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Warning to the Gentiles
Romans chapter 11, verses 17-21
If some of the branches have been broken off, and you, though a wild olive shoot, have been grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing sap from the olive root, do not boast over those branches. If you do, consider this: You do not support the root, but the root supports you. You will say then, “Branches were broken off so that I could be grafted in.” Granted. But they were broken off because of unbelief, and you stand by faith. Do not be arrogant, but be afraid. For if God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either.
The overarching theme of chapters 9 to 11 has been Paul’s loving concern for his fellow Jews, who by and large have refused to accept Paul’s gospel. God had fulfilled his Old Testament covenant, but many Jews—in fact, the majority—were insisting on continuing under the Old Testament regulations. They remained preoccupied with keeping the Mosaic regulations as they still awaited the Messiah, who had already come. Disheartening and depressing as this was for Paul, he never lost sight of the fact that God’s grace was retaining a remnant for salvation. Furthermore, that remnant would increase in number when many Jews would join the Christian ranks out of envy over seeing Gentiles receiving God’s gospel blessings.
Before returning to that optimistic thought regarding Israel, however, Paul first delivers a stern warning to the Gentiles. He tells them not to become arrogant in the favorable circumstances in which they now find themselves, as though they were somehow superior to Israel. He keeps them in their place by expanding the previously introduced illustration of a tree’s roots and branches.
According to Paul’s figure of speech, God’s chosen people, Israel, could be compared to an olive tree in an orchard. The patriarchs are the roots, and their descendants, the rank-and-file Jewish nation, are the branches. Because of individual unbelief and unfaithfulness in the chosen people, many “branches” of the tree have been broken off by God.
But amazingly, God has taken Gentiles, branches from a wild olive tree not in the orchard, and has grafted them into the cultivated olive tree representing God’s people. Therefore, considering their lowly origin, Gentiles have no basis on which to boast about the remarkable upturn in their current fortunes. Hence Paul warns, “If some of the branches have been broken off, and you, though a wild olive shoot, have been grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing sap from the olive root, do not boast over those branches.”
If Gentiles are inclined to boast, they not only are forgetting their “wild” and lowly origin but are misreading their present status as well. They are failing to realize their continuing indebtedness and their dependence on blessings God has delivered through the Jewish nation. Christian gentile branches are still dependent on Jewish roots. Jesus, himself a Jew, said it very plainly when he told the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well, “Salvation is from the Jews” (John chapter 4, verse 22).
Hence in his warning against Gentile pride and arrogance, the apostle makes two points. He says first of all: You Gentiles are not contributors, but receivers. Branches don’t support the root. It is the other way around. You gentile branches are drawing strength and nourishment from what is essentially a Jewish blessing.
The second point is startling in its bluntness and directness. Paul alerts the Gentiles to the sobering fact that God can break them off as easily as he did the unfaithful members of the Jewish nation. Paul declares, “If God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either.”
The basis for that sobering observation lies in the nature of God’s plan of salvation. There the central feature is the individual’s acceptance or rejection of Christ. Unfaithful Israel refused to accept Christ and was broken off “because of unbelief,” whereas Gentiles now “stand by faith.” The presence or absence of faith in Christ makes all the difference before our Savior-God.
Paul now invites his readers to reflect on the twofold implication of what he has just said about God. For Gentiles, Paul’s description of God is to serve as the grounds for fear (verse 20)—or more appropriately, “reverent awe”—but for Israel it is also the basis of hope.
Romans chapter 11, verses 22-24
Consider therefore the kindness and sternness of God: sternness to those who fell, but kindness to you, provided that you continue in his kindness. Otherwise, you also will be cut off. And if they do not persist in unbelief, they will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again. After all, if you were cut out of an olive tree that is wild by nature, and contrary to nature were grafted into a cultivated olive tree, how much more readily will these, the natural branches, be grafted into their own olive tree!
In this paragraph Paul calls attention to two noticeably different attributes of God. He is a just and holy God who, to be true to himself, must necessarily punish all sin and wickedness. God is at the same time, however, also a loving and gracious God moved by his merciful heart to give every benefit and blessing to undeserving sinners.
