NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER ELEVEN (Lesson XXI)
Haldane then points out that whenever Gentile Christians felt disposed to boast with respect to the Jews, let them remember not only that the Jews were the first people of God, and that the first Christians were also Jews. The Jews received no advantage from the Gentiles; but, on the contrary, the Gentiles have received much from the Jews, from whom the message of the Gospel went out. The initial preachers were Jews, even Jesus Christ Himself was Jewish by His mother’s heritage. The Gentile believers became the children of Abraham, and all the blessings they now enjoy are due to that relationship. That’s why the covenant includes all believers;1 yet they keep believing it was only to belong to the houses of Israel and Judah.2
It is obvious that the Church during the Middle Ages forgot all about Paul’s admonition. Unfortunately, they attacked the Jews in every way possible, sowing the seeds of animosity that ended up being carried out in WWII concentration camps. Albert Barnes notes that the tendency of some people is to rejoice over someone who falls from grace and is humiliated. The danger of pride and boasting on account of privileges is not less in the church than elsewhere. Paul saw that some of the Gentiles might be in danger of exultation over the fallen Jews, and therefore cautions them against it. It is clear from this, that the Apostle regarded the Church as one; and that the Christian organization is only a continuance of what God started with Abraham. The tree,3 even with a part of its branches removed. and others grafted in still retains its identity as the one God planted, and should never be regarded as different or something new.4
Charles Hodge has a similar interpretation that the Gentiles joining to Jews as the people of God. It was not to confer good on them but to receive good from them. By this Paul wants to point out that the graft does not impart life and vigor to the tree, but the reverse. There is no necessity for departing from the common view. The Gentiles are saved by their introduction into that church of which the patriarchs were the root.5 Hodge goes on to say that the Gentiles should remember that they were brought into fellowship with the patriarchs, not the patriarchs with them. Therefore, salvation was through the Jews. The truth that the Jews were the channel of blessings to the Gentiles and not the opposite, was adopted to prevent all ungenerous and self-confident exultation of the latter over the former.6 But it must be remembered that the Gentiles were grafted into the stock of Abraham not through Moses and the Law, but through Christ Jesus and the Gospel.
French theologian Frédéric Godet points out that the Greek verb katakauchaomai Paul used to warn the Gentiles not to “boast” (KJV), should be understood more as telling them not to “despise” the Jewish branches, in the sense of resenting that they are still there. Thayer in his Greek Lexicon says this word defines the act of “glorying against, exulting over, boasting one’s self to the injury of a person or thing.” In fact, the KJV renders this word three different ways: “boast,7 rejoice against,8 and glory.”9 Godet says that it is not unusual for people to look with disdain on those whose place they have been called to fill. This is especially true when the vacancy was due to someone being fired in disgrace.
The fact that the Jews, as branches, were broken off the tree planted as part of God’s covenant with Abraham and replanted in the Promised Land, some Christians have ended up treating them with supreme contempt. In fact, this disdain was even seen among Gentile believers in the church in Rome. Godet thinks this is, perhaps, the reason why Paul simply uses the Greek noun klados “branches,” in verse 18 without adding the term “broken off,” that he employed in verse 17. It was every person who is identified as, a Jew, which Paul wished to put under the protection of this warning.10
Charles Ellicott warns that the admission of Gentiles to the privileges of the Jews is no ground for boasting on their part. It is merely an admission. The Gentile is, as it were, a branch grafted in temporarily as an experiment without any effort on their part. Nor is their position absolutely granted to them. It is held conditionally on their tenure of faith. They ought, therefore, to anxiously guard against any failure in faith. For the moment, God has turned towards Gentiles the gracious side of His providence, while towards the Jew He has turned a less benevolent side. But it has been promised by God that one day this will be reversed and the Jew received back into the favor of God which they once enjoyed.11
John Stott shares that Paul’s warning to the believing Gentiles is clear. The olive tree has experienced both pruning and grafting. Some branches have been cut out of the cultivated tree. That is, some Jews have been rejected. And in their place a shoot from a wild olive tree has been grafted in. That is, some Gentiles have believed and been welcomed into God’s covenant people. Do not boast over those branches. This is the warning, which Paul corroborates with a number of arguments. First, he says, you must remember your dependence on the root, for branches have no life in themselves.12
It is interesting that Stott mentions Sir William Mitchell Ramsay (1859-1939), a Scottish born Englishman known primarily for his brilliant work in archaeology and outstanding New Testament scholar, who wrote an article on this subject of grafting that said:
As regards Palestine, but no other Mediterranean country, he [Professor Fischer] points out that the process which St. Paul had in view is still in use in exceptional circumstances at the present day. He mentions that it is customary to reinvigorate an Olive-tree which is ceasing to bear fruit, by grafting it with a shoot of the Wild-Olive, so that the sap of the tree ennobles this wild shoot and the tree now again begins to bear fruit. It is a well-established fact that, as a result of grafting, both the new shoot and the old stock are affected. The grafted shoot affects the stock below the graft, and in its turn is affected by the character of the stock from which it derives its nourishment.
