Paul's Use of the Term "Israel"

In View of Millennialistic Thought

Millennialists are quick to claim that their system of eschatology is biblical. Unfortunately, they don't seem to realize that their "biblical" system is one imposed on Scripture from the outside, rather than one which Scripture itself suggests. Millennialism starts with certain ideas and then reads the Bible in view of those presuppositions.

One essential element in millennialism, especially premillennialism, is the idea of a mass conversion of the Jews. Millennialists see Scripture not as the story of salvation, but primarily as the story of the physical nation of Israel. This naturally affects how millennialists understand the entire Bible. Millennialists claim that God has not fulfilled certain promises to the nation of Israel, promises such as an eternal earthly kingdom, and so we must look to the future to see God fulfill promises of earthly glory for the Jewish race. One future event millennialists await is a mass conversion of the Jews. "Israel will be converted in large numbers during the millennium" (Erickson 3,1211). Millennialists show a wide range of belief on the exact details of this supposed mass conversion. Most will agree that the mass conversion affects Israel as a nation of ethnic Jews, though not necessarily every individual Jew. Most will place the mass conversion after the battle of Armageddon. The means and manner of the conversion is debated. Lindsey uses Armageddon to explain the conversion: when God supernaturally destroys all Israel's enemies, the Jews will recognize Christ as Messiah and believe. All in all, the entire issue in the millennial system is difficult to sort out.

Fortunately we don't need to sort it all out. Rather, we simply need to sort out Paul's use of the term "Israel" in Romans 9-11, the millennialist's sedes doctrinae for the universal conversion of the Jews. Understanding just what Paul is saying in these chapters as a whole will lead to a proper understanding of Romans 11.25-27. "The term 'Israel' must be understood in the sense Paul that used it and this can be determined only by the context" (Johnston 149).

Millennialists will point to Romans 9-11 and claim that Romans 9 describes Israel's past, Romans 10 describes Israel's present, and Romans 11 describes Israel's future. The key verse is Romans 11.25-27:

I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers, 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 so all Israel will be saved, as it is written: "The deliverer will come from Zion; he will turn godlessness away from Jacob. And this is my covenant with them when I take away their sins."

Modern premillennialists insist that the term "Israel" must be interpreted strictly literally in this passage--indeed in all Scripture. The idea of a mass conversion of the Jews rests on this one point. If "Israel" does not mean the Jewish race in Romans 11.26, the idea falls flat. This paper will examine Paul's use of the term "Israel" in Romans 9-11, especially 11.25-27, and show that Paul is not foretelling a universal conversion of the Jewish race, but rather is showing how God brings his plan of election to completion.

Chapters 9-11 of Romans are not a separate, disconnected unit, as millennialists often see them. Rather, they are closely connected to Paul's preceding discussion of salvation and election. After thoroughly covering sin and grace in the first 8 chapters, Paul at the end of chapter 8 discusses the application of salvation to the believer and encourages believers in their faith by showing them that God has planned their salvation from eternity. He has chosen them to be saved and has done everything to bring their salvation to reality.

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified (Romans 8.28-30).

Paul then draws the conclusion that since God has done all this for those he has chosen, nothing will be able to take his chosen away from him.

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8.37-39).

Yet the question naturally arises: what about Israel? What about the Jewish people, those whom God had chosen to be his own? This is the setting for chapters 9-11. Paul is not trying to predict Israel's future, but instead he is seeking to answer the question: did God's choosing of Israel as his covenant people fail? The answer, coming in 11.26, is 'no': "And so all Israel will be saved." God's choice, his promise, did not fail. Israel will be saved. But who is the "Israel" he has in mind?

In Romans 11.26 Paul is not using the term "Israel" to mean the physical nation of Israel, the Jewish race. Rather, Paul is using the term "Israel" to mean those who believe God and his promises, which were fulfilled in Christ. From examining the entire context of chapters 9-11, it is very clear that Paul specifically does not mean a physical nation of Israel, but rather the spiritual Israel--God's faithful. He has already given hints of this early in the book. In chapter 2 he points out that

A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code (2.28-29).

