When I was in the sixth grade, I learned the hard way the difference between being privileged and being favored. My friend Ricky and I were projectionists. It was a position of privilege; it was also a privilege because we got out of class to run the projector for other classes. However, Ricky and I did not live up to our position of privilege. We raced the projection cart, with the projector, down the empty halls of the school while everyone else was in class.
On one occasion, just as I was banking a curve with the skill of Andy Granatelli and making record time down the hallways, I collided with one of the teachers. Unfortunately for me, the teacher was my father. Although I was his son, this did not make things easier for me; in fact, it made things much worse. Because I was his son, he gave me a double dose of discipline. My racing days were over, at least in the school halls where my father might be encountered.
The nation Israel was God’s “son” in the sense that God had chosen this people to be the source of blessing to all the world (see Exodus 4:23; Hosea 11:1). The Jews quickly began to forget that God’s blessings and their privileged status were gifts of God’s grace, something for which they could take no credit. They began to presume on God’s grace, supposing that because they were privileged they were exempt from God’s chastening. They believed in the “kindness and severity of God.” They also believed they deserved and were assured of God’s kindness, and that the Gentile heathen deserved God’s severity. Israel’s pride became her downfall.
The downfall of Israel and the salvation of Gentiles is the subject of Romans 9-11. Two primary questions are asked and answered in these three chapters:
(1) Has the Word of God failed because Israel has failed (see 9:6)?
(2) Is there any hope for the nation Israel, or was her failure fatal and final (see 11:1, 11)?
Paul’s answers to these questions are clear and confident. His answer to the first question is this: The Word of God has not failed; rather, God’s Word has been fulfilled. The Old Testament clearly reveals that God never intended or promised to save and to bless every physical descendant of Abraham. God chose to bless some and not others. Those who have failed are those whom God has not chosen; the faithful remnant are His chosen ones. It is men who have failed because the gospel was proclaimed to the nation Israel, and they willfully rejected it. For their disobedience, they are without excuse.
Paul’s answer to the second question is this: Israel’s hope is still future, and it is just as certain as God’s Word is reliable. Israel’s disobedience and God’s chastening was long before foretold by Moses in Deuteronomy 28-31. Israel’s history is but the playing out of prophecy. Since God’s promises to Israel are not based upon human merit or works but on sovereign grace, they are unthreatened by Israel’s disobedience. Just as no amount of good works could merit God’s grace, no amount of sin and rebellion can thwart His grace.
The conversion of many Gentiles bears testimony that Israel’s sin has resulted in the fulfilling of God’s purpose to save men from every nation. Israel was to be a “light to the Gentiles.” It was their privilege and responsibility not only to believe the gospel but to proclaim it to the nations. They neither believed it nor proclaimed it. Because of Israel’s disobedience, the good news of the gospel has been extended to the Gentiles, and many have come to faith. All this has happened through Israel as a disobedient people. One can hardly fathom what blessings will come to the world when Israel repents of her sin and comes to faith in Jesus as the Messiah.
The spotlight has been on Israel up to this point. Paul does not want her failure to produce the wrong result in the hearts and lives of his Gentile readers. The Gentiles are no different than the Jews, for all have sinned. The failures of Israel should serve to warn the Gentiles against committing similar sins. Paul fears that in focusing on the failures of the Jews, some Gentiles might become puffed up with feelings of pride, looking down on the Jews. As a result, Paul turns from explanation to application in verse 13 of Romans 11. He wishes for his Gentile readers to learn from Israel’s failures. He desires that they respond to God’s grace with humility and praise toward God rather than with pride.
In verses 25-32, to be considered in our next lesson, Paul will turn to Israel’s future restoration. He will direct our attention to the fulfillment of God’s promises to His people, the Jews, as it relates to God’s present dealings with the Gentiles. Finally, in verses 33-36, Paul will fall on his knees, praising God for His infinite wisdom as revealed in the outworking of His plan to save both Jews and Gentiles.
It is probably best to view our passage as falling into two major sections. Verses 13-16 focus on Paul, on his identity as a Jew, and on his ministry to the Gentiles. Verses 17-24 focus on Paul’s Gentile readers, who may misinterpret the failure of the Jews and the blessings which God has been pouring out on the Gentiles. Here Paul warns his Gentile readers of the folly and consequences of pride as seen from Israel’s history.
