This lesson is a continuation from last week’s lesson which covered Romans 11:1-15. In that lesson we saw Paul answering the question, "Has God rejected his people?" Paul’s answer is that Israel has not been rejected by God. The problem is that Israel has been disobedient and contrary (10:21). Israel has rejected God. But God has used Israel’s rejection of Jesus as the means to bring the Gentiles into a covenant relationship with God. The Gentiles entering into right standing and receiving the promised blessings will be used by God to make the Jews jealous with the hope to save some of them (11:14). If the Jews’ rejection of Jesus brought reconciliation to the rest of the world (the Gentiles), then how great will the Jews’ acceptance of Jesus be because it will bring them to eternal life and cause them to no longer be separated from God! (11:15). Paul continues to explain that God has not rejected Israel and its fall is not permanent.
The Dough and the Root (11:16)
Paul uses two illustrations in verse 16 to show that holiness is available. The first illustration comes from the offering of the firstfruits. If the dough offered as firstfruits is holy, then the whole lump must be holy. The second illustration makes the same point. If the branches are holy, then the root of the tree must be holy. From this second illustration Paul is going to launch into a figure about where Jews and Gentiles stand in the tree. Before we look at that figure, we need to grasp what Paul is teaching about holiness. The traditional explanation that I have read in most of my commentaries is that the firstfruits of dough and the root of the tree are referring to the patriarchs of Israel, particularly Abraham. But I have a problem with this understanding. How can Paul say that if Abraham was holy, then the rest of the tree (or lump) is holy? This understanding sounds much more like what the Jews thought, which Paul is combatting in this letter. "We have Abraham as our father," was the Jewish motto. Paul has broken that thought throughout this letter. What makes far more sense to me is that the firstfruits is a reference to Christ (1 Corinthians 15:20,23) and that the root of the olive tree is Christ (Isaiah 53:2). Therefore, those that are connected to Christ, not to Abraham, are holy and are part of the tree.
What Paul is doing is similar to how Jesus spoken of himself. Throughout the Old Testament scriptures, the vine was a reference to Israel. But Jesus declares in John 15 that he is the true vine. To be the people of God, the true, spiritual Israel, one had to be connected as a branch to Christ (see Jesus’ teaching in John 15). Paul told us back in Romans 9:6 that not all who descended from Israel are Israel. The definition of Israel is now taking shape. The olive tree represents Israel and Christ is the root of the tree. Those who are branches in the tree are holy and part of the covenant membership in God’s family. We will see this illustration drawn out more fully in the following verses.
The Olive Tree (11:17-24)
Remember that Paul told us that he was now talking to the Gentiles (11:13). We must keep this in mind as we read these pronouns to know who the "you" and the "they" are. Paul points out that some of the branches were broken off. Notice that not all of the branches were broken off. Some of the Jews believed that Jesus is the Son of God and they remained on the olive tree as the remnant. But many did not believe in Jesus and they were broken off. "You" is a reference to the Gentiles. The Gentiles, although they are not natural branches but wild olive shoots, were grafted into the tree among the Jewish Christians. The Jewish Christians and the Gentiles Christians share in the nourishing root (not Abraham, but Christ) of the olive tree. This is a summary of what Paul has been teaching in his letter to the Romans. Jews and Gentiles alike are true Israel. They both are sharing equally in receiving right standing before God and receiving the blessings promised to Abraham as God’s covenant people. But the Gentiles must not be arrogant because they have been grafted on to the tree (11:18). The Gentiles were not chosen because of who they are either. Do not start acting like the Jews who thought they were something before God. The root (Christ) supports you. God was going to have a people and that is the only reason that God has extended mercy to all people.
In verse 19 Paul wants to make sure that he has firmly squashed any arrogance or pride that Gentile Christians might have. The branches (many of the Jews) were broken off so that Gentiles could be grafted in. But they were not broken off because of who they were. The Gentiles were grafted in by grace. The Jews were broken off because of unbelief. The Jews did not believe that Jesus is the Son of God. They rejected this message, giving the opportunity for Gentiles to come into Christ and his kingdom.
Do not think that you Gentile Christians cannot be cut off as well. Stand firm through faith and do not become proud. If God did not spare the natural branches (the Jews), then there is no doubt that God will not spare the grafted in wild olive shoots (the Gentiles).
Verse 22 brings us to a powerful, thunderous point. "Note the kindness and the severity of God." We cannot focus on one characteristic of God and ignore the other. We must acknowledge the kindness of God. I have loved spending time on the deep words of Paul who so beautifully explained to us God’s graciousness and kindness. But we cannot ignore the severity of God. God cut off the Jews because of their unbelief. When the Jews refused to believe in Jesus, the Jews lost all of the blessings that God had previously given to them. They were no longer in a covenant relationship with God, they were not part of God’s family, and they did not have right standing before God. The Jews were treated like the rest of the nations. Note the severity of God to those who have unbelief. Please notice the warning in verse 22: God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off. Paul’s point is clear: do not ever presume God’s mercy. We must continue in Christ, in full trust and belief in him, or we will no longer be part of the remnant, the true people of God.
