We are continuing our study of Paul’s answer to the question: How can we trust God’s promises to us, when Israel seems to be rejecting the gospel? Did God’s promise to them fail?
In Part 4, we saw that while Israel as a nation is set aside in God’s program, individual Jews still need the gospel (“there is no distinction between Jew and Greek [with respect to the gospel message] for the same Lord over all is rich to all who call upon Him“). Also, God has not cast away Israel completely, because even now there are believing Israelites, including Paul himself: a remnant chosen by God’s grace (not because of works). Let’s now look at Paul’s final reason why God’s promise has not failed.
Israel Is Not Permanently Rejected
11:11 I say then, have they stumbled that they should fall? Certainly not! But through their fall, to provoke them to jealousy, salvation has come to the Gentiles.
As chapter 9 details, they have indeed stumbled, but God has not caused them to stumble for the purpose of making them fall, as if that was His whole intent. God caused them to stumble for a purpose: to save Gentiles. God also purposed that this, in turn, would provoke Israel to jealousy. So their stumble and fall was not for their ultimate doom, but for God’s plan of mercy.
11:12 Now if their fall is riches for the world, and their failure riches for the Gentiles, how much more their fullness!
11:13 For I speak to you Gentiles; inasmuch as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I magnify my ministry,
11:14 if by any means I may provoke to jealousy those who are my flesh and save some of them.
11:15 For if their being cast away is the reconciling of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead?
In verses 12 through 15 Paul explains a part of his motivation in preaching to Gentiles. If the rejection of Israel as a nation means that blessing comes upon the rest of the world, surely their acceptance will mean even greater good for all the world. He says his calling is to preach to the Gentiles, and he fulfills that calling all the more because through it he can provoke his fellow Jews to jealousy and save some of them.
11:16 For if the firstfruit is holy, the lump is also holy; and if the root is holy, so are the branches.
This verse introduces the key metaphor for chapter 11. Paul explains a spiritual principle using two pictures, and placing them side by side, the first gives insight into the second. “If the firstfruit is holy, the lump is also holy.” Firstfruit is a general term meaning the first batch of a harvest, and it’s used as a picture in many places. Here it refers to a ceremony used to make a lump of dough holy. By taking a small piece from the lump of dough, and setting that piece apart as holy, the whole lump is made holy. See Numbers 15:17-21.1
Just as the setting apart (or calling out, or choosing) of the firstfruits of the dough to be holy makes the whole lump of dough holy, so the root being made holy causes the whole tree, branches and all, to be holy.
What does the root represent? This is the most important question to ask in interpreting chapter 11. By Paul’s parallel, the root is the same as the firstfruits. By context, and the following verses, the branches (the natural ones anyway) are Israel. Then the lump would be the same. So, what or who would be the firstfruits to Israel’s lump, and the root to her branches? The most plausible fit to the context, especially considering the start of the subject in chapter 9, is that the firstfruits and root of Israel are the patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This seems to be confirmed by the verse that wraps up this passage, verse 28, “Concerning the gospel [Israel are] enemies for your sake, but concerning the election they are beloved for the sake of the fathers.”2
11:17 And if some of the branches were broken off, and you, being a wild olive tree, were grafted in among them, and with them became a partaker of the root and fatness of the olive tree,
11:18 do not boast against the branches. But if you do boast, remember that you do not support the root, but the root supports you.
If the root is Abraham, and the branches, Israel, the olive tree is the promise made to the patriarchs. This is true for a number of reasons. For one, this promise is central to these chapters (see 9:5-8). Paul’s subject is Israel’s election and future, and this promise is the means by which they were elected in the first place. The promise is the source of Israel, as the tree is the source of its natural branches. Also, just as God designed the promise to benefit the Gentiles (“all the families of the earth”), God intended the olive tree to nourish the wild branches He has now grafted in.
Paul addresses the Gentiles in his audience directly and explains that they were grafted into the olive tree so that they might benefit from its nourishment, but it is “Israel’s own olive tree.” The Gentiles have unprecedented access to the promise, the blessing of which is the gospel, but Israel is the natural beneficiary of the promise. Recall Romans 1:16, “the gospel is… to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.” The Gentiles do not support the root and tree, but the root supports them – the calling out of Abraham by the promise made to him, is that which supports the blessing to the Gentiles. So, it would be entirely wrong-headed of Gentiles to boast in their current place of privilege at the expense of those who were removed from it.
