In Romans 11:25-26a, Paul makes the bold statement and prophecy that "Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in, and in this way all Israel will be saved." Recently in an online conversation, I found that many evangelicals believe that Paul is saying that all Israel will be saved because true Israel is those who have faith. While it is true that Paul does state in other places that the true Israel consists of all those who believe, the context of Romans 9-11 indicates that Paul is here talking about the nation of Israel that is physically descended from Abraham. If we take a closer look at all of this, we will see that Paul is very clear that at a future time the whole nation of Israel will declare that Jesus is their Messiah.
So let me try and expound Paul's argument in Romans 11 that leads up to Paul's conclusion that "all Israel will be saved" (11:26a).
Paul's Question and His Emphatic Answer
v.1a: Paul asks: "Did God reject his people?"--a question raised due to his remarks about Israel in the previous chapter that begin with Paul's assertion in 10:26: that "not all the Israelites accepted the good news." The question itself contains the answer: they are "his people."
v.1b: And Paul's answer is emphatic: "By no means! I am an Israelite myself, a descendant of Abraham, from the tribe of Benjamin." Clearly Paul is saying that God has not rejected the people of Israel, the descendants of Abraham. He will go on to show that God is not done with them. He has a future plan for them.
If Paul's answer to this question is simply that God has not rejected Israel because the only true Israel is spiritual Israel, then this answer makes no sense, nor does his following extended argument. He should then simply say: "No. God has not rejected Israel because--as I've already made clear--the only true Israel is spiritual Israel; therefore, Israel is not rejected." But instead he goes on to argue that the hardening of Israel is (1) only partial; (2) for God's divine purpose; and (3) temporary, i.e., only until that divine purpose is fulfilled.
The Remnant Chosen By Grace Proves God Has Not Rejected Israel
v.2-10: Paul notes that as in the past (for example, in Elijah's day), so in his time: "So too, at the present time there is a remnant chosen by grace" (v.5). This remnant of Israel that is saved by grace is Paul's initial answer to the question about whether God has rejected Israel. The answer being: No. That remnant that is saved shows that God has not rejected Israel. After making this point, Paul leaves his argument about the remnant and explains that there is yet more to God's plan for Israel.
The Salvation of the Gentiles Will Make Israel Envious and Turn Them Back To God
v.11: After noting the hardening of all but the remnant of Israel, Paul asks yet another question: "Did they stumble so as to fall beyond recovery?" (obviously referring to those who are not part of the remnant). And his answer is: "Not at all! Rather, because of their transgression, salvation has come to the Gentiles to make Israel envious....." (an envy that leads to their salvation; cf. v.14) So Paul's answer is that Israel is not beyond recovery; Israel's hardening is not a permanent situation but is to open up a way for the Gentiles that will in turn lead Israel to jealousy so that they turn back to God.
Anticipating the Salvation of the Full Nation of Israel
v.12: He then interrupts that thought and declares: "But if their transgression means riches for the world, and their loss means riches for the Gentiles, how much greater riches will their full inclusion bring!" Here he speaks with excitement and anticipation concerning the "full inclusion" (πλήρωμα) of Israel being the result of Israel's envy of the favor shown to the Gentiles. The Greek word πλήρωμα (pleroma) that is used here refers to the full number of something.
Can Spiritual Israel Be Jealous of Spiritual Israel?
v. 13-15: Paul elaborates on this very point about Israel's envy of the Gentiles resulting in the "full inclusion" of Israel. He ends this section by asking: "For if their rejection brought reconciliation to the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead?"
So once again, his argument is pointing in the direction of Israel's rejection leading to their eventual acceptance because of their envy of the Gentiles. If the Israel being spoken of here is "spiritual Israel" (which would include Gentiles), how can it be that spiritual Israel is jealous of saved Gentiles? Can it be that spiritual Israel will become jealous of spiritual Israel, so that spiritual Israel can become spiritual Israel? That would obviously be nonsense. And if it is "spiritual Israel" that is in view, it would be further nonsense to speak of this envy leading them to salvation--since, if they are spiritual Israel, they are already saved.
The Natural Branches Take Precedence Over the Wild Branches
v.16-24: Paul's next argument uses the analogy of a domesticated olive tree. Paul reminds his Gentile readers that Israel is the root of the tree and that the hardened Jews are like branches that have been cut off. If then, they (the wild branches) have been grafted in, "how much more readily will these, the natural branches, be grafted into their own olive tree!" (v.24)
So to sum up the preceding arguments: In v.2-10, Paul's initial answer to the question of whether God has rejected Israel is that God has always had a remnant among Israel. His remaining arguments in v.11-24 argue that God still has a plan for Israel, that the partial hardening of Israel is temporary, and that Israel's jealousy of the Gentiles will lead to their "full inclusion" (the salvation of the nation of Israel as a whole).
All Israel Will Be Saved
v.25-26a: The next section is the climax of Paul's extended argument in Romans 11. Paul sums up his previous arguments this way: "I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers and sisters, so that you may not be conceited: Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in, and in this way all Israel will be saved." Or to put it another way, this partial hardening of Israel (not including the remnant) is temporary. After the fullness of the Gentiles has been reached, likewise the salvation of the full nation of Israel will take place.
God Doesn't Change His Mind
v.26b-28: But Paul's argument does not stop there. He then turns to prophecy and the promises that God has made to Israel. First, he blends together prophecies from Isaiah 59:20-21; 27:9 (see Septuagint); and Jeremiah 31:31-34. The focal point of these prophecies is that there will be a day when Israel will return to God and he will make a new covenant with them. The emphatic point that Paul is making is that the new covenant that we Gentiles enjoy was made to Israel (very similar to his point about the olive tree). Let me quote the passage in Jeremiah 31:31-36 in full, and note the emphatic conclusion of this section:
“The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord. “This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the Lord. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will they teach because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the Lord. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” This is what the Lord says, he who appoints the sun to shine by day, who decrees the moon and stars to shine by night, who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar—the Lord Almighty is his name: “Only if these decrees vanish from my sight,” declares the Lord, “will Israel ever cease being a nation before me.”
And Paul closes his argument with these words: "As far as the gospel is concerned, they are enemies for your sake; but as far as election is concerned, they are loved on account of the patriarchs, for God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable." God's promises to Israel will stand. "God is not human, that he should lie, not a human being, that he should change his mind. Does he speak and then not act? Does he promise and not fulfill?" (Numbers 23:19)
Praise God for his faithful and tenacious love!
*All Scripture references are from the New International Version.