The Future Conversion of Ethnic Israel: A look at Romans 11:25-26
The book of Romans causes much debate and controversy over different interpretations of verses and sections in the book. Romans eleven, for example, is a section where there is a variety of controversies over the future of Israel; in particular Romans 11:25-26. As we will see there are three interpretations of what Israel means in Romans 11:26. The three interpretations are the Ethnic Israel view, spiritual Israel view, and the total remnant of saved Israel view. These three views will determine how one understands the conversion of Israel at the end of the age. I will also look at Romans 11:25 so we can have a clearer understanding of what Israel means in verse 26. In order to have a proper understanding of Romans 11:25-26 we will need to look at the background and literary context of this book. The purpose of this paper is to argue that there will be a conversion of ethnic Israel at the end of the age by exegeting Romans 11:25-26 and drawing an application.
Background of Romans
In this section we will briefly survey the issues in Romans surrounding the author, date, recipients, and the general purpose of Romans. This needs to be done so that we can have a better understanding of Romans 11:25-26.
It is virtually undisputed that Paul is the author of Romans, as indicated in Romans 1:1 where it states “Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle .” However, the time in which Paul wrote Romans is not as straight forward.
This requires us to look closer at what we can find from the historical account so that we can see that Paul wrote Romans in the first part of 57 in the city of Corinth. From Acts 18:12-13 we can conclude that Paul’s labors were around the time Gallio arrived into Corinth to serve as a proconsul, this would be presumably the summer of 51 . After this event the apostle spent “some time” (Acts 18:18) in the city and probably in the spring of 52 he traveled to Caesarea and Jerusalem . He then would have stopped at Antioch in the winter of 52 . It is also thought that he returned to Ephesus sometime around spring of 53; this would be the start of a three-year ministry in Ephesus (Acts 20:31) . At the end of 56 he spent three months in Corinth and soon after started his trip to Jerusalem which would have been in the spring of the following year . From this information it seems that Paul wrote his letter to the church of Rome the first part of 57 in the city of Corinth (Rom. 16:1-2, 23; 1 Cor. 1:14) .
The recipients of the letter of Romans are made up of a population of Jew and Gentile. It is thought by Douglas Moo that Paul’s audience was predominantly a Gentile Christian church with a Jewish Christian minority . However, when one reads this epistle it seems apparent that Moo has overstated his case in which there were small populations of Jewish Christians (barely enough to be considered a community in itself). Yet, there are such sections as chapter two where Paul is clearly addressing the Jewish community (especially 2:17). Furthermore, this can also be seen in Romans 7:1 when Paul is addressing the Jewish community specifically by writing “talking to those who know the law.” Furthermore, a dissention took place between two groups in the church which seemed to have been between the Jews and Gentiles (Rom. 14:1-23) . Thus, it appears that there was a community of Gentile believers as well as Jewish believers in Rome.
It is hard to find one specific, unifying purpose throughout Romans, but rather pluralities of purposes seem to be present. As Moo explains “...the various purposes share a common denominator: Paul’s missionary situation. The past battles in Galatia and Corinth; the coming crisis in Jerusalem; the desire to secure a missionary base for his work in Spain – all these forced Paul to write a letter in which he carefully rehearsed his understanding of the gospel especially as it related to the salvation-historical question of Jew and Gentile and the continuity of the plan of salvation .” Finally, it seems that Moo’s point is confirmed when one reads the book of Romans and realizes its vastly diverse themes that are carefully connected together with literary precision and coherence.
Romans 11:25-26 major positioning in the book is at the end of the indicative section of Romans. Chapters one through three condemn both Jews and Gentiles alike. Towards the end of the third chapter there is a proclamation that righteousness can be manifested apart from the law through faith in Jesus Christ. In the following section, chapter four shows us an example of this faith through the patriarch Abraham. Chapter five teaches that Christ is the head representative to the elect as Adam is to the condemned; this chapter serves as a transitional part between chapters one through four and six through eight. Chapter six through eight is about the Christian life and how Christians relate to the Mosaic Law. Chapters nine through eleven discuss Israel’s place in history. Chapter eleven is the last chapter of the indicative section and 12:1-2 acts as a transition into the imperative section which concludes the book. Now that we have analyzed the historical background and literary context of Romans we are prepared to do an informed exegesis of Romans 11:25-26.
The Big Idea of Romans 11:25-26
Do not be proud Gentiles because in the future when all of you who have been appointed are saved all of ethnic Israel will reclaim its special spiritual status designated by God.
