Simply Israel: Romans 11:26 Part I

Derek Ouellette —  July 12, 2011

Christians have long debated the nature of “Israel” in Biblical and historical theology. Those who interpret the scriptures through the lens of the covenants often take “Israel” to denote the spiritual people of God[1] whereas those who interpret the scriptures through the lens of dispensations often take “Israel” to mean the physical descendents of Abraham making up a national, ethnic people-group.[2]

Amidst the debate sooner or later Romans 11:26 is brought up and many covenantalists who insist on maintaining no distinction between “Israel” and “the church” everywhere else, will abandon this basic covenantal tenant by affirming a core dispensational belief that in the end “all Israel [i.e. national, ethnic Israel] will be saved”. Three examples should suffice.

Geerhardus Vos, who near as I can tell is a Covenantal Premillennialist,[3] writes,

“[a study of Romans 11:11-12] leave[s] no doubt that the general, national apostasy of Israel is referred to, and consequently the recovery from this must bear the same collective interpretation [for Romans 11:26].”[4]

Amillennialist Kim Riddlebarger writes,

“Once the fullness of the Gentiles comes in, God will bring the vast majority of ethnic Jews to faith in Christ. And this is the harbinger of the end of the age.”[5]

And finally Keith Mathison, a Postmillennialist, writes:

“By bringing salvation to the Gentiles, God will stir the hearts of Israel and they will one day recognize their Messiah.”[6]

These three examples, each from one of the three branches of Covenantal Theology, should suffice to make my point. That these theologians who insist on one people of God – contra Dispensationalism – turn from a covenantal reading of scripture at its very core in their interpretation of Romans 11:26. The whole covenantal narrative of scripture and the redemptive story depends upon the philosophical interpretation of “Israel” as being a reference to the spiritual people of God and of there only being one people, not two. While two “Israel’s” are conceived of in the New Testament,[7] the point of the distinction is to emphasize that God shows no ethnocentric favoritism. The covenantal meta-narrative depends on this distinction, and here’s why.

The story of the scriptures, of Creation-Fall-Redemption, is a story of a God who has chosen to make things right through covenants. He has chosen Abraham and established an unconditional covenant with him (Gen 15) in which God in essence says, “if what I promise does not come to pass, may what happened to these slaughtered animals happen to me”. But only two chapters’ later (Gen 17) conditions[8] are added to the covenant so that while God will unconditionally keep his promise to Abraham and his descendents the question becomes, who are Abrahams descendents? And as Paul would later put it, “not all Israel are Israel” (Rom 9); because Abraham’s descendents prove to be unfaithful and end up exiled from the presence of God (cf. Adam’s exile from the garden). What is God to do? He must find a “true Israelite indeed” whom he can keep his unconditional promise with. This is the principle of representation:[9] enters the Messiah. The Messiah is the true Israelite whose mission embodies the role of Israel[10] so that through his faithfulness God fulfills his part of the covenant.[11] The question again becomes, who is “in” Israel or who are the children of Abraham? The answer is: those who are of faith and are in the Messiah. (Michael Bird has recently summarized this narrative superbly in part 3 of his recent series “Church and Israel”; unfortunately, in part 2 of the series he concludes with this statement: “[Paul] still looks forward to the salvation of national Israel in the eschatological future (Rom 11:26).” How he reconciles his interpretation of this verse with the meta-narrative he outlines – which is in agreement with N.T. Wright in “Climax of the Covenant” – I do not know.)

So then to come to Romans 11:26 and all of a sudden suppose that Paul retracts everything else he has said about Israel not only throughout Romans but also in Galatians, Thessalonians and elsewhere, and suddenly begins to speak – and apparently only here and nowhere else – of a privileged people as a result of their special ethnic standing, despite the narrative the Apostle just outlined throughout the rest of Romans leading up to (perhaps climaxing with) Romans 11:26, seems irretrievably inconsistent to me.

So for the next few posts we’ll explore Romans 11:26 by presenting the exegetical arguments put forth for interpreting “Israel” in terms of an unprecedented ingathering of the national, ethnic people-group at the end times. We’ll then offer the exegetical counter-arguments put forth for interpreting “Israel” in terms of all the people of God, both Jews and Gentiles. Then I’ll offer some concluding remarks.

[1] O. Palmer Robertson, The Israel of God, p.33 ff

[2] Charles Ryrie, Dispensationalism, p.46

[3] That is, he holds to historic premillennialism, not dispensational premillennialism. There’s a world of difference.

[4] Geerhardus Vos, The Pauline Eschatology, p.89

[5] Kim Riddlebarger, A Case for Amillennialism, p.193. Here Riddlebarger interprets “all” to mean “vast majority”, but still believes that it is a reference to the nation of Israel, though it might not apply to some within that nation.

[6] Keither A. Mathison, Postmillennialism: An Eschatology of hope, p.129

[7] Example, “Not all Israel are Israel”, “Israelite after the flesh” et cetera.

[8] Circumcision which was to be done “in faith” (see Deuteronomy)

[9] Isaiah 41-53

[10] See in particular the Gospel of Matthew

[11] Romans 5, Philippians 2

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Derek Ouellette

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a husband, new dad, speaker, writer, christian. see my profile here.
  • Morgan Guyton

    As long as Palestinians aren’t animals who God doesn’t care about, I’m good.

  • Peter Berntsson

    I’m definitely interested in your next post. I’ve moved from being cluelessly Zionist, to being a somewhat committed Zionist, to being clueless again, leaning away from Zionism 😛

    I’m happy real dispensationalism barely exists here, though. When I have seen it, I’ve always looked at it with a kind of uneasy smile and just going “is this for real or is this Biblical fanfiction?”

  • Kyle Pitts

    I roll with some pretty hardcore Dispensationalists. I tend to just keep my mouth shut due to the fact that most Dispensationalists are very hostile towards theological opposition. I wrote a little on Facebook about how Replacement Theology is not anti-Semitic (without even stating my opinion) and opened up a can of worms and sideways looks came Sunday morning.

  • Pingback: Elsewhere (07.15.2011) | Near Emmaus()

  • Pip Power

    Jesus Christ Is Israel

    It is written:
    Hosea 11:1
    When Israel was a youth I loved him, and out of Egypt I called My Son.
    Matthew 2:14, 15
    And he arose and took the Child and His mother by night, and departed for Egypt;
    and was there until the death of Herod, that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet might be fulfilled, saying, “Out of Egypt did I call My Son.”
    As Jesus is the true Israel according to Scripture, He is also the true seed of Abraham for it is also written in the Scriptures:
    Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. [8] And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” – Galatians 3:7,8 (ESV)
    and as Jesus is the true Israel and Seed of Abraham, the promises of God were made not to natural Israel, but to Abraham and to Christ, for again it is written in the Scriptures:

    Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ. – Galatians 3:16 (ESV).

    There is one plan of redemption throughout history, by faith in Christ, the faith of Abraham, for it is also written in Scripture:

    For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. [28] There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. [29] And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise. –Galatians 3:27-29 (ESV)

    Thus there is only one true Israel, Jesus Christ, and none other; one redemptive plan of salvation throughout all history; one Gospel; one people of God –the Church, the Israel of God-by faith having been united to Jesus Christ, the true Israel and made heirs according to the promise of God.

    For all the promises of God find their Yes in him. That is why it is through him that we utter our Amen to God for his glory. – 2 Corinthians. 1:20 (ESV).

    The Dismissal of Earthly Jerusalem as Spiritually Significant
    Jesus said to her,

    “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. [22] You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. [23] But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. [24] God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” – John 4:21-24
    Here, for the first time in the history of history, God tells us that earthly Jerusalem will no longer retain spiritual significance. Jesus tells us the time for that truth had arrived. That hour “is now here”. Under the Gospel, earthly places like Jerusalem no longer hold distinction as a spiritual place of worship. The time when men were to go to the temple in Jerusalem, attend feasts and observe outward ceremonies under the old covenant were now forever dismissed with the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus to the Father, with redemption of the elect now completed. God is seeking worshippers from every place, from every tribe and tongue to worship Him. Where one worships is no longer spiritually significant, the important thing is how, in “spirit and truth.”

    4:20 on this mountain. Both Jews and Samaritans recognized that God had commanded their forefathers to identify a special place for worshipping Him (Deuteronomy. 12:5). The Jews, recognizing the Hebrew canon, chose Jerusalem (2 Samuel. 7:5-13; 2 Chronicles. 6:6). The Samaritans, recognizing only the Pentateuch, noted that the first place Abraham built an altar to God was at Shechem (Genesis. 12:6,7), which was overlooked by Mt. Gerizim, where the Israelites had shouted the blessings promised by God before they entered the Promised Land (Dueteronomy. 11:29,30). As a result, they chose Mt. Gerizim for the place of their temple.

    4:21 neither on this mountain, nor in Jerusalem. There was no reason to debate locations, since both places would be obsolete soon and neither would have any role to play in the lives of those who genuinely worship God. Jerusalem would even be destroyed with its temple in 70 A.D.

    In one fell swoop, our Lord Jesus lets every child of Zion know with certainty, the entire company of the redeemed by way of the Gospel, that the spiritual significance of earthly Jerusalem in Palestine, along with the spiritual significance of every nation, is obliterated forever.

    Under the New Covenant, through the preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the effectual calling of God, peoples from every tribe and tongue join the mystical community of faith, the Church! Glorious truth!

    Jesus the true Israel of God.

    One term of critical importance in the Bible is the word Israel. There is much reward if we spend time prayerfully considering this important key word in scripture. Let examine the matter in more detail. The Old Testament is full of “Types and shadows…” that pointed to Christ.

    These are intentionally placed in the scripture to describe and identify the Messiah when He came. Some “types” are people, such as Melchizedek, or Isaac. Some “types” are things such as Noah’s Ark. Some “types” are ceremonies such as Passover and events. Each of them beautifully pictures the life and ministry of Jesus Christ hundreds of years before His Incarnation.

    Lest look at some of these Types. And the Lord said to Moses in Midian, “Go, return to Egypt; for all the men who sought your life are dead.” Then Moses took his wife and his sons and set them on a donkey, and he returned to the land of Egypt. (Exodus 4:19-20)

    Here we have a type that was to be fulfilled in Christ centuries later.

    “Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king.” Matthew 2:1 Because Herod was threatened by this new child king, he sent soldiers who “slew all the children that were in Bethlehem.” Verse 16. Joseph was warned of the impending crisis in advance. “The angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I bring thee word.” Verse 13. So the holy family arose and “departed into Egypt.” Verse 14 Matthew writes that little Jesus remained in Egypt “until the death of Herod: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet.

    Another type.

    When the young nation of Israel came out of Egypt, God called that nation “my son” in Exodus 4:22. When the baby Jesus came out of Egypt, God said, “Out of Egypt have I called my son.” (Matthew 2:15) Matthew 2:15 is an important verse for several reasons. Matthew here is quoting Hosea 11:1 which was prophecy, approximately 800 years earlier which reads, (‘”When Israel was a child, I loved him, And out of Egypt I called My son. ) Matthew declares it “fulfilled” in Jesus Christ! Here Matthew is beginning to reveal a truly shocking principle that he and Paul develops throughout the Gospel. Matthew’s use of inaplhrwqh while citing Hosea 11:1 indicates that Christ’s departure out of Egypt was the fulfillment of Hosea 11:1. Therefore, Hosea 11:1 is solely a reference to Jesus as Israel.

    Prior to Matthew 2:15, Matthew uses this exact same fulfillment formula to show two direct fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. The prediction of Isaiah 7:14 finds its direct fulfillment in the virgin birth of Christ according to Matthew 1:23. The prediction regarding the birthplace of the messiah in Micah 5:2 finds its direct fulfillment in Matthew 2:5-6. Based upon the pattern of these prior precedents, it would seem that the use of the identical fulfillment formula in Matthew 2:15 would also suggest that Hosea 11:1 finds a direct fulfillment in Christ.

    The apostle Paul also followed the principle of applying statements originally made about the nation of Israel to Jesus Christ. The clearest example of them all is where God called Israel “the seed of Abraham.” (Isaiah 41:8) Yet Paul later wrote that Abraham’s seed does not refer to “many,” but to “one, singular… which is Christ.” (Galatians 3:16)

    Another statements originally made about the nation of Israel is God called Israel “my firstborn” in (Exodus 4:22). Yet Paul said it was Jesus Christ who is “the firstborn of every creature.” (Colossians 1:15).

    Isaiah ALSO APPLIED ISRAEL TO MESSIAH, Isaiah 49:3–6: 3 He said to Me, “You are My Servant, Israel, In Whom I will show My glory.”4But I said, “I have toiled in vain, I have spent My strength for nothing and vanity; Yet surely the justice due to Me is with the LORD, And My reward with My God.” 5And now says the LORD, who formed Me from the womb to be His Servant, To bring Jacob back to Him, so that Israel might be gathered to Him (For I am honored in the sight of the LORD, And My God is My strength), 6 He says, “It is too small a thing that You should be My Servant To raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the preserved ones of Israel; I will also make You a light of the nations So that My salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” (NASB)

    Lest look at these verse more closely. According to verse 3, Yahweh is speaking to “My Servant Israel.” Verse 5 then states one of the purposes of this “Servant.” The Servant’s role is “to bring Jacob back to Him, so that Israel might be gathered to Him.” Verse 6 also states that the role of the Servant is “to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the preserved ones of Israel.” God will also “makes” the Servant to be “a light to the nations” (v. 6).

    What is significant here is that the Servant is clearly linked with Israel (v.3) yet He is also distinct in some way since He is the one who will “restore” Israel. The nation Israel cannot restore itself, for it is sinful nation. But the Servant—who is Jesus Christ the true Israel—can restore the nation Israel and bring blessings for the nations. Thus, this passage teaches that Jesus, the true Israel, who would restore the nation Israel and bring light to the nations. “Isaiah 49 shows that the servant ‘Israel’ will bring national Israel back to God and also extend Yahweh’s salvation to the ends of the earth.” Isaiah is applying the honorific title of “Israel” to the Messiah because he is the true servant who will finally accomplish the task of Israel.

    How did the disciples link Isaiah 49:3–6 to Christ Jesus? The disciples asked Jesus the question, “So when they met together, they asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6 NIV). The disciples do not believe that Jesus’ identity rules out a restoration of the kingdom to Israel. Jesus’ answer to their question is significant: “He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or epochs which the Father has fixed by His own authority” (Acts 1:7). Jesus does not correct them or say, “Don’t you get it. I am not the Servant, Israel. Instead, Jesus informs them that the timing of Israel’s restoration is not for them to know, but is only possession of the Father. They are to be concerned with the proclamation of the Gospel to the world.

    A very careful study of the first book of the New Testament reveals that Christ the true Israel actually repeated the history of ancient Israel, point by point, and overcame where they had failed to do.

    In Psalm 80:8, God calls Israel a “vine” that He brought “out of Egypt.” Yet Jesus later declared, “I am the true vine.” (John 15:1). Thus there is only one true Israel, Jesus Christ, and none other; restoration plan of salvation throughout all history.

    As Jesus is the true Israel according to scripture, And all who are apart of his (new creature) are apart of the Israel of God. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision availeth anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creature. And as many as walk according to this rule, peace be on them, and mercy, and upon the Israel of God.” (Galatians 6:14-16)