The Apostle Shaul Paulos’, who is known today simply as Apostle Paul, assertion that “all Israel will be saved” in Romans 11:26 is sometimes a source of confusion for those studying the New Testament. Many of my students have asked “Who is Israel?” in this verse. “Israel” seems pretty straightforward; but the fact that people question its meaning is evidence of more than a millennium of received tradition that assigns a particular meaning to the identity of “Israel” – namely, a tradition that defines (this new) “Israel” as the “Church.”
In fact, not too long ago, I heard the host of a Christian radio show claim emphatically that modern-day Jews are “not Israel – we, said he, [Christians] are now Israel.” It’s typically assumed that Paul was a Christian, and not a first-century Jewish Christ-follower. This meant the same thing as removing him from Israel and drawing a sharp distinction between “Jews” and “Christians,” with the latter as “Israel” and the former as… well, folks who just wouldn’t get with the right program.
But is this really what this Jewish Christ-centered Pharisee meant in his letters to the nations? Not unless we take Romans 11:26 as a proof-text, removing it from the entirety of chapters 9-11 and indeed from the epistle as a whole. If by “all Israel” he meant “only Christians,” he could not logically call Israel God’s people and claim that God has not, and will never, abandon them (11:1-2). Neither could he logically say “I myself am an Israelite” in that same context, since the Israelites of whom he was speaking in 11:1 are ethnic Israelites, not Gentile “Christians.” Paul cannot mean that he has somehow shifted to become part of some “spiritual Israel” to which ethnic Israel no longer belongs. This is the normal way Paul has been interpreted for many centuries.
In order to understand “all Israel,” we must not divorce Romans 11:26 from its immediate context which is the olive tree metaphor in 11:17-24. Paul tells the Roman Jesus-believers that some branches of the olive tree have been broken/bent (by the way, the Greek text can be translated this way and not “broken off” as is the usual translation). These are “Israel” who for one reason or another do not see Jesus as the promised Messiah, as Paul already explained in 9:6-7, 30-33 and 11:7-12. Some of the branches, however, that remained unbent/unbroken were the “faithful remnant” of 11:5. The nations, being grafted in amongst these remaining branches, joined with and alongside the remnant of Israel. They do not take Israel’s place. This is where the translation as “broken/bent” versus “broken off” becomes a very important interpretive trajectory.
Paul follows this by saying “the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (11:29). He looks to the day when the branches that had been broken/bent would re-join all of the branches: “How much more will their full inclusion mean!” (11:12).
In Ephesians 2, Paul (and I do see this letter as Pauline in spite of some differences in style and vocabulary with his other letters) claims that the nations who are in the Jewish Christ (the only kind of Christ there is) have become part of the Commonwealth of Israel. Just as today, in the modern Commonwealth of Israel there are Jewish and non-Jewish citizens of the same State, so too in Ephesians: Gentiles who join Israel as true sojourners become integrally a part of Israel, but continue to bear witness to the God of Israel; not as Jews but as the nations of the world!
What does the Apostle Paul mean, therefore, by “all Israel?” Quite simply, he literally means the Ancient People of God — those who were first called into covenant relationship with Him. God will show his faithfulness to the Children of Israel by keeping all of his promises. This will establish the very important point that the nations who will worship Israel’s God, together with and alongside the Jews, can also count on the faithfulness of God for themselves, because the God of Israel keeps his promises. Always.