Paul takes the picture one step further in verses 23-24. If the Jews do not continue in unbelief, they will be grafted back in. God has the power to place them back in a covenant relationship with him. We should see how this illustration of the olive tree has proven Paul’s answer to the question: Has God rejected Israel? No, Israel has fallen because of unbelief but they can be grafted into the tree if they do not continue in their unbelief. If God can take wild olive shoots (the Gentiles) and put them on the tree, then God can quite easily take the natural branches (the Jews) and put them back on the tree. Therefore, there is no room for arrogance or boasting for the Gentiles. Be grateful to be in Christ and have right standing before God. For Jews, you can also receive the blessings if they will no longer continue in unbelief.
All Israel Will Be Saved (11:25-27)
This brings us to the next three verses that are very controversial. Let’s take a look and see what Paul is doing. Verse 25 continues to admonish the Gentiles to not be arrogant or proud in their position. Paul explains that he wants his readers to understand this mystery. Before we read about this mystery, I want us to stop and look at what Paul was talking about in his other letters when he wrote about the mystery he was revealing. In Ephesians 3:1-5 Paul speaks about how the mystery was made known to him by revelation, about which he is writing to the Ephesians. This mystery was not made known in times past to previous generations. But now the mystery has been revealed to the holy apostles and prophets. Verse 6 tells us what the mystery revealed is.
This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel. (Ephesians 3:6; ESV)
The revealed mystery is that Gentiles are fellow heirs with the Jews. Fellow heirs means that they are going to enjoy the same inheritance of eternal life and right standing before God. Jews and Gentiles are members of the same body. There are not two groups of people. God has one people who are his, one true Israel, which both Jews and Gentiles belong as his remnant. Jews and Gentiles are partakers of the promise that was given to Abraham that is fulfilled in Christ to be in a relationship with God through the gospel. Both are covenant members in God’s family.
Now, return to Romans 11:25-27 and notice that this is the mystery Paul is revealing to the Romans as well. "A hardening has come upon part of Israel" (NRSV). Nothing new is stated here. Paul has repeatedly taught in Romans 9-11 that some of Israel is stubborn and hard in heart, unwilling to believe in Jesus as the Christ. This hardening has been the mechanism through which the Gentiles have come into Christ (into the olive tree).
Notice that Paul speaks of the "fullness of the Gentiles." We noted in the last lesson that what the fullness means in Romans 11:12 it must also mean here since it is the same word. But that is not how it is applied. Notice the ESV uses, "full inclusion" in Romans 11:12 but shifts back to "fullness" in Romans 11:25. Paul cannot be saying that all the Jews will come in back in verse 12 and all the Gentiles will come in here in verse 25. Last week we point out the BDAG lexicon defined "fullness" as "fulfilling the divine demands." The meaning is the same here in verse 25. The Jews are hardened until the Gentiles fulfill the divine demands of God. Let’s add verse 26. It is in this way that all Israel will be saved. Paul is showing that God has kept his promise that all Israel will be saved. But not all of physical Israel is true Israel, and it never has been (see Romans 9). Here is the way God would save all of Israel: the Jews received the offer of salvation through Jesus. Some accepted, but most were hardened and rejected the message. They are hardened until all the Gentiles who obey the divine demand come in. As the Gentiles enter, this is God’s plan that the Jews will be jealous and they will not continue in unbelief. All Israel is saved because the Gentiles who respond in faith and the Jews who respond in faith will be saved and have right standing before God. Paul does not say that the rest of Israel will be saved after the Gentiles enter. Rather, Paul is teaching how all Israel will be saved: by the inclusion of both Jews and Gentiles who respond in faith. This is the manner of Israel’s salvation.
The Gentiles have not ousted the Jews. Rather, "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved."
Why does Paul say that a hardening has come upon part of Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in? Remember in our last lesson what we learned about hardening. The hardening occurs as God continues to be merciful, allowing time for repentance. The more time and more opportunities pass, a person will become more hardened toward God. We used the example of Pharaoh in our last lesson to see this point illustrated. When did Pharaoh’s heart stop being hardened? The answer is not when God directly intervened and forced Pharaoh to let his people go. That is not how the Exodus account is recorded. Pharaoh’s heart stop being hardened when the last plague crushed and destroyed the nation and Pharaoh’s family: the death of the firstborn. God’s judgment is how a hardening ends.
Paul said that the Gentiles’ entrance into Christ would make the Jews jealous and save some. Save the Jews from what? God’s judgment is the answer. Go back to Romans 2:4-6, where Paul is addressing the Jews:
4 Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? 5 But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. 6 He will render to each one according to his works. (Romans 2:4–6; ESV)
God’s patience and kindness was to bring the Jews to repentance. Instead, it made them more hard hearted toward God. Therefore, they are storing up wrath for themselves on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. I think first movement of this truth was seen in 70 AD with the destruction of Jerusalem. God’s wrath was poured out against the nation of Israel. The nation was cast off because of their rebellion. What remains is waiting for individual judgment when each one will have rendered to him or her according his works. "Until" does not suggest the rest of the Jews will be saved, but the rest of the Jews will be judged once the Gentiles come to obedience.
Paul taught in Romans 2:29 that one must be a true Jew to receive favor from God. Now Paul, in a spectacular way, has come full circle and defined Israel as Jews and Gentiles who have faith in Jesus and do not continue in unbelief. They have put to death the old self by being united with Christ in baptism (Romans 6:4). They believe in their heart and confess with their mouths that Jesus is Lord (Romans 10:9-10). Jesus is the root and we are the branches who find life and joy in Jesus.