In writing to his Roman readers, the apostle here uses shorthand terms to speak of these two qualities in God. He says, “Consider therefore the kindness and sternness of God.” Like every faithful spokesperson for this just yet merciful God, Paul needs to proclaim both qualities clearly. He needs to proclaim both law and gospel, as Christ did when he said, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned” (Mark chapter 16, verse 16).
Paul considers this either-or status before a just yet merciful God when he describes the contrasting states of unfaithful Jews and believing Gentiles. Referring to their quite different situations, he speaks of “sternness to those who fell [Jews], but kindness for you [Gentiles], provided that you continue in his kindness.”
The last clause is critical. God’s kindness, not Gentile merit, is the sole basis for the Gentiles’ blessedness. If they ever lose sight of that and begin to boast in themselves, then they too will be cut off. Such is the sternness of him who is currently showing them his unlimited kindness.
Conversely, the holy and righteous God who presently is showing his sternness toward Jewish stubbornness and unbelief is also the loving and gracious God who dearly wants them to be saved. He would like nothing better than to shower his kindness on them. Paul can continue, “And if they do not persist in unbelief, they will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again.”
The thing keeping Jews separate from God’s blessings is their own unbelief—not a lack of kindness on God’s part. If Jews will in faith accept the Messiah whom God has sent in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, he will “graft them in again.”
God is both willing and able to do that. In fact, he is not only able, but it would be easy for him to save Jews—easier, Paul hints, than it was to save Gentiles. Paul supports this rather bold way of speaking by noting what is standard practice in the horticultural world. “After all, if you [Gentiles] were cut out of an olive tree that is wild by nature, and contrary to nature were grafted into a cultivated olive tree, how much more readily will these [Jews], the natural branches, be grafted into their own olive tree!”
The standard practice is to take hardy, wild rootstock and graft good, domestic, fruit-bearing branches onto it. But God did it the other way. To bring Gentiles to salvation, he took these wild branches and grafted them into a cultivated olive tree. If God can go “contrary to nature” and accomplish the salvation of “wild” Gentiles by grafting them in, “how much more readily will these [Jews], the natural branches, be grafted into their own olive tree” and be brought back to salvation.
God’s mystery expounded
Romans chapter 11, verses 25-27
I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers, so that you may not be conceited: Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved, as it is written: “The deliverer will come from Zion; he will turn godlessness away from Jacob. And this is my covenant with them when I take away their sins.”
The Greek word mysterion, generally translated as “mystery,” is not an uncommon word in the New Testament. It occurs three times in the gospels, twice in Romans, about a dozen and a half times in the rest of Paul’s letters, and four times in Revelation. Its basic meaning in virtually all of these passages is not that it speaks of something “mysterious” in the sense of something that can’t be understood. Rather, it speaks of something human beings would never have figured out or understood by themselves if God had not revealed it to them. Once revealed, it can readily be apprehended by the human mind.
At its most basic level, this “mystery” is the plan of salvation itself, in which a loving heavenly Father sent his only Son to be the Savior of all the world. Sin-darkened humanity could never have devised such a plan or even thought it possible had God not revealed it. Representative of this meaning of mystery would be Paul’s use of the term as he describes his ministry in relationship to the people in Laodicea. He tells the Colossians, “My purpose is that they [the Laodiceans] may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (chapter 2, verses 2 and 3).
Another example of mystery understood as God’s originally hidden wisdom now revealed is located in Ephesians. There the mystery revealed is the inclusion of Gentiles in the New Testament Christian church. That mystery, revealed to Paul, is now being shared by him. He writes to the Ephesian congregation, “Surely you have heard about the administration of God’s grace that was given to me for you, that is, the mystery made known to me by revelation, as I have already written briefly. This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus” (chapter 3, verses 2, 3, and 6).