The structure of our text can be summarized:
(1) Paul’s ministry to the Gentiles as a faithful Jew — Verses 13-16
(2) Paul’s words of admonition to the Gentiles, based upon the failure of the Jews — Verses 17-24
13 But I am speaking to you who are Gentiles. Inasmuch then as I am an apostle of Gentiles, I magnify27 my ministry, 14 if somehow I might move to jealousy my fellow countrymen and save some of them. 15 For if their rejection be the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead? 16 And if the first piece of dough be holy, the lump is also; and if the root be holy, the branches are too.
Currently, Israel is to be characterized by her unbelief. She is under divine discipline as seen by her dullness to the truth of the gospel. Nevertheless, in spite of Israel’s present unbelief, there is hope for the Jews. This hope is based upon the faithfulness of God to His Word and not the faithfulness of God’s people. Israel’s failure is partial, for God has preserved a faithful remnant. Her failure is not permanent, for she will be restored in the future.
In coming to faith in Christ, Paul has not denied his Jewish heritage. His conversion was no denial of his Jewish hopes but an entrance into them through Jesus, Israel’s Messiah. Therefore, in chapters 9-11 Paul has pointed to his roots and affirmed his loyalty to both his heritage and his hopes as a Jew.
This raises a question: If Paul is a faithful Jew, what is he doing ministering to Gentiles? If there is still hope for Israel, how can Paul justify ministering to Gentiles rather than to Jews?28 Paul’s answer is given in verses 13-16. His response proves that his ministry to the Gentiles is completely consistent with His Jewish heritage and hope.
Paul acknowledges that he is an “apostle to the Gentiles” (verse 13). This is not a ministry which he takes lightly. Indeed far from minimizing his ministry, he seeks to magnify it. He seeks to enlarge and to enhance this ministry to the degree that God enables him. Paul does not take this ministry on half-heartedly or perform it begrudgingly.
Although not stated in our text, I believe there is a very good reason why Paul’s ministry to the Gentiles is fully compatible with his identity as a Jew. Paul might be thought of as some kind of exception, some deviation from the norm. Some might think his ministry to the Gentiles was a unique calling. It was not. Israel had been chosen to become the source of blessing to all nations. Israel was not only to believe the gospel but to proclaim it to the nations, to the Gentiles. They both refused the gospel and resisted its proclamation among the nations.29 When Paul obediently preached the gospel to the Gentiles, he was simply doing that which every faithful Jew was called to do—to take the light to the Gentiles. While Paul’s actions may seem to be the exception, God had instructed that they be the rule. Paul’s ministry as an apostle to the Gentiles was completely consistent with his calling as a Jew.
Paul also understood that his ministry to Gentiles was not in conflict with God’s purposes for the Jews or with his hope as a Jew. He saw his ministry as playing a role in God’s purpose and program for the Jews at that point in time:
Inasmuch then as I am an apostle of Gentiles, I magnify my ministry, if somehow I might move to jealousy my fellow countrymen and save some of them (verses 13b-14).
His preaching to the Gentiles certainly did provoke the Jews to jealousy, as we can see in the Book of Acts:
“And he said to me, ‘Go! For I will send you far away to the Gentiles.’” And they [the Jewish mob gathered at Jerusalem] listened to him up to this statement, and then they raised their voices and said, “Away with such a fellow from the earth, for he should not be allowed to live!” (Acts 22:21-22).
The Jews did not want the gospel, but neither did they want Paul to preach this gospel to the Gentiles.
Provoking the Jews to jealousy was fulfilling God’s purpose for Israel at this time in history, as a divine response to their rebellion. This was fully consistent with the prophecy of Deuteronomy 28-31, which not only foretold of Israel’s disobedience but of the divine discipline God would bring on His people:
‘They have made Me jealous with what is not God; They have provoked Me to anger with their idols. So I will make them jealous with those who are not a people; I will provoke them to anger with a foolish nation’ (Deuteronomy 32:21).
Isaiah’s ministry as a prophet of God to the Jews was not to bring this willful nation to repentance but to proclaim its guilt and even add to it (Isaiah 6:1-10).30 Paul’s ministry was not to turn this willful nation around but to play a part in provoking it to jealousy. In this way, some would be saved. And in this remnant, Israel’s hope was assured.
Paul’s ministry to the Gentiles was not in conflict with God’s promises to Israel. His ministry was perfectly consistent with all that God had said. Paul was confident of this, and thus he could magnify his ministry among the Gentiles knowing that in the long run it was for the good of his fellow-countrymen.
