Life From the Dead: Romans 11 and the Future of Ethnic Israel
Note: The essay below is an extract from my book, The High King of Heaven: Discovering the Master Keys to the Great End Time Debate (Redemption Press, 2014). It deals with one of the great biblical signs of the imminence of the Consummation: the large-scale conversion of ethnic Israel in the last of the Last Days. Though other biblical texts touch on this theme (see note 1), Romans 11:11-36 gives us the single most important discussion of this holy mystery. I hope you will enjoy my humble attempt to plumb its amazing depths.
Though this passage touches only indirectly upon the Consummation, it is of great importance, since here we are supplied with yet another outstanding sign of its imminence: the latter day conversion of ethnic Israel at large, leading swiftly to the Parousia and the Resurrection of the dead. Later, I will touch on some of the practical implications of this unique revelation for Christian life and ministry. First, however, we must examine the text itself, in order to see if this really is the apostle’s message.
In Romans 9-11, Paul is addressing the problem of Jewish unbelief. Yes, the primitive Church was comprised almost exclusively of Jews, some of whom were laid into her very foundation (Ephesians 2:20; Revelation 21:14). Nevertheless they represented only a small minority of Israel. Moreover, once the Gospel overflowed the borders of Israel, multitudes of Gentiles began to receive Christ while most of the Jews, both inside and outside of Palestine, continued to reject him. So it was in NT times, and so it has been right up to the present day. Always there has been a small remnant of believing Jews, while the large majority of Abraham’s physical seed continues in unbelief. How can such things be? How is it that God’s OT people have largely missed and spurned their own Messiah?
From the length and ardor of his remarks on this troubling providence, it is clear that Paul was quite exercised about it, doubtless in large part because he knew that the opponents of Christianity would point, over and again, to Jewish rejection of the Gospel as a sign of its illegitimacy. Here then we find him seeking to explain large-scale Jewish unbelief, clear himself and all Christians of charges of anti-Semitism, and equip believers of all generations to respond wisely to this apparent obstacle to faith.
Four Reasons for Jewish Unbelief
In essence, Paul offers four explanations of the problem of large-scale Jewish unbelief.
First, contrary to present appearances, God’s OT predictions to the effect that he would create a vast new nation of believers in himself and his Messiah have not failed. Why? Because “they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel” (9:6). In other words, even now God is indeed fulfilling his OT Kingdom promises, but he is doing so among spiritual Israel, among eschatological Israel. He is doing so in the One New Man and the One New Nation comprised of all who believe in Jesus, whether Jew or Gentile (9:1-29; Galatians 6:16; Ephesians 2:1ff; 1 Peter 2:9). He is doing so in the Church.
Secondly, despite having heard the Good News of God’s free gift of righteousness through simple faith in Christ, the majority of Jews stubbornly cling to the Mosaic Law for right standing with God. They do not realize that the Law was actually fulfilled in Christ, and that it too proclaims righteousness by faith in Christ rather than by our own obedience to the works of the Law (9:30-10:21).
Thirdly, God has by no means (altogether) rejected his OT people, since even now he has granted the gift of saving faith to a small remnant of Jews, one of whom is the apostle himself (11:1-10)!
This brings us to Paul’s fourth and final reason, the one with which we are here most directly concerned. He refers to it as great eschatological “mystery,” a previously hidden truth now revealed through God’s holy apostle. He also regards it as a vital truth, one that the Church must never forget. It is this: While, for the moment, the great majority of Jews have indeed stumbled over Christ, they have not utterly fallen; while, for the moment, the majority of them have indeed been temporarily broken off from the olive tree of father Abraham, it is only so that in the end they may be grafted in again. Moreover, when God does graft them in again, it will be an event of enormous eschatological significance, for it will mean nothing less than “life from the dead” (11:ff)!
