This week, we continue where we left off last week—in chapter 11 where Paul has been writing about the interrelationship between God and the Gentiles and His related work among the Jews. We know that most of the Jews had rejected Christ while only a small remnant accepted Him as their Messiah. In last week’s text, we saw that this rejection by the Jews was no accident. The rejection of the Jews provided a launching pad for the apostle’s mission to the Gentiles. Only when the Jews repeatedly rejected the gospel message did Paul, the chief missionary of the church, turn to the Gentiles exclusively. We also saw last week that this rejection by the Jews was only temporary. A new day in salvation history is coming when the Jews, jealous of the church, will come to embrace the Messiah in large numbers. This large scale Jewish acceptance of Christ will trigger the final event in salvation history, the resurrection from the dead. There is a line of continuity between the Patriarchs, who Paul refers to in verse 16 as “the root” and the branches, those Jews who will believe in Christ in the last days.
As Paul begins verse 17, he continues this metaphor of the root and branches. Although the metaphor is continued and developed, Paul uses it to make a different point than he did in the previous verses. Just as Paul warns the Jews (particularly in chapters 1-4) about being arrogant about their chosen status, he now turns to warn the Gentiles about their arrogance. Verses 17 and following indicate that the Jews weren’t the only believers with spiritual pride. As we’ll see, the Gentiles knew the Jews had been rejected in part so that they, the Gentiles, could be included in the family of God. Rather than be humbled by this incredible display of mercy, they did what all people will eventually do, they found in this plan of God a reason to be proud. They mistakenly assumed the reason God rejected the Jews so they could be included was because they were in some way superior to the Jews. God was, in their minds, shoving out the old, “inferior” Jews to make room for the new, spiritually “superior” Gentiles. They had completely missed the element of God’s mercy but instead saw God’s work as a reason to pat themselves on the back.
We may find that to be incredible, but the point we should take away from this is that spiritual pride is a problem for all people, Jew and Gentile. When the Jews were chosen, they thought they were really something and when the Gentiles were chosen, they fell into the same trap. If you think this is purely a first century phenomena, then examine your heart and ask if you have ever looked down on a lost person because they were not as moral or spiritually enlightened as you were. When we are among non-Christians who smoke and get drunk and cuss and destroy their relationships and all the other things that we are far too spiritual to do, what is our first thought? Is it, “How can they do that? Don’t they know how stupid, how disgusting that is?!” Or, is it, “If it weren’t purely for the grace of God, I would be doing the exact same things they are doing?”
And even more to the point of the text, when you think about the Jews who has rejected Christ, what is your first thought? “Man, are they deceived—they have missed the boat—a Jewish Messiah comes and they can’t even see him. Their religion is futile—if they only knew what I knew.” When we encounter Jews and Judaism, what is our attitude? In this text today, Paul spells out what the attitude of the church should be toward the Jews and he also gives us some rock solid truth on how to battle against spiritual pride and arrogance. Everyone here is guilty at some level of that and it is among the most spiritually self- destructive attitudes a Christian can have. Nothing makes us more vulnerable to Satan and deception, nothing drains us of more spiritual power in our fight against sin, nothing in us is more repugnant to God than spiritual pride.
Let’s read verses 17-22 remembering that Paul continues this metaphor of the root and branches to describe the relationship between God’s work among the Jews and his later work with the Gentiles. Paul addresses the Gentiles and says, “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, 18do not boast over those branches. If you do, consider this: You do not support the root, but the root supports you. 19You will say then, "Branches were broken off so that I could be grafted in." 20Granted. But they were broken off because of unbelief, and you stand by faith. Do not be arrogant, but be afraid. 21For if God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either. 22Consider therefore the kindness and sternness of God: sternness to those who fell, but kindness to you, provided that you continue in his kindness. Otherwise, you also will be cut off.”
Notice the way Paul uses this metaphor of the olive tree to describe the relationship between the Jews and Gentiles. The branches that were “broken off” represent the Jews who were hardened by God so the Gentiles could be brought in or, as Paul says here, “grafted in.” In this text, Paul gives three reasons why it is foolish for us to be spiritually proud and in particular, why it is foolish for Gentile believers to be spiritually proud as we relate to the Jews. The first reason it is foolish to be spiritually proud is a truth we have seen since early in chapter nine. Here, Paul applies it to the area of spiritual pride and arrogance. That is, God, not people, sovereignly composes the make up of the tree. The tree represents the one people of God with both Jewish and Gentile branches and Paul is clear that the branches don’t get on the tree because they hop on themselves by deciding it’s wise to be part of the olive tree. As we’ve seen before, it is not ultimately Christians who decide to join the family of God but rather who God elects them and draws them to Himself.
