The Fullness of the Gentiles – Numeric or Relational – #1
A Response to “Israel Only”
An absolutely fundamental tenet of what is known as the IO (Israel Only) crowd (mob might be a better description) is that when Paul said that at the coming of the Lord “the fulness of the Gentiles would come in” he supposedly meant that this is (was) the end of salvation. The full number of the Gentiles – which in that paradigm is in reality only the totality of Israel – would be saved. There is no salvation for anyone today. God loves no one today. To say that this is an “ungodly” and horrible doctrine is a huge understatement. It is deplorable. Frankly, I am amazed that anyone could “fall” for that doctrine.
My purpose in this brief study is to focus on the word translated as “fullness” (pleroma, πλήρωμα, Strong’s #4138) in Romans 11:25, as well as the antonym, hettema. If it can be shown that these words do not inherently mean and demand a numeric fullness, then one of the key pillars of the IO paradigm is negated and falsified. In reality, that entire house of cards comes crashing down.
Let me begin by saying that pleroma and hettema are numeric “neutral” words. Both could be used to refer to number fullness or deficiency. However, neither word is used of numbers in the Bible! As we shall see, Paul never uses pleroma of numeric fullness.
Pleroma is used seventeen times in the NT, and to reiterate, Paul never uses the word, in his epistles to refer to numeric fullness even though he uses the word in discussions of the Gentiles.
Let’s take a look at those occurrences:
Matthew 9:16 – That which is put in a basket to fill it.
Mark 2:21 – A new piece of cloth as a patch “fills” up the hole.
Mark 8:20 – When Jesus fed the multitude, they took up twelve baskets “full” of the leftovers.
John 1:16 – Of his fullness we have received.
Romans 11:12 – “If their loss is riches for the world, what shall their fulness be…”
Romans 11:25 – “Until the fullness of the Gentiles comes in.”
Romans 13:10 – Love is the fulfilling of the Law.
Romans 15:29 – It was Paul’s prayer to go to Rome “in the fullness of the blessings of Christ.
1 Corinthians 10:26 – The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.
1 Corinthians 10:28 – Same citation.
Galatians 4:4 – When the fullness of time was come
Ephesians 1:10 – In the dispensation of the fullness of time
Ephesians 1:23 – The fullness of the one who fills all in all.
Ephesians 3:29 – That you might be filled with all the fullness of God.
Ephesians 4:13 – Until we all come to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.
Colossians 1:19 – It pleased the Father that in him should all the fullness dwell.
Colossians 2:9 – In him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily.
I believe that any objective reader can carefully examine each of these usages and agree that not one of them uses pleroma in a numeric focused sense. Now, does that alone demand that Paul could not have used it with a numeric connotation in Romans 11? No, that would be to be guilty of illegitimate totality transfer. But, the consistent use of the word is at least indicative of the fact that Paul consistently used pleroma in a non-numeric sense. That means that the clear burden of proof lies on those who insist that he is using it in a numeric sense in Romans 11. I am convinced that a close look at the actual context and the verbiage used demonstrates very clearly that he was not doing so. And we will get to that momentarily.
It should be noted that Paul uses pleroma and another word hettema, as antonyms, contrasting words. Hettema is the opposite of pleroma. If hettema is not numeric, then pleroma is not numeric and vice versa. How does Paul use hettema? Notice Romans 11:12:
“Now if their fall is riches for the world, and their failure (Greek, hettema, ἥττημα, Strong’s #2275) riches for the Gentiles, how much more their fullness!”
I believe that Paul uses a parallelism in the text. His use of “their fall” is parallel to “their failure.” If this is true, then what was “their fall”? It was their transgression, (Greek, paraptōma, παράπτωμα, Strong’s #3900); it was their sin. Their failure, their diminishing, was not a diminishment of their number, it was their sin, their failure to accept their own Messiah. That rebellion, led to their diminished / forfeited place in the Presence of God. There is not a hint of number in Paul’s discussion of “their failure.” At the very least, one is on absolutely safe ground to say that Israel’s sin led to their diminished state. Not their diminished number, but, the loss of their standing with God. They had been “cut off” as a result of that paraptōma, that transgression. The lexicons support this idea, revealing that diminished number is not the main idea – or in any way demanded – by hettema.