In chapter 4 Paul makes the point that just as Abraham was justified through faith in the promise rather than through works, so all who believe the promise are his heirs and descendants. Paul makes the point that physical heritage does not make a Jew, but rather God's people are those who believe and obey him. Now what about the ethnic Jewish race? Paul in the opening verses of chapter 9 laments the fact that his own people, his fellow Jews, are bringing judgment upon themselves for their rejection of Christ. He even goes so far as to say, "I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, those of my own race, the people of Israel" (9.3-4a). He is fully aware that all of them will not be saved, and even goes so far as to echo Moses in his desire to be rejected in their place.

Verse 6 of Romans 9 is pivotal in understanding the identity of "all Israel." Paul has already given hints of this clear statement of Israel's identity: "For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel." Even though many of Paul's own brothers reject Christ and themselves earn God's rejection, yet Paul can still say that "all Israel will be saved." This is the reason: God does not count every ethnic descendant of Abraham to be Israel, but rather those who are spiritual descendants, those who believe the promise. In verse 7 Paul spells it out: "Not because they are his descendants are they all Abraham's children. On the contrary, 'It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned'." Through the next few verses Paul develops this theme, that "it is not the natural children who are God's children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham's offspring." Even though Abraham had already had a son by Hagar, God's child was the child of the promise: Isaac. Even though Esau was Isaac's firstborn son, Jacob was the son God had selected to be the child of the promise.

The case of Isaac and Jacob illustrates the fact that election, God's choosing, is not a matter of physical order or seniority or any other human factor, but instead is a matter purely of God's mercy. "It does not, therefore, depend on man's desire or effort, but on God's mercy" (9.16). God's mercy, shown in Christ, is the central focus of election. Because of sin every single human being deserves judgment and eternal punishment. However, God in his great mercy chose to save some. "It is just as Isaiah had said previously, 'Unless the Lord Almighty had left us descendants, we would have become like Sodom, we would have been like Gomorrah' " (9.29). God first gave the promise of a Savior to Adam and Eve, and later promised Abraham that the Savior would be one of his own descendants. Paul stands on the other side of that promise. He has seen it fulfilled in Christ. Paul's main message in Romans is salvation through faith in Christ's merits rather than through obeying the Law. God's children are his children through faith in the promise of forgiveness through Jesus.

Yet the Jews reject that promise and instead seek to become God's children through obeying the Law. "I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge" (10.2). Instead of believing the Gospel message, the Jews reject Christ and instead seek their own Law-based righteousness. God extended his great mercy first of all to the Jews, yet they refused to believe the news of God's love. God then sent his message to the Gentiles, who weren't his Old Testament chosen people, and many of them believed. "Isaiah boldly says, 'I was found by those who did not seek me; I revealed myself to those who did not ask for me' " (10.20). Yet Israel, the chosen people, refused to believe.

So, Paul asks at the beginning of chapter 11, "Did God reject his people?" Even though many Jews have rejected Christ, Paul still can answer, "By no means!...God did not reject his people, whom he foreknew" (11.1-2). A key to understanding God's actions toward his people is the phrase "whom he foreknew." God's people aren't simply his by virtue of a genealogical connection. God's people are those he chose for salvation, as Paul has said all along (8.28-30; 9.6-8). Paul reminds us that God has preserved a remnant of Jews by grace who receive salvation. Paul then presents a key illustration: the olive tree. Paul compares God's people to an olive tree. God chose the Jews as his people, and they were to be his people through faith in his promises. However, as Paul has described, many Jews refused to believe. Paul describes the unbelieving Jews as branches broken off from the olive tree, and calls the Gentiles "a wild olive shoot" which has been grafted in to replace the branches which have been broken off. Again, this is evidence of God's great mercy. Those who are members of the olive tree, God's people, are members by faith alone, not by any intrinsic merit. Unbelieving Jews are broken off and believing Gentiles are grafted in. Unbelieving Jews who later believe will also be grafted back in.