In verse 17 and again in 19 when Paul speaks of branches being “broken off…” the verb in both references is in the passive voice. The broken branches were acted upon by God who sovereignly broke them off for His purposes. In verse 21, Paul says “God did not spare the natural branches…” It is ultimately God who breaks off the branches. We see the human element of unbelief later in the text, but here God makes it clear that He prunes the tree. Likewise, when Paul says that other branches have been “grafted in among the others” the verb is also passive. The grafting is done, not by the branch itself—branches don’t graft themselves. God sovereignly acts on these branches to put them on the tree.
Of all the practical applications to the truth of election and predestination, one of the most powerful is the effect these truths should have on our tendency to be spiritually proud. If we accept and take to heart this truth, it can help to cut our spiritual pride off at the knees. If we are on the tree—if we are part of the people of God solely because God, for HIS purposes sovereignly placed us there, then what right do we have to feel superior to anyone? What right do we have to look down on others whom God has not put on the tree? If God does it all, then we have nothing to boast about before God and man.
We not only need to understand this truth of election, we must regularly confront our tenacious pride with it. We need to meditate on the fact that God chose us before we had a chance to do anything for Him. We need to chew on the fact that God could just as easily have chosen to overlook us the way He overlooks others. But in His grace He chose us and drew us to Himself. If those thoughts don’t humble us and bring us into praise and worship of our merciful God, then something is drastically wrong somewhere. Regularly humbling ourselves and meditating on this truth of our election by the pure grace of God is a wonderful dose of preventative medicine to fight our tendency to be proud. Show me someone who thinks deeply and often about this in relationship to themselves and I will show you a person who, more than most people, is insulated from the cancer of spiritual pride. Paul’s point to the Gentiles is to say that they have no room for arrogance because they, like the believing Jews are on the tree only because God wanted them to be. His reason for including them had nothing to do with any alleged spiritual superiority—it is simply part of God’s eternal plan to glorify Himself.
A second reason it is foolish to be spiritually proud relates to Paul’s main burden in the text. That is, to vaporize the pride of the Gentiles over the Jews by reminding them that they, as Gentiles have become part of a comprehensively Jewish faith. We can state the truth like this: All followers of Christ are rooted in Judaism. The Jewishness of the Christian faith is seen in the very metaphor Paul chooses to represent the people of God. The olive tree itself is a symbol for Judaism. We see this in several places in the Old Testament. One is Jeremiah 11:16 where God, speaking of Israel says, “The Lord called you a thriving olive tree…” The fact that Paul uses a Jewish metaphor as a symbol for the church made up of Jews and Gentiles tells us something of the inherently strong Jewish flavor of the church of Christ.
Paul makes this point in at least two places. First, he says in verse 17 to the Gentile believers, you “have been grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing sap from the olive root.” The root, we have already seen is the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The NIV right expands on this idea of being rooted in the Patriarchs. Gentiles who come to Christ are nourished from the table of Judaism. The spiritual food we take in is all Kosher. What I mean by that is, every important spiritual truth we draw strength from was revealed as God worked among the Jews. Every biblical truth that blesses and strengthens us is Jewish in its derivation. Atonement, redemption, forgiveness, community, morality, hope, faith, justification by faith, grace, mercy and agape love (just to name a few) are all products of God’s work with the Jews. Gentile believers (to use another metaphor) “piggyback” on God’s work among the Jews.
Those of us who are Gentile believers must know that we are not a spiritually distinct people from the believing Jews. Our Savior is Jewish. When we tell people we follow Christ, we are telling them we follow a divine, first century Jewish man. Jesus, the man is Jewish. All twelve apostles are Jewish. The bible was written totally by Jews. We are all of the “seed of Abraham” and he is our spiritual “father” by faith because he is the root of the tree into which we have been grafted. Apart from the Jews, Christianity would not exist. It is wrongly taught in some parts of the church that God totally replaced the Jews with the church and the Jewish element of the church is a thing of the past. One of the implications of that errant theology is there will be no future in God’s plan for national, ethnic Israel. We saw last week, this just isn’t so. Keeping the metaphor, we could phrase this teaching this way: God rejected the Jewish olive tree and brought in a new, Jewish/Gentile maple tree. That cannot be true in light of this text. Paul says in verse 18, “You do not support the root, but the root supports you.” God’s work among the Jews provides the crucial, irreplaceable root system for our faith. To say that the Jews have been obliterated by the church flies in the face of Paul’s metaphor. The Jews and God’s work among them are the foundation upon which all His work with the church is based.