Now, one has a perfect right to ask why hettema is not translated as “diminished number” more often if it is a word that suggests or demands numeric diminishment.
Let’s look at the Lexicons on hettema:
Arndt and Ginghrich– p. 349– “defeat” – commenting on 1 Cor. 6:7– it is utter defeat for you.”
Thayers – “A diminution, decrease: i.e defeat…brought upon the Jewish people in that so few of them had turned to Christ.” Notice that he does not say that the “few” is the focus, but rather that hettema is was caused by the fact that so few of them were obedient.
Balz-Scheinder- Vol. II, p. 125- “the defeat of the Jews means a wealth for the Gentile peoples.”
Analytical Lexicon of the NT (Revised and Updated, 2012)- Robinson and House– p. 171– “A defeat, failure.”
Analytical Greek Lexicon, Revised, 1978, 189– Under hetton -“to be less, inferior to, to fare worse, to be in a less favorable condition”– Hettema– “an inferiority, to a particular stand and, default, failure, shortcoming, (Romans 11:12; 1 Cor. 6:7).”
Vines Theological Dictionary, (1966), p. 285, Under “Defect” – “Primarily a lessening, a decrease, diminution, denotes a loss. It is used of the loss sustained by the Jewish nation in that they had rejected God’s testimonies and His Son and the Gospel, Romans 11:12, the reference being not only to national diminution but to spiritual loss.”
Notice that not one– not ONE– of the lexicons define hettema as a numerical deficiency, or diminishing. What that suggests is that since pleroma is the antonym, the opposite, of hettema, that pleroma is likewise not a numeric fulness. It is, rather, as the use of all of the words in Romans 11 indicate, hettema is the cutting off, the failure, (failure being a majority rendering), the loss, fall, etc, and is used as an antonym to pleroma. This means that Paul was speaking of Israel’s failure and loss (her rejection) versus her blessing! It is her loss of status as opposed to her “restoration” to the Presence of God. It is clearly not their diminished number versus their full number.
In full support of the lexical evidence, notice the translational evidence. A quick look at all 59 translations on BibleGateway.com shows the following:
Nine translations (less than 10%), give “diminished number.” However, in the rest of the translations hettema is rendered as “failure,” “defeat,” “loss,” “stumbled,” and similar words. Thus, the idea of diminished number is far and away the least attested translation. Now, since the lexicons do not support the idea that hettema is referent to diminished number, one has a right to ponder why the translators in those nine versions choose to render it “diminished number.” That concept is not inherent, not inferred, not necessary in the word itself. It is very clear that the preponderant lexical and translational evidence does not support the idea that diminished number is on Paul’s mind.
In the translations, pleroma in v. 25 is translated as full number in 28 of the translations, half of them. The question of course is, since pleroma is the antonym of hettema, and since hettema absolutely does not indicate number in Romans 11, what is the justification for rendering pleroma as “full number”?
So, Paul did not mention, suggest or imply numeric fullness a single time leading up to verses 25f. Hettema is no such reference, as we have shown.
Let me now draw together the information on both hettema and pleroma to show that a numeric diminishing and a “full number” is not the focus of Paul’s discussion, but rather, a diminished standing or status, versus a “standing” or status. I will do this by examining the terms that Paul uses in Romans 11 to describe Israel and her standing, or lack thereof, in his day.
Romans 11:7 – “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.”
In verse 10, we find this: “Let their eyes be darkened, so that they do not see, And bow down their back always.” The focus in these verses is clearly not on a given number, but on the standing or status of “Israel” in Paul’s day. They were blind, they refused to see. That is not a focus on numbers but, on the condition of “Israel” when Paul wrote. Their blindness is directly related to their rejection, their being cast off, their loss, their death. Blindness is status, it is condition, it is NOT number.
