Dr. Robert R. Seyda



Charles Hodge notes that the Greek word phyrama (“lump” – KJV) used here by the Apostle Paul, means any substance mixed with water and then kneaded to make a clump or “batch” of dough.1 Paul used this same figure of speech in his letter to the Corinthians,2 There is no reason not to believe that Paul was aware of what Jesus said about how the presence of yeast can change the complexity of the whole loaf.3 The end product can only be of the same essence as its source.4 When we see it this way, it is clear that no Jew could claim to be a spiritual descendant of Abraham unless they exhibited the same faith and obedience he did. This is also true of those who claim to be spiritual children of God. Their testimony is false unless they also display the same faith and obedience of God’s firstfruits, the Apostles.

Charles Ellicott sees a prophetic application to the firstfruits and loaf. For him, it serves as one of the strongest reasons for believing that this is pointing to the reconversion of the Jews. Their forefathers were the first recipients of the promise, and it was only natural that their hope was that their descendants would become heirs as well. When a piece of dough is taken from the lump to make a consecrated cake, the consecration of the part extends over the whole; the character which is inherent in the root of a tree shows itself also in the branches. So we may believe that the latter end of Israel will be like its beginning. The calling to God’s service that was imparted to their forefathers was expected to be carried on by their descendants. It is only that now there had been an interruption for a certain span of time.5

H. A. Ironside notes if by exiling the Jews for a season would bring about the reconciling of the rest of the world to Himself, then would not His bringing the Jews back to Himself be anything less than the same as raising the dead to life? That is, as they wandered among all the nations, a disappointed and weary people by order of the God of their fathers, the message of grace would going out to the Gentiles, with a small remnant of Jews also receiving and accepting the message of Christ. So what will it mean to the whole world if the entire nation of Israel were to turn back to Jesus and accept Him as the Messiah so that they could then return to being His holy people again and be used by Him as witnesses to all nations everywhere?6

F. F. Bruce gives his comments on the roots and branches. He notices that Paul has changed the figures of speech from firstfruits and loaf to tree and branches. Since a tree is of the same essence throughout,7 the holiness of the root sanctifies the branches. It is natural for Jewish believers to think of the patriarchs as constituting the root of the tree whose branches are the Israelites of the Christian era. This interpretation would be in line with Paul’s later reference to contemporary Israel as “beloved for the sake of their forefathers” in verse 28. Probably, in this transition of thought as Paul passes from the one figure to the other with the firstfruits and loaf recognizing Jews as looking back at their forefathers for their claim to holiness, while the roots and branches are representative of the Christians looking back to Christ as their claim to holiness.8

John Stott also shares what he sees here. The Apostle uses these two little metaphors to construct a proverb. One taken from the ceremonial life of Israel, and the other from the agricultural. Both are clearly intended in some way to justify Paul’s confidence in the spread of blessings which he has been describing. We must also recognize in verses 15 and 16 there are “if” clauses. If the part of the dough offered as firstfruits is holy, then the whole batch is holy.9 Perhaps this should be interpreted as follows: When a representative piece is consecrated to God as a token, this indicates that the whole belongs to Him. So when the first converts believed, the conversion of the rest can be expected to follow. Next, if the root is holy, so are the branches, perhaps meaning that as the Jewish patriarchs belong to God by covenant, so do their descendants who are included in the covenant. It seems to be this root and branches concept now leads Paul to develop his allegory of the olive tree.10

Then Douglas Moo gives his interpretation by saying that we should take verse 16 as being transitional. It supports the hope Paul has expressed in verse 15 by arguing that the blessings Israel has already received will lead to even greater blessing in the future. Paul uses two metaphors to make his point, each of which uses the logic of “if the part, then the whole” to anchor Paul’s confidence about a great future for Israel. The first one is drawn from Numbers 15:17–21. The “whole batch” refers to Israel as a whole, but to what does “the part of the dough offered as firstfruits” refer? Since Paul uses the word “firstfruits” for the first converts in a region,11 he may have in mind the remnant of Jewish Christians of his own day.12 The salvation of the remnant shows that God still considers Israel “holy,” with all the hope that this idea of holiness implies.13

Then Moo goes on to treat the subject of the roots in Paul’s illustration. For him, the “root” almost certainly represents the patriarchs. Jewish authors referred to the patriarchs as the “root,14 and Paul himself in this context bases Israel’s future hope on God’s promise on the patriarchs.15 This being the case, it is more likely that “firstfruits” also refers to the patriarchs. God’s promise to the patriarchs has not been revoked; their descendants remain “holy.” By this Paul does not mean that all their descendants will be saved. Rather, “holy,” as in the First Covenant and 1 Corinthians 7:14, means that the people continue to be “set apart” by God for special attention to be used in His service.16