There is a vitally important point to be noted here. Ministry is like spirituality: appearances are often deceiving. To the unbelieving Jews, Paul’s ministry to the Gentiles appeared to be a betrayal of his heritage. He looked to the unbelieving Jews like a traitor to the cause of Israel. They were wrong, because they looked only at the appearance and not at the truth.
In Luke’s Gospel, our Lord warned the Pharisees about judging on the basis of appearances.
And He said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of men, but God knows your hearts; for that which is highly esteemed among men is detestable in the sight of God” (Luke 16:15).
Outwardly, the appearance was that Paul was unfaithful to his Jewish heritage and calling. The unbelieving Jews thought they were “keeping the faith.” In reality, they were doing just the opposite. The unbelieving nation of Israel did not believe in Jesus as their Messiah, and they did not proclaim the good news to the Gentiles. Paul did so, and in being obedient to his calling (both individually and as a Jew), he provoked his brethren to jealousy and some came to faith.
Who would ever have thought Jewish evangelism would have been achieved by Gentile evangelism? Who would have imagined that by turning to the Gentiles Paul was doing Israel a great service? No one. But this is the way God works. In verses 33-36 of this chapter, Paul concludes by praising God for His wisdom, a wisdom which far surpasses anything men would have devised or even imagined. Who would have imagined that the salvation of the Gentiles would have been accomplished through Israel’s disobedience rather than her obedience? Yet this was God’s way. In achieving His purposes His way, God receives all the glory.
We have here a very important lesson to be learned. Frequently, we are called to achieve God’s purposes in ways which may seem contrary to His purposes. In biblical terms, we are called to walk by faith and not by sight, to walk in obedience to His Word, even when doing so seems contrary to God’s purposes.
For example, how could one ever imagine that God’s promise to Abraham would be fulfilled by obeying God and putting his son to death as God commanded him (see Genesis 22)? Faith required Abraham to obey, trusting in God rather to live by appearances. God calls upon us to give up our lives in order to gain them, to take up our cross in order to serve Him. Obedience to God’s Word by faith may often seem inconsistent with what He has promised to accomplish, but God’s ways are often accomplished by the most unlikely means.
The church has been commanded to “make disciples of every nation” (Matthew 28:18-20). This command necessitates evangelism, preaching the gospel (see Romans 10:14-15). Often there are often those who lay a guilt trip on every believer, insisting that we obey the Lord’s command by doing what appears to be evangelistic. And so every Christian is urged to do those things which on the surface seem to be evangelism. If we are not passing out tracts, going door to door, or doing what others expect of us, we can often feel guilty. If Paul had done what appeared to be necessary to evangelize the Jews, he would have been aggressively pursuing Jewish evangelism. He did actively pursue Jewish evangelism, by going to the synagogues and preaching Christ. But he also saw that his ministry to the Gentiles was playing a part in Jewish evangelism too even if it did not appear so.
A young man may be out mowing the church lawn on a hot Saturday afternoon. As the heat of the sun bears down upon him, he may wonder if he should be mowing the grass when he could be out witnessing. But it may be the neatly-kept lawn which attracts and encourages a passerby to visit the church and thus hear the gospel. A housewife making a plate of cookies for an ailing neighbor may very well be playing a part in God’s plan to bring that neighbor to faith.
God has given each member of His body, the church, different gifts and a different ministry. We must exercise our gifts and fulfill our ministry, even though it may not “look” spiritual or appear to be directly related to God’s purposes. It is only when we see our obedience to Christ’s calling as a part of the larger program and purposes of God that we are able to “magnify our ministry,” knowing that God will use it to achieve His purposes.
Paul performs his ministry to the Gentiles in hope—not only the hope of saving some Gentiles, but in the certain hope that all Israel will be restored to a place of belief and blessing. This hope is expressed in verses 15 and 16. The specific meaning of Paul’s words here provokes great discussion, but the general intent of his words is very clear: Israel’s rejection of the gospel has led to the universal proclamation of the gospel to the whole world. Thereby, reconciliation to God has been offered to all the world. Whereas the offer of the gospel was initially restricted to the Jews (see Matthew 10:5-7; 15:24), their rejection of the good news caused the preaching of the gospel to be universal. Reconciliation is available to all who will receive it, by grace through faith.
