In July of 1696, the New England Puritan Cotton Mather wrote in his diary: “This day, from the dust, where I lay prostrate, before the Lord, I lifted up my cries […] For the conversion of the Jewish Nation, and for my own having the happiness, at some time or other, to baptize a Jew, that should by my ministry, be brought home to the Lord.” This prayer for the conversion of Jews was built on a theology of hope and expectation.
Within the Reformed and especially the English Puritan tradition there was a confidence that the gospel would, in time, bear fruit among those who had rejected the Messiah. Far from being a theology that was anti-semitic, this tradition was – if we can make use of the term – philo-semitic. Building on the teaching of men like Peter Martyr Vermigli, Thomas Brightman, and Joseph Meade the restoration of the Jews became a prominent theme in teaching on the end times. For instance, the Dutch theologian Herman Witsius wrote: “We may reckon among the benefits of the New Testament the restoration of the Israelites, who were formerly rejected, and the bringing them back to the communion of God in Christ.” Additionally, William Perkins said: “In that the Lord says 'All nations shall be blessed in Abraham,' hence I gather that the nation of the Jews shall be called and converted to the participation of this blessing.” So commonplace was this subject that the Westminster Larger Catechism teaches that the petition "Thy kingdom come" includes praying that the gospel would be propogated, the Jews called, and the fullness of the Gentiles brought in (WLC Q. 191).
The expectation that a time would come for the restoration of the Jews was gleaned from the Bible. The Apostle Paul wrote in Romans 11:25-27: “Lest you be wise in your own sight, I do not want you to be unaware of this mystery, brothers: a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. And in this way all Israel will be saved, as it is written, 'The Deliverer will come from Zion, he will banish ungodliness from Jacob'; and this will be my covenant with them when I take away their sins.”
It's interesting that Paul wants the Gentiles in Rome (and us) not to be ignorant of what he calls “this mystery” – the restoration of Israel. This is for the church. This is for the pew. This is so that you and I might exclaim with Paul: “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” With that in mind let me offer a few thoughts on Paul's teaching concerning the calling of the Jews.
First, God hasn't rejected Israel. Paul writes: “I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means!” (v 1). It's unthinkable in Paul's mind that God had because Paul himself was an Israelite saved by the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. He's a living example that God hadn't rejected Israel. Further, he supports his answer by the foreknowledge of God (v 2) and that there's still a remnant “chosen by grace” (v 5).
Secondly, among the Israelites there is a widespread apostasy: “What then? Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking. The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened” (v 7). This apostasy is so great that it has the appearance that God has rejected all of Israel. While there was a remnant of a few the many have rejected the righteousness that comes in the gospel and the glad tidings of Jesus Christ. Thus, the judgment of God has fallen upon unbelieving Israel (vv 8-9).
Thirdly, this widespread apostasy and rejection of all but the remnant is for the purpose that the gospel might be preached to the Gentiles: “Rather through their trespass salvation has come to the Gentiles, so as to make Israel jealous” (v 11) and “[...] their rejection means the reconciliation of the world” (v 15).
Fourthly, the blessing of the gospel to the Gentiles shouldn't make them proud and arrogant toward the Jews: “Do not be arrogant toward the branches” (v 18) and “They were broken off because of unbelief, but you stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but fear” (v 20). Israel's apostasy and God's hardening judgment upon them are to keep before the minds of the Gentiles the serious danger and consequences of unbelief.
Fifthly, as the apostasy of Israel isn't full – there is a remnant by grace – neither is it final. Paul writes: “Now if their trespass means riches for the world, and if their failure means riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their full inclusion mean!” (v 12) and “A partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. And in this way all Israel will be saved” (vv 25-26). As their apostasy was so widespread so as to leave the appearance of total rejection, so their restoration will be so widespread that the greater part of Israel will be saved only through faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ. In a paradoxical way their rejection is working for their restoration.
Sixthly, the result of Israel's restoration will bring profound blessing and unknown riches upon the Gentiles (v 12). As John Murray wrote: “Thus there awaits the Gentiles, in their distinctive identity as such, gospel blessings far surpassing anything experienced during the period of Israel's apostasy, and this unprecedented enrichment will be occasioned by the conversion of Israel.”
Seventhly, all of this will be to the great end of magnifying the free and sovereign grace of God in Jesus Christ: "For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all" (v 32). So incredible was this thought that it led the Apostle Paul into the praise of God culminating in the words: "For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen" (v 36).
It's no wonder Paul doesn't want us to be ignorant of this teaching – of this promise! This promise should inform our expectations, fuel our joy, motivate our missions, and fill our prayers. The ancient church of Israel used to sing of that day when the gospel's glad tidings would reach the Gentiles: "May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face to shine upon us, that your way may be known on earth, your saving power among all nations." Let us who are Gentiles now join that chorus and sing of the day when the riches of the gospel will go forth in saving power to the Israelites: "Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you!" (Psalm 67:1-3).