NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER ELEVEN (Lesson XXVIII)
On the subject of the restoration of the Jews, Karl Barth adds that the hope of the Body of Christ should not be extinguished or destroyed. The One who scattered Israel will gather them again.1 Rejection and election are of God. Both are wonderful, mysterious, and incomprehensible. In fact, there is nothing more wonderful, more mysterious, and more incomprehensible than the election of those who sought God, than the election of those who never sought Him. They indeed have good reason to set their hope on grace alone, to hope with the Body of Christ for it.2 In other words, the same hope that believers have that Christ will return to gather them to Himself for eternity, is the same hope that Jews can have that before He returns to set up His kingdom He will restore them to their rightful place.
Jewish scholar David Stern has something to say from his perspective. Wouldn’t it be much easier to bring an understanding of spiritual truth to those who belong to God as His people and with whom He has been dealing with for thousands of years than to those who did not? The analogy does not apply to every single Jew over against every single Gentile – especially today, when some Jews are raised without any Jewish identification, while many Gentiles, particularly those raised in Christian homes, have been exposed to spiritual truth as much as or more than many Jews.
But, putting modern exceptions aside, it ought to be easier for a Jew to believe in Yeshua as the Messiah than for a Gentile – this certainly was true when Paul wrote this letter, since “Messiah” is a concept which is part of Jewish culture, whereas Gentiles had to be introduced to an idea alien to their idolatrous upbringing.3 Furthermore, a Jew, as a member of the Jewish people, has the advantages enumerated in Romans 9:4–5. This is why a current “Jews for Jesus” slogan says, in a lighthearted vein, ”You don’t have to be Jewish to believe in Jesus — but it helps!”4
Verse 24: For if it is not natural for wild olive branches to become part of cultivated olive trees, how much more will the natural branches be grafted back into their own tree again?
What Paul is talking about here was a well-known subject among Jewish scholars. For instance, it was taught by Jewish teachers that they were not to graft the branch of a palm tree onto an olive tree because this constitutes introducing one species into a different species and creating a mixed species. However, Rabbi Yudan wondered if this did not conflict with what was taught by Rabbi Levi in his illustration from Psalm 128:3. There it says: “Your wife will be like a fruitful vine in the inner parts of your house. Your children around the table will be like shoots from an olive tree.”
In other words, a man takes a wife from another family tree and by marriage, she is grafted into his family tree. Then their children will come forth like branches bearing characteristics from both family trees. So by saying that branches from olive trees should not be grafted into other trees would be the same as not wanting your children to be different from other children if you marry outside the immediate family. In that case, they wouldn’t be unique to you.5 So we see that for the Jews to be told that Gentiles like the branch from a palm tree would be grafted into Israel, the olive tree, it would cause them great consternation. But it wasn’t to discourage them only to motivate them. That is why whether the branch comes from the Jewish tree or the Gentile tree, they will all be a new breed of trees called Christians.
This idea of Israel being an olive tree was spoken of many times in Jewish documents. For instance, we read in their Talmud that a voice spoke from heaven one day and said that the name the Lord gave to Israel was that of a healthy olive tree, abundant with good fruit, and just as the olive tree produces its best fruit the longer it lives,6 so Israel will flourish at the end of time.7 And further on we read where Rabbi Joshua ben Levi asked, “Why is Israel compared to an olive tree?” That’s because just as the olive tree does not lose its leaves either in summer or in winter, so Israel will never be unrecognizable either in this world or in the world to come.8 Then Rabbi Johanan asked the same question: “Why is Israel compared to an olive tree?” That’s because just as the olive produces its oil only after pounding, so Israel will return to the right way only after suffering.9
Several church scholars weigh in on their understanding of this verse. When speaking about what faith can accomplish, Chrysostom believes that if faith could do what was contrary to nature, how much more will it be able to accomplish that which is according to nature. Therefore, if Gentiles, who were cut off from their natural family tree, and came, contrary to nature, to be grafted into Abraham’s spiritual tree, how much more will God be able to reattach the original branches which fell off!10
Then Pelagius points out how this grafting was unnatural. The forefathers of the Gentiles had ceased to follow the laws of nature because they stopped learning and teaching these laws to their children. So when their sinful traits became a natural part of the human race, they ceased to be of any value as inhabitants of the earth. In other words, as Adam was the father of a perfect olive tree, once he sinned he passed on the virus of evil to his children who passed it on to their children. In a sense, they became wild olive trees who do not bear any fruit. So they existed for no reason other than to steal the natural nutrients from the ground which perpetuated their useless existence.
