Who Is All Israel in Romans 11:26?

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.


2 comments on “Who Is All Israel in Romans 11:26?

  1. Dave says:

    This is a very frustrating topic for me at times. On one hand you have those who are borderline anti-semetic, if not full blown, and on the other you have those labeling anyone who is not a vocal Jewish roots advocate fully given over to replacement theology(exaggeration intended).

    I’m sincerely not sure where I find myself but my question would be what about Romans 2:28 and 9:6-8? Also it seems Paul overall through his letters is attempting to tear down the barrier of the flesh but many on both sides are trying to reestablish it. I lean towards your interpretation but there is often, in my opinion, a lot of soulish baggage that comes with it such as “commandment keeping”, Torah, etc. There also seems to be a lot of replacement theology accusations that fly if natural Israel is ever criticized these days. Sorry for getting off topic here but it’s all so intermingled anymore.

    • Dave, I have not checked this email address for a while and for that I apologize. I agree that there is a lot of excess in the pro-Israel camp. There is absolutely no Scriptural basis for requiring people to live under the law. There are many who think Israel’s reemergence in 1947-48 is the fulfillment of prophecy. I find it hard to accept that considering they still do not believe in Messiah, but of course that could change. People often forget that Rom 2:28 is written to the Jew (rhetorically speaking). Paul is defining a true Jew, who is circumcised both physically and internally. The physical act represents an invisible change that has occurred in the heart, but without the internal change, the physical one has no meaning. We could say the same thing about water baptism. Paul is by no means saying that a Gentile is a true Jew. Rom 9:6-8 has been misinterpreted for centuries. I would point you to my blog articles on Rom 9 if you want to see my interpretation of these verses. Thanks for commenting.

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