Updated: Dec 18, 2020
[Commentary on Romans 11:17-32] Apparently, the attitude of "I'm a Christian therefore I'm better than you" is a thing in our society. That's obviously not good, and it has to go. We did nothing to earn our salvation, so we should always only be humble and thankful.
Do not boast that you are better than those branches. Romans 11:18
Do You Have a Green Thumb?
I sure don't! But I love to look at pictures and walking tours of amazing gardens. Some of you keep beautiful flowers on your porches and in your windows, and they're great. They make your homes even nicer. Who gets the credit? The flower for being beautiful? You for giving it a pot and water? Or God for creating the flower and soil and water and sunshine?
Well, our passage this week goes even deeper into botany by introducing the concept of "plant grafting". This was almost a black hole of mind-blown-ness for someone like me who likes plants but doesn't really know anything about them. To make a long story short, you can bind two totally separate plants together, and their tissues will actually merge. Why would someone do this, you ask? Some people do it out of vanity (like those cacti that are grafted onto other cacti). But commonly, one plant will have a strong root system, but another plant will have desirable characteristics (fruit, flower, leaf, etc.). The gardener will take the top of the desirable plant (which will reproduce--called the scion) and graft it onto the bottom of the strong plant (which will support it--called the stock).
This has been practiced for thousands of years. I think that's amazing.
Anyway, Paul wants us to put ourselves in the place of these plants. How do you think the scion feels about itself after the graft? How does the stock feel about itself? That might seem silly, but when I let myself into that frame of mind, it became pretty interesting. The main thing I wonder, though, is how easy would it be to forget that there is a gardener?
Ever Been Left Out?
There's another exercise you can try to put yourself into a mindset that is ready for this passage. This will be a lot easier if you're a little older and/or have some perspective on your life. You remember the problem with "the it crowd" right? You're either in "the it crowd" or you aren't, and just about everyone at least secretly wishes they were in "the it crowd".
There are so many movies about this, and most of them include the character who gets into "the it crowd" only to forget about his old friends, and even becomes a jerk to them. With some perspective, we begin to see what a waste of time it was to care about crowds rather than friends, but in the moment, we see how easy it is to forget where you came from.
Getting Warmed Up
Here are two simple things you can do to get ready for this passage:
What is your attitude toward your accomplishments and peer group? Are you haughty or humble?
What is your attitude toward non-Christians? Are you condescending or compassionate?
Our Context in Romans
We have one more lesson in the "aside" of chapters 9-11. Last week, Paul explained very clearly that the gospel was for all people, no matter their heritage or culture. This week, he encourages us to keep perspective on what it means to be saved. Since we cannot take credit for it, we must remain humble and compassionate toward all people, especially those who are not Christian. This week's passage includes the famous line that God has not forgotten about His people Israel.
We tend to get sidetracked by what Paul means that "all Israel will be saved", but but let's not miss the main point he makes here: God never forsakes His people, and so we need to be diligent about reaching out with the gospel to everyone.
Be Humble - Romans 11:17-21
But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, being a wild olive, were grafted in among them and became partaker with them of the rich root of the olive tree, do not be arrogant toward the branches; but if you are arrogant, remember that it is not you who supports the root, but the root supports you. You will say then, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” Quite right, they were broken off for their unbelief, but you stand by your faith. Do not be conceited, but fear; for if God did not spare the natural branches, He will not spare you, either.
Back in Romans 3:27-30, Paul warned the Jewish Christians against spiritual pride. Now, he warns the Gentile Christians about the same thing. I'll be honest -- I don't understand how someone could become puffed up about being a Christian. We did nothing. God did everything. We can take absolutely no credit for anything. But apparently, the attitude of "I'm a Christian therefore I'm better than you" is a thing. That's obviously not good.
Paul includes a bit of history in here that you should more or less know. But to Roman Gentiles who had not read the Old Testament, this would be a very important lesson to learn. Yes, God chose the Jews to be His people. He gave them the law and the covenants; He let them build a house for Him on earth. But His plan for always for them to be a blessing to the whole earth by being a beacon to the world. They failed to do that in part because they became puffed up about their unique status as the people of God. And so, after Jesus spent His earthly ministry focusing on Jews, God founded the church at Pentecost with a message literally for all languages, and the Spirit guided the early missionaries to take this message to the rest of the world.
