Prophecy & Eschatology in the New Testament: Romans (Part 3)

Romans 11

The main body of Romans—the probatio—in which Paul develops and expounds his arguments, concludes (in chaps. 9-11) with an extended discussion on the relationship between Israel and believers in Christ (Jews and Gentiles together) as the people of God (cf. the earlier articles on “Paul’s View of the Law [in Romans]”). This has been central to the letter throughout, but in chapters 9-11 he further expounds one portion specifically: “unto salvation to every one that trusts—to the Jew first and (also) to the Greek“. This section has been referred to as a refutatio—a refutation by Paul of (possible) arguments made especially by Gentiles in Rome with regard to the role and position of Jewish believers (cf. B. Witherington, Paul’s Letter to the Romans Eerdmans [2004], pp. 237-9). However, I do not see Paul’s approach here as being appreciably different from the one he takes in earlier in chapters 2-4; there is an interesting symmetry and balance of presentation:

    • Rom 2-4—addressed primarily to Jews, emphasizing that Gentiles are on an equal footing before God with regard to both judgment and salvation
    • Rom 9-11—addressed primarily to Gentiles, emphasizing the (future) salvation of Israelites/Jews and their inclusion into the body of Christ

In between (Rom 5-8) Paul presents a kind of “salvation history”, an exposition of the Gospel message for all human beings—Jews and Gentiles alike. Chapters 9-11 actually have the character of a personal appeal or confession—indeed, this characterizes each of the sections (matching the numbered chapters):

The opening verses of each section, with their personal and moving tone, lead into a presentation of arguments. The main issue at hand is how the Israelite/Jewish people relate to the new Christian identity. As a missionary and representative (apostle) of Christ, Paul saw how many of his fellow Israelites and Jews had been unwilling to accept the Gospel, some even being openly hostile to his missionary work (as narrated repeatedly in the book of Acts, cf. also 1 Thess 2:14-16, etc). Even Jewish believers could be opposed to his presentation of the Gospel, especially his unique view of the Law and his missionary approach to the Gentiles, as seen in Acts 15:1ff and throughout Galatians. At some level, this must have been traumatic for Paul, and difficult to understand—how could so many of God’s elect people, Israel, fail to trust in Christ? While he never really addresses this directly in his other surviving letters, it is clear that he had thought about it a good deal. The result is the wonderful, if somewhat enigmatic, exposition here in Romans 9-11.

Here is an outline of chapters 9 and 10:

    • Romans 9
      • Rom 9:1-5—Paul’s personal address: Israel (“they are Israelites…”, vv. 4-5)
      • Rom 9:6-13—Argument: Not all Israel is the true Israel.
      • Rom 9:14-33—Exposition: Three arguments, each beginning with a rhetorical question.
    • Romans 10
      • Rom 10:1-4—Paul’s personal address: The Law and justice/righteousness (vv. 3-4)
      • Rom 10:5-13—Argument: Justice/righteousness is realized in Christ.
      • Rom 10:14-21—Exposition: The Proclamation of the Gospel, and Israel’s response to it, in three parts:
        • The proclamation of the Gospel (vv. 14-15)
        • Israel’s response to the Gospel—not all have faith (vv. 16-17)
        • Evidence of this in the Scriptures (vv. 18-21, citing Psalm 19:4; Deut 32:21; Isa 65:1-2)

As we consider chapter 11, specifically, in this context, the following observations are especially significant:

    • The first argument (in Rom 9:6-13) of the section as whole, begins with the statement: “for all the (one)s out of Israel—these are not Israel” (v. 6b), i.e. not all Israelites are (the true) Israel.
    • Paul expounds this with the examples of Abraham and Isaac, to emphasize that true sonship and inheritance (of the blessing, etc) comes not from natural birth and ethnicity, but from the promise and favor of God (and God chooses and calls out whomsoever he wishes).
    • This is further applied in relation to the proclamation of the Gospel (the main theme of chapter 10)—Gentiles have responded to the Gospel, trusting in Christ, while many Israelites, God’s elect people, have failed (or refused) to accept Christ.

