The (Jewish) Root Supports You through Your Faith Alone

Now I am speaking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch then as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I magnify my ministry in order somehow to make my fellow Jews jealous, and thus save some of them. For if their rejection means the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance mean but life from the dead? If the dough offered as firstfruits is holy, so is the whole lump, and if the root is holy, so are the branches. 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, 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. Then you will say, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” 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. For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you. 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. 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. 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.

Some might call it a mere coincidence. But I don't believe there is such a thing as mere coincidence, since I believe in God. So I say, it is a remarkable providence of God that our appointed portion of God's word in these days is one that deals so explicitly with the relationship between Jews and Christians. I'm thinking of Romans 11, and I am thinking of the swirl of controversy around Mel Gibson's film, The Passion of the Christ , and I am thinking of the tragic conflict between Israel and the Palestinians which has implications around the world far out of proportion to its size. God has ordained that we be thinking about Romans 11 and the relationship between Jews and Christians at a very remarkable time. And I hope all of you seek the Lord as why this might be the case in your own situation. What does God want you to see and think and feel and say and do?

Romans 11:16

The last time we looked at this text we focused on 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.” We argued that this is Paul's way of talking about the salvation of Israel in the future. When it says, “If the root is holy, so are the branches,” it means, “If the Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (the root) are chosen and set apart for God in a special covenant relationship, so are the branches—that is, all of Israel at some future time.

Part of our reason for interpreting verse 16 that way was the parallel to verse 16 in verse 28, “As regards the gospel, they [the Jewish people] are enemies of God for your sake. But as regards election, they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers.” In other words, because the fathers—the root—is chosen, so are the branches—the nation as a whole, who will turn to Christ when the temporary hardening mentioned in verse 25 is taken away.

Romans 11:17-20

So now today we will focus on Romans 11:17-20. Paul has just said something that seems utterly out of touch with reality. And he knows he needs to address the problem. He has just said in verse 16 that “the branches” are holy. That is, God will take all Israel for himself. All Israel belongs to God. They are holy, set apart for God as his covenant people. But the reality is that many of them are unbelieving and cut off from Christ. They are perishing. Paul said that explicitly in Romans 9:3 and 27. So Paul has to address this and its implications.

So after saying that the branches are holy, he says immediately in verse 17 that some of the branches were broken off: “But if some of the branches were broken off . . .” That's the reality. That's the tragedy—in Paul's day and ours. All Israel (not every individual, but the nation someday when it turns to Christ) is going to be saved, he says in verse 26. But for now, there are broken-off branches. That is, individual Jewish people are not believing in Christ and not connected to the covenant in a saving way. As Romans 9:6 said, “Not all who are descended from Israel are Israel.” Or as Romans 9:8 says, “It is not the children of the flesh who are children of God.” Being a natural, cultivated olive branch does not guarantee that you will be part of the nourishing root of the tree.

So that's the situation: The Messiah Jesus has come. He has preached the kingdom of God to Israel. He has confirmed and fulfilled the promises made to the fathers (Romans 15:8). From now on, to be joined to the tree—the true Israel—and to be joined to Christ by faith, are the same thing. “ Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life” (1 John 5:12 ). That's what Jesus said to the Jewish people. If you have me, you have life. And to the same generation he said, “Everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 10:32 -33). In other words, Jesus made himself the way of salvation for the Jews of his day. He was the way to be connected to the root—the life-giving, saving root of Israel. He was the “seed” of Abraham (Galatians 3:16 ) and the saving connection to the covenant made with Abraham. But the reality is: “He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him” (John 1:11 ).

And so they were broken off. They are not saved. They have an outward connection with the covenant but not an inward connection. They are Jewish ethnically, but not truly Jewish spiritually. Remember what Paul said in Romans 2:28 -29, “No one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. 29 But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God.” So Paul says in Romans 11:17, “Some of the branches were broken off.” That is the painful reality then and now.

But that's not all. To get the whole picture we need to remember that the breaking off of Jewish branches resulted in the grafting in of Gentile branches. This is the great mystery revealed in Romans 11. Gentiles become part of the true Israel. The wild olive branches get grafted into the natural, cultivated olive tree. This shows up, for example, in verse 11b: “Through their [the Jews'] trespass salvation has come to the Gentiles.” That is, Jews were broken off, and Gentiles were grafted in. Again in verse 12: “Their trespass means riches for the world, and . . . their failure means riches for the Gentiles.” That is, Jews were broken off so Gentiles might be grafted in. Again in verse 15: “Their [the Jews'] rejection means the reconciliation of the world.” That is, the Jews were broken off, and the result is that Gentiles are grafted in.

That's the wider picture of Paul's day and ours. It's not just that some in Israel are broken off. The bigger picture is that this is God's plan in order for Gentiles to be grafted in. So when the Gentile believers exult in this, and say it in verse 19, Paul does not correct them: “Then you will say, ‘Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” They say it because Paul had just taught it (vv. 11, 12, 15). So Paul responds in verse 20: “That is true.” Yes, they were broken off so that you might be grafted in.

Now we have the whole picture before us. And it is filled with glory and danger for Gentiles.

The Glory for the Gentiles

The glory is obvious. It's at the end of verse 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 . . .” There it is: the Gentiles now share in the “nourishing root of the olive tree.” This means: Gentiles now inherit the promises made to Israel. The rich, nourishing root of the tree is the blessings that flow from the covenant made with Abraham. Gentiles are now the offspring of Abraham. If you are Christian, you are an heir of Abraham.

