Has God rejected Israel? Has Israel stumbled so as to fall? Not at all, Paul says (Roman 11:1, 11). On the contrary, He has preserved a remnant from Israel, as He did during the days of Ahab.
Even Israel’s stumbling is directed toward her ultimate restoration, as the Lord’s welcome of the Gentiles provokes Israel to jealousy for the love of her rejected King. God broke off Jewish branches from the tree of Israel to make room for Gentiles. He can always graft the natural branches back in (11:17-23).
Even this doesn’t get to the bottom of God’s justice, the wisdom and knowledge that provoke Paul’s ecstasy (11:33-36). Paul doesn’t merely say that Israel will be saved. He says that Israel will be a means of salvation for the world. Israel’s greatest privilege is that she is conformed to the paradoxical cruciformity of the Messiah. She becomes a sort of corporate Messiah.
Paul begins to make this point when he distinguishes between the chosen who obtain grace and the “rest” who are “hardened” (11:7). Paul reaches back to chapter 9, and beyond that to the story of Pharaoh’s hardening. This shows how dangerous is the position of the Jews who reject Jesus: They become Pharaonic in their unbelief.
But earlier in Romans, Paul has made it abundantly clear that Israel’s failure is not an obstacle to God’s purposes. Does their faithlessness in their mission and vocation nullify the faithfulness of God? Not at all: “Let God be found true, though every man be found a liar” (3:3-4).
In chapter 11, Paul gives that good news a further twist. It’s not simply that God’s purpose will triumph regardless of how Israel responds. His stunning announcement is that God uses Israel’s stumbling, Israel’s very failure, to bring life to the nations. He doesn’t just shove past their stumble; by His grace, their stumbling becomes a means for standing.
As Paul puts it, their rejection is the reconciliation of the world (11:15). Here is the first moment in the cruciform history of first-century Judaism. Like Jesus, they are rejected. And like Jesus, their rejection is the reconciliation of the world.
Jesus didn’t stay dead. He wasn’t cast out forever. He was raised, and if His rejection was the reconciliation of the world, what is His acceptance but “life from the dead”? (11:15). So it is for Israel. Their rejection made room for Gentiles, but then the inflow of Gentiles provoked the Jews to return. Like Jesus’ resurrection, their acceptance brings life to the nations.
As N.T. Wright points out, in the unsearchable wisdom and justice of God, the histories of Gentile and Jew are each orchestrated toward the good of the other. Jews are cast out so Gentiles can come in. Then Gentiles come in so that the Jews might return.
Jews aren’t lost for themselves, any more than Jesus was cast out for His own sake. Jews are restored for themselves, any more than Jesus’ resurrection restored no more than His individual existence. So too Gentiles: As they’re reconciled, they’re to join Paul in his anguished hope for Israel’s acceptance. As they’re reconciled, they become a means of reconciliation.
Jew and Gentile aren’t simply caught up into one new humanity. They’re caught up together into the one new Messianic humanity, brought alive by the Spirit to be life to one another, and so life to the world.
We might put it this way: Jews were delivered up for Gentile transgressions. Gentiles were raised so Jews might be justified (cf. Romans 4:25).
Truly the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable (11:29). No matter what Israel does, the Lord will use her to bring the Abrahamic blessing to the nations. No matter how far she stumbles, the Lord will mold her history into a Christic shape. Salvation is of the Jews, full stop.
At no point in Paul’s argument does he move out of the immediate first-century context. The Jewish leaders rejected Jesus and defied His Spirit, and led Israel in the same path. But through the apostolic ministry of Paul and others, Gentiles are saved, provoking Jews. As I noted in the previous installment in this series, thousands of Jews are accepted in the Beloved.
But does this justify Paul’s claim that Israel’s hardening continues until the fullness of the Gentiles is brought in? Does this make sense of his insistence that “all Israel will be saved”? (11:25-26).
I think so. “Fullness of the Gentiles” doesn’t have to refer to the whole history of the gospel’s spread to the nations. It’s the fullness of nations that receive the gospel “before this generation passes” (Matthew 24:14, 34), the fullness that dwell in the “uttermost parts of the earth” that Paul reaches at the end of Acts (Acts 1:8).
And “all Israel” does not mean “every living Jew in the first century,” much less “a large number of the Jews living at the time when Romans 11 kicks in.” We’d be justified in making the latter move if there were some indication that Paul had shifted the time frame. There is none. He describes God’s miraculous first-century solution to the first-century problem of Israel’s stumbling.
In Scripture, the returned exiles are termed “all Israel” (Ezra 2:70; 6:17; 8:25; Nehemiah 7:73; 12:47), even though many remained scattered throughout the eastern Mediterranean. The “all Israel” that brings new life to the church consists of the thousands of Jews who follow Jesus because of the apostles’ preaching.
We can link this, I think, with the apocalyptic events that closed the apostolic age, the events surrounding AD 70. By that date, Paul had extended his ministry to the ends of the earth. By that date, thousands of Jews had become followers of the Way. Negatively, the old world ended with the destruction of the temple. Positively, it ended with the formation of a new humanity composed of the fullness of Gentiles + “all Israel.” Emerging from the ruins of AD 70 is a new world, truly “life from the dead” (11:15).
We might speculate, as James Jordan has, about an influx of Jews in the late 60s AD. It seems reasonable that many Jews, seeing the Roman armies investing Jerusalem, would conclude that Jesus the Nazarene was indeed a prophet. That seems very plausible. We might speculate, but we don’t need to. Everything we need to make sense of Romans 9-11 is within reach in the New Testament.
The New Testament is about the founding of a new covenant order. Romans 11 clarifies the cruciform shape of that founding. What other response to this “mystery” (11:25) is possible, except Paul’s: “O the depth both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways!”
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