Thankfully, as we are going to see, God’s rejection of Israel and Israel’s rejection of God is not final. Even the salvation of the Gentiles will be used to arouse Israel to jealousy. Under the figure of the olive tree, Paul asserted that the way was still open for Israel to return.
Again I ask: Did they stumble so as to fall beyond recovery? Not at all! Rather, because of their transgression, salvation has come to the Gentiles to make Israel envious. But if their transgression means riches for the world, and their loss means riches for the Gentiles, how much greater riches will their full inclusion bring!—11:11-12
Left with the verdict in verses 7-10, we might assume it is all over for Israel. Paul returns now to the imagery of running a race. Has Israel tripped, never to recover? No! Paul makes use of the motif of provocation, which he earlier used when he quoted from Deuteronomy in Romans 10:19. Paul understands Deuteronomy to foretell the situation he is experiencing: Israel is disobedient, and God is revealing himself to the Gentile nations instead. Paul knows that God would not give up entirely on Israel, so he realizes that God must be provoking Israel to jealousy. Their transgression and loss, which is an apparent stumble and defeat in the race, has opened the opportunity for the Gentiles to come in. And when Israel comes back, thus finishing the race, that will be truly glorious. Paul has explained God’s purposes here; next he explains how this provocation works out in history.
I am talking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch as I am the apostle to the Gentiles, I take pride in my ministry in the hope that I may somehow arouse my own people to envy and save some of them. For if their rejection brought reconciliation to the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead? If the part of the dough offered as firstfruits is holy, then the whole batch is holy; if the root is holy, so are the branches.—11:13-16
Having explained God’s plan of provoking Israel to envy, Paul explains how his ministry accomplishes this. No doubt Paul is interested in the Gentiles for their own sake, but he takes pride in his ministry because of the potential it has to arouse his own people to envy1, that is to make his fellow Jews want what the Christian Gentiles have. In Romans 11:15, Paul repeats the point made in verse 12. God putting Israel on hold has allowed the Gentiles to come in, and then when the Israelites themselves return to the Lord, that will be a great resurrection. In fact, Paul might be referring to resurrection in a literal sense, meaning that when Israel has returned, the general resurrection at the end will take place. The guarantee that Israel’s full number of elect will come in was seen in the conversion of some Jews in Paul’s own day. In addition to Jewish Christians named in the Gospels and Acts, Paul in Romans 16 names Andronicus, Junia, Herodion, Lucius, Jason and Sosipater as fellow Jews, along with Timothy, Priscilla and Aquila, who are also mentioned in Acts. These Jewish Christians are the first fruits who guarantee the entire batch.
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 consider yourself to be superior to those other 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 tremble. For if God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either.
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!—11:17-24
Paul is addressing Gentile Christians here and uses the olive tree image to illustrate the point he has been making. Some of the Jewish branches have been broken off, and Gentiles are the engrafted branches, so both Jew and Gentile feed off the root2. Paul applies this to the Gentiles, encouraging them not to be arrogant toward the cut off Jewish branches. Gentile Christians feed off the root, not the other way around. The root here is probably the patriarchs and the historic remnant of Israel. Gentiles have no right to boast over the branches broken off because if Jews were broken off3 or fell4, then certainly Gentiles can be cut off if they are unfaithful5. Conversely, Paul says that God is able to graft the broken branches of Israel back in again if they come to faith6; the salvation of Israel is not automatic but depends on belief. If wild branches can be grafted in, the natural branches can be grafted in again7. And this is what Paul proceeds to explain in the next section of Romans 11, which is where we will pick up tomorrow.
Tomorrow’s Bible Readings:
Isaiah 62:6-65:25, Philippians 2:19-3:3, Psalm 73:1-28 and Proverbs 24:13-14
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1 Romans 11:14
2 Romans 11:17
3 Romans 11:17, 19-20
4 Romans 11:22
5 Romans 11:21-22
6 Romans 11:23
7 Romans 11:24