Few passages in Scripture have, in general, been more grievously misunderstood than this brief statement by the Apostle Paul of a truth, which had hitherto been kept secret, that he was then revealing in his Epistle to Romans. Though it has been discussed before, much unsound teaching has been associated with it, and I think that a final effort ought to be made to get our understanding of it on to a sound basis.
Three ways of spoiling this sacred secret (as some have rendered the Greek word mustErion) are commonly used: mistranslation, adding extraneous ideas to it, and failing to take into account the context. These we must deal with in turn.
For a start, we must consider what most of those who argue about this passage insist on describing as "Israel's blindness," following the ancient error in King James' Version. By so doing, they begin by blinding themselves for it is quite impossible to understand the Holy Spirit's words if we start by changing them to suit our prejudices. Here, two related words are involved: pOroO, the verb, and pOrOsis, the abstract noun that derives from it, the first occurring five times in the Greek Scriptures, the second three times. The meaning of the former is to make insensitive; of the latter, insensibility or insensitiveness. That the idea of blindness or insensitiveness to light only, is not admissible as a rendering is evident when we turn to John 12:40, where Isa. 6:9, 10 is referred to. Here the reference is more of a summary than a quotation, which for our present purpose is very convenient, for it furnishes us with an excellent opportunity to understand the precise idea behind the usage of pOroO in the Greek Scriptures.
Here John writes (rendered very literally): "He has blinded of them the eyes and he makes insensitive of them the heart, lest they may be perceiving with their eyes and lest they should be apprehending with the heart, and may be turned about, and I shall be healing them."
This writes off finally the word "blindness" for pOrOsis and "blind" for pOroO. Here, at any rate—and John 12:40 is linked inseparably with Romans 11, which can be regarded as an inspired commentary on it—the insensitiveness of Israel is of the heart, figuratively in Scriptures the core of motives, of understanding, of the centre of soulish life and being. To render the heart insensitive is, then, to numb the whole being and to make the person unable to appreciate the true inwardness of what is happening around him; and, here in particular, the real meaning of what the Lord Jesus was, and was doing.
Another, though slightly different, idea is presented in Matt. 13:15, where the word pachunO, make fat or stouten, is used. From the same Greek word comes our word pachyderm, used by zoologists and applied to animals with thick, leathery skins such as the hippopotamus, rhinocerus, elephant and the familiar swine. The idea conveyed here is not greatly different; but the use of the word serves to emphasize the unsuitability of blindness as a rendering of pOrOsis. It should be firmly discontinued, as it can only cause error.
We must now examine the other occurrences of pOroO and pOrOsis. The first is in the account of the healing of the man with the withered hand, where Mark 3:5 speaks of the insensitiveness of the people in the synagogue. Mter the miracle of the five loaves and two fishes and the description of the Lord Jesus walking on the sea, Mark writes: "And they were amazed to very excess among themselves and marvelled. For they do not understand as to the bread, but their heart was as having been made insensitive" (Mark 6:51, 52). Later on (Mark 8:17), the Lord Jesus asks His disciples: "Are you not yet apprehending, neither understanding? Still are you having your heart made insensitive? Having eyes, are you not observing? And, having ears, are you not hearing? And are you not remembering?" These very literal versions do not displace the ordinary ones, but are made simply to make fully clear the distinction we have already established.
Turning to 2. Cor. 3:12-16 we find something very different, but which nevertheless reinforces our findings. Of Moses and the sons of Israel it tells us that Moses "placed a veil over his face so that the sons of Israel were not to look intently into the consummation of that which is being nullified. But their apprehensions were made insensitive; for until this very day, the same covering on the reading of the old covenant is remaining, it not being discovered that, in Christ, it is being nullified. But till today, if ever Moses may get a reading, a veil is lying (right) over their heart. Yet whenever (the heart) may turn towards (the) Lord, the veil is lifting from about it." For this rendering I am indebted to an old letter from A.T. He pointed out that kalumma has the same root as apokalupsis, unveiling; which the CLNT rightly does not call the "uncovering" but the "unveiling"; and that a "veil" hides something, whereas "coverings" do not necessarily hide. The verb periaireitai is a Middle. A similar Middle, but past tense, occurs in Acts 27:20, where we may well take the sense as: "furthermore, all expectation of our being saved withdrew." Weymouth at 2. Cor. 3:16 renders as, "the veil will be withdrawn." A.T. used to stress the importance of comparing a number of versions, and his practise is very helpful.