In Romans 11:11-36, Paul explores this mystery at some length. Let us briefly survey his teaching, focusing upon the many different ways in which the apostle seems powerfully to affirm a latter-day conversion of ethnic Jews just prior to the Consummation at Christ’s return.
Israel’s Rejection is not Final (11-16)
In verses 11-12, Paul begins to open up the mystery. Has ethnic Israel—Abraham’s family according to the flesh—stumbled over Christ so as permanently to fall into perdition? By no means (Proverbs 24:16)! Indeed, their temporary stumbling is actually part of God’s larger purpose and plan. Essentially, it is this: Through Israel’s trespass, salvation will come to the Gentiles; but then, through the salvation of the Gentiles, salvation will also come to Israel, who will be provoked to jealousy by the Gentile’s joy in Christ (11)!
And there is more. For if Israel’s trespass means redemptive riches for the Gentiles, then just think what their fullness—the incorporation of the full number of elect Jews into the New Covenant Church—might mean (12)! In a moment, Paul will tell us exactly what it means (15). Here, however, only two verses into his meditation, we are already getting a good feel for the gist of the mystery: God is not done with ethnic Israel; rather, he has something great in store for his OT people, something that will herald the end of the age and the advent of the World to Come.
In verses 13-15, Paul pauses to let his Gentile audience in on a strategic secret about his evangelistic ministry: Whenever he ministers Christ to the Gentiles (to whom he was specially called, Acts 26:16-18), he makes every effort to magnify (i.e., “show off”) the joy of his converts, if by any means he might provoke some of his Jewish kinsmen to jealousy, so that they too will desire Christ and be saved (13-14). In other words, when Paul ministers the Gospel, he consciously aligns himself with the purpose and plan of God outlined in verses 12-13.
In verse 15, he gives us still another reason for doing what he does, a reason full of eschatological interest: If Israel’s rejection means spiritual life for the Gentile world, then what will their final acceptance—their full inclusion in Christ and the New Covenant (Ephesians 1:6)—mean, if not “life from the dead?” Obviously, “life from the dead” is something good, something Paul wants, and something whose time he desires to hasten.
But what exactly is it? In the verses ahead, he will answer. There we will learn that ethnic Israel’s latter day return to the faith of their father Abraham—which is none other than faith in Christ, a faith that secures entrance into the New Covenant—will mark the completion of God’s redemptive ingathering. It will mark the attaining of the full number of elect Jews and elect Gentiles, the completion and fullness of the Body of Christ. But what exactly is it that will happen when this fullness is reached? The High King—and the One Shepherd whom the Father appointed to gather in his flock—has already told us: “This Gospel of the Kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (Matthew 24:14; John 10:16).
So then, for Jesus the completion of the evangelistic ministry of the Church brings “the end,” the Consummation; and for Paul, the completion of that same ministry—which is marked by a final ingathering of ethnic Israel at large—brings “life from the dead.” Is it not therefore reasonable to conclude that “life from the dead” means exactly what we thought it meant when we first read it, and exactly what many commentators take it to mean: the Resurrection of the Dead? We conclude, then, that for Paul the latter day conversion of ethnic Israel at large is indeed a great sign: a sign that the Parousia, the Resurrection, the Judgment, and the World to Come are at hand, even at the door.
The Mystery of the Wild Olive Tree (17-24)
In verses 16-25, the apostle elaborates on these ideas, but with a special pastoral emphasis. He desires that his Gentile readers should never become “puffed up” against ethnic Israel. To the contrary, he wants them fully to appreciate God’s “unfathomable” strategy for forming the Body of Christ, the gratuitousness of Gentile salvation, his abiding love for ethnic Israel, and his ultimate purpose for the same, so that they (i.e., Gentile believers) may walk in all due humility, gratitude, and holy fear with respect to their own salvation; and also in abiding love for—and ministry to—the Jews.
