Romans 11 – Israel, Gentiles, and the Olive Tree

Romans 11 is probably the most difficult chapter in the entire book. As was mentioned in previous posts Paul is writing a letter to the church in Rome, which was a church he had never visited in person. In this letter he is dealing with divisions between Jewish Christians and Gentiles Christians and ultimately wants for them to find unity in Christ (as we will see in Romans 12). He talks about the unifying effects of faith in Christ, grace, and the righteousness that comes from God to those who believe. But for Jewish Christians there had to still be some reservations because God had promised their people some pretty special things back in the Old Testament. By what Paul was writing in Romans and the reality that God was allowing in Gentiles to the kingdom of God it seemed, perhaps, that God was not making good on his promises to the Jews. The reason for that is that Paul is now saying that no matter how well someone keeps the law, they are not considered righteous unless they believe Jesus Christ to be the Messiah. So what happens to the non-Christian Jews? In Romans 11, Paul says apostasy has always taken place…this is nothing new. Just like in the past, God has a plan for his people to return to him (olive tree analogy in 11:11-24).

“Did God reject his people?” This would be a natural question to ask in light of what Paul just wrote in chapter 10 – that only some of the Jews believed in Christ while others rejected him. Earlier in Romans, Paul has strongly made the case that faith must be in Christ and the result is righteousness to those who believe. The implication is that those Jews who have not believed must no longer be considered righteous because Christ is the only source of righteousness and is also the fulfillment of the law they are still trying to keep (10:4).

Paul says God did not reject his people and he points to two examples to prove it. The first example is himself (11:1). Paul is a Jew who has put his faith in Christ and is then the perfect test case to show that God has accepted any Jew who will put their faith in Christ, as Paul had. The second example is Elijah from 1 Kings 19. Elijah lived in a time when many Jews were apostate and had rejected God. God assured Elijah that there were more faithful Jews than he thought. The implication here is that though it seems gloomy for Israel based on what Paul has written, there is a lot going on behind the scenes that they just cannot yet see…just like in Elijah’s day, God, in Paul’s day also has a faithful remnant who were led by the law to Christ and received him as Messiah and Lord. That is what God intended for all Israel to do but only some did.

Balancing Grace, Works, Faith and God’s Choice
We get a little mixed up here around 11:5 about God’s choosing. Some have taken these verses and set them on their own, out of context and come to the conclusion that God picks and chooses in such a way that he must predetermine who is picked. We then refer to people as elect due to God’s choosing apart from anything they have done because, after all, righteousness is by grace and not by works as Paul has made plainly clear in several other places in Romans to this point. Look back at the example of the remnant in the days of Elijah…God choose them by grace, why? Because they had not bowed to Baal.The NIV does us a disservice here by translating the same word as “chosen” in 11:5 and “elect” in 11:7. The point in both verses is that it is God who does the choosing and it is not done arbitrarily. The question is, by what criteria does he choose?

It is possible for our salvation to be 100% by the grace of God and for our faith to still matter! In other words…God does the choosing. God does the saving. But the criteria God is looking for in how he chooses is that he is looking for faith in Christ and when he sees that he moves and acts on our behalf. That doesn’t mean the faith saves us. It doesn’t mean proper belief earns or merits or forces God to move on our behalf and work to save us. So our faith doesn’t earn our righteousness but it is what God is looking for in order for him to make his choice to save us by grace. Bottom line – what we do and believe does matter but it doesn’t earn anything. Only God can decide to save.

So God moves favorably toward those who believe in Christ but to those who do not believe he also takes action (11:7-10). God brings judgment upon them (this judgment will be seen in a moment through the example of the olive tree…a classic sign of judgment in the Old Testament). But for now we see that those who should have recognized Christ but rejected him instead become hardened (literally petrified or calloused) because their life intersected the truth from God and they rejected it as a lie. When you do so something bad happens and God brings judgment (11:8-10).

Olive Tree Illustration (11:11-24):
In 9:33 Paul called Jesus as stumbling stone. It is clear that the part of Israel that has not believed in Christ has stumbled. The question then is, “how far?” (11:11). Paul says that their stumbling has not been so fatal to them that they are without hope. But while they have stumbled, God has made a way for the Gentiles to be saved for two purposes. 1) God has always wanted to bring salvation to the Gentiles at the proper time. 2) God hoped that the Jews who did not believe would see Gentiles coming into the kingdom and be jealous/envious of their new position and would hopefully result in them coming to Christ as well.

The olive tree example serves as an illustration of what God is doing with the world. It all comes down to faith and grace. Branches that have faith have a place. God does not arbitrarily pick branches. He does not do it haphazardly. He does it by a very specific criteria…he looks for faith. If the Jews put their faith in Christ they continue to have a place in the tree. If they don’t have faith in Christ as Messiah, they are broken off and room is made for Gentiles to come in. So God looks at the Gentiles for faith and if he finds it, he cuts them from the wild olive tree and grafts them into God’s olive tree. But if they lose faith, they too can be removed. If the Jews who have been cut out then believe Christ to be the messiah, they too can be grafted back in. Witherington points out the reason Paul says the Gentiles are from a wild olive tree is because those types of olive trees don’t produce olive oil. They are basically useless on their own. It puts them in a humbling position of getting nourishment from the roots of the good olive tree even though they don’t produce the good oil like the original branches do. Because of that Paul tells them not to be arrogant over their position in the tree (11:19-21).

In 11:22 Paul uses two very different words to descibe God – kind and stern. He is kind to let any branches grow from the root. He is also stern enough to remove any branches that lose faith. As far as 11:25-36 goes, I will have to get back with you. I am still wrestling with these verses. It is difficult to read these verses and try to understand what Paul meant, while keeping it consistent with all that Paul has already said about Israel. More on that later!

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