If I was to ask anyone today what he or she thinks of first when asked to list the characteristics or attributes of God, I’m sure that nearly every case the person would say “love.” Yet that would not have been true for the Old Testament saints. They would have said “holiness.” Surprisingly, that is a concept almost never thought about by most people today. Not only did the Old Testament figures think of holiness when they thought of God. They also thought of holiness in reference to anything or anybody who had contact with God, for they knew that only what is holy can have contact with Him. Holiness dominated their religious ideas.
We need to remember this when we come to Romans 11:16, for Paul is certainly writing within an Old Testament framework when he says, almost casually, “If the part of the dough offered as firstfruits is holy, then the whole batch is holy; if the root is holy, so are the branches.” What Paul is doing here is drawing upon an Old Testament understanding of holiness to carry forward the important point he is making in Romans 11, namely, that God has not given up on Israel.
It’s true that the mass of Israel has been laid aside temporarily in order that by their rejection, salvation might come to the Gentiles. But even in this period of rejection, Israel has not been rejected utterly; a remnant is still being saved. Nor will Israel be rejected finally; for at the last the masses of Israel will be brought to faith in Jesus Christ, who died for them that they might have forgiveness for their sins.
In Romans 11, Paul is writing about the future of the Jews as a people. So it’s surprising how much of what he says in this chapter is to the Gentiles. He began by addressing them directly in verse 13, and he continues speaking to them exclusively until verse 25, where he begins to address a broader group of people again. In verses 17-22, he warns the Gentiles not to boast over Judaism because of the Gentiles’ current favored status, saying that if the Jews, who were God’s especially chosen people once, have been rejected at least temporarily because of unbelief, the Gentiles also will be rejected if they follow their bad example.
This is a serious warning, one that we must take to heart. As Paul writes to those of us who are Gentiles, he is aware that our present position might cause us to boast over the Jews who held a privileged position before us. But he warns us not to boast. Rather fear God, he says. We may be standing now, but we stand only by grace. If we cease to stand in grace by believing God, we too, will fail. Does that mean that salvation can be lost? No. Paul has been teaching the doctrine of perseverance. But what he says here is nevertheless a strong warning against spiritual presumption. What Paul tells us in these verses is that if the Gentiles fail to stand by faith, they will be cut off, just as the Jews were.
This warning extends to individuals today who suppose they are Christians because they are part of a Christian church and affirms the right things, but who are not actually anchored in the grace of God and are not exercising that true faith in God that comes from the presence of the Holy Spirit within them. Let me warn you that it is fatally easy to assume that all is well with your soul when actually you are perishing. In fact, in your unbelieving state it is the most natural thing in the world, because you do not perceive what is really spiritual and suppose that the externals of Christianity are what matters.
If you have any sensitivity to spiritual things, you must ask yourself, “Has my commitment to Christ made any discernible difference in my life?” In other words, is there anything you are doing now that you would not be doing if you were not a Christian? Is there anything you are not doing because you know it would displease Jesus Christ? Are you obeying His commandments? Do you love to be with other Christians? Are you studying the Bible? And when you study it can you really say that you hear God speaking to you in its pages? Do you recognize what you read there to be the truth? Do you change what you are doing as a result? Are you trying to order your life according to the Bible’s teaching and redirect it according to right Christian priorities?
This is what it means to “make your calling and election sure” (2 Pet. 1”10), in sharp contrast to what Jesus was warning of when He described sowing seed on ground where it seemed to grow well but soon dried up for lack of depth, was chocked by weeds, or was snatched away by Satan (Matt. 13:1-9). Churches and individuals who foolishly boast of their own attainments or coast along in their present favored standing without pausing to remember the grace of God that brought them to that place and the obligation they have to stand together as Christians in grace by faith alone. So do not forget! Stand in your high calling! Stand by faith! Greater individuals than you and I have perished. Nations as powerful as ours have been overthrown. And stronger churches than ours have fallen to the severity of God’s just judgments in history.
Romans 11:16-24 Reflection Questions:
Beginning in verse 13 and continuing through verse 32 Paul is speaking directly to the Gentile Christians in the Romans church. What seems to be in danger in the Gentile believers that Paul is addressing? What is his warning to them?
He uses two illustrations in verses 16-24 to highlight the point he wants to make to the Gentile believers. What is Paul saying here?
One thing that many people may not know about olive trees in ancient Israel is that, from time to time, gardeners performed grafting operations on them. Some olives grew wild, and would often be quite strong in themselves though not producing good fruit. The gardener might decide to take that energy and harness it by grafting shoots from a proper, cultivated olive into the trunk of a wild olive, thus combining the energy of the wild tree and the fruitfulness of the cultivated one. Why does Paul reverse the illustration?
What was Paul implying through the use of the grafting image? What possible wrong impressions, particularly among Gentile believers, was he attempting to correct?