Our Past and Future Hope – Chapter Ten: Future Hope for Israel

Romans 11

This is chapter ten of Our Past and Future Hope: Reintroducing a Traditional Faith-Building Eschatology by Jason Giles. The Contents page is here.

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The PDF/Epub ebook version is available here.

It would be an understatement to say that national Israel and Jews play a significant role in the popular modern interpretation of end times prophecy today. This is because many prophecies in the Bible concerning Israel are seen as unfulfilled, so they are pushed into the future (even when there is a clear historical fulfillment). One example of this is Daniel 9, where futurists insert an unmentioned ‘pause’ between the 69th and 70th week (see chapter three of this book for more details). So they explain that another Temple must be built in Jerusalem that a future Antichrist will invade, beginning a campaign of persecution against the Jews in Israel.

In this view, the Church plays little to no role in these prophecies. Believers would have already been raptured, and the Jews left behind. Israel and the church are said to be completely different entities. In fact, this is one of the two main principles of dispensational theology, which are “(1) maintaining a consistently literal method of interpretation, and (2) maintaining a distinction between Israel and the church.1 Israel is seen as separate from the church. Sometimes this view can go so far as to claim that Jews are on a separate path to salvation by following the Law or by works apart from Christ, known as ‘dual covenant’ theology.

On the other end of the spectrum, modern mainline protestant and reformed theologians are accused of believing in supersessionism (derogatively called ‘replacement theology’ by dispensationalists),2 which teaches that the church has essentially replaced Israel. Those who hold to this view do not see any future prophecies that apply specifically to Jews anymore, but rather to the church at large (including both Jews and Gentiles).

Sadly, finding a balanced interpretation of Israel in Scripture between the two extremes of separation or replacement is difficult today. Yet it was not always this way, and the traditional interpretation of prophecy in Scripture saw a clear future hope for Jews. This prophecy is not found in the apocalyptic passages of the Bible like Daniel or Revelation, but in Paul’s epistle to the Romans.

Israel, but not Israel

One of the main reasons Paul wrote his epistle to the Romans was to address the tensions that had arisen between the Jew and Gentile believers, “who probably meet in separate house churches and who appear to be at odds regarding Gentile adherence to the Jewish law.”3 Paul wanted them both to understand that in Christ, Jew and Gentile together form one people of God- the Church.

In Romans, Paul speaks of Israel in two different ways: physical Israel, made up of ethnic Jews, many of whom have not responded to the call of God; and spiritual Israel, those Jews who have responded to God’s plan in Christ. They are the remnant of believers that God has kept for himself. Paul compares them:

A person is not a Jew who is one only outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a person’s praise is not from other people, but from God. (Romans 2:28-29).

For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. (Roman 9:6b)

Paul confirms that a Jew could be part of physical Israel- that is, ethnically Jewish, and even in good standing with the Jewish religious community- yet still not be a part of spiritual Israel, the community of Christ followers, which now includes Gentile believers.

Jews who are a part of spiritual Israel are not separate from or replaced by Gentiles, rather, Israel is expanded: “Jesus brought the blessings of Abraham ‘first to the Jew’ and then expanded the blessing ‘also to the Gentile’ (see Galatians 3:14 and Romans 1:16)… The concept of “Spiritual Israel” is a Biblical doctrine. It doesn’t mean “replacement”…it means EXPANSION! God has joined Gentiles to the true faith of Israel –He has expanded the nation spiritually!”4 Gentiles share in this blessing by submitting to the King of Israel, Jesus Christ. This concept is made clear in Ephesians:

Therefore remember that once you, the Gentiles in the flesh, who are called “uncircumcision” by that which is called “circumcision” (in the flesh, made by hands), 12 that you were at that time separate from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of the promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off are made near in the blood of Christ. 14 For he is our peace, who made both one, and broke down the middle wall of separation, 15 having abolished in his flesh the hostility, the law of commandments contained in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man of the two, making peace, 16 and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, having killed the hostility through it. 17 He came and preached peace to you who were far off and to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have our access in one Spirit to the Father. (Ephesians 2:11-18, WEB)

When it comes to our standing before God, there is no inherent advantage to being a Jew, “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, and is rich to all who call on him. For, ‘Whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved’” (Romans 10:12-13, WEB). We are one through the Holy Spirit: “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether bond or free; and were all given to drink into one Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:13, WEB). Jew and Gentile are heirs to the same promises:

