One Tree, Two Branches

What is the meaning of the statement “And so all Israel will be saved” (Rom. 11:26)?

The phrase has been interpreted in different ways. For some, the reference is to the whole nation of Israel; or the nation as a whole but not each individual; or to all the Jews who are alive in the land of Israel when Christ returns. As usual, we need to pay close attention to the context of the passage, and to Paul’s teaching about the faithful Israel.

1. Hardening of Israel. In discussing how people are saved, Paul uses the image of an olive tree to represent the people of God in the Old Testament. With the coming of the Messiah, some of the natural branches, some Jews, had been broken off; while some of the wild branches, the Gentiles, had been grafted in (Rom. 11:17-21). In verse 25 Paul explains the broken-off branches as the hardening of some Jews. The other Jews constitute the faithful remnant who found in Jesus the Messiah (verses 5, 6). The hardening is not final, and shows that God is still working with them; He has not rejected them (verses 1, 2). In this passage the mystery Paul discusses is not only the mystery of the hardening of some Jews, but the fact that during their hardening the mission to the Gentiles is taking place: “Until [while] the full number of the Gentiles has come in” (verse 25, NIV). The idea is not that the hardening occurs “until,” but that it happens while the Gentiles are being evangelized. The fullness of the Gentiles means that God is working to save as many of them as possible. In other words, God is using the hardening of some Jews as an occasion to make Gentiles part of the faithful Israel (the olive tree). Perhaps by witnessing what God is doing among the Gentiles, unbelieving Jews will not persist in unbelief but will be regrafted by the power of God (verse 23).

2. “And Thus All Israel.” Who is Israel in this passage? Some have argued that in Romans Paul uses the term to refer specifically to ethnic Israel. But this is clearly not the case. In Romans 9:6 he states: “For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel” (NIV). To be an Israelite is more than to possess an ethnic identity; it is rather to have the faith of Abraham, “the father of all who believe” (Rom. 4:11, NIV). This concept is central in Paul’s understanding of justification by faith: “Understand, then, that those who have faith are children of Abraham. Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: ‘All nations will be blessed through you’ ” (Gal. 3:7, 8, NIV). God’s saving grace through faith in the Messiah, announced to Abraham, is now universally available to the Gentiles who also put their faith in Christ, the Messiah.

Based on the context, the word “thus,” or “in this way” (houtōs), indicates that God will save “all Israel” by preserving a faithful remnant, by seeking to soften those who are hardened, and by grafting in the Gentiles through the proclamation of the gospel. Therefore, the phrase refers to the true Israel of God who have incorporated Gentile believers into the faith of Abraham (Gal. 6:16).