Romans 11:26 and Spiritual Israel?
In Romans 11:26, Paul says “And so all Israel shall be saved” but doesn’t he mean spiritual Israel and not literal Israel?
This is a key verse for those who believe all Jews will be saved by virtue of their being born into a Jewish family or literal Israel, because they also further believe that the Jews will be saved separate from accepting Jesus as personal Savior. About a year ago we had a popular American TV evangelist declare this view.
Then, there is a school of thought, which believes all Jews will be saved literally, but by accepting Jesus as their personal Savior, and they expect that to work out during the 7-year tribulation period because it will convince the nation of Israel to accept Jesus as their Messiah. (Along with the 144,000 Jewish evangelists, Moses and Elijah, and the Anti-Christ’s break of a covenant.)
Let’s look at the entire verse and its immediate context, “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”; “and this will be my covenant with them when I take away their sins.” (Romans 11:26-27, ESV)
In this verse Paul makes reference to Isaiah 59:20-21 about the Redeemer Jesus Christ, but what is most significant for understanding its meaning is the preface of “And in this way…”
Paul’s use of the phrase “And in this way…” means he is about to make a statement predicated on his previous statements. A closer look at the chapter context reveals that the Paul was not talking about literal Israel or Israel by flesh, but spiritual Israel or Israel by faith.
It is in Romans 11:16-25 where Paul shares the analogy of the Gentiles being grafted in to the root of Israel like wild branches being grafted into “natural branches.” Paul evens talks of “natural branches” being cut off because of their unbelief in the Messiah and Gentiles being grafted in because of their belief.
Consider Paul’s words in Galatians 3:29 which say, “And if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” He says a similar thing in Romans 2:29 when he wrote, “But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God” (ESV).
What Paul is saying in Romans 11:26 and in his grafting in concept is, “All who are true believers in Jesus Christ make up true Israel and those who are true Israel will be saved.”
Now consider that Paul says the opposite is true, too. Just because one is part of Israel by birth doesn’t mean they are going to be saved. Romans 9:6-8 says, “For they are not all Israel, which are of Israel: Neither, because they are the seed of Abraham, are they all children: but, In Isaac shall thy seed be called. That is, They which are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God: but the children of the promise are counted for the seed.”
Let me say something here about the label “Replacement Theology” and its application against those who hold to a “Spiritual Israel” doctrine. The belief that the church has been grafted into Israel, as I believe is clearly taught in Romans 11, as a type of “Spiritual Israel” is not a belief that the church has replaced Israel without regard.
Just because we have been grafted into Israel doesn’t mean that God is not working to bless Israel or that His promises to Israel are void to them. The promises to literal Israel are still real. Look at the news. Look how God is blessing Israel, a small country surrounded by Islamic nations who are obsessed with destroying it. God is still very much blessing them and I am so on board with support for them!
I do not agree with some who disregard literal Israel as no consequence simply because the church is fulfilling its intended role for the gospel as Spiritual Israel.
On the other hand, I don’t believe one can disregard the church or relegate it to a separate understanding in Bible prophecy, either. The promises for Israel before Jesus are the promises for the church since Jesus.
Galatians 3:7-9 states very clearly that the church is even grafted into the Genesis 12:3 Abrahamic promise, “Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.”
The church has been spiritually blessed in ways that the nation of Israel has not because of the unbelief of the nation of Israel. Jesus became the head of the church, the church received the gift of the Holy Spirit, and the church has become “Spiritual Israel” in that it is fulfilling the mission that it did not by carrying the gospel to all the nations of the earth.
There is an argument that could be made from the Bible that Jesus has become all that Israel did not because of their unbelief. One could list several parallels between the life of Israel and the life of Jesus.
For instance, the baby Jesus was sought to be killed by Herod (Matthew 2:13) as was Moses (Exodus 1:15-16), Jesus came out of Egypt (Matthew 2:14; Hosea 11:1) as did the nation of Israel, Jesus spent 40 days in the desert (Matthew 4:1) as Israel spent 40 years (Deuteronomy 8:2), and the temptations that Jesus faced in the wilderness were the same as those faced by the nation Israel — trust in God for provision (Matthew 4:4 and Deuteronomy 8:3), presumption and testing (Matthew 4:7 and Deuteronomy 6:16), worldliness or worship (Matthew 4:10 and Deuteronomy 6:13).
The church has a continuity with Israel, a grafting in that is perhaps best understood as a spiritual Israel. It doesn’t replace Israel, but it does the mission that Israel would not do. Paul’s analogy in Romans 11 is of the church being grafted into the root, not the root and plant being destroyed and a whole new root and plant starting over.
Paul does make a distinction between literal Israel or Israel by flesh, and spiritual Israel or Israel by faith. It is not one or the other. Let’s rejoice that our Lord has accepted us and brought us into His home and not left us out like a distant cousin only somewhat related.
When we look at the account of the New Testament we see that Jesus was not accepted by His own nation of Israel, its leaders, and its peoples. They crucified Him and in corporate voice they declared, “We have no king but Caesar” (John 19:15).
John 1:11, speaking of Jesus coming as the promised Messiah to Israel, says, “He came unto his own, and his own received him not.” The Messiah was not accepted by the nation of Israel but he was accepted by the Gentiles of which we became His church, the body of Christ and the bride of Christ.
With stoning of Stephen in 34 AD at the hands of Saul, who later became Paul, we have the gospel going to the Gentiles as the disciples scattered because of persecution. In Acts 11:18 we read of Peter rejoicing in that “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life” (ESV).
And to that, I say, Praise the Lord!