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Does Romans 11 envisage the end time salvation of Jews?

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Romans chapters 9-11 have elicited voluminous writings regarding the future of the Jewish people. While Adventists have held that in God’s eyes there is neither Jew nor Gentile and that salvation is only through Jesus, Dispensationalism brought to attention an alternative approach. Two prominent and popular tenets of Dispensationalism are: (a) that God has two peoples on earth, two brides so to speak, the Christian church composed of those who have accepted the saving sacrifice of Jesus, and physical Israel, Jews who are accepted on the basis of works of obedience; and (b) that in the time of the end, Jews will accept Jesus in large numbers and will become the focus of the climactic end-time events. Dispensationalists draw a major part of the supportive evidence from Romans 9-11 and especially 11:25-26 (cited above). Here we briefly review these two tenets in the light of the evidence of Scripture, especially Romans 11:25-26.


One People or Two?

The first tenet which assumes two distinct peoples of God on earth is problematic and contradicts numerous clear statements of the Bible. In Acts 4:12 Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, declared that salvation is only through the name of Jesus, not through any other means. While as Adventists we believe that there will be people in the Kingdom who may not have known Jesus, they will still be there through the merits of His sacrifice. There is no other way. In John 10:16 Jesus announced that He had other sheep (Gentiles) that He would gather in and His people would be “one flock, one shepherd.” In Ephesians (2:12, 19) Paul maintains that Gentile believers before they came to faith were “alienated from the commonwealth of Israel” but have now become “fellow citizens.” Within Romans 11 itself, Paul speaks of the people of God as one olive tree (Rom. 11:17-24). The roots and stem represent historic Israel. Some of the natural branches (unbelieving Jews) have been cut off because of their unbelief, while other branches that were not part of the tree (Gentiles) have been grafted onto it. But throughout the process, there is only one tree, not two. God has one bride for His Son on earth, not two.


All Israel Saved?

The second tenet, however, seems to have a better grounding. The two verses cited at the beginning of this commentary appear to imply that in the last days many Jews will come to faith in Jesus, and they have been so understood by some Adventists. Is this a valid interpretation of the text?

Let us look at the above two verses again and focus our attention on four elements. First, Paul begins by stating that “a partial hardening has come upon Israel” (11:25). The idea here is not that Israel’s outlook is partly hardened and partly soft, but rather that some of the children of Israel are hardened and some are not. Paul's words here hearken back to the olive tree that represents Israel as the people of God: the broken branches are the Israelites who did not believe and were hardened. Those who believed are those who were not hardened; their tender heart accepted God’s gift of salvation in Jesus.

Second, Paul informs us that the hardening of part of Israel will last until “the fullness of the Gentiles has come in.” “Fullness” here implies the full measure, the full number of Gentiles that will be saved. Which means, after this time, no more Gentiles will be saved. When will this closure to the number of Gentiles take place? Our Dispensationalist friends believe that this will happen at a supposed secret rapture when the church is taken to heaven: after the secret rapture the focus moves away from the church to the physical nation of Israel, to Jews, for seven years, and then the end comes. But even during these supposed seven post-rapture years that belong to the Jews, salvation is still open to Gentiles. Somehow, their fullness has not come in. Clearly, the Dispensationalist viewpoint does not tally with what Paul says.

By contrast, Seventh-day Adventists believe that the fullness of the Gentiles will only be complete at the point when the door of probation, the door of salvation closes. Until that moment, Gentiles will be streaming into the Kingdom. When the door of salvation closes, then and only then will Gentiles stop coming in. But at that point, the door of salvation is closed to everyone, not just Gentiles. Which means, in essence, that when the “fullness of the Gentiles” comes in, the door of probation is closed. Paul is therefore not foretelling of a time in the end when the physical descendants of Abraham will come into the Kingdom in large numbers. Rather, he is telling his readers that the partial hardening will last until the end.

Third, how then can Paul say that all Israel will be saved? The key word is the Greek outōs at the beginning of verse 26. It is translated “in this way.” Its function is to introduce a summarizing statement. In other words the phrase “all Israel will be saved,” which we can call statement (c), is a summarizing statement of the two statements made earlier: (a) Israel is partly hardened, and (b) the Gentiles are coming in to the fullness. The part of Israel that remained faithful plus the incoming Gentiles make up the “all Israel” that will be saved – (a) plus (b) equals (c). The use of outōs demands that we follow the above equation.

To understand Paul we need to look back at the symbol of the olive tree (11:17-24). The olive tree was beautiful and complete. But when the leaders of Israel failed to exercise faith in Jesus, they, the branches, were broken off. Now the olive tree looks tattered and incomplete. But with the coming of Gentiles to faith new branches are grafted in and the olive tree once again reaches full maturity. Another way to conceptualize this is to think of a glass representing the people of God. It was once full. But when the leaders of Israel failed to believe and were cut off, the glass become half empty. The incoming “fullness of the Gentiles” fills the cup up to the brim again. The word “fullness” therefore implies that God’s people have again reached completeness in the unity of Jews and Gentiles.

Fourth and finally, Paul calls this a “mystery.” One of the preeminent expectations of Jews at the time of Jesus was that one day God would intervene through the coming of a militant Messiah for the salvation of Israel. The disciples shared this view. On the Last Supper they had two swords with them (Luke 22:28) and Peter put one to use attacking the High Priest’s servant Malchus to defend Jesus from arrest (John 18:10). Shortly before the ascension the disciples expected Jesus to establish the kingdom to Israel (Acts 1:6). Paul asserts that the salvation of Israel will be accomplished, but in a way that is a mystery. A “mystery” means something that is incomprehensible to human reasoning, but is revealed by God. The disciples believed that God would bring salvation to Israel as a nation. Paul asserts that this hope will be accomplished, but not through the coming to faith of physical Israel, but through the incoming of the Gentiles into the Kingdom, because whenever a Gentile believes, he is immediately incorporated into the family of God, he/she becomes part of the “Israel of God” (Gal. 6:16).


Conclusion

God is no respecter of persons. He wants everyone to be saved. In these last days He is calling all people to accept the gift of salvation. Indeed the gospel is to go to all nations. In this great final proclamation the gospel must also go to Jewish people, the physical family of our incarnate Lord. Ellen White called that they should be the object of our love and evangelizing attention (Acts of the Apostles, 380-1). And we are seeing the fruit in the thousands of Jews who are accepting Jesus as their Messiah and Savior. But it is important to note that their acceptance or not of the gospel is not predetermined prophetically. Romans 11:25-26 does not foretell of a large ingathering of Jews, but reassures us that the prophecies for the salvation of Israel will be fulfilled in the incoming of the fullness of the nations.

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Kim Papaioannou, Ph.D., a native of Greece, studied Theology in England and worked 11 years as a pastor. He currently teaches New Testament at the Asia Adventist Theological Seminary in the Philippines.

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