The objects of worship formerly were varied and countless; each place had its own idol and the so-called god of one place could not pass over to another in order to persuade the people there to worship him, but was barely reverenced even by his own. Indeed no! Nobody worshipped his neighbour’s god, but every man had his own idol and thought that it was lord of all. But now Christ alone is worshipped, as One and the Same among all peoples everywhere; and what the feebleness of idols could not do, namely, convince even those dwelling close at hand, He has effected. He has persuaded not only those close at hand, but literally the entire world to worship one and the same Lord and through Him the Father.
–St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation 
THE RESTORATION OF ISRAEL
Old Israel has been excommunicated, cut off from the covenant by the righteous judgment of God. On the surface, this presents a serious problem: What about God’s promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? God had sworn that He would be the God of Abraham’s seed, that the covenant would be established with Abraham’s seed “throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant” (Gen. 17:7). If salvation has gone from the Jews to the Gentiles, what does that say about God’s faithfulness to His word? Is there a place for ethnic Israel in prophecy?
These questions are answered most directly in Scripture by the Apostle Paul in Romans 11.
Israel’s Rejection Is Not Total
God never totally rejected ethnic Israel, Paul points out. After all, Paul himself was “an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin” (v. 1). And Paul is not an isolated case. In fact, as he shows, it is consistent with the history of Israel that only a few were truly believers in the Biblical faith. As an example, he cites the story of Elijah (1 Kings 19), who complained to God that he was the only faithful Israelite left. God reproved Elijah with the declaration that He had reserved seven thousand faithful in Israel for Himself, men who had not bowed the knee to Baal. Similarly, says Paul, “there has also come to be at the present time a remnant according to God’s gracious choice” (v. 5). In His sovereign grace God has chosen to save some out of Israel, even as He has condemned Israel as a whole, so that “Israel has not obtained what it seeks; but the elect have obtained it, and the rest were hardened” in their unbelief, like the ungodly Pharaoh of Egypt (v. 7; cf. 9:14-18). For the majority of ethnic Israel, “God has given them a spirit of stupor, eyes that they should not see, and ears that they should not hear, to this very day” (v. 8; cf Acts 28:25-28). Upon those excommunicated from the covenant will come the curses of the Old Testament: “Let their table become a snare and a trap, a stumbling block and a recompense to them; let their eyes be darkened that they may not see, and bend their backs forever” (v. 9-10). Nevertheless, God still had His elect among ethnic Israel. Like Paul, they would be saved. God’s rejection of Israel was not total.
Israel’s Rejection Is Not Final
Not only is it true that there will always be a faithful minority among Israel, but God’s word also teaches that someday a majority among ethnic Israel will be saved. The people of Israel, as a whole, will turn back to the faith of their fathers and will acknowledge Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Their fall into apostasy is not permanent, says Paul. For just as their excommunication resulted in the salvation of the Gentiles, the salvation of the Gentiles will someday result in the restoration of Israel: “Because of their transgression, salvation has come to the Gentiles, to make Israel jealous. Now if their transgression means riches for the world, and their loss means riches for the Gentiles, how much more riches will their fullness be!… For if their rejection is the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead?” (v. 11-15).
- The Jewish apostasy resulted in the salvation of the Gentiles;
- The salvation of the Gentiles will someday bring about the restoration of ethnic Israel; and, finally,
- The restoration of Israel will cause an even greater revival among the Gentiles, which (compared to everything earlier) will be much greater “riches” (v. 12), like “life from the dead” (v. 15).
The Olive Tree
From the beginning, God has always had His one covenant people. The New Testament church is simply the continuation of the true “Israel of God” (Gal. 6:16), after the false Israel had been cut off. Paul shows how this took place by using an illustration: believing Gentiles were “grafted” into the stock of the people of God, while Israelite branches were being broken off.
