God has us in Romans 11 at a remarkable time in history. The place of Israel as a people in the Middle East is a global issue with worldwide significance. And the place of Israel right here in our city is just now a front-burner issue as it is around the country, largely because of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. So let me put today's message in this context.
On Friday I received an email from a Jewish leader in the community mailed to some of the downtown clergy. It was a gentle but firm expression of concern about Gibson's film. After praising the track record of peaceful Jewish-Christian dialogue in Minnesota, the message said:
'It is with this sense of respect and need for dialogue that we raise our concerns about this film with you. We are gravely aware of the potential rifts this film could open once again, not only between Jews and Christians, but between Christians of different view points. Our world has become all too polarized in recent years and we believe this film promotes that very polarization. . . .
After viewing the film, we are deeply troubled with the way in which Jews are portrayed. No religious, racial or ethnic group welcomes being stereotyped. This film portrays Jews who did not follow Jesus as a bloodthirsty crowd demanding the crucifixion of Jesus, unyielding in their lust for his torment and death.
For almost 2,000 years, the week leading up to Easter was a time when some of the worst violence against Jews occurred — often because Passion Plays encouraged an interpretation that blamed Jews collectively for the death of Jesus and also served as a reminder that Jews do not accept Jesus. In recent decades, The Catholic Church and many Christian denominations recognized that the charge of deicide [murder of God] and the depiction of Jews in Passion Plays have led to the death, expulsion and horrific mistreatment of Jews.
The repudiation of the deicide charge by the Catholic Church and others, and calls by leadership groups within Christianity for responsible, accurate and sensitive portrayals of the Passion, have played an instrumental role in not only diminishing tensions between Christians and Jews but building relationships based on trust and mutual respect.
We hope that as you and your congregants view this film and talk about it, you and they will gain awareness of the Jewish perspective and come to understand the source of our concerns and the sincerity of our prayers for peace and understanding. We ask Christian clergy to discuss these perspectives with their congregants as they wrestle with the meaning and their understanding of this controversial film. Our hope is that all religious institutions find it their mission to build bridges of understanding and peace."
I make no effort here to defend the movie. You decide for yourself whether it is a “responsible, accurate and sensitive portrayal” of Jesus' final suffering. My concern here and now is to simply make plain that the “bridge of understanding and peace” built by Romans 11 between the Israel of Minneapolis and the followers of Jesus Christ in Minneapolis is an explanation and invitation to Jews and Gentiles to believe in the one and only Redeemer Jesus, the Christ — the Jewish Messiah — and be saved from the wrath of God.
Christ the Deliverer Is the Bridge of Understanding and PeaceThe apostle Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 1:10 that Christians “wait for [God's] Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.” Jesus is the “the Deliverer” (ton heruomenon) from God's wrath to come. The closest parallel in the New Testament to this word “Deliverer” is found in Romans 11:26, where Paul describes how “all Israel” will be saved. Verse 26: “And in this way all Israel will be saved, as it is written, ‘The Deliverer (ho heruomenos) will come from Zion [meaning Jerusalem or the heavenly Jerusalem], he will banish ungodliness from Jacob.”
So we see that this Deliverer is Jesus Christ. He is the one who will save “all Israel,” and his salvation will be from “the wrath to come.” And the way he will do it is by “banishing ungodliness from the people,” as we see in verse 26: “He will banish ungodliness from Jacob” — that is, from all Israel. And he will forgive their sins. Verse 27: “And this will be my covenant with them when I take away their sins.” So Israel will be saved when Jesus Christ, the deliverer, comes from Zion and (1) takes away the ungodliness — that is, the hardening — from Israel and replaces it with faith [recall verse 23, “if they do not continue in their unbelief , they will be grafted in”), and so (2) their sins will be forgiven, and (3) they will be grafted in to the tree of salvation and promise as one people with the Gentiles who believe in Jesus.