He sounds his theme in verse 16: If the dough offered as first fruits is holy, so too is the whole lump; if the root is holy, so too are the branches. These words, drawn from the OT Law, are cryptic, but the context makes their meaning quite clear: If God regarded Abraham—the physical father of ethnic Israel—as holy, then surely he still regards ethnic Israel itself as holy. But how can this be, seeing that ethnic Israel is presently in unbelief?
Already, Paul has begun to unveil the answer: In God’s heart and in his redemptive plans he has set them apart. He is not done with them. They still have a future and a hope. Abraham’s salvation was, as it were, a pledge or a guarantee of great things still to come: the salvation of “the whole lump,” the restoration of the “branches” that were temporarily broken off.
Very much liking the metaphor of the olive tree and its (diverse) branches, Paul now begins to develop this motif at some length (17-24).
In verses 17-18, his message is essentially this: “How appropriate is it for you Gentiles to be puffed up against poor fallen Israel, seeing that ethnic Jews belong naturally to the divinely cultivated tree that is Abraham’s family, whereas you, who are like branches cut from a wild olive tree, have been grafted into that tree ‘contrary to nature’ (24, 9:3-5)? Moreover, if you are not yet duly impressed by the sheer gratuitousness of your salvation, then consider this as well: God did not launch and develop his redemptive program for the world from among you Gentiles. No, he launched it from father Abraham, and developed it among Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and David; he launched and developed it from the Jewish “root” that, in these last days, by God’s mere good pleasure, presently supports you in your saving faith in Christ (Ephesians 2:11-13)!” In a moment, Paul will bring this subtle line of reasoning to its logical conclusion. But by now it is easy to predict what that conclusion will be: “Since it is only natural for the natural branches to belong to the cultivated olive tree, it is certain that one day soon they will!”
Anticipating persistent Gentile contempt for hardened and unbelieving Israel, Paul uses verses 19-22 to bring yet another argument, and in so doing to unveil yet another (aspect of the) mystery. It is indeed true that Jewish branches were broken off so that Gentile branches could be grafted in (19). But why should this be an occasion for Gentile haughtiness? Who, after all, left Israel in (temporary) unbelief (11:7)? And who, after all, granted the Gentiles the grace of faith (20; 9:16, Eph. 2:8-9)? The answer is clear. But just in case there is any doubt about the absolute sovereignty of God in salvation, let Gentiles who are tempted to vaunt themselves over Israel consider this mystery as well: Just as God has broken off Jewish branches in order to make room for Gentile branches, so too in days ahead will he break off Gentile branches in order to make room for Jewish (20-21)!
For modern Christians living in the West, this is a sobering thought indeed: The ingathering of ethnic Israel will apparently be preceded by the large-scale collapse of historic Christendom (Luke 18:8). Therefore, let every Gentile believer in Jesus humble himself. Let him fear. Let him be grateful for the kindness of God. Let him be compassionate towards his Jewish neighbors who have (temporarily) fallen. And by all means, let him continue in God’s kindness, lest he too should fall (20, 22).
In verses 23-24, Paul further prepares to fully unveil the mystery of the restoration of ethnic Israel at large. Their current unbelief is not set in stone (23). God is well able to graft them in again (23). Moreover, we are wise to expect that he will graft them in again, seeing that they, unlike the Gentiles, belong naturally in the cultivated olive tree that is the family of father Abraham (24).
The Mystery Unveiled (25-27)
In verses 25-27, Paul reaches the climax of his discourse, now fully unveiling the great eschatological mystery that has previously been hidden in the counsels of God. Again, he bestows it upon the Church lest she should be wise in her owns eyes—and also, no doubt, so that she, like him, will do all in her power to “magnify” her ministry of Gospel proclamation, so that in due season Israel at large may be provoked to jealousy and turn to Christ for salvation (13-14).