So why take a branch from such a wild olive tree and graft it into a cultivated olive tree? Wouldn’t the wild branch alter the effectiveness of the root of the cultivated tree to produce good fruit? No! The root is not inhibited from producing fruit on the grafted branches to conform to its character but conform the branch and its fruit to the character of the root.11 It appears that Pelagius may have had some experience with grafting. What he is really saying here is that there is such a thing as “root grafting,” which in a way changes the root. But the grafting of a different species into a root will not prevent that grafted bud from producing its fruit with traits it did not have before which makes it better in quality.
Reformer Martin Luther recognizes that Paul is aware that you cannot graft a wild olive branch into a cultivated olive tree and get good results, so what is happening here is that the seed that took root and sprouted into the cultivated Jewish olive tree was unable to produce the fruit God was looking for on its current branches. So God took branches from the Gentile wild olive tree and grafted them in. So how did it happen that the fruit then produced was what God was wanting? Because the bad fruit produced by the Jewish Olive tree resulted from the corrupt human factor which infected the original branches, while the good fruit produced by the grafted branches in the same tree resulted from the sanctified spiritual factor involved. Luther concludes that the Gentile wild olive branch became a fruitful branch, not by nature, nor by their natural righteousness, or virtue, but by the divine grace that flowed through them from the root of the Abrahamic olive tree whose spiritual branch is the Promised Son, Jesus.12
For Adam Clarke, Paul wants the Romans to concentrate more on the result more than the effort in the grafting of the wild olive branch into the cultivated olive tree. It is contrary to all horticultural custom for a gardener to take a branch from a tree that bears no fruit and graft it into a healthy, fruit-yielding tree. But here we have the Gentiles, a fruitless race, in the sense of God’s righteousness, who were grafted into the ancient patriarchal stock of Abraham. Now, if it was possible to effect such a drastic change in the attitude and disposition of the Gentiles, who were without the Yahweh as their God,13 how much more possible would it be, using common human logic, to bring about a similar change in the Jews, who already acknowledge the One and Only True God, and who accepted the Law and the prophets as an accurate revelation of Him and from Him.14
Albert Barnes shares his understanding of the grafting phenomenon. It begins by acknowledging that the Gentiles had no inclination or tendency toward Yahweh. This does not mean that they were physically depraved, or that their disposition was literally like the wild olive. But it is used, for the sake of illustration, to show that their moral character and habits as enemies of Yahweh were unlike those of the friends of God. This should give light and understanding to Christians today on how it is possible for a sinner who has no relationship with God to be grafted into the Holy Body of Christ and began immediately to display the characteristics of Christ in their words, deeds, and identity. The sinful source that fed their hearts and minds and bodies has been radically changed. Now they are being nurtured by a spiritual source based on God’s Word and the indwelling Holy Spirit.
The meaning of this whole verse may be understood this way: If Yahweh had mercy on the Gentiles, who were outcasts from His favor, would He not much rather have mercy on those who were so long His people? The people to whom had been given the promises, and the covenants, and the Law, whose many ancestors had been His friends, and from whom the Messiah was born? In some respects, it certainly would be easier to talk with the Jews than the Gentiles. They worshiped one God; they admit that His promises are the authority upon which their revelation of Him; they have the Scriptures of the First Covenant; they expected a Messiah; and they have a habit of professed reverence for the will of God. The Gentiles, however, were like nomads living in the desert who were totally unaware that there was such a God. In fact, they had already created all the gods they would ever need.15
This is what puzzled Paul who himself had been in that state. But when he encountered Christ on the road to Damascus and saw the light of His glory, it changed him drastically. So why can’t his fellow Jews be affected by that same light that was now brought to them in the Gospel of Christ? This is the same dilemma that Christian parents often experience with their children who after leaving home become engrossed in worldly living. If anything, it is to show that such decisions are not based on our human will but on the sovereign will of God.
1 Jeremiah 31:10
2 Karl Barth: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
3 See Acts of the Apostles 11:20-23
4 David H. Stern: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
5 Jerusalem Talmud: First Division, Tractate Kil’ayim, Ch. 1:7
6 It is only after many years that the olive-tree bears fruit.
7 Babylonian Talmud: Seder Kodashim, Masekhet Menachot, folio 53b
8 Shouldn’t this be the motto of the Christian Church as well?
9 Talmud, Ibid.
10 Chrysostom: Homilies on Romans 19
11 Pelagius: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
12 Martin Luther: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 161
13 Ephesians 2:12
14 Adam Clarke: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., pp. 225-226
15 Albert Barnes: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.