When it comes to the correct interpretation of Romans 11 I believe we must consider the immediate context which I would argue begins at Romans 9:1, as well as the context of the whole book of Romans and its main purpose/s. Many theologians and Bible teachers have considered Romans to be Paul’s grandiose treatise on the Gospel, and they certainly are right about that.
However, I believe we also must take into account the fact that Romans is also a pastoral epistle in which Paul seeks to address certain issues that were confronting the Roman church. One of the main issues Paul seeks to address is the issue of divisiveness between to Jews and Gentiles.
Paul starts this epistle by pointing out that all are under sin apart from Christ, whether Jew or Gentile. This is Paul’s argument from chapters 1-3. Then beginning around the middle of chapter 3 he begins to expound on the good news of justification by faith in Christ and all that that entails (again, equally for both Jew and Gentile), all the way up to the ending of Romans 8. Then in Romans 9-11 Paul specifically addresses the issue of God’s eternal purposes for both Jews and Gentiles.
In Romans 9, after expressing his sincere concern for the salvation of his countrymen, ethnic Israel (verses 1-5), Paul goes on to point out that God’s Word and promises have not failed since “not all Israel is Israel”(Rom. 9:6-13). I’ll post the passage and then comment on it:
“6 But it is not that the word of God has taken no effect. For they are not all Israel who are of Israel, 7 nor are they all children because they are the seed of Abraham; but, "In Isaac your seed shall be called." 8 That is, those who are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God; but the children of the promise are counted as the seed. 9 For this is the word of promise: "At this time I will come and Sarah shall have a son." 10 And not only this, but when Rebecca also had conceived by one man, even by our father Isaac 11 (for the children not yet being born, nor having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works but of Him who calls), 12 it was said to her, "The older shall serve the younger." 13 As it is written, "Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated."
In those verses Paul is not simply pointing out that certain promises were made to Isaac's and Jacobs’s descendants as opposed to Ishmael’s and Esau’s descendants. For Paul to simply have pointed that out would have been silly since everyone knew that. Instead, what Paul is seeking to convey there is that Isaac's and Jacob's descendants were to be a type of the remnant of Israel. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were the patriarchs of both national Israel and spiritual Israel or the remnant which was found within national Israel. What Paul is pointing out is that not all ethnic Israel is part of the true remnant of Israel (other places in God’s Word also make this same point-Jn. 8:39; Rom. 2:28-29; Rev.2:9; 3:9). As a side note, in the OT that remnant included a few Gentile proselytes such as Rahab and Ruth who were honored with being part of Christ's lineage.
In Romans 9:14-23 Paul continues with this same train of thought expounding on the remnant of Israel. Calvinistic brethren have emphasized God’s sovereignty in election when looking at that passage, but that is not the main point of that passage. Again, the main point there is that God has always had a chosen remnant from among national Israel.
Then beginning in verse 24 Paul touches on Gentile believers being part of the people of God. Paul says there, "even us whom He called, not of the Jews only, but also of the Gentiles”. Then again in verse 27 Paul points out the remnant of national Israel as he writes, “Isaiah also cries out concerning Israel: "Though the number of the children of Israel be as the sand of the sea, The remnant will be saved.”
The remnant people of God have always been the true Israel of God according to both the Old and New Testaments. The remnant has always been to whom all the promises of God have been made and kept securely in Christ Jesus, which includes all the promises made to Abraham. Paul explains this clearly in Galatians 3:16-29 “16 Now to Abraham and his Seed were the promises made. He does not say, "And to seeds," as of many, but as of one, "And to your Seed," who is Christ...29 And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise.”
In verses Romans 9:30-33 Paul explains that in the New Covenant the tables have been largely turned in that now the vast majority of remnant believers are Gentiles because the vast majority of ethnic Israel has rejected Christ and sought to obtain righteousness by the works of the law.
In Romans 10 Paul points out that national Israel needs to hear the Gospel in order to be saved, and that they have indeed heard it already but have rejected it by and large. I won’t go into detail on Romans 10 because I think that that chapter is pretty clear.
