If the Root Is Holy, the Branches Are Holy
Now I am speaking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch then as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I magnify my ministry 14 in order somehow to make my fellow Jews jealous, and thus save some of them. 15 For if their rejection means the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance mean but life from the dead? 16 If the dough offered as firstfruits is holy, so is the whole lump, and if the root is holy, so are the branches. 17 But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, although a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing root of the olive tree, 18 do not be arrogant toward the branches. If you are, remember it is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you. 19 Then you will say, "Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in." 20 That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but stand in awe. 21 For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you. 22 Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God's kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off. 23 And even they, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again. 24 For if you were cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these, the natural branches, be grafted back into their own olive tree.
Felt Needs vs. Real Needs
One of the greatest follies of trying to turn the gospel mainly into a means of meeting felt needs in twenty-first century America is that the three main needs that the gospel meets are felt by almost nobody in America. The explosively happy word of the gospel is "saved." We meet it right here in the beginning of our text. Verses 13-14: "Now I am speaking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch then as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I magnify my ministry 14 in order somehow to make my fellow Jews jealous, and thus save some of them." Paul's aim is that by his ministry people might be "saved."
This is right at the heart of what Christmas is about: "The angel said to them, 'Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy that will be for all the people. 11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord'" (Luke 2:10). Christmas is God's putting in place the way to save people. "She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins" (Matthew 1:21). "Saved" is the explosively happy word of the gospel.
So is being saved one of the felt needs of twenty-first century America? Well it depends, doesn't it? Namely, on what we are being saved from, or for. And my sense is that the three main needs that the Gospel is designed to meet are felt by almost nobody in America.
Look at Romans 5:9-11 to see two of these three needs the gospel meets.
Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. [There's the first one. We are saved from God's anger.]10 For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. 11 More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ [There is the second one: we are reconciled to God in such a way that he becomes our all-satisfying joy].
The third need the Gospel meets is the need to be set free from sin, not just the penalty of God's wrath, but the idol-producing power if sin's pleasure. Again Matthew 1:21, "You shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins."
So there they are: the Gospel is the good news that through Jesus' death and resurrection we can be 1) saved from the power of sin's ugly idolatry, 2) saved from the wrath of God, and 3) saved for the supreme enjoyment of God himself. Not a word here about being saved from poverty, or saved from sickness, or saved from obscurity, or saved from human rejection, or saved from terrorism, or saved from having your daughter kidnapped and killed. In fact, the gospel contains no promise to improve most of the felt needs in this world.
It simply offers what we need most both now and forever: 1) rescue from the anger of God, 2) freedom from the poison of sin, and 3) full enjoyment of the most glorious Being in the universe forever. So that is what Paul is aiming at in verse 14: ". . . in order somehow to make my fellow Jews jealous, and thus save some of them"—rescue them from the wrath of God, deliver them from the poison of sin, fit them for the enjoyment of God.
The Issue of Romans 11: The Salvation of Israel
The burden of Paul in Romans 11 is the salvation of Israel. Not only "some of them," as it says in verse 14, but in the end the whole people. Verse 25b-26, "A partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. 26 And in this way all Israel will be saved" (Romans 11:25-26). "Saved." All Israel saved. That is the burden of this chapter.
It began in verse one with the question, "Has God rejected his people?" The answer was No. And the rest of the chapter is explanation and defense. And the reason it matters is because God's faithfulness to Israel is God's faithfulness to us. If he doesn't keep his word to Israel, is there reason to think he will keep his word to us. In fact, the connection is even closer: what turns up in this chapter is that we are part of Israel.
So the issue in this chapter is the salvation of Israel (and therefore, our salvation). In today's text I only want to look at verses 15 and 16, and especially verse 16. Here Paul's burden seems to be to argue that the future salvation of Israel is demanded by the past election of Israel. Let's try to follow his way of thinking here. I think what we will find is a surprising balance between 1) thinking that God is done with Israel entirely while he works savingly only with the church, and 2) thinking that God has a two separate plans, one for Israel and one for the church. I think both of those views are mistaken.