There is thus a fundamental connection between 9:6b and 10:15a:

“for all the (one)s out of Israel—these are not Israel”
or, “for not all the (one)s out of Israel are Israel” (9:6b)
“but not all (of them) listened under [i.e. obeyed] the good message” (10:15a)

Both use the expression “not all” (ou) pa/nte$), though the syntax of 9:6b makes this more difficult to see in translation. In any case, the implication is clear—only those (Israelites) who accept the Gospel are the true Israel. Now, to continue on with an analysis of chapter 11:

Romans 11:1-12

Paul’s initial address in Rom 11:1-12 contains a central argument (from Scripture), bracketed by two rhetorical questions (introduced with the formula le/gw ou@n, “I relate therefore…”). The central argument (in verses 3-10) draws upon the narrative in 1 Kings 19:9-18, of God’s revelation to Elijah as he sought refuge in a cave on Mount Horeb. Paul refers specifically to verses 10, 14, where Elijah laments to YHWH that he is the only prophet (of YHWH) left who has not been killed, and that the rest of Israel has forsaken the covenant (Rom 11:2b-3); God responds in verse 18 to the effect that there are still seven thousand in Israel who have not “bowed the knee to Baal”. Note how Paul phrases this in Rom 11:4: “I have left down [i.e. left behind] for myself seven thousand…”—the addition of e)mautw=| (“for/to myself”), shifts the meaning slightly from the original context of being spared from death (by the sword) to being chosen by God. We should observe carefully the points that Paul expounds from this passage:

    • Verse 5—he applies the situation in 1 Kings 19:9-18 to his own (current) time: “so then, even now in (this) time, there has come to be a (remainder) left behind [lei=mma] according to (the) gathering out of [i.e. by] (the) favor (of God)”. In verse 4, the verb used is kataleip/w (“leave down, leave behind”); the noun lei=mma is related to lei/pw, indicating something which is left (behind), either in a positive or negative sense. The word lei=mma is typically translated as “remainder” or “remnant”; but here, as indicated above, this remnant is understood as a people gathered out (the noun e)klogh/, from e)kle/gomai, “gather out”), i.e. elected by God, just as Israel herself was chosen as his people.
    • Verse 6—this gathering out is the result of the favor (xa/ri$) of God, and not because of anything the people have done. Here Paul moves away from the Old Testament passage again, which seems to tie the people’s being spared with their particular religious behavior; instead, he emphasizes that the gathering out is no longer (ou)ke/ti, “not yet, not any more”) based on works (“out of works”, e)c e&rgwn). He has already applied this very idea to the example of Abraham in Galatians 3 and Romans 4.
    • Verse 7—only the remnant obtains what Israel seeks after (cf. Rom 9:30-33), the rest were hardened (lit. turned to stone). The metaphor of “hardening the heart” is common in the Old Testament, most famously in the example of Pharaoh in the Exodus narrative, which Paul references in Rom 9:14-18.
    • Verse 12—this verse is transitional, following Paul’s answer to the (second) rhetorical question (in verse 11), and leading into the address of vv. 13-24. He introduces the first of several qal wahomer exclamations, arguing from the lesser to the greater—i.e., if in this lesser/inferior case it is so, then how much more so when…! The contrast is between Israel’s h%tthma (“loss, defeat”), parallel with para/ptwma (“falling alongside [i.e. over the line]”), and their plh/rwma (“filling [up], fullness”). The exact meaning of plh/rwma here is important for the overall flow and force of Paul’s argument; I think it is best to understand it in the sense of a restoration (filling up) of what was lost.

Romans 11:13-24

Romans 11:13-24 is the first of two addresses Paul makes to Gentile believers specifically, with regard to Israel and its salvation (vv. 13-14).

    • Verse 14—”if… I will [i.e. that I might] save some of them”—note Paul’s use of ti/$ (“some of them”)
    • Verses 15-16—Paul applies three more qal wahomer-style arguments, similar to the one in verse 12:
      • Israel’s a)pobolh/ (“casting away from”) and their pro/slhmyi$ (“taking/receiving toward”); it is not entirely clearly whether these should be understood as subjective genitives (their rejection/acceptance of the Gospel) or objective genitives (their rejection/acceptance by God), since either is possible, and they actually represent two aspects of the same situation.
      • The (currently) small number of Israelite believers as the a)pa/rxh (“beginning of [lit. from]”, i.e. the first grain of the harvest) and the (future) full number as the fu/rama (“[mass of] mixed/kneaded [dough]”).
      • This may also refer to the current “remnant” of Israel as the r(i/za (“root”), and those who will follow as the kla/doi (“branches”); though the “root” perhaps should be understood more generally as the true people of God (faithful Israel) extending back to Abraham. The context of vv. 17-24 strongly suggests this latter, wider interpretation.
    • Verses 17ff—in the illustration of the olive tree and its branches, some branches are “broken out” (e)cekla/sqhsan) and others are (currently) being “poked in” (e)nekentri/sqh$); the sense generally is that the new branches from the “wild olive” tree (i.e. Gentiles) take the place of those that were broken off.
    • Verse 20—the branches were broken off specifically for “lack of trust” (a)pisti/a), i.e. a failure (or unwillingness) to trust in Christ. This has to be understood in terms of Rom 9:6; 10:15 (cf. above).
    • Verse 23—similarly the grafting back in of branches broken off depends entirely on “not remaining in [i.e. upon] a lack of trust”—that is, they must come to trust in Christ.