In Romans 11 Paul goes back again to pointing out the issue of the remnant of Israel and points to himself as a prime example of this remnant. Then as another example he references the passage in 1 Kings 19 where Elijah mistakenly complained that he was the only one left of the true prophets. I'll post that passage as I think it's easy for us to see Paul's reasoning there:
“1 I say then, has God cast away His people? Certainly not! For I also am an Israelite, of the seed of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin. 2 God has not cast away His people whom He foreknew. Or do you not know what the Scripture says of Elijah, how he pleads with God against Israel, saying, 3 "Lord, they have killed Your prophets and torn down Your altars, and I alone am left, and they seek my life"? 4 But what does the divine response say to him? "I have reserved for Myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal." 5 Even so then, at this present time there is a remnant according to the election of grace. 6 And if by grace, then it is no longer of works; otherwise grace is no longer grace. But if it is of works, it is no longer grace; otherwise work is no longer work. 7 What then? Israel has not obtained what it seeks; but the elect have obtained it, and the rest were blinded. 8 Just as it is written: "God has given them a spirit of stupor, Eyes that they should not see And ears that they should not hear, To this very day." 9 And David says: "Let their table become a snare and a trap, A stumbling block and a recompense to them. 10 Let their eyes be darkened, so that they do not see, And bow down their back always."
So again, Paul’s main point there is that God has not completely cast away national Israel and that he himself is living proof of that being the case, him and every other Apostle and Jewish disciple of Jesus Christ.
So now let’s consider verses 11-15:
“11 I say then, have they stumbled that they should fall? Certainly not! But through their fall, to provoke them to jealousy, salvation has come to the Gentiles. 12 Now if their fall is riches for the world, and their failure riches for the Gentiles, how much more their fullness! 13 For I speak to you Gentiles; inasmuch as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I magnify my ministry, 14 if by any means I may provoke to jealousy those who are my flesh and save some of them. 15 For if their being cast away is the reconciling of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead?”
In those verses Paul seems to be cautioning against a certain type of reasoning and attitude among Gentile Christians which would be condescending toward, and despairing of the salvation of Jews (in light of the fact that so many of them had rejected the Gospel). Paul explains that one of the purposes for which God has so widely poured out His salvation upon the Gentiles is to provoke ethnic Israel to jealousy so that they may repent and trust Christ and be saved, not to utterly destroy ethnic Israel in their entirety. Paul exhorts the Gentile believers in telling them that the salvation of Jews is something to be desired and hoped for because their salvation is actually much more beneficial for everyone than their falling from Christ.
So how is it that ethnic Jews are provoked to jealousy through the salvation of Gentiles? I’ve heard of many such testimonies. A Jew sees a Gentile truly worshiping the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and becomes jealous and repents and trusts in Christ. It’s wonderful, it’s awesome! Paul says it’s like life from the dead in verse 15!
So let's look at verse 16 now:
“16 For if the firstfruit is holy, the lump is also holy; and if the root is holy, so are the branches.”
In that verse I believe Paul is comparing the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to the first fruit of a holy, set-apart lump of dough, as well as to the root of an olive tree with many branches. Paul is pointing out that the patriarchs were set apart to be the progenitors of a holy nation unto God. But again, we must understand and keep in mind that there were two types of Israel in the OT; ethnic Israel and spiritual/remnant Israel. Here in verse 16 Paul seems to be referring to both. In other words, the first fruit of the dough are the patriarchs and the rest of the dough are the rest of national Israel; likewise the root are the patriarchs and the branches are the rest of national Israel.
Again, Paul here seems to be cautioning against haughtiness on the part of Gentile believers toward Jews. In essence Paul seems to be saying, “Look, don’t start thinking you Gentiles are a better “nation” or people group than the Jews, because if you are going to go down that route it can be argued that national Israel is a better nation or people group since they were set apart from among the nations to be holy unto the Lord as a nation, and no Gentile nation was ever set apart unto God like that.”
"And if some of the branches were broken off, and you, being a wild olive tree, were grafted in among them, and with them became a partaker of the root and fatness of the olive tree,”
So Paul compares the people of God to an olive tree with many branches; some branches being natural (ethnic Jews), and other branches being “wild” or “unnatural” (Gentiles). He basically points out that some from national Israel were broken off or cut off from the olive tree, from the people of God, and Gentiles were grafted in and made partakers of the olive tree (the people of God).
I want us to notice here that there is only one olive tree which is metaphorical for one people of God, not two. Why do I mention that? Because some would have us believe that there are two separate peoples of God, one being national, ethnic Israel and the other being the Church which is made up of both Jews and Gentiles. But again, when it comes to the true people of God (His chosen remnant), there has only ever been one people of God in both the Old and New Testaments; they make up one and the same olive tree.
"do not boast against the branches. But if you do boast, remember that you do not support the root, but the root supports you.”
