Center for Biblical Theology and Eschatology
Eschatology: The Future of the Jews
by Palmer Robertson
Questions about eschatology eventually must deal with the matter of the future of the Jews. Obviously, in the time of the Old Testament, the Jews were identified as the chosen people of God. Of course, it must not be forgotten that they were not chosen simply to enjoy the blessings of God by themselves. Instead, they were chosen as servants of God, to communicate God’s fullest blessings, found only in the gospel of Christ, to all the peoples of the world.
It has been remarkable to see the reconstitution of the Jewish nation in the land of Israel during the twentieth century. This development has caused many people to wonder about the future of the Jews as a people and a nation.
So what does Scripture say about the question of the future of the Jews? In this regard, two specific questions need to be considered. The first is, ‘Who is a Jew?’ The second is, ‘What about Romans 11?’
Who is a Jew?
The significance of this question arises from the promises that were given to Abraham and his descendants in the Old Testament. Who is it that will inherit all these blessings?
At first this question may seem simple to answer. The blessings were for Abraham’s descendants. A Jew would be defined as a descendant of Abraham, so the blessings should come upon the Jews. But the question is not as simple as it might seem. Ishmael was also a son of Abraham. Yet Ishmael and his descendants would not be regarded as Jews. Esau, the twin brother of Jacob, was also a descendant of Abraham. Yet clearly, Esau and his descendants, the Edomites, are not regarded in Scripture as Jews, the inheritors of the ‘blessing of Abraham’.
Still further, an interesting question related to this matter is whether Abraham himself was a Jew. The answer is, of course, that Abraham was at first a Gentile, a worshipper of idols on the other side of the river Euphrates, far from the land of promise. Clearly Abraham’s racial background did not make him a Jew (Joshua 24:2).
Election and faith
But what turned Abraham the Gentile into Abraham, the father of the Jews? Two things: his election and calling by God, together with his response of faith. These are what turned Abraham the Gentile into a ‘Jew’.
Since Abraham was the first ‘Jew’, and is the recognised father of the Jews, the process of his becoming a Jew is doubly significant. If this process happened to the originator of all Jews, it can happen to other Gentiles as well. Election and calling by God, together with a response of faith, makes any Gentile into a Jew.
It also may be noticed that when the sign of circumcision, that marked out the Jews as God’s people, was first instituted, it was applied by God’s commandment to foreigners as well as to Abraham’s own children. Both the person born of Abraham, and the foreigner in his house, were to receive the sign of circumcision, which marked them out as being Jews (cf. Genesis 17:12,13). So ‘Gentiles’ could become ‘Jews’, which means that a Jew cannot be defined strictly by race.
In the current situation, it is often proposed that a ‘Jew’ is someone who has a Jewish mother. But is a person with a Jewish father not a Jew? And if a person’s mother determines whether or not he is Jewish, could David be regarded as a Jew? For both Rahab the Canaanite harlot, and Ruth the Moabite widow, stand as forebears in the line of David.
Furthermore, it must be remembered that any Gentile could become a full-fledged Jew by professing the God of Israel and being circumcised. According to the law of Moses, any foreigner who was circumcised could eat the Passover meal, and so would be regarded as a part of the Israel of God (cf. Exodus 12:48).
The promises to Israel
Who then is a Jew? If the question is about the future of the ‘Jews’, who qualifies as a Jew? From the perspective of Scripture, a Jew cannot be identified simply as a racial descendant of Abraham. Instead, a Jew is a person chosen and called of God for salvation, who responds in faith to the call.
This understanding of the nature of a Jew finds strong support from the New Testament. As Paul says, ‘he is not … a Jew who is one outwardly … but he is a Jew … whose circumcision is of the heart’ (Romans 2:28, 29). In this verse, both the negative and the positive are significant. The negative clearly indicates that not all racial descendants of Abraham should be regarded as Jews. At the same time, the positive indicates that any Gentile who is circumcised in his heart is a ‘Jew’.
But how far does this idea go, of a Gentile believer being a ‘Jew’? What about the special promises to Israel?
Scripture speaks quite plainly on this point. This aspect of God’s plan of redemption is a ‘mystery’ (or secret) that has been hidden in ages past, and it remains a ‘mystery’ to many people today. But the truth is nonetheless clearly stated: ‘This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus’ (Ephesians 3:6).