Hence, although the old stock had lost vigor and ceased to produce fruit, it might recover strength and productive power from the influence of the vigorous wild shoot which is grafted upon it, while the fruit that is grown on the new shoot will be more fleshy and richer in oil than the natural fruit of the Wild-Olive. Such is the inevitable process; and it is evident from the passage in Romans, even without any other authority, that the ancients had observed this fact and availed themselves of it for improving weak and unproductive trees.
The words of Romans 11:17 show the whole process employed in such cases; the tree was pruned, and after the old branches had been cut away the graft was made. The cutting away of the old branches was required to admit air and light to the graft, as well as to prevent the vitality of the tree from being too widely diffused over a large number of branches.13
Douglas Moo also makes some interesting points. He points out that the context in which these verses fall reveals that the Gentiles were guilty of an arrogance toward Jews in general that extended to both the Israel of the First Covenant and to Jewish Christians of the Last Covenant as well. Paul shows why such arrogance is wrong. He makes two basic points. First, Gentile Christians only received the spiritual benefits they enjoyed because of the Jews. They were grafted into the olive tree of Israel, the people of God. But the roots of that tree consisted of the Jewish patriarchs. The Gentiles did not “replaced” the Jews in God’s plan, they were only added to it.
Secondly, Gentile Christians did not earn the right to be grafted into the olive tree. Their arrogance in having been chosen over the Jews not only took the form of bragging but also of boasting that this being added to the olive tree was due to their own accomplishment. Their attitude, so it seems, is that they somehow were so important and deserving that God removed Jews in order to include them, that’s why the rejection of Jews led to the salvation for Gentiles. But Paul insists that was not because of any merit in the Gentiles themselves that God did what He did. It was, rather, entirely a matter of God’s grace and mercy.14
Jewish scholar David Stern makes points similar to what we have already read as a message to the newly grafted Gentiles. He hears Paul telling the Gentiles: “However, if you do boast, for whatever reason — carelessness, thickheadedness, or actual malice — it ought to help if you stop and remember that you are not supporting the root, but the root is supporting you.” To make Paul’s point as clear as possible, Stern says that whether the root is Yeshua, Abraham, the Patriarchs, the Messianic Jews or all the Jews, it is a Jewish root, and no one should forget it! When examining the Jewish community in Rome it draws a portrait of Jews, who came to faith in Yeshua, as someone doubly unwelcomed. That’s because they were rejected both by other Jews and by the Gentile majority in the Church. It’s easy enough to understand why a Messianic Jew might be rejected by some in the Jewish community, but why did the image of their being rejected by the Church even arise? It came from Gentile Christians who forgot Paul’s warning and regarded the Jewish believer in their midst a natural branch of the olive tree into which they were grafted, but no longer wanted or needed.15
1 Jeremiah 31:31
2 Robert Haldane: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 538
3 The parable of the three trees can be found in Judges 9:1-21. Israel is referred to as a vine (Isaiah 5), a fig tree (Matthew 21), and as an olive tree (Romans 11).
4 Albert Barnes: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
5 Charles Hodge: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 572
6 Hodge: ibid., p. 573
7 Romans 11:18
8 James 2:13
9 Ibid. 3:14
10 Frédéric Louis Godet: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
11 Charles Ellicott: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
12 John Stott: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
13 The Expositor, sixth series Vol. 11, (January 1905), The Olive-Tree and the Wild-Olive, by Sir William Ramsay, pp. 19-20
14 Douglas J. Moo: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
15 David H. Stern: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.