Acts 19:27; Acts 21:27; etc. where in each case it clearly means simply ‘a good number of’. The hope taken from this interpretation is that it would signify a worldwide revival. It would be nice if it was true, but we must not base our interpretation on wishful thinking.

As will be noted the first three interpretations take pas to literally mean ‘all’, which it often does. The last takes an equally valid translation of pas as signifying ‘a good number’. So the question is, which of the four possibilities are in mind in Paul’s statement that ‘in this way (manner) all Israel will be saved’. Again we must list the possibilities, and then expand on them. They will be dealt with in reverse order.

It is considered possible:

1) That he meansall of ‘the Israel within Israel’ of Romans 9:6 plus a large proportion of Israel who are alive in the end times, as a consequence of a spiritual revival which brings them to believe in Jesus as the Messiah, the latter then, of course, becoming a part of the ‘Israel within Israel’. In other words it means the vast majority of the Jews alive at the time.

It is argued that strongly in favour of this interpretation is the mention of Israel in Romans 11:25 where it is clear that the whole of Israel is in mind, a part of which is already hardened. It has even been said that ‘it is impossible to entertain an exegesis which takes Israel in Romans 11:26 in a different sense from Israel in Romans 11:25’. But is this correct? For such a statement ignores the fact that Paul has already distinguished two Israels in Romans 9:6, which indicates that when speaking theologically we can distinguish between elect Israel and physical Israel, and while Romans 11:25 is possibly referring to physical Israel there can be little doubt that Romans 11:26 is referring to Israel as seen theologically in terms of salvation (as in Romans 9:6). That being so the comment can be seen as invalidated. Paul had no problem with such a distinction in Romans 9:6. Why should he have one here? It is precisely the situation where such a distinction would be maintained.

Besides the Israel in Romans 11:25 is the whole of Israel without exception, whilst few scholars would actually claim that every single Israelite is seen as being saved in Romans 11:26. Indeed, even the Rabbis did not believe that. There were some Jews whom even they could not see as being included. Thus whatever view we take the two Israel are not the same. They would only be the same if Paul was indicating that literally every acknowledged Israelite would be saved, and that would be to go contrary to all that we know of God’s revealed ways. The only ones who would accept this are universalists, those who believe that all men will be saved, something which is contrary to the teaching of Scripture.

But if it is true that we can differentiate ‘Israel’ when used simply to denote the nation historically, from Israel when it is used theologically of those who are acceptable to God, as Romans 9:6 demonstrates, then there is no reason why Paul should not do so when speaking in a context of salvation, a context in which the reader would expect the distinction to be made. It must therefore be considered likely that when speaking of the final number of the saved the reader would immediately expect such a distinction. He would have remembered that, ‘They are not all Israel who are of Israel.’ The former is the whole of Israel, the latter is the true Israel of God. And in the end it is only the true Israel of God who can be saved. Thus ‘all Israel being saved’ would immediately alert the Christian reader to the distinction (he would know that it did not include unbelievers). But we have only to translate as ‘a large number’ to remove the problem altogether.

Furthermore, another reason why Romans 11:26 cannot mean that all, or even the vast majority of physical Israel, would be saved, is because the idea thatallIsrael would be saved, signifying physical Israel, would go contrary to what Paul has said earlier. It is contrary to the impression given in Romans 9:27-28 where ‘it is the remnant that will be saved’; to that in Romans 9:29 where it says, ‘except the Lord of Sabaoth had left us a seed’; and to that in Romans 10:21 where it says, ‘all the day long did I spread out my hands to a disobedient and obstinate people’, which gives the impression of a situation which will continue. For it will be noted that Paul never seeks to modify the picture given by saying, ‘but don’t worry, all will change at the end’. Rather he is explaining why it is that by only a remnant being saved God’s purpose and promises as contained in Scripture are fulfilled.

It is true that the case for this interpretation might be seen as strengthened if we see the statement in Romans 11:28 that, ‘as touching the Gospel they are enemies for your sakes, but as touching the election they are beloved for the fathers’ sakes, for the gifts and calling of God are without repentance’, in the way that some scholars do. It can then be argued that the ‘they’, in each case, refers to unbelieving Israel, and that those hardened as enemies of the Gospel most naturally refers back to the quotation in Romans 11:26-27. The quotation in Romans 11:26-27 is supporting the fact that there would be a widespread spiritual response to the Deliverer, and a widespread turning away from ‘ungodliness’, (a term which must include rejection of the Messiah). These verses would then support the idea of a good many of Israel being saved. But they would not support the idea that every Israelite would be saved.

However, it should be noted that there is no connecting word connecting Romans 11:28 with what has gone before (something more important in Greek than in English). Thus it is more likely that Romans 11:28 refers back to the Israel in Romans 11:25 where all Israel is literally included, an Israel which includes both believing and unbelieving (hardened) Israel. The first part of Romans 11:28 could then be seen as referring to ‘the hardened’ and the second part to ‘the elect’, with it making no claim about salvation for the whole of Israel. And besides, the favour spoken of in Romans 11:28 is not necessarily seen as resulting in salvation. It merely indicates God’s continued interest in them. So Romans 11:28 does not really give the support that is looked for.

But in view of Paul’s clear view of Israel as including both believing Jews and believing Gentiles there are really no ground for excluding believing Gentiles from the ‘many of Israel’ who would be saved. The only grounds for such an exclusion would be the contrast between Romans 11:25 b and 26a. But closer examination reveals that that is not a contrast but a declaration that the full number of Gentiles would have come in, resulting in ‘a large part of Israel’ (or even ‘all Israel’ if we see it as referring to the elect) being saved. Thus we can translate, ‘until the full number of Gentiles has come in, in this way a large number of Israel will be saved.’

2) That he means all of ‘the Israel within Israel’ (Romans 9:6), in other words all of the elect of Israel. This would certainly, on the face of it, tie in with the whole of chapters 9-11. It would also be supported by the fact that in Romans 9:6 the term Israel is used theologically (meaning ‘in God’s eyes’) in order to denote the elect of Israel, while its use in Romans 11:26 is also theological (meaning ‘in God’s eyes’), and needing to be defined, unlike all the other references to Israel. In other words the idea would be that ‘all Israel’ theologically, i.e. as seen in God’s eyes, has in mind the elect of Israel. And this can further be supported by Romans 9:27 where it is clearly stated from Scripture that only the remnant of Israel will be saved. (How can we have only a remnant saved and yet all Israel literally be saved?) This would then mean that the ‘all Israel’ who will be saved is the remnant who are the true Israel, the elect. But this would be to ignore the fact that the believing Gentiles have become a part of Israel.

3) That he means all the elect of God both Jew and Gentile, because all are branches of the olive tree. This case can be seen as supported by a number of arguments. Firstly on the grounds already stated that we must distinguish Israel as theologically stated as ‘the Israel within Israel’ from the use of ‘Israel’ simply as the best way of referring back to the Israel of the past. Most of the references to Israel are in the latter category, and it is difficult to see what other term Paul could have used in order to get over his point (in view of Romans 2:28-29 the use of ‘the Jews’ would have been uncertain). But in both Romans 9:6 and Romans 11:26 the essence of Israel is in mind theologically, with the latter being expanded in terms of the fact that believing Gentiles have been incorporated into Israel in accordance with Romans 11:17-24.

Secondly by the statement in Romans 9:27 that ‘only the remnant will be saved’, signifying that the ‘all Israel’ of Romans 11:26, if it simply means Jews, includes only the remnant of Israel.

Thirdly because Paul tells us in Galatians that ‘if you are Christ’s then are you Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise’ (Galatians 3:29). Being of the seed of Abraham and belonging to the Messiah surely signifies being members of the true Israel. Thus this verse indicates that all believing Gentiles are members of the true Israel. Furthermore Paul says in Romans that ‘the promise is sure to all the seed, not to that only which is of the Law, but to that also which is of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all, as it is written, a father of many nations have I made you’ (Romans 4:16). This is the promise of salvation which is made to all men who believe whether Jew or Gentile, and their being ‘of the faith of Abraham’ indicates that they are a part of the true Israel.

Fourthly because in the context Paul emphasises that the elect of Israel having been saved (Romans 11:7), the Gentiles also need to be gathered in, so as to make one olive tree, that is, one Israel. In other words the reason why the fullness of the Gentiles needs to ‘come in’, is so that all Israel, both Jew and Gentile, might be saved together (Romans 11:12). Indeed this salvation of the Gentiles by being joined with Israel (the olive tree) is the main theme of the passage (see commentary on Romans 11:11), which means that we would expect the two together to be the climax.

We would expect from this emphasis that the climax of the age would therefore centre, not on physical Israel all being saved (as distinct from the Gentiles), or even on elect Israel being saved, but on both the elect Jews and the elect Gentiles being saved together. However, the only way that this can be read out of Romans 11:26 is if ‘all Israel’ being saved includes the Gentiles. It was because of this that the Gentiles were not to become conceited, but must continue their efforts to win over even more of the Jews. They must do it because God intended them all to be grafted into the one tree so that ‘all Israel (both Jew and proselyte) might be saved’.

Fifthly because in accordance with the illustration of the olive tree the fullness of the Gentiles, along with the elect of Israel, ARE Israel. This is the consistent message of the New Testament (Galatians 6:16; Ephesians 2:11-22; 1 Peter 1:1; 1 Peter 2:9; James 1:1; etc). All believing Gentiles are incorporated into Israel andbecomeIsrael (they do not replace Israel). For more detail on this see the excursus at the end of the chapter.

