The eleventh chapter of the Epistle to the Romans may be divided into three main sections. The first section, containing the vss. 1 to 16, is concerned about the question with which the apostle introduces it in the first verse of the chapter, namely, “Hath God cast away his people?” The second main part, comprising the verses 17 to 24, presents to us the figure of the olive tree with its natural branches, some cut off and re-engrafted, and also the engrafted branches of the wild olive tree. The final section, verse 25 and following, speaks about the final salvation of all Israel.
Now the question that has been raised for our consideration is, to whom does the Apostle refer when he speaks of “Israel”? Whom does he have in mind?
We may state first of all, that there is no difference amongst most Bible interpreters in respect to the meaning of Israel in the first part of this chapter. It seems that all are agreed that “Israel” means there “the Jews”. Differences of opinion arise, however, with a view to the meaning of “all Israel” in the 26th verse, where the Apostle says, “And so all Israel shall be saved. . .
Here one finds mainly three different explanations of “Israel.”
One view holds that “Israel” here is the spiritual Israel, composed of elect Jews and Gentiles together, that is therefore, the Church. This is the view held by Augustine, Luther and Calvin.
A second explanation contends that by “Israel” the apostle has in mind the Jewish nation as a whole. Those who hold to this view are of the opinion that we must expect a wholesale conversion of the Jews in the latter days. This view is popular with the premillennarian and is in harmony with his view of Israel and the Church as two separate bodies (Scofield).
The third interpretation, given by Bengal, Olshausen and Philippi, explains “Israel” here as consisting of the elect Jews which are brought into the Church in the New Dispensation. These constitute only a very small part of the whole Jewish nation.
Instead of merely criticizing the above views and giving the reasons for the one we favor, it would undoubtedly be more beneficial to make a short study of the whole chapter. In this way we shall be able to determine which of these views, mentioned above, is the correct one.
There can be no doubt but what the apostle has in mind the Jewish people in the first verse when he asks, “Hath God cast away his people?” This is evident from the fact that he supports his negative answer to this question by saying that he himself is an Israelite, of the seed of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin. The fact that he, who is an Israelite, is a believer is a sign that God has not cast off his people and therefore also shows that by “his people” is meant the Jewish people, the natural seed of Abraham. It is still of that same people that the apostle is speaking when he says in verse 7, “Israel hath not obtained that which he seeketh for; but the election hath obtained it, and the rest were blinded”. We may paraphrase this and say, “Israel, as a whole, that is, all the natural seed of Abraham, has not obtained that which it seeketh, but only the elect from among them have obtained it”. The greater part of that which is called Israel were blinded and hardened; they did not believe the word of the Gospel but clung to their own Old Testament system of worship, which they had subjected to be a means for seeking their righteousness by the deeds of the law, that is by their own works. Comparatively speaking, there were only a few out of the multitude of Abraham’s natural children which believed in the Lord Jesus Christ. They were “the election”. They obtained what they sought after, that is, righteousness. They are also the living proof that God has not cast away His people. There is also now, in the New Dispensation, salvation for the natural children of Abraham, however, not for all of them, not even for the most of them but for a very few of them who are the objects of God’s sovereign election. They are “Israel”. Not those who were blinded and hardened, but the spiritual element, those Jews who were elect and therefore believed, are the true Israel. This agrees with what the apostle teaches in chapter 9, verses 6 to 8. “Not as though the word of God hath taken none effect. For they are not all Israel, which are of Israel: Neither, because they are the seed of Abraham, are they all children: but, in Isaac shall thy seed be called. That is, they which are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God: but the children of the promise are counted for the seed.” Here the apostle plainly teaches that the true Israel is comprised of only those who believe, that is, the spiritual children of Abraham, the children of God by faith in Jesus Christ. There are many that are called Israel, (called that because they are natural children of Abraham) who actually do not belong to Israel at all. Only the believing Jew can truly be called Israel.
Now to the question why so many of the natural children of Abraham have been blinded, the apostle answers in verse 11, “. . . .through their fall salvation is come unto the Gentiles.” And to illustrate this fact, the apostle uses the figure of the olive tree.
The olive tree is undoubtedly the Church, or, if you wish, the Kingdom of God. The branches do not represent individuals but generations. The figure of the branch that is cut off from the tree cannot very well apply to the individual member since it is not possible that one should truly be a member of the Kingdom of God and fall away. This however is possible with a view to a certain generation. History very plainly teaches that people fall away in their generations, so that whereas some time in the past a certain family were members of the Church, today their posterity is lost in the world. Notice also, that the apostle speaks of essentially two kinds of branches, the natural branches and those that have been taken from a wild olive tree and engrafted in this good olive tree. Furthermore, of the natural branches he says that some have been broken off while some remain, for he speaks of being “grafted in among them” vs. 17. In the light of the preceding context, especially verses 12 and 13, it is evident that the wild branches, “wild by nature”, are the Gentiles and the wild branches that are engrafted are the believing Gentiles. At the same time it is evident that the natural branches are the Jews, those that have been broken off are the unbelievers, those that have been blinded and hardened, while the natural branches which remain are the believing Jews, who in the line of their generations have been faithful to the word of the Gospel from the very beginning of the New Dispensation. Finally, there are among the natural branches a third group, namely, those that have been broken off but were also again set into contact with the tree by way of being “grafted in”. It is especially to this last fact that the apostle calls the attention of the believing Gentiles. He warns us that we shall not boast nor exalt ourselves above the branches that have been broken off because “God is able to graft them in again.” If a wild branch could be engrafted, surely God is able much more to graft them in again in their own olive tree. vs. 24. And that is exactly what God does with all those Jews that believe, the elect. Through the way of faith they are being engrafted into the olive tree and in this way all Israel shall be saved.
That is the mystery of which the apostle speaks in verse 25. He tells us there that a part of the Jews are being hardened in order that the Gentiles may be saved. However, we must not forget that while the Gentiles are being saved, God has not cast away His people and that also now in this present dispensation they, that is the elect among them, are being saved also. And they are being saved in the same way, namely by engrafting them in the olive tree by faith, and believing Jew constitutes true Israel, the apostle And since, as we have established before, only the elect can say, “And so all Israel shall be saved.”
We are now ready to consider the various interpretations already mentioned. In favor of the first mentioned explanation is the fact that it is a thoroughly scriptural idea. Against that view however is the fact that in both the preceding as well as in the following context the apostle clearly differentiates between the Jews and the Gentiles and refers to the Jews by the term “Israel”. In that light we will have to maintain that distinction also in verse 26.
Against the second view, namely that the Jewish nation as a whole shall be saved, is all the context as well as the word “so” in verse 26. The premillennarian explains verse 26 as though we read there, “And then all Israel shall be saved,” They explain that the hardening of a part of Israel, (the Jews) is only temporary; that it lasts until the fullness of the Gentiles is brought in and that then there will be a widespread conversion among the Jews and all Israel shall be saved. We must insist however on the fact that the word “so” means “in this manner” and cannot be explained to mean “at that time.” Another objection to this view may be found in the figure of the olive tree. There the apostle teaches that the natural branches were broken off for the sake of the salvation of the Gentiles. The Gentiles, therefore, that are engrafted into the olive tree, take the place of the Jews that have fallen away. It would therefore be inconsistent with the figure of the olive tree if the whole Jewish nation were to be saved after all.
We may conclude, therefore, that when the apostle speaks of Israel in this chapter, he has in mind the Jewish people. In the second place, since the part stands for the whole, since the children of the promise are counted for the seed, the apostle can safely say, when he sees the salvation of the elect Jews, “And so all Israel shall be saved.”