What is this all about? The plain answer is "The old covenant." It is in regard to this, the old covenant, that the apprehensians of the sons of Israel were made insensitive. Our misfortune is that others in our day have shared their insensitiveness. One writer, who ought to have known better, insisted that it is about "the transient, fading character of the Law" and went on to contrast the characters of the Law and grace, oblivious of the fact that the Apostle Paul does not mention "grace" in this context or "law" at all in the whole epistle. There is not even a hint here of the sons of Israel being insensitive to either. No wonder we all tend to become befogged and confused! The insensitiveness is a matter of apprehension and has to do with Old Covenant.
When the time comes for God to give repentance to Israel (Acts 5:31) and to bring them back to their own land and make them Covenant People once again, then that veil will be removed. The insensitiveness will have passed off; for, as Commander Steedman pointed out, Israel will once again come into covenant with God.
We may now move back to Romans, confident that this preliminary investigation has put into our hands the key we have so long been needing. Twice in this epistle do we find the idea of insensitiveness, the first being in Rom. 11:7, where Paul is answering the question: "Does not God thrust from Him His People?" The answer immediately is that He does not (v. 2), and so Paul explains: "Thus, then, in the current era also there has come to be a remnant according to choice of grace." So he asks further: "What then?" and answers: "What Israel is seeking for, this it has not encountered. Yet the chosen encountered it. Now the rest were made insensitive, even according as it has been written, 'God gives to them a spirit of stupor, eyes not to be observing and ears not to be hearing, till this very day.'" (Rom. 11:8 containing a quotation from Deut. 29:4).
Israel's failure was not universal. A remnant encountered what Israel was seeking for. As for what happened to the rest, we soon get the answer (11:25, 26), very literally: "Insensitiveness, from part, to Israel has come about, until which time the complement of the Gentiles may be entering. And thus all Israel will be saved, according as it is written. ." Paul here is very careful to avoid saying that all Israel has suffered this insensitiveness; for, taking the two passages together, it is very plain that this does not apply to the remnant. The insensitiveness affects a part only.
That this secret does not stand alone is now obvious from its connection with Rom. 11:8. In between the two references to Israel's insensitiveness comes the allegory of the Olive Tree. These three items are part of one whole, one complete revelation of the connection between Israel's history and ours. The offence of the rest of Israel is salvation to the Gentiles, that is, Israel apart from the remnant according to choice of grace. This remnant remains, symbolised by branches of the figurative olive tree. Only the part of Israel that has become insensitive is broken off from the olive tree; and that part, ultimately, will be grafted in again (Rom. 11:23, 24).
Kept within its natural context, the secret here becomes luminously clear. It describes in v. 25 the present condition, and, like all the secrets, it is simple enough to those who are willing to believe it as it stands and not confuse it with other ideas and, particularly, not with its sequel. The fact that Israel, apart from the remnant, has come to be in a state of insensitiveness, is an essential part of God's plans; for it is the only way that the necessary favour to the Gentiles for the time being could come about; but Paul most particularly and carefully warns us that both are only temporary. This secret was designed to be revealed to us, not primarily to Israel at all. They are at present too insensitive to be able to grasp it.
Anyone approaching this matter with an open mind would find it all plain enough, given some understanding of the background against which Paul was writing; but human perversity has managed to introduce great confusion. Instead of reading this secret straightforwardly, that Israel's out of part insensitiveness will cease when the complement of the Gentiles enters, some have mistranslated it by substituting "blindness" for "insensitiveness," and then turned it round by trying to make it mean that when Israel's "blindness" ceases, then the complement of the Gentiles will have entered. This clears the way for them to affirm that what, they call "Israel's greatest blindness" (a phrase absent from Scripture) will occur with the Apostasy and the rule of the man of lawlessness. The turning-round process does not itself create the untruth; but it opens the way to their insertion of the false term "Israel's greatest blindness" and the unsound ideas that it inevitably brings with it.