But what exactly is the mystery? Paul tells us plainly: A partial hardening has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in (25). Having already spoken at length about God’s intention to restore Israel, he leaves it to us to draw the obvious conclusion. And it is this: When Christ has finally gathered in the full number of elect Gentiles, he will then turn his attention to ethnic Israel at large, soften their hearts to the Gospel, and bring them into the New Covenant. In this way, “all Israel”—that is, latter-day ethnic Israel at large, plus all the elect Jews of previous generations—will finally be saved (26). In short, at this point “the fullness” of ethnic Israel will have come in (12). Here then we have an explicit NT prophecy of the large-scale conversion of world Jewry shortly before the Lord’s return at the end of the age.
Further support for this line of interpretation is found in the rest of verses 26-27, where Paul cites from—and boldly modifies—a number of OT Kingdom prophecies, but chiefly Isaiah 59:20-21 (see also Isaiah 27:9; Jeremiah 31:33-34). Earlier I argued that here Paul is not speaking of the Parousia, as premillennarians assert, for the NT is clear that the Parousia will not bring regeneration, conversion, repentance, faith, or justification to anyone, whether Jew or Gentile. Rather, it will simply ratify one’s response to the Gospel throughout the Era of Proclamation, whether by reward or retribution. Moreover, all throughout this passage Paul has been speaking of the grafting of ethnic Israel back into the olive tree of the true spiritual family of father Abraham—the very same kind of grafting the Gentiles have experienced by faith. We therefore conclude that in these two verses he must have in mind the latter day conversion of ethnic Israel at large under the preaching of the Gospel (cf. v. 23).
Here then is his meaning: By the Spirit, through the preaching of the Gospel, the Deliverer will come to ethnic Israel from the Zion above; when he does, he will grant them faith in himself; and when they believe, he will take away their sins and remove from them all ungodliness, through the great New Covenant gifts of justification, sanctification, and (in the end) glorification (8:29-30).
In passing, we should note that some commentators in the Reformed tradition interpret verses 26-27 as referring to the Parousia and the final “salvation” (i.e., the glorification) of the Church, which is the spiritual “Israel of God,” comprised both of Jew and Gentile (Galalations 6:16). However, while this view is fully compatible with amillennial eschatology, I do not favor it. Again, all throughout chapter 11 Paul’s concern has been to predict ethnic Israel’s restoration to the olive tree, a spiritual restoration that must come by faith in the message preached, and that cannot come by the bodily return of Christ (20, 23, 10:14f, 10:17; 1 Corinthians 1:21). Verses 28-32 also seem to rule out this interpretation, for there too we find Paul speaking, not of the Church as a whole, but of ethnic Israel.
The Mystery Summarized (28-32)
In verses 28-32, the apostle briefly summarizes all that has gone before. For the moment, and in fulfillment of God’s mysterious plan, the (majority of the) Jews are God’s enemies so that the Gospel may go forth to make the Gentiles his friends. But when we look at things from the point of view of divine election, we see that this situation cannot be permanent. Just as God loved Abraham, so He loves Abraham’s children, the Jews. Just as God chose Abraham, so he has chosen Abraham’s children, the Jews (28). Electing love does not change; therefore, though they are administered in accordance with his sovereign grace, the gifts and calling of God to the Jews do not change; they are are irrevocable (29).
In verses 30-32 Paul draws out the eschatological implications of these great truths. In his wise purpose and plan, God had “shut up” (i.e., imprisoned) the sinful Gentiles in disobedience by means of his Law written in their hearts, even as Israel enjoyed his mercies under the Old Covenant (Romans 1:18ff). Now, however, under the New Covenant, he has shut up sinful Israel in disobedience through their rejection of the Gospel, so that the Gentiles may be shown mercy. But this is not the end of the story. For through the mercy being shown to the Gentiles, he is even now showing—and yet will show in far greater measure—mercy to the Jews, provoking them first to jealousy, and then to salvation in Christ (Acts 28:28)! Thus, surveying the vast track of cosmic history, we see that the sovereign God has shut up both Jew and Gentile in disobedience, so that in His time and in His way he may have mercy on both (31).2
The God of the Mystery Glorified (33-36)
The revelation of these decrees, which raises as many questions as it answers, utterly abases the finite human mind. Such things cannot be (fully) understood, but—among God’s grateful elect, both Jew and Gentile—they can be adored. And indeed that is one of God’s great purposes in revealing them. Small wonder, then, that at the close of this towering meditation on the redemptive purpose and plan of God, the apostle is flat on his face, undone by His unsearchable wisdom, knowledge, and judgments, but also raised to the joyful admiration and worship of the glory of the divine Sovereign over all things (33-36)!