Romans 11: 11-12 – “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 (hettema) riches for the Gentiles, how much more their fullness (pleroma)!
The contrast here could not be more clear. It is a state of stumbling or fall, of loss of standing and status. The contrast is that through their blindness, through Israel’s failure, (not her diminished number) salvation was offered to the Gentiles. A “diminished number” of Israelites had nothing to do with salvation being taken to the Gentiles.
Romans 11:15 – “For if their being cast away is the reconciling of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead?”
Now, if numbers are the issue in Romans 11 one has the right to think that Paul would have expressed that in this verse. But no, the only emphasis is on Israel’s being cast off, cast away but the anticipation of their “acceptance.” Now, casting away is not, needless to say, a numeric reference. It is a status reference, just as “acceptance” is not numeric, but has reference to a change in status, from being cast off (lost in sin, dead) to being accepted which is reconciliation. And for Paul, Israel’s reconciliation is Israel’s resurrection from the dead.
(Please carefully note that Paul does not say that Israel’s reconciliation would result in them eventually being raised. His words are clear, their acceptance (their reconciliation) would be their resurrection!)
Paul is focused on Israel’s sin, their transgression, and their consequent status. He is patently NOT focused on the number but on the covenantal standing of the rebellious. He uses stumbled (literally, transgressed) three times, refers to their “defeat” once, and then contrasts that with the anticipated “inclusion” being grafted back into the root. These are status, standing, relational words and ideas– NOT NUMERIC! It is eisegesis of the worst sort to turn these references to status into a reference to number.
Paul said it was his desire to provoke Israel – no numbers mentioned- in order to save some– no numbers mentioned – and the focus is their inclusion into Christ. This is the body of Israel versus “some” (number unknown and un-referenced).
Paul continues this theme of rejection / acceptance, with not one mention of numbers: (It should be noted that the Greek language has words for numbers, but, Paul never used any of them in his discussion of the fullness of the Gentiles. Not one).
Romans 11:17-21 – “But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, a wild olive shoot, were grafted in their place to share the rich root of the olive tree, do not boast over the branches. If you do boast, remember that it is not you that support the root, but the root that supports you. You will say, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand only through faith. So do not become proud, but stand in awe. For if God did not spare the natural branches, perhaps he will not spare you.”
Now, you can argue all day long that “some” means a number of folks, but, Paul is not focused on numbers, but on the relationship and status of that some, however many or few that might be. Look carefully at his focus on branches being “broken off” versus being grafted in, and his reference to “they were broken off that you might be grafted in.” Absolutely no reference or focus on numbers– to reiterate– it is about standing, about relationship, about status, of “them” and “you.”
Once again, Paul continues:
“And even those of Israel, if they do not persist in unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again. For if you have been cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these natural branches be grafted back into their own olive tree.” (V. 23-24).
Notice the generic “Israel” and “they” and “them.” Look at how he refers to the Gentiles simply as “you” and not to any concept of number. You must impose and interject the idea of numbers into the text to get them there, because numbers are not there.
And then, we come to the crucial text of verses 25-27:
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. And so all Israel will be saved
Now, since Paul has not mentioned, suggested or implied numeric fulness, or numeric diminishing, a single time leading up to these verses, one must have some powerful linguistic and contextual evidence to make it say “full number” or “diminished number.” Preconceived ideas are not sufficient.
What is the “fullness” that Paul has in mind? Contextually, it is their acceptance into the one root, along with Israel. And that “fullness” was not dependent on how many or how few had accepted the Gospel. It was their status within the Root that was at stake, a status that was being resisted by Israel, but, a status that some of them were boasting about, as if they had replaced Israel. They were claiming that they were now in the predominant position, but, Paul was denying that and affirming their equality of standing. (If the Gentiles were Israel, how could Israel – the Gentiles – say that they had replaced Israel? That would be a nonsensical argument).
In our next installment on the Fullness of the Gentiles, I will explore more from the Pauline epistles, as well as showing that the Jews, Jesus and the first century saints knew full well that the Gentiles were not Israel. Israel was not “the Gentiles.”