Sixthly, because the hardness of a part of Israel is to last until the full number of the Gentiles has come in, at which point ‘all Israel will be saved’. Can we really see Paul as saying that once the last Gentile has been converted a work will begin that will result in huge numbers of Jews being converted, without any more Gentiles being converted? But if the conversion of the last Gentile makes up the total number of ‘all Israel as he/she is engrafted into the olive tree then the whole makes sense..

Seventhly, because it is difficult to see Paul as deliberately distinguishing in the worldwide church between ‘the fullness of the Gentiles’ on the one hand, and ‘all Israel’ (signifying all believing Jews) on the other. This would appear to be holding the two elements of the early church in tension and therefore as going totally contrary to Galatians 3:28; Colossians 3:10-11 where Paul emphatically declares that there is no longer ‘Jew and/or Greek’ as far as believers are concerned. Can we really believe, in view of this, that Paul does make precisely that distinction here in the context of final salvation, demonstrating that the church is divided into two? All other comparisons in Romans between Jew and Greek have in mind their position before they became Christians (Romans 1:16; Romans 9:24; Romans 10:12). They are Jew and Greek before they are converted, at which point they become ‘Christians’ or ‘believers’, i.e. the true Israel, with no distinction being made. So for Paul to suggest a scenario which splits the church into two like this might be thought to be totally inconsistent. It would go against all that he believed. We could surely only hold such an opinion if there were absolutely incontrovertible reasons for doing so, and that is not the case here. This in our view rules out both 1). and 2).

It is no argument against this that Paul differentiates the Gentile part of the Roman church from the Jewish part, for that arises out of the failure of some to recognise that all are one in Christ Jesus. It is the failing of the church that causes it not Paul’s theology. And it is something which Paul strives to put right. Bit it would be quite another matter to say that God makes such distinctions, when Paul has elsewhere made clear that He does not.

Eighthly on the grounds that to Paul, as to the early church, ‘Israel’ very much included the whole church. For we should recognise that the only reason why we exclude the believing Gentiles from the term Israel is because in our day the church is so clearly distinct from what we see as Israel.

It is, of course, true that unbelieving Israel would not have recognised the believing Gentiles as being a part of Israel, even though they did in general accept Gentile proselytes as part of Israel, and would have recognised any Gentile joining Israel in the ‘orthodox manner’ at that time as part of Israel. So the reason for the rejection was not that the believing Gentiles were Gentiles, but that the believing Gentiles had not come into Israel in the approved manner, through circumcision and instruction in the Law. And we moderns inaccurately take the same view as them, because we see Israel as separate from the church (as using modern terminology it mainly is).

But that was not so when these words were written. When the Apostles initially went out to proclaim the Gospel they were seeking to bring Israel to recognise its Messiah. Their concern was the establishment of the true Israel on the basis of faith in the Messiah. Paul continued that emphasis. He too went first to the Jews. He too was seeking to establish the true Israel. And in both cases Gentile believers were incorporated because God demonstrated that it was His will. But we should recognise that the incorporation of believing Gentiles was not in itself something new. It had always been a policy of Israel.

In the same way the Jewish church also saw itself as very much part of Israel, indeed as the elect part of Israel, the true Israel, in the midst of a wider Israel. And there can be no doubt, as we note from Galatians 3:29; Galatians 6:16; Ephesians 2:11-22, that Paul would have included believing Gentiles in with them as part of Israel for the reasons that he has just explained in Romans 11:16-24, as indeed would most Jewish Christians. After all elsewhere Paul could describe them as ‘the Israel of God’ (Galatians 6:16). Indeed it was because the early church saw Gentile believers as becoming part of Israel that the question of circumcision arose. That was why there was such a storm about whether Gentiles being converted should be circumcised. The question was, could they become a part of Israel without being circumcised. Paul replies, ‘yes, because circumcision has been replaced by the circumcision of Christ’ (being crucified with Christ). But if the converted Gentiles were seen by Paul as having become part of Israel, that means that Israel in Romans 11:25 is also made up of Jews and believing Gentiles. This would then favour Romans 11:26 as having the same meaning to the early church.

Thus any supposed distinction arises because of the situation raised by our minds looking from our modern view point. That, however, is irrelevant to what Paul is saying. What matters is how Paul saw it. We totally distinguish Christians from Jews, although we accept that there are Jewish Christians. Christian Jews in the early church on the other hand would have seen themselves as ‘Israel’, and as including believing Gentiles who had been incorporated into Israel, just as they saw themselves as part of Israel. It would have been second nature to them. That being so ‘Israel’ spoken of in a salvation context would have been seen as automatically including all believers in the Messiah, whether former-Jew or former-Gentile.

In our view then ‘all Israel’ is inclusive of both believing ex-Jews and believing ex-Gentiles, the former being branches of the olive tree by its very nature, the latter being engrafted into the olive tree in order to become a part of it. And it is this body which IS the true Israel. It is a triumphant declaration that God’s purposes for His elect have been fulfilled (compare Romans 9:24). As a consequence unbelieving Israel are then not Israel in God’s eyes, however men see them. Paul had merely spoken of them as Israel previously because he has no other term that he could use to indicate their identification with the Israel of the Old Testament. So he uses ‘Israel’ in two senses. Firstly to indicate the elect (Romans 9:6), and secondly in order to indicate historical Israel. If this argument is accepted then it is clear that ‘all Israel’ includes ‘the full number of believing Gentiles’ as well as the elect of Israel, both together forming the true Israel (the true Vine; see excursus at the end of the chapter). This is not to deny that there are various indications elsewhere that there will be an increase in Jewish conversions to the Messiah in the end days by their becoming part of the Israel within Israel through faith in the Messiah, although it is regularly depicted as a remnant. It is only to deny that it is specifically in mind here.

End of Excursus.


Verse 28-29

‘As touching the gospel, enemies for your sake, but as touching the election, beloved for the fathers’ sake. For the gifts and the calling of God are not repented of.’

As has already been noted this statement is not connected with what has been said previously by any connecting word, something which is much more significant in ancient Greek than in English. For where there was no punctuation such devices were necessary.

One way of seeing these words is as signifying that God has not forsaken His people, because while in respect of the Gospel one part of the Jews are enemies so that the Gentiles might benefit by receiving the Gospel, in respect of God’s election (‘for your sake’), another part of the Jews (the elect) are beloved because God has remembered His promises to the fathers (‘for the father’s sake’), the latter demonstrating that the gifts and calling of God are not repented of. In them He has fulfilled His promises to the fathers, and as promised has saved a remnant out of Israel (Romans 9:27). This interpretation might be seen as confirmed by Romans 15:8 where it is said that the promises are confirmed to those who respond to the truth of God.

As has been noted this verse does not open with a connecting word. It is not, therefore, referring directly to something spoken of previously. Rather it is commencing a new subject. The first part clearly refers to unbelieving Jews, and indicates either their enmity ‘to the Gospel’ or their enmity ‘in the light of the Gospel’, or simply to the fact that they are enemies of God. Whichever way it is they are opposed to God and His Gospel, and are His enemies. More in question is the remainder. Is it indicating that God has not wholly cast off the unbelieving part of ‘Israel’ for the fathers’ sake, even though, as Messiah rejecters, He does not see them as the true Israel? Or is it speaking only of ‘the elect’ and their ‘election’ and indicating that they as the true Israel are beloved of God?

This latter interpretation would be seen as supported by the following:

1) The fact that in Romans the ‘beloved of God’ are believers (Romans 1:7).

2) The fact that those who were to be called ‘beloved’ were those who were now His believing people (Romans 9:27), whereas (also in Romans 9:27) the unbelievers were not to be ‘called beloved’. This last would be a contradiction if beloved indicated the unbelievers.

3) It would tie in with the fact that in Romans 11:7 ‘the election’ signifies ‘the elect’, thus we would expect to relate it here to believers. We should note in this regard that the noun for ‘election’ (ekloge) is never used in the New Testament except in respect of believers, and is found nowhere in LXX. Thus to speak of ‘the election’ of unbelieving Israel would be without precedent in the New Testament.

4) In Romans 11:7 ‘the election’ refers to ‘the body of the elect’. If we use that here then it is the body of the elect only who are said to be beloved of God (per Romans 1:7).

5) In Romans 15:8 Christ is described as the minister of the circumcision for the truth of God that He might confirm the promises given to the fathers. Here the promises are confirmed to those who receive the truth of God.

Thus the terminology used in the phrase ‘concerning the election beloved for the fathers’ sake’ all favours reference to believers.

Note. Do The Two Parts Of Romans 11:28 Refer To Two Different Sections Of Israel?

What is often seen as militating against this idea is that ‘concerning the election’ is in parallel with ‘concerning the Gospel’. It is argued that both must therefore refer to ‘the principle of’. But there is no real reason why Paul (or his amanuensis) should not have used parallel phrases for stylistic purposes whilst at the same time having intended two different nuances, especially as in the context ‘With respect to the election they are beloved for the fathers sake’, if we take it as seeing the ‘election’ as ‘the elect’ as in Romans 11:7, makes extremely good sense. Indeed we could counter argue that the idea of ‘the gifts and calling of God’ refers to the gifts of the Gospel and the election, and that the calling refers to God’s call to those who are His, i.e. the elect, for in Paul, and especially in Romans, God’s calling is always seen as effectual calling.

