Identifying “All Israel” in Romans 11


Ever since the dawn of the church, tensions regarding the law and grace become the center of attention, and the 21st century church is just as susceptible as the church was in 1st century Rome.  Once a Pharisee (Acts 23:6), the Apostle Paul knew all too well the struggle between the balance of obedience and freedom from the law to the point of him incessantly lamenting over his own crisis of faith (Rom. 7:8, 11, 15-20, 23).  Yet, as John M. G. Barclay, an advocate of the New Perspective in Paul, notes, that it is in Paul’s epistle to the Roman church where these ideas are brought to the forefront of his Christological dissertation regarding Israel, the Jews and Gentiles, and how God’s promises “serve up the incongruity between the mercy of grace of God and the status or worth of its recipients.”[1]  Paul deliberately settles on a phrase that has been a continuing discussion for centuries regarding the identity surrounding who “all Israel” is in Romans 11:26.  Paul claims that Gentiles, without the law, are incorporated into Israel’s commonwealth and heirs to the promises God had initially made to Abraham (Rom. 4:13, 17).  Likewise, this Israel, is guaranteed with certainty their place in God’s soteriological plan of reconciliation through His Son Jesus Christ, because they too are descendants and heirs of the promise (Rom. 9:1-5), but only through a genuine faith in the Messiah’s redemptive work.

The ethno-religious identities of Jewish and Gentile Christians clashed during the infancy of the church.  Fortunately, the task was given to Paul to unpack the divine mystery for both groups, as Barclay puts it, by demonstrating “this incongruity has all along been basic to the identity of Israel, that it is presently at work in the puzzling impact of the good news, and that it will finally determine the future of Israel and of the world.”[2]  Furthermore, upon closer examination, it is discernable to posit that “all Israel” in Romans 11:26 is a theological term referring to the remnant elect of the nation in toto, and Paul’s use of the Old Testament in the epistle to the Romans leads up to and supports his overall argument that the reunification of the house of Israel with the house of Judah is the result of the “fullness of the Gentiles,” to which advertently is, the return of the ten tribes under Jesus Christ, thereby fulfilling God’s soteriological promises to Israel.  God’s promises are realized in this dually-thematic mission for anyone who believes in the efficacy of His Son, whether Jew, Gentile, or Israelite (Romans 1:16; 9:33; 10:4, 11; cf. John 3:16; 5:24; 6:40, 47; 11:25; 12:44; Acts 10:43; 2 Pet. 3:9; 1 John 5:1).

Paul introduces himself (Rom. 1:1) as servant and apostle of Jesus, contending that his Gospel was promised by God through the prophets (1:2) and closing the epistle with claims that it is the revelation of a mystery “kept secret for long ages, but is now disclosed” having been made available to the nations (16:25-26) by his preaching (16:25a) of the Scriptures (16:26a).  He is the same Paul who wrote to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 1:1; 2 Cor. 1:1) and was a Pharisee of Judaism and persecutor of the church (1 Cor. 15:9), who witnessed the risen Christ on his way to Damascus, targeting the followers of Jesus (Acts 9:3-8; 1 Cor. 15:11).  When Paul visited Corinth in AD 57-58 (Acts 20:2-3) he wrote the epistle to the Romans as not only a theological treatise asserting that Christianity is the only path to salvation for these two ethnic groups,[3]  but also as a response to Gentile arrogance towards Jewish Christians and their customs, climatically resulting in his statements made in Romans 9-11, specifically 11:25-27, that it is only because of Israel, Gentiles are included in God’s promises.

In AD 49, Emperor Claudius expelled Jews from Rome,[4] and with Gentile Christians left to run the churches there, Jewish converts eventually returning from exile clashed over the rituals of the Judaic faith.  Gentiles had become arrogant towards Jewish customs and their presumed ethno-theological superiority.  In other words, because they were Gentiles and under grace, they did not have to follow the requirements of the law and believed to be superior to the Jews. Andrew Das says that the olive tree imagery “confronts gentile arrogance,”[5] and because this image dismisses any “possibility of gentile superiority over the Jew,”[6] Gentile’s freedom predicated in God’s grace is only because of the promises He had made to Israel.  Das goes on to say that the “gentile branches do not support the Jewish roots, but rather their roots support the gentile branches.” [7]  Paul layers the letter as a response to this controversy by repurposing a variety of Old Testament passages in order to quell the conflict, highlighting the theological certainty and characteristic to their soteriological identity, that under Jesus Christ as Lord and Messiah, Gentiles, along with the Jews, were heirs to the promises of God made to Israel.