And if some of the branches were broken off, and you, being a wild olive tree, were grafted in among them, and with them became a partaker of the root and fatness of the olive tree, do not boast against the branches. But if you boast, remember that you do not support the root, but the root supports you. You will say then, “Branches were broken off that I might be grafted in.” Well said. Because of unbelief they were broken off, and you stand by faith. Do not be haughty, but fear. For if God did not spare the natural branches, He may not spare you either. Therefore consider the goodness and severity of God: on those who fell, severity; but toward you, goodness, if you continue in His goodness. Otherwise you also will be cut off.
Those who are faithless and disobedient to the covenant are cut off, regardless of their previous standing or genetic heritage, while those who believe are grafted in. This contains an important warning to all who profess the Christian religion, to continue in the faith. The Jews who forsook their Lord could not lay claim to God’s blessing and favor; and, as Paul points out, the same is true for Gentile Christians. God requires obedience and perseverance – as Calvin said, a life of continual repentance. “Beware, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief in departing from the living God; but exhort one another daily, while it is called ‘Today,’ lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin. For we have become partakers of Christ if we hold the beginning of our confidence steadfast until the end” (Heb. 3:12-14).
But Israel’s rejection is not to be the final chapter of its history. Although the body of Israel was excommunicated for unbelief, restoration to the covenant will come about through repentance and faith: “And they also, if they do not continue in unbelief, will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again. For if you were cut out of the olive tree which is wild by nature, and were grafted contrary to nature into a good olive tree, how much more will these, who are the natural branches, be grafted into their own olive tree?” (v. 23-24). Note carefully that the text not only says that God can restore “natural” Israel, but that He will do so. This point is reinforced in the following verses:
For I do not desire, brethren, that you should be ignorant of this mystery, lest you should be wise in your own opinion, that hardening in part has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved, as it is written: “The Deliverer will come out of Zion, and He will turn away ungodliness from Jacob; for this is My covenant with them, when I take away their sins.”
As we saw above, God hardened the people of Israel in unbelief (v. 7-10). But this hardening was only temporary, for Israel as a whole will turn back to the Lord, as Paul states elsewhere:
But their minds were hardened; for until this very day the same veil remains unlifted during the reading of the Old Testament, because the veil is taken away in Christ. But even to this day, when Moses is read, a veil lies on their heart; nevertheless, whenever a man turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away.
–2 Cor. 3:14-16
The judicial hardening and rejection of Israel will not last forever. Someday the veil will be lifted, and the people as a whole will be converted back to the true faith. But Israel will not return until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in – in other words, until the Gentiles as a whole have been converted to Christ (compare the usage of the word “fullness” in verses 12 and 25). And thus, after the conversion of the mass of the Gentiles, all Israel will be saved, in fulfillment of God’s promises to His ancient people. Even though Israel has been unfaithful, God remains true to His covenant. Israel is now an enemy of the gospel, yet God still loves them for the sake of their fathers. The privileges He bestowed upon them have not been withdrawn forever, and because of His promises, Israel’s calling in the covenant is ultimately irrevocable (v. 28-29). Paul repeats the basic lesson: “For just as you were once disobedient to God, yet have now obtained mercy through their disobedience, even so these also have now been disobedient, that through the mercy shown to you they also may obtain mercy. For God has shut up all in disobedience that He might show mercy to all” (v. 30-32).
Our study of Romans 11 has been necessarily brief. Those who desire a more in-depth treatment should consult the commentaries of Robert Haldane, Matthew Henry, Charles Hodge, and John Murray, as well as the lengthy exegesis in lain Murray’s important work, The Puritan Hope. The following points, however, have clearly emerged from our examination of the text.
- The entire Gentile world will be converted to faith in Jesus Christ. The mass of the Gentiles will come into the covenant, until the conversion of the Gentiles reaches the point of “fullness” (a word meaning completeness or totality, v. 25).
- Genetic Israel will be converted to faith in Jesus Christ. While there will always be some Hebrews who become Christians, the Jewish people as a whole will only be converted after the conversion of the Gentiles (v. 11-12, 15,23-27). This means that the key to the conversion of Israel is the prior accomplishment of the Great Commission (Matt. 28:19-20), the salvation of the nations.