And besides, even if we translate ‘in respect of the principle of the Gospel’ and ‘in respect of the principle of election’ that does not prevent the possibility that the references ‘enemies’ and ‘beloved’ are to two parts of the entity of Israel. The parallel may indicate contrast rather than similarity. ON the other hand it should be noted that the verse does NOT say ‘the principle of the Gospel’, it says ‘in respect of the Gospel’, thus the two parts are not parallel anyway. For a). the purpose of the enmity was in order that the Gospel might benefit by gaining adherents, whilst the purpose of the belovedness was not in order that the election (which is an act of God) might in some way benefit. Rather the benefit was the other way round. They were beloved because of the fathers. Thus the phrases are not parallels. b). ‘enemies for your sake’ does not strictly parallel ‘beloved for the fathers’ sake’, except gramatically. The first indicates that the believing Gentiles (for your sake) benefit from the enmity (as has been constantly indicated), but the second is not indicating that the fathers benefit from the election. Again it is the other way round. It is the beloved who benefit from the election. Thus whatever way we relate the two clauses, they are not strictly parallel thoughts. They have been made to look parallel grammatically. So this criticism that our suggested interpretation takes no account of the parallel is true for all interpretations.

Probably the majority of scholars, however, do see both parts of the verse as referring to the same people. The situation being referred to is then that, although at present many Jews are antagonistic towards those who believe in the Messiah, (or that God is antagonistic towards them), with the result that they are thereby excluded from Israel, they are not wholly cast off. They have stumbled but not necessarily so that they will fall irrevocably (Romans 11:11). For they were still those who had once belonged ‘to the elect people’ (Exodus 19:6; elect in the purposes of God, not elected to salvation), and, although they have been cast off, they are beloved for the sake of the Patriarchs, i.e. because of the promises made to the Patriarchs, with the result that God’s mercy does still reach out towards them. And this is because God’s gift and calling are not repented of. But there is no way in which this can literally be applied to all Israel, for there is nothing that is made more clear in the Old Testament than that a large part of Israel were not beloved. Thus the idea can simply be that Israel as an unparticularised continuing entity is beloved, without it signifying all Israelites..

The argument would thus be that the Gentile Christians are to avoid antagonism towards unbelieving Jews, recognising God’s continuing interest in Israel as an entity, and are therefore to love them as God loves them, hoping to win them to the Messiah. (Our argument has not been that the conclusions are not true. Clearly God does want His people to reach out to the Jews. It is only that they are not obtainable from this verse).

‘As touching the election.’ There are five possible interpretations of this phrase. It could refer to:

1) ‘The elect of Israel’ as in Romans 9:6-7.

2) The election of believers who are the beloved of God (Romans 9:11; Romans 11:5).

3) The election of potential believers, that is, of those who will in the future believe, although at present among the unbelieving.

4) The election of the fathers which has been referred to in Romans 9:6-24, with the idea being that these unbelieving Jews had been identified with the fathers in the old Israel, and were thus, as an entity, an elect people because of their relationship to the fathers. That is why God’s love still reaches out to them.

5) The election of Israel as an entity (but not in its totality).

We have already argued above for 1). and 2). As regards 4). and 5). they are said to have been beloved for the fathers’ sake, not beloved because they had once belonged to Israel. Thus 4). would seem preferable to 5).

End of Note.

‘For the gifts and the calling of God are not repented of.’ This clearly has reference to the ‘election’ of the previous verse. It could signify God’s gifts of the Gospel and of election, with the calling’ referring to effectual calling of believers, as it always previously has. Or it could indicate the fact that God had made gifts to His people (see Romans 9:4; the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the priestly service, the priesthood, the promises, the land, the promise of numerous descendants, the coming of kings, the Law) and, having called Abraham so that through his descendants all the world may be blessed, has chosen and called Israel as an entity to be a blessing to the world. None of this will be repented of. Indeed, it is fulfilled by the success of the Gospel. His true people enjoy these gifts as never before, including ‘the land’ in the new Heaven and the new earth (2 Peter 3:13).

But what may now be being seen as revealed is that God has greater gifts for Israel on top of these, namely the gift of the fullness of the Gentiles, and the gift of new branches for the olive tree, something certainly indicated in the Old Testament, although not quite to the same extent. The concept of Gentiles benefiting by Israel’s ministry is not, of course new. There were many proselytes and God-fearers who had turned to Judaism with its strict moral code, and who had been accepted, and the Old Testament continually indicates blessing to the Gentiles (e.g. Genesis 12:3; Isaiah 42:6; Isaiah 49:6; Isaiah 60:3). What is new is the nature of it. This is the mystery that has now been revealed. And that mystery is summed up in the Messiah, Christ in us the hope of glory (Colossians 1:26-27).


Verse 30-31

‘For as you in time past were disobedient to God, but now have obtained mercy by their disobedience, even so have these also now been disobedient, that by the mercy shown to you they also may now obtain mercy.’

Paul now explains the situation to the Roman Gentile Christians. He points out that they too had once been disobedient to God. But now, as a result of the disobedience of unbelieving Jews, the message of the Messiah has reached the Gentiles so that they have obtained mercy. As a consequence they are to recognise that the unbelieving Jews are now in a state of disobedience, and that because of the mercy that they themselves have received, they must take the offer of God’s mercy to unbelieving Israel, so that they too might obtain mercy. So the secondary, though important, theme of the necessity of seeing the Jews as beloved by God and having potential for salvation, continues to be emphasised.


Verse 32

‘For God has shut up all to disobedience, that he might have mercy on all.’

The section now ends with an emphasis on the primary theme, the salvation of all, both Jew and Gentile. For God’s purpose in shutting up to disobedience both Jews and Gentiles (Romans 1:18 to Romans 3:20; note especially ‘God gave them up to’), is so that He might eventually be in a position to have mercy on all (i.e. ‘all’ meaning either ‘all who will accept it by believing in the Messiah’ or ‘all’ in the sense of it being inclusive of both Jews and Gentiles). That is His hope. God is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9). But, of course, it requires repentance and belief in the Messiah, and that is what is lacking by many.


Verse 33

‘O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and the knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past tracing out!’

As Paul considers the amazing nature of God’s plan, to leave the Jews in unbelief so that the way might be opened to the Gentiles, and then sees how this in turn will result in the Gentiles going to the Jews with the Gospel, he cries out in amazement. How deep are the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God. How unsearchable are His judgments, how untraceable are His ways. He may also have had in mind the mystery of election, and indeed the mystery of God’s whole way of salvation. For all are a matter of wonder and praise. They defy human comprehension, and must therefore be accepted by faith..


Verses 33-36

Paul Marvels At The Amazing Wisdom And Knowledge Of God As He Considers God’s Way Of Working As Revealed In What He Himself Has Said (11:33-36).

Paul now marvels at the wisdom and knowledge that God has demonstrated in what He has done in using the unbelief of the Jews to bring about the evangelisation of the Gentiles, and then using the Gentiles to evangelise the Jews. It may also have in mind wonder at God’s method of salvation in chapters 1-8. But his verdict is that God’s judgments are truly unsearchable, and that His ways are beyond the ability of men to explain or trace out. And this is because there is no one in Heaven or earth who can understand the mind of God, or give Him advice on what to do. Nor is there anyone who can contribute something to God that puts Him in their debt. God is over and beyond all.


Verse 34-35

‘For who has known the mind of the Lord? or who has been his counsellor? or who has first given to him, and it will be recompensed to him again?’

For who can possibly fathom the mind of the Lord? And who could possibly counsel Him? And who could first give something to God, so that God has to recompense him? All the giving is initially done by God. It is He Who acts towards us in the first place, not we who act towards Him. It is He Who offers salvation, and we who then receive. We owe everything to God, but God never owes us anything. All the true initiative is from God. This is especially brought out by the fact that salvation is through the grace of God, and does not depend at all on the works of man. For there is nothing that we can do that can merit God’s favour and mercy. As Jesus said, when we have done all we must say, ‘I have only done that which it is my duty to do (Luke 17:10).


Verse 36

‘For of him, and through him, and to him, are all things. To him be the glory for ever. Amen.’

And the reason why what he has just declared is true is because everything, apart from sin which is an act of man, is of God. He is the source of all things (‘out of Him’), He is the controller of all things (‘through Him’), He is the goal of all things (‘to Him’). To Him therefore be the glory. Amen (this is sure).

Excursus. Is The Church The True Israel In God’s Eyes?

Is The Church the True Israel?

The question being asked here is whether the early church saw itself as the true Israel. It should be noted that by this we are not speaking of ‘spiritual Israel’, except in so far as Israel were supposed to be spiritual, or of a parallel Israel, nor are we talking about ‘replacing Israel’, but we are asking whether they saw themselves as actually beingthe continuation of the real entity of Israelwhom God had promised to bless.

In this regard the first thing we should note is that Jesus as the proclaimed Messiah spoke to His disciples of ‘building His congregation/church (ekklesia)’ (Matthew 16:18), that is, ‘the congregation of the Messiah’. Now the Greek Old Testament often used ekklesia (church) to refer to the congregation of Israel when translating the Pentateuch (see Deuteronomy 4:10; Deuteronomy 9:10; Deuteronomy 18:16; Deuteronomy 23:3; Deuteronomy 23:8; Deuteronomy 32:1). This suggests then that Jesus was here thinking in terms of building the true congregation of Israel, the remnant arising out of the old (Isaiah 6:12-13; Zechariah 13:9). It thus ties in with John 15:1-6 where He calls Himself the true vine, in contrast with old Israel, the false vine (Isaiah 5:1-7; Jeremiah 2:21). The renewed Israel is springing up from the Messiah. Indeed the reason for the adjective ‘true’ is as a direct contrast to ‘the false’.

While this did come after He had said that He had come only to ‘the lost sheep of the house of Israel’, that is those of Israel who were as sheep without a shepherd (Matthew 10:6; Matthew 15:24 compare Matthew 9:36 and see Jeremiah 50:6), it also followed the time when His thinking clearly took a new turn following His dealings with the Syro-phoenician woman, when He began a ministry in more specifically Gentile territory. So while at the core of His ‘congregation’ were to be those Jews who responded to His teaching and became His followers, He undoubtedly envisaged a wider outreach.