I say again, this is the bridge and the peace that Romans 11 builds between the Jewish community and the Christian Church. One Deliverer, Jesus Christ, the Son of God and the Messiah of Israel, saves us both through faith alone in his finished work on the cross. Which means that the bridge from Christ to Israel is a bridge of prayer and evangelism, in the hope that Israel (and the nations) might trust her Christ and be saved. We follow the apostle Paul across this bridge as he prays in Romans 10:1, “My heart's desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved;” and as he preaches the gospel in Romans 11:14 to “save some of them.”
Two-Covenant Theology, or Two-Track Salvation?I say this clearly and forthrightly because you need to know that this is not believed by the Jewish community, nor, sadly, by some of the Christian leaders in this city. On the contrary, much of the peace and mutual respect between Jews and Christians in this city is built on a denial of Paul's teaching and on an unbiblical teaching that there are two separate ways for Jews and Christians to be saved.
Listen to John Stott as he comments on the meaning of salvation in Romans 11:26.
It is understandable that since the holocaust Jews have demanded an end to the Christian missionary activity among them, and that many Christians have felt embarrassed about continuing it. It is even mooted that Jewish evangelism is an unacceptable form of anti-Semitism. So some Christians have attempted to develop a theological basis for leaving Jews alone in their Judaism. Reminding us that God's covenant with Abraham was an “everlasting covenant”, they maintain that it is still in force, and that therefore God saves Jewish people through their own covenant, without any necessity for them to believe in Jesus. This proposal is usually called a “two-covenant theology”. Bishop Krister Stendahl was one of the first scholars to argue for it, namely that there are two different salvation “tracks” — the Christian track for the believing remnant and believing Gentiles, and the track for historical Israel which relies on God's covenant with them.
Romans 11 stands in clear opposition to this trend because of its insistence on the fact that there is only one olive tree, to which Jews and Gentile believers both belong. . . “The irony of this,” writes Tom Wright, “is that the late twentieth century, in order to avoid anti-Semitism, has advocated a position (the non-evangelization of the Jews) which Paul regards precisely as anti-Semitic.” 1
Yes, and it is not only an irony, but a tragedy. I doubt that a church that surrenders the evangelization of the Jewish people in this way can keep the gospel for long. It will be undermined by denying the necessity of faith in Christ for salvation. The apostle Paul would have found this position of a two-track salvation to be a radical denial of the work of Christ, and a profound failure of love toward Israel.
So let the point be made clearly and soberly today: Salvation comes to Israel and to Gentiles in the same way — through faith in the Deliverer, Jesus the Christ, or it doesn't come at all.
The Certainty of Israel's SalvationNow the point of today's text is wonderfully more than that. Not only is salvation for Israel only through the Deliverer, Jesus Christ, but this salvation for Israel also is certainly coming. The salvation of Israel is not just a possibility but a certainty. God has given the promise, and God has called Israel for his own, and Paul says in verse 29, “The gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.” So let's read the promise in Romans 11:25-26, “Lest you [Gentiles] be wise in your own conceits, I want you to understand this mystery, brothers: a partial hardening has come upon Israel [we saw that back in verse 7], until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. 26 And in this way all Israel will be saved, as it is written, ‘The Deliverer will come from Zion, he will banish ungodliness from Jacob.'”
Not: all Israel may be saved, but: all Israel will be saved. Not everyone agrees that “all Israel” refers to the nation as a whole alive in some future generation. Some take “all Israel” to refer to the true spiritual Israel including Jews and Gentiles. Others take it to refer to the remnant of believing ethnic Israel that is being saved all along through faith in Christ. Both of these views deny what I have been arguing for — that there will be a great and stupendous national conversion of Israel some day.
Five Reasons Why I Believe Romans 11:26 Refers to the Nation of Israel as a WholeSo let me draw out several reasons again why I believe verse 26 (“And in this way all Israel will be saved”) means that someday the nation as a whole (not necessarily every individual; see 1 Kings 12:1; 2 Chronicles 12:1) will be converted to Christ and join the Christian church and be saved. And then we will conclude with some implications.