The arch offender in this, so far as I can discover, appears to have been S. P. Tregelles, whose pronouncement I quoted in Vol. 16, p. 151 (August, 1954). He was an illustrious textual critic; but that did not necessarily give him the ability to take a sound comprehensive view of Scripture as a whole. This pronouncement was his answer to the question when the (supposed) blindness of Israel was to be taken away. It is repeated below:—
"When the fulness of the Gentiles is gathered. How
could the Scripture speak of a 'blindness in part until'
that time, if Israel's greatest blindness, in the depth of
anti-Christian evil, is not till after the removal of the
Church? But the order of these events has been revealed
for our instruction. It is when He cometh with clouds,
when every eye shall see Him, that Israel shall look on
Him whom they pierced—when the spirit of grace and of
supplication shall be poured upon them. Until that day the
fulness of the Gentiles will not have come in. The
resurrection of the Church and the removal of the blind-
ness are at the same time."
The italics are my own, and they represent that part of the quotation which is in harmony with Rom. 11:25 as Paul left it. For Tregelles adds no word to justify bringing in all this matter from other contexts.
But why repeat all this? Because it specifies briefly and clearly the way Rom. 11:25 has been spoilt by distorting it with matter brought in from other contexts. If a previous statement of this error by someone else had been available it would have been used here; but one has to use material at hand. To put anyone in the pillory, so to speak, is extremely distasteful, but sometimes unavoidable; for we ought, all of us, to appreciate that none of us has any right to blame others for being duped as Tregelles was, since at some time or other in our experience all of us have suffered similarly. So I do not blame Tregelles and those who have followed him into this unhappy error. The only thing that matters now is to correct such mistakes, for our own sakes and for the sake of those who shall follow us. If we must blame anyone, it should be applied to those who, centuries ago, started using Scripture as a sort of rag-bag of "proof texts" and those who, later, failed to discourage this evil practise.
The patient plodding and prodigious memory which are so essential for a first-rate textual critic are very different from the spiritual insight and vision that are needed for effective research into the Scriptures themselves. The very fact that it never seems to have occurred to Tregelles to check the correctness or otherwise of the word "blindness" in Rom. 11:25 shows this. The result of such an investigation might have shaken him out of his too evident complacency; for in the whole of the Greek Scriptures there is no word corresponding to "blindness"! Also the verb to blind, tuphloO, occues only three times, one of which, John 12:40, we have already noted; the othersl being 2. Cor. 4:4, 1. John 2:11. Even the noun blind, tuphlos, occurs only four times outside the Gospels, in Acts 13:11; Rom. 2:19; 2. Peter 1:9; Rev. 3:17. A concordant examination of all these will be found very illuminating, but "Israel's greatest blindness" will not be discovered among them. To have to drive home these blunt truths is distressing; but it ought not to be necessary were those who attempt to teach others about Scriptural subjects willing to be persuaded to be wholly accurate.
As was pointed out at the very start of this paper, John 12:40 makes a plain distinction between perceiving with the eyes and apprehending with the heart. Nowhere does Scripture regard total inability to see or to hear the truth as the same thing as inability to feel and to take account of what one has seen and heard. It is this last which is the subject of Paul's scathing indictment of the Jew, not the unfortunate blind who are not receiving the guidance from him which they have a right to expect. Even so, there is something to be said on behalf of the Jew; for, in fact, the quotation in John 12:40 makes a further matter very clear indeed: it is the Lord Who has blinded their eyes and made their heart insensitive. This is all part of God's own activity, to ensure that all His purposes will be fully carried out. This truth is echoed in Rom. 11:7-10, and the reason is given in v. 11. The salvation to the Gentiles is intended to provoke Israel to jealousy. Lest there should be any misunderstanding of this, Paul enlarges on his subject in vv. 13-15: ". . . .if somehow I should be provoking some of my flesh to jealousy and should be saving some of them." So he adds: "For if their casting-away involves downright world-change, what will their taking back be if not life out of dead ones?" (Rom. 11:15, see Vol. 31, p. 181).
From this arises the further conclusion making Israel insensitive out of part now has nothing directly and immediately to do with the Apostasy which is eventually to occur. In Romans 11:25-36 it is Israel's salvation which is in the forefront of Paul's thoughts, not the solemn and terrible events of their deep apostasy as detailed in Daniel 9, 2. Thess. 2:1-12 and the Revelation. In Romans 11:26 Paul quotes from Isa. 59:20, 21 just enough to make his point, "And thus all Israel shall be saved"; yet when we refer back to the original prophecy we find in v. 19 something quite different to apostasy! The R.S.V. reads here:
"So they shall fear the name of the Lord from the west,
and His glory from the rising of the sun;
for He will come as a rushing stream,
which the wind of the Lord drives."