The Jews had a strong foundation, but they had stopped bearing fruit (remember the parable of the withered fig tree?). And so, being the Master Gardener, God pruned them back and grafted new vines onto their stock--the Gentiles. But His purpose in doing so was for them to be fruitful. If they failed to be so, God could just as easily prune them off and graft someone else on. Remember the parable of the unfruitful fig tree (Luke 13:6-9)? The owner gave the tree one more year to bear fruit or else he would replace it. That's not just a warning to the Jews.
The key to all of this is that the plants really can't take credit for anything. Just as in the parable, someone else cultivated the land and gave them every opportunity to flourish. That someone also grafted the new shoots onto the old stock.
What I find interesting is that Paul says the Jewish stock still supports the new branches. Lifeway takes this to mean that God supports the branches, and of course that's in the background, but I think this says more about the Jews. Christianity did not form in a vacuum. We came out of Judaism. The New Testament doesn't make as much sense without the Old Testament. Our own traditions are rooted in Jewish traditions. In other words, we do need to study the New Testament in light of the Old Testament. As Jesus said, the Old Testament is not abolished in Him but fulfilled in Him.
Another thing I find interesting is this reference to the Jews being broken off because of unbelief. This must have bewildered the Jewish Christian audience. Jews had belief! They believed very strongly in God! Here's the best way I can put this: If you do not believe in Jesus, you do not believe in God. If you think you believe in God but not in Jesus, what you believe in is a false god of your own creation.
The consequence, then, should be obvious. Any Christian who is haughty toward any non-Christian (particularly a Jew) just doesn't get it. The only reason we are saved is the grace of God.
Theological Question: Is Paul saying that we can lose our salvation? "If God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either." That sounds problematic, doesn't it? Well, no. Remember, Paul is talking about collectives. Obviously, not every Jew failed to believe. The whole background of this letter is the tension between the Jews who became Christians and the Gentiles who became Christians. Rather, the point Paul made is that God set aside "the Jewish people" as His chosen instrument for an new group of people. And if that group fails to do the job, God will bring in a new group. Does that make sense? This isn't about individual salvation; this is about group priority. "The Jews" (God's chosen people) failed as a group, and so God moved on to "The Gentiles". Some individual Jews moved into the new group because they were saved by grace through faith--nothing to do with their heritage.
Do you think a number of Jews were surprised to find out they were no longer God's chosen people? Sure (if they actually believe that). All it means is they weren't "saved" in the first place. If you want to push this imagery into the future, perhaps we might say that God moved on to the Roman Catholic Church, but then they got haughty and so God moved on to the Protestants. Certainly many Catholics are saved, but not by virtue of their heritage as a Catholic but by grace through faith. Maybe we can apply this to individual churches. We have all heard stories about a church that got "too big for its britches" and then had a collapse. Certainly, there would have been true Christians in that congregation, but the group would have been disciplined for its arrogance. I could be quite wrong about those applications, but that's how it makes sense to me.
Be Thankful - Romans 11:22-24
Behold then the kindness and severity of God; to those who fell, severity, but to you, God’s kindness, if you continue in His kindness; otherwise you also will be cut off. And they also, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again. For if you were cut off from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and were grafted contrary to nature into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these who are the natural branches be grafted into their own olive tree?
Everything I said above about losing your salvation applies here. Lifeway takes the approach that Paul is talking about discipline, not salvation (as in, if you get arrogant, God will discipline you). That absolutely could be all this means. But I can't help but think that Paul is talking bigger-picture. "Gentiles, if you get on your high horse, God will knock you off and go back to prioritizing the Jews." To me, I see this in the centuries to follow a Catholics giving way to Protestants, and Mainline Protestants giving way to Evangelicals and Charismatics, and who knows what the next movement will be. It's as simple as the churches that remain humbly focused on God's mission will receive God's blessing to do so. The churches who do not are in danger of being cast aside entirely. Sure they will continue to exist, just as the Jews have continued to exist, but they will be outside of God's blessing.
Look at this chart based on numbers from 2014. Muslims promote their growth as proof of God's blessing. Christians might do the same (and with that, Catholics and Protestants and Orthodox all have their own slant).
In truth, none of those labels matter at all! The only thing that matters is your personal relationship with God thought Jesus Christ. Anyone can call himself a Christian; that doesn't necessarily mean a thing.
What does it mean? Well, ask yourself this question: what benefit is there to being born into a Christian home or living in a Christian nation (so-called)?
There are all kinds of benefits! And I think that's part of Paul's point. I had nothing to do with where I was born. Or when I was born. Or who I met in college. And all of those things were (are) fundamental to my becoming a Christian. I could easily have been born somewhere where my access to the gospel was greatly hindered. It is purely by the grace of God that I am what I am. And so I should be thankful.
