NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER ELEVEN (Lesson XX)
Isaiah had a similar vision of this sanctified tree and its possible demise. He writes: “When its branches are dry, they are broken off. Women come and make a fire with them. They are not a people of understanding so their Maker will not have pity on them. The One Who made them will not show kindness to them.”1 In other words, the tree that was meant to be fruitful and sustaining, its branches had become good for nothing but firewood. In fact, things became so bad that the whole tree was used for firewood.
Jeremiah lamented: “The Lord called you, ‘A green olive tree, beautiful and with good fruit.’ But like a clap like thunder, He set fire to it, and its branches were destroyed. The Lord of All, Who planted you, has said that bad will come to you because of the sin of the people of Israel and of the people of Judah.” As most people know, when a tree becomes infected with a fruit-killing disease, the best thing to do is either cut it down or burn it. This section is beginning to sound like the seven letters that Christ commissioned the Apostle John to write to the seven Churches.2
As we know, when Jesus went to enter Jerusalem and saw a fig tree that had leaves but no fruit, He condemned it and it began to wither. He used it as an illustration of Israel who had become a tree with leaves only to decorate themselves as a sign of their religion, but beneath the leaves were barren branches. So Jesus said: “I say to you, because of this, the holy nation of God will be taken from you. It will be given to a nation that will give fruit.”3 Later, Jesus would tell His disciples that He now is the true vine and they are the branches.4 And so Paul is telling the Roman Christians that this is exactly what happened and why God has now turned His attention to the Gentiles so they too can become part of the tree that He planted.
Paul explained it to the Ephesian Gentiles this way: “Do not forget that at one time you did not know God. The Jews, who had gone through the religious act of becoming a Jew by man’s hands, said you were people who do not know God. You were living without Christ then. The Jewish people who belonged to God had nothing to do with you. The promises He gave to them were not for you. You had nothing in this world to hope for. You were without God. But now you belong to Christ Jesus. At one time you were far away from God. Now you have been brought close to Him.”5
This idea of grafting branches from one tree to another was already part of Jewish lore. We find in the Mishnah where it says: “They grafted [male branches of] palm [onto female] trees all day [of the fourteenth which allowed them to grow dates].”6 But Paul takes it a step further by saying that God took branches from wild olive trees and grafted them into the sacred olive tree so that they may produce sweet fruit. O how far the Jews had come from being able to say with David: “I am like a leafy olive tree in the house of God; I put my trust in the grace of God forever and ever.”7 That’s why God had to send Paul out to find branches from wild olive trees so they could be grafted into the sacred tree in the house of the Lord. Unfortunately, many who sit in church pews today have become fruitless branches. They are like potted plants, wanting only to be fed and pampered but not required to bear any fruit.
With that in mind, now Paul addresses these grafted branches and tells them not to feel they are better than the other branches on the tree. After all, Solomon warned: “Pride goes before destruction, and arrogance before failure.”8 This is what almost caused James and John to be marginalized because along with their mother they asked Jesus that when He came into His kingdom to put one of them on one side of His throne and one on the other side, as if they were better than the other ten disciples.9 Little did they recall that everything they were and stood for was not because of them, but because of the One who called and chose them to be His disciples.
That’s why Paul tells them that the tree is held up by the roots and supplied with nutrition by the roots, it’s not the other way around. Paul hints at this when he tells the Galatians: “If you belong to Christ, then you have become the true children of Abraham. What God promised to him is now yours.”10 And he reminded the Ephesians: “From now on you are not strangers and people who are not citizens. You are citizens together with those who belong to God. You belong in God’s family. This family is built on the teachings of the missionaries and the early preachers. Jesus Christ Himself is the cornerstone, which is the most important part of the building.”11 Too often, there are believers who think that it is because of what they made out of Christ and His teachings that should bring them special praise, but it is just the opposite. It is what Christ made out of them and the teachings He gave them that should always be the object of praise, honor, and glory.
