By Henk Kamsteeg
One of the great unfulfilled and most remarkable prophecies of Scripture regarding the future of Israel and the Jewish people is found in Romans 11:25-27,
“I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers, so that you may not be conceited: Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved: as it is written, The Deliverer will come from Zion; He will turn ungodliness away from Jacob. And this will be My covenant with them when I take away their sins.”
The apostle Paul wrote these words more than 25 centuries ago. Since then, Empires and kingdoms, nations and peoples, have come and gone. But the nation of Israel and the Jewish people are still with us, and we are waiting for the fulfillment of Paul’s prophecy in that “All Israel will be saved.”
Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, was set apart by God to bring the message of salvation in Jesus Christ to the Romans, the Gentiles. How can that be? The sign on Jesus’ cross did not say: “King of the Gentiles,” but “King of the Jews!”
However, many Jews who looked for their Messiah refused to believe in Him when He came. Because of their unbelief, God offered His salvation also to non-Jews, the Gentiles. And so Isaiah’s prophecy was fulfilled, “I revealed Myself to those who did not ask for Me; I was found by those who did not seek Me” (Isa. 65:1).
Paul, a Jew himself, tells the Gentiles that his coming to them doesn’t mean that he has abandoned the Jewish people because of their rejection of Jesus, and points out that not all Jews have rejected God’s message of salvation, and that God has not rejected that which He has chosen to be His own. It is this covenant loyalty that causes God not to reject His people Israel. Romans 11 teaches that God still regards with favour the nation of Israel (verses 2,28).
The prophet Elijah, in his days, thought he was the only prophet left in Israel, but God assured Elijah that neither he nor the nation had been forsaken. “I have reserved for Myself 7000 who have not bowed the knee to Baal” (1 Kings 19:18), the faithful part of the nation of Israel. This gave Elijah hope that God would fulfill His saving promises in the future. In Paul’s day as in Elijah’s day, and today a remnant of Jews believe in Christ because of God’s electing grace (Rom. 9:27-29).
Though not translated in the NIV, verse 25 begins with “for”, linking it with verse 24. Paul is hopeful that Israel will be grafted back into the olive tree again, because a mystery has been revealed to him.
By “mystery” Paul means something that has been “hidden” from God’s people in the past but now has been disclosed in the gospel by God Himself in His infinite grace.
The mystery has already been prophesied in what we call the Old Testament, “as it is written.” It is there in embryo, but it is not there in its fullness. You could read your Old Testament and easily overlook it, not understand it.
An example from the New Testament of the use of this term ‘mystery’ we find in Romans 16 verses 25 and 26: “Now to Him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the “mystery” that was kept secret for long ages but has now been disclosed and through the prophetic writings has been made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith – to the only wise God be glory forevermore through Jesus Christ! Amen.”
The Old Testament predicted that Gentiles would join Jews in worshipping the Lord. But totally new was the idea that the bulk of Israel would have to wait to enjoy the blessings of the kingdom until the set number of Gentiles had come in.
But now Paul is going to tell the Gentile believers about the mystery. This “mystery” is not the opinion of Paul, the man. It is the prophetic utterance of Paul, the apostle, who is proclaiming Christ’s saving activity that transforms all of life and all of history (Romans 1:1-6).
What is the mystery disclosed to Paul here? He unfolds it in three stages:
At this time in salvation history the majority of Israel has experienced a hardening in part.
During this same time the full number of the Gentiles is being saved.
God will do a new work in the future in which all Israel will be saved.
He warns the Gentile believers not to feel superior, because the unbelief of Jews has benefitted them. He says, “I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers, so that you may not be conceited.” In other words, “I really want you to know all about this, in order that you won’t be overconfident and think you know it all.”
The Gentile followers of Jesus thought they had a far better understanding, because after all, they had been able to see the truth of the gospel, whereas the Jews had not. But in reality they had nothing to boast about at all. “Do not boast over those branches. If you do, consider this: You do not support the root, but the root supports you. You will say then, “Branches were broken off so that I could be grafted in.” Granted. But they were broken off because of unbelief, and you stand by faith. Do not be arrogant, but be afraid. For if God did not spare the natural branches, He will not spare you either” (Rom. 11:18-21).
