I find it fascinating that one of the clearest statements in all the Bible is also one of the most controversial. Romans 11:26 plainly states: “and in this way all Israel will be saved.” This comes immediately after Paul articulates that the full number of the Gentiles must first come in, and after that the partial hardening of Israel will end. Sounds pretty simple: Most of Israel is hardened and not receptive to her messiah, Jesus. This hardening will continue until the full number of Gentiles gets saved. Then the hardening will cease and all Israel will be saved.
Yet many people choose to interpret Israel differently in this verse, saying “all Israel” refers to the church, consisting of believing Gentiles and believing Jews, denying a mass conversion of Jews at the end of the age. Is this view tenable? for several reasons I say no.
First, the meaning of “all Israel” is clear throughout Romans and throughout the entire New Testament. The word appears 68 times in the NT, and when it stands alone it always means ethnic Israel. It never means spiritual Israel (i.e., the church). There are only two places where the word may refer to the church. One is Galatians 6:16, where it is “the Israel of God.” But the modifier, “of God” indicates that something other than ethnic Israel is in view. If Rom 11:26 said “the Israel of God” or “spiritual Israel,” then this other interpretation would have weight. But the simple reference to Israel without a qualifier cannot mean anything other than ethnic Israel.
The other place is Revelation 7:4, where the 144,000 from the twelve tribes of Israel are sealed. The mention of the twelve tribes should be enough to clarify that ethnic Israelites are in view here, but if that is not enough, the following verses actually list the names of the twelve tribes. It is very difficult to maintain an interpretation that the 144,000 believers from these tribes refer to Gentiles. Even if such an interpretation could be made, it would require a symbolic interpretation of the passage, which can be argued in Revelation, because it is an apocalyptic document full of symbolism. Such cannot be said about Romans, so a symbolic interpretation has no place in Romans 11.
Second, the use of “Israel” in the surrounding context clearly refers to ethnic Israel. In verse 25 they are “hardened.” This could hardly be spiritual Israel, since believers are not hardened. In verse 28 they are “enemies” of the church, which can only refer to unbelievers. Nowhere in Romans does Paul ever refer to Israel as anything but ethnic Israel, and there is no lexical or contextual basis for making an exception in 11:26.
Third, Paul quotes Isaiah 59:20 to support his teaching. This verse refers to Israel as “Jacob.” Never does this term refer to spiritual Israel or the remnant of believers within Israel. In both testaments, this word refers always to ethnic Israel. There is no justification for changing its meaning in Rom 11:26.
Finally, the context of Romans 9-11 militates against an interpretation of Israel in 11:26 that is anything but ethnic Israel. Throughout these chapters Paul has been explaining why Israel’s failure to receive the gospel does not thwart his plan to save Israel, but rather furthers this purpose. Israel is consistently referred to in contrast to Gentile believers and to the remnant of Jews who believe. Against “all Israel” referring to the church, Thomas Schreiner, in his commentary on Romans, calls this argument decisive:
The central and decisive objection to this interpretation is the context of Rom. 9-11, especially the immediate context of chapter 11. The failure of ethnic Jews to obtain salvation is what provoked chapters 9-11 in the first place. Moreover, the preceding verses in chapter 11 preserve a distinction between Gentiles and ethnic Jews: the Gentiles are being grafted onto the olive tree while the Jews–as the natural branches–are being removed.
The context of Romans 9-11, the use of “Jacob” to refer to Israel, and the use of the term “Israel” in Rom 11:25-28, in Romans, and in the entire NT, all demonstrate that “all Israel” in verse 26 must refer to ethnic Israel. The evidence is so weighty that it is difficult to argue against it without appearing to be doing so out of theological necessity.