God’s kindness…and severity

Paul writes,

If the dough offered as firstfruits is holy, so is the whole lump, and if the root is holy, so are the branches.  But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, although a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing root of the olive tree, do not be arrogant toward the branches. If you are, remember it is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you.  Then you will say, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.”  That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but fear.  For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you.  Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off.  And even they, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again.  For if you were cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these, the natural branches, be grafted back into their own olive tree. – Romans 11:16-24

Paul begins to explain how Gentile inclusion and Jewish exclusion work.  First, he draws from two analogies, the dough offered as first fruits and the root.  In each of these analogies, this is true Israel, those who truly believed in God.  The whole lump includes all believers.  So, the dough offered as first fruits is true Israel, and it follows that all believers are holy as they are.  Similarly, if the root is holy, so are the branches. 

Paul continues to draw this illustration out more.  He gives an illustration of a tree being cultivated.  He says that some of the branches were broken off, that is, those of national Israel who were not true Israel, shown by their unbelief.  And the Gentiles, although a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing root of the olive tree.  The picture here is that dead branches were removed, and the Lord grafted in the Gentiles.

Since that’s the case, Paul exhorts the Gentiles, do not be arrogant toward the branches.  It seems there was a problem (or a potential for a problem) of the Gentiles boasting over the Jews, thinking they were somehow more special to God.  Here’s how Paul helps: If you are, remember it is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you.   In other words, the salvation of the Gentiles has come from the Jews, not the other way around.  They shouldn’t be arrogant; they should be grateful.  Were it not for the remnant, the Gentiles wouldn’t even have salvation.

One might push the point and retort, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.”  See?  I am special!  God rejected Israel so that I could be His!

Paul concedes, to a point.  He says, “That is true.  They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith.

But the response to that shouldn’t be arrogance: “So do not become proud, but fear“.  Why?  For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will He spare you.  In other words, the Gentiles were no more special on their own than were the unbelieving Jews.  And if it were God’s will, He could cut them off just as easily.  This is not to say that He would, but He certainly could, and that should cause any believer’s heart to tremble before His might.

Here’s what we draw out of that.  Note then the kindness and severity of God.  Both are continuously true about Him, and both are worthy of praise.  And He demonstrates them in this: severity toward those who had fallen, but God’s kindness to you.  So, Gentiles had no reason to boast.  All they could do is thank God that He had shown them kindness and not severity.

If any of us are ever tempted to be prideful in our salvation, may we remember that it’s not because we were good enough.  It’s because God has decided, by His grace, to show us kindness instead of severity.

There is, apparently, a condition: provided you continue in His kindness.  Otherwise, you too will be cut off.  In this analogy, the branches that were broken off were those who were among the people of God, but not true believers.  Those branches are removed from the people of God.  Anyone who doesn’t continue in His kindness shows themselves to be not truly one of God’s people and will be cut off.

On the other hand, O glorious thought, even they, the unbelieving Jews, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again.  Do you doubt, Sheep, that God could cause an unbeliever to at once trust in Jesus for salvation?  What about a whole people group?  God has the power to save whomever He wills whenever He wills.

In fact, it’s portrayed as easier than the Gentiles being saved.  We use that term loosely; nothing is hard for God. But nonetheless, if the Gentiles were cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these, the natural branches, be grafted back into their own olive tree.  Do you see the picture there?  It was easy for God to graft in the Gentiles.  It’s just as easy to graft back in the Jews.

Thus far, he’s speaking in hypotheticals.  Next, we’ll see whether that will actually happen.

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