NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER ELEVEN (Lesson XXVI)
Adam Clarke notes that the Apostle Paul, having adopted this metaphor of the root and branches as best he could to express God’s act of justice and mercy by which the Jews were rejected, and the Gentiles elected in their stead, was meant to show that although some Jewish branches were cut off, yet the tree was not uprooted. He informs the Gentile believers that it is customary for a good family tree to list some good children in order to strengthen their genealogy. But in the case of the Gentiles, the opposite happened. They were already part of a wild family tree whose branches were drafted into a good tree. So it was the Gentiles who benefited, not the Jews. The Gentiles got to enjoy the fruitfulness, excellence, and vitality of life that was part of the good tree’s root and stock. This was an act of mercy and goodness on the part of the divine gardener. So they have nothing to brag about what they did on their own.1
Robert Haldane sums up his commentary on why the Gentiles should be appreciative of how God dealt with the Jews as He arranged their salvation. The Apostle Paul enforces his warning to the Gentile believers by four concluding arguments: First, he calls on them to behold the severity of God’s strict justice in cutting off and casting out the unbelieving Jews. Secondly, to consider His goodness in conferring unmerited favor on the Gentiles who had attained a level of righteousness they were not even looking for. Thirdly, the necessity of continuing in that goodness, by abiding in the faith of the Gospel. And fourthly, to observe the assurance that if they did not continue abiding in the faith they would themselves be cut off.2
Haldane then goes on to point out that people generally form the character of God in their imagination according to their own preferences. But it is the duty of the Christian to take God’s character as it is revealed by Him in His Word. His goodness must not be misconstrued as evidence that He will not punish the guilty, and the most dreadful punishment of the guilty is consistent with the existence of supreme goodness in His Divine character. However, the fact that God did not demand righteousness by always following a straight line, nor did He insist on His judgment be strictly implemented, can be seen in His treatment of Israel, whom He had so long spared after they had sinned against Him.
Let no one imagine, then, that He will spare them if found guilty, just because they have the name of being His people. Rather let them be aware that the punishment will always be equal to the crime. The evidence that we are the true objects of the goodness of God, as Paul mentions here, is that we continue in it by remaining true in faith to the Gospel. Continuing in goodness is not to be understood as simply keeping our dignity and integrity, but maintaining our confidence and trust in God’s kindness. For by continuing in God’s goodness we proceed in our faith in His ability to keep us as His own and that will take care of our dignity and integrity.3
Albert Barnes focuses on the interpretation of the word “severe” (KJV), “strict” in our text above. He notes that the word “severity” sometimes suggests the idea of harshness, or even of cruelty. But nothing of this kind is conveyed in the Greek noun apotomia. It literally means to “cut off, abruptly come to an end.” Thayer in his Lexicon adds that when used figuratively, it suggests “decisiveness.” It is commonly associated with the work of a gardener or vine-dresser in trimming trees or vines, and cutting off the decayed or useless branches. Here it refers to the act of God in cutting off or rejecting the Jews as useless branches. It conveys no idea of injustice, cruelty, or harshness. It was a just and decisive act, and consistent with all the perfections of God. It indicated a purpose to do what was right, though the discipline might seem to be severe, they are often used to avoid extended suffering.4
Charles Hodge has an interesting treatment of what Paul says here to the Messianic believers about continuing in the faith so that they would not be cut off like the unbelieving Jews. For Hodge, the foundation of all such statements is the simple truth that anyone who proposes the end results, also offers the means to accomplish it. In other words, they achieve the proper end by using the proper means. When a rational approach is used in selecting the goal, then the means of reaching that goal must also be secured based on rational considerations.
Guesswork has no place in this process. The mind must be clear and determined in order to make the process effective. That’s why there was no covenant made by God with the Gentiles that promised their salvation despite their unbelief. By the same token, there was no such promise by God to protect the Jews from the consequences of their unbelief. Anything freely given by God to the Gentiles or the Jews required that such favors would only continue based on the conduct of each successive generation. Paul, therefore, says to the Gentiles that they must continue in the divine favor, otherwise they also will be cut off.5
Charles Spurgeon makes this point about the future of the Jews. He believes that the Jews will never ceased to be a nation, although they have been scattered and delivered over into the hand of their adversaries because of their sins. They may enjoy various rights and privileges in the different countries where they settle for a while, but they cannot be absorbed into the nationalities by which they are surrounded. They must always be a separate and distinct people; and the day will still come when the branches of the olive tree, which have been so long cut off, will be grafted back in again. Then they will, as a nation, again behold the Messiah, the true and only King of the Jews, and their fullness will be the fullness of the Gentiles also.6
Frédéric Godet offers his analysis of what Paul says here. The readers of the letter in Rome have contemplated two examples of God’s dealings with the Gentiles and the Jews. One of kindness, the other of strictness. The first, directed toward the Gentiles; the second, toward the Jews. These are two lessons that the Apostle Paul did not want the believers in Rome to forget. In contrast to “kindness,” the Apostle Paul uses the forcible term “strictness.” This suggests an attitude in which there is no compromise or bending of the will. In describing these two modes God used in carrying out His will, Paul begins with kindness and strictness. But then, he switches by pointing out that God’s strictness came in the form of removing some Jewish branches from the Olive Tree of Israel. Then he connects God’s kindness to the grafted Gentile branches with the provision that they continue trusting in Him.
