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. As it is written: “The deliverer will come from Zion; he will turn godlessness away from Jacob. And this is my covenant with them when I take away their sins.” (Romans 11:25-26)
Paul speaks of mystery, which is not a secret God is keeping from us but one he reveals to us in Jesus Christ. In Romans 9, Paul began addressing the question of what the coming of Jesus the Messiah now meant for the Jews who rejected him: Would they be forgotten? Had God’s promise to Israel failed?
What then shall we say? That the Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained it, a righteousness that is by faith; but the people of Israel, who pursued the law as the way of righteousness, have not attained their goal. Why not? Because they pursued it not by faith but as if it were by works. They stumbled over the stumbling stone. (Romans 9:30-31)The problem was that Israel, and the Jews of Paul’s own experience, tried to identify their place in God’s covenant promise on the basis of keeping the Law of Moses. But that was never God’s purpose for the Law. God’s way has always been about faith, and this was how, surprisingly for the Jews, the Gentiles took part in God’s promise — by faith.
Israel’s lack of faith, however, did not mean that God had given up on them. And in Romans 10, Paul declares his intense desire and prayer that Israel be saved, for the way of faith, which had always been available throughout the history of Israel, was still open for them now. God’s acceptance of the non-Jews on the basis of faith had not foreclosed Israel’s opportunity, even though they currently rejected Jesus as Messiah and King.
Paul quotes the words of Isaiah here: “All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and obstinate people” (Romans 10:21, quoting Isaiah 65:2). Yet, though they were disobedient and obstinate, they were still God’s people nonetheless. “Did God reject his people?” Paul asks, then declares, “By no means!” (Romans 11:1). For one thing, God always had a remnant who remained faithful, as he did in the days of Elijah. “So too,” Paul says, “at the present time there is a remnant chosen by grace” (v. 5).
But again Paul asks concerning the non-remnant Jews who had been faithless, “Did they stumble so as to fall beyond recovery? Not at all!” Paul answers, “Rather, because of their transgression, salvation has come to the Gentiles to make Israel envious. But if their transgression means riches for the world, and their loss means riches for the Gentiles, how much greater riches will their full inclusion bring!” (Romans 11:11-12).
Israel’s faithlessness did not signal the end of Israel but had unexpectedly, from a human point of view, become an occasion for the Gentiles to come to faith in the Jewish Messiah. And if the present rejection by the Jews “brought reconciliation to the world,” Paul asks, “what will their acceptance be but life from the dead?” (v. 15). At the same time Paul recognized the rejection of unbelieving Jews, he also acknowledged the surpassing glory that would result from their future acceptance of Messiah.
Paul was drawing on the Old Testament practice of offering the firstfruits to the Lord and how that blessed the rest of the harvest and made it holy. “If the part of the dough offered as firstfruits is holy, then the whole batch is holy; if the root is holy, so are the branches” (v. 16). In other words, the remnant Paul mentioned earlier, the one chosen by grace, served as the firstfruits that made the rest of Israel holy. The fact that God had a remnant showed that God had not given up on the rest of Israel.
“If the root is holy, so are the branches.” Here Paul begins to shift the metaphor, but to the same effect. He is thinking of an olive tree, a classic symbol of Israel. The root is the faithful remnant of Israel, which for Paul represented those Jews who believed on Jesus the Messiah. They are right in line with what God promised Abraham, Isaac and Jacob from the beginning. The relationship of root and branch is such that the branch derives its life from the root not the other way around. Separate the branch from the root and the branch will soon wither and die.
There are two kinds of branches Paul sees on this olive tree. There are those that have grown naturally from the root — but there are also those that have been grafted into the root stock. In Romans 11:17-24, he talks about the relationship between Jews and Gentiles as that between natural branches and those that have been grafted in. In this metaphor, there are natural branches that have been broken off, which Paul understands as those Jews who rejected Messiah. But there are also branches that have been grafted in; these are non-Jews who have come to faith in Messiah. They are fully accepted into the “root” and now share in its life. But what of the branches that have been broken off, is that the end of them? No. “If they do not persist in unbelief,” Paul says, “they will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again” (Romans 11:23).
And now here is where Paul reveals the mystery: “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.” The full number of the Gentiles and all Israel — these are strong words of inclusion, quite in line with Paul’s many other inclusive statements elsewhere (see What If All Means All). All of Israel will be saved. The fullness of the Gentiles will be saved, too — not apart from or in addition to, and certainly not instead of Israel, but as a true part of Israel, for they have been grafted into Israel. And now Paul sums up:
As far as the gospel is concerned, they are enemies for your sake; but as far as election is concerned, they are loved on account of the patriarchs, for God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable. Just as you who were at one time disobedient to God have now received mercy as a result of their disobedience, so they too have now become disobedient in order that they too may now receive mercy as a result of God’s mercy to you. For God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all. (Romans 11:28-32)The mystery of the gospel is that disobedience does not get the last word. Mercy does. Israel’s disobedience became an occasion for God’s mercy on the Gentiles. In turn, God’s mercy on the Gentiles becomes an occasion of mercy on Israel. Again, there is an inclusiveness in this. God has allowed disobedience its alien work in everyone so that he may show his mercy on all. Let us, then, sing the doxology with which Paul closes this portion of his letter:
Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! “Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor? Who has ever given to God, that God should repay them?” For from him and through him and for him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen. (Romans 11:33-36)