This is the context of the passage under consideration, 11.25-27:

I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers, 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 so all Israel will be saved, as it is written: "The deliverer will come from Zion; he will turn godlessness away from Jacob. And this is my covenant with them when I take away their sins."

Paul's discussion of election and salvation provides us with the identity of "Israel" in these verses. Paul has provided the illustration of the olive tree to show how God's mercy works. The tree is made up of those who believe, both Jews and Gentiles. So it is with God's people. In verse 25 Paul contrasts Israel, the Jewish race, with the Gentiles: "I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers, so that you may not be conceited: Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in." This contrast points to the fact that "Israel" means the totality of the ethnic Jews. Chapter 9 described how God hardens those who reject his message. He does the same to Israel "in part". He hardens those Jews who reject the Gospel. Those who believe are part of God's people. In the meanwhile those Gentiles who believe are also grafted onto the olive tree--they too become part of God's people. This is the situation "until the full number of the Gentiles has come in".

Paul continues in verse 26 with the key phrase, "And so all Israel will be saved." Here Israel no longer means the Jewish nation. Paul brings together all he has said about God's children being his children by faith, about faith being the identifying mark of God's people, about the Gentiles being grafted in to replace the unbelieving Jews, and points out that "It is not as though God's word had failed" (9.6a). God has kept his word. He has kept his promise to save his people. However, his people are not to be identified with a single earthly race or political entity. Instead, God's people are those who believe, those who are his children through faith in the promise of salvation through Christ. God promised to save all Israel, and he kept that promise, but not necessarily in the way sinful man would expect.

Paul describes how God saves all Israel, i.e. his elect. When all the elect Gentiles have been joined with all the elect Jews, then it can be said that "all Israel will be saved." Those Jews who reject Christ are broken off and are no longer part of Israel, because Israel is not a physical but a spiritual people. All the Gentiles who become God's children by faith are considered part of the true Israel, because even though they are not Jews outwardly, they are Jews inwardly (cf. chapter 2). Even though not Jewish by race, they are joined with the believing ethnic Jews into the one body Paul calls Israel, the same body he calls the Israel of God in Galatians 6.16, that body which is also called the church.

This examination of Paul's logical progression is necessary to counteract the false ideas millennialists impose on this text. A thorough understanding of Paul's thought here will do much to disallow millennialist interpretation. Millennialists seem to work in reverse--rather than taking this passage in its proper place in Paul's development, they take this passage first, and then interpret the rest of the context in light of it. For millennialists the central phrase is, of course, "And so all Israel will be saved." Insisting on a strictly literal interpretation of "Israel", they come to the conclusion that Paul must be speaking about the nation of ethnic Jews. Millennialists see in this passage a prediction that this physical Israel will see a great conversion to Christianity. Pentecost describes it: "The nation Israel is to experience a conversion, which will prepare them to meet the Messiah and to be in His millennial kingdom" and cites this very passage as evidence (505-506).

Millennialists who look for a universal conversion of the Jews claim that their interpretation of "all Israel" is best because it is most literal, yet often must temper their understanding of that very phrase to mean something less than its strictly literal meaning. "All Israel" taken strictly literally must mean ALL Israel--every Jew who has ever lived. Pieper states that

"All Israel after the flesh" includes not only all Israelites living when the world ends, but also all previously deceased Jews. Consistency therefore demands that these exegetes, with Petersen, in the supposed second period of Jewry, include a resurrection and conversion also of all Jews who died in unbelief" (III, 528).