“For you are all children of God, through faith in Christ Jesus. 27 For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. 28There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 If you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring and heirs according to promise.” (Galatians 3:26-29, WEB)

Yet Paul wrote that there is a benefit to being a Jew: “Then what advantage does the Jew have? Or what is the profit of circumcision? Much in every way! Because first of all, they were entrusted with the revelations of God” (Romans 3:1-2, WEB). Jews are those “whose is the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the service, and the promises; of whom are the fathers, and from whom is Christ as concerning the flesh, who is over all, God, blessed forever” (Romans 9:4, WEB). Paul is a Christian, an apostle of the Church, but he retains his Jewish identity: “I also am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin” (Romans 11:1b, WEB). We are one before God, yet we do not lose our ethnic or cultural identities. It will not be a monoculture that worships before God, rather “a great multitude, which no man could count, out of every nation and of all tribes, peoples, and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb” (Revelation 7:9, WEB)

Understanding Paul’s definitions of Israel and the Church goes a long way in dispelling common notions we have of both, which for many Christians is typically as follows:

The Church= Gentiles, separate from Israel and Jews.
Israel= Jews, separate from Gentiles.

Instead, it should be:

The Church= Spiritual Israel, or New Covenant believing Jews expanded with Gentile believers.
Physical Israel= Ethnic Jews, many of whom are currently unbelievers.

The Olive Tree

In Romans 9-11, Paul expresses how desperately he hopes for the salvation of physical Israel, going so far as to say that he “could wish that I myself were accursed from Christ for my brothers’ sake, my relatives according to the flesh” (Romans 9:3, WEB). And in chapter 10: “Brothers, my heart’s desire and my prayer to God is for Israel, that they may be saved” (Romans 10:1, WEB). Yet he saw so many of them reject Christ and the gospel.

In Romans 11, Paul explains this situation, referencing both physical and spiritual Israel. He calls his mostly unbelieving ethnic family of Jews ‘Israel,’ while spiritual Israel is compared to an olive tree, with both natural and wild branches- Jews and Gentiles, respectively- all nourished by the root of the olive tree, which is Christ. Speaking to Gentiles (verse 13), Paul says:

If the root is holy, so are the branches. 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 and of the richness of the olive tree, 18 don’t boast over the branches. But if you boast, it is not you who support the root, but the root supports you. 19 You will say then, “Branches were broken off, that I might be grafted in.” 20 True; by their unbelief they were broken off, and you stand by your faith. Don’t be conceited, but fear; 21 for if God didn’t spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you. 22 See then the goodness and severity of God. Toward those who fell, severity; but toward you, goodness, if you continue in his goodness; otherwise you also will be cut off. 23 They also, if they don’t continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again. 24 For if you were cut out of that which 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? (Romans 11:16b-24, WEB)

Some of the natural branches- physical Israel- have been broken off, and “by their fall salvation has come to the Gentiles” (Romans 11:11, WEB). There were still Jewish believers in Christ: “Even so then at this present time also there is a remnant according to the election of grace” (Romans 11:5, WEB), and at first the Church was exclusively Jewish. But now Gentiles were coming into the church in droves, and more and more Jewish leaders and synagogues were rejecting the gospel. The olive tree was being filled with ‘wild branches.’

Paul insists that the fallen natural branches can still be grafted on, “for God is able to graft them in again” (Romans 11:23b). If they turn from their unbelief and put their faith in Christ, they will join the remnant and be a part of spiritual Israel once more. And amazingly, this is precisely what Paul says is going to happen.

All Israel Will Be Saved

25 For I don’t desire you to be ignorant, brothers, of this mystery, so that you won’t be wise in your own conceits, that a partial hardening has happened to Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in, 26 and so all Israel will be saved. Even as it is written,

“There will come out of Zion the Deliverer,
and he will turn away ungodliness from Jacob.
27 This is my covenant with them,
when I will take away their sins.” (Romans 11:25-27, WEB)

At some point in the future, after “the fullness of the Gentiles has come in” (Romans 11:25b, WEB), there will be a massive revival among Jews. At that time they will turn from their unbelief, putting their faith in Christ. The natural branches will once again be grafted onto the olive tree.