This is another great "Who's Your One" tie-in. Have you reached out to the person who shared Christ with you? A great way to stay humble is to think about those who came before us. And a great way to stay in touch with these verses is never to give up on your "one". Perhaps you are an instrument of God's kindness toward someone else. Note: we don't do it out of fear of losing our position with God! We do it out of our new nature. Paul's warnings in these verses are to people who were clearly already "on the fence" of forgetting what it meant to be saved.
Be Aware - Romans 11:25-32
For I do not want you, brethren, to be uninformed of this mystery—so that you will not be wise in your own estimation—that a partial hardening has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in; and so all Israel will be saved; just as it is written, “The Deliverer will come from Zion, He will remove ungodliness from Jacob.” “This is My covenant with them, When I take away their sins.” From the standpoint of the gospel they are enemies for your sake, but from the standpoint of God’s choice they are beloved for the sake of the fathers; for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. For just as you once were disobedient to God, but now have been shown mercy because of their disobedience, so these also now have been disobedient, that because of the mercy shown to you they also may now be shown mercy. For God has shut up all in disobedience so that He may show mercy to all.
And now we get to the verses that cause the most discussion. After saying so many harsh things about the Jewish people, Paul comes to their defense. This is all still a part of God's plan for His people the Jews. In some ways, they should have been expecting it, considering they had already been through exile/slavery in Egypt and exile in Babylon.
What exactly do these verses mean? It has become popular among evangelicals to conclude that there will be a worldwide revival among Jews as a sign of the apocalypse. It is also related to this that there has been such an emphasis among American Christians that America should have a big-brother-protector approach to Israel as a nation. While those might both be appropriate conclusions, let's see what the text itself means.
Let's start with "partial hardening". In context, we can see that Paul is simply clarifying that the Jewish rejection of Jesus was not outside of God's plan. Like Pharaoh, God hardened Jewish hearts so that Jesus would be put to death in fulfillment of His plan. Like Pharaoh, those Jews cooperated with that hardening--God did not harden their hearts against their will! But it was only partial; many Jews did come to faith in Jesus, and the existence of groups today like "Jews for Jesus" and "Messianic Jewish Alliance" are proof that God continues to save Jews just as He does from every other ethnic group.
How about "fulness of the Gentiles"? This does not mean "every single Gentile" but rather the complete number of those who will be saved. In other words, God's plan for Israel will not interfere with salvation for anyone else.
And then the big one: "all Israel will be saved". Some scholars have tried to say that Paul is referring to "spiritual Israel". The problem with that is Paul has just said this whole thing is a mystery. There's nothing mysterious about God saving elect Jews; that's basic Bible. Whatever this means, it must be a mystery (as in something people won't guess unless God reveals it to them). But just as "fulness" doesn't mean "every single individual", there is consensus that "all Israel" does not refer to every individual Israelite. Rather, it refers to the Jews as a people, perhaps as a nation. This is why some believe strongly that before Christ returns, the nation of Israel will experience extreme Christian revival. That's possible, and there's no way for us to know until it happens!
A big problem that scholars have with that proposal is how it reduced "all Israel" to "that single generation of Jews who happen to be living when Christ returns". That's not actually "all". I truly think that the only thing we can take away from this for certain is that God still has a place for the Jews in His plan for humanity. Though relations between Jews and Christians have been stretched beyond breaking, somehow He will still bring about salvation among the Jewish people. Anything beyond that is speculation. "Mystery" might also be from the perspective of that first-century audience; there was a strong belief that when Jews killed Jesus, God severed His relationship with them. It's possible that Paul is saying nothing more than that we should never give up on the Jews, even when their entire nation is destroyed. I have to think that anyone living between AD 70 and 1948 (the years that Israel did not exist as a place) would have found it an utter mystery to believe that Israel could exist as a nation, period.
What about the rest of it? I think it's just more detail as to why the circumstance is so mysterious. It's a mystery that God's own people would turn on Him and kill His Son. It's a mystery that God could bring worldwide salvation out of such a betrayal. It's a mystery how God's relationship with His people could work out to the benefit of those who were the enemies of God's people. And it will be a mystery how their disobedience can ultimately result in mercy.
God made a promise to Abraham that the whole world would be blessed by his descendants. Certainly, that was ultimately fulfilled in Jesus, but I think the mystery here is that there is still a role for ethnic Jews, the direct descendants of the Twelve Tribes. God will fulfill His promise to Abraham through Abraham's literal descendants. How is a mystery.
I think the outline of this lesson gives us the best application: Be Humble, Be Thankful, Be Aware.