All the benefits and blessings that the Jews received had led them to make certain assumptions about their salvation. They became apathetic about God and took greater interest in their customs and traditions. They sought to obtain righteousness through works rather than grace, by position rather than promise. Having rejected the promised Messiah, they failed to obtain what they believed they already had. Paul has already neatly summarized all the benefits the Jews received in Romans 2. He has declared that such benefits do not guarantee salvation to the physical descendants of Abraham. God has not bound Himself. Does that mean that God has rejected His people?
When Jesus was presented to them as the king of the Jews, they shouted, “Crucify Him!” When Pilate declared Jesus to be innocent of any crime, they shouted, “His blood is on us and on our children!” (Matt. 27:25). After the resurrection, God’s punishment came upon those who refused to acknowledge that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah. This Messiah had been promised in the very books the Jews held dear: the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings. Paul quotes from all three (Deuteronomy, Isaiah, and Psalms) to make certain that his readers understand how serious their rejection of the Christ is. Paul ends by quoting from Psalm 69, pointing out how the hearts of those who reject the preaching of the gospel are being hardened:
May the table set before them become a snare; may it become retribution and a trap. May their eyes be darkened so they cannot see, and their backs be bent forever. –Rom. 11:22–23
This quote from the Psalms should have pricked the hearts of many Jews who knew that in this passage David called upon God to punish his enemies. Paul applies the prayer of David to the people of Israel. Those who were familiar with the event that took place on that first Good Friday would quickly recall the words that came before Paul’s quote: “They put gall in my food and gave me vinegar for my thirst” (Psalm 69:21).
Yet the situation was not hopeless. Paul explains that God, who is rich in grace, had not excluded all the direct descendants of Abraham from His salvation plan. As a nation, they had rejected the One whom God had sent to save them; as individuals, the Holy Spirit was drawing in the elect from every tribe and nation, including men and women from among the Jews. For proof, Paul points first to himself. He was a descendant of Abraham from the tribe of Benjamin. God had taken special measures to convert Paul the Jew to Paul the Christian. If God had rejected the Jews completely, He would not have confronted Paul on the road to Damascus and given him the task of spreading the gospel.
In addition, Paul directed his readers to the Old Testament and the prophet Elijah, who had just challenged the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. Certainly the God of Israel had shown Himself to be superior to Baal. Even so, Queen Jezebel remained unconvinced and threatened to kill Elijah. Fleeing to Horeb, Elijah thought he was the only person left who was faithful to God. Paul reminds the Jews of Elijah’s appeal: “‘Lord, they have killed your prophets and torn down your altars; I am the only one left, and they are trying to kill me” (Rom. 11:3). Paul asks, “And what was God’s answer to him? ‘I have reserved for myself seven thousand who have not bowed the knee to Baal’” (Rom. 11:4). God assured Elijah that there was still a remnant—seven thousand men who had not bowed down to Baal (1 Kings 19:18). Paul mentions this example to show that even in the darkest days of Old Testament Israel, God still had a remnant of people who served Him.
And finally, Paul needed but to look around to see that even in his day, thousands of Jews were turning to Jesus Christ for salvation. As you read through the book of Acts, you cannot help but marvel over how God draws a people unto Himself. Despite the rejection of Israel as a whole, many individual Jews responded to the apostles’ preaching. They are the remnant chosen by grace, the elect who have received the right standing with God that Israel as a whole sought but failed to find. Paul is very quick to point out that salvation comes to the Jews by grace, not as something they can claim as a right. Neither works nor heritage can play any role in salvation. It is all by grace alone through Christ alone.
The Hardening of the Heart
The elect among the Jews received the grace of God and believed the gospel message. The others were hardened. As we saw in Romans 1, in hardening individuals God is dealing with fallen sinful creatures—not with innocent people. The hardening of their hearts is a judicial punishment where God abandons the sinner to his own corrupt, depraved nature. “The Lord works out everything to its proper end—even the wicked for a day of disaster” (Prov. 16:4).
God has two “lets”: “Let the righteous turn to Me,” and “Let him who is filthy remain filthy.” Even as the sun melts wax and hardens clay, so the preaching of the gospel either draws a person to receive Christ or turn away from Him. Those are the only two responses. Unfortunately, the church often finds itself in the same position as the Jews in Paul’s day. Both in the pulpit and in the pew, we have grown apathetic in our Christianity. We make certain assumptions that if we go to church, support Christian schools, attend an occasional Bible study, and live decent lives, then God will have no reason to be angry with us. We assume our salvation because we made profession of faith somewhere years ago, and we believe in the perseverance of the saints. While we may hold fast to the doctrines of the Reformed faith, they, in and of themselves, are not guarantees of salvation. Just because you believe in the perseverance of the saints does not make you a saint. We must have an awareness of the depth of our sin and misery, a hungering and thirsting for righteousness, and a turning to the sacrifice of Jesus Christ for reconciliation with God.