Another Jewish theologian gives us his perspective. If the challah offered as firstfruits is holy, so is the whole loaf. Today, challah describes the special braided loaves of bread served in Jewish homes on the Sabbath and during festivals. In the Bible the word describes a small “cake” baked from dough set aside for God; this must be done first (hence the term ‘firstfruits’). Only afterwards may the loaf made from that dough be eaten, so that the loaf is then “holy” in the sense of being usable at all.17 In the Talmud tractate of Hallah (or Challah), consisting of four chapters, we find the details of the whole procedure.18

David Stern goes on to say that Paul now illustrates the same principle in reverse. If the branches are holy, then so must the root be holy. Since they are connected to the root, the same nutrients that flow from the root go up to the branches. But in Paul’s metaphor, who or what is the root, or, in the earlier metaphor, the firstfruits? There are three distinct possibilities: (1) The believing remnant of Israel that is truly Israel (Romans 9:6–7), that is, the Messianic Jews (Romans 11:1–5). (2) Abraham (Romans 4:12) or all the Patriarchs (Romans 11:28). And (3) Yeshua the Messiah (Romans 8:29),19 who alone makes Israel holy.20

And finally, Stern speaks of the branches and loaf. Who are the branches growing from this root, the loaf made from the dough from which the firstfruits came? Four options are: (1) Every single Jew, past, present and future. (2) Every single Messianic Jew, past, present and future. (3) The Jewish people, as a nation, though not necessarily every Jew. (4) All believers, Jewish and Gentile, past, present and future.”21 Stern believes that later in verse 26 we will find out why it must be the third of these, the Jewish nation. But for now, Paul begins to explain in the next two verses what he is driving at with all this talk about roots and branches.

Verses 17-18: However, when some of the branches were broke off, and branches from wild olive trees were grafted into those trees, then these wild branches should not feel as though they are better than the branches that are still there. Nevertheless, if you do feel good about it, remember that you are not supporting the root, the root is supporting you.

It is clear that Paul now turns his attention to the Gentiles in the congregation in Rome. He has said a lot about how the Jews were passed over in their favor, but such favor should not be taken as flattery. So he continues with his metaphor of the sanctified tree – representing the Jews, and how some of the original branches fell off because they no longer received the life-giving nutrients that caused them to bud, blossom and bear fruit. So God, not being satisfied with such a barren tree, decided to break off those dead branches and graft in some new branches taken from wild trees – representing the Gentiles.

The Psalmist has an excellent story of how all this took place. He writes: “You brought a vine out of Egypt. You drove out the nations, and You planted it. You cleared the land for it. And its roots went deep and filled the land. The mountains were covered with its shadow. And the tall trees were covered with its branches. It sent out its branches to the sea, and its new branches to the River. Why have You broken down its walls so that all who pass by pick its fruit? The wild pig from among the trees eats it away. And whatever moves in the field eats from it.22

This, of course, recalls God bringing Israel out of Egypt and planting them in the Promised Land. But they did not remain true to Him and His Word. So instead of remaining pure, the Israelites began to take on the character and customs of the heathens around them. So the Psalmist prays: “O God of heaven’s armies, we beg You to return. Look down from heaven and see. Take care of this vine. Take care of the root Your right hand has planted, and the branch that You have raised up for Yourself.”23 But there is little evidence that the Psalmist knew exactly how God was going to take care of keeping this vine vibrant, growing and producing, for His honor and glory.

1 See Exodus 12:34

2 1 Corinthians 5:6; Galatians 5:9

3 Matthew 16:11-12; Mark 8:14; Luke 12:1

4 Charles Hodge: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 569

5 Charles Ellicott: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.

6 H. A. Ironside: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.

7 Ccf. Matthew 7:16–20; 12:33; Luke 6:43–44

8 F. F. Bruce: On Romans, Vol. 6, p. 215

9 Cf. Numbers 15:17ff

10 John Stott: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.

11 Romans 16: 5; 1 Corinthians 16: 15; 2 Thessalonians 2: 13

12 Cf. Romans 11:7

13 Douglas J. Moo: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.

14 E.g., 1 Enoch 93: 5, 8; Philo, Heir 279

15 See 11: 28; cf. 9: 5

16 Moo: ibid

17 David H. Stern: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.

18 Babylonian Talmud: Seder Zera’im Masekhet Hallah

19 See 1 Corinthians 15:20

20 Stern: ibid.

21 Stern: ibid.

22 Psalm 80:8-13

23 Ibid. 80:14-15

About drbob76

Retired missionary, pastor, seminary professor, Board Certified Chaplain and American Cancer Society Hope Lodge Director.
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