If Israel’s rejection of the gospel has brought about the “reconciliation of the world,” how much more the world will be blessed by Israel’s acceptance of the gospel (verse 15). It will bring about not only reconciliation but “life from the dead.”31 This argument from the lesser to the greater is but an elaboration of what Paul has already said in verse 12.
Paul turns in verse 16 to two other illustrations which affirm the hope of Israel. The first illustration is the imagery of the first-fruits as God prescribed these offerings in Leviticus 15. The first-fruits were the offerings of the first part of the greater quantity which was yet to come. The first small portion of grain harvested was offered to God, acknowledging that He had provided it and that He would provide the full harvest which was still to come. If the first portion of “dough” is “holy,” it is assured that the rest of the “lump” will be holy. Whether the first-fruit to which Paul refers is that of Abraham (and perhaps the patriarchs), or that of the remnant of true Israelites, the point is clear: God has saved some, and these are the evidences that a greater harvest is to come.
The second illustration Paul uses in verse 16 is that of the tree, its roots, and its branches. This imagery will be the basis for Paul’s admonition in verses 17-24. But here he wishes to show that the well-being of the root is the basis for the well-being of the limbs and their fruit.
Paul is seeking to establish and to demonstrate two major principles by his words in verses 15 and 16. First, he is arguing that the good which we presently see God doing through Israel’s disobedience is insignificant in comparison to the good which God is yet to do through Israel’s repentance and restoration.
Second, I believe he is seeking to tie the welfare of the Gentiles to the well-being of the Jews. If the Gentiles should be so foolish as to rejoice at the downfall of Israel, they are mistaken. They have benefited from Israel’s downfall, but they, like Paul, should seek the restoration of Israel, for the restoration of Israel is the basis for even greater blessings for the Gentiles. The blessings of the Gentiles are always linked to their root in the Jews. The more God blesses Israel, the more we Gentiles are blessed. We Gentiles, like Paul, should be cheering for the Jews. Their blessings are the basis for our own. Only a fool would rejoice in Israel’s failure or in God’s divine chastening of these His chosen people.
17 But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, being a wild olive, were grafted in among them and became partaker with them of the rich root of the olive tree, 18 do not be arrogant toward the branches; but if you are arrogant, remember that it is not you who supports the root, but the root supports you. 19 You will say then, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” 20 Quite right, they were broken off for their unbelief, but you stand by your faith. Do not be conceited, but fear; 21 for if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will He spare you.
22 Behold then the kindness and severity of God; to those who fell, severity, but to you, God’s kindness, if you continue in His kindness; otherwise you also will be cut off. 23 And they also, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in; for God is able to graft them in again. 24 For if you were cut off from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and were grafted contrary to nature into a cultivated olive tree, how much more shall these who are the natural branches be grafted into their own olive tree?
Now having laid the foundation, Paul brings his Gentile readers to the point of what he has been teaching them. Using the analogy of the fig tree and its branches, Paul shows the folly of spiritual pride and the need for a deep sense of humility and holy fear. Before interpreting the meaning of Paul’s words, let us first lay a foundation to guide us and keep us from pressing the meaning of Paul’s imagery too far.
First, Paul is speaking of Israel and the Gentiles collectively more than he is speaking of men individually. While there are individual dimensions to Paul’s words, he is primarily speaking here collectively of God’s dealings with the Jews and the Gentiles. The thrust of Paul’s teaching in these verses is not to speak of the salvation of individuals so much as the privileges and blessings of two groups: the Jews and the Gentiles.
Second, Paul is speaking generally of the privileges and blessings which God bestows on His people. While salvation is surely a blessing which God bestows by means of His grace, the blessings of which Paul speaks here are more general, including salvation but not restricted to it.
Third, the larger context of Romans 9-11 stresses the sovereignty of God and the certainty of His blessings in spite of the failure of His people. Paul has stressed the security of the believer, and here in these verses it is most unlikely that he is attempting to do so now. Paul is striving to discourage pride and to encourage humility.
Fourth, the problem underlying these words is that Gentile believers, like the Jews, may soon forget that God’s blessings in their lives are by His grace through faith and not of works.
Having determined the general sense and thrust of this passage, let us now try to understand in greater detail by looking more closely at Paul’s words of warning to the Gentile Christian based upon Israel’s failures.
