NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER ELEVEN (Lesson XVIII)
We must also keep in mind that it is also correct to accept what Paul is saying here in a metaphorical sense so that the bread and root apply spiritually to the Jews and Gentiles in order for them to understand how truth is found in Christ. For instance, the Bishop of Paul’s hometown of Tarsus says he understands that the words “first fruits” and “root” both refer to the patriarchs, Moses, and the prophets. Also, that the words“branches” and “loaf” refer to the whole Jewish nation out of which Christianity was born.1
Then Ambrosiaster offers his interpretation. For him, it is clear that they are one and the same substance, so it is impossible for the offering to be holy and yet the loaf be unclean, seeing that the offering comes from the loaf. In this same manner, Paul shows that those whose ancestors believed God’s promises cannot be regarded as unworthy to receive faith, for if some of the Jews have believed, why can it not be said that their children may also believe?2
However, a later early church scholar sees it a different way. For him, that word “first fruits” refers to Christ and the “whole loaf” to the Jewish people, since Christ was part of them according to the flesh. The “root” refers to Abraham, for he is called the “father of many nations” on account of his faith, and the “branches” are those who, coming after him, held the same faith as he did.3 Other early church scholars such as Theodore of Mopsuestia, Theodoret of Cyr, and Gennadius of Constantinople agree with this interpretation.
Martin Luther says that Paul is trying to supply evidence that will magnify God’s grace and destroy the arrogant Jewish boasting of self-righteousness by means of a twofold analogy. In nature this is true: if the firstfruits is good, then also the whole harvest will be good; and if the root is good, then also the tree is good which grows from it. The same here. Were it not for the fact that divine grace is to be glorified in each individual, then people as a whole would not share in the same dignity.4
In other words, if Christ, as the firstfruit of the resurrection, is considered holy enough to be presented to the Father in heaven, then certainly the whole loaf of His spiritual body, which is the Church, must be holy enough to stand before God as being made right with Him. So our holiness is not something of our own making, but all the holiness we have is because of Christ the Holy One living in us. If Christ is no longer in control of our lives, then we cease to be holy. So it doesn’t matter how many Scriptures we read, or how many prayers we pray, or songs we sing, or services we attend, or even if we pay our tithes and offerings, that is not what makes us holy. We are holy because He is holy.
John Calvin offers similar thoughts on Paul’s use of the piece of bread and the whole loaf, as well as the root and branches of a tree to prove his point. One of these illustrations is taken from the ceremonies of the Jewish law, and the other borrowed from nature. If a part of anything is considered to be holy, then it only follows to reason that the whole from which it came must be holy. So it is with the patriarchs and their posterity which springs from them like branches on a tree. Furthermore, if the tree from which the branches is holy then the roots of the tree must also be holy.
So Calvin doesn’t think it is strange that the Jews thought they were holy because their ancestors were holy. Calvin also believes that we will not have any difficulty understanding that the word “holiness” here refers to the spiritual nobility of the nation and that indeed it did not trace its roots back to the nature of human genealogy but to back to Abraham through the Promised Son who was part of the covenant between God and Abraham. Calvin agrees that it is only fitting that the nation of Israel be referred to as a holy nation in that they came into being through a miracle son born to Abraham and Sarah. But those who are part of the holy nation who have ceased to believe, cannot call themselves holy just because they are still part of the nation. If that is true of Israel, then it must certainly be true of the Church.
The problem was that over time they had allowed corruption to develop until the whole loaf was now moldy and unusable for God’s glory. So a new loaf had to be created for Abraham’s offspring and that required another miracle son to be born. Thus Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary and so all those who are born-again in Him are holy due to His being holy.5 Therefore, in Calvin’s mind, it is only proper for those whom God has called and elected to be His own can only be call holy because it is a supernatural privilege, not a natural accomplishment.6
John Bengel hints at the possibility that we might take what Paul says here about the firstfruits to be understood as the Patriarchs being the roots, Christ is the tree, and the disciples are the branches, and the believers are the firstfruits. It is true that the Patriarchs were Jewish and so were Jesus and the disciples, and those won to Christ on the Day of Pentecost. But when these branches failed to produce the proper fruit, they were broken off and branches from the wild olive tree were grafted in and brought in a harvest of fruit that represented all of mankind.