Albert Barnes, a 19th-century Reformed theologian, wrote the following about this passage:

And so – That is, in this manner; or when the great abundance of the Gentiles shall be converted, then all Israel shall be saved.

All Israel – All the Jews. It was a maxim among the Jews that “every Israelite should have part in the future age.” (Grotius.) The apostle applies that maxim to his own purpose; and declares the sense in which it would be true. He does not mean to say that every Jew of every age would be saved; for he had proved that a large portion of them would be, in his time, rejected and lost. But the time would come when, as a people, they would be recovered; when the nation would turn to God; and when it could be said of them that, as a nation, they were restored to the divine favor. It is not clear that he means that even then every individual of them would be saved, but the body of them; the great mass of the nation would be. Nor is it said when this would be. This is one of the things which “the Father hath put in his own power;” Acts 1:7. He has given us the assurance that it shall be done to encourage us in our efforts to save them; and he has concealed the time when it shall be, lest we should relax our efforts, or feel that no exertions were needed to accomplish what must take place at a fixed time.

Shall be saved – Shall be recovered from their rejection; be restored to the divine favor; become followers of the Messiah, and thus be saved as all other Christians are.

Many more quotes from both classic and modern theologians could be given saying much the same, from every denominational background.5 However, as mentioned previously, many modern believers interpret this differently now: “Not everyone agrees that ‘all Israel’ refers to the nation as a whole alive in some future generation. Some take ‘all Israel’ to refer to the true spiritual Israel including Jews and Gentiles. Others take it to refer to the remnant of believing ethnic Israel that is being saved all along through faith in Christ.”6 John Piper continues with five reasons why the passage clearly points to “a great and stupendous national conversion of Israel some day”:

Five Reasons Why I Believe Romans 11:26 Refers to the Nation of Israel as a Whole

So let me draw out several reasons again why I believe verse 26 (“And in this way all Israel will be saved”) means that someday the nation as a whole (not necessarily every individual; see 1 Kings 12:1; 2 Chronicles 12:1) will be converted to Christ and join the Christian church and be saved…

1. I think the term “Israel” in verse 25 and 26 most naturally refer to the same thing.
Verse 25: “Lest you be wise in your own conceits, I want you to understand this mystery, brothers: a partial hardening has come upon Israel. . . .” That must refer to the nation as a whole from generation to generation. He continues, “. . . until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. 26 And in this way all Israel will be saved.” I don’t think the meaning of Israel changes between verse 25 and 26. The hardened Israel (the nation as a whole) will be the saved Israel (the nation as a whole).

2. The reference in verse 26 to banishing ungodliness from Jacob fits with the national view of “all Israel.”
Verse 26: “And in this way all Israel will be saved, as it is written, ‘The Deliverer will come from Zion, he will banish ungodliness from Jacob.’” This seems most naturally to be a picture of Christ’s return at the second coming, and banishing ungodliness from Jacob refers most naturally to the removal of the hardening referred to in verse 25. “Jacob” is not a natural or typical reference to the elect remnant of Israel. The hardening lasts until the full number of the Gentiles comes in (the climax of world missions), and then Christ comes and lifts the veil and removes the hardening — he banishes ungodliness from Jacob, from “all Israel.”

3. The parallel between the two halves of verse 28 point to all Israel as the nation as a whole.
Verse 28: “As regards the gospel, they are enemies of God for your sake.” Now that half of the verse surely refers to the nation as a whole — they are enemies of God. So the second half of the verse surely refers to the nation as a whole as well: “But as regards election, they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers.” The point of this verse is to show that even though Israel now is a covenant-breaking, unbelieving nation, that is going to change. The nation that are enemies now, will be converted later because of election and love.

4. The parallels in verse 12 point in the same direction.
Verse 12: “Now if their [the Jewish nation’s] trespass means riches for the world [salvation for the Gentiles], and if their [the Jewish nation’s] failure means riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their full inclusion!” Here “their full inclusion” most naturally refers to the same nation as “their trespass” and “their failure.” So “their full inclusion” refers to the salvation of “all Israel” and is national.

5. The same thing is true about the parallels in verse 15.
“For if their [Jewish nation’s] rejection means the reconciliation of the world, what will their [Jewish nation’s] acceptance mean but life from the dead?” The nation now rejected will be accepted. So the “acceptance” of the Jewish nation most naturally refers to the salvation of “all Israel” — the salvation of the nation as a whole some day.7

The context of the astounding statement that “all Israel will be saved” is clear, and it points to the mass conversion of Jews at some point in the future.