Verse 15: "For if their [Israel's] rejection means the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance mean but life from the dead?" So here he says there is now a "rejection" of Israel—a hardening (v. 7), a stumbling (v. 11), a trespass (v. 11)—but someday there will be an "acceptance."
If the Firstfruits and Root Were Holy, the Whole Lump and Branches Will Be Holy
Now what is the basis of this conviction? I think he gives this basis in verse 16: "If the dough offered as firstfruits is holy, so is the whole lump, and if the root is holy, so are the branches." Keep in mind these are only pictures and analogies. If you press the details of any analogy too far, you miss the one main point they are trying to make. For example, if you press either of these comparisons too far you might say that since a portion of Israel is holy to the Lord, every individual Israelite who ever lived would be saved. That would contradict numerous things Paul says. Or you might say Paul means that there can be no unhealthy branches that need to be broken off-no unbelieving Israel-since he says "the branches are holy."
But if we take the pictures more generally we can see the point that he is making with both of them in this context. He is saying: At the beginning of Israel's history God chose and set apart for himself Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They are the "dough offered as first fruits" and "the root." "If the dough offered as first fruits is holy . . ." "If the root is holy . . ." Holy here would mean: Devoted to the Lord, set apart from the nations, and dedicated as a special possession of God. So the patriarchs were singled out by God and made his own special possession, devoted to him in the obedience of covenant faithfulness. He was their God and they were his people.
Then he says that the holiness of the dough offered as firstfruits and that the holiness of the root implies the holiness of the whole lump and the whole tree. In the context, the most natural meaning for this is: Paul's confidence that one day all Israel will be saved-that some future generation of Israel will turn to Christ and believe-is implied in the original election and covenant commitment made to Israel at the beginning. In other words, Israel's holiness-her being chosen and set apart for God at the beginning-implies that in the end this people as a whole will be holy, that is, will trust Christ and belong to God as a saved part of the one true people of God.
Romans 11:28 gives a strong confirmation of this interpretation. "As regards the gospel, they are enemies of God for your sake." That means just what we have seen in verse 11: "through their trespass salvation has come to the Gentiles." They are rejecting the gospel so that the gospel will spread with power to the nations of the world. But verse 28 goes on: "But as regards election, they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers" (Romans 11:28).
Now that is exactly what I am saying verse 16 means: "If the root is holy so are the branches." If God chose the forefathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and set them apart for himself with the everlasting covenant promises, then the present enmity and hardening and stumbling does not nullify that original intention. God has a future for corporate Israel. Someday the whole lump will be holy, and someday the tree will include an entire generation of Jewish branches.
How Does Paul Know This?
If you ask, How does Paul know this? How can he be sure that the original covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is not simply and totally fulfilled in Christ's gathering a remnant from Israel and the nations? Why does he think that the original covenant with the fathers implies that one day ethnic Israel as a whole will be part of the body of Christ?
Here is one possible answer. There are many places in the Old Testament prophets where the covenant with Abraham is reaffirmed and applied to the people as a whole for the future. A few examples:
The prophet Jeremiah is speaking to the people of Israel in exile in Babylon and promising them a future, and the future he promises goes far beyond what they experience in coming back as imperfect, sinful stragglers to Jerusalem. So for example, Jeremiah 24:5-7.
Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: Like these good figs, so I will regard as good the exiles from Judah, whom I have sent away from this place to the land of the Chaldeans. 6 I will set my eyes on them for good, and I will bring them back to this land. I will build them up, and not tear them down; I will plant them, and not uproot them. 7 I will give them a heart to know that I am the LORD, and they shall be my people and I will be their God, for they shall return to me with their whole heart.
