Election: Romans 11, Part 5 (“Israel has experienced a hardening”)

(Rom 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. 26 And so all Israel will be saved, as it is written: “The deliverer will come from Zion; he will turn godlessness away from Jacob. 27 And this is my covenant with them when I take away their sins.”

I quote from N. T. Wright’s The Climax of the Covenant, beginning at page 249, —

What, then, of 11.25-7? Does it actually intrude into this sequence of thought with a different idea, a large-scale, last-minute salvation of Jews with, perhaps, no suggestion of Christian faith? The answer is emphatically no.

11.25a clearly belongs closely with what has gone before: gentile Christians are not to vaunt themselves over Jews. The reason is given in the ‘mystery’, which is not a new revelation suddenly made to Paul (and contradicting not only the immediate context but the rest of Paul’s theology). The ‘mystery’ consists of this: that, instead of immediately judging the people that rejected his Son, God has allowed a period of hardening, within which his salvation will spread to the ends of the earth, but at the end of which there will be judgment (this is always the point of ‘hardening’ with the apocalyptic context).

At this point, Wright refers, by footnote, to —

(1 Th 2:14-16)  For you, brothers, became imitators of God’s churches in Judea, which are in Christ Jesus: You suffered from your own countrymen the same things those churches suffered from the Jews, 15 who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and also drove us out. They displease God and are hostile to all men 16 in their effort to keep us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved. In this way they always heap up their sins to the limit. The wrath of God has come upon them at last.

In this passage, Paul speaks of “the Jews” — referring to the nation, not each individual — as having killed Jesus and the prophets — all leading to God’s wrath “at last.” It’s “at last” because God has been patient with the Jews to this point, as Paul said earlier —

(Rom 9:22)  What if God, choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath–prepared for destruction?

You see, Paul is not speaking in 9:22 about Gentiles but the Jews! They (the nation, not each individual) deserve damnation because of their rejection of God’s covenant plan. And, of course, in only a few years, God would vent his wrath through the destruction of Jerusalem — showing through history his displeasure with Israel.

I should add that this thought process explains Paul’s blaming “the Jews” for the death of Jesus and the prophets. Of course, only a small percentage of all Jews were literally complicit in the death of Jesus and, many years earlier, the prophets. But this was all caused by the sinfulness of the Jews who had become so sinful that God destroyed Jerusalem — twice — once by the hand of the Babylonians and once by the hand of the Romans.

Although only a few were involved in his death, nearly all rejected him as Messiah. And this rejection led to God’s breaking off the branches of the Jews and replacing them with the Gentile branches.

We return to Wright —

During this period of time, the Gentiles are to come in to the people of God: and that is how God is saving ‘all Israel’. Despite repeated assertions to the contrary, the meaning of outos is not ‘then’ but ‘thus’, ‘in this manner.’

The NIV gets this right, translating “so”: “And so all Israel will be saved”; not “And then all Israel will be saved.”

Paul’s meaning is not a temporal sequence — first the Gentiles, then the Jews. Rather, it is the interpretation of a particular process as the salvation of ‘all Israel’. And in this context ‘all Israel’ cannot possibly mean ‘all Jews’.

I’m not greatly interested in the question of whether the Jews will all be saved in the end, for the present. For those who are, Wright explains his thinking in considerable detail beginning at page 250. Rather, I want to investigate “hardening” in more detail, as the challenging question (to me) is whether God purposefully changed the hearts of the Jews so that they would not be saved although they might have chosen to be saved but for his hardening.

The word translated “hardening” also appears at —

(Eph 4:17-19)  So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. 18 They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. 19 Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, with a continual lust for more.

Is Paul saying that God has hardened the Gentiles’ hearts so they cannot be saved? Plainly, no, as he says in the next verse —

(Eph 4:20)  You [his Gentile readers], however, did not come to know Christ that way.

Rather, Paul is speaking cosmically of the big picture (as it typical of Ephesians). They left God countless generations in the past, and as a result, God “gave them over” to sin — just as was described in Romans 1. “Hardening” refers to the process described in Romans 1. In fact, Paul even more plainly charges them with the fault than in Romans 1: “they have given themselves over …” is much stronger than “God gave them over”!

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