In the early chapters of Deuteronomy, God warned the Israelites they would soon forget that His blessings were based upon grace and not upon their worth. The Israelites were a greatly privileged people:
“Indeed, ask now concerning the former days which were before you, since the day that God created man on the earth, and inquire from one end of the heavens to the other. Has anything been done like this great thing, or has anything been heard like it? Has any people heard the voice of God speaking from the midst of the fire, as you have heard it, and survived? Or has a god tried to go to take for himself a nation from within another nation by trials, by signs and wonders and by war and by a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm and by great terrors, as the LORD your God did for you in Egypt before your eyes? To you it was shown that you might know that the LORD, He is God; there is no other besides Him. Out of the heavens He let you hear His voice to discipline you; and on earth He let you see His great fire, and you heard His words from the midst of the fire. Because He loved your fathers, therefore He chose their descendants after them. And He personally brought you from Egypt by His great power, driving out from before you nations greater and mightier than you, to bring you in and give to you their land for an inheritance, as it is today (Deuteronomy 4:32-38).
But God knew that once the Israelites began to taste of God’s grace in the land of Canaan, they would forget that all His blessings were bestowed on them by grace in spite of their sin:
Beware lest you forget the LORD your God by not keeping His commandments and His ordinances and His statutes which I am commanding you today; lest, when you have eaten and are satisfied, and have built good houses and lived in them, and when your herds and your flocks multiply, and your silver and gold multiply, and all that you have multiplies, then your heart becomes proud, and you forget the LORD your God who brought you out from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. He led you through the great and terrible wilderness, with its fiery serpents and scorpions and thirsty ground where there was no water; He brought water for you out of the rock of flint. In the wilderness He fed you manna which your fathers did not know, that He might humble you and that He might test you, to do good for you in the end. Otherwise, you may say in your heart, ‘My power and the strength of my hand made me this wealth.’ But you shall remember the LORD your God, for it is He who is giving you power to make wealth, that He may confirm His covenant which He swore to your fathers, as it is this day (Deuteronomy 8:11-18).
The Israelites did not heed these words of warning. Over and over in their history, they turned from God to idols. They spurned God’s grace and became proud in heart. They believed God blessed them because they were superior to the Gentiles. Their pride was but self-righteousness. In their self-righteousness, they ignored or denied their sin, and thus they felt no need for grace (a rich man needs no charity.) And so, when Jesus came, offering grace and forgiveness to “sinners,” the majority of Israelites did not think they needed Him nor did they want a Messiah like Him. They disdained and rejected the salvation He offered to sinners. Ultimately, they put Him to death, with the help of the Romans.
Now the Jews and the Gentiles have changed places. The Jews are the heathen, and the Gentiles are being offered forgiveness and salvation by grace through faith. As Gentiles believe and enter into the blessings of God, all too soon they too will forget that God’s blessings are by His grace alone. They will begin to look down on the Jews who have not believed and who are suffering divine discipline. They will become arrogant about their privileged status. They will repeat the sin of the Jews.
Following the imagery of the olive tree and its branches, Paul illustrates two forms which Gentile arrogance may take. The first form of error is exposed and corrected in verses 17 and 18, and the second in verses 19-21. In verses 22-24, Paul returns to the crux of the matter, the basis for all of God’s blessings. His words in these verses, if believed, will produce humility and dependence.32
In verses 17 and 18, the first form of Gentile error is exposed. A Jewish branch is broken off from the tree. A Gentile branch, which is inferior—a “wild” olive branch, is grafted into the tree. The Gentile branch begins to feel arrogant toward the branches. He fails to see that he is grafted in among the Jewish branches (verse 17). He does not understand that
Israel's failure is both temporary and partial. It is as though there are no branches, other than Gentile branches. This is exactly how the Jews felt toward the Gentiles. If one were to enter into God’s blessings, one had to become a Jew.
And when the Gentile branch realizes that there are Jewish branches, he begins to feel superior to them. Paul reminds the Gentile branch that he is a “wild olive branch,” an inferior branch, as far as fruit-bearing is concerned. Grafting in such an inferior branch is contrary to nature (see verse 24). God grafted the Gentile branch into the tree in spite of its “roots” and not because of its superiority.
Does this Gentile branch reason that God has removed Israel from His plan and purpose? Does he think it is all over for the nation Israel, from the question asked in verses 1 and 11 of chapter 11? Does he suppose God’s Word has failed (9:6)? Let him recall that he is the branch, and Israel is the tree. It is not a Gentile tree which may support a few Jewish Christians, but a Jewish tree which supports some Gentiles.
