The Fullness of the Ethnos
Beginning in Romans 11:25, Paul enlarges upon God's purpose for blinding Israel to be sure that we understand it.
25 For I do not want you, brethren, to be uninformed of this mystery [secret, hidden truth], lest you be wise in your own estimation, that a partial hardening has happened to Israel until the fulness of the ethnos has come in; 26 and thus all Israel will be saved [Isaiah 45:25]; just as it is written, "The Deliverer will come from Zion, He will remove ungodliness from Jacob." (27) "And this is My covenant with them, when I take away their sins.".
What does Paul mean when he speaks of "the fullness of the ethnos?" The King James translates ethnos as "gentiles," as if to imply that it means non-Jews. But the word simply means "nations" in general, and the term here is not contrasted with Jews, or Judeans, but with Israel. Paul was saying:
"a partial hardening has happened to Israel until the fulness of the nations [all the "not My people"] has come in—and in this manner all Israel will be saved."
To answer Paul's meaning, we must look at the Scriptures that Paul quotes to support his statement. Paul refers to a combination of Scriptures from Isaiah 59:20, 21 and 27:9 to prove his conclusion that "all Israel will be saved."
First, Isaiah 59:20, 21 says,
20 And a Redeemer will come to Zion, and to those who turn from transgression in Jacob, declares the Lord. 21 And as for Me, this is My covenant with them," says the Lord: "My Spirit which is upon you, and My words which I have put in your mouth, shall not depart from your mouth, nor from the mouth of your offspring, nor from the mouth of your offspring's offspring," says the Lord, "from now and forever."
This is a reference to the New Covenant that was to be made with the House of Israel and the House of Judah (Heb. 8:8). Because this Covenant is unconditional (unlike the Mosaic Covenant), it is a declaration of divine intent, NOT an offer conditioned upon "if" clauses. God fully intends to save all of them, not by justifying the ungodly, but by turning their hearts and giving them the faith necessary to be saved.
In Isaiah 27:8 and 9, which Paul also references, the prophet tells us how divine judgment itself is God's method of turning the hearts of the people.
8 Thou didst contend with them by banishing them, by driving them away. With His fierce wind He has expelled them on the day of the east wind. 9 Therefore, through this, Jacob's iniquity will be forgiven; and this will be the full price of the pardoning of his sin.
"Jacob" in verse 9 refers to Israel. A few verses earlier, Isaiah showed that he was prophesying about the House of Israel:
6 In the days to come Jacob will take root, Israel will blossom and sprout; and they will fill the whole world with fruit.
Isaiah lived to see the House of Israel carried into captivity by the Assyrians. His prophecy is directed toward those "lost tribes." Even as Hosea prophesied that Israel was a harlot and would be cast out of Canaan into the world, so Isaiah prophesies that these same people would "fill the whole world with FRUIT."
Israel, the harlot nation, was full of sin, but "Jacob's iniquity will be forgiven." This does not mean that God will save Israel apart from repentance. It does not mean that Israelites can be saved while rejecting Jesus Christ. It means that God has obligated Himself to turn their hearts to accept Jesus Christ, in order that they may be saved.
In other words, God banished and expelled the House of Israel, and this judgment "will be the full price of the pardoning of his sin" (27:9 above). A few verses later (27:13) Isaiah identifies the Israelites in question as "those who were perishing in the land of Assyria." In other words, the prophecy was specifically addressed, not to the House of Judah, but to the house of Israel that had been deported to Assyria.
Even so, Paul's primary use of the term "Israel" was inclusive of all the tribes and so included the House of Judah as well. But it is significant that Paul did not say "all Jews will be saved," but rather "all Israel will be saved." His primary focus was Israel, not Judah, and hence, he quoted Isaiah, who likewise was referring to the Israelites in Assyria. The idea that Paul was referring to Jews alone is a far too narrow view.
Paul's scope was much larger. Paul did not limit this salvation to only a few of the tribes. Like Isaiah, He was concerned with the greater bulk of Israelites who had become "lost sheep of the House of Israel." The New Covenant was to be made with both Israel and Judah (Heb. 8:8), as well as all others who would attach themselves to that Covenant (Is. 56:6-8) to fulfill the prayer of Solomon (1 Kings 8:41-43, 60).
Fruitful or Unfruitful?
It is helpful at this point to point out the distinction between Israel's fruitfulness and the unfruitful "fig tree" of Judah.
In Matt. 21:18-22 we read how Jesus cursed the fig tree that represented the Jewish nation in His day. His curse upon that fig tree reads (NASB): "No longer shall there ever be any fruit from you." As I have pointed out, Jesus was the rightful Heir to the throne of Judah. There were good figs and evil figs in the land. The good figs, who followed Jesus, were the true representatives of the tribe of Judah. The evil figs were cut off from among their people and were no longer true citizens of Judah.