The meaning of mystery as the Jews and Gentiles joining together in the Christian church yields a very workable interpretation of the Romans passage currently under discussion, and we will be returning to it in our exposition. There is, however, another variation of mystery that needs to be kept in mind here. That possibility is that the mystery spoken here by Paul is the explanation of the “hardening” that has taken place in Paul’s Jewish compatriots. Specifically, Paul says, “Israel has experienced a hardening in part.” The latter concept needs explanation, and we will be returning to it also.
A proper understanding of Paul’s term mystery is critical for this section of Romans because of the conclusion Paul bases on it when he says, “And so [in this way] all Israel will be saved.” Basically, three interpretations have been advanced to explain what the term “all Israel” might mean:
a. “All Israel” refers to the nation descended from Abraham (hence all people of Jewish extraction will eventually be saved).
b. “All Israel” refers to the Christian church, the sum total of all God’s elect, both Jews and Gentiles.
c. “All Israel” refers to God’s elect from among the Jewish nation, with all of this Jewish remnant being saved.
The interpretation of “all Israel” being every Jewish person could seem at first sight to be the logical understanding of this passage. The context of Romans, however, does not allow for that meaning to stand. A number of Paul’s statements rule out this interpretation. Note, for example, that in chapter 9, verse 27 the apostle cites the verdict of Isaiah regarding unfaithful Israel. The prophet laments, “Though the number of the Israelites be like the sand by the sea, only the remnant will be saved.” The term remnant leaves no room for the idea of a mass conversion of all Jews. Or recall that in chapter 11, verse 13 and 14 Paul speaks of God’s gracious intent to make Israel envious of the blessings going to the Gentiles. He says, “Inasmuch as I am the apostle to the Gentiles, I make much of my ministry in the hope that I may somehow arouse my own people to envy and save some of them.” When he says “some,” there is no thought of winning them all.
The second interpretation—that “all Israel” refers to the sum total of all God’s elect, both Jews and Gentiles, united in the Christian church—is a defensible interpretation. It is a possible interpretation because it does not strain Paul’s language nor yield a sense that conflicts with the rest of Scripture.
Paul himself compels us to take a closer look at the term Israel if we are to understand chapter 9, verse 6. There he says that “not all who are descended from Israel are Israel.” Paul is not guilty of double-talk here. What he means is that not every person who is born of the nation of Israel is a true Israelite in the sense of being a believer who is truly a child of God. The next verse repeats that same idea, using slightly different terminology. He continues, “Nor because they are his descendants are they all Abraham’s children.” Hence Israel can have a wide or a narrow meaning.
Narrowing the terms Israel and Israelite to refer to believing Jews also seems to underlie the commendation Jesus gave Nathanael when he said of him, “Here is a true Israelite, in whom there is nothing false” (John chapter 1, verse 47).
In his letter to the Galatians, Paul lumps together believing Gentiles with believing Jews as the true Israel when he closes that letter with the summary statement, “Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is a new creation. Peace and mercy to all who follow this rule, even to the Israel of God” (chapter 6, verses 15 and 16).
Add to this the fact that in writing to the Ephesians, Paul calls attention to this same combination of Jews and Gentiles when he explains the term mystery to them. There he declares that the mystery he was sent to proclaim was that Gentiles and Jews stand at the same level in Christ’s New Testament church. Hence the understanding of “all Israel” being saved here in Romans could be referring to the sum total of all God’s elect, Jews and Gentiles, united in the Christian church.
The setting and context of our Romans passage under consideration, however, seem to slightly favor the third interpretation, namely, that “all Israel” refers to all elect Jews. Recall that since verse 17, Paul has been issuing strong warnings to the highly favored Gentiles not to gloat over the seemingly less fortunate Jews. In verse 18 he warned, “Do not boast.” In verse 20 he advised, “Do not be arrogant, but be afraid.” In verse 22 we heard him say, “Continue in his [God’s] kindness. Otherwise, you also will be cut off.”
Now Paul continues with a parallel warning against conceit. Note that he brings up the subject of the “mystery” to head off conceit on the part of his Gentile readers. He tells them, “I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers, so that you may not be conceited: Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in.”