Paul now strongly cautions Gentile believers against looking down on Jews with a sense of superiority over them. An important question to ask here is, who or what is the “root” being referred to? Again, I would argue that it’s referring to the patriarchs, but in particular here with reference to their faith in God in mind. In other words, Paul exhorts Gentile believers to remember that it’s their faith in Christ (which was handed down to them through the patriarchs) that supports them.
"You will say then, "Branches were broken off that I might be grafted in." 20 Well said. Because of unbelief they were broken off, and you stand by faith. Do not be haughty, but fear. 21 For if God did not spare the natural branches, He may not spare you either. 22 Therefore consider the goodness and severity of God: on those who fell, severity; but toward you, goodness, if you continue in His goodness. Otherwise you also will be cut off.
I think those verses are pretty clear.
"And they also, if they do not continue in unbelief, will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again. 24 For if you were cut out of the olive tree which is wild by nature, and were grafted contrary to nature into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these, who are natural branches, be grafted into their own olive tree?”
Paul is basically saying that God is certainly able and willing to save any and all Jews upon their repentance and faith in Christ. But based on those verses, does God's Word promise that the whole nation of Israel will be grafted back in at some point in the future? I don’t think that that can be reasonably argued from those verses.
"For I do not desire, brethren, that you should be ignorant of this mystery, lest you should be wise in your own opinion, that blindness in part has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in.”
Paul continues to point out that ethnic Israel's blindness and rejection of Christ are only partial and not complete, since the remnant of national Israel are being saved throughout this age by means of Gentile believers provoking them to jealousy. He refers to this partial blindness as a "mystery”. Someone may ask, what’s so mysterious about that? Well, certainly to the Jews it would have been considered a shocking mystery that the Gentiles would actually supersede them in terms of numbers in God’s economy, and that Gentiles would be included in the commonwealth of Israel without having to become proselytes to Old Testament Judaism.
Paul says that this partial blindness will continue all the way up until the fullness of the Gentiles comes in. In other words, this will continue all the way up until the Second Coming of Jesus Christ when the full number of saved Gentiles is completed.
“26 And so all Israel will be saved, as it is written: "The Deliverer will come out of Zion, And He will turn away ungodliness from Jacob; 27 For this is My covenant with them, When I take away their sins."
The word “so” in the Greek means “in this manner" or "thus”. It does not convey the idea of “after this or that time period”. Paul is basically saying, “in this manner all Israel will be saved.” In what manner? The manner he has labored to explain throughout chapters 9-11, namely through Gentiles being saved by the masses and in turn provoking some Jews to jealousy.
So who is Paul referring to by “all Israel” in that verse? I believe he is referring to the whole people of God (made up of both Jews and Gentiles), the spiritual Israel of God (see Gal. 6:16). Paul is basically summing things up by stating that in this manner (the manner he labored to explain from chapters 9 through 11) all of God's people will be saved. But some argue against that interpretation because in their minds, throughout Romans 11 Paul refers to Israel as ethnic Israel, not spiritual Israel. However, that’s clearly not the case because Paul clearly expounds on the spiritual remnant of Israel in verses 1-7. And in Rom. 9:6 Paul says, “For they are not all Israel who are of Israel.” And in 9:24 he says, “even us whom He called, not of the Jews only, but also of the Gentiles?”
In Rom. 11:26-27 Paul goes on to quote from Isaiah 59:20-21 which is a prophecy of Christ’s First Coming. The point in quoting that OT prophecy is that it is through Christ's finished work on the cross that all true Israel will be saved.
"Concerning the gospel they are enemies for your sake, but concerning the election they are beloved for the sake of the fathers. 29 For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.”
Again Paul reminds the Gentile Christians that through the general enmity of ethnic Israel towards the gospel, the gospel has come to them and multitudes of them have been saved. And he tells them that God still has a special affinity toward ethnic Israel on account of Him choosing the patriarchs and their descendants for His eternal purposes. Again, Paul has been laboring to explain that God has not failed in his promises to Abraham and his physical descendants in that He has kept a remnant and will do so all the way up until the fullness of the Gentiles has come.
"For as you were once disobedient to God, yet have now obtained mercy through their disobedience, 31 even so these also have now been disobedient, that through the mercy shown you they also may obtain mercy. 32 For God has committed them all to disobedience, that He might have mercy on all. 33 Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out! 34 "For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has become His counselor?" 35 "Or who has first given to Him And it shall be repaid to him?" 36 For of Him and through Him and to Him are all things, to whom be glory forever. Amen.”
Paul again touches on “the manner” in which God is redeeming His elect people (both Jews and Gentiles), and then ends this portion of Scripture with a doxology.