“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 11:11–24 ESV)
You don’t have to be a tree expert to get this anymore than they needed to be in the first century. Paul goes with the very familiar olive tree. If you’ve been to the Middle East, this tree and wood is everywhere, and you can buy an olive wood sculpture of almost anything. They are for sale by every street vendor to this day. One commentator says the olive tree was the “most widely cultivated fruit tree in the Mediterranean area.” (Dunn) This would be like writing to Indiana Christians and saying, it’s like a corn plant. Everyone is with you.
“…if the root is holy, so are the branches.” (Romans 11:16)
So, who are the roots and who is the olive tree? The tree is true Israel. The remnant. Those who are actually saved. Not every ethnic Jew, but the redeemed people of God. So, who are the roots? The roots of this tree are the patriarchs and the promises God made to them. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. How often does God self-designate, I am the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? These were sinful men who needed justification by faith (see Romans 4).
But in terms of the people of God formed by the promises of God, they represent the beginning. The roots. “If the root is holy, so are the branches.” If the roots are healthy, then the branches are too. How healthy are God’s promises? Totally healthy and totally holy. The roots of this tree are deep and well-watered by God. Any branch connected to these roots is also holy.
“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.” (Romans 11:17-18)
So, now we are introduced to a second tree. You have the cultivated olive tree and the wild olive shoot or sapling. This is the difference between landscaping trees at the garden center and some random little tree in the back woods. The cultivated tree is the people of God tree. The wild sapling branch represents Gentile believers.
So, what is grafting? I’m going to guess most us aren’t doing this kind of thing much, but it was common in the first century as a way to bring life to a tree. However, they actually did the opposite of what Paul says here. They wouldn’t put a wild tree in a cultivated tree, but they would put a healthy branch of a good tree in a dying tree. The idea is that the sap of the healthy tree would revitalize the sick tree. Bring it back to health and a good harvest of olives.
One commentator makes the very interesting point on why Paul would reverse the normal grafting process, “As little as a wild olive shoot would not have any right to be grafted into a cultivated tree, so little right do Gentiles have to be given a place in the people of God. But such is precisely the effects of God’s grace.” (Moo)
Whether that’s why, I don’t know, but it certainly is a great point. How do I, the wild olive branch, find myself connected to the promises and patriarchs of God?
“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.” (Romans 11:17-18)
This is the point Paul is making. Hey Gentiles, do you realize you are by birth spiritually ostracized? On the fringe? Marginalized? You are the spiritual saplings out in the woods. Do you realize the grace of God to pluck you out of the wilderness and put you into his sacred tree?
I like Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of Romans 11:18, “Remember, you aren’t feeding the root; the root is feeding you.”
That is Paul’s general point. Gentile believer, know your place. Realize the grace of this. Don’t think you deserve to be in the tree of life, or you will fall into the same trap as Jews who thought their DNA earned them their place in God’s kingdom.
Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
© 2019 by Steve DeWitt. You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that: (1) you credit the author, (2) any modifications are clearly marked, (3) you do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction, (4) you include Bethel’s website address (www.bethelweb.org) on the copied resource.
 James D.G. Dunn as quoted by Douglas J. Moo, The NIV Application Commentary: Romans, p. 370.
 Douglas J. Moo, The NIV Application Commentary: Romans, p. 370-371.
 Peterson, E. H. (2005). The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress.
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