In effect, Paul is saying, “Just a minute before you Gentiles jump to any wrong conclusions regarding the Jews! True, Israel has experienced a hardening, but it is only in part.” Taken out of context, the expression in part could allow for two possible interpretations. It could seemingly mean that all Israelites have become partially hardened. This would leave open the logical conclusion that when this partial hardening that afflicts all Jews is removed, then all Israel—that is, every Jew—is going to be saved. Some do indeed understand it that way. But we have already shown that by his reference to God restoring only a “remnant” and “saving some,” the apostle himself has ruled out a mass conversion of all Jews.
Rather, with the expression “Israel has experienced a hardening in part,” Paul is saying that not every member of the Jewish nation has been hardened, only some of them. To be sure, there are many who have adamantly set themselves against Christ and his gospel and will therefore not be saved, but the Gentiles are wrong if they think that’s the case with all Jews. No, there are those among the Jewish nation whom the gospel will yet win into the fold. These people may not be believers just yet. They may, in fact, currently be enemies of the gospel, but by God’s grace some of them will come into the fold of believers. God’s mill is turning. A process is going on. Individually, one by one, Jews will turn to Christ “until the full number of the Gentiles has come in.”
The coming in of Gentiles is surely a distinguishing feature of the New Testament Christian church. And that will continue until the end of time, when all elect Gentiles have been brought in. In fact, one of the signs of the end times is the gospel’s having been preached to the far corners of the earth inhabited by gentile nations. Jesus prophesied, “This gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (Matthew chapter 24, verse 14).
The mystery Paul is here sharing with his gentile Roman readers is that during the whole New Testament era, Jews are indeed going to be brought into the Christian church alongside Gentiles—despite all appearances to the contrary. Observing that ongoing process, Paul says, “And so all Israel will be saved.” Or, to paraphrase it, In this way the sum total of God’s elect among the Jewish nation will be brought into the Christian church, even though at present it might look as though God has cut them off.
To repeat what was said earlier, it would not be scripturally incorrect to understand “all Israel” as the sum total of all God’s elect, both Jews and Gentiles. Here, however, the focus of attention seems to be on the elect from among the Jews. That focus is retained and even strengthened by the passage from Isaiah that the apostle presents in support: “As it is written: ‘The deliverer will come from Zion; he will turn godlessness away from Jacob. And this is my covenant with them when I take away their sins.’”
Considering the setting in which Isaiah spoke, the “Jacob” from whom godlessness would be taken away seems best understood as referring to the believing remnant of Israel. That the prophet is not referring to every single member of the Jewish nation but rather to the elect becomes clear if we look at the whole line of Isaiah’s prophecy. The full statement in Isaiah chapter 59, verse 20 reads, “The Redeemer will come to Zion, to those in Jacob who repent of their sins.” Sadly, not everyone will repent, but the elect will.
That Paul’s focus is on the elect Jews and not primarily on the Gentiles is reinforced also by the way the apostle continues. Addressing the Gentiles, Paul speaks about elect Jews when he says the following:
Romans chapter 11, verses 28-32
As far as the gospel is concerned, they are enemies on your account; but as far as election is concerned, they are loved on account of the patriarchs, for God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable. Just as you who were at one time disobedient to God have now received mercy as a result of their disobedience, so they too have now become disobedient in order that they too may now receive mercy as a result of God’s mercy to you. For God has bound all men over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.”
These verses contain little that Paul hasn’t talked about previously. He is summarizing his argument as he brings this section to a close. Basically he is drawing together the main points of the mystery that has been the object of his attention and scrutiny in this section.
Paul reminds us that the vast majority of Jews have become “enemies” of the gospel. As a result, God has, generally speaking, taken his gospel from them and given it to the Gentiles. Hence Israel’s rejection of the gospel has been a tremendous blessing, a literal godsend, for the Gentiles who now find themselves enjoying the blessings of God’s New Testament Christian church. This turn of events, Paul tells his gentile Roman readers, was “on your account,” that is, for their benefit.