Adam Clarke gives his insight on the relationship between the holy root and branches. First, he suggests that the word “holy” in this verse be taken in the same way it is frequently understood in the First and Last Covenants – namely, that which is consecrated and set apart for sacred use. It must not be forgotten that the first converts to Christ were Jews. These formed the root of the Christian Church: these were holy, consecrated to God, and those by whom the Gentiles were brought to Christ by their missionary efforts which were also consecrated. But the chief reference is to the ancestors of the Jewish people, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And since these were devoted to God and received into His covenant, all their posterity, the branches which proceeded from this root, became entitled to the same privilege.
Since the root is still recognized as a valid source for the children of God, the branches also, the descendants from that root, are, therefore, children of God. They are still entitled to all the blessings of the covenant. Nevertheless, because some of the branches became infected with the virus of doubt and sin, the fruit from these then became corrupt. So it follows that any further fruit borne by the seed of this infected fruit was also useless. The virus was caused by stubborn unbelief, so their access to the blessings was suspended. Even when they appealed for restitution on the grounds that they were still included in the First Covenant, it was denied. The only way back was to undergo regeneration in order to be sanctified and this virus removed so that, like their root, Abraham, they could become obedient to God by faith, and God accounted to Abraham a right standing with Him because of his obedience based on faith. That’s the way it was, that’s the way it is, and that’s the way it always will be.7
Robert Haldane also comments on Paul’s use of the first-fruits and the branches as an illustration of how holiness is imputed to all believers. By using the term “first-fruit” some understand this as a reference to the first Jewish converts. But Haldane takes the term “first-fruit” and the “root” refer to Abraham, as the first-fruit to God, and the root of the Jewish nation. As Abraham was separated to the service of God, so, in the sense of a relative holiness, all his descendants in the line of Isaac were holy. This put their standing with God in an external relationship as no other nation ever stood.
But Abraham was also chosen by God to be a holy vessel through which the Promised Son would come. And so there were many who followed Abraham that God also chose for His personal service. However, there were many who still claimed to be holy as their forefather Abraham was, just because they were part of the chosen nation Israel, even though they did not obey God as Abraham did, and did not accept the second Son of Promise as the Messiah.8
But Jesus had an answer for those Jews who came to protest His evangelization of the nation of Israel and made these same claims as children of Abraham. Jesus basically told them that the only way they could prove to be children of Abraham is if they followed Abraham’s example of obedience by faith.9 So He rejected their claims because with Abraham being the good root which had grown into a good tree, that good tree could not bear bad fruit. As a result that tree and its branches must be cut down and thrown away as kindling wood for the fire that was to come.10
Albert Barnes also shares his notes on this subject. He points out that the root of a tree is the source of nutrients necessary for its growth, and gives the character of the seed to the tree. If those nutrients are strong and healthy, we can expect the same of the branches. A root bears a similar relation to the tree that the first-fruit does to the loaf of bread. Perhaps there is an allusion here to Jeremiah 11:16, where the Jewish nation is represented under the image of a green olive tree, fair, and of goodly fruit. In this place, the reference is doubtless to Abraham and the patriarchs, as the root or founders of the Jewish nation. If they were holy, it is to be expected that the distant branches, or descendants, would also be regarded as holy? The mention of the root and branches of a tree gives the Apostle occasion for an illustration of the relation at that time of the Jews and Gentiles to the body of Christ.11
Lutheran Bible scholar Paul Kretzmann sums it up this way: The root of the true Israel, of the body which is and always will be consecrated to the Lord, are the patriarchs, and the branches are the true spiritual children of the patriarchs. But some of the branches only had the appearance of true branches, but their deceptive nature was discovered in time, with the result that they were removed. The olive-tree, therefore, represents the entire mass of the true spiritual children of Abraham, the holy Christian Church, the communion of saints, of all times. Every person that accepts the Messiah by faith is fruit borne by these branches of this tree’s trunk or body. As such, they become partakers of the divine promise and blessings as long as they remain attached to the tree.12 So with nutrients being the source of a tree’s growth, livelihood, and fruit-bearing capabilities, we can easily relate this to the role of the Holy Spirit in the body of Christ. The Spirit must remain the life and energy by which the Church grows and multiplies. If access to the Spirit is ever interrupted or cut off, then any subsequent branches or fruit will be of no use to feed those who are hungry and starving to receive the Bread of Life that comes by way of the Gospel.
1 Diodore: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
2 Ambrosiaster: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
3 [Pseudo-]Constantius: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
4 Martin Luther: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
5 See Leviticus 20:26; 1 Peter 1:16
6 John Calvin: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
7 Adam Clarke: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 221
8 Robert Haldane: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 534
9 John 8:39
10 Matthew 7:19
11 Albert Barnes: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
12 The Popular Commentary by Paul E. Kretzmann, 1922, loc. cit.