Romans 11:25-26 says:
25 I want you to understand this mystery, dear brothers and sisters,[g] so that you will not feel proud about yourselves. Some of the people of Israel have hard hearts, but this will last only until the full number of Gentiles comes to Christ. 26 And so all Israel will be saved.
What does it mean when Paul says that “all Israel will be saved?” Does it mean that all Jews will go to heaven, even if they don’t worship Jesus in this life? Does it mean that there are different rules fo Gentiles and Jews? Some people believe that this refers to Israel as a nation but that there will be a specific point in history when the whole of that nation will come together to worship King Jesus. Specifically, that view is often associated with pre-millennialism. Under that approach, the church will be raptured out of the world before a period of great tribulation under anti-Christ and then Jesus will come to reign for a literal thousand years. At some point either during the Tribulation or Christ’s millennial reign, the Jews as a people will repent and turn to God.
I am not convinced that the Biblical data supports such an interpretation. I believe that references to Christ’s millennial reign are talking about what is happening right now in history, Christ is reigning over his church, even as we continue to experience tribulation. So, what then is Romans 11:26 saying.
I think it is helpful to see these verses in the context of the argument that Paul has been building up. Remember that he is seeking to answer a specific question from chapters 9-11 which is “What has happened to Israel and to the Jews?” The section begins with this heart cry from Paul.
9 With Christ as my witness, I speak with utter truthfulness. My conscience and the Holy Spirit confirm it. 2 My heart is filled with bitter sorrow and unending grief 3 for my people, my Jewish brothers and sisters.[a] I would be willing to be forever cursed—cut off from Christ!—if that would save them.
It is therefore no mere theoretical or academic question for him. In chapter 10:1 he says:
Dear brothers and sisters,[a] the longing of my heart and my prayer to God is for the people of Israel to be saved.
What this also means is that the clues are already present in all three chapters to help us answer the question. It also exists right back earlier in Romans. In Romans chapter 4 we are told:
11 Circumcision was a sign that Abraham already had faith and that God had already accepted him and declared him to be righteous—even before he was circumcised. So Abraham is the spiritual father of those who have faith but have not been circumcised. They are counted as righteous because of their faith. 12 And Abraham is also the spiritual father of those who have been circumcised, but only if they have the same kind of faith Abraham had before he was circumcised.
Put this together with description in chapters 9-11 of a remnant that keep faith with God and the description of Gentiles being ingrafted. Consider then that Paul talks about “Israel” or “Jews” being reincluded by being grafted back in and I think we have an answer to our question.
I want to suggest that Paul lifts our eyes and gets us to re-think what or who Israel is. True Israel is Christ himself and so membership of Israel is by inclusion in him. This means that Israel was always about faith in God, not about your genetics or your ritual observation (circumcision). Ethnic Jews and ethnic Gentiles alike become Israel by the same method, through faith in Jesus.
This means that when Jews see Gentiles putting their trust in Jesus, they should be provoked by their jealousy to also put faith in Christ. I would suggest that when Paul talks about when the full number of Gentiles have been saved then all Israel will be saved that this means simply that. It is possible that Paul is looking forward optimistically to a great end time revival among the Jews. I think that this is possible.
However, I would take the verses simply to mean that at the completion of time, when Jesus returns, then God’s work of salvation will be complete. Everyone who was going to believe in him and receive eternal life will have done. There won’t be any missing, any left over and God will not have failed to draw to himself any that he desired to.
The big point we need to learn from Romans 9-11 is that God will accomplish his purpose. His plan will not be thwarted. He will therefore receive all the glory and praise.