The Jews were the natural branches broken off and the Gentiles were the wild shoots grafted in. How did we get here? Paul starts by pointing out in v1-2 that the reason why the nation of Israel was cut off was not because God rejected them. Rather, they rejected God. Even so, just as in the days of Elijah when he felt he was the only believer in the one true God, Paul reminds his readers in v5 that these Jewish Christians in Rome are not alone. That even at the present time, there is a remnant in Israel, chosen not by race but by grace.
We look at the nation of Israel today and it seems like they have all rejected God because they rejected God incarnate, Jesus, the culmination of the law. But this verse teaches that at any point in history, there is always a remnant. I think this applies directly to the nation of Israel, that there is a remnant even among the Jews living today. And I think it also applies to the church. Among many church-goers, not everyone is saved, but there is always a remnant. You are not saved because of church attendance or your service to others or because you made a decision at a retreat many years ago. You are only saved if there is a continuing posture of repentance and faith in Jesus, meaning we remain connected to Jesus because he is the root of our salvation.
In v11-13, we read that the Israelites are stumbled but they are not beyond recovery. It sounds hopeful for Israel because this stumbling is referred to as a “temporary” stumbling of Israel which serves God’s purpose to allow for salvation to shift more explicitly to the rest of the world. And Paul hints at a future time when there will be full inclusion of the Israelites in God’s salvation plan, possibly at the end times. So things are not as bleak as it appears if you are among the small handful of Jewish Christians who are part of the saved remnant.
I know when I read this, I wonder, what does it mean to stumble but not beyond recovery? Does this mean that you can be standing firmly in God’s salvation, in the center of his redemption plan for the entire world and then suddenly, you stumble outside of his plan? Or does this verse speak at an individual level about the possibility of losing your salvation?
It’s unclear. Paul adds to the confusion by introducing the concept of branches that are cut off and branches that are grafted in.
If you apply v17-22 to God’s salvation plan, it seems pretty straightforward. The nation of Israel was a natural branch, but they were cut off and this allowed for unnatural branches, wild shoots, the Gentiles, to be grafted in. Those who are very religious yet don’t believe in Jesus are cut off while those who don’t know a single thing about Old Testament law and aren’t religious at all are grafted in and saved because they placed their faith in Jesus.
And seeing God’s salvation plan unfolding this way, we understand that God is both stern and kind. He’s not all kindness, all grace, whatever you do, it doesn’t matter because I embrace you as you are. God is not like a senile grandfather. He cares how we live. Sin breaks his heart so our actions matter to him a great deal.
God is kind. He is gracious to us but he is also stern. Stern toward those who don’t accept Christ and kind to those who accept Christ. Everything hinges on our understanding of Christ.
If you were a Jewish Christian in the church at Rome, what do you think would be going through your mind as you read this letter? Towards the Jewish Christian audience, I believe Paul’s aim is twofold: 1) he is highlighting the fact that the Jewish believers should be amazed at the grace of God for saving them and 2) he is arousing a sense of burden to evangelize their own people.
Imagine the overwhelming gratitude that out of that entire Jewish nation, they were the fortunate few who were part of the remnant that were saved by the grace of God. They were not like the majority of Jews who were cut off. In addition, imagine the sense of burden these Jewish Christians must have felt toward their countrymen to share the good news.
Let’s pause here for a moment. Aren’t you amazed that you are here in a worship service? Maybe you just stumbled into this church and you are just kind of checking out Christianity. Maybe you have been struggling spiritually for many years. You feel cut off from God. God feels distant. Maybe you have been thriving in the Lord and you are so excited that he has grafted you into Christ and to his body, this local church here in Pasadena. How you got here is not the point. Whether thriving or struggling, that is not the important detail. The fact that you are here is already proof that God loves you, that He is pursuing you. And God wants all of us to be grafted in to the root of Jesus Christ and be saved.
I have been thinking about my spiritual journey more these years. It’s probably the upcoming ordination and so I have been praying more and reviewing the past 18 years of walking with the Lord. And I have been getting advice from Pastor Daniel and others. And rather unexpectedly, at random times during the day, I find myself tearing up. How did I end up here? Was it how hard I was seeking after God? No, I stopped going to church my freshman year in college. Was it my faithfulness to God? No, I find myself running away many times. Was it my personality? No, I can be quite moody, Jackie can attest to that. It’s purely the grace and mercy of God. He held onto me all these years and there were many times I tried to run away or run ahead of God, but He is sovereign and knew exactly what people and circumstances he needed to bring into my life.