But When?

Paul does not say when this event will occur, only that it will be after “the fullness of the Gentiles has come in” (Romans 11:25b). In Luke, there is a mention of the ‘times of the Gentiles’:

20 “But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation is at hand. 21 Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. Let those who are in the middle of her depart. Let those who are in the country not enter therein. 22 For these are days of vengeance, that all things which are written may be fulfilled. 23 Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who nurse infants in those days! For there will be great distress in the land, and wrath to this people. 24 They will fall by the edge of the sword, and will be led captive into all the nations. Jerusalem will be trampled down by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled. (Luke 21:20-24, WEB, emphasis mine)

This is the parallel passage to Matthew 24 (covered in chapter 4 of this book), talking about the razing of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D. Jerusalem has been overrun by ‘Gentiles’ ever since, and even though Jews control much of the city, the supposed site of the Temple is home to the Islamic shrine, the Dome of the Rock. But according to Jesus’ words, this state of affairs will come to an end. Barnes states:

The meaning of the passage clearly is,

  1. That Jerusalem would be completely destroyed.
  2. That this would be done by Gentiles – that is, by the Roman armies.
  3. That this desolation would continue as long as God should judge it proper in a fit manner to express his abhorrence of the crimes of the nation – that is, until the times allotted to “them” by God for this desolation should be accomplished, without specifying how long that would be, or what would occur to the city after that.

It “may” be rebuilt, and inhabited by converted Jews. Such a thing is “possible,” and the Jews naturally seek that as their home; but whether this be so or not, the time when the “Gentiles,” as such, shall have dominion over the city is limited. Like all other cities on the earth, it will yet be brought under the influence of the gospel, and will be inhabited by the true friends of God. Pagan, infidel, anti-Christian dominion shall cease there, and it will be again a place where God will be worshipped in sincerity – a place “even then” of special interest from the recollection of the events which have occurred there. “How long” it is to be before this occurs is known only to Him “who hath put the times and seasons in his own power,” Acts 1:7.8

Again, the details of when this will occur are not given, only that it is sure to happen.

Another time given to the Gentiles is in Revelation 11:

A reed like a rod was given to me. Someone said, “Rise, and measure God’s temple, and the altar, and those who worship in it. 2 Leave out the court which is outside of the temple, and don’t measure it, for it has been given to the nations. They will tread the holy city under foot for forty-two months. 3 I will give power to my two witnesses, and they will prophesy one thousand two hundred sixty days, clothed in sackcloth.” (Revelation 11:1-3, WEB)

With Revelation being of the apocalyptic genre and symbolic throughout, the temple here is interpreted in the same way it is used in the rest of the New Testament- as a symbol for the Church. The outer court is given to ‘the nations,’ which is interpreted as ‘the Gentiles’ in other versions like the KJV and NIV. The time period given here is the same used throughout the Old and New Testament, and it is recognized as the same time that the little horn, the beast, and the dragon have power over the saints- the Roman Antichrist in all of its forms, namely the Papacy, Rome, and the Holy Roman Empire (see chapters 5, 6, 7, and 9 of this book for more on this time).

Perhaps these ‘times of the Gentiles’ are tied to the period of the desolation of Jerusalem and the ‘partial hardening’ of Israel. This is what Fleming believed:

…Being satisfied that the Jews were to be converted, and that this great event could not be wholly left out in the Revelation, I did at last conclude that this must not be, whatever particular conversions of some part of them might happen, until the final destruction of the Popish party; whose idolatry, villainies, lies and legends, and bloody temper, is the chief thing that prejudices them against Christianity. So that I did at length conclude, that the resurrection or revival of the ancient Jewish church is understood by the resurrection of the martyrs, [Revelation 20:4], who, being thus added to the true reformed Christian church, and making up one body together with those gentile believers, in the fulness or ripened state of the gentile church, shall be to them as life from the dead. See Rom. 11:15-25.9

Even still, “‘how long’ it is to be before this occurs is known only to Him ‘who hath put the times and seasons in his own power.’”10

Traditional Vs. Modern Interpretation

In the modern popular interpretation, the future of Israel is a mixed bag. Blessings are seen for national Israel, Jews that are a part of the modern nation of Israel, and especially Jerusalem. The fact that they are at least mostly back in their homeland is seen as a major fulfillment of prophecy. Many Christians keep Jerusalem under the microscope, because they are expectantly waiting for the Temple to be rebuilt, thus kicking off the Apocalypse.