I am reminded of the relationship between a flea and a dog. Israel is the dog, and the flea is a Gentile Christian. How foolish for the flea to despise the dog and to suppose that the dog is dependent on him. All the flea does for the dog is make him itch. All the Gentile does for the Jewish unbeliever is make him jealous. How foolish for fleas to look down on the dog. How foolish for Gentiles to disdain the Jews!
A second form of Gentile pride is described and corrected in verses 19-21. If the first error was in misunderstanding the relationship of the grafted branch to the tree, the second error is in misunderstanding the relationship between the “broken off” (Jewish) limb to the “grafted in” (Gentile) limb.
A Jewish limb is broken off. A Gentile limb is grafted into the trunk of the olive tree. The Gentile limb begins to reason something like this:
“A Jewish limb was broken off. I, a Gentile limb, was grafted in. I took the Jewish limb’s place. I must be a better limb than the Jewish limb. God removed that limb in order to put me in its place. I am better than the Jewish limb!”
The breaking off of the one limb and the grafting in of the other has nothing to do with the worth of the limb. There is really no difference between an unfruitful “natural” limb and a worthless “wild” limb. It is the case of the “pot calling the kettle black.” The issue is not the Gentile branch’s works or its worth, as compared to the other Jewish branch. The issue is faith. The Jewish limb was removed because of unbelief. The Gentile limb was grafted in because of faith. Grace, working through faith, does not bring glory to the sinner who is saved by grace but only brings glory to God who is gracious. The Gentile limb is in error by comparing itself to the Jewish limb when the Gentile limb should be looking to the trunk—God. Salvation by grace gives no believer any basis for pride.
Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. For indeed Jews ask for signs, and Greeks search for wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block, and to Gentiles foolishness, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. For consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised, God has chosen, the things that are not, that He might nullify the things that are, that no man should boast before God. But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption, that, just as it is written, “LET HIM WHO BOASTS, BOAST IN THE LORD” (1 Corinthians 1:20-31).
In verses 22-24 Paul brings the issue to a head as his words turn men’s attention from themselves to God. His words specifically turn men’s attention to the two ways in which God deals with men in His incomprehensible workings: “Behold … the kindness and severity of God.” Let us consider Paul’s words here in the light of Jeremiah’s words, centuries before:
Behold then the kindness and severity of God; to those who fell, severity, but to you, God’s kindness, if you continue in His kindness; otherwise you also will be cut off. And they also, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in; for God is able to graft them in again. For if you were cut off from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and were grafted contrary to nature into a cultivated olive tree, how much more shall these who are the natural branches be grafted into their own olive tree? (Romans 11:22-24).
Then the word of the LORD came to me saying, “Can I not, O house of Israel, deal with you as this potter does?” declares the LORD. “Behold, like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in My hand, O house of Israel. At one moment I might speak concerning a nation or concerning a kingdom to uproot, to pull down, or to destroy it, if that nation against which I have spoken turns from its evil, I will relent concerning the calamity I planned to bring on it. Or at another moment I might speak concerning a nation or concerning a kingdom to build up or to plant it, if it does evil in My sight by not obeying My voice, then I will think better of the good with which I had promised to bless it. So now then, speak to the men of Judah and against the inhabitants of Jerusalem saying, ‘Thus says the LORD, “Behold, I am fashioning calamity against you, and devising a plan against you. Oh turn back, each of you from his evil way, and reform your ways and your deeds.”’” (Jeremiah 18:5-11).
God’s dealings with men cannot be segregated racially. He does not deal with the Jews kindly and the Gentiles severely, as the Jews like to think. Neither does God deal kindly with the Gentiles and severely only with the Jews, as the Gentiles would like to think. God deals with men either kindly or severely, based upon man’s belief or lack of belief.
The Gentiles, like the Jews before them, are tempted to abuse the grace of God by thinking that God’s blessings are poured out on those who are better than others. God’s blessings are bestowed upon men by His sovereign grace, on the basis of faith alone. Since men cannot ultimately take credit for their faith, it is to God alone that glory and praise belong. God’s kindness is the outpouring of His grace on all who believe. God’s severity is the outpouring of His righteous wrath on all those who reject His grace, on all who will not believe.
Whether Jew or Gentile, God’s favor is always a matter of grace. Whether Jew or Gentile, God’s kindness is poured out on those who believe in Him. His wrath or severity is for those who refuse to believe. There is no basis for pride when men become the benefactors of His grace. There is only basis for humility—and even fear.
