The Return of Jesus for Israel in Rom 11?

“The deliverer will come from Zion, he will remove ungodliness from Jacob” (Rom 11:25).

Among many Christians, this is a popular verse about the return of Jesus. Among American evangelicals and Dispensationals, it has often been a source of hope for Israel’s final salvation. The verse in Paul is a citation from Isaiah, and Paul says, “Thus all Israel shall be saved, as it is written, the deliverer will come from Zion…”

All Israel, then, will be saved when Jesus comes back.

But does this “Jesus is coming, look Jewish” reading hold up?

Let’s look at a couple of factors. First, how does Paul use the word “Zion”?

The only other use of this word in the Pauline corpus is also part of an OT citation, his invocation of Isa 28:16 in Rom 9:33: “Israel… did not attain to the law. Why? Because no through faithfulness but as through works–they stumbled over the stumbling stone, just as it is written, ‘Behold! I lay in Zion a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense, and everyone who believes in him shall not be put to shame” (Rom 9:32-33).

Here, the referent of Zion is quite earthly. The one who has been placed as stumbling stone is the crucified and risen Christ. His faithfulness is to be the object of the people’s faith. The point of laying the stone “in Zion” is precisely so that it can be in the presence of the people–to be believed or stumbled upon.

Is it possible to read this verse as referring to an earthly Jerusalem? Indeed it is–and to do so brings us within the orbit of not only the previous mention of Zion in Rom 9, but the overall argument of Rom 11.

If we hold the idea from ch. 9 in our heads, we come to ch. 11 with the notion that the presence of Jesus in Zion is a cause of Israel’s stumbling–paradoxically, he is present both as the one who can save and as the one who is stumbled over.

In fact, this is exactly the problem Paul is dealing with throughout ch. 11: Israel has stumbled over the stumbling stone–they have rejected Jesus as God’s promised salvation.

What is the result of Israel’s rejection of the gospel? As Paul delineates it in ch. 11, it is this: salvation goes out to the gentiles:

  • By their transgression salvation has come to gentiles, 11:11
  • their transgression is riches for the world, 11:12
  • their rejection is reconciliation of the world, 11:15
  • they were broken off in order that gentiles might be ingrafted, 11:17
  • they are enemies for the gentiles’ sake, 11:28
  • they were faithless so that gentiles might be shown mercy, 11:31

The entire chapter, in other words, points toward one particular result of Israel “stumbling over the stumbling stone”: salvation goes out from Israel to the Gentiles.

Or, as 11:26 puts it, citing Isa 59: “The deliverer will go out from Zion.”

Indeed, the statement for which Paul offers Isa 59 as proof is this: “A partial hardening has happened until the fulness of the Gentiles has come in, and thus all Israel shall be saved. As it is written, ‘The deliverer will go forth out of Zion…'”

The “going out of Zion” is not the eschatological future, it is the eschatological present. It is not about the return of Jesus some years hence, but the proclamation of the gospel to the ends of the earth.

This part of the citation, the deliverer going forth out of Zion, speaks to Paul’s and others’ work in bringing in the full number of the gentiles (11:25)

But what about “removing ungodliness from Jacob”? What about “all Israel shall be saved”?

That is the next act in the story as Paul was anticipating it to unfold. We’ll look at that tomorrow.

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