To become a Christian is not to cease to be Jewish; it is, as many messianic Jews emphasize, to become a “completed” Jew. Paul himself recognizes that Jews who became Christians had the right to continue to observe Torah. But Paul’s greater concern is that Jewish and Gentile Christians “accept one another just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God” (Romans 15:7).
Paul’s warning to the Gentiles about their boasting over Jews has implications for anti-Semitism. The idea that God has now “replaced” Israel with the church, coupled with the belief that the Jews were responsible for the death of Christ, has contributed enormously to the anti-Semitism that has had such a long and terrible history.
There are many places in the Gospels and Acts where references to “the Jews” clearly refer only to Jewish leaders, or even certain Jewish leaders. More important, we need also to remember that the Jews’ involvement in Jesus’ death was representative of all humanity. The Jewish leaders were the people historically used by God to bring His Son to the cross. But it was the sin of the entire human race that ultimately required that sacrifice. We are all guilty of the blood of Christ’s death, and all of us equally are offered the opportunity to have our sins cleansed by it.
The apostle Paul drives this home in a powerful statement in verse 32: “For God has consigned them all to disobedience, that He may have mercy on all.”
Hardening of the heart
Now we come to the mystery that Paul is revealing, the prophecy that “Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in.”
There is nothing new about this “hardening of the heart”, because Paul spoke about it already in verses 7-10, “What then? Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking. The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened, as it is written, God gave them a spirit of stupor, eyes that they should not see and ears that would not hear, down to this very day. And David says, Let their table become a snare and a trap, a stumbling block and a retribution for them; let their eyes be darkened so that they cannot see, and bend their backs forever.”
Already in Deuteronomy 29:4, Moses urged Israel to believe: “You have seen all that the LORD did before your eyes in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh and to all his servants and to all his land, the great trials that your eyes saw, the signs, and those great wonders. But to this day the LORD has not given you a heart to understand or eyes to see or ears to hear.”
The prophet Isaiah in chapter 29: 9,10 says, “For the LORD has poured upon you a spirit of deep sleep, and has closed your eyes (the prophets), and covered your ears (the seers).” Isaiah gives up on his bewildered generation, seeing the judgment of God in their incomprehension of God. The divine Mystery blinds all who prefer not to see!
Real “sight” is with the eyes of faithful obedience. The heart must respond correctly to God, but Israel’s heart is unlikely to respond to God in the right way (Deut. 5:29; 8:17; 9:4). Israel needs God to correct its lack of right heart, eyes, and ears (30:6).
In Hebrew 3 we read, “Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says: Today, if you will hear His voice, Do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion.”
The history of the Children of Israel in the wilderness is a tragic history of unbelief. No, they did not doubt God’s power. They had seen the miracles of the plagues in Egypt, and having actually walked through the Red Sea dry-foot. For years they had been kept alive in a howling wilderness, fed with manna from heaven. But they were unwilling to respond and cooperate with God’s will and guidance. As a result the wilderness wanderers failed to enter the Promised Land because they did not believe in God’s protection, and they did not believe that God would help them conquer the giants in the land. And so unbelief leads to hardness of the heart (“deafness”), and the eyes that cannot see (“blindness”).
In many places, the Bible warns us not to “harden” our hearts. The Israelites became hardhearted when they disobeyed God’s commands and refuse to believe Him. (Numbers 13,14,20 and Psalm 95). If we persist in our unbelief and disobedience, God will eventually leave us alone in our sin.
But God can give a new heart, new desires, and new spirits. “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow My decrees and be careful to keep My laws” (Ezekiel 36:26-27).
God loves Israel. Even after Jesus was rejected by most of the Jewish people, Paul says of them that they are “loved on account of the patriarchs, for God’s gifts and His call are irrevocable” (Romans 11:28,29). Beloved of God. That is how God sees Israel, despite everything. So-called ‘unbelieving Israel’ is loved by God!
