Gentiles, Do Not Brag
Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
These verses continue Paul’s opposition to Gentile prejudice against Jews. Paul hoped Gentile Christians would desire the conversion of Jews. Neither group would lose by conversions in the other. Salvations in both would bring joy to all.
Paul stressed the unique position held by Jews. They should not be disliked. His argument will center in an illustration from horticulture. He will speak of grafting, which is inserting a branch from one plant into the stem of another plant.
This is a common, beneficial, practice. For example, at the end of the 1800s, a terrible disease, phylloxera, destroyed almost all the grapevine roots in France. The vineyards were ultimately saved because there was a strain of California vines whose roots were immune to phylloxera. The California roots were imported and the French vines were grafted into them. Hardly a grapevine in France is not “descended” from a California root (a fact painful to the French). Gardeners use grafting for good. God does, too, as we will see in these following verses.
Romans 11:16 (Holman) Now if the firstfruits offered up are holy, so is the
whole batch. And if the root is holy, so are the branches.
A principle permeated the offerings of Judaism: giving the first portion signified giving the whole. The example cited is taken from Numbers 15:20. To symbolize that all their bread products were from the Lord, Jews offered to Him the first cake made from a new grain crop. Giving the first portion consecrated all.
Paul applied this principle to Israel. The root, or “first portion,” of Israel was the patriarchs. “Branches” were the nation as a whole. God set apart the patriarchs as holy unto Himself to picture His desire for Israelites to be holy.
Israel was set apart by YHWH to live for Him. Most Israelites failed to fulfill their destiny, but this did not negate the fact God desired them to live for Him. God still wants them to serve Him. Thus, we must also desire their salvation.
Romans 11:17 Now if some of the branches were broken off, and you, though
a wild olive branch, were grafted in among them and have come to
share in the rich root of the cultivated olive tree,. . .
From the patriarchal “root,” God developed a cultivated olive tree. It was beautiful and beloved. Sadly, it became primarily unresponsive to the Gardener’s touch. This cultivated olive, which represents the nation of Israel, began to grow weak. Branches had to be lopped off.
These cut-off branches were those which refused to respond in faith to Jesus. Of course, those olive branches were still olive wood. Every Jew can honestly claim the privilege of physical descent from Abraham. However, Abraham had a spiritual life in addition to his physical one. The greatest benefits of God, including salvation, flow to those who share this inner spiritual life that Abraham enjoyed. A Jew who does not share the spiritual life of Abraham is a “branch removed.”
While the cultivated tree was being nurtured, wild olives grew out in the wilderness, among the thorns and briars of life. These wild olives, which picture the Gentiles, produced poor fruit and little oil. Essentially, they were useless.
However, God in grace allowed certain wild olive branches, Gentile believers, to be engrafted into the root of the cultivated olive tree. Saved Gentiles are grafted into the spiritual blessings promised to Abraham. Paul wanted prejudiced Gentile believers to know their spiritual family tree had Jewish roots.
An engrafted branch has no vitality of its own. Its vigor is derived from the root. Every saved Gentile draws support and nourishment from the root system of Israel’s national heritage.
The Jewish root is still with us. The New Testament is built on the Old. An old covenant undergirds the new. God could have cut down every branch of His cultivated olive tree. He could have uprooted it entirely, but chose not to do that.
Jewish believers are allowed to remain as branches, and the root still sends forth nourishment. God chose to retain the heritage transmitted from the likes of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Joshua, Samuel, David, Isaiah, and Elijah.
Romans 11:18 . . .do not brag that you are better than those branches. But if
you do brag—you do not sustain the root, but the root sustains you.
Paul dealt bluntly with the arrogance evidently manifesting itself among Gentile believers. He wanted them to acknowledge their spiritual roots. They were in debt to Jews. Jesus, Peter, and Paul were Jews. The Lord had said, “salvation is from the Jews” (JN 4:22). It is not any Gentile’s place to lord over Jews.