There is therefore good reason for thinking that in His mind the ‘congregation/church’ equates with the true ‘Israel’, the Israel within Israel (Romans 9:6), as indeed it did in the Greek translations of the Old Testament where ‘the congregation/assembly of Israel’, which was finally composed of all who responded to the covenant, was translated as ‘the church (ekklesia) of Israel’. That being so we may then see it as indicating that He was now intending to found a new Israel, which it later turned out would include Gentiles. Indeed this was the very basis on which the early believers called themselves ‘the church/congregation’, that is, ‘the congregation of the new Israel’, and while they were at first made up mainly of Jews and proselytes, which was all that the Apostles were expecting until God forcibly interrupted them, this gradually developed into including both Jews and Gentiles.

Indeed in Acts 4:27-28 Luke demonstrates quite clearly that the old unbelieving Israel is no longer, after the resurrection, the true Israel, for we read, "For in truth in this city against your holy Servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentilesand the peoples of Israel, were gathered together, to do whatever your hand and your council foreordained to come about." Note the four ‘items’ mentioned, the Gentiles, the peoples of Israel, ‘King’ (Tetrarch) Herod and Pontius Pilate the ruler. And note that these words follow as an explanation of a quotation from Psalms 2:1 in Acts 4:25-26, which is as follows:

‘Why didthe Gentilesrage,

Andthe peoplesimagine vain things,

Thekingsof the earth set themselves,

And therulerswere gathered together,

Against the Lord and against His anointed --.’

The important point to note here is that ‘the peoples’ who imagined vain things, who in the original Psalm were nations who were enemies of Israel, have now become in Acts ‘the peoples of Israel’. Thus the ‘peoples of Israel’ who were opposing the Apostles and refusing to believe are here seen as the enemy of God and His Anointed, and of His people (compare Romans 11:28). It is a clear indication that old unbelieving Israel was now seen as numbered by God among the nations (compare how Jesus told His disciples to ‘shake the dust off their feet’ when they left Jewish town which had not received them (Matthew 10:14), an action indicating that they were seen as ‘unclean Gentiles’), and that that part of Israel which had believed in Christ were seen as the true Israel. As Jesus had said to Israel, ‘the Kingly Rule of God will be taken away from you and given to a nation producing its fruits’ (Matthew 21:43). Thus the King now has a new people of Israel to guard and watch over.

The same idea is found in John 15:1-6. The false vine (the old Israel - Isaiah 5:1-7) has been cut down and replaced by the true vine of ‘Christ at one with His people’ (John 15:1-6; Ephesians 2:11-22). Here Jesus, and those who abide in Him (the church/congregation), are the new Israel. The old unbelieving part of Israel has been cut off (John 15:6) and replaced by all those who come to Jesus and abide in Jesus, that is both believing Jews and believing Gentiles (Romans 11:17-28), who together with Jesus form the true Vine by becoming its 'branches'.

The renewed Israel, the ‘Israel of God’ (Galatians 6:16), thus sprang from Jesus. And it was He Who established its new leaders who would ‘rule over (‘judge’) the twelve tribes of Israel’ (Matthew 19:28; Luke 22:30). Here ‘the twelve tribes of Israel’ refers to all who will come to believe in Jesus through His word (compare James 1:1), and the initial, if not the complete fulfilment, of this promise occurred in Acts. This appointment of His Apostles to rule 'over the tribes of Israel' was not intended to divide the world into two parts, consisting of Jew and Gentile, with the two parts seen as separate, and with Israel under the Apostles, while the Gentiles were under other rulers, but as describing a united Christian ‘congregation’ under the Apostles. Thus those over whom they ‘ruled’ would be ‘the true Israel’ which would include both believing Jews and believing Gentiles. These would thus become the true Israel.

This true Israel was founded on believing Jews. The Apostles were Jews, and were to be the foundation of the new Israel which incorporated Gentiles within it (Ephesians 2:20; Revelation 21:14). And initially all its first foundation members were Jews. Then as it spread it first did so among Jews until there were ‘about five thousand’ Jewish males who were believers to say nothing of women and children (Acts 4:4). Then it spread throughout all Judaea, and then through the synagogues of ‘the world’, so that soon there were a multitude of Jews who were ‘Christians’ (‘Messiah’s people’). Here then was the initial true Israel, a new Israel within Israel. An Israel which had accepted God’s Messiah.

But then God revealed that He had a more expanded purpose for it. Proselytes (Gentile converts) and God-fearers (Gentile adherents to the synagogues), people who were already seen as connected with Israel, began to join and they also became branches of the true vine by abiding in Christ (John 15:1-6) and were grafted into the olive tree (Romans 11:17-28). They became ‘fellow-citizens’ with the Jewish believers (‘the saints’, a regular Old Testament name for true Israelites who were seen as true believers). They became members of the ‘household of God’. (Ephesians 2:11-22). And so the new Israel sprang up, following the same pattern as the old, and incorporating believing Jews and believing Gentiles. That is why Paul could describe the new church as ‘the Israel of God’ (Galatians 6:16), because both Jews and Gentiles were now ‘the seed of Abraham’ (Galatians 3:29).

Those who deny that the church is Israel and still equate Israel with the Jews must in fact see all these believing Jews as cut off from Israel, as ‘the Jews’ in fact in time did. For by the late 1st century AD, the Israel for which those who deny that the church is Israel contend, was an Israel made up only of Jews who did not see Christian Jews as belonging to Israel. As far as they were concerned Christian Jews were cut off from Israel. And in the same way believing Jews who followed Paul’s teaching saw fellow Jews who did not believe as no longer being true Israel. They in turn saw the unbelieving Jews as cut off from Israel. As Paul puts it, ‘they are not all Israel who are Israel’ (Romans 9:6).

For the new Israel now saw themselves as the true Israel. They saw themselves as the ‘Israel of God’ (Galatians 6:16). And that is why Paul stresses to the Gentile Christians in Ephesians 2:11-22; Romans 11:17-28 that they are now a part of the new Israel having been made one with the true people of God in Jesus Christ. Paul was expressing here the view of the early church, not expounding a new teaching which had not previously been appreciated.

In order to consider all this in more detail let us look back in history.

When Abraham entered the land of Canaan having been called there by God he was promised that in him all the world would be blessed, and this was later also promised to his seed (Genesis 12:3; Genesis 18:18; Genesis 22:18; Genesis 26:4; Genesis 28:14). But Abraham did not enter the land alone. He came as head of a family tribe. In Genesis 14 we are told that he had three hundred and eighteen fighting men ‘born in his house’, in other words born to servants, camp followers and slaves. One of his own slave wives was an Egyptian (Genesis 16) and his steward was probably Syrian, a Damascene (Genesis 15:2). Thus Abraham was patriarch over a family tribe, all of whom with him inherited the promises,and they came from a number of different nationalities. Only a small proportion were actually descended from Abraham directly.

We should perhaps note that ‘Abraham’ regularly means ‘Abraham and his household’, that is, his family tribe. Compare how ‘Sennacherib, king of Assyria, came up against all the fenced cities of Judah and took them’ (Isaiah 36:1). ‘In his days Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came up’ (2 Kings 24:1). They did not do it on their own.

From Abraham came Isaac through whom the most basic promises were to be fulfilled, for God said, ‘in Isaac shall your seed be called’ (Genesis 21:12; Romans 9:7; see also Genesis 26:3-5). Thus the seed of Ishmael, who was himself the seed of Abraham, while enjoying promises from God, were excluded from the major line of promises. While prospering, they would not be the people through whom the whole world would be blessed. And this was also true of Abraham's later sons born to Keturah. Thus the large part of Abraham's descendants were at this stage already cut off from the full Abrahamic promises. As Paul puts it, as we have seen, 'In Isaac will your seed be called' (Romans 9:7).

Jacob, who was renamed Israel, was born of Isaac, and it was to him that the future lordship of people and nations was seen as passed on (Genesis 27:29) and from his twelve sons came the twelve tribes of the ‘children of Israel’. But as with Abraham these twelve tribes would include retainers, servants and slaves. The ‘households’ that moved to Egypt would include such servants and slaves. The ‘seventy’ were accompanied by wives, retainers, and their children. So the ‘children of Israel’ even at this stage would include people from many peoples and nations. They included Jacob/Israel’s own descendants and their wives, together with their servants and retainers, and their wives and children, ‘many ‘born in their house’ but not directly their seed (Genesis 15:3). Israel was already a conglomerate people. Even at the beginning they were not all literally descended from Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Most were rather ‘adopted’ into the family tribe.

When eventually after hundreds of years they left Egypt, already a mixed nation, they were then joined by a ‘mixed multitude’ from many nations, who with them had been enslaved in Egypt, and these joined with them in their flight (Exodus 12:38). So to the already mixed people of Israel were united with the mixed multitude and became even more of a mixture. At Sinai these were all joined within the covenant and became ‘children of Israel’, and when they entered the land all their males were circumcised as true Israelites (Joshua 5:8). Among these was an 'Ethiopian' (Cushite) woman who became Moses’ wife (Numbers 12:1). Thus we discover that ‘Israel’ from its commencement was an international community. Indeed it was made clear from the beginning that any who wanted to do so could join Israel and become an Israelite by submission to the covenant and by being circumcised (Exodus 12:48-49). Membership of the people of God was thus from the beginning to be open to all nations by submission to God through the covenant. It was a theocracy. And these all then connected themselves with one of the tribes of Israel, were absorbed into them, and began to trace their ancestry back to Abraham and Jacob even though they were not true born, and still in many cases retained an identifying appellation such as, for example, ‘Uriah the Hittite’. (Whether Uriah was one such we do not know, although we think it extremely probable. But there must certainly have been many who did it. Consider the list of David’s mighty men and their origins - 2 Samuel 23). And even while Moses was alive it proved necessary to make regulations as to who could enter the assembly or congregation of the Lord, and at what stage people of different nations could enter it (Deuteronomy 23:1-8), so that they could then become Israelites, and ‘sons of Abraham’.

