Romans 11:16-18, “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[a] of the olive