Analysis of Romans 11:25-26
In this section we will analyze all of the major themes in Romans 11:25 that relate directly and indirectly with the conversion of ethnic Israel. What I mean when I use the term directly is that the topic will discuss the hardening and the conversion of ethnic Israel. What I mean by indirectly is that the topic will not mention ethnic Israel directly, but it will be related by being in the same passage that mentions Israel. I believe it is important to discuss indirect issues because it will help us understand the context. Furthermore, a look at the context will help demonstrate the coherence with the conversion of ethnic Israel thesis. The direct topics in verse 25 are topics 2 (The Meaning of the Mystery), 3 (The Hardening of “Ethnic” Israel), and 4 (The Meaning and Affects of the Hardening on “Ethnic” Israel). The indirect topics are 1 (A Fuller Revelation to Come), 5 (Viewing the Chronology of the Events), 6 (Gentiles coming into Salvation), and 7 (The Meaning of the “fullness of the Gentiles”). Therefore, I will demonstrate that these topics will either directly or indirectly lead someone to the implication that ethnic Israel will be converted.
(1) A Fuller Revelation to Come
In this section I will argue that Paul was preparing his audience for a climatic revelation. Verse 25 is introduced with “Lest you be wise in your own conceits.” This particular phrase is from Proverbs 3:7. This is used as a literary device so that Paul may convey that the revelation they have received in 11:11-24 is not the climactic and full revelation that will be given in verses 25-26 .
(2) The Meaning of the Mystery
The purpose of this paragraph is to clarify the meaning of this “Mystery” and it’s relation to ethnic Israel. This mystery comes from the 25th verse: “I want you to understand this mystery, brothers.” The overall thrust of this phrase from Paul is that he wants his readers to understand the mystery. But the question naturally arises “what does Paul mean by mystery?” The word “mystery” in the Greek “musth,rion” is used frequently in apolocalyptic texts (1 Enoch 41.1; 46.2; 103.2; 2 Enoch 24.3; 4 Ezra 10:38; Bar. 48.3) . This word does not always carry an eschatological flavor; however, it must be conceded that it usually does, since it is used often in the apolocalyptic genre (as the citations above demonstrate) . In addition in Pauline literature this word is usually used to indicate that a revelation is given to Paul that he is compelled to make known (1 Cor. 4:1; Eph 3:1-6, 7-9; 1 Cor. 15:51-52; 1 Thess 4:15) . Although the content of this mystery is a hotly debated issue among scholars, it seems to consist of three main points: (1) a hardening has come upon ethnic Israel, (2) this hardening will continue until the predetermined number of ethnic Gentiles are saved, (3) then most of corporate ethnic Israel will be saved . The reason why these three points are the mystery is because they are mentioned right after Paul tells the church about the mystery. Thus, it seems that all three of these components are part of the eschatological revelation that Paul wanted to give to the Roman church.
(3) The Hardening of “Ethnic” Israel
The use of “Israel” in this phrase in verse 25 is referring to Israel as an ethnic nation and not as a spiritual Israel (this will help us to determine the meaning of Israel in verse 26). This phrase makes up the middle-end of verse 25 reads: “a partial hardening has come upon Israel.” As James Dunn points out, there seems to be a contrast between the ethnic Gentiles and ethnic Jews in verses 25-26 . This would strongly suggest that the topic being discussed in this passage is about ethnic Jews and not spiritual Jews as referred to in Romans 9:6. Furthermore, there are many places where Paul speaks of Gentiles as spiritual Jews (Rom. 2:29; 4:16; Gal. 6:16; Eph 2:11-19; Phil. 3:3). In light of this, the passage would oddly read something like this: “a partial hardening has come upon the spiritual Israel, until the fullness of spiritual Israel comes in.” Clearly, a view such as this renders the verse strange and possibly incoherent. In addition, the preceding context of Romans 11:25 Paul talks about ethnic Gentiles and ethnic Jews being engrafted in and being broken off (Rom. 11:1-24). Thus, we have sufficient reason to assume that ethnic Jews are being discussed in this passage. Since we have established the meaning of “Israel” in this passage we must now look at the theological implications for the “partial hardening” on Israel.
(4) The Meaning and Affects of the Hardening on “Ethnic” Israel
Verse 25 is concerned with the issue of ethnic Israel being hardened, which seems to parallel closely to the hardening Israel received in 11:7-9 . It seems plausible from this observation that we should then anticipate a hardening that is similar to verses 7-9 . Moreover, versus 7-12 seem to closely resemble some of the hardening and conversion themes that are being analyzed in verses 25-26 . Thus, this suggests that the hardening in 7-9 will be similar to the hardening in verse 25.
The fact that Israel was hardened has great theological significance as Kim Riddlebarger explains “God’s purpose for Israel’s barrenness through unbelief was to be the means of blessing for the Gentiles .” Riddlebarger seems to pick up on this insight by the clear parallels in Romans 11:25-26 and 7-12 .
