17 Nov 2018
A Commentary by John Stott
Having completed his allegory of the olive tree, Paul again addresses his readers directly, his ‘brothers’, probably including both Gentile and Jewish church members, since he is now going to refer to the future of both. *I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers, so that you may not be conceited* (25a). He has already warned them against boasting (18) and arrogance (20), and now against conceit. ‘Not ignorant so that not conceited’ is the essence of what he writes, for he knows that ignorance is the cause of conceit. It is when we have false or fantasy images of ourselves that we grow proud. Conversely, knowledge is conducive to humility, for humility is honesty, not hypocrisy. The complete antidote to pride is truth. If only the Jewish and Gentile members of the church in Rome can grasp their position *vis-a-vis* one another in the purpose of God, they will have nothing to boast about.
What Paul specially wants them to know is *this mystery*. By a ‘mystery’ he means not a secret which is known only by the initiated, but a secret which has now been openly revealed and has therefore become public truth. Essentially this is Christ himself, ‘in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge’ (Col.2:2f.; 4:3). But in particular it is the good news that in Christ Gentiles are now equal beneficiaries with the Jews of the promises of God and equal members of his family (16:25f.; Eph.1:9; 3:3ff.; Col.1:26f.; 3:11). In this passage in Romans, however, the mystery seems to be what he is about to tell them. It consists of three consecutive truths. The first is that *Israel has experienced a hardening in part* (25b). This fact is not new, since Paul has already stated it in verse 7. As we have already seen, it is God who ‘hardens’ (9:18), although this is a judicial process by which he hands people over to their own stubbornness. The ‘hardening’ takes the form of spiritual insensitivity. In the case of Israel it is the same as the ‘veil’ which Paul elsewhere says lies over their hearts and minds (2 Cor.3:14ff.; 4:3f.).
But now the apostle stresses that it is only partial (*in part*), since not all Israelites have experienced it (i.e. not the believing remnant), and only temporary (*until…*), since it will last only until the second stage of God’s unfolding plan. This Paul now states: *until the full number of Gentiles has come in* (25c). While Israel remains hardened, and continues to reject Christ, the gospel will be preached throughout the world (cf. Mk. 13:10; cf. Rev.7:9ff.), and more and more Gentiles will hear and respond to it. And this process will continue until *the full number* or full complement (*pleroma*, the same word having been used of Israel in verse 12) *of the Gentiles* has been made up.
This will bring about the third stage: *And so all Israel will be saved* (26a). The three main words in this statement, namely ‘all’ ‘Israel’ and ‘saved’, need some investigation.
First, what is the identity of *Israel* which is to be saved? Calvin believed it was a reference to the church. ‘I extend the word *Israel*’, he wrote, ‘to include all the people of God’, so that, when the Gentiles have come in and the Jews have returned, ‘the salvation of the whole Israel of God, which must be drawn from both, will thus be completed….’ It is of course true that Paul referred to the church as ‘the Israel of God’ in Galatians 6:16, but throughout Romans ‘Israel’ means ethnic or national Israel, in contrast to the Gentile nations. This is plainly so in verse 25 of this context; so the word can hardly take on a different meaning in the very next verse (26). The natural interpretation of the ‘mystery’ is that Israel as a people is hardened until the fulness of the Gentiles has come in, and then at that point (it is implied) Israel’s hardening will be over and ‘all Israel will be saved’. I do not think John Murray was putting it too strongly when he wrote: ‘It is exegetically impossible to give to “Israel” in this verse any other denotation than that which belongs to the term throughout this chapter.’
Secondly, there is the word *all*. Whom does Paul intend to include in ‘all Israel’? At present Israel is hardened except for a believing remnant, and will remain so until the Gentiles have come in. Then ‘all Israel’ must mean the great mass of the Jewish people, comprising both the previously hardened majority and the believing minority. It need not mean literally every single Israelite. This is in keeping with contemporary usage. ‘”All Israel” is a recurring expression in Jewish literature’, writes F.F.Bruce, ‘where it need not mean “every Jew without a single exception”, but “Israel as a whole”.’