“Boast not against the branches – Do not they do this who despise the Jews? or deny their future conversion?”3
11:19 You will say then, “Branches were broken off that I might be grafted in.”
11:20 Well said. Because of unbelief they were broken off, and you stand by faith. Do not be haughty, but fear.
11:21 For if God did not spare the natural branches, He may not spare you either.
11:22 Therefore consider the goodness and severity of God: on those who fell, severity; but toward you, goodness, if you continue in His goodness. Otherwise you also will be cut off.
11:23 And they also, if they do not continue in unbelief, will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again.
11:24 For if you were cut out of the olive tree which is wild by nature, and were grafted contrary to nature into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these, who are natural branches, be grafted into their own olive tree?
Because of unbelief they were broken off (see the end of chapter 9), and you Gentiles stand by faith. In other words, as long as they continue to respond in faith when the gospel is preached to them, they will maintain this national access to the promise. Gentiles have no reason at all to boast. As we saw in chapter 9, God gives mercy to whom He wills. He is obligated to no one. If even the Jews do not have anything to boast in before God, the Gentiles certainly do not.
Remember the “you” in “you also will be cut off,” is referring collectively to the Gentiles. It is impossible for an individual to come to genuine faith and be “cut off.” Chapter 8 makes that quite clear. The Gentiles as a people, however, if they do not continue to respond in faith will be set aside just as Israel has been. (The text implies that this will happen, not just that it could happen.) This is one reason not to succumb to nationalistic pride at the expense of the Jews.
11:25 For I do not desire, brethren, that you should be ignorant of this mystery, lest you should be wise in your own opinion, that blindness in part has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in.
11:26 And so all Israel will be saved, as it is written:
“The Deliverer will come out of Zion, And He will turn away ungodliness from Jacob;
11:27 For this is My covenant with them, When I take away their sins.”
The “until” of verse 25, shows clearly that the partial blindness is also a temporary blindness, to be lifted at the time when “the fullness of the Gentiles has come in.” Verse 26, then, is the payoff for verses 12, 15, 23, and 31. The force of all these verses is a change of state. Verse 12 says, “if their failure is riches for the Gentiles, how much more their fullness?” It’s an argument from lesser to greater, implying that if Israel’s rejection brings blessing to others, how much greater a blessing will their acceptance bring? The implication is that they will be restored. In the same way, verse 15 offers a possibility that is certain to be realized. It’s as if Paul has been hinting to his audience the possibility of Israel being restored in verses, 12, 15, and 23, when he finally comes right out and says it with verse 25: “I don’t want you to be ignorant, brethren!” He wants his (mostly Gentile) audience to know that the blindness of Israel is only there until the full number of Gentiles have come in! He wants them to know this so they won’t be prideful, or “wise in their own opinion.” Finally, Paul makes it plain. It isn’t some mere possibility he has alluded to, but a sovereign certainty!
So, not only is Israel’s rejection not total, but it is also not permanent. There will be a nation-wide acceptance of Christ by ethnic Israel. As a nation they will return to the object of the promise, their Messiah; and in this, God will restore Israel to its own olive tree. Paul once again turns to Isaiah to support his point. Notice how active the verb is (it’s actually more passive in Isaiah): The Deliverer will turn away ungodliness from Jacob. Not only has the word of God not failed because of the unbelief of the nation, but God Himself will one day restore them to fulfill that word.
“Hardness in part is happened to Israel, till – Israel therefore is neither totally nor finally rejected.”4
Check out the conclusion!
1Johnson, S. L. “A Future for Ethnic Israel IV.” SLJ Institute. Web. 1 Jan. 2016 BACK
3Wesley, John. Explanatory Notes on the Whole Bible. Notes on Romans 11:18. Bible Hub. web. 1 Jan. 2016. BACK
4Ibid. Notes on Romans 11:25. Bible Hub. web. 1 Jan. 2016. BACK
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