1. I think the term “Israel” in verse 25 and 26 most naturally refer to the same thing.
Verse 25: “Lest you be wise in your own conceits, I want you to understand this mystery, brothers: a partial hardening has come upon Israel. . . .” That must refer to the nation as a whole from generation to generation. He continues, “. . . until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. 26 And in this way all Israel will be saved.” I don't think the meaning of Israel changes between verse 25 and 26. The hardened Israel (the nation as a whole) will be the saved Israel (the nation as a whole).
2. The reference in verse 26 to banishing ungodliness from Jacob fits with the national view of “all Israel.”
Verse 26: “And in this way all Israel will be saved, as it is written, ‘The Deliverer will come from Zion, he will banish ungodliness from Jacob.'” This seems most naturally to be a picture of Christ's return at the second coming, and banishing ungodliness from Jacob refers most naturally to the removal of the hardening referred to in verse 25. “Jacob” is not a natural or typical reference to the elect remnant of Israel. The hardening lasts until the full number of the Gentiles comes in (the climax of world missions), and then Christ comes and lifts the veil and removes the hardening — he banishes ungodliness from Jacob, from “all Israel.”
3. The parallel between the two halves of verse 28 point to all Israel as the nation as a whole.
Verse 28: “As regards the gospel, they are enemies of God for your sake.” Now that half of the verse surely refers to the nation as a whole — they are enemies of God. So the second half of the verse surely refers to the nation as a whole as well: “But as regards election, they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers.” The point of this verse is to show that even though Israel now is a covenant-breaking, unbelieving nation, that is going to change. The nation that are enemies now, will be converted later because of election and love.
4. The parallels in verse 12 point in the same direction.
Verse 12: “Now if their [the Jewish nation's] trespass means riches for the world [salvation for the Gentiles], and if their [the Jewish nation's] failure means riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their full inclusion!” Here “their full inclusion” most naturally refers to the same nation as “theirtrespass” and “their failure.” So “their full inclusion” refers to the salvation of “all Israel” and is national.
5. The same thing is true about the parallels in verse 15.
“For if their [Jewish nation's] rejection means the reconciliation of the world, what will their [Jewish nation's] acceptance mean but life from the dead?” The nation now rejected will be accepted. So the “acceptance” of the Jewish nation most naturally refers to the salvation of “all Israel” — the salvation of the nation as a whole some day.
ImplicationsNow how is this going to happen? I don't know the details, but it seems to me that Paul does mean that in connection with the second coming of Christ there will be a great turning of Israel to Christ. Just how it works, I don't know. But I find certain prophecies very suggestive. For example, Zechariah 12:10, “And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and pleas for mercy, so that, when they look on me, on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn.” And Isaiah 66:8, “Who has heard such a thing? Who has seen such things? Shall a land be born in one day? Shall a nation be brought forth in one moment? For as soon as Zion was in labor she brought forth her children.” And Matthew 23:39, where Jesus says to the hardened nation: “I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”
I don't want to go beyond what is clear. So I say that I am not sure about the precise when and how of Israel's conversion. But that it is coming and that it will be given by Jesus Christ, the deliverer who banishes ungodliness and forgives sins — of that I feel sure.
We should pray for it — that the full number of the Gentiles comes in and that the hardening be lifted from Israel. We should work for it with missions to the nations and witness to Israel. We should put away all conceit and presumption over Jewish unbelievers but realize that God is aiming to save them through our salvation. And we should think clearly and carefully about the land of Israel today — which is what I want to try to do next week.
For now, then, let us give ourselves to prayer and to the great work of gathering the fullness of the Gentiles, if by any means we might make Israel jealous of her treasures in Christ so that they believe and be saved.