Godet also notes that God’s continuing kindness was made effective by His Grace from the start. It was made available to those with humble faith. Unhappy is the believer for whom Grace is no longer useful after they have served and trusted in God for a month or a year. They don’t appreciate it the same way they did to begin with. Paul warned the Gentiles that when believers begin to feel self-confident in their ability to maintain their salvation by good works and charitable giving and a positive attitude, it paralyzes the function and effectiveness of Grace. There is nothing more for them to expect by staying in this condition than to be cut off from the stem, just as it happened to the Jews. When that happens, both proud Jew and Gentile branches will end up laying side by side waiting to be used as firewood.7
F. F. Bruce makes the case that throughout the New Testament the theme of continuance is the test of reality. He sees the perseverance of the saints as a doctrine firmly grounded in New Testament, especially in the writings and teachings of Paul. But its consequence is that it is the saints who persevere. Since you stand fast only through faith it is a healthy exercise to heed Paul’s injunction to the Corinthian Christians: “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are holding to your faith.8”9
John Stott also sees the traces of antisemitism among some of the Gentile believers in Rome, that was mentioned before by Luther and Calvin. Paul’s admonition to the Gentiles not to boast, together with the arguments with which it was supported, was undoubtedly much needed in Rome. For, although the Jews were tolerated and protected by law from Gentile mistreatment, they still suffered a great deal of popular Gentile ill will and sometimes from outbreaks of violence. Resisting assimilation into Gentile culture, and refusing to abandon or modify their own practices, their “exclusiveness” bred the unpopularity out of which antisemitism was born. The Jew was a figure of amusement, contempt or hatred to the Gentiles among whom they lived.10 Paul was determined that Gentile believers in Rome would have no share in such antisemitic prejudice.11
Jewish scholar David Stern comments about this continuance in the faith as a guard against being cut off. Some people think that if they have given mental assent to the proposition that Yeshua is the Messiah, they have “eternal security” with God, no matter how they live their lives. This parody of genuine trust is rightly called “cheap grace.”12 The truth of the matter is that “faith” without actions to match is dead.13 In other words, salvation is conditional: provided you maintain yourself in that kindness! Otherwise you too will be cut off! This involves making sure that one’s faith “keeps itself alive through works of love.”14
German scholar Friedrich Tholuck touches on a thought that can give us some clarity here of what Paul was trying to say. It involves “wholeness” and “holiness.” Let me explain: We know that wholeness is a reference to good health and in this case the believer’s spiritual health. This involves unity and integrity being maintain with the source of one’s salvation. Living the Christian life is not acting. It is reality and relativism. That means being what we are supposed to be in Christ and applying it to our every day life. Holiness is gauged by commitment and discipline. Believers do not live the way they want to live, but the way God wants them to live. It means adopting God’s standards for one’s behavior. Not only in relationship to the world, but in kinship with each other. If the Jews were punished because they failed to live up to God’s expectations for them, then why should Gentiles fool themselves into thinking God will go easier on them?15
1 Adam Clarke: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 223
2 John 15:6
3 Robert Haldane: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 539
4 Albert Barnes: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
5 Charles Hodge: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 575
6 Charles Spurgeon: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
7 Frédéric Louis Godet: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
8 2 Corinthians 13:5
9 F. F. Bruce: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., Vol. 6, pp. 215–216
10 E. M. Smallwood, The Jews under Roman Rule from Pompey to Diocletian (Leiden, 1976), pp. 123f.
11 John Stott: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
12 This term was coined by German theologian Dietrich Bonhöffer in his book: The Cost of Discipleship, Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., New York, 1959, p. 45
13 James 2:14-26
14 Galatians 5:6; Ephesians 2:10
15 Exposition on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans: by Friedrich August Gottreu Tholuck, Trans. By Robert Menzies, Published by Sorin and Ball, Philadelphia, 1844, pp. 384-385