However, I have yet to see a millennialist who will take it this literally. The crassest millennialist today will understand the phrase "all Israel" to mean every Jew living at the time of the alleged universal conversion. Yet " 'all Israel' in the sense of all ethnic Jews at a given future period would still represent a small minority of Israel according to the flesh, and would hence fall short of 'all Israel' in the sense of the physical descendants of Abraham" (Stephenson 95). To avoid these difficulties,

although they emphasize the necessity for a literal interpretation of Scripture, the millennialists will, far more frequently than not, view "all Israel" with limitations. They will speak in terms of Israel "for the most part" or "very many" of Israel; or, "not every single one, but Israel as a whole" (Luthardt); or, "enough of them to represent the race" (Voigt) (Johnston 150).

Yet Paul is not using "all" in a hyperbolic sense. The context indicates that he is clearly using "all" to mean strictly "all Israel". This can only be fulfilled completely by the grafting of the Gentiles into the spiritual Israel. "Paul is contrasting 'all Israel,' which will be saved, with the 'Israel in part' that will be hardened. In such a context 'all' can be nothing less than universal. Any interpretation that restricts the 'all' is hardly literal!" (Gawrisch 726).

Millennialists often misinterpret the opening words of Romans 11.26, and this is partially responsible for their error. Paul writes, "And so all Israel will be saved." His words "and so", , show the manner in which he can say that all Israel will be saved, i.e. God removes unbelieving Jews and grafts in Gentile believers. Millennialists often read "and so" to mean "and then"--once the full number of Gentile believers has come in (to faith), Israel will be restored, regenerated and will receive a second chance. Hal Lindsey in The Road to Holocaust goes to great lengths to defend this view and in doing so misuses Greek grammar and abuses a standard lexicon (see excursus). The simple fact is that the word admits no temporal idea. Instead, here indicates manner: "in this way, as follows". Paul isn't saying that all the Gentile elect will come in, and then ( ) all Israel will be saved in a mass conversion. Instead, he is saying that all Israel will be saved "precisely through the incorporation into Christ of all the elect among ethnic Jews and ethnic Gentiles" (Stephenson 95). In this way ( ) all Israel will be saved. Millennialists place the saving activity of Romans 11.25-27 at the end of time. However, Hoekema notes that "this gathering of the fullness of the Gentiles does not take place just at the end-time, but goes on throughout the history of the church" (144). It is also important to note that the gathering of the elect Jews is also taking place simultaneously with this gathering of elect Gentiles. The of Romans 11.26 signifies that the gatherings are both complete when the full number of elect Gentiles become members of the spiritual Israel.

Romans 11.25-27 does not teach a universal conversion of the Jews at the end of time. Instead, Paul's use of the term "Israel" in "all Israel will be saved" indicates that God's purpose for his people is not thwarted because of the disobedience of part of the Jewish race. Instead, Paul uses the term for the entirety of God's people, the spiritual Israel, and shows that when God's chosen people reject him, he grafts in the elect from the Gentiles and still makes his Israel complete. Paul praises God for his great wisdom and mercy, and so do we when we realize that God's great mercy toward us makes us part of that spiritual Israel.

Excursus: Hal Lindsey and , Romans 11.26.

On page 203 of The Road to Holocaust, Lindsey makes the statement,

"Second, the salvation of all Israel is said to take place immediately after the completion of the full number of the Gentiles. 'AND SO all Israel will be saved.' The words 'and so' are intended to correlate with the 'until' of verse twenty-five, thereby acquiring a temporal force. The adverb translated 'so' is [sic] in the Greek. Gingrich and Danker, in the most authoritative lexicon we have on the Greek New Testament, write about the usage of [sic] in this verse, 'what is so introduced follows immediately after.'** They would translate this verse, '...until the full number of Gentiles has come in. AND IMMEDIATELY AFTER THIS, all Israel will be saved."

**footnote: ibid [BAGD] p.598, section 2(1).

Lindsey's says that once all the Gentile elect have come into the Church, Israel will see a national salvation. He then uses Greek to "prove" it. However, he is wrong!

