FAQ: Difficult Passages Blog #2
“I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers and sisters, so that you may not be conceited: Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in, and in this way all Israel will be saved.” (Romans 11:25-26)
Question: What is the full number of the Gentiles?
Context: We need to remember that Paul, a convert to Christianity from a conservative form of Judaism, has essentially travelled all over the Eastern Roman Empire sharing the message of Jesus and establishing churches in key cities. He is now looking to take the message of Jesus to the West, including Spain. He wrote this letter to followers of Jesus in Rome to seek their support in being a home-base for his missionary work in the Western Empire.
In addition, there is conflict between Gentile Christians and Jewish Christians in Rome. The Jews, including Jewish Christians, were expelled from Rome. When they returned, they found that the church had continued to grow and thrive under Gentile leadership. However, the expression of Gentile Christianity looked different than the expression of Jewish Christianity.
Paul wants to gain the support of the Gentile Christians in Rome but doesn’t want to create a further divide between Jewish and Gentile Christians. So, in this section of the letter, he reminds the Church of their Jewish heritage and addresses the question: is God finished with Israel?
Analysis: Paul argues that God is continuing to keep his promise to Abraham because there is a group of Jews who have faith in Jesus and because part of God’s promise to Abraham was that all nations would be blessed through him and his descendants. In addition, it has always been God’s way to work through a small group of people to display his glory to the rest. Finally, Israel’s rejection of Jesus’ good news is not irreversible and final; God’s blessing on the Gentiles is making the Jews jealous which, Paul believes, will compel the Jews to accept Jesus as God’s Messiah and enter the kingdom.
Problems: “the full number of the Gentiles”
This is where it’s really important to make sure that we don’t allow our presuppositions affect what the Bible actually says. For example, if I come with a Calvinist presupposition, I would say that Paul means God predetermined that certain Gentiles would respond to the gospel. When that “full number of the Gentiles” respond to the message of Jesus, then all Israel will be saved. It’s possible to see that in the text but it might be more about the lens I am reading the text through.
It’s also possible that Paul is saying that when Gentiles from every tribe, nation, people and language group (Revelation 7:9) respond to the gospel (“the fullness of the Gentiles”), then Israel will return to faith in Christ. This view fits really well with the over-all teaching of Scripture: John’s vision of worship in heaven and Jesus’ prediction in Matthew 24:14 – “And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.”
“All Israel will be saved” What does Paul mean by this: every child of Israel who ever lived throughout history? Those children of Israel who are alive when Christ returns? Something else?
Paul makes it clear in other places that it isn’t enough to be a Jew ethnically (e.g. Romans 2:28; Romans 9:6-8); a person must recognize Jesus as God’s Messiah in order to enter into the promises of the new covenant. On the other hand, Paul argues that because they are physical descendants of Abraham, the children of Israel are still recipients of the promise God made to Abraham (Romans 11:28-29). While these seem like paradoxical statements to us, Paul’s view of God is large enough to embrace paradox.
In addition, it was common for Jewish teachers at the time to make the statement, “All Israel will be saved.” Then they would list all the Israelites who would not be saved. The common understanding of the phrase, therefore, was “Israel as a whole (but not necessarily including every individual) will be saved.” (Craig Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament). This is likely how Paul’s audience would have understood this phrase.
Themes: The themes of this section surround the main theme of redemption and history. Paul is wrestling with what salvation and God’s mercy mean for the nation of Israel, given the necessity of repentance and belief in Jesus as God’s Messiah and Lord.
Obligations: By referring to “the fullness of the Gentiles” Paul is reminding us of our obligation as missionaries to our world. Jesus taught that the gospel of the kingdom would be spread to all nations before the end would come. He commissioned us to go into all the world with this message. John’s vision included people from every nation, tribe, people and language group surrounding the throne of Jesus. All of this reminds us of our obligation to be witnesses of the kingdom.
A second obligation is stated directly in the passage: “so that you may not be conceited.” Paul is reminding us that we are not better than any other people group, including the children of Israel. We were not the first people to be chosen by God and we were not chosen because of any merit in ourselves; we are simply relying on the kindness of God. We should not look down on the children of Israel for their rejection of the Messiah; apart from God’s grace, we would be in the same boat. Plus, we should never forget the possibility (certainty?) that God will grant mercy to the children of Israel, allowing them to recognize Jesus as the Messiah and Lord.
Reflection: As people reflect on creation, human relationships, universal standards of good and evil, etc. I’ve sometimes heard them exclaim, “How can people not believe in God?” I understand the sentiment of that statement. But Paul warns us in this section to be careful not be arrogant in our belief – as if we believe because we are smarter, wiser, better. The kingdom is a kingdom of grace and mercy. Paul reminds us to humbly preach and demonstrate the gospel of this kingdom to all nations, including the children of Israel.
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