- Not every individual Gentile or Jew will be converted. The conversion of both Israel and the Gentiles will be analogous to the rejection of Israel. Even though Israel as a whole was cut off from the covenant, some Jews have continued in the true faith (v. 1-7). Even so, when the Gentiles and Israel are converted as a whole, this does not mean or require that every last individual in either group will become a Christian. There will always be exceptions. But just as the overwhelming majority of Jews rejected Christ when He came, so the overwhelming majority of both Jews and Gentiles will be grafted into the stock of the faithful people of God.
- The conversion of both Jews and Gentiles will take place through the normal means of evangelism in this age. Nothing is said here of any cataclysmic event – such as the Second Coming – which will result in mass conversions. The large-scale conversion of the world will occur as the gospel is preached to the nations; in fact, this very passage categorically denies any other means of conversion (10:14-17). The insertion of the Second Coming into this passage by some writers is completely speculative and misleading. The entire context demands that the conversion of the world take place as the normal continuation of processes already at work, as a simple reading of v. 11-32 plainly indicates. As Charles Spurgeon said: “I myself believe that King Jesus will reign, and the idols be utterly abolished; but I expect the same power which turned the world upside down once will still continue to do it. The Holy Ghost would never suffer the imputation to rest upon His holy name that He was not able to convert the world.”
- The motive for the conversion of Israel will be jealousy. The Jews will see all the Gentile nations around them, happily enjoying the covenant blessings promised to God’s people of old; they will see that God’s mercy has been extended throughout the world; and they will become jealous (v. 11, 31; cf. 10:19). Again, this will not be the result of any cataclysmic event (such as the Rapture), for it is the continuation of a process already at work in Paul’s day (v. 14). Jews (such as Paul himself) were already becoming converted through this holy jealousy, and Paul hoped to restore others by the same means. But he points to a day in the future when this will happen on a grand scale, and the Jews as a people will return to the faith.
- Converted Jews, in every age, belong to the Church of Jesus Christ; they are not a distinct group. There is, properly, no such thing as a “Hebrew Christian,” any more than there are separate Biblical categories of “Indian Christians,” “Irish Christians,” “Chinese Christians,” or “American Christians.” The only way for Gentiles to be saved is by becoming grafted into the one “olive tree,” the faithful covenant people (v. 17-22). And the only way for a Jew to be saved is by becoming a member of God’s people (v. 23-24). There is no difference. By His finished work Christ “made both groups into one” (Eph. 2:14). Believing Jews and Gentiles have been united “in one body,” the Church (Eph. 2:16). There is one salvation and one Church, in which all believers, regardless of ethnic heritage, become children of God and heirs of the promises to Abraham (Gal. 3:26-29). The creation of a special Jew-Gentile distinction within the body of Christ is ultimately a denial of the gospel.
- Israel will not be restored as the Kingdom (Matt. 21:43; 1 Pet. 2:9). The Bible promises the restoration of Israel as a people, but not necessarily as a State; nothing requires that the two must go together. Even assuming, however, that there is still a State of Israel when the Jews are converted, Israel would simply be one Christian nation among many, with no special standing. The people of genetic Israel will be part of the covenantal tree of life, but there is no longer any religious significance belonging to Palestine. The whole world will become the Kingdom of God, with all nations standing on an equal footing within that Kingdom.
In that day Israel will be the third party with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the land, whom the LORD of hosts shall bless, saying, “Blessed is Egypt My people, and Assyria the work of My hands, and Israel My inheritance.”
- The conversion of Israel will result in an era of great blessings for the entire world. There will be even greater fulfillments of the covenantal promises, an overflowing abundance of Spiritual riches, so much so that, compared to the previous state of the world, it will be like life from the dead (v. 12, 15). This is when the Biblical promises of the Kingdom’s earthly blessings will reach their highest and most complete fulfillment. God’s Holy Mountain will have encompassed the world, and “the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea” (Isa. 11:9).