Even though Jews and Gentiles were two different ethnic groups, they are nevertheless enjoined together by their status in Jesus Christ because of faith, and anyone who calls on His name is saved (Rom. 10:9-14). Paul goes to great lengths in order to distinguish Gentiles from Jews or Israelites by his subtle use in designating these distinctions categorically. For Paul, Jews or Judeans seem to refer to an “ethnical or social designation,[8] juxtaposed against his use of Israel, which appears to “carry more of a theological quality denoting God’s elect people.”[9] Paul uses the term Israelite for himself (2 Cor. 11:22; Rom. 11:1), and Jews in his present day would agree that they were Israelites. However, Paul said that not all Israelites are Israelites (Rom. 9:6), and in order to become a “true” Jew in every sense of the word, one must become circumcised, not in the flesh, but from within (Rom. 2:28-29). In Romans 4, the apostle further supports his claim for inward circumcision by focusing on Abraham’s justification prior to the ritual (Rom. 4:1-3). The patriarch was chosen by God beforehand, and his circumcision years later was a sign of God’s promise to him as opposed to Abraham’s faith in God.[10] Glenn Miller’s work on Romans 4 says that the goal was for Abraham to be the “ancestor of all who believe.”[11] This encompasses those who were not circumcised “in the flesh” and “have righteousness reckoned to them.”[12] Likewise, this incorporates those initially engrafted into God’s promises through the rite of circumcision who, as Miller contends, “follow the example of the faith”[13] Abraham had originally displayed. Gentiles were judged by an “inward law” (Rom. 2:14-16; cf. Acts 17:23-31), and Paul’s mission to the nations was to proclaim that believers throughout the known world were included in God’s promise to Abraham (Gen. 12:2; 17:4; 22:17-18; Psa. 2:8; Isa. 42:1, 6; 49:6; Zech. 14:16; Eph. 3:1-6; cf. Rom. 11:1; Gal. 3:25-29; Eph. 2:1; see Jonah 3:1; Matt. 1:5-5; Luke 3:31-32). Since Paul’s ministry was to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ, whether Jew or Gentile, one’s faith in Him is the catalyst for election status and heirs to those promises made to Israel (Rom. 10:9-14; 11:23; cf. Joel 2:32).

In Romans 9, Paul says that only a remnant of Israel would be saved by grace (Rom. 9:27; cf. Isa. 10:22), and it is here that Paul summarizes the history of Israel’s election in regard to their ‘hardening’ resulting in exile and rejection. When the northern kingdom, the house of Israel, lost their status as God’s elect because of idolatry and disobedience, having been dispersed by the Assyrians, Judah was then left to take up the mantle in being a “light to the nations,” a task disposed to them from the beginning (Isa. 42:6). Yet, Judah too became hardened prior to and after its return from the Babylonian exile (idolatry – Jer. 1:16-19), seeking righteousness through a system of works as opposed to faith (Rom. 4:16; 10:3), stumbling tragically when Christ came to offer Himself up as their predicted Messiah (Rom. 9:30-31; cf. Isa. 8:14).

Israel’s restoration is catalytically predicated in the Gentile mission (cf. Luke 2:30-34; Acts 1:6-8; Rom. 11:25-27) and the dispersed house of Israel would become God’s people once again (Rom. 9:25-26; Hos. 1:9-11; 2:23). But for Paul, he laments about Israel’s salvation and their zeal for God yet chastises them for a devotion not based on their knowledge of God’s righteousness, but instead substituting it with an earnestness for the law (Rom. 10:1-3). He then pivots this haphazard approach and asserts that Christ is the fulfillment of the law (Rom. 10:4; cf. Matt. 5:17-18; Luke 24:44; John 1:17; Gal. 3:13, 24; Heb. 9:7-14; 10:8-14), and it is through faith in Him only is what demonstrates righteousness (Rom. 3:26-31; 8:4; 10:9-14; cf. Isa. 53:11; Matt. 3:15; Acts 13:39 1 Cor. 1:30) because believers are no longer under the law, but “under grace” (Rom. 6:14). In Paul’s metaphor of the olive tree, God cut off the “natural branches” because they had renounced their covenant status as a result of their unfaithfulness, a theme prevalent in the Old Testament (Psa. 37:9, 22, 28, 34, 38; 101:6-8; Prov. 2:21-22; Isa. 48:18-19; Jer. 6:2; 44:7-12; Hos 8:1-4; 10:1-15; Nah 1:15; Zeph. 1:4-6; Zech. 13:8-9; cf. 1 Kgs. 9:7; 14:10, 14; 21:21; 2 Kgs. 9:8; 10:32; 2 Chr. 22:7). Juxtaposed against an Israelite being “cut off” from the “root,” in faith, they could be “grafted” back into the olive tree (Rom. 11:20-24). Nevertheless, God paved a way for Israel’s return through a genuine faith (Rom. 11:23), thereby benefiting from the promises once made to them, and fulfilled only because His grace and mercy had extended to them regardless (Rom. 10:21).