Fortunately, there is hope for those who have been hardened to the gospel. Paul writes that one of his goals in preaching to the Gentiles is so that some of the Jews might turn to Christ: “Inasmuch as I am the apostle to the Gentiles, I take pride in my ministry in the hope that I may somehow arouse my own people to envy and save some of them” (Rom. 11:13). God used Israel’s rejection of Jesus as the promised Messiah to scatter converted Jews. They, in turn, brought the gospel message to the Gentiles. The hardening of Israel worked for the good of the Gentiles. In the Old Testament, the only way for a Gentile to become a follower of Jehovah was to become part of Israel with all her customs, traditions, and laws. When the gospel was proclaimed to the New Testament Gentiles, they were no longer required to become entangled in the bondage of Judaism. As Christians, and not as proselyte Jews, they freely came to Christ believing His finished work on the cross as sufficient for salvation. Grace alone, without works!
Broken Off Branches
Paul then explains a most unnatural event: the grafting of branches onto the olive tree. Certainly grafting is common enough. What is uncommon is that Paul describes the branch of a wild olive shoot being grafted into the cultivated, good tree. Then he goes on to describe branches that had been broken off being regrafted into the same tree.
Although this may never happen in any greenhouse, Paul explains this is what God has done by bringing into His church believers from both the Jews and Gentiles. Paul compares the Jews to good branches growing on a holy tree. They are being nurtured and fed by the tree’s holy roots. If the root is holy, so are the branches. As a nation, the Jews had been broken off from the Tree because they rejected Jesus as the Savior. As Paul pointed out earlier, not all Jews rejected Jesus Christ, and God, in His grace, grafted individual believing Jews back into the Tree: “If they do not persist in unbelief, they will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again” (Rom. 11:23).
The Gentiles were never part of the Tree. As Jesus told the Samaritan woman, “Salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22). Gentiles were part of a wild olive tree growing elsewhere. God, in His grace, brought the message of salvation to the Gentiles and grafted them into the Tree so that they, too, might have eternal life. God was converting the Gentiles into fruit-bearing branches. Both Jew and Gentile branches have been brought into the church. Both Jew and Gentile branches feed from the holy root. And if the root is holy, so are the branches.
Paul warns his Gentile readers not to consider themselves superior to the Jews: “If some of the branches have been broken off, and you, though a wild olive shoot, have been grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing sap from the olive root, do not consider yourself to be superior to those other branches” (Rom. 11:17–18). It could become a great temptation for a converted Gentile to boast in his position. After all, God had cut from the tree a Jewish branch and grafted in its place a wild, Gentile branch. Gentile Christians should remember the rich heritage into which they had been grafted: the Old Testament and the covenants. Even more important, both converted Jews and converted Gentiles should remember that both are branches within the church of Jesus Christ only by grace. Neither branch has any cause for boasting. God is the keeper of the orchard. He is the very source of their lives.
If God would not spare the natural branches when they became boastful of their position and rejected His grace, neither will He spare those whom He has grafted into the Tree if they do not continue in His kindness. They may have confessed their faith; now they are called to persevere in that faith by bearing the fruits of it. If they begin to live contrary to their calling as followers of Christ, they, too, shall be cut off.
What a warning that is for the Christian church today! We have been given a rich heritage and all too often assume that entitles us to the blessings of God. We do well to remember that it is by grace alone that we are saved, not by works. May we ever strive to bear good fruit as we keep our focus on the cross of Jesus Christ, lest we, too, be cut off from the Tree as were the majority of Abraham’s descendants.
Points to Ponder and Discuss
1. What was Israel trying to obtain? How did they go about trying to obtain this? What was the result?
2. Do you think the cry “His blood be upon us and our children” came true?
3. Contrast Romans 10:14–15 with Romans 11:8–9.
4. Give three proofs that God has not rejected the Jews entirely.
5. Is the hardening of the heart a sin or a punishment?
6. Does the church today find itself hardened as the Jews were? How can we avoid this?
7. Is there hope for the hardened ones?
8. Is there a parallel between the hardening of Pharaoh (Rom. 9:16) and the hardening of Israel? Why were they hardened? What was the result?
9. Explain the root/tree/branch metaphor and its explanation.
10. Was the warning of verses 18–21 necessary then? Is it now?