This is, at the very least, in harmony with the facts of history during the past nineteen centuries; the first half of the Verse indicating God's activity among the Gentiles, the second the crisis which certainly. seems to be pending in our day and which, as far as we can see in the light of Commander Steedman's findings, will involve the destruction of the present state of Israel after we have been snatched away, the giving of repentance by God to all Jews throughout the world and re-establishment of them in their own land. If this reading of the matter is correct, the prophecy as a whole falls into four consecutive sections:—
Israel out of part become insensitive.
The entering (into the figurative olive) of the complement of the Gentiles.
The saving of all Israel.
The elimination of their sins and God's covenant with them.
When this was under discussion sixteen years ago there was some discussion as to whether there were any time gaps between the four; but now it is quite clear that such a consideration was unimportant as regards this particular prophecy, What does matter is the succession itself. The passage does not state that all Israel shall be saved when the complement of the Gentiles has entered; but simply that the insensitiveness "out of part" is until that time. Then, and only then "it goes on to say that thus, or in this manner, all Israel shall be saved. The distinction might seem at first sight rather trivial, but in practise that is far from being the case. The matter is one of emphasis; and once we get the emphasis wrong the way is wide open for error.
To avoid such error, we have to pay attention to what Paul actually says: that the insensitiveness is until what (time) the complement of the Gentiles may be entering. For, in spite of this plain assertion, some appear to contend that it is untrue that Paul here states positively that Israel's insensitiveness does end. It is even contended that "this is settled by the next verse, which tells us how and when God's salvation shall return to Israel." Precisely so! This next verse is about Israel's salvation, not Israel's insensitiveness; and it is altogether unwarrantable to force one into the other. Yet there is no room or excuse for doubt. The Greek achris hou means until what (time). If Israel's insensitiveness is to exist "until what (time) the complement, of the Gentiles may be entering," then, by the laws of language themselves, it must cease when they, do enter. Anyhow, the two verses are about different matters, the former about Israel's, present insensitiveness, the latter about how, all Israel shall be saved.
Presently we meet with the astounding remark: "True, Israelites will already have heralded the Gospel throughout the world." But how, if the complement of the Gentiles has not yet entered and Israel's insensitiveness remains? No answer is given and it is impossible even to guess what answer there could be. Israel's insensitiveness out of part is to last until . . ., and there is no reason whatever why there should be a temporary removal of it, meanwhile.
Here I must confess to a mistake I made on p. 106 of our Vol. 16 (1954), when I lacked the advantage of the discoveries made by the late Commander Steedman. It is in lines 7—11. The "ingathering" of Israel which has, already, taken place is NOT the great ingathering which will occur when God gives repentance to Israel and the stage is ready to be set for the fulfilment of the Prophecy of the Seventy Sevens. So this paragraph must be read in the light of our present more accurate knowledge. Even so, the seven-line paragraph in the middle of p. 107 indicates that sounder ideas were dawning in my mind.
Realization of the meaning and importance of Acts 5:31 has greatly simplified this matter, too. If God's giving of repentance to Israel to to be a reality, their present insensitiveness must have been removed. This prophecy is, by its very nature a Hebrew prophecy, and therefore cannot be conditioned by a prophecy concerning Gentiles. Why did we not perceive this before? We have been so bemused by confusions such as were produced by Tregelles that we have failed to notice such obvious truths. I do not blame Tregelles; for plainly he was himself confused by the errors of his predecessors. What matters is that we should turn our backs on these mistakes and go forward in the fresh light now given to us.
Returning to the reference to the Apostasy, we should ever bear in mind that no one can ever apostatise from a faith he has never had. True, Israel are now apostates from the Law and the covenants which God gave them through Moses, but The Apostasy of 2. Thess. 2:3 is by its very description something far beyond any past apostasies and therefore, something which, in their present insensitive state, is far beyond their capacity to achieve. Insensitive people are, by that fact, incapable of encompassing either the greatest good or the greatest ill; and while Israel have been insensitive they certainly have done neither of these things. Perhaps that is what has enabled them to endure centuries of persecution.
However, this is all outside the direct context of this secret; and would never have been dragged in but for the errors of, such men as Tregelles. These are a misfortune but not an unmitigated one; for they have forced us to seek the truth of this matter in the right way.
R.B.W. Last updated 1.10.2005