By Mark Scott
Dad used to say, “The greatest word in John 3:16 is ‘whosoever,’ because that one word gets us into the kingdom of God.” Paul would likely agree. Paul was a Jew, and due to that heritage had ready access to salvation. But Paul was also the apostle to the Gentiles, and due to that calling wanted them to have ready access to salvation as well. At points one is tempted to think that the Jews have squandered their opportunity to be saved at all. But Paul reassured that God has reserved for himself a remnant of believing Jews (Romans 11:1-10). Paul used our text to remind the Gentiles not to feel haughty about their opportunity to believe the gospel.
All things being equal one would think that Jews and Gentiles would rejoice in the wide embrace of God. But alas, that was not the case. Our text was written to address some of the ethnic tensions in the church at Rome.
An involved formula developed during the missionary journeys of Paul (Acts 13–21). It goes like this: Jewish rejection leads to Gentile inclusion, which leads to Jewish jealousy; that produces two things—further Jewish rejection and persecution or Jewish and Gentile inclusion in the new Israel. This is exactly what we see in our text.
One could conclude that since the Jews rejected the gospel and since the Gentiles accepted the gospel that the die is cast, end of story. To that Paul says, “Not so fast.” The Jewish stumbling (also called transgression, rejection, and loss) did not mean they could not recover. In fact Paul had already affirmed that he was a Jew and embraced God’s call (Romans 11:1).
Jewish rejection did give the Gentiles a crack at the gospel, and that is a great thing. Paul refers to it as riches and reconciliation. But Paul was shooting for the stars. He held out hope that many Jews would turn back to God. Paul hoped that the Gentile inclusion would stir up Jewish envy (mentioned twice in our text) and would bring a great revival of interest for the gospel among the Jews. For Paul this would have been the greatest thing since sliced bread—the full inclusion of Jews and Gentiles and life from the dead for everyone.
Verse 16 functions as a transition from the formula to the analogy. Paul mixed metaphors. He moved from the kitchen to the olive orchard. He likened Israel to dough offered as firstfruits in an offering to God (think Leviticus 1–7). He likened the Gentiles to the whole batch of dough since they have become part of the whole lump with the Jews. Then Paul said, If the root is holy, so are the branches. This parable gets extended next.
Paul particularly addressed the Gentiles here. Evidently they needed a “come to Jesus meeting.” In light of the Jewish expulsion from Rome (Acts 18:2), perhaps the church at Rome was primarily Gentile. Now the Jews were coming back to Rome and the church, and perhaps the Gentiles were resenting the Jews reclaiming their Christian heritage. The Gentiles had begun to take on a bit of superiority.
The branches broken off were Israelites. The wild olive shoot grafted in was Gentiles. This combination tree was exactly what God wanted. So arrogance is totally out of place. Gentile branches needed the Jewish roots. Regardless of what happened to the Jews, the Gentiles had to realize that they had their standing with God by active obedient faith. God could take them out as easily as he grafted them in. Instead of arrogance this should foster a healthy fear. Next Paul entertained the reality that the Jews could come back to Christ. At least he held out an olive branch of hope for it. God’s toughness (sternness) and tenderness (kindness) worked in the favor of both Jews and Gentiles.
God’s tree today is primarily Gentile, but the first missionary of the Restoration Movement was a man named Barclay, who went to the Jews. After all, the gospel is to the Jews first (Romans 1:16).
Dr. Mark Scott teaches Preaching and New Testament at Ozark Christian College in Joplin, Missouri.
Based on International Sunday School Lesson, © 2012, by the Lesson Committee. Scripture quotations are from the New International Version ©2011, unless otherwise indicated.