Romans 11:25-32

Romans 11:25-32, the second of the two addresses directed at Gentile believers deals more directly with the question of Israel’s ultimate salvation. Paul now adopts a more decidedly eschatological focus.

    • Verse 25—Israel’s hardness (i.e. their inability/unwillingness to accept the Gospel) lasts until “the fulness of the nations should come in”. The use here of plh/rwma (“filling [up], fullness”) for the nations (Gentiles) is parallel to that in verse 12 for Israel; Paul probably understands it in the sense of the full (or complete) number, measure, etc. It is only then, once the Gentiles have fully come to Christ, that “all Israel will be saved” (v. 26a).
    • Verse 26-27—the Scriptures Paul cites here are important for an understanding of v. 26a; the primary citation is from Isaiah 59:20-21a, along with Isa 27:9—the combination of elements is significant:
      • “the one rescuing” (o( r(uo/meno$)—Christ himself (1 Thess 1:10, etc), or God working through Christ.
      • “he will turn away from Jacob [i.e. Israel] a lack of (proper) fear [a)sebei/a] (of God)”—cf. Rom 1:18; here a)sebei/a (lack of fear/reverence) is synonymous with sin and wickedness in general, but also, specifically, with a lack of trust (a)pisti/a) in Christ. On the idea of Christ turning people from evil (using the verb a)postre/fw), see Acts 3:26.
      • “and this is the (agreement) set through [diaqh/kh] to them alongside [i.e. with] me”—diaqh/kh here in the sense of an agreement (covenant) between two parties (according to the Hebrew tyr!B=), referring to the “new covenant” in Christ and not the old covenant of Sinai and the Torah (cf. 2 Cor 3:7-18). For the principal Old Testament passage relating to the “new covenant”, see Jer 31:31-34.
      • “when I should take away from (them) their sins”—probably an allusion to Isa 27:9, here set in parallel with the citation from Isa 59:21a, i.e. “turning them away from” and “taking away from them”. For the specific association between removal of sin (and its power), through the death of Christ, and the “new covenant”, see Jesus’ words in Mark 14:24 (par Matt 26:28; Luke 22:20).
    • Verses 28-29—the juxtaposition (me\nde/ “on the one hand… on the other hand…”) Paul establishes in verse 28 must be analyzed and treated with great care:
      • me/n (on the one hand)—
        • kata\ to\ eu)agge/lion (“according to the good message”)
          • e)xqroi/ (“[they are] enemies“)
            • di’ u(ma=$ (“through you”, i.e. for your sake)
      • de/ (on the other hand)—
        • kata\ th\n e)klogh/n (“according to the gathering out”)
          • a)gaphtoi/ (“[they are] loved“)
            • dia\ tou\$ pate/ra$ (“through [i.e. because of ] the fathers”)
      • Paul uses this construction to highlight the sense in which they are (currently) hostile to the Gospel—it is for the sake of Gentiles, that they should come to Christ, as Paul describes earlier in vv. 11-24, 25 (cf. also 10:19-21). For more on this difficult teaching, see below.
    • Verse 31—the mercy which will be shown to Israel is the same that has been shown to Gentiles—that is, the sacrificial work of God in Christ and the proclamation of the Gospel, which has the power to make human beings right before God and to free them from the enslaving power of sin.

Romans 11:26 and Pauline Eschatology

Finally, it is left to address specifically the statement in v. 26a: “and thus all Israel will be saved”. There are a number of ways this has been interpreted, which I represent by the following five options:

    1. All Israelites, past and present, will be saved by the mercy and favor of God, but apart from their coming to faith in Christ.
    2. All Israelites, past and present, will be saved collectively through the work of Christ, but in a mysterious way understood only by God, and not necessarily in the sense of “becoming Christians”.
    3. All Israelites alive at the return of Christ will come to faith in him, and will thus be saved.
    4. All of the true Israel will be saved, understood as all Israelites (and Jews) who trust in Christ.
    5. All of the true Israel will be saved, understood as all believers in Christ, Jews and Gentiles alike.