That this was carried out in practise is evidenced by the numerous Israelites who bore a foreign name, consider for example ‘Uriah the Hittite’ (2 Samuel 11) and many of the mighty men of David (2 Samuel 23:8-28). These latter were so close to David that it is inconceivable that some at least did not become true members of the covenant by submitting to the covenant and being circumcised when it was clearly open to them through the Law. Later again it became the practise in Israel, in accordance with Exodus 12:48-49, for anyone who ‘converted’ to Israel and began to believe in the God of Israel, to be received into ‘Israel’ on equal terms with the true-born, and that by circumcision and submission to the covenant. These were later called ‘proselytes’. In contrast people also left Israel by desertion, and by not bringing their children within the covenant, when for example they went abroad or were exiled. These were then ‘cut off from Israel’, as were deep sinners. ‘Israel’ was therefore always a fluid concept, and was, at least purportedly, composed of all who submitted to the covenant.

Two examples of non-Israelites who became Israelites are found (1) in the Edomites who settled in southern Judah. When John Hyrcanus was High Priest and Governor he forced them at the point of the sword to be circumcised and become Israelites. And (2) in the large numbers of Gentiles who were resident in Galilee when it was seized by the Jews. Aristobulus treated them in the same way. Thus by the time of Jesus both groups were accepted as ‘Israelites’.

When Jesus came His initial purpose was to call back to God ‘the lost sheep of the house of Israel’ (Matthew 10:6), those in Israel who were seeking a Shepherd, and in the main for the first part, with exceptions (e.g. John 4), He limited His ministry to Jews. But notice that those Jews who would not listen to His disciples were to be treated like Gentiles. The disciples were to shake their dust off their feet (Matthew 10:14). So even during Jesus' ministry there was a cutting off as well as a welcoming. After His dealings with the Syro-phoenician woman, He appears to have expanded His thinking, or His approach, further and to have moved into more Gentile territory, and later He declared that there were other sheep that He would also call and they would be one flock with Israel (John 10:16).

Thus when the Gospel began to reach out to the Gentiles those converted were welcomed as part of the one flock. The question that arose then was, ‘did they need to be circumcised in order to become members of the new Israel?’ Was a special proselytisation necessary, as with proselytes to old Israel, which was to be evidenced by circumcision? That was what the circumcision controversy was all about. The Judaisers said 'yes' and Paul said 'No'. And the question was only askedbecause all saw these new converts as becoming a part of Israel. If they had not seen these Gentiles as becoming a part of Israel there would have been no controversy. There would have been no need for circumcision. It was only because they were seen as becoming proselyte Israelites that the problem arose. That is why Paul’s argument was never that circumcision was not necessary because they were not becoming Israel. He indeed accepted that they would become members of Israel. (Ephesians 2:11-22) But rather he argues that circumcision was no longer necessary because all who were in Christ were circumcised with the circumcision of Christ. They were already circumcised by faith. They had the circumcision of the heart, and were circumcised with the circumcision of Christ (Colossians 2:11), and therefore did not need to be circumcised again.

Thus in Romans 11:17-24 he speaks clearly of converted Gentiles being ‘grafted into the olive tree’ through faith, and of Israelites being broken off through unbelief, to be welcomed again if they repent and come to Christ. Whatever we therefore actually see the olive tree as representing, it is quite clear that it does speak of those who are cut off because they do not believe, and of those who are ingrafted because they do believe (precisely as it was to happen with Israel), and this in the context of ‘Israel’ being saved or not. But the breaking off or casting off of Israelites in the Old Testament was always an indication of being cut off from Israel. Thus we must see the olive tree as, like the true vine, signifying all who are now included within the promises, that is the true Israel, with spurious elements being cut off because they are not really a part of them, while new members are grafted in. The difficulty lies in the simplicity of the illustration which like all illustrations cannot cover every point.

Furthermore it should be noted that ‘olive tree’ is the very name by which YHWH called Israel for in Jeremiah 11:16 we read, ‘YHWH called your name ‘an olive tree, green, beautiful and with luscious fruit’. The importance of this comes out in that those who are actually said to be ‘called by name’ by YHWH are very few (Adam, Jacob/Israel and Magormissabib, the last being an indication of the judgment that was coming on him in Jeremiah 20:3). So, as Paul knew, ‘olive tree’ was YHWH’s name for the true Israel.

This then raises an interesting question. If unbelieving Israel can be cut off from the olive tree, what in Paul’s mind is the olive tree? For this illustration suggests that unbelieving Israel had been members of the olive tree, and if the olive tree is true Israel then does that mean that they had once been members of true Israel?

Exactly the same question could be posed about the branches of the vine which are pruned from the vine in John 15:1-6 and are burned in the fire. They too 'appear' to have been members of the true vine. And the same could be said of those caught into the net of the Kingly Rule of Heaven who are finally ejected and brought into judgment (Matthew 13:47-50). They too 'appear' to have been a part of the Kingly Rule of God. Thus the olive tree, the true Vine and the Kingly Rule of Heaven are all seen as seeming to contain false members. On this basis then none of them could surely be the true Israel?

This argument, however, is clearly false. For the true Vine is Jesus Himself. Thus the fact that some can be cut off from the true Vine hardly means that the true vine (Jesus) is to be seen as partly a false vine. The illustration simply indicates that they should never have been there in the first place. They were spurious. Outwardly they may have appeared to have been members of the true vine, but inwardly they were not. The same can be said to apply to the Kingly Rule of God. Those who were gathered into the net of the Kingly Rule of God divide up into ‘children of the Kingly Rule’ and ‘children of the Evil One’. The latter were never thus children of the Kingly Rule. They were never a true part of the Kingly Rule. They were children of the Evil One all the time. Indeed their very behaviour revealed that they were not under God’s Kingly Rule. In the same way then the olive tree is an Israel composed of true believers, and is such that unbelieving Jews are cut off because essentially they are proved not to have been a part of it. Outwardly they had appeared to be, but they were not. In each case it simply means that there were spurious elements connected with them that were masquerading as the real thing, which simply have to be removed. Rather than being in the basic concept, the problem arises from the difficulty of conveying the concept in simple pictorial terms. For the true Vine can hardly really have false members, otherwise it would not be the true Vine. In each case, therefore, it is can clearly be seen that in fact those ‘cut off’ or ‘ejected’ were never really a part of what they were seen to be cut off from, but had only physically given the appearance of being so.

The same is true of the ‘church’ today. There is an outward church composed of all who attach themselves and call themselves Christians, and there is a true church composed of all who are true believers and are ‘in Christ’. It is only the latter who benefit, and will benefit, from all that God has promised for His ‘church’. The whole essence of the message of Jesus, and of the New Testament, was that it was only those who believed from the heart who were the true people of God.

In the same way, as Paul has said, not all Israel are (or ever were) the true Israel (Romans 9:6). Many professed to be but were spurious ‘members’. They were fakes. Their hearts were not within the covenant. They were ‘not My people’ (Hosea 2:23). This stresses the difference between the outward and the inward. Not all who say ‘Lord’ Lord’ will enter the Kingly Rule of God, but only those will enter who by their lives reveal that they truly are what they profess to be (Matthew 7:21).

This idea also comes out regularly in the Old Testament where God made it quite clear that only a proportion of Israel would avoid His judgments (e.g. Isaiah 6:13). The remainder (and large majority) would be ‘cut off’, for although outwardly professing to be His people they were not His people. And thus it was with the people of Israel in Jesus’ day. They were revealed by their fruits, which included how they responded to Jesus the Messiah.

But in Ephesians 2 Paul makes clear that Gentiles can become a part of the true Israel. He tells the Gentiles that they had in the past been ‘alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of the promise’ (Romans 2:12). They had not been a part of Israel. Thus in the past they had not belonged to the twelve tribes. But then he tells them that they are now ‘made nigh by the blood of Christ’ (Romans 2:13), Who has ‘made both one and broken down the wall of partition --- creating in Himself of two one new man’ (Romans 2:14-15). Now therefore, through Christ, they have been made members of the commonwealth of Israel, and inherit the promises. So they are ‘no longer strangers and sojourners, but fellow-citizens with the saints and of the household of God, being built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets’ (Romans 2:19-20). ‘Strangers and sojourners’ was the Old Testament description of those who were not true Israelites. It is therefore made as clear as can be that they have now entered the ‘renewed’ Israel. They are no longer strangers and sojourners but are now ‘fellow-citizens’ with God’s people. They have entered into the covenant of promise (Galatians 3:29), and thus inherit all the promises of the Old Testament, including the prophecies. To Paul all true believerswereIsrael.

So as with people in the Old Testament who were regularly adopted into the twelve tribes of Israel (e.g. the mixed multitude - Exodus 12:38), Gentile Christians too are now seen as so incorporated. That is why Paul can call the church ‘the Israel of God’, made up of Jews and ex-Gentiles, having declared circumcision and uncircumcision as unimportant because there is a new creation (Galatians 6:15-16), a circumcision of the heart. It is those who are in that new creation who are the Israel of God.