The partial hardening should not be seen as all of Israel being pushed away from the Gospel in a passive and resisting manner; rather this hardening should be seen as an efficacious hardening of a “part” of Israel . In other words, the hardening is not resistibly qualitative on every single Jew, but efficacious quantitatively hardening on a select few . In light of this there is always a remnant of saved Jews within Israel. At this point in the text there is a definite sense that a group of Jews are being blinded from the truth of Christ . Therefore, parts of Israel’s hearts are actively resisting the truth of the gospel.
(5) Viewing the Chronology of the Events
The eschatological events relating to the gentile conversion and Israel’s conversion should be seen as generally chronological. It seems that the “a;cri ou-” suggest a sort of temporal sequencing that might be better stated as “until the time when” . Although this observation is useful, we shouldn’t think that Paul knew the exact hour when each of these sequences occurred . Rather it should be thought that he had a very general understanding of what was going to take place. The reason for thinking this is because the text presents it in very general terms. Therefore, we should understand this eschatological event in very general terms and not precise terms.
(6) Gentiles coming into Salvation
The phrase “coming in” has some controversy because some scholars disagree on what the Gentiles are coming into, but it does seem that the Gentiles are coming into salvation in a very general theological sense. Moo suggests that it is the kingdom of God that the Gentiles are coming into . On the other hand, Dunn brings up another interesting alternative: that the Gentiles are coming into “life” . It seems to us that both these opinions suggest that the Gentiles are receiving salvation. Whether or not this has to do with the newness of life or the kingdom of God seems rather inscrutable given the ambiguity of this subset of the phrase “coming into.” From this general understanding we can now analyze the issues involving the quantity and the types of people who will be entering this salvation.
(7) The Meaning of the “fullness of the Gentiles”
The meaning of the fullness of the Gentiles does not mean that every single Gentile will be saved, but rather the completion of the Gentiles that were predestined to be saved. This part of the phrase is very difficult to place in terms of an eschatological scheme of premillennialism or amillennialism. This is because many proponents of postmillennialism, for example Kenneth Gentry, interpret this part of the phrase to be the majority of the Gentiles in the entire world . He then further applies this type of interpretation to verse 26 in order to justify his idea that most of humanity will be saved before Christ comes back (because of the inclusion of Israel) . However, it does not seem like this part of the phrase necessarily has to be taken in the sense in which postmillennialist’s understand it. As Moo points out about the word “fullness” “the word consistently has a qualitative meaning in the Bible .” Furthermore, Moo gives concrete examples of what a qualitative view of fullness could mean; they include: “fulfillment,” “completion,” “fullness .” It seems that Moo’s understanding of fullness has more support because it seems that Paul was borrowing from apocalyptic Jewish sources like 4 Ezra 4:35-37 . The concept that he is borrowing that corresponds best with our passage is that there are a preset number of people whom God has predestined for salvation . This then suggest that the “fullness” that is mentioned in our passage is referring to completion of the Gentile’s that God foreordained to be saved . Thus, when this full number of people come to faith in Christ Israel’s hardening will be no more .
This section I will argue for the conversion of Ethnic Israel. This will be done first by analyzing and connecting this phrase to the previous verse. Secondly, we will demonstrate that the Ethnic Israel (Moo) view is more reasonable than spiritual Israel (Calvin) and the sum total remnant of Israel view (Hendriksen). Then I will argue briefly that this verse is eschatological.
The Precise Meaning of “in this way”
The first phrase “in this way” is translated from the Greek word “ou[twj” which has four possible translations and I will argue for the fourth translation “and in this way”. The first understanding of “ou[twj” is that it has a temporal meaning, which would suggest after the time when all the Gentiles came to faith then (“then” in the temporal sense) Israel will be saved. However, the problem with this translation is that this word never has a temporal meaning . The second option is that “ou[twj” can be a means to a certain end, however, this translation of the Greek word is very rare in Pauline literature and we do not have a sufficient reason to believe that this phrase is being used in this rare sense . The third option is that “ou[twj” is being used in such a way that it is following the classical “just as it is written” scheme . The problem with this view, as with the latter two, is Paul never uses “ou[twj” in such a way as “just as it is written .” The final option for the translation “ou[twj” is the preferred ESV translation which is “and in this way .” As Moo points out about the significance and implications for this translation “while not having a temporal meaning, has a temporal reference .” It seems what Moo is getting at is that this does not need to be an explicitly temporal translation in order for it to manifest in history in the order given in verse 25-26 . For how else are these events going to be brought about? Certainly these events are going to be in time and in the order given in the biblical account.