The cursed fig tree represents that branch of genealogical Judahites who were the "evil figs" of Jeremiah 24. Jesus cursed that "fig tree," and hence, those Jews who remained attached to that fig tree "withered." Fruit will NEVER grow upon that tree, for it was cut off from the life of the "root and offspring of David." Apart from Jesus Christ, there is no life in the tree. Jesus said in John 15:4-6,
4 Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you, unless you abide in Me. 5 I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me, and I in him, he bears much fruit; for apart from Me you can do nothing. 6 If anyone does not abide in Me, he is thrown away as a branch, and then dries up; and they gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned.
Once we make the distinction between the good and evil figs, it is self-evident that it requires faith in Jesus Christ to produce the fruit that God requires. God will save no Jew—or anyone else for that matter—apart from faith in Jesus Christ.
So when Paul says that the goal is to save "all Israel," it is evident that no Israelite will be saved apart from Christ. Paul was telling us that God had obligated Himself to turn the hearts of "all Israel," so that they could be saved. Yet it is evident that most Israelites have lived and died apart from Jesus Christ throughout history. How could they be saved, then?
The obvious answer is that the remnant of grace is saved during this life time, but most of those Israelites will not be saved until the Great White Throne Judgment, when every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord. Further, since all men will appear before the Great White Throne—and not merely Israelites—it is clear that all men will come to have faith in Christ at the same time that all Israel does. Yet most will still have to undergo the "lake of fire" in order to learn to die to self (the second death) and to grow into spiritual maturity, even as we ourselves are required to do today.
Finally, at the end of time, the Creation Jubilee will be declared, and all men will be fully saved—not just the salvation of justification, nor of mere sanctification, but also of glorification in the fullest sense.
The point is that no one can be saved either by being a Jew or by becoming Jewish through conversion to Judaism. Many Christians today are misinformed and so are converting to Judaism faster than Jews are converting to Christ. They do not realize that by becoming a Jew they are attaching themselves to a tree that has been cursed and will never bring forth fruit. It is a dead tree apart from Jesus Christ, and no one can ever bring forth the required fruit of the kingdom through that dead tree.
On the other hand, all true Christians—those who "abide" in Christ, are by definition part of the tribe of Judah, for they receive their life from the living Tree that has Christ as its root.
As believers, all men become citizens of Judah—the tree producing good fruit—whether they are "natural" branches or not. One's ethnicity does not change, but all true believers can say that they are Judeans, or "Jews," as we saw in our discussion of Romans 2:28, 29.
Blindness in Part
Let us go back to Paul's statement in Rom. 11:25 that Israel was afflicted with "blindness in part" (or "partial hardening," NASB) until the fullness of the ethnos had come in. What was this blindness? Why was it only "in part?"
Blindness is the equivalent of a hardened heart in the metaphoric language of the day. Isaiah prophesied about the blindness of Israel in 42:18-20,
18 Hear, you deaf! And look, you blind, that you may see. 19 Who is blind but My servant, or so deaf as My messenger whom I send? Who is so blind as he that is at peace with Me, or so blind as the servant of the Lord? 20 You have seen many things, but you do not observe them; your ears are open, but none hears.
Isaiah continues his prophecy in the next chapter, saying in chapter 43,
1 But now, thus says the Lord, your Creator, O Jacob, and He who formed you, O Israel, "Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are Mine! 2 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they will not overflow you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be scorched; nor will the flame burn you.
Thus, even though the tribes of Israel were "lost," God says that He has not forgotten them. He will bring them through their time of judgment in Assyria and will reveal them in the latter days even as their father Joseph was revealed after being lost in Egypt.
8 Bring out the people who are blind, even though they have eyes, and the deaf, even though they have ears. . . 10 "You are My witnesses," declares the Lord, "and My servant, whom I have chosen, in order that you may know and believe Me, and understand that I am He. Before Me there was no God formed, and there will be none after Me. 11 I, even I, am the Lord; and there is no Savior besides Me."
Many Christians today have been taught that this is a prophecy for the Jews, when in fact it is primarily a prophecy about the lost dispersed tribes of the House of Israel. These are words of comfort that the prophet was inspired to direct toward the Israelite nation after the fall of Samaria. Those Israelites had been deported to Assyria in his day, but God promised that the Birthright would not be lost forever.
I recognize, of course, that these verses also apply to the nation of Judah. Jesus applied these verses to the people of Judah in His day in Mark 8:18. My point is that the prophecy can be extended to Judah, but it was specifically written to Israel. Hence, one cannot apply the prophecy exclusively to Jews.
