The toughest couple of verses in all of Romans are contained in Romans 11. After Paul’s illustration of the olive tree and how God selects those branches (whether native to the tree (Jews) or wild olive branches (Gentiles) that belong in his tree he makes a statement that is a little perplexing in 11:25-26…
“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. 26And so all Israel will be saved…”
It is difficult to say which mystery Paul is talking about when he says “this” mystery. He could be talking about the olive tree and God’s “kind and stern” actions toward his people. Or “this” could refer to what he is about to say regarding Israel’s hardening but eventually acceptance. Last night in our men’s class I made the point that the mystery points back to the olive tree example but the more I think about it, I think it mostly points forward to what Paul is about to explain – God’s plan to save Israel. That is, after all, what Paul is trying to explain all through chapters 9-11. Paul says God has planned the salvation of Israel in three steps – 1) hardening of some of the Jews, 2) acceptance of some Gentiles, 3) all Israel will be saved.
At this point we have some issues. When Paul writes that “all Israel will be saved” we either have to define Israel by a certain set of people in order to make that consistent with all Paul has said about the necessity of righteousness to come by faith in Christ or we have to assume all Jews will eventually put their faith in Christ, or that God is going to save them no matter what (which is not consistent with what Paul has written to this point in Romans). Some people have wanted to say Paul is talking about “Spiritual Israel” here but that just doesn’t bear out through the context. Paul is talking about ethnic Jews here. So either they all will eventually put their faith in Christ or Paul is defining Israel in a slightly different way than meaning every single person who is a direct descendent of Abraham. Paul and Jesus agree that not all ethnic Jews are actually children of Abraham (see John 8:39-41 & Romans 4:12).
It has always been the case that God has called his people “Israel” when some Jews were not included in that number. Two places we see this in the OT are the concept of the remnant and also through blessings and curses in Deuteronomy (for more on that see the first paragraph in this post on Galatians 3:10-14). In Deuteronomy blessings and curses are repeatedly laid out before God’s people. The gist of it is, if you follow God and keep his commandments you will do well in the land. But if you double cross God, rebel and go your own way you will be under a curse. This curse was basically considered a removal of the blessings of God and of covenant status with God. That basically would put an ethnic Jew out of “Israel” and into the same status as the Gentiles (who were also thought to be cursed and devoid of God’s blessings). So my contention here when Paul says “all Israel will be saved” is that he is talking about “true Israelites” (as Jesus refered to Nathaniel as in John 1:47)…those who obeyed the law and were led by that law, as it was intended to do, to Jesus Christ. So this does not mean every single Jew who ever lived will be saved and it does not mean that every single Jew will somehow get a second chance to believe in Jesus at the last day (although I can see how some would interpret it that way). It probably means faithful Jews will turn to Christ and be redeemed and that in some way, shape or form, there may be more of that to come than we realize. That is the plan that God had from the beginning. The only difficulty I see in this interpretation is that it is difficult to keep the Israel of verse 25 consistent with the Israel of verse 26. Hank’s suggestion that the ESV translation of this verse may help us a little here – “Lest you be wise in your own sight, I want you to understand this mystery, brothers: a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. And in this way all Israel will be saved…”