Paul claims that his mission to the Gentiles is God’s proclamation to the northern tribes of Israel shrouded in God’s merciful hand for their return in righteous faith (Jer. 3:11-12). He focuses on a phrase which the Old Testament prophet Hosea heralded as a foreboding reality for these tribes, and when the Assyrian horde marauded their way into the northern kingdom, the Israelites were dispersed, becoming Gentiles themselves and their election status all but lost (Hos. 7:8; 8:8). Israel was bodingly swallowed up, ethnically diluted and had become worthless vessels (Rom. 9:21). Paul then reapplies these vessels, which was once attributed to the house of Israel, and systematizes a theological augmentation of this cryptic theme, appropriating it to Gentiles (Rom. 9:23-34). The house of Israel was cast out only to return as God’s people once again, a “mystery” solved in Paul’s ministry to the Gentiles.

God’s divorce from the house of Israel alongside His plea for Judah’s restoration resulted in the ministry to the Gentiles, with the intention of fulfilling His promise to not only patriarchs like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but likewise to the nations throughout.  The transgression of both houses, Israel and Judah, result in the mission to the Gentiles, making them jealous (Rom. 10:19) of their ritual-free faith.  Jason Staples specifically notes that “Gentiles are not mentioned in Jeremiah’s prophecy”[14] saying that God will write a new covenant on the “hearts” of Judah and Israel solely (Jer. 31:31-34).  He further elaborates that “if Paul thought that the new covenant was being fulfilled, he would have been expecting the miraculous return of the northern tribes.”[15]  However, Staples makes the connection with Paul’s obsession over his ministry, a “mystery” predicated on the “circumcision-free justification of the Gentiles – while still insisting that he is preaching the fulfillment of the new covenant.”[16]  The theological points of contact are encapsulated when he says it “is in pondering this paradox that all the pieces snap together: Paul’s “mystery” is that faithful Gentiles (those with “the law written on their hearts”; see Rom 2:14-15) are the returning remnant of the house of Israel, united with the faithful from the house of Judah (cf. the “inward Jews” of Rom 2:28-29).”[17]  Moreover, the apostle identifies believing Gentiles with the dispersed northern kingdom as the ones being restored to Israel, grafted as wild “olive” branches (Rom. 11:17, 24), thus resulting into which Paul theologically refers to as “all Israel.”

Paul claims that once the “fullness of the Gentiles” has been achieved, “all Israel” will be saved (Rom. 11:26). A mystery to Paul, the “fullness of the Gentiles” has long perplexed theologians and scholars as to what this phrase comprehensively denotes, and a myriad of interpretations have been posited since the early church.[18] Nevertheless, Michael Heiser writes that in the “Old Testament, the divine plan of Jewish belief in Jesus as Messiah was preceded by something Paul referred to as ‘”the fullness of the Gentiles” (Rom. 11:25).”[19] Interestingly, this mysterious phrase can be traced back to Jacob’s blessing over his son Joseph’s two half-Israelite children, Manasseh and Ephraim. Manasseh was the older son, however, Jacob breaks tradition and blesses the younger son, Ephraim, first. Jacob prophesies that his descendants would “become a group of nations” (Gen. 48:19) to which Paul resolves that Gentiles are the long-lost seed of Ephraim. This mystery of God at work points to the return of the northern tribes in “fullness” and reuniting with the house of Judah (Jer. 30:3; 31:31; 33:14; 50:4; 51:5; Hos. 1:11; Heb. 8:8; cf. eschatological, Rev. 10:7, 11). Paul firmly believed his mission to the Gentiles was the catalyst in God’s plan to fulfill His promises to Israel.