It is only when we fail to understand the distinction between Israel and Judah that we misapply the prophecy. The regathering of Israel is not the present Zionist state calling itself Israel. That is a Jewish state, tracing its origins back to the evil figs of Judah that were cursed and cut off. The good figs of Judah became Christians and were excommunicated from Judaism. They were cut off from the tree of the Old Jerusalem, but they were attached to the living Tree of Judah of whom Jesus Christ was King.
Those who founded the modern Zionist state were attempting to reassert the evil figs as the true representatives of Judah and even Israel. Jesus prophesied of this vain attempt in Matt. 24:32-34, affirming that this "tree" would indeed come to life and bring forth more leaves. However, not once did He contradict or rescind his earlier curse by saying that this fig tree would bear fruit.
Those who remain attached to this unfruitful fig tree will not be saved in their life time. They will, however, bow and confess at the Great White Throne Judgment, when all things are fully apparent, and all lies are exposed by the light of Truth.
Meanwhile, Israel has been afflicted with "partial hardening." What does this mean? Up to now, most Christians have assumed this to mean that the Jews have partial truth and that they only lack Jesus Christ as the capstone of their religion. As a result, many think that they can learn truth from the rabbinical point of view and then add Jesus Christ to their teachings.
But this is not a proper way to view the situation. To really understand the law, one must study it through the eyes of Christ. The rabbinical view is Talmudic, not biblical. The Talmud is the "tradition of the elders" and the "traditions of men" which negated the law of God (Matt. 15:3-9). To gain a proper understanding of the law, one must study the mind of Christ, not the mind of the rabbis.
The tree of Judaism is cursed and will not bring forth fruit. It is not right for Christians to become Jews, but for Jews to turn to Christ, leaving their dead tree and attaching themselves to the living Tree whose root in Jesus Christ.
When the Christians were expelled from Jerusalem and excommunicated from Judaism, they were joined with those dispersed Israelites who would also turn to Christ upon hearing the gospel. Together, along with the other ethnos who believed, they became one body in Christ, a New Creation Man with no dividing walls to separate them or to deny them access to God.
Because the Israelites were only partially blind, they were able to "see" Christ more easily than the "evil figs" who were totally blind to the truth. Because so many of the dispersed Israelites had immigrated from Assyria into Europe, there the gospel found fertile ground. However, because this was still the Pentecostal Age, which is a leavened feast, the truth of the Word was still yet partial. Paul himself says in 1 Cor. 13:9, 10,
9 For we know in part, and we prophesy in part; 10 but when the perfect comes, the partial will be done away.
We live in an age of partial truth. We see Christ dimly. Even in His incarnation on earth, His flesh was a veil that hid the glory that was in Him (Heb. 10:20). Our understanding has been partial throughout the Pentecostal Age. Full understanding comes only by the transfiguration and manifestation ("unveiling") of the sons of God. We read in 1 John 3:2, "We know that, when He appears, we shall be like Him, because we shall see Him just as He is."
This, I believe, is how Paul viewed the partial blindness of Israel. The fact that the blindness was only partial made it possible for them to come to the knowledge of Christ—as long as His people presented Him, His character, and His teachings accurately. There is, of course, a bigger problem in that Christians have not always presented Christ to the world as He really is, and for this reason many have been turned away from Christ.
Who are these Ethnos that are coming in?
Paul says in Rom. 11:25 and 26, "a partial hardening has happened to Israel until the fullness of the ethnos has come in, and thus all Israel will be saved, as it is written. . ."
Are these ethnos non-Israelites? Are they non-Jews? The term ethnos is a generic term that means "nations," so the only way to know specifically WHICH nations are being referenced is by the context. The term can be used of the Jewish nation (as in Acts 10:22) or of other nations (as in Acts 13:19).
For too long Paul's statement in Rom. 11:25 has been doubly misunderstood. First, men have assumed that the ethnos were non-Jews, and secondly, that by "Israel" Paul meant the Jews.
But Paul was certainly aware of the meaning of ethnos, and there is no doubt that he also knew that Judah was not Israel, except in a very general sense. Being educated in the rabbinical school of Gamaliel in Jerusalem, it is certain that he knew as much as Josephus did. Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian, wrote the following about Israel and Judah:
"Wherefore there are but two tribes in Asia and Europe subject to the Romans; while the ten tribes are beyond Euphrates till now; and are an immense multitude, and not to be estimated by numbers." [Antiquities of the Jews, XI, v, 2]
Thus, modern Christians are often mistaken in thinking that Paul was focusing upon the salvation of world Jewry as distinct from non-Jewish ethnos. When Paul says that "a partial hardening has happened to Israel until the fulness of the ethnos has come in," he was NOT telling us that God hardened Jewish hearts until a certain complement of "gentiles" had come to believe in Jesus Christ.