But, having said that, let’s allow this text to give a corrective to a another errant teaching about the Jews at the other extreme that is sometimes heard in the church. This teaching holds NOT that the church has replaced Israel, but that the believing Jews and the church are totally separate entities. That is, the believing Jews are totally distinct from the church. This errant view holds that the church is nothing more than a parenthesis in God’s plan, totally separate from the Jews and the main focus of God’s plan is with national, ethnic, Israel. That understanding was widely held at one time thanks to the influence of the study notes in the old Scofield Reference Bible. Thankfully, most of the institutions who taught that theology have adopted a more biblical view. The metaphor Paul uses here is not about two separate people and two separate plans. It’s about one group of people, the people of God, the church. There is ONE tree. When a Jew converts, they join the church of Christ, His bride. And when those last-days Jews come in droves to Christ to fulfill the Old Testament prophecies they will join Christ’s church. There is only ONE tree. It has a supporting Jewish root system and Jewish and Gentile branches. One people out of the two. Paul says in Ephesians 2:14 of this Jewish/Gentile unity, “For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations.”
It was and is ludicrous for a Gentile believer to feel superior to either a Jewish believer or unbeliever. Gentile believers all have Jewish roots. We are children of Abraham through faith in Christ. Christ said that God could make children of Abraham out of rocks. That means He can certainly make children of Abraham out of Gentiles. One point of application for most of us is, we are in desperate need of knowing and understanding the Old Testament. If the patriarchs and God’s work with them are our root system, then we are not going to be in very good spiritual health if we are not in touch with those roots. We didn’t bring the “Jews for Jesus” presentation here last Wednesday to be culturally enlightened and politically correct. We did it because that’s our roots. We should not feel the least hesitation to celebrate the Passover as Gentiles because its part of our root system. As we saw last Wednesday, the Passover points to Christ and the cross. The same could be said about practicing the Feast of Tabernacles which has yet to be fulfilled.
Let’s look at the third reason it is foolish to be spiritually proud in verses 20 and following. In verse 20 Paul says to Christians that the unbelieving Jews were “broken off because of unbelief, and you stand by faith. Do not be arrogant, but be afraid. For if God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either. Consider therefore the kindness and sternness of God: sternness to those who fell, but kindness to you, provided that you continue in his kindness. Otherwise, you also will be cut off.” We will give this third pride-preventing truth in a moment, but first we have to find a place in our understanding for this warning Paul gives here.
The words Paul writes here are like a cold slap in the face. Unless you artificially soften these words, you come out with a clear warning against these Gentile believers to stay faithful or they will end up like those Jews who were broken off the tree. What do we do with this warning? The first thing we do is understand that this is not the only place where Paul and other New Testament writers make this kind of statement. Paul, in Galatians 5:21 cites some of the works of the flesh like “envy, drunkenness, orgies and the like.” He then says to believers, “I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.” Paul says in Colossians 1:22 that believers have been reconciled “by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in His sight, without blemish and free from accusation—IF you continue in your faith, established and firm, not moved from the hope held out in the gospel.” Do you hear the conditionality there? The condition for being presented holy before God is CONTINUING in your faith. The book of Hebrews is replete with these kinds of warnings issued to the church. First John, James and the gospels are other places in the New Testament where these warnings are impossible to miss.
How are we to interpret these warnings and what effect should they have on us? There are two extremes we must avoid. The first extreme is to take these warning to teach that we must work our fingers to the bone every day to stay saved. These warnings can’t mean that because of a raft of other texts which teach the promise of assurance of our salvation, not to mention they pollute any biblical idea of grace. That extreme we must avoid. But the other extreme is to have such a distorted view of what our assurance is, that when we read these New Testament warning texts we skip right over them as irrelevant to us. I fear that many people in church read these warnings and quickly dismiss them with, “I’m not sure what Paul means by this warning, but I know I’m saved and since I can never lose my salvation, these words are irrelevant to me.” If that is true then Paul and all the other New Testament writers who issue these kinds of warnings are fools for writing completely irrelevant warnings to the church. That understanding totally drains these warnings of their significance and causes us to skip right over a number of powerful and sobering biblical texts without a clue of what they mean to us.
So, what do they mean to us? How do these warnings fit with any understanding of assurance of salvation? First, we must admit that the Scriptures teach, as we saw a couple of weeks ago, that there is assurance in Christ. But we must also admit that the New Testament teaches there is a difference between having a quiet confidence before God as we humbly serve Him and having utter certainty irrespective of our lifestyles. So often you hear in the church the question, “Do you know, that you know that you know that you are saved?” Could someone please find that for me in Scripture? It’s not there. The text most often used to support that question is First John 5:13, “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.” That’s a wonderful promise of Scripture and it tells us that there is genuine assurance for the believer.
But in this same book of First John you have text after text which tempers that assurance with clear statements about what a believer will look like. Texts like 1John 1:16, “If we claim to have fellowship with him yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth.” Chapter 2:3, “We know that we have come to know him if we obey his commands.” Chapter 2:6, “Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did.” 2:9, “Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates his brother is still in the darkness.” 2:15, “Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. 3:6, “No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him.” 3:10 “This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not a child of God; nor is anyone who does not love his brother. 3:17, “If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?” Those texts, which temper the way we claim 5:13 are virtually unheard of today in the church.