The mystery is the fullness of the Gentiles, when God has finished bringing the nations into His family – Rom. 11:25; cf. 16:25; Matt. 13:11; Luke 21:24; John 10:16; Eph. 3:3-9; Rev. 10:7).  G.K. Beale writes, commenting on Zechariah 2, ““The ‘multitude of men’ that will necessitate Jerusalem’s enlargement in 2:4 [Zech.] is now defined in 2:11 as ‘many nations’ who ‘will join themselves to the Lord…and will become My People.”[20]  Paul’s theological term, “all Israel’ is the remnant of Abraham’s seed who call on Jesus Christ as their Lord. It is a theological and covenantal composite of Jews and Gentiles, and once the fullness of the Gentiles is complete, God’s promises to Israel will have been fulfilled, their salvation secured with the nations as beneficiaries.

Conclusion

Paul’s work as an evangelist for the Gospel of Christ was a mission to the Gentiles cloaked in God’s mysterious promise to Israel. Because the northern tribes essentially became Gentiles themselves, the apostle’s mission was dually-thematic, corporately and theologically centered around the return of Ephraim’s seed, the lost House of Israel, and the outreach into the regions beyond (2 Cor. 10:16; cf. Rom. 15:24; Isa. 11:11). Paul’s use of “All Israel” in Romans 11:26 is therefore a theological motif predicated on the reunification of the twelve tribes in the Gentile mission, commencing with Paul, onto the present and future, which will inevitably result in the salvation of remnant Israel in toto under Jesus Christ, fulfilling God’s promises comprehensively. As for the 21st century church, it must continue the efforts of Paul, fulfilling the Great Commission of the Lord Jesus Christ, so that God’s promises to Israel, and anyone who believes, will be realized in full.

Bibliography:

Barclay, John M. G., Paul and the Gift. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015.

Das, Andrew A., Solving the Romans Debate. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2007.

Drane, John, Introducing the New Testament. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2011.

du Toit, Philip la Grange. “The Salvation of ‘All Israel’ in Romans 11:25-27 as the Salvation of Inner-Elect, Historical Israel in Christ.” Neotestamentica 49, no. 2 (July 2015): 417–52.

Heiser, Michael, The Bible Unfiltered. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2017.

Metzger, Bruce M., The New Testament, its background, growth and content. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1983.

Miller, Glenn T., “Romans 4.” Interpretation 69, no. 2, (April 2015): 215–17.

Staples, Jason A., “What do Gentiles Have to Do with “All Israel”?  A Fresh Look at Romans 11:25-27,” Journal of Biblical Literature 130, no.2, (2011): 371-390

Zoccali, Christopher, “And So All Israel Will be Saved: Competing Interpretations of Romans 11.226 in Pauline Scholarship,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 30, no. 3,, (2008): 289-317.

Footnotes:

[1] John M. G. Barclay, Paul and the Gift, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015), 526.

[2] Ibid., 526.

[3] Bruce M. Metzger, The New Testament, its background, growth and content, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1983), 209, 229.  See also Andrew A. Das, Solving the Romans Debate, (2007), 149-202. For a discussion on the different perspectives regarding the expulsion of the Jews from Rome, Das contends that only Jewish Christians were expelled because they were the target of Claudius’ edict, because the emperor likely favored Judaism over the newly formed sect, the followers of Chrestus.

[4] John Drane, Introducing the New Testament, 3rd ed., (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011), 14.

[5] Andrew A. Das, Solving the Romans Debate, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), 260.

[6] Ibid., 260.

[7] Ibid., 260.

[8] Philip la Grange du Toit, “The Salvation of ‘All Israel’ in Romans 11:25-27 as the Salvation of Inner-Elect, Historical Israel in Christ,” Neotestamentica 49, no. 2 (July 2015): 420-21.

[9] Ibid., 421.

[10] Glenn T. Miller, “Romans 4,” Interpretation 69, no. 2 (April 2015): 216.

[11] Ibid., 216.

[12] Ibid., 216.

[13] Ibid., 216.

[14] Jason A. Staples, “What do Gentiles Have to Do with “All Israel”?  A Fresh Look at Romans 11:25-27,” Journal of Biblical Literature 130, no.2 (2011): 380.

[15] Ibid., 380.

[16] Ibid., 380.

[17] Ibid., 380.

[18] Christopher Zoccali, “And So All Israel Will be Saved: Competing Interpretations of Romans 11.26 in Pauline Scholarship,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 30, no. 3 (2008): 289-317, esp. 290-295.

[19] Michael Heiser, The Bible Unfiltered, (Bellingham: Lexham Press, 2017), 175-176.

[20] , G.K. Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission: A biblical theology of the dwelling place of God, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 143.