In fact, it is never anyone’s place to lord over anyone else. Salvation by grace excludes all boasting. Grace should humble us, not make us proud. In the eyes of God, no nationality or ethnic group has any advantage. All are equally sinners. Every group has mountains of dirt attached to its reputation.
Nevertheless, our prejudices refuse to die. In many cases, the church has become the very thing Paul deplored. We are often haughty toward those who are “different.” May God burn within us the meaning of Jesus’ words, “My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations” (MK 11:17).
Romans 11:19 (Holman) Then you will say, “Branches were broken off so that
I might be grafted in.”
Arrogant Gentiles might have been tempted to say God viewed them as being better than Jews. They might infer that God broke off the Jews because He liked Gentiles more. Paul had to respond to any such potential egotism.
Romans 11:20a True enough; they were broken off by unbelief,…The change in Jewish history was caused not by Gentile worthiness or goodness, but by Jewish sin. Jews were being rejected because they rejected Jesus.
Unbelief was often a major stumbling block for the Jews. On the verge of Canaan their faith failed. They measured giants and city walls accurately, but underestimated God; a generation of them had to wander and die in the wilderness.
During Samuel’s Judgeship, the people lost faith in God’s ability to reign. They demanded a king, and ended up suffering with Saul. In later times of trouble, they again doubted YHWH. They turned to idols, and ended in captivity. The Messiah came and walked among them, but again they were smitten with unbelief.
Romans 11:20b …but you stand by faith…
The Gentile “standing” is based on faith, not merit. Salvation is not a matter of superiority verses inferiority, but one of belief versus unbelief. With regard to one’s salvation, no person is better or worse than any other person. All who reject Jesus are equally condemned. All who receive Jesus are equally welcomed.
Romans 11:20c-21 Do not be arrogant, but be afraid. For if God did not
spare the natural branches, He will not spare you either.
Beware pride! It is a monster that drove angels out of Heaven, and Adam and Eve out of Paradise. Pride hanged Haman on his own gallows, and turned Nebuchadnezzar into an animal.
Our text does not refer to individuals. It is impossible for anyone to lose salvation. Paul is discussing groups, communities. It is possible for even the best churches, denominations, and nations to fall into ruin.
Groups can lose their blessing. God has no “favorites”. All are judged alike. The USA needs to remember the fate of Israel and Judah.
Every denomination needs to recall the wave of spiritual death that swept over Judaism. That wave later overtook the churches of Asia Minor, and then stifled the churches of Western Europe. Now it is drawing the veil over much of American Protestantism. Every local church needs to ponder what happened to the tabernacle at Shiloh and to the Temple at Jerusalem.
“Seest thou thy brother shipwrecked? Look well to thy tackling?” (Trapp). The anointing of God is not guaranteed for a long time. The blessing abides as long as there is faithfulness, but no longer.
Romans 11:22 Therefore, consider God’s kindness and severity: severity
toward those who have fallen but God’s kindness toward you—if you
remain in His kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off.
Goodness and severity – contradictory yet complementary. Goodness without severity would decline into mushy sentimentality. Severity without goodness would lack winsomeness.
Goodness refers to God’s kindness toward sinners. Severity refers to His rigorous judgments against sin. God is able to save; God is able to destroy. He welcomes faith, but won’t tolerate unfaithfulness.
The cross is the ultimate picture of God’s goodness and severity. There we see He acted against sin, but for sinners. God punishes sin, but also encourages people to repent and flee to Him for mercy.
Romans 11:23-24 And even they, if they do not remain in unbelief, will be
grafted in, because God has the power to graft them in again. For if you
were cut off from your native wild olive and against nature were grafted
into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these—the natural
branches—be grafted into their own olive tree?
The obstacle to Israel’s conversion is not in God, but in them. Salvation by grace through faith is available to them. God grafted wild branches into His cultivated tree. Thus we can safely assume He is able to graft back in those branches that originally belonged to the cultivated tree. Replacing native branches would be easier than inserting foreign ones.
It is possible for Jews to be saved. It is never right for us to say that salvation is impossible for any group. Once such a confession is made, there is no longer any effort made to win people within that group.