Utter, complete certainty of our spiritual state is found only when a believer dies because the New Testament teaches in places like Matthew 22:10 and 24:13 that “he who stands firm to the end will be saved.” Our assurance is not utterly secure until we die and persevere to the end. That is the final test of a true saint. In this life, we must know that. That truth will not destroy our assurance, it will only temper it. And as Paul’s point here reminds us, it also humbles us. A third truth Paul brings out here which works against spiritual pride is, Branches must remain faithful or they are taken off.
Paul is writing to Gentiles who were looking down their noses at Jews who had rejected Christ and he warns them about their arrogance. He says, in verse 20, “Do not be arrogant, but be afraid.” Here is a command to believers to be afraid. That sounds strange, but not when you consider the context. The biblical antidote to spiritual pride is fear and the object of that fear is God. Verse 21 gives us the ground or reason for this fear of God. “For if God did not spare the natural branches [those Jews who rejected Christ] he will not spare you either. The clear truth is a warning against falling away in unbelief. Now, this is where we are tempted to get our blood pressure up and respond with, “If I’m a believer, I will not fall away.” That’s correct, IF you are a believer. But we just said the only time we can know with utter certainty is when we die. Many of us know people, even pastors who have fallen away. Yet, if you would have asked them when they were in church, “Do you have assurance of your salvation?” they would have said without hesitation, “I sure do.” Yet, in retrospect, they weren’t the real McCoy.
We should not look at our own salvation retrospectively as if it were already complete and we were in glory. Our salvation is a process and Paul tells us in Philippians two that this process is to be worked out “in fear and trembling.” My New Testament Prof. at Bethel in his commentary on Romans says it well, “When we look at it [salvation] retrospectively we discover that those who fail to persevere reveal that they were never actually part of the elect community. But we must beware of imposing this retrospective comment upon the warnings so that they lose their function for believers. We must take seriously the words of this text: if we fall away, we face final judgment. Those who brush aside the warnings as unnecessary, concluding that they are protected from God’s wrath no matter how they behave, are presuming upon God’s grace.” There is a humility here that is not present in many modern day evangelicals who are quick to rattle off the phrase “once saved, always saved” but have no place in their theology for any of these sobering warning texts. Very few believers would classify their spiritual lives as, “work[ing] out [their] salvation with fear and trembling.” That element is mistakenly and tragically brushed aside as being opposed to having assurance of salvation.
This warning of Paul, when understood guards us from spiritual pride and spiritual pride is even more spiritually lethal to us than not having solid assurance. If I see myself as in the process of being saved, working out my salvation in fear and trembling, daily drawing in humble dependence on God’s grace, I am far less likely to develop spiritual pride than the person who says, “Yep. I know I’m saved and that means its just a matter now of waiting for glory.” We are to see ourselves as children of God who are proving and confirming our salvation by the works God does in and through us. That is a far more biblical attitude regarding assurance than those throngs of evangelicals who see themselves as children of God but that self-concept is totally divorced from the condition of their spiritual lives.
Paul says we are to “consider the kindness and sternness of God: sternness to those who fell, but kindness to you, provide that you continue in his kindness.” God shows two basic dispositions to people. To those who do NOT remain faithful and therefore show that they do not belong to him, He is “ruthlessly severe” as one translator puts it. Paul tells us we are to consider that element of God—meditate on it. The holy fear those meditations bring to our hearts is appropriate because that kind of fear is actually a means of grace to cause us NOT to turn away from God. God, speaking through Jeremiah about of the New Covenant we are under through Christ says in 32:40, “…I will inspire them to fear me, so that they will never turn away from me.” Paul says the antidote to spiritual pride ultimately is fear and the object of that fear is a God who is ruthlessly severe with those who fall away. The way to get that fear into us according to Paul is “consider the sternness of God to those who fall away in unbelief.” When we read these warnings against falling away in the New Testament, we dare not skip over them as irrelevant. Augustine said, The road to hell is paved with errant preacher’s bones.” It is also true that the road to hell is paved with the bones of people who only thought they were saved and never took these warnings to heart.
Paul wants us to live with this sense of the fear of God. The writer of the Hebrews in 10:31 writes about those who turn away from God and says, “It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” Living with this healthy fear of God will drain the energy out of our spiritual pride. We must also consider the kindness of God to keep us balanced as we said before. His kindness seen in choosing us to be his own and keeping us on the branches as we continue in faith.
Spiritual pride is a towering threat to our spiritual health just as it was to the Jews. We must fight against it by remembering that God, not us sovereignly placed us among His people. We must remember that all followers of Christ are rooted in Judaism. And finally, we must fear God who is severe to those who do not remain faithful and thereby show themselves never to have been part of the family of God. May God give us grace to regularly think on these things.
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