We have seen that in this challenging text the apostle speaks over and again of a great NT mystery. Just prior to the Parousia, when the fullness of the Gentiles has come in, God will turn again to his Old Covenant people. By Christ, through the Spirit, and through the Gospel proclamation of the Church, he will again visit ethnic Israel at large, open their spiritual eyes, and grant them saving faith in their Messiah. He will draw them into the Eternal Covenant, so that spiritually, as well as physically, they may be the children of their father Abraham (4:1ff). When this happens, it will mean “life from the dead.” With the full harvest now in, the High King will be free to descend from heaven, raise the dead, judge the world in righteousness, and bring in God’s eternal Kingdom in its full and final form.
For a number of reasons, this is vital information for the (largely Gentile) Church of our day. It keeps us humble. It makes us grateful. It fills us with compassion and hope for our Jewish neighbors. It moves us afresh to pray for them, and to reach out to them and to all men (10:1). And it supplies us with one of the most important signs of the imminence of our Lord’s Parousia. Let us therefore stay on the alert. For when at long last we see the great mass of world Jewry turning to Christ, we can lift up our eyes, knowing that our redemption—even life from the dead—has drawn near!
- One of the most powerful and moving biblical affirmations of a latter-day restoration of ethnic Israel is found in the OT story of Joseph and his brethren (Genesis 37-47). Jealous of the “dreamer” in their midst who has declared that he will one day rule over them, Joseph’s brothers violently send him down to Egypt, where, after a season of profound humiliation, he is exalted to the right hand of Pharaoh and made prince over all the land. At just the right time, and by the good providence of God, Joseph’s chastened and guilt-ridden brothers go down to Egypt themselves, hungry and seeking food. Concealing his true identity from them, he tests them sorely, in order to elicit an honest confession of their sin. But then, with a startling display of deep emotion, he gladly makes himself known, assuring them of his love, forgiveness, and all the good things that the sovereign God has ever had in store for them. Without doubt, this is one of Scripture’s most elaborate and beautiful Messianic types, picturing as it does Israel’s rejection of Jesus Christ, their subsequent dispersion and descent into spiritual poverty, his subsequent ascent to the right hand of the Father where he exercises great authority over the Gentile nation(s), and his ultimate reconciliation and reunion with the estranged sons of Israel, when, with a great show of love (at which all the Gentile world will marvel) he finally makes himself known to his brethren (Genesis 45:1ff).
- Speaking of the Jews, Paul writes in verse 31, ” . . . so these (Jews) also now have been disobedient, so that because of the mercy shown to you (Gentiles) they also may now be shown mercy.” The second now is omitted by many manuscripts in various manuscript families. Since, however, its presence is the more difficult reading, most commentators include it as original. If so, it implies that Paul expected the large-scale conversion of Israel in his lifetime. And this is likely, seeing that in his other writings he displays a similar expectation of the Lord’s soon return (e.g., 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10, 4:17, etc.). Was Paul in error, then, seeing that after some 2000 years we are still awaiting Israel’s restoration? Yes and No. Yes, with respect to his private opinion, but No with respect to what the Spirit himself said through him. For it is certainly true that “now”–throughout the entire Era of Gospel Proclamation, but especially at its end–the Jews are indeed being shown mercy. (See 1 John 2:18; Revelation 22:12-14)