In context ‘The Israel of God’ can here only mean that new creation, the church of Christ, otherwise he is being inconsistent. For as he points out, neither circumcision nor uncircumcision matters any more. What matters is the new creation. It must therefore be that which identifies the Israel of God. For if circumcision is irrelevant then the Israel of God cannot be made up of the circumcised, even the believing circumcised, for circumcision has lost its meaning. The point therefore behind both of these passages is that all Christians become, by adoption, members of the twelve tribes.

There would in fact be no point in mentioning circumcision if he was not thinking of incorporation of believing Gentiles into the twelve tribes. The importance of circumcision was that to the Jews it made the difference between those who became genuine proselytes, and thus members of the twelve tribes, and those who remained as ‘God-fearers’, loosely attached but not circumcised and therefore not accepted as full Jews. That then was why the Judaisers wanted all Gentiles who became Christians to be circumcised. It was because they did not believe that they could otherwise become genuine Israelites. So they certainly saw converted Gentiles as becoming Israelites. There could be no other reason for wanting Gentiles to be circumcised. (Jesus had never in any way commanded circumcision). But Paul says that that is not so. He argues that they can become true Israelites without being physically circumcised because they are circumcised in heart. They are circumcised in Christ. So when Paul argues that Christians have been circumcised in heart (Romans 2:26; Romans 2:29; Romans 4:12; Philippians 3:3; Colossians 2:11) he is saying that that is all that is necessary in order for them to be members of the true Israel.

A great deal of discussion often takes place about the use of ‘kai’ in Galatians 6:16, ‘as many as shall walk by this rule, peace be on them and mercy, and (kai) on the Israel of God’. It is asked, ‘does it signify that the Israel of God is additional to and distinct from those who ‘walk by this rule’, or simply define them?’ (If the Israel of God differs from those who ‘walk by this rule’ then that leaves only the Judaisers as the Israel of God, and excludes Paul and His Jewish supporters. But can anyone really contend that that was what Paul meant?) The answer to this question is really decided by the preceding argument. We cannot really base our case on arguments about ‘kai’. But for the sake of clarity we will consider the question.

Kai is a vague connecting word. It cannot be denied that ‘kai’ can mean ‘and’ in some circumstances, and as thus indicate adding something additional, because it is a connecting word. But nor can it be denied that it can alternatively, in contexts like this, mean ‘even’, and as thus equating what follows with what has gone before, again because it is a connecting word (it does not mean ‘and’, it simply connects and leaves the context to decide its meaning). ‘Kai’ in fact is often used in Greek as a kind of connection word where in English it is redundant altogether. It is not therefore a strongly definitive word. Thus its meaning must always be decided by the context, and a wise rule has been made that we make the decision on the basis of which choice will add least to the meaning of the word in the context (saying in other words that because of its ambiguity ‘kai’ should never be stressed). That would mean here the translating of it as ‘even’, giving it its mildest influence.

That that is the correct translation comes out if we give the matter a little more thought. The whole letter has been emphasising that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek (Galatians 3:28), and that this arises because all are Abraham’s seed and heirs according to the promise. So even had we not had the reasons that we have already considered, how strange it would then be for Paul to close the letter by distinguishing Jew from Greek, and Gentiles from the believing Jews. He would be going against all that he has just said. And yet that is exactly what he would be doing if he was exclusively indicating by the phrase ‘the Israel of God’ only the believing Jews. So on all counts, interpretation, grammar and common sense, ‘the Israel of God’ must include both Jews and Gentiles.

In Galatians 4:26 it is made clear that the true Jerusalem is the heavenly Jerusalem, the earthly having been rejected. This new heavenly Jerusalem is ‘the mother of us all’ just as Sarah had been the mother of Israel. All Christians are thus the children of the freewoman, that is, of Sarah (Galatians 4:31). This reveals that they are therefore the true sons of Abraham, signifying ‘Israel’. To argue that being a true son of Abraham through Sara is not the same thing as being a son of Jacob/Israel would in fact be to argue contrary to all that Israel believed. Their boast was precisely that they were ‘sons of Abraham’, indeed the true sons of Abraham, because they 'came' from Sara's seed.

Again in Romans he points out to the Gentiles that there is a remnant of Israel which is faithful to God and they are the true Israel (Romans 11:5). The remainder have been cast off (Romans 10:27, 29; Romans 11:15; Romans 11:17; Romans 11:20). Then he describes the Christian Gentiles as ‘grafted in among them’ becoming ‘partakers with them of the root of the fatness of the olive tree’ (Romans 11:17). They are now part of the same tree so it is clear that he regards them as now being part of the faithful remnant of Israel (see argument on this point earlier). With regard to the olive tree we are told that God said to Israel, ‘God called your name “A green olive tree, fair, and of goodly fruit’ (Jeremiah 11:16). So the olive tree is very much a picture of the true Israel. This oneness is again declared quite clearly in Galatians, for ‘those who are of faith, the same are the sons of Abraham’ (Galatians 3:7).

Note that in Romans 9 Paul declares that not all earthly Israel are really Israel, only those who are chosen by God. It is only the chosen who are the foreknown Israel. See Romans 9:8; Romans 9:24-26; Romans 11:2. This is a reminder that to Paul ‘Israel’ is a fluid concept. It does not have just one fixed meaning. It can mean all Jews. It can mean all believing Jews. It can mean all unbelieving Jews, excluding believing Jews, depending on Paul's context. Thus 'they are not all Israel who are Israel' indicates already two definitions of Israel (Romans 9:6).

The privilege of being a ‘son of Abraham’ is that one is adopted into the twelve tribes of Israel. It is the twelve tribes who proudly called themselves ‘the sons of Abraham’ (John 8:39; John 8:53). That is why in the one man in Christ Jesus there can be neither Jew nor Gentile (Galatians 3:28). For they all become one as Israel by being one with the One Who in Himself sums up all that Israel was meant to be, the true vine (John 15:1-6; Isaiah 49:3). For ‘if you are Abraham’s seed, you are heirs according to the promise’ (Galatians 3:29). To be Abraham’s ‘seed’ within the promise is to be a member of the twelve tribes. There can really be no question about it. The reference to ‘seed’ is decisive. You cannot be ‘Abraham’s seed’through Saraand yet not a part of Israel. (If we want to be pedantic we can point out that Edom also actually ceased to exist and did become by compulsion, a part of Israel, under John Hyrcanus. Thus Israel was once again to be seen as an openly conglomerate nation. Furthermore large numbers of what were now seen as Galilean Jews (but some of whom had been Gentiles) had been forced to become Jews in the two centuries before Christ. Having been circumcised they were accepted as Jews even though not born of the twelve tribes).

Paul can even separate Jew from Jew saying, ‘he is not a Jew who is one outwardly --- he is a Jew who is one inwardly, and the circumcision is that of the heart’ (Romans 2:28-29 compare v. 26). The true Jew, he says, is the one who is the inward Jew. So he distinguishes physical Israel from true Israel and physical Jew from true Jew. Furthermore he also declares that Gentiles can by this means become true Jews.

In the light of these passages it cannot really be doubted that the early church saw the converted Gentiles as becoming a member of the twelve tribes of Israel. They are ‘the seed of Abraham’ (Galatians 3:29); ‘children of promise (as sons of Abraham)’ (Galatians 4:28); sons of Abraham in that he is ‘the father of all who believe, though they be in uncircumcision’ (Romans 4:11); ‘spiritually circumcised’ (Romans 2:26-29; Colossians 2:11); ‘grafted into the true Israel’ (Romans 11:16-24); ‘fellow-citizens with the saints in the commonwealth of Israel’ (Ephesians 2:19 with 12); ‘the Israel of God’ (Galatians 6:16); ‘the chosen race’ (1 Peter 2:9); the ‘holy nation’ (1 Peter 2:9). What further evidence do we need?

In Romans 4 he further makes clear that Abraham is the father of all who believe, including both circumcised and uncircumcised (Romans 4:9-13). Indeed he says we have been circumcised with the circumcision of Christ (Colossians 2:11). All who believe are therefore circumcised children of Abraham.

When James writes to ‘the twelve tribes which are of the dispersion’ (Romans 1:1) he is taking the same view. (Jews living away from Palestine were seen as dispersed around the world and were therefore thought of as ‘the dispersion’). There is not a single hint in his letter that he is writing other than to all in the churches. He therefore sees the whole church as having become members of the twelve tribes, and sees them as the true 'dispersion', and indeed refers to their ‘assembly’ with the same word used for synagogue (Romans 2:2). But he can also call them ‘the church’ (Romans 5:14).

Yet there is not even the slightest suggestion anywhere in the remainder of his letter that he has just one section of the church in mind. In view of the importance of the subject, had he not been speaking of the whole church he must surely have commented on the attitude of Jewish Christians to Christian Gentiles, especially in the light of the ethical content of his letter. It was a crucial problem of the day. But there is not even a whisper of it in his letter. He speaks as though to the whole church. Unless he was a total separatist (which we know he was not) and treated the ex-Gentile Christians as though they did not exist, this would seem impossible unless he saw all as now making up ‘the twelve tribes of Israel’.

Peter also writes to ‘the elect’ and calls them ‘sojourners of the dispersion’, but when he does speak of ‘Gentiles’ he always means unconverted Gentiles. He clearly assumes that all that come under that heading are not Christians (Romans 2:12; Romans 4:3). The fact that the elect includes ex-Gentiles is confirmed by the fact that he speaks to the recipients of his letter warning them not to fashion themselves ‘according to their former desires in the time of their ignorance’ (1 Peter 1:14), and as having been ‘not a people, but are now the people of God’ (1 Peter 2:10), and speaks of them as previously having ‘wrought the desire of the Gentiles’ (1 Peter 4:3). So it is apparent he too sees all Christians as members of the twelve tribes (as in the example above, ‘the dispersion’ means the twelve tribes scattered around the world).