Faith is the one connecting link by which we make contact with God. Unbelief cuts us off from God, and faith unites us with Him, making us receptive of His eternal life, “And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life” (1 John 5:11,12).
Hardening in part
Hardening of the heart is a terrible thing, and it is the ultimate explanation of all unbelief. However, Paul makes a qualifying statement. He says, “that hardening in part is happened to Israel.” What does he mean by “in part”?
Does it mean ‘that blindness is happened to a part of Israel, only some, or not all of them, are blind? That was so. Paul himself says, “I am a believer”, and also that ‘there is a remnant according to the election of grace’.
The remnant is the many individual Jews that have responded to the gospel. But Paul here is dealing not with individuals, but with a nation as a whole. Paul’s teaching is about a corporate election of all Israel, “For you are a people hole to the LORD your God. The LORD your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be His people, His treasured possession” (Deut. 7:6).
The apostle is saying that Israel “has experienced a hardening in part.” Paul is first of all referring to the duration of the hardening, the blindness. What confirms this is of course the use of the word “until”. Hardening in part is happened until… Not only is the hardening partial, it is also temporary, it is not everlasting.
Israel has also experienced a hardening in part, because observant Jews know God, but they have a “blind spot” for who Jesus is.
The Jews have heard the good news because the gospel has even gone to the end of the world. Israel should have understood from the prophecy of Deuteronomy 32:21, that the Gentiles would believe. I Romans 10:19 Paul quotes from this verse to show that Israel will need a remedy for their unbelief regarding Jesus (in Rom. 11:11,14, Gentile faith is the remedy). Already in the book of the prophet Hosea, God said that they would come in – the Gentiles, and “They will be called My people, And they shall say, You are my God!” (Hosea 2:23). “It is written!” She who was a harlot, God committed to Himself in righteousness and justice, in love and compassion (Hosea 3:16,19,20). Hosea already prophesied about this day, and Paul is saying, this is that day!
“As regards to the gospel, they are enemies for God for your sake. But as regards election, they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers. For the gifs and the calling of God are irrevocable” (Rom. 11:28,29)
Israel’s unbelief has benefitted the Gentiles. Where Jewish people rejected Jesus, the Gentiles were knocking on the door get in. So it was the Jewish rejection that enabled the salvation of the Gentiles.
We still live in the period of history in which Gentiles are being saved, while most of Israel remains in unbelief. Yet Israel’s unfaithfulness and disobedience are not enough to exhaust God’s redeeming love that outstrips the human capacity to comprehend! Israel will be saved because God never revokes His saving promise given to their forefathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
“When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called My son” (Hosea 11:1). This is one of the most endearing passages in Hosea. The prophet is portraying the Lord not only as a husband but also as a father (Luke 15:11-32). And the apostle Paul quotes it to illustrate the stunning grace of God – that those who are not My people… will be called ‘sons of the living God.”
Under the old covenant, as Paul puts it in Ephesians 2, the Gentiles were “excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants Of the promise, without hope and without God in the world.” In calling the Gentiles to salvation, God calls a sinful people to Himself, just as in saving Israel He shows mercy to the undeserving. No one can presume on God’s grace.
We have seen that this time in salvation history, the majority of Israel is still experiencing a hardening in part which came upon them.
“What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness on God’s part? By no means!” God created a world in which both His wrath and His mercy would be displayed. “For he said to Moses, I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion in whom I have compassion” (Ex. 33:19).
God is the Potter, we are the clay (Jeremiah 18:3). As its maker, God can reshape Israel and the other nations in this world. He has the right to do what He wishes with His creation. Paul affirms that humans are guilty for their sin, and he offers no philosophical resolution as to how this fits with divine sovereignty. He does insist that God ordains all that happens.
This means that the salvation of any person, Jew or Gentile, is due to the marvelous grace and love of God. If this is difficult to understand, it is because people mistakenly think God owes them salvation!
So the blindness, which ‘is happened’ to Israel is something, that has been put on Israel by God Himself. This does not mean that God is the author of unbelief, but that He hardened the Jews who did not believe the gospel, just as He did with Pharaoh.
