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 11:16-24 ESV
Dough. Firstfruits. Olive trees. Roots. Broken branches. What is Paul’s point in all of this? What is he trying to tell us? We must remember that he has been talking about the current and future fate of Israel. God had chosen them as His special possession. But they had rejected Jesus as their Messiah. As a result, they were passed over by God and His message of salvation was taken to the Gentiles. And yet, God had chosen for some Jews to believe in Jesus as their Messiah and form a remnant, a sort of firstfruits or offering that would consecrate or make holy the rest of the nation. Paul was using a reference to the command of God given to the Israelites as they prepared to enter the land of promise. He told them, “When you arrive in the land where I am taking you, and you eat the crops that grow there, you must set some aside as a sacred offering to the Lord. Present a cake from the first of the flour you grind, and set it aside as a sacred offering, as you do with the first grain from the threshing floor. Throughout the generations to come, you are to present a sacred offering to the Lord each year from the first of your ground flour” (Numbers 15:18-21 NLT). In his commentary on Romans, Donald Grey Barnhouse explains:
In order to understand this we must first realize that throughout the Old Testament the word “holy” has a special meaning. In the Old Testament “holy” means “separated from profane uses, consecrated to God.” In the use of the allusion as found in our text, Paul is saying that if the whole nation of Israel was originally set apart for God by the call of Abraham and the giving of the covenant promises to him, then the individuals of the race of Abraham also have a special relationship to God. This does not mean that they are personally holy, for some of them are even accursed; but it does mean that the members of the ancient race have been chosen by God and they will be brought to fulfill His purposes. – Donald Grey Barnhouse, Romans
The nation of Israel was holy to God. He had set them apart, not because of anything they had done or deserved, but simply out of His sovereign will. Moses had made this perfectly clear to them. “For you are a holy people, who belong to the Lord your God. Of all the people on earth, the Lord your God has chosen you to be his own special treasure. The Lord did not set his heart on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other nations, for you were the smallest of all nations! Rather, it was simply that the Lord loves you, and he was keeping the oath he had sworn to your ancestors” (Deuteronomy 7:6-8 NLT). And in Paul’s day, because God was bringing some Jews to faith, they were evidence of God’s continuing favor upon the nation of Israel. He had not completely abandoned them. In fact, Paul goes on to stress the non-debatable necessity of the nation of Israel in the grand scheme of God.
He switches analogies and begins to talk about trees, root and branches. He specifically refers to the olive tree, which was representative of the nation of Israel in the Old Testament (Hosea 14:4-6; Jeremiah 11:16-17). The root to which Paul refers most likely represents Abraham, the father of the nation of Israel. He had been hand-picked by God and ordained to be the father of the nation of Israel and the means by which God would bless the nations of the world. From Abraham, the root, came the trunk and the branches of Israel. And because Abraham was holy and set apart for God, so was the rest of the tree. But some of the branches of that tree had been broken off by God. And the branches from “wild” or uncultivated olive trees were grafted in. Gentiles were made a part of the family of God, not because they deserved it, but out of the mercy and kindness of God. And Paul reminds the Gentiles, “remember it is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you” (Romans 11:18 ESV). Our faith as believing Gentiles is dependent upon the promises of God made to Abraham. We are not better or superior than the Jews. And we are not to look down our noses in pride at unbelieving Jews. In fact, Paul would have us see our position as one with them. He told the believers in Ephesus, “So now you Gentiles are no longer strangers and foreigners. You are citizens along with all of God’s holy people. You are members of God’s family” (Ephesians 2:19 NLT).
God is not done with Israel. He has not abandoned them. If He can graft in to the root of Abraham branches from “wild” olive trees, He can certainly graft back in those branches that have broken off. In fact, Paul states, “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” (Romans 11:23 ESV). God’s promises to Israel still stand and He will fulfill them all – in His time and according to His perfect will. God’s unwavering faithfulness to Israel should encourage us. It is a reminder of just how loving, faithful and trustworthy our God really is. What He says, He will do. What He promises, He will ensure takes place. His decision to take the gospel to the Gentiles was not a plan B. It was not done because the Jews rejected Jesus as their Messiah. It was all part of God’s overall, sovereign and perfect plan A. Everything is working according to that plan. He is blessing all the nations of the earth through the offspring of Abraham, and one day He is going to bless the nation of Israel by sending His Son again and setting up His Kingdom on earth in Jerusalem and reestablishing His chosen people to their rightful place.