That has not yet happened, and I think that God meant that it would happen in stages. That's what the prophetic perspective is like: it often sees the future as one scene like we sometimes see succeeding mountain ranges as one mountain. Jeremiah 31 is full of hope for Israel in a future that goes beyond anything they have experienced yet.
Verses 2-3: "Thus says the LORD: 'The people who survived the sword found grace in the wilderness; when Israel sought for rest, 3 the LORD appeared to him from far away. I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you."
Verses 10-11, 20: "He who scattered Israel will gather him, and will keep him as a shepherd keeps his flock. 11 For the LORD has ransomed Jacob and has redeemed him from hands too strong for him. . . . 20 Is Ephraim my dear son? Is he my darling child? For as often as I speak against him, I do remember him still.
Then come the familiar words of the New Covenant that we know includes more than Israel—it is bought by the blood of Jesus (Luke 22:20) for all his people-Jew and Gentile. But does it include less than all Israel? Here are the familiar words, addressed primarily to Israel as a whole:
Verses 31-33: "Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah . . . I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. . . . I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.
But listen to what follows, addressing the same people:
Verses 35: "Thus says the LORD, who gives the sun for light by day and the fixed order of the moon and the stars for light by night . . . 36 'If this fixed order departs from before me, declares the LORD, then shall the offspring of Israel cease from being a nation before me forever.' 37 Thus says the LORD: "If the heavens above can be measured, and the foundations of the earth below can be explored, then I will cast off all the offspring of Israel for all that they have done, declares the LORD.'"
In other words, I won't cast off Israel for what they have done. The prophet Ezekiel links the original covenant with Abraham and the everlasting commitment to the later people after the exile. For example in Ezekiel 16:60, God says, "Yet I will remember my covenant with you in the days of your youth [the root was holy!], and I will establish for you an everlasting covenant [all the branches will one day be holy]. Or Ezekiel 37:26, "I will make a covenant of peace with them. It shall be an everlasting covenant with them. And I will set them in their land and multiply them, and will set my sanctuary in their midst forevermore."
I think the apostle Paul read these promises and many like them, and was guided by divine inspiration to teach us that God's purpose for the nation of Israel as a whole is not yet complete. There was implicit in their election as a people not only that there would always be a remnant of saved Jews, but that in some future generation the people as a whole would be saved. If the firstfruits was holy, the whole lump will be holy. If the root was holy, the branches will be holy.
What This Does and Does Not Mean
Now I close by clarifying what this does and does not mean? 1) This does not mean the Israel will be saved any other way than the way Gentiles are saved. They will be saved by faith in Jesus Christ alone. 2) This does not mean that any Jew can boast in his ethnic Jewishness and claim to have a saving advantage over anyone. Verse 20 drives this home: "They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith."
Some of you have asked, "Why did God choose to save the Gentiles by means of the hardening of Israel? Why does verse 11 say, "through their trespass salvation has come to the Gentiles"? Here is one answer: God meant to teach all the nations and Israel herself that Jewishness gives no individual a claim on God. God has made this crystal clear by the hardening and stumbling of Israel.
Gentiles are to learn from this that salvation is totally by grace through faith and not based on anyone's ethnic, cultural, or religious background. God can break off boasting Jewish branches and God can break off boasting Gentile branches. We stand fast only by grace through faith, not by works or ethnic connections—Jewish or Gentile.
All of this is designed by God to demonstrate, first, that he can and will save all Israel without being bound to save anyone in Israel who demands to be saved because he is part of Israel; and to demonstrate, secondly, that God can and will save Gentiles who are not in Israel if they trust Christ and do not boast over the broken off branches.
In other words, all of redemptive history is designed from beginning to end to put a stop to human boasting in Jewishness or over Jewishness, or in Gentile ethnicity or over Gentile ethnicity. Free and sovereign grace stops boasting, and leads to humble, brokenhearted gratitude and worship: "From him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory for ever. Amen" (Romans 11:36).