Early church theologian Jerome writes about Paul’s illustration of the tree and branches. He reports that every time he sees a synagogue, the thought of the Apostle always comes to his mind. It reminds him that we, as grafted branches, should not boast or say anything against the olive tree whose original branches were broken off to make room for us Gentiles. For if the natural branches have been cut off, how much more should we who have been grafted from the wild olive tree fear lest we become like them.12
And Ambrosiaster makes the point that it displeases God if someone rejoices at the misfortune of others, as Solomon says.13 In any case, the Jews were not rejected for the sake of the Gentiles. Rather, it was because they were rejected that they gave an opportunity for the Gospel to be preached to the Gentiles. If you boast against those onto whose root you have been grafted, you insult the people who have accepted you so that you might be converted from bad to good. You have no future if you chop down the tree into which you were grafted with criticism and disdain.14
John Calvin points out that whatever glory the Gentiles received it was from their new ingrafting, not from their old stock. Calvin agrees that there was then no reason for the Gentiles to glory in their own dignity in comparison with the Jews. We may also add, that Paul wisely tones down the severity of the case, by not saying that the whole top of the tree was cut off, but only that some of the branches were broken, and also that God took some branches from here and there from among the Gentiles, whom He grafted into the holy and blessed trunk of the sacred olive tree.15 It isn’t that the Gentiles were grafted to take the spot left after a natural branch was cut off. That place remains as is until God causes that branch to return to its rightful place. As a result, instead of the new branches replicating what the tree originally looked like, it added to the tree many branches that otherwise would have never been there.
Calvin goes on to make the point that Gentiles could not contend with the Jews when it came to the excellence of their race without contending with Abraham himself. That would have been extremely unbecoming since he was like a root from which they sprouted and were nourished. As unreasonable as it would be for the branches to boast against the root, so unreasonable would it have been for the Gentiles to glory against the Jews, that is, with respect to their special standing as a chosen nation out of so many. Paul always wanted the Gentile to remember that it was from the Jews that the origin of their salvation began. And we know that after Christ pulled down the partition-wall,16 the whole world partook of the favor which God had previously conferred on the chosen people. It hence follows, that the calling of the Gentiles was like an ingrafting and that they could not have grown into being “the called” as God’s people if they had not been grafted into the stock of Abraham.17
Adam Clarke also sees the need for the grafted Gentiles not to become disdainful of their Jewish brethren in the Lord. If the present nation of the Jews, because of their unbelief, are still cut off from the blessings of God and the high honor and dignity of being His chosen people, then how can we Gentiles, being part of a grafted wild olive branch, and who had no knowledge of the true God that produced nothing but the fruit of unrighteousness, were, nevertheless, grafted in among them. Thus we became part of the original Abrahamic stock, having been made partakers of his faith and consequently of his blessings. This allowed us to enjoy, as the people did who sprang from Israel, the fatness of the olive tree – the promises made to the patriarchs, and the spiritual privileges of the Jewish people.
While we are ready to acknowledge that we are included in the covenant God made with Abraham, and are now partakers of the same blessings with him, we must not brag about it, much less insult the branches, Abraham’s present descendants whose places we now fill, according to the election of grace. Remember, we are not the root, nor does the root spring from us, but it’s the root that bears us. We have not been ordained to pour out blessings on the Jewish people. It is through those very people, the ones some Christians are tempted to despise, that all the blessing and excellencies which we now enjoy have been communicated to us.18
On the subject of the Gentiles thinking that they were better than the Jews Robert Haldane believes that based on what is said here by Paul, that even during his time the Gentile believers were beginning to exhibit an overbearing disposition towards the Jews, and a complacent feeling of self-preference. At all events, the sin against which they are thus warned well describes the spirit that has long prevailed among the Gentiles who profess Christianity. What howling ignorance, folly, and vanity, are often displayed even in God’s people! Nothing but the constant lessons of the Spirit of God will teach them that all spiritual differences among God’s people are allowed by His grace.
1 Isaiah 27:11
2 Revelation 1:19-3:22
3 Matthew 21:43
4 John 15:1-8
5 Ephesians 2:11-13; 3:6
6 Mishnah: Second Division Mo’ed, Ch. 4:8
7 Psalm 52:8 – Complete Jewish Bible
8 Proverbs 16:18 – Complete Jewish Bible
9 Mark 10:35-37
10 Galatians 3:29
11 Ephesians 2:19-20
12 Jerome: Homilies on the Psalms 11
13 See Proverbs 24:17
14 Ambrosiaster: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
15 John Calvin: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
16 Ephesians 2:14
17 Calvin: ibid.
18 Adam Clarke: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 221