Based on the statement in Rom 9:6 and the olive tree illustration in 11:17-24, Paul certainly would have affirmed the fourth and fifth views above, in the sense that the true Israel is to be identified with believers in Christ (cf. also Rom 2:28-29). However, in Romans 11, and especially in verses 25-32, it would seem that he actually has something like view #3 in mind—namely that, at the end of the age, upon the return of Christ (or shortly before), there would be a widespread conversion of all Israelites and Jews currently living, that together (and/or all at once) they would come to faith in Christ. It is important to remember that, when Paul penned Romans, many, if not most, of the Israelites and Jews of his own generation, who had failed or refused to accept the Gospel, were still living, and he could envision the possibility that they could all still come to faith. As is abundantly clear from his letters (and as pointed out all through this series), Paul, like most early Christians, expected Christ’s return and the end of the current age to occur very soon, presumably within the lifetime of most believers. In this context, Paul’s eschatological hope for Israel here makes good sense. Admittedly, it is rather more difficult to apply to the situation today, where nearly two thousand years have gone by, and many generations of Israelites and Jews have passed away—a situation, I am quite certain, that never would have occurred to Paul. Even so, it is still possible to affirm the belief (or at least the hope) that there will be a widespread conversion of Israel before the return of Christ; and, indeed, may Christians today hold just such a view.

In the previous articles in this series, we saw how the mission to the Gentiles was a fundamental part of the early Christian eschatology, going back to the Gospel tradition (the Synoptic Eschatological Discourse, Mark 13:9-11 par, etc). This is not at all incompatible with the imminent eschatology of early Christians, as we have seen, since it was quite possible to envision a (relatively short) period of missionary work in the surrounding nations (i.e. the Roman Empire, or the geographical extent, more or less, of the world as then known) here at the close of the present Age. Paul was well aware of his role in this, and of its eschatological implications. At the time he wrote his letter to the Romans, he may have sensed that this mission work (to the Gentile world) was reaching its climax, nearing its end (15:23-24, 29ff; 16:20, [25-26]), and that a widespread conversion of Israelites and Jews would soon follow. Some of the visions in the book of Revelation may evince a similar idea, of a conversion of Jews to faith in Christ at the end-time (see especially Rev 7:1-8ff, my notes on that passage).

Interestingly, in recent decades, there have been an increasing number of commentators and theologians who would adopt an interpretation along the lines of #1 and 2 above, at least in the sense that Israelites and Jews will be saved by God without having to “convert” or “become Christian”. This may be related to what is called the “Two Covenants” or “Dual Covenant” theory, which I will discuss as part of an upcoming series on the Covenant and People of God concepts.

Most distinctive is Paul’s teaching that Israel’s ‘hardening’ against the Gospel is directly related to the missionary outreach to Gentiles. This reflects historical reality, in that there were Jews who fiercely opposed the early Christian mission, according to Paul’s own testimony and the narrative in the book of Acts. Persecution often fuels the success of a religious movement, galvanizing support and helping to forge a strong and distinctive identity. This may also reflect, at some level, a degree of “cognitive dissonance”—Paul and other Christians were forced to explain the success of the mission among Gentiles throughout Asia Minor, Macedonia, Greece and Italy (Rome), while many Jews, who (as the elect people of God) should have been more receptive, did not accept the Gospel. This leads Paul to two different explanations which he brings together in these chapters:

    • Not all Israelites are the true Israel (9:6), and
    • They fell away (i.e. refused to believe) in order to make room for the Gentiles to come to faith
      —this last proposition is most vividly illustrated by the image of the olive tree and the branches (11:17-24)
      • Paul viewed Christianity as the outgrowth of (faithful) Israel stretching back to Abraham (i.e., the “remnant” is the root of the tree)
      • The branches which are faithful and remain in the tree (cf. John 15:1-11) are the early Jewish believers
      • The branches of the wild olive tree are the Gentiles—believers are grafted into the tree of ‘true Israel’
      • The branches which were broken off (i.e., unbelieving Israelites and Jews) may yet come to faith and be grafted back in

Once the full number (or measure) of Gentiles have come to faith, then the unbelieving Israelites and Jews will have the covering removed from their mind (2 Cor 3:14-15) and will come to trust in Christ as well. This, at least, is how Paul appears to have viewed the matter. Fitting it into a particular eschatological framework today is, of course, especially difficult, as indicated by the wide range of interpretive approaches that have been adopted over the years.

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