Those branches which were cut off were removed because of their unbelief. Those branches which were grafted in were grafted in because of their faith.33 The branches which have been grafted in should not feel smug and secure in their own strength or goodness. Arrogant self-sufficiency was the reason for the removal of the branches. No Gentile should be comfortable in his arrogance either. Paul is not trying to teach that those who are saved can lose that salvation. He is saying that those who are saved should remember they are kept in the same way they are saved, by trusting in God. Those who are self-sufficient must not be granted the luxury of feeling secure in their self-sufficiency. They must abide by faith.34
Paul’s word of warning to the self-righteous here are also words of hope for Israel. If God is severe toward those who do not believe, then they too may be delivered from God’s wrath and enter into His kindness by simply believing in God, and in His Messiah, Jesus Christ. Jeremiah’s words are both words of warning and words of hope. God’s severity toward Israel will be instrumental in bringing them into the realm of His kindness and grace. All the disobedient and unbelieving Jew (or Gentile) needs to do is to repent and believe in Jesus Christ. Through His sacrifice on the cross of Calvary, God’s righteous anger has been satisfied, and through Him, God’s righteousness has been provided.
What is the bottom line? It is this: God is no respecter of persons. He deals with the Gentiles on exactly the same basis as He deals with His chosen people, the Jews. He forgives and blesses those who believe in Him. He is severe toward those who do not believe. What is it that we must believe? Just what Paul has taught in the previous chapters of Romans. We must believe that we are a sinner, without any hope of God’s favor, deserving only of His eternal wrath. We must believe that God sent His Son to die in our place, to pay the penalty for our sins, and to provide us with His righteousness. We must believe that He has done all that is necessary for our eternal salvation. Have you believed in Him? When time ends and each man stands before God, there will be but one question: “Have you believed in My Son, or are you trusting in yourself?” May you believe in Him today.
A few important truths are taught in this text which we should consider in conclusion.
(1) Privileges and blessings bring greater responsibility, but they do not indicate superiority. Israel in the past, and the church in the present time, have been given great blessings. They have also been given a high privilege which brings with it great responsibility. These privileges and blessings are the result of God’s grace and not an evidence that we are better than others. We should be humbled by the grace of God. Arrogance flies in the face of grace. It is a perversion of grace. Grace is unmerited. Grace is sovereignly bestowed. Grace is given to the needy who believe, not to the self-righteous who think they are better.
What we are, in our sin, our ignorance, and our rebellion, is that for which we are responsible and for which God must deal with us in His severity. What we are, in Christ, is that for which God deserves all the glory. There is no basis for pride in Christ. There is ample basis for praising Him, from Whom, through Whom, and unto Whom are all things (Romans 11:36).
(2) Grace therefore gives the Christian a new perspective on failure and a new perspective on “success.” Failure cannot frustrate the purposes and promises of God. Failure can bring about the severity of God. Our own failures will be forgiven if we turn to God for grace. The failures of others only show that they are no different than we are. The failure of others should serve as a warning to us and must not become a false basis for a sense of superiority on our part.
The truths of this text help explain Paul’s agony described in Romans 7. Our failures remind us of who we are in Adam and of our need to cling to Christ. They remind us that we have not arrived, spiritually speaking, but that we are in a constant struggle with the sin which still indwells us. It is allowed and purposed by God to keep us humble and to keep us clinging to Him and Him alone.
Every success in life must be seen as a gift of God’s grace and not as an evidence of merit on our part. If we “succeed” as a parent, and our children are faithful to Him, it is by His grace alone. If we prosper materially, it is ultimately not our work ethic or our greater determination, but God’s grace. If God blesses our lives and our ministry, it is an evidence of His grace. If God gives us greater knowledge of His Word, it is grace. Every blessing is a gift of grace, which should turn us toward God in humility, dependence, and praise. Why is it that we, like the Jews and Gentiles of past days, seek to take credit for the work of God?
(3) The failures of men in the past are a warning to us in the present. Heeding them may spare us from repeating the sins of those who have gone before us. The Old Testament Scriptures are of great importance and value to the New Testament Christian (see 2 Timothy 3:16-17; Romans 15:4; 1 Corinthians 10:1-13ff.). Let us study them diligently. Let us listen to them and learn.
