Romans 11:25-27, “And even they, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again. 24 For if you were cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these, the natural branches, be grafted back into their own olive tree.”
Notably, the Apostle Paul never uses the word Israel to describe the olive tree of Romans 11:16-24. Since the prophet Jeremiah does use the olive tree to represent Israel (Jer. 11:16), and since Paul speaks of believing Jews and Gentiles as branches tied to this olive tree that is rooted in the patriarchs and the Lord’s covenants with them, we know that the Apostle has the people of God in mind. In that sense, we can speak of the olive tree as “the Israel of God,” as Paul elsewhere refers to the community of Jews and Gentiles who follow Christ by this name (Gal. 6:16). However, the fact that he does not use the term Israel for the olive tree is significant, as his use of the term in today’s passage indicates a shift in his thinking. Though the designation Israel can be used for the collective people of God no matter their ethnicity, in Romans 11:25-27 the Apostle has ethnic Jews in mind when he states “a partial hardening has come upon Israel” and “all Israel will be saved.” The fact that he mentions Gentiles as a distinct group in the same passage further confirms this view.
As we have noted in our last few studies, Paul foresees that the widespread Jewish opposition to the gospel will not last forever. At present, there is a “partial hardening” of ethnic Jews against Jesus (v. 25)—but not a full one, as Paul, Peter, and Jewish Christians throughout history testify to the fact that the Lord always has a remnant of believing ethnic Jews in the church (vv. 1-6). This hardening will occur “until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in” (v. 25). At some point, the number of redeemed Gentiles will reach its God-appointed fullness. Then, and only then, will the pervasive hardening of Israel be lifted. Through the hardening of Israel as a corporate body (but not every ethnic Jew) and the salvation of the fullness of elect Gentiles, Israel as a corporate body (but not every ethnic Jew) will be saved. Dr. R.C. Sproul writes in his commentary Romans, “The full complement of God’s elect from [ethnic] Israel will be saved and . . . this will come in a new redemptive-historical visitation by the Holy Spirit when the time of the Gentiles is fulfilled.”
Paul calls this dynamic—the hardening of the majority of Jews, salvation of elect Gentiles, and reversal of the hardening of the Jews—a “mystery” (v. 25), because even though the prophets predicted the incorporation of Gentiles into the Lord’s people, the accomplishment of this through the hardening of the Jews was not clearly revealed until the new covenant. But God is not done with the Jews, and we should not think Gentiles have replaced them in His eyes.
Dr. Sproul also comments, “There is a future for ethnic Israel.” The church is not Israel’s replacement but its continuation that fulfills all that the true Israel ever was under the old covenant—that assembly of believing Jews such as Moses and believing Gentiles such as Ruth. God’s people will always include both Jews and Gentiles. We Gentiles must not pridefully think the Lord loves us more than the Jews, but we must work for harmony between all peoples in the church.