Good numbers of Gentiles were in fact becoming members of the Jewish faith at that time, and on being circumcised were accepted by the Jews as members of the twelve tribes (as proselytes). In the same way the Apostles, who were all Jews and also saw the pure in Israel, the believing Jews, as God’s chosen people, saw the converted Gentiles as being incorporated into the new Israel, into the true twelve tribes. But they did not see circumcision as necessary, and the reason for that was that they considered that all who believed had been circumcised with the circumcision of Christ.

Peter in his letter confirms all this. He writes to the church calling them ‘a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession’ (1 Peter 2:5; 1 Peter 2:9), all terms which in Exodus 19:5-6 indicate Israel.

Today we may not think in these terms but it is apparent that to the early church to become a Christian was to become a member of the twelve tribes of Israel. That is why there was such a furore over whether circumcision, the covenant sign of the Jew, was necessary for Christians. It was precisely because they were seen as entering the twelve tribes that many saw it as required. Paul’s argument against it is never that Christians do not become members of the twelve tribes (as we have seen he actually argues that they do) but that what matters is spiritual circumcision, not physical circumcision. Thus early on Christians unquestionably saw themselves as the true twelve tribes of Israel.

This receives confirmation from the fact that the seven churches (the universal church) is seen in terms of the seven lampstands in chapter 1. The sevenfold lampstand in the Tabernacle and Temple represented Israel. In the seven lampstands the churches are seen as the true Israel.

Given that fact it is clear that reference to the hundred and forty four thousand from all the tribes of Israel in Revelation 7 is to Christians. But it is equally clear that the numbers are not to be taken literally. The twelve by twelve is stressing who and what they are, not how many there are. There is no example anywhere else in Scripture where God actually selects people on such an exact basis. Even the seven thousand who had not bowed the knee to Baal (1 Kings 19:18) were a round number based on seven as the number of divine perfection and completeness. The reason for the seemingly exact figures is to demonstrate that God has His people numbered and that not one is missing (compare Numbers 31:48-49). The message of these verses is that in the face of persecution to come, and of God’s judgments against men, God knows and remembers His own. But they are then described as a multitude who cannot be numbered (only God can number them).

Indeed if this is not so then we have to accept that no member of the tribe of Dan will be saved, for it is noticeable that this description of the twelve tribes is in fact artificial in another respect. While Judah is placed first as the tribe from which Christ came, Dan is omitted, and Manasseh is included as well as Joseph, although Manasseh was the son of Joseph. Thus the omission of Dan is deliberate, while Ephraim, Joseph’s other son, is ‘excluded by name’, but included under Joseph’s name. (This artificiality confirms that the idea of the tribes is not to be taken literally). The exclusion of Dan is probably because he was seen as the tool of the Serpent (Genesis 49:17), but this was hardly good reason for the tribe of Dan being refused salvation. And the exclusion of the two names is because the two names were specifically connected with idolatry.

In Deuteronomy 29:17-20 the warning had been given that God would ‘blot out his name from under heaven’, when speaking of those who gave themselves up to idolatrous worship and belief, and as we have seen idolatry and uncleanness were central in the warnings to the seven churches. Thus the exclusion of the names of Ephraim and Dan are a further warning against such things.

It is unquestionable that thenamesof both Ephraim and Dan were specifically connected with idolatry in such a way as to make them distinctive. Hosea declared, ‘Ephraim is joined to idols, let him alone, their drink is become sour, they commit whoredom continually’ (Hosea 4:17-18). This is distinctly reminiscent of the sins condemned in the seven churches. It is true that Ephraim here means the whole of Israel, as often, but John sawthe nameof Ephraim as besmirched by the connection with idolatry and whoredom.

As for Dan, it was a man of the tribe of Dan who ‘blasphemed the Name’ (Leviticus 24:11), it was Dan that was first to set up a graven image in rivalry to the Tabernacle (Judges 18:30) and Dan was the only tribe mentioned by name as being the site of one of the calves of gold set up by Jeroboam, as Amos stresses (Amos 8:14; 1 Kings 12:29-30; 2 Kings 10:29). Indeed Amos directly connects the name of Dan with ‘the sin of Samaria’. Thus Dan is closely connected with blasphemy and idolatry. And to cap it all ‘Dan will be a serpent in the way, and an adder in the path’ (Genesis 49:17). He is the tool of the Serpent. Typologically therefore he is the Judas of the twelve. How could he not then be excluded? It is also voices in Dan and Ephraim which declare the evil coming on Jerusalem (Jeremiah 4:15), closely connecting the two.

That what is excluded is the name of Ephraim and not its people (they are included in Joseph) is significant. It means that the message of these omissions is that the very names of those who partake in idolatry and sexual misbehaviour will be excluded from the new Israel (compare the warnings to the churches, especially Thyatira). The exclusion of the name of Dan is therefore to warn us that those who are not genuine will be excluded from the new Israel. But that does not mean that there were not many Danites who had become Christians, or indeed were accepted as Jews.

So here in Revelation, in the face of the future activity of God against the world, He provides His people with protection, and marks them off as distinctive from those who bear the mark of the Beast. God protects His true people. And there is no good reason for seeing these people as representing other than the church of the current age. The fact is that we are continually liable to persecution, and while not all God’s judgments have yet been visited on the world, we have experienced sufficient to know that we are not excluded. In John’s day this reference to ‘the twelve tribes’ was telling the church that God had sealed them, so that while they must be ready for the persecution to come, they need not fear the coming judgments of God that he will now reveal, for they are under His protection.

In fact the New Testament tells us that all God’s true people are sealed by God. Abraham received circumcision as a seal of ‘the righteousness of (springing from) faith’ (Romans 4:11), but circumcision is replaced in the New Testament by the ‘seal of the Spirit’ (2 Corinthians 1:22; Ephesians 1:13; Ephesians 4:30). It is clear that Paul therefore sees all God’s people as being ‘sealed’ by God in their enjoyment of the indwelling Holy Spirit and this would suggest that John’s description in Revelation 7 is a dramatic representation of that fact. His people have been open to spiritual attack from earliest New Testament days (and before) and it is not conceivable that they have not enjoyed God’s seal of protection on them. Thus the seal here in Revelation refers to the sealing (or if someone considers it future, a re-sealing) with the Holy Spirit of promise. The whole idea behind the scene is in order to stress that all God’s people have been specially sealed.

In Revelation 21 the ‘new Jerusalem’ is founded on twelve foundations which are the twelve Apostles of the Lamb (Revelation 21:14), and its gates are the twelve tribes of the children of Israel (Revelation 21:12). Indeed Jesus said that he would found his ‘church’ on the Apostles and their statement of faith (Matthew 16:18) and the idea behind the word ‘church’ (ekklesia) here was as being the ‘congregation’ of Israel. (The word ekklesia is used of the latter in the Greek Old Testament). Jesus had come to establish the new Israel. Thus from the commencement the church were seen as being the true Israel, composed of both Jew and Gentile who entered within God’s covenant, the ‘new covenant’, as it had been right from the beginning, and they were called ‘the church’ for that very reason.

In countering these arguments it has been astonishingly said that‘Every reference to Israel in the New Testament refers to the physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.’And another expositor has added the comment, ‘This is true in the Old Testament also.’

Such statements are not only a gross oversimplification, but in fact they are totally untrue. They simply assume what they intend to prove, and are in fact completely incorrect. For as we have seen above if there is one thing that is absolutely sure it is that many who saw themselves as Israelites were notphysical descendantsof Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Many were descended from the servants of the Patriarchs who went down into Egypt in their ‘households’, and were from a number of nationalities. Others were part of the mixed multitude which left Egypt with Israel (Exodus 12:38). They were adopted into Israel, and became Israelites, a situation which was sealed by the covenant.

Indeed it is made quite clear that anyone who was willing to worship God and become a member of the covenant through circumcision could do so and became accepted on equal terms as ‘Israelites’ (Exodus 12:47-49). They would then become united with the tribe among whom they dwelt or with which they had connections. That is why there were regulations as to who could enter the assembly or congregation of the Lord, and when (Deuteronomy 23:1-8). Later on Gentile proselytes would also be absorbed into Israel. Thus ‘Israel’ was from the start very much a conglomerate, and continued to be so. That is why many Galileans and the Edomites were forced to become Jews and be circumcised once the Jews took over their land. From then on they were seen as part of Israel. And those are only examples that we know of.

Nor is it true that in Paul ‘Israel’ always means physical Israel. When we come to the New Testament Paul can speak of ‘Israel after the flesh’ (1 Corinthians 10:18). That suggests that he also conceives of an Israel not ‘after the flesh’. That conclusion really cannot be avoided.

Furthermore, when we remember that outside Romans 9-11 Israel is only mentioned by Paul seven times, and that 1 Corinthians 10:18 clearly points to another Israel, one not after the flesh (which has been defined in Romans 11:1-18), and that it is one of the seven verses, and that Galatians 6:16 is most satisfactorily seen as signifying the church of Jesus Christ and not old Israel at all (or even converted Israel), the statement must be seen as having little force. In Ephesians 2:11-22 where he speaks of the ‘commonwealth of Israel’ he immediately goes on to say that in Christ Jesus all who are His are ‘made nigh’, and then stresses that we are no more strangers and sojourners but are genuine fellow-citizens, and are of the household of God. If that does not mean becoming a part of the true Israel it is difficult to see what could. And it is an Israel composed of believers.