(4) Our response to the offer of salvation through Jesus Christ will determine whether we eternally enjoy His kindness or eternally endure His severity. The “kindness and the severity of God” are reflected in the person of Jesus Christ during His earthly ministry. Jesus was kind toward sinners, who acknowledged their sin and who received His grace. He said to the woman taken in the act of adultery, “Go and sin no more” (John 8:11). But Jesus was not so kind to those who condemned her and justified themselves. Jesus was severe in His indictment of the Pharisees and those who were self-righteous (see Matthew 5:20; 23:1-39). Jesus stormed the temple and thrust out the money-changers (Luke 19:45-46).
The goodness and severity of God can best be seen in the two comings of our Lord. In His first coming, Jesus came to “seek and to save those who are lost.” He came to be gracious to sinners. When He comes the second time, it will be to judge the wicked. The severity of God will be eternally and irreversibly evident when He returns to reign upon the earth. The grace of God, available to sinners now, will no longer be offered to men. Throughout all eternity, you will either enjoy His kindness or endure His wrath. The difference is determined by belief or unbelief. Do you believe?
(5) Our text, along with the rest of the Scriptures, denies the teaching of “unconditional acceptance,” so popularly discussed today in Christian circles. This is a very warm and fuzzy error, very popular among Christians today. “God accepts me just as I am, unconditionally,” they say. Does He? Did God accept Israel unconditionally, just as they were? Then why did God reject them? God cannot and will not accept anyone who is unrighteous. God accepts only those who are justified—made righteous through the person and work of Jesus Christ. God accepts men only on the basis of faith. If I will not believe in God and in the provision He has made in His Son, I have no acceptance. A righteous God cannot accept sinners. He accepts us, in Christ, and in His righteousness. God accepts me just as Christ is. The only time we can come to Jesus, “just as we are,” is when we come to Him acknowledging our sin and trusting in the shed blood of Jesus. “Just as I am, without one plea, but that Thy blood was shed for me.” God sets the condition for His acceptance of men: believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you shall be saved. Apart from this, God cannot and will not accept us.
27 This word has the same root as the term “glory.” It could rightly be rendered “glorify” in this context. To glorify is to magnify, to exalt, to enhance. When we glorify God, we are to magnify or enhance His name. And no matter how great our expression of His glory is, He will always surpass our estimation of Him.
28 We must remember that Paul’s consistent practice was to go “to the Jew first” and then “to the Gentiles.” It was only after the Jews of a town or city rejected the gospel that he went to the Gentiles. But over time, the focus of his ministry did change so that his ministry to the Gentiles became more dominant. He was recognized as having a ministry to the Gentiles (Galatians 2:7), just as God had called him to do (Romans 1:5).
29 It is ironic that while Israel did not want the gospel, neither did they want Paul or anyone else to preach the gospel to the Gentiles (see Acts 22:21-23). If they did not want the gospel and threw it out as garbage, so to speak, they did not want the trash men to have it either.
30 Note from Isaiah’s words in verses 11-13 that even at this very low point in Israel’s history, Isaiah was aware that God’s hand of discipline would be but for a season, and then Israel would be restored:
Then I said, “Lord, how long?” And He answered, “Until cities are devastated and without inhabitant, Houses are without people, And the land is utterly desolate, The LORD has removed men far away, And the forsaken places are many in the midst of the land. Yet there will be a tenth portion in it, And it will again be subject to burning, Like a terebinth or an oak Whose stump remains when it is felled. The holy seed is its stump” (Isaiah 6:11-13).
31 I take it that “life from the dead” is to be understood as a general principle which has many applications. “Life from the dead” includes: (a) spiritual, eternal life for those who were spiritually dead (see Ephesians 2:1-6); (b) resurrection from the dead, to enter into His eternal kingdom (see 1 Corinthians 15); (c) the restoration of the nation Israel, which was as good as dead but which will be brought to life once again (see Ezekiel 37:1-14).
32 In the puffed up words which Paul has given the arrogant Gentile branch, no mention is made of God. The focus is all inward, selfward. Only in Paul’s correction and admonition does the focus return to God. Grace always looks Godward (see verses 33-36), self-righteousness and arrogance always looks selfward.
I see this same selfwardness in Christians today. When we speak of our salvation, it is just that—our salvation. We should focus on our Savior rather than on ourselves. People say such things as:
“If I were the only one in the world, Christ would have died for me.”
“I was so important to God that He sent His Son to die for me.”
These are frightening words because the sinner is looking to himself rather than to the Savior. These are the evidences of the very arrogance Paul is condemning.