All Israel Shall Be Saved
“And so all Israel shall be saved: as it is written, There shall come out of Sion the Deliverer, and shall turn away ungodliness from Jacob.” —Romans 11:26
The title of this article can be found in Romans, Chapter 11, verse 26. Christian scholars disagree on the meaning of the word Israel in this verse. Many believe that it refers here to ethnic Jews; however, there are still a number of scholars who believe that Israel refers to the church of Gentiles and Jews. In this verse we have a promise that there will be a future salvation for Israel, but to whom does the word Israel refer in this verse? Does it refer to a new Israel, representing the church of Gentiles and Jews, or does it refer to only ethnic Israel?
Does the land of Israel still belong to the Jews? How do we understand the differences between the Old and New Testaments with respect to Israel? These are theological questions. We must remember that theology is second order and follows behind exegetical and linguistic study.
In early Christian literature, the term Israel was often spiritualized and allegorized and generally was used to refer to Christians, whether Gentile or Jew. We see this in the writings of Irenaeus, Origen, Clement of Alexandria, and Augustine, to name a few. In his work, Dialogue, while speaking to Trypho (AD 150), Justin Martyr ascribes Israel to include Gentiles and Jews wherein he used the expression, “The true spiritual Israel.” It is also important to recognize that the New Testament was completed at least 50 years before Justin Martyr’s Dialogue.
Did the early church fathers use Israel in the New Testament as a synonym for the Gentile and Jewish church instead of correctly following the literal use of the term Israel as did the New Testament writers?
Changing from Dispensationalism
The early church changed its views from the New Testament writers and began to allegorize the Word of God. In order to understand Israel’s intended place by God, we need to quickly look at some of the reasons for their erroneous theological misunderstanding and application to the word Israel in the New Testament. Why did the early church fathers so quickly abandon the biblical distinction between Israel and the church?
First was the developing antagonism between Judaism and early Christianity, as witnessed in the book of Acts and the Epistles. The early strife revealed in the apostolic period was provoked by the failure of Christians to support the Jewish revolt against the Roman authorities in AD 66-70. The Christians chose instead to flee Jerusalem for the safety of Pella, across the Jordan in Decapolis. The schism was again deepened by the Jewish proclamation at the Council of Jamnia (AD 90) that all who departed from the traditional Jewish faith were cursed.
In terms of how they viewed Israel, the second factor influencing the thinking of the early Gentile church was the two-fold destruction of Jerusalem. With the first destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, and then the expulsion of Jews from Jerusalem as a result of the second Jewish revolt in A.D. 132-135, the early Christians began to see these defeats as evidence of not only God’s displeasure on Judaism but, also, God’s vindication of Christianity. The early Christians thus abandoned any hope for the restoration of the nation of Israel.
The third rationale was the refusal of Jews to accept Jesus Christ as Messiah. As time passed, the church began to realize that the Jewish establishment was not going to change its mind about Jesus Christ. Hence, early Christian leaders began to see Jews less as converts to the gospel and more as enemies of the gospel.
The fourth rationale involved the increasingly Gentile composition of the church. The church began to be dominated by Gentiles without Jewish roots. The hardening of the Jews’ hearts and the waning hope for Israel’s conversion to embracing Christ as Messiah made it easier for the increasingly Gentile church to polemicize against Judaism and to embrace a replacement theology.
The word Israel appears 73 times in the New Testament, with 12 of those times being in the book of Romans. In most of these instances, Israel undoubtedly refers to ethnic Israel. A clear example of this can be seen in Luke 4:25: “But I tell you of a truth, many widows were in Israel in the days of Elias.” There are other New Testament verses where the term Israel is used that may suggest a wider meaning. One of those verses is Romans 11:26. There is no sufficient evidence that Israel in this verse refers to Gentiles. Many have tried to say that “and so all Israel shall be saved” means that Israel refers to the church, and it is, therefore, a promise that God will save all Christians. The context in the preceding verse (verse 25) makes it clear to see that Paul is speaking of a hardening of Israel. Some translations say it is a partial-hardening (ESV) of Israel that shall occur until the times of the gentiles be fulfilled. The immediate context of these two verses (verses 25-26) is the theme of Israel’s ingrafting. The natural branches are going to be ingrafted back into their own olive tree.
Paul is not saying here that every individual Jew will be saved. He is also not saying that they in any way have a separate salvation that holds them over until Jesus Christ returns. What he is saying is that the nation generally, as an ethnic identity, will find salvation in Jesus Christ. Jews who die without accepting Jesus Christ as Saviour die lost just as Gentiles. Likewise, Jews who accept Jesus Christ as their Saviour are saved just like Gentiles. There are several other verses in the New Testament where Israel is spiritualized. I will address these in future articles.