But Gentiles are not God’s only concern. God has not cast off his chosen people or gone back on the promises he made to them as early as his dealings with the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God has remained true to himself and his promises. Hence “as far as election is concerned, they [Jews] are loved on account of the patriarchs, for God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable.”
Like the man in the parable who prepared a great banquet and then time and again sent his servants out into the highways and byways to bring in guests (Matthew chapter 22, verses 1-14 and Luke chapter 14, verses 15-24), God is dedicated to receiving a response to his gracious invitation. God has a plan, and that plan includes Jews as well as Gentiles. The apostle makes that clear when he writes, “Just as you [Gentiles] who were at one time disobedient to God have now received mercy as a result of their disobedience, so they [Jews] too have now become disobedient in order that they too may now receive mercy as a result of God’s mercy to you.”
As a result of Jewish “disobedience,” the gospel came to Gentile listeners, who themselves “were at one time disobedient to God.” Disobedient Gentiles were not looking for God when, almost by default, the gospel came to them. The Gentiles brought nothing; they had no inherent worth or merit. There was no reason, other than God’s boundless mercy, why they should have received the gospel. But God sent his Holy Spirit into their lives to lead them to repent of their gross sins and turn in faith to the righteousness Christ had earned also for them. In this way they received the blessings of forgiveness of sins, peace with God, and the joy of rendering loving service to God and their neighbors.
Paul personalizes these great blessings to Gentiles by speaking to his Roman readers in the second person. All of these things have come, he says, “as a result of God’s mercy to you.” God’s mercy is the sole factor for their current good fortune. That mercy, however, has a twofold effect: precious blessings for the gentile Christians, but envy among Jews who see God’s mercy in Christ going to Gentiles. As a result, Jews are being led to reconsider their foolish disobedience that is causing them to lose God’s blessings. Such reconsideration leads to a willingness to look anew at God’s gracious gifts and to think in terms of accepting them as gifts of God’s mercy, not as rewards for personal status or worth.
Such an ongoing process in the heart and mind of the Jewish nation, Paul says, is exactly what God intended all along. All of this is happening by God’s design so that “they [Jews] too may now receive mercy as a result of God’s mercy to you.”
Mercy is the only avenue of hope for people who have no merit—and disobedient people obviously have no merit. By God’s holy law, Jews and Gentiles have both been convicted of disobedience. But a guilty verdict has been handed down for a most gracious purpose. Paul says, “God has bound all men over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.” Such inclusiveness does not mean that all people will actually accept Christ and his merit as their hope of salvation, even though God desires that outcome (1st Timothy chapter 2, verses 3 and 4). Paul is not preaching universalism, as though all people will eventually be saved whether they accept Christ or not. Paul is rather saying that God’s good and gracious intent, his mercy, extends to all in spite of their disobedience.
On the backdrop of that great truth, one could summarize Paul’s line of argument in chapters 9 to 11 as follows: Since everything comes by God’s mercy to those who accept Christ and his merit, believing Gentiles have no basis therefore on which to boast of their favorable circumstances, and believing Jews, on the other hand, have no need to despair, as bleak as their current situation may appear.
God’s mercy in Christ is in charge! The realization of that great truth can draw but one response: a doxology of praise.
Romans chapter 11, verse 33
Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!”
God’s plan is a mystery in the sense that we would never have been able to plan or devise anything like it. And even after God in his infinite wisdom devised it, we would never have been able to figure it out if he had not graciously revealed it to us. And even after he revealed it to us, we would never have been able to believe and accept it had he not sent his Holy Spirit into our hearts to work that faith. God’s ways far transcend our puny human capabilities.
Romans chapter 11, verses 34 and 35
“Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?” “Who has ever given to God, that God should repay him?”
Reflecting the thinking of Isaiah (chapter 40, verse 13) and Job (chapter 41, verse 11), Paul poses three rhetorical questions, each of which leads us to acknowledge that absolutely no one gave God any help with devising the marvelous plan of salvation where mercy predominates. Hence there is but one possible reaction, and that is to give all glory to the triune God.
Romans chapter 11, verse 36
For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen.