Chapter 2: Topical Index
I am not sure I get the drift of avshalom's comment, but parts of it seem familiar, and I suspect therefore that it arises from and perpetuates a common confusion that has important consequences for theology, exchatology, and evangelism, in addition to our understanding of history within God's plan of salvation.
God’s promises of salvation and all that comes with it were made to “Israel” and the first-century Jews generally knew that. But, in their ignorance, far too many people had assumed that the covenants of God were with all tribal Israelites and that all ethnic Jews were beneficiaries of God’s promises. The assumption was not foolish. “Israel” (along with other expressions, like “Zion” and “Jerusalem”) appears throughout the OT Scripture and it is natural to assume that “Israel” (or any of the other expressions) refers to one and the same entity each time it appears. But the assumption was false. Some uses refer to a tribe, some to a political organization, some to an alliance of tribes, some to an ethnic group. Other times, “Israel” refers strictly to God’s people, to those saved by faith. Failure to apprehend that “Israel” is ambiguous caused people, in their ignorance, to assume that their membership in a tribe, or a political organization, or an alliance of tribes, or an ethnic group, made them God’s people – beneficiaries of God’s promises of salvation and all that comes with it.
Paul must have been vexed by this assumption, because he takes pains to explain who it is that God chose to be his people and made promises to. As avshalom urges, look at Paul’s letter to the Romans; actually, we need look no further. There, Paul described the “true” Jew as different from the Jew who was only instructed by the law and was circumcised in the flesh; the true Jew had a “circumcised heart” and fulfilled the law under the direction of the Spirit. Rom. 2:17-29. Correspondingly, Paul wrote that not all physical descendants of Israel were truly Israel; nor, because they were Abraham’s offspring, were they all his true children (and heirs). Rom. 9:6-7. Abraham’s true offspring, the true Israel, are those born through the promise to Abraham and elected by God in his mercy, which includes the faithful remnant of Israel in the natural line and Gentiles who have the same faith. Rom. 9:8-29 and 11:1-5.
At the time Paul wrote his letter to the Romans, the true Israel and the true Jews were especially identified by faith in Messiah Jesus, and so by being born again, by receiving the Holy Spirit. That had become the mark of the true Jew, true Israel, Abraham’s true offspring. Paul used the metaphor of the broken-off branches (Rom. 11:19-20) to emphasize the decisiveness of a person’s response to Jesus. It was a test of a generation of Israelites that had not been given before. (Indeed, it was a test of all people that had not been given before; Acts 17:30-32.) After the resurrection of Jesus and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, there was a new way to identify faithful Israel, the participants in God’s new covenant.
There is a New Covenant and a new covenantal Seal, but the theologically significant use of “Israel” has not changed. It continues to mean what it has always meant – the relatively few people saved by faith. God knows who they were, who they are, and who will be added to their number in this age. It is to all and only these people that God made the promises recorded in OT Scripture. In accordance with Paul’s strictures, distinguish these members of God’s kingdom, past and present and future, as ISRAEL or JEWS. We should, by the same token, distinguish all others as GENTILES. (Since the first century, we can affirm that everyone is a GENTILE unless he confesses with his mouth that Jesus is Lord and believes in his heart that God raised him from the dead.) God made the promises concerning salvation to ISRAEL and JEWS; God did not make the promises concerning salvation to unbelieving ethnic Jews.
Alas, ISRAEL stopped calling itself “Israel” and JEWS stopped calling themselves “Jews” (and they may never have used the term “Gentiles” to refer to everyone else). This seems to have happened before John wrote his gospel, but not before Paul wrote to resist. I think Paul was right to resist, because the assumption that Paul refuted so strenuously in his letter to the Romans is still widespread today, and it seems to be fed by the belief that “Israel” in the OT promises refers to ethnic Jews and even to political Israel of today. (Actually, I doubt that ethnic Jews and political Israel today have any better claim to a close relation with the tribe Israel of the OT than you or I do. But I insist, with Paul, that they, who believe in their hearts that Jesus was an imposter and deny with their mouths that he is Messiah, are not JEWS or ISRAEL.) If ISRAEL and JEWS had not given up their proper names and left them for use by the ethnic group and the nation-state, people might be less attracted to the false belief that members of the ethnic or political group have, as such, some assurance of salvation or some special role in the rest of salvation history.
So we come to Romans 11:25-26: “Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved … .” Given the false belief that the words “Israel” and “Jews” when they appear in the Bible with theological significance have reference to a political or ethnic group that is known as Israel or Jews today, some understand Paul as forecasting the salvation of all that group (or all that group alive at the end). But Paul could not have meant that all of any ethnic or political group, as such, was assured of salvation, even if the group called itself “Israel” and was so called by others; far from it, for that would have contradicted the teaching of our Messiah himself. (For the teaching of Jesus on this, see just the accounts of Matthew - 10:35, 12:46-50, 13:24-30, 13:47-48, 22:1-14, 25:31-46.) And, indeed, Paul was careful to use the ambiguous term “Israel” in contexts that would resolve ambiguity. As the context of Romans 11 especially makes obvious, by “all Israel” Paul meant all ISRAEL – all of the people who are heirs to God’s promises given to Abraham and elaborated by the prophets. Thus, by “all Israel” Paul meant those persons, living and dead, who had saving faith in Messiah when he wrote, together with those who would come to have such faith after he wrote, until Jesus comes again. That is what “Israel” has always meant for purposes of salvation and for purposes of every burden or blessing that comes with being God’s people. So, what Paul meant when he wrote that “all Israel” would be saved when “the full number of Gentiles” has been brought in is this: at that time in the future, there would be accomplished the salvation of everyone who, by the grace of God, had been predestined to salvation through faith in Jesus. Maybe he framed a bit of a tautology, and many readers, reasonably expecting more than tautology, added to his intended meaning. But that is all he meant. And what about “Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles is brought in”? Paul meant that part of Israel, along with other GENTILES, will join ISRAEL until ISRAEL is complete. He meant when the full measure of GENTILES (including nonbelieving ethnic Israel) predestined to be saved has joined ISRAEL by faith then all ISRAEL will have been saved.