Furthermore in the other four references (so now only four out of seven) it is not the present status of Israel that is in mind. The term is simply being used as an identifier in a historical sense in reference to connections with the Old Testament situation. Thus two simply refer to Paul as a natural Israelite (2 Corinthians 11:22; Philippians 3:5), and two refer to ‘the children of Israel’ as connected with Moses (2 Corinthians 3:7; 2 Corinthians 3:13). Thus the argument that ‘Israel always means Israel’ is not very strong. Again in Hebrews all mentions of ‘Israel’ are historical, referring back to the Old Testament. They refer to Israel in the past, not in the present. In Revelation two mentions out of three are again simply historical, while many would consider that the other actually does refer to the church (Revelation 7:4). (Mentions of pre-Christian Israel obviously could not include the ‘church’, the new Israel. But they certainly do include Gentiles who have become Jews).

Indeed, ‘Israel’ in the Old Testament is equally fluid. At one stage it meant the whole of Israel and Judah (e.g. 1 Kings 4:1). Then it meant the Northern Kingdom. Then it meant that part of Israel which remained when a large part of the nation had been carried off as exiles, or had been incorporated into Gentile territory (2 Kings 17:1). Then it was used by the later prophets to refer to Judah (e.g. Jeremiah 18:6). Paul’s use is, of course, different again for when he uses it of natural Israel he is presumably referring to all Jews everywhere, sometimes including ‘believers’ (Romans 11:11; Romans 11:25), sometimes excluding them (Romans 9:30-31), and sometimes signifying only believers (Romans 9:6).

Thus in Romans 9-11 it is made very clear that Israel can mean more than one thing. When Paul says, ‘they are not all Israel, who are of Israel’ (Romans 9:6) and points out that it is the children of the promise who are counted as the seed (Romans 9:8), we are justified in seeing that there are two Israels in Paul’s mind, one which is the Israel after the flesh, and includes old unconverted Israel, and one which is the Israel of the promise.

And when he says that ‘Israel’ have not attained ‘to the law of righteousness’ while the Gentiles ‘have attained to the righteousness which is of faith’ (Romans 9:30-31) he cannot be speaking of all Israel because it is simply not true that none in Israel have attained to righteousness. Jewish-Christian believers have also attained to the righteousness which is of faith, and have therefore attained the law of righteousness. For many thousands and even tens of thousands had become Christians as we have seen in Acts 1-5. Thus here ‘Israel’ must mean old, unconverted Israel, not all the (so-called) descendants of the Patriarchs, and must actually exclude believing Israel, however we interpret the latter, for ‘Israel did not seek it by faith’ while believing Israel did.

Thus here we see three uses of Israel, each referring to a different entity. One is all the old Israel, which includes both elect and non-elect (Romans 11:11) and is therefore a partly blind Israel (Romans 11:25), one is the Israel of promise (Romans 9:6; called in Romans 11:11 ‘the election’) and one is the old Israel which does not include the Israel of promise, the part of the old Israel which is the blind Israel. The term is clearly fluid and can sometimes refer to one group and sometimes to another.

Furthermore here ‘the Gentiles’ must mean those who have come to faith and not all Gentiles. It cannot mean all Gentiles, for it speaks of those who have ‘attained to the righteousness of faith’ (which was what old Israel failed to obtain when it strove after it). It means believing Gentiles. Thus that term is also fluid. (In contrast, in 1 Peter ‘Gentiles’ represents only those who are unconverted. Thus all words like these must be interpreted in their contexts).

When we are also told that such Gentiles who have come to faith have become ‘Abraham’s seed and heirs according to the promise’ (Galatians 3:29) we are justified in seeing these converted Gentiles as having become part of the new Israel, along with the converted Jews. They are now actually stated to be ‘the seed of Abraham’. That is why in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek (Galatians 3:28). This clarifies the picture of the olive tree. Old unconverted Israel are cut out of it, the converted Gentiles are grafted into it. Thus old Israel are no longer God’s people while the converted Gentiles are. There is a ‘new nation’ (Matthew 21:43; 1 Peter 2:9) composed of the remnant of Israel, along with proselytised Gentiles.

It may then be asked, ‘What then does Paul mean when he says that ‘all Israel will be saved’?’ (Romans 11:26). It clearly cannot mean literally ‘all’ of old Israel, both past and present, for Scripture has made quite clear that not all of them will be saved. Let us consider the possibilities:

1) All the people of a nation have been saved at one point in time. It would not be in accordance with God’s revealed way of working. But more importantly it would also make nonsense of those many passages where God’s final judgment is poured out on Israel, and it is therefore clear that all Israel will not be saved. How can all Israel be saved and yet face His judgment?

2) Does he then mean ‘all the true Israel’, those elected in God’s purposes, ‘the remnant according to the election of grace’ (Romans 11:5), who will be saved along with the fullness of the Gentiles? That is certainly a possibility if we ignore all the Scriptures that we have looked at and see believing Jews as not made one with believing Gentiles (as Ephesians 2 says they were). But if it is to happen in the end times it will require a final revival among the Jews in the end days bringing them to Christ. For there is no other name under Heaven given among men by which men can be saved. We would certainly not want to deny the possibility of God doing that. That may be why He has gathered the old nation back to the country of Israel. But that does not mean that God will deal with them as a separate people.

3) Or does it mean ‘all Israel’ who are part of the olive tree, including both Jews and the fullness of the Gentiles? All the new Israel, made up of the fullness of the Gentiles and the fullness of the Jews? That seems to be its most probable significance, and most in accordance with what we have seen above. After all, ‘all Israel’, if it includes the Gentiles, could not be saved until the fullness of the Gentiles had come in.

It is important in this regard to consider what Paul’s message was in Romans 9-11. It was that God began with Abraham and then began cutting off many of his seed, leaving the remnant according to the election of grace, those whom He foreknew. The entity of Israel was found in those whom He foreknew. Then He began incorporating others in the persons of believing Gentiles as we have seen, and these increased in proportion through Christ, and all who believed became members of the olive tree. Thus this was now ‘all Israel’, those whom God had elected from eternity past to be His people.

But what in fact Paul is finally seeking to say is that in the whole salvation history God’s purposes will not be frustrated, and that in the final analysis all whom He has chosen and foreknown (Romans 11:2) will have come to Him, whether Jew or Gentile.

In the light of all this it is difficult to see how we can deny that in the New Testament all who truly believed were seen as becoming a part of the new Israel, the ‘Israel of God’.

But some ask, ‘if the church is Israel why does Paul only tell us so rarely?’. The answer is twofold. Firstly the danger that could arise from the use of the term, causing people to be confused. And secondly because he actually does so most of the time in his own way. For another way of referring to Israel in the Old Testament was as ‘the congregation’ (LXX church). Thus any reference to the ‘church’ does indicate the new Israel.

But does this mean that old Israel can no longer be seen as having a part in the purposes of God. If we meanasold Israel then the answer is yes. As old Israel they are no longer relevant to the purposes of God for the true Israel are the ones who are due to receive the promises of God. But if we mean as ‘converted and becoming part of believing Israel’ then the answer is that God in His mercy will surely yet have a purpose for them by winning many of them to Christ in the end days. Any member of old Israel can become a part of the olive tree by being grafted in again. And there is a welcome to the whole of Israel if they will believe in Christ. Nor can there be any future for them as being used in the purposes of God until they believe in Christ. And then if they do they will become a part of the whole, not superior to others, or inferior to others, but brought in on equal terms as Christians and members of ‘the congregation’.

It may well be that God has brought Israel back into the land because he intends a second outpouring of the Spirit like Pentecost (and Joel 2:28-29). But if so it is in order that they might become Christians. It is in order that they might become a part of the true Israel, the ‘congregation (church) of Jesus Christ’. For God may be working on old Israel doing His separating work in exactly the same ways as He constantly works on old Gentiles, moving them from one place to another in order to bring many of them to Christ. It is not for us to tell Him how He should do it. But nor must we give old Israel privileges that God has not given them.

But what then is the consequence of what we have discussed? Why is it so important? The answer is that it is important because if it is the fact that true Christians today are the only true people of God that means that all the Old Testament promises relate to them, not by being ‘spiritualised’, but by them being interpreted in terms of a new situation. Much of the Old Testament has to be seen in the light of new situations. It is doubtful if today anyone really thinks that swords and spears will be turned into ploughshares and pruninghooks. However we see it that idea has to be modernised. (Tanks being turned into tractors?). In the same way therefore we have to ‘modernise’ in terms of the New Testament many of the Old Testament promises. Jerusalem must become the Jerusalem that is above (Galatians 4:25-26; Hebrews 12:22). The sacrifices must become spiritual sacrifices e.g. of praise and thanksgiving (Hebrews 13:15; 1 Peter 2:5; compare also Romans 12:1; Romans 15:16; Philippians 2:17; Philippians 4:18). And so on. But Israel continues on in the true church (congregation) of Christ, being composed of all who have truly submitted to the Messiah.

Note. Literal sacrifices in the Old Testament could not possibly be repeated in the future in any sense that is genuine. The so-called memorial sacrifices of some expositors are a totally new invention. They are certainly not what the prophets intended. So it is no less 'spiritualising' to call them memorial sacrifices than it is to speak of spiritual sacrifices. And can anyone really believe, if they open their eyes, that in a world where the lion lies down with the lamb, and the wolves and the sheep are mates, only man is vile enough to kill animals? It does not bear thinking about. It goes against all the principles that lie behind the idea. Whereas when we recognise that that is an idealised picture of the heavenly Kingdom and the new Earth where all is peace and death is no more then it all fits together.

 


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Romans 11:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/pet/romans-11.html. 2013.

Lectionary Calendar
Sunday, July 21st, 2019
the Week of Proper 11 / Ordinary 16
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