Calvin’s View “All Spiritual Israel”
There are three primary ways of interpreting the phrase “all Israel will be saved.” The first way originated with John Calvin; this view holds that all Israel is the complete church comprised of both Jew and Gentile . The first problem with this view is that it completely ignores the context, in the immediate preceding verse Israel was used as ethnic Israel. Furthermore, it seems completely arbitrary to switch meanings of words that were clearly defined in previous passages without a sufficient warrant. Moreover, in the preceding context the word Israel and Israelites in the ethnic sense occur no less than eleven times: 9:4; 9:6 (twice); 9:27; 9:31; 10:19; 10:21; 11:1; 11:7 and 11:25 . It seems from this evidence that Calvin’s view fails because there is no reason to believe within Romans 11 that Jew can ever mean Gentile (or spiritual Jew) .
Hendrikson’s view “Total of remnants of Israel”
The second interpretation of Romans 11:26 presented by William Hendrikson, which states that Israel means the sum of all Israel’s remnants, also known as the elect within Israel view . The problem with this view is it makes Paul’s expression into a redundant truism . It would then read something like this if we were to assume Hendrikson’s view “all the elect of Israel will be saved” . Moo does not consider this decisive because the purpose of the text is discussing the manner in which Israel is saved and not the fact that it is saved . However, we disagree with Moo on this point because it still renders the text awkward and redundant. Moreover, the distinctive problem with this view is that it shifts the meaning of national Israel (as a whole) given to us in the immediate preceding context (presumably verse 25) to the meaning of the sum total of the saved remnants in Israel . For if we were to assume that Israel in verse 25 means the sum total of the saved remnants it would seem pretty strange that God is hardening the saved remnant. Furthermore, since verse 25 seems to mean national Israel then it is likely that the use of Israel in verse 26 should be taken in a national sense (to be consistent with the literary context). Thus, this view should probably be rejected on the basis that it is inconsistent within the immediate context and that this view also suggest that the text is conveying a tautology.
Moo’s View “All of Ethnic Israel at the end of the age”
The most likely meaning of this text is that the majority of ethnic Israel will be saved . This view does not state that every single Jew will be saved; rather the majority of Jews will be saved (whatever that might be, it is not clear in the text) . In this case “all” is more of an expression rather than a literal quantifier. In light of this, the expression is probably referring to a certain vague majority. However, there are three basic arguments we would like to deal with from William Hendriksen opposing our position . The first argument is that “all” is a strange word to use for the relatively low population of Jew’s before Christ’s second coming . This argument does not hold because it is putting a concern into the text that Paul never mentions nor suggested to be a concern. The second argument is that the readers are not prepared to hear of Israel’s mass conversion . This argument is misguided; it fails to see the parallels between verses 7-12 and 25-26. Moreover, Hendriksen’s argument hardly seems decisive and convincing. Lastly, he argues that verses 25-26 occurred in the first century and is constantly occurring in stages throughout history because certain verses like 30 and 31 suggest this . The problem with this argument is that nowhere in 25-26 is there any mention of this being a repetitive cycle throughout history. At face value it merely appears to be a one time event. Thus, given the failure of the objections against our view and the evidence (in that it accounts for the context better than all the other views) for our view it seems like there is good reason to accept it.
The Conversion is Eschatological
The last part of this verse demonstrates the eschatological nature of Israel’s conversion. The rest of the verse reads “As it is written, The Deliverer will come from Zion, He will banish ungodliness from Jacob.” This is a quote from Isaiah 59:20-21 follow by a line of Isaiah 27:9 . “The Deliverer” is presumably a reference to Christ who is coming in eschatological vindication . It seems as though Zion is a reference to the heavenly city where Christ comes from . In addition, when Jesus comes to vindicate the righteous He will banish sin . Lastly, this fits in with our previous phrase because it mentions the events that are to come to pass after Israel is saved. All of this evidence would strongly suggest that these events are eschatological.
In conclusion it seems that the interpretation of Romans 11:25-26 is that the majority of ethnic Israel will be converted. This conclusion seems to be likely because it is perfectly coherent within the context. Another reason why this conclusion seems to be most the reasonable is because it does not have any of the major defects seen in other Reformed views. Furthermore, I think a proper interpretation of this verse would lead someone to the view that all of ethnic Israel will be saved. The text also seems to suggest that this saving activity will be near the end of the age. Because of this exegesis we should look forward to the glorious day when all of Israel praises the name of Christ.
There are two points of application that we want to draw from this detailed exegesis; God will keep His promises with His chosen people, and the reason why God can keep these promises is because He is sovereign over history. The God of the Bible is a God of faithfulness and thus we should expect Him to keep His promises; Romans 11 is clearly an example of this. Therefore, when we read a promise in God’s word we should have faith that God will always be true to His word and what He promises in it. The reason we know that God is always able to be faithful is because He is sovereign over all history; He is the Lord of history. Therefore, we know that when His word says that His Son will come back to vindicate the righteous at the end of the age, we should be assured in our hearts that this event will take place because God is sovereign over all history. In conclusion, we should trust God to be faithful to what He has said because He is faithful to keep His promises with Israel and He is able to do this because of His sovereignty.
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