I am going to ask that indulge me on this post as I entertain a possible interpretation of Paul’s phrase in Romans 11:26 that “in this way all Israel will be rescued.” After this more theoretical reflection, I will return to finish out my analysis of the rest of the Chapter. That being accomplished, I will then get back to my exploration of the cultural implications of Baptism.
My last post noted that Paul used the term “Israel” throughout the later half of Romans and exclusively in Chapter 11. “Jew” was a racial and cultural term for Paul; “Israel” however was a term with a national emphasis. In Chapter 11, and perhaps within the context of his mission as a whole, Paul is interested in preserving Israel as a nation within the hostile environment of Rome.
For Paul, Israel as a body politic was the custodian of “the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the temple service, and the promises. The forefathers… [and] the Messiah.” If Israel became lost to history, all of which they held for the sake of the world would also be lost. If that happened, the plans for God to rescue the world could be endangered as well. The progress of maturation through which God was taking humanity would then go horribly awry.
It was not difficult to analyze the situation and know that Israel as a body politic was in extreme danger, both from within and from outside. The Romans occupied the central cities, including the symbolic capital of Jerusalem. Revolt tended to build up under the combined efforts of the Zealot revolutionaries as well as the Shammite faction of the Pharisees. Open revolt could end up in not only the destruction of Jerusalem but the structure of the nation as well.
In addition, Jesus himself predicted the destruction of the Temple and its containing city in Luke 21. There is no reason to believe that Paul was unaware of this prophecy. Indeed, it may have impelled him on in his mission. I am not alone in this assertion. As N. T. Wright also proposes in his book, Paul:
First, as I have indicated a couple of times, I think Paul believed that Jerusalem was under threat of imminent judgment. The gospel traditions we know from Mark 13 and parallels are well established in early Christianity and echoed at various points by Paul himself…I believe the note of eschatological urgency which creeps in to Paul here and there arises not least from this, that he knows he has only a generation within which to establish churches whose unity across racial boundaries will be so strong that it will withstand those pressures when they come. (Pages 169-70)
I propose to take N. T. Wright one step further. Paul not only hoped to build communities that would survive the cultural pressures that developed once Jerusalem was destroyed; he hoped through the processes of making new communities of Jews and Gentiles combined he could forestall the judgment against Israel in its entirety. In other words, Paul’s words that “in this way, all Israel will be rescued” was not spiritual, but—like most of Mediterranean culture—was grounded in the physical and experiential. Paul hoped through his actions to literally rescue all Israel; that is, all of the Israelite nation itself.
In short, what if Paul thought he could “rescue” Israel and nullify Jesus’ prophecy of destruction? This is not as blasphemous as it reads. One has to understand the role of prophecy in the Bible, especially prophecies of judgment and destruction. These were not always given as assured and not-to-be-reversed predictions of future events. Prophecy is often given in the Bible in order to get the present hearers of the prophecy to change their ways and thereby avoid the predicted result. In essence, the future event was given only in lines of present behavior. If the nation repented and changed their ways they could avoid the judgment to come.
Case in point, consider Jonah’s prediction of the destruction of Nineveh. Jonah told the city that in 40 days Nineveh would be overthrown (3:4). The people of the city publicly repented in sackcloth and ashes, from the lowest up to the king. They called for a public fast and turned from their violence and evil ways. The result was that the prophesied judgment did not come and the prophecy itself was “overthrown” rather than Nineveh.
I posit that this is the motivation behind almost all of the prophecies of destruction in the Bible. God is not eager to destroy but eager to forgive if his people show the least sign of turning from their agendas and joining His. In fact, Jeremiah has to specifically say that his prediction of Jerusalem’s conquest was irrevocable (Jeremiah 4:28). God was sick of repenting and would not change his mind on this judgment.
No such limitation was given by Jesus in his prediction of the destruction of Jerusalem. Therefore, it was not unreasonable that Paul thought it was possible through repentance for the Jewish nation to be “saved” or “rescued” as a nation. It was not to be, but at least we can entertain the possibility that Paul hoped for such a result. He truly did love his fellow Jews and his homeland. It does not seem to conform to Paul’s personality to accept this end without a fight.
His fight was the Gospel to the Gentiles. In establishing churches of Jew/Gentile combinations he in effect made “outpost” of Israel throughout the empire of Rome. By demonstrating that Jew and Gentile could thereby “get along” (perhaps an incentive behind Romans 13:1-7) Paul could demonstrate to Roman authorities that not all Jews were rebels and troublemakers. At the same time, by building such communities within Gentile lands, he could hope to move public opinion away from its negative view of the Jews and Jerusalem in particular. Also, his contribution to Jerusalem from his Gentile churches could serve the purposes of uniting Jew and Gentile together in a way that centered upon the city of Jerusalem itself, which after all, was the focus of the funds.
Lastly, but most importantly, perhaps Paul thought that his success among the Gentiles would prompt Israel to jealousy for what the churches had. This jealousy would drive them to convert and repent and join the messiah. Therefore, this “process” was the means for Paul by which he hoped would lead to “all Israel being saved” from its predicted destruction.
Paul did not live to see the results of this mission. In terms of saving the land of Israel, in A.D. 70 Titus destroyed the Jerusalem Temple and dashed that hope. But at the same time, Christianity was one of only two Jewish movements that managed to preserve “the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the temple service, and the promises and history of the forefathers of Israel.” It was the only Jewish movement to preserve the Messiah. In that, Paul’s mission was a rousing success. Through him (and many unnamed others) God had preserved the better part.