And I am so thankful to be in this church with all of you. I can look to so many of you and say, I am thankful that God has placed you into my life. Some here, I don’t know very well, but I pray that we can walk this spiritual journey together for many years to come, as many of us met almost two decades ago and God brought us back together for this new work. And we are here at this juncture and again, I can’t stress enough that it is all God’s amazing grace.
Religion will not make you cry in the middle of Starbucks as you reflect over the years of memorizing laws and participating in rituals. But a relationship will lead you to tears of gratitude. But even with a relationship, things can get old. That is why we need to keep up our relationship with God. We have to fight against letting our relationship degrade into a religion of routine.
Given this backdrop of the grace of God, the following words to the Gentiles make sense in Romans 11.
Here, Paul is speaking to the Gentile Christians, a message that I believe is very relevant for us. In v20 — Paul urges them, do not be arrogant, but tremble. Why should we tremble? We read in v21, it’s because if God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either.
Paul is not very tactful here. He is not hiding the fact that he thinks these Gentile Christians were arrogant. True, Jesus is the culmination of the law. He is the fulfillment of the law. He supersedes the law. He elevates the law. He distills the law to its original intent and its ultimate essence. And because of this truth, you can understand why the Gentiles might have grown proud. We have Christ. We have a relationship with him so forget the Old Testament. Why read it? Why study the laws and the rituals and the practices and the feasts and the festivals? If Christ is the culmination, then we can just read Paul’s letters because the church is the new spiritual Israel, right? You see many modern evangelicals diminishing the nation of Israel in this way and saying the church is the new “Israel,” the new chosen people of God.
And Paul addresses this tendency for Gentiles, which last time I checked includes most if not all of us in this room, this tendency to dismiss the nation of Israel in God’s redemption history along with their laws and practices and this dismissal leads to spiritual pride. Or if not outright pride, it leads to Christians today favoring the New Testament, the gospels and Paul’s letters, and not studying much of the Old Testament. We need to remember that our Christian faith grew out of Jewish soil. This is undeniable. That is why we study the Old Testament. God did not change from the Old to the New Testament. There is a beautiful continuity over thousands of years. If anything, our reading of the Old Testament ought to always highlight some aspect of Jesus.
Knowing Jesus is like going to the Berkeley Marina. The tranquil waters that gently wash up against the rocks. And you can sit there and ponder the meaning of life. The peaceful trails. The gorgeous cityscape and Golden Gate bridge on the horizon. And each time I went there as an undergrad, I was swept up by its beauty. Jesus is like that, only better. Everything in creation shouts praise about him. Everything in the Old Testament points to him. And we have a privilege of relating with Jesus and soaking in His beauty. And much of the Old Testament hints at or foreshadows or teaches us something about Christ. He is the culmination of everything we read from Genesis to Revelation.
Paul wants the Gentile Christians to remember their Jewish heritage so that they would avoid unnecessary alienation of the Jewish Christian minority in that church. That is why he tells the Gentile believers, do not be arrogant, but tremble.
Then, he challenges them in v22 to continue in his kindness; otherwise, you also will be cut off. Elsewhere in Phil 2:12, Paul calls us to work out our salvation with fear and trembling. The key word is “continue.” Continue in his kindness. Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling. Salvation is a continual walking with God. It’s not a one-time decision at the moment of salvation. No, salvation is a life-long process.
This doesn’t mean that we are saved by works. But as the book of James will tell you, works are often proof that we are saved. The fact that we want to work out our salvation and we want to continue in God’s kindness is probably a good indication of salvation.
A failure to continue in God’s kindness can lead to being cut off. This is the sternness of God. But even those who experience the sternness of God, kindness is available, especially it seems in the case of Israel. In v23-24, Paul discusses that if wild shoots were grafted in, how much easier would it be for natural branches to be re-grafted in. More than speaking in a hypothetical sense, Paul seems to give a sneak preview of what is to come in God’s redemption plan — that is, full inclusion of the Israelites unto salvation. Even though you look at Jewish people today and their salvation seems impossible, Paul says, just you wait, God is going to do something completely miraculous and unexpected in the last days to save a larger remnant among the Jewish people.
To me, this is incredibly hopeful. We look at people and sometimes, you think, that person will never be saved. It could be a parent or a friend or a son or daughter. The nation of Israel definitely falls into this category. They had a relationship with God and now they look like one of those impossible cases. They failed to embrace Jesus as their Messiah and as a result, they were cut off. And even Israel, where salvation seems impossible, there seems to be hope that they, too, can be grafted in again and be saved. Let this be an encouragement to us as we continually pray for the impossible cases in our lives.