But very little attention and effort is given regarding their actual salvation, which can only come through their recognition of the Messiah, Jesus Christ. Only a tiny future remnant of Jews are believed to be saved- 144,000 to be exact- and the ‘Gentile’ Church expects to be long gone by then, already having been raptured at that point. The rest of the unsaved Jews are thought to face the same grim fate as all unbelievers during the tribulation and Armageddon.

This is not the miracle that is promised for Israel in Romans 11. As much of a blessing as the land promises are, how could they ever compare to salvation through their Messiah? And what worth is a physical Temple now, when the blood of a million animal sacrifices would do nothing to cover their sins? The Church is the new Temple- the place where the Spirit of God lives- and Christ is the chief cornerstone. When Jews around the world turn to Christ, they will become living stones in this new Temple! In the New Jerusalem that comes down from heaven, there is no temple building: “I saw no temple in it, for the Lord God, the Almighty, and the Lamb, are its temple” (Revelation 21:22, WEB).

The true miracle is the re-grafting of the natural branches back onto the olive tree, a mass revival of millions of Jews worldwide, not just a tiny remnant. “God is able to graft them in again” (Romans 11:23b), to open their eyes to see Him “whom they have pierced; and they shall mourn for him as one mourns for his only son, and will grieve bitterly for him as one grieves for his firstborn” (Zechariah 12:10b, WEB). This prophecy fills our hearts with hope for Israel, instead of putting a nation in the Middle East on morbid display as some sort of ‘doomsday clock’. The new sign of the end times is a mass conversion of Jews to Christ, and our mission is to be a witness to them of the Savior of Israel, rather than contributing to their temple-rebuilding fund.

In God’s plan, Jews are neither separate nor replaced by the Church. Spiritual/ remnant Israel is expanded, now including Gentiles into the same plan of salvation set into motion since the Fall. Now we pray and labor (like Paul did) for their full inclusion once more, knowing that God has promised to graft them in again.

  1. Paul Enns, “The Moody Handbook of Theology”, 740, emphasis mine. ↩︎
  2. This is an unfair accusation, and the view I propose is largely from Reformed teaching on Israel. See R. Scott Clark, “Covenant Theology Is Not Replacement Theology” for more on this.
    Available online at https://heidelblog.net/2013/08/covenant-theology-is-not-replacement-theology/
    It’s true, however, that the interpretation I propose for Romans 11 is not universal among Reformed/mainline protestants, and it used to be more common than it is today. For the three main views on Israel in Romans 11, please see Matt Waymeyer, “The Dual Status of Israel in Romans 11:28”, available online at https://tms.edu/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/tmsj16c.pdf ↩︎
  3. Gordon Fee, “How to Read the Bible Book by Book”, 319. ↩︎
  4. Fred Klett, “Not Replacement… Expansion”.
    Available online at https://chaim.org/xpansion ↩︎
  5. Charles Hodge, John Murray, Geerhardus Vos, A. B. Simpson, John Gill, Jonathan Edwards, Charles H. Spurgeon, William Perkins, Samuel Rutherford, John Piper, F. F. Bruce, William Sanday, Arthur C. Headlam, C. E. B. Cranfield, Robert H. Mounce, Douglas J. Moo, Leon Morris, James D. G. Dunn, Thomas R. Schreiner, Robert L. Saucy, S. Lewis Johnson, Jr., Harold W. Hoehner, Everett F. Harrison, to name a few. ↩︎
  6. John Piper, “All Israel Will Be Saved.”
    Available online at https://www.desiringgod.org/messages/all-israel-will-be-saved ↩︎
  7. Piper, ibid. ↩︎
  8. Barnes, ibid, Luke 21.24. ↩︎
  9. Robert Fleming, “Apocalyptical Key”, 95-96.
    Available online at https://play.google.com/store/books/details?id=zWEJAQAAMAAJ ↩︎
  10. Barnes, ibid, Luke 21.24. ↩︎