Understanding the secret
Understand the mystery! Gentiles are ‘heirs together with Israel … sharers together in the promise’. Whatever has been promised to Abraham and his children in the Old Testament now belongs equally to everyone who is in Christ, whether they are Jews or Gentiles in a racial sense. If the ‘land’ is promised to Abraham, then Gentile believers have an equal share in the land-promise. If a numerous seed is promised to Abraham, then Gentile believers can expect a multiple seed. Through Gentile believers, as well as through Jewish believers, all the nations and peoples of the world will be blessed. For in the ‘Israel of God’ no distinction may be made on the basis of racial descent.
But what about Romans 11?
What is the teaching of Romans 11? Does not this chapter describe a distinctive future for the Jews in distinction from the Gentiles? This question is an important one that needs to be precisely defined.
The issue is whether or not there is a distinctive future for Israel that differs from the experience of gospel salvation that some in the nation are currently undergoing. That God is saving Jews in the present day cannot be questioned. But does Romans 11 teach that, in a future day, a special work of God among the Jews will occur?
One of the major evidences cited from Romans 11 to prove that they have a distinctive future in the plan of God is seen in the description of their being ‘grafted in’. Once they were cut off, but then they will be grafted in.
But the natural question to ask is, When will they be grafted in? When will Jews who believe in Jesus as the Christ be grafted into the community of the saved? Not at some future date, but as they believe. Even now, Jews are being grafted into Christ. So the reference to an in-grafting of the Jews does not mean that a special future, apart from Gentiles, is planned for them. As a matter of fact, their being grafted in means that believing Jews are treated exactly as believing Gentiles, who also are grafted in as they believe.
But what about the critical phrase that says, ‘And so all Israel shall be saved’ (Romans 11:26). Does not this passage say that Israel will be hardened for a while, and then all Israel shall be saved?
Actually, this passage does not say what many people think it says. The word in the original Greek languages of the Bible is not ‘and then’ all Israel shall be saved, implying that in some future date the Jews will turn en masse to Christ. Instead, the word signifies, ‘and in this manner all Israel shall be saved’. Salvation will come to them in the marvellous way that Paul has described in the earlier chapters of Romans.
We can paraphrase Paul’s reasoning in Romans 11 as follows: Jesus came first to the Jews. The Jews rejected him. Jesus then sent his gospel to the Gentiles. The Gentiles received him. The Jews looked on and saw all the blessings of God that Gentile believers in Christ were enjoying. They were moved to jealousy. So they came to believe in Christ also, and were grafted in, just as were the believing Gentiles. And so God accomplished great salvation for Jews and Gentiles alike.
But what is the meaning of the phrase ‘all Israel’? Does not that phrase indicate that all the Jews will be saved? Several possible understandings of this phrase need to be considered.
Does it mean that all Jews who ever have lived on earth will be saved? No, for Scripture gives no expectation for a second chance to believe after death.
Does it mean that a great majority of Jews will be saved at some future date? Well, the phrase says ‘all Israel’, not a majority of Israel.
Does the phrase mean that all Jews living at some time in the future will be saved? If it does, then Gentiles who will not become Christians should be encouraged to become Jews, so that they might be saved. But it cannot be imagined that the apostle Paul would suggest such a thing, particularly in the light of his understanding of the bondage of Judaism in his day.
This phrase, ‘all Israel shall be saved’, most likely means one of two things. Either it means that all the Jews who have been chosen and called of God will be saved. Or it means that all the chosen and called people, whether Jews or Gentiles, will be saved.
This last view seems to be the best, for Paul has just described how believing Gentiles and believing Jews become a part of the simple stock of ancient Israel by being grafted in. All these chosen, called and believing people form the ‘Israel of God’, the true seed of Abraham.
It is with this understanding that all praise should be given to this glorious God of redemption. For he has saved a great multitude from every nation, including people from the nation of the Jews, by the gift of his Son. May he be for ever praised.
Palmer Robertson was born in 1937 and is a graduate of Belhaven College and Westminster Theological Seminary. He gained his ThD at Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Virginia, has pastored congregations in Mississippi, Pennsylvania, Missouri and Maryland, and has taught in Westminster, Reformed, Covenant, and Knox Seminaries in the U.S.A. He is now Principal and Director of African Bible University in Kampala, Uganda, lives in Uganda with his wife, Joanna, and his sons Elliot, Daniel, and Murráy.