One evening last week, while Melody and I were having supper with a wonderful couple from our congregation, the wife offered to show me pictures of her trip to the Holy Land. "They'll probably bore you," she warned. I am happy to report, however, that she was sorely mistaken. Seeing her albums full of pictures of such famous biblical places like the Sea of Galilee, the Pool of Siloam, Cana, and even Jesus' empty garden tomb made my heart sing and my spirit soar. For there is something about seeing pictures from Israel and the very places where Jesus walked that makes the Bible come alive in a whole new way.
Most certainly, the Holy Land in general, and Israel specifically, holds a special and prime place in the history of God's people. And yet, in today's reading from Romans 11, Paul reminds us that one does not have to live in Israel or be related to Abraham to be a child of God. For "salvation has come to the Gentiles" (verse 11). Salvation is offered to all, not just to some.
Throughout Romans 11, Paul repeatedly affirms this fact that salvation has come for both Jews and Gentiles alike. Paul's words, however, have caused countless conflicts amongst theologians and laypeople alike. The crux of the controversy comes in verse 26, where Paul writes, "And so all Israel will be saved, as it is written: 'The deliverer will come from Zion; he will turn godlessness away from Jacob.'" The question of this verse is: What does Paul mean, exactly, when he writes, "And so all Israel will be saved"? And the interpretations are legion. Augustine believed this phrase meant Elijah and Enoch would one day return and covert the entire Jewish nation. Where Elijah and Enoch are to be found in this passage, I don't know. But nevertheless, this idea of a mass Jewish conversion to Christianity took hold and, by the Middle Ages, it became a fixed doctrine in the Roman Catholic Church.
Other theologians, however, have taken a different posture toward this verse. No less than Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Origen, Martin Luther, and John Calvin have asserted that "Israel" here refers not to an ethnic nation of Jews, but to the church of God, Jew and Gentile alike, saved by Jesus Christ (cf. Galatians 6:15-16). As John Calvin writes in his Commentary on Romans: "Many understand this [passage to speak] of the Jewish people, as though Paul had said, that religion would again be restored among them as before: but I extend the word Israel to all the people of God." Thus, when Paul writes, "All Israel will be saved," he means, "The true church of God, which is the new Israel, will be saved."
Although finally, as Paul himself says, the notion that "all Israel will be saved" remains a bit of a "mystery" (verse 25), I prefer the latter interpretation of this verse to the former. I won't get into the nuances of why I prefer the latter interpretation here, but suffice it to say that this interpretation carries with it a beautiful promise: That from Abraham to Moses to David to the prophets, God has never given up on his people. His desire is that "all will be saved" (cf. 1 Timothy 2:3-4), a desire that is reiterated here when, with great glee and celebration, Paul proclaims: "God will get his 'all.' If not in 'all' humanity, then at least in 'all Israel.' All Israel will be saved!"
What does this mean for us? Simply this: Israel's story is our story too. Abraham, Moses, David, as well as the prophets are our ancestors. We come from a rich and storied history of people of great faith and now, we get to add our stories to the history of Israel. For we, as believers in Christ, are part of "all Israel." And even when passages like this confuse theologians and divide scholars, we can rejoice in this marvelous promise: The Bible's story is our story. And this means that the Bible's God is our God. And our God has come to us in Christ with salvation. Thus, to encounter God and see Israel, you don't need a trip to the Holy Land, you just need to look in the mirror. For you are Israel too.