Instead, Paul was telling us that God had hardened the hearts of both Israel and Judah until ALL THE NATIONS have come to the knowledge of Christ. Those nations are not merely "gentiles" as distinct from Israelites, but rather they literally include both Israel and Judah as nations.
Paul was referring to the promise to Abraham that his seed would bless all nations (Gen. 12:3). To Abraham himself, God promised, "I will make you a great NATION." The Hebrew word used is goy, which is the equivalent of the New Testament ethnos. Later, God gave greater revelation that this "nation" would also become "many nations" (Gen. 17:5).
This promise was tied to the Birthright, which was later given to Joseph (1 Chron. 5:1, 2). When Jacob-Israel blessed the sons of Joseph, he said in Gen. 48:16,
16 The angel who has redeemed me from all evil bless the lads; and may my name live on in them, and the names of my fathers Abraham and Isaac; and may they grow into a multitude[Heb. rove] in the midst of the earth.
In verse 19, when Jacob gave the explanation of his blessing, he used a different term that was more specific and enlightening: "his descendants shall become a multitude of nations." Here Jacob used the Hebrew phrase, melo h'goyim, which means "fulness of nations." This, then, is the biblical reference that Paul was quoting.
Hence, "the fulness of the ethnos" (Rom. 11:25) is actually a reference to Gen. 48:19, "a fulness of nations." It is the promise given to Ephraim, son of Joseph.
So Paul was telling us that God had blinded the eyes of Israel—represented by the tribe of Ephraim—until the promise should be fulfilled concerning Ephraim becoming "a fulness of nations." This multitude or fulness of nations are not "gentile" nations as distinct from Israel. They are the "many nations" of the Abrahamic promise. So what exactly is that promise?
Paul understood that this promise to Abraham would include all the ethnos who were "children of Abraham" by faith (Gal. 3:26, 29). This includes nations who have no direct genealogical connection to Abraham, but Paul was NOT excluding Israelites in the phrase "fullness of the nations." It included all the nations promised to Abraham. Paul was saying that Israel had been partially blinded, or hardened, until the promise to Ephraim could be fulfilled.
What was that promise? Paul has just told us in the earlier part of the chapter. In fact, He has been laying those foundational teachings since the early chapters of his letter.
It is why Paul said in Rom. 3:23 that "all have sinned," not just Israelites, but the whole world. Everyone is equally a sinner before God and all are equally in need of justification by faith.
In Romans 9, Paul explains how the children of the flesh are not the seed of Abraham, nor are they inheritors of the promise. The only way to be an heir of the promise is to be of Isaac, rather than of Ishmael. But whereas this example was genealogical under the Old Covenant, it was actually an allegory under the New Covenant.
Paul explains this concept more fully in Galatians 4:22-31, where we read that Jerusalem is Hagar, who can only bring forth Ishmael. The "Jerusalem above" (i.e., the New Jerusalem) is Sarah, and those who have faith in Jesus Christ are her children, the allegorical "Isaac," who inherits all things with Christ.
In Romans 9 Paul was content to point out the distinction between the children of flesh and the children of the promise. Some have tried to interpret this apart from Galatians 4 and have thus misunderstood it. Paul's primary message was to rid the Church of "the dividing wall" (Eph. 2:14) which threatened to retain the second-class citizenship status of non-Jews being rigidly enforced in the temple in Jerusalem. Paul says that we have a new temple that is built upon the foundations of the prophets and apostles. In this temple there is no wall to divide the ethnos and keep some at a distance from Jesus Christ.
With that context in mind, Paul says in Rom. 11:25 that a partial hardening has come upon Israel until such time that the promises to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob-Israel, and Ephraim-Joseph are fulfilled. That promise is to make Abraham the father of many nations. When that promise is completed, then "the fulness of the nations" will have been brought in.
Then will the prophecies of David be fulfilled as well. We list a few of them below:
"God blesses us, that all the ends of the earth may fear Him."
Psalm72:8, 11, 17, and 19
"May He also rule from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.... And let all kings bow down before Him, all nations serve Him…. Let all nations call Him blessed…. And blessed be His glorious name forever; and may the whole earth be filled with His glory. Amen and Amen."
"Arise, O God, judge the earth! For it is Thou who dost possess [or inherit] all nations."
"All nations whom Thou hast made shall come and worship before Thee, O Lord; and they shall glorify Thy name."
Psalm 98:2, 9
"The Lord has made known His salvation [Yeshua]; He has revealed His righteousness in the sight of the nations…. He is coming to judge the earth; He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with equity [equal justice]."
The divine plan from the beginning has been to bring all the nations into the Kingdom. The great "stone" in Dan. 2:35 will fill the earth when His rule is extended throughout all nations. Only when this is completed will the promise to Abraham and to Ephraim be fulfilled.