We may not like it, but it is not a question of liking. It is what the Scripture says. Nor is it a question of understanding. We dare not reply to Almighty God.
In his explanation of the parable of the Sower, Jesus also explains that parables blind those who have resisted God’s revelation while helping those who have believed it. He says, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God, but for others they are in parables, so that seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand” (Luke 8:10).
In Matthew 13:11-15 Jesus says to His disciples, “Because it has been given to you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For whoever has, to him more will be given, and he will have abundance; but whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him. Therefore I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. And in them the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled, which says: ‘Hearing you will hear and shall not understand, And seeing you will see and not perceive; For the heart of this people has grown dull. Their ears are hard of hearing, And their eyes they have closed, Lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears, Lest they should understand with their heart and turn, So that I should heal them.”
This is the deliberate action of God. He hardens and blinds in a judicial manner the nation of the Jews in order that He may not only punish them but may bring His great purposes to pass of sending the gospel to the Gentiles, and even ultimately through that to bring back the Jews as a whole to Himself (Zechariah 12:10-14).
But when will God do that? “Until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in.” Paul means the Gentiles as a whole. The term ‘come in’ carries with it the notion of being introduced into the kingdom, of being ‘gathered in’. God has His eternal plan, He knows the number of the redeemed.
Notice the words in Romans 11:26 ‘And in this way all Israel will be saved, as it is written, The Deliverer will come from Zion, He will banish ungodliness from Jacob.”
It is not that Jacob at some future time is going to decide to believe. No, the God who blinds is the God who heals. The God who breaks away the natural branches is the same God Who is able to graft them in again. It is the Redeemer, the Deliverer, alone who has the ability to ‘turn away ungodliness’, and bring them back into the olive tree to which they originally belonged. “Now if their trespass means riches for the world, and if their failure means riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their acceptance mean but life from the dead?” (vs. 12).
“And so”, says Paul, “all Israel will be saved.” It means that after the ‘until’ is ended and the fullness of Gentiles has come in (referring to time), the Jews will be aroused to jealousy, and in that way they will be brought in (referring to method). We read in verses 30-32: “For just as you were at one time disobedient to God but now have received mercy because of their disobedience, so they too have now been disobedient in order that by the mercy shown to you they also may receive mercy. For God has consigned all to disobedience, that He may have mercy on all.”
This bring us to the meaning of the crucial expression “all Israel.”
One of the main views on “all Israel” is that it means the total number of the elect, both Jews and Gentiles. This view is unlikely since throughout Romans 9-11, Israel and the Gentiles are distinct ethnic entities. Furthermore, in Romans 11:25 Israel refers to ethnic Israel, and it is difficult to see how the referent could suddenly change in verse 26. Finally, verse 28 indicates that ethnic Israel is still distinguished from Gentiles, “As regards the gospel, they are enemies for your sake. But as regards election, they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers.” The “they” clearly refers to ethnic Israel – Jews only. The “all Israel” does not include the Gentiles.
“All Israel” does not necessarily refer to every single Jewish person but to a very large number, at least the majority of Jews, as a whole.
But it does mean that those who have Jewish ancestors and those who cling persistently to the Jews’ religion will, as a whole, have their eyes opened. The hardness will be removed, their eyes and ears will be opened, and they will believe and will be saved. This means that the Jews who still separate themselves and worship after the tradition of the fathers and reject the gospel will, as a whole, become believers in Jesus Christ as their Messiah, and will be saved for eternity. And its effect upon the whole church will be comparable to ‘life from the death’! It is said of Israel that she will be forgiven so completely that she will be called His virgin bride.
‘And so all Israel will be saved.” Salvation history is structured to feature God’s great mercy. God saved the Gentiles when one would expect only the Jews to be saved, nut in the future God will amaze all by His grace again by saving the Jews, so that it will be clear that everyone’s salvation is by mercy alone, through faith in Jesus Christ and Him crucified.
That is the prophecy. That is the mystery – Something is going on, but God, I leave it up to you. Even though I do not fully understand it, I see the footprints of these divine events right in front of my own eyes. Maranatha! The King is coming!