His "proof" rests on the Greek adverb . He claims that the adverb acquires a temporal force. In other words, it supposedly works like this: "event A event B" = "event A happens THEN event B happens". This is an outright goof. never has such a temporal idea. The word means "thus, in this manner, so". Lindsey is making up Greek grammar here. never has the "temporal force" he claims it has here.

He quotes A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature to try to justify giving such an interpretation. (Incidentally, he only ascribes the book to Gingrich and Danker, leaving out Walter Bauer and William Arndt) In his footnotes he references p.598, section 2(1). There is no section 2(1). He is implying that under definition 2 there are some subheadings. There are none. He is misreading a Bible verse reference as a subheading!

Lindsey says, "Gingrich and Danker, in the most authoritative lexicon we have on the Greek New Testament, write about the usage of [sic] in this verse, 'what is so introduced follows immediately after.'" It is true that section 2 of the definition says those words about , but BAGD nowhere implies that has "a temporal force."

Section 2 of the definition of begins, "referring to what follows, 'in this way, as follows'." These are the basic definitions for the section. As reference, BAGD gives John 21:1. The '1' referring to the verse begins a new line, which is why Lindsey thought it was a subheading. The definition "in this way, as follows" has no "temporal force".

The definition continues: "Of spoken or written words: what is so introduced follows immediately after." In other words, follows in a sequence on the page, not follows in time, as Lindsey claims.

Lindsey claims that "The words 'and so' are intended

to correlate with the 'until' of verse twenty-five." According to this very reference in BAGD, he is wrong here too. According to BAGD, this , 'and so' correlates with 'as it is written' which follows shortly after and which describes the what follows the 'and so'. In other words, the 'and so' has no "temporal force" due to correlation with the 'until' of verse 25. The words 'and so' have no "temporal force" at all.

Lindsey laughably goes on to claim that "[BAGD] would translate this verse, '...until the full number of Gentiles has come in. AND IMMEDIATELY AFTER THIS, all Israel will be saved." This is simply ridiculous. No one with any credibility would translate it that way. It is ridiculous to make this claim at all, because the word has no such "temporal force." The very same BAGD which Lindsey quotes in his own favor would translate this verse '...until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. AND IN THIS WAY all Israel will be saved. JUST AS (correlates with ) it is written..."

So what's the point of all this? There are two choices:

1) Lindsey doesn't know Greek very well, yet claims to know it well enough to prove minute grammatical points.

2) Lindsey is purposely abusing the Greek, warping it to fit his own interpretations.

I lean toward the first option. His blatant mistakes in using BAGD and in his knowledge of the usage of are too obvious to be purposeful. Often when discussing Greek grammar he quotes others and then says "I agree" without giving any reasons why. He gives the idea that he agrees because the others say what he wants them to say.


Bauer, Walter, William F. Arndt, F. Wilbur Gingrich, Frederick W. Danker. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1979.

Erickson, Millard. Christian Theology. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1985.

Franzmann, Martin H. Romans: A Commentary. St. Louis: Concordia, 1968.

Gawrisch, Wilbert. "Eschatological Prophecies and Their Current Misinterpretations." In Our Great Heritage, vol.3, Lyle W. Lange, General Editor. Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House.

Hoekema, Anthony A. The Bible and the Future. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 1979.

Lenski, R.C.H. The Interpretation of St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans. Minneapolis: Augsburg 1964.

Lindsey, Hal. The Road to Holocaust. Bantam Books, 1989.

Johnston, Robert Glen. Does Scripture Teach Millennialism? Mequon, WI: Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary Press, 1990.

Pentecost, J. Dwight. Things To Come: A Study in Biblical Eschatology. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1958.

Pieper, Franz. Christian Dogmatics. St. Louis: Concordia 1953.

Stephenson, John R. Eschatology (vol.XIII of Confessional Lutheran Dogmatics.) Fort Wayne, IN: The Luther Academy, 1993.