How does this happen? Verse 20 explains: They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith. We are united to the tree by faith. Galatians 3:7 puts it most simply: “Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham.” Faith in Christ is the link with the promises made to Abraham. Faith unites us to the nourishing root of the olive tree—the promises of God. Paul is assuming in Romans 11 what he taught us in Romans 4:16-17. He says that “the promise . . . rest[s] on grace and . . . [is] guaranteed to all his offspring--not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham. . . as it is written, ‘I have made you the father of many nations.'” So Abraham is the father of all who trust Christ. Both Jew and Gentile are now the true Israel of God and inherit “the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world” (Romans 4:13 ).

All the promises are ours in Christ Jesus. That's the glory of this passage for the Gentiles. Once they were no people (see Romans 9:26; Ephesians 2:12-13). Now they are the very people of God. Along with all Christ-trusting Jews, they are the true Israel and heirs of all the promises of salvation.

The Danger for the Gentiles

Now what about the danger ? I said that this situation is filled with danger for the Gentiles. That is huge in Paul's mind. Paul's main concern in these verses seems to nip in the bud any pride or arrogance or gloating or anti-Semitism which might come from the truth that Jewish branches are broken off so that Gentile branches might be grafted in. Paul feels the pride of the Gentile heart—our hearts—ready to explode.

Two times in these verses and once in verse 25 Paul warns against Gentile Christian pride—our pride. Verse 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 .” Then again in verse 20b: “ So do not become proud , but stand in awe [literally: fear].” He says it again in verse 25: “Lest you be wise in your own conceits . . .”

This is extremely serious to Paul. The greatest truths are the most dangerous truths. It was a great truth that “branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in” (v. 19). But Oh how easily the unspiritual, proud heart can turn God-exalting truth into self-exalting “truth.” Paul aims to nip that in the bud.

Three Reasons Why Christian Gentiles Must Not Boast Over Israel

He gives three reasons why Christian Gentiles dare not boast over Israel. Three reasons why pride and boasting and gloating and anti-Semitism are utterly contrary to the truth.

  1. Your eternal life hangs on a Jewish root, not the other way around.
  2. Faith is the only thing that connects you to the tree of salvation, and faith, by its nature and by its origin, cannot boast in itself.
  3. If you give way to pride and boasting and anti-Semitism, God will cut you off forever.

I am only going to deal with one of these in closing, and save the other two for next week. I am aware that the last one raises very serious questions about eternal security. If we are grafted into the tree of salvation and connected to the nourishing root of the olive tree, how can we be cut off? Has not God promised to keep us from falling? So we will address that next week.

But we only have time for one of Paul's reasons today. Verse 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.” Anti-Semitism is real today. Jews around the world are feeling vulnerable. They feel damned if they do and damned if they don't. If they are weak they are hated, and if they are strong they are hated—that's the way history has treated them.

And with all the authority that I can claim from Scripture and from the Spirit of Christ, I call you not to be a part of that. Paul sensed the rising of this thing—or maybe he had heard of anti-Semitic feeling in Rome —and he attacked. And that is what we should do, especially if we find it in ourselves.

Why? Because the Jewish root—the Jewish fathers, the Jewish Scripture, the Jewish promises, the Jewish history, the Jewish Messiah—supports you, not the other way around. Being a Christian means becoming a true Jew. Being a Christian means finding your ancestry in Abraham and his offspring. Being a Christian means believing and loving the Jewish Torah, and Writings, and Prophets. Being a Christian means being grafted in to the Jewish covenant. Proud anti-Semitism proves we do not know who we are—or we are not who we say we are.

Four Closing Applications

1. Be done once and for all with verbal slurs or digs or negative innuendos. Don't tell Jewish jokes, and justify them with, “Oh, it's just for fun.” Don't use the word “jew” as a verb. Don't talk about “them” and “they” in a stereotypical way that cancels out individuality. Bridle your tongue (James 1:26 ), as we saw two weeks ago. That is the outward beginning of racial harmony—and the beginning of the end of anti-Semitism.

2. Don't treat Jewish people on the basis of group stereotypes . That is the partiality we addressed two weeks ago. Deal with a person as a person who may surprise you with his individuality. You may find a doorway into his heart.

3. Exult over the Jewish heritage you have, and take great delight in showing how it is all completed in the Jesus Christ. When Mel Gibson's movie comes out on February 25, and the first screen is the Jewish prophecy from Isaiah 53:5, “He was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities,” exult in that great Jewish truth and take joy in sharing with Jewish people the fulfillment of that in the wounds and the crushing of Jesus Christ. Exult in the root that supports you.

4. Finally, let the words “supports you” humble you. “It is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you.” People who need to be supported better should be slow to boast. And a Christian is a person who has made a deep discovery: He is weak, lost, sinful, helpless, indeed, dead in trespasses and sins. A Christian is a person who by grace has wakened from a dream of self-sufficiency into a reality of dependence. Utter dependence on the grace of God.

Christian, if you boast over the branches, if you are anti-Semitic and proud, you don't know who you are. Or you are not who you say you are.

So let us humble ourselves before God and receive Christ. He alone is the one who connects us with the saving root of God's grace. Let us rejoice in all our weakness that we are mightily supported.

Thumb author john piper

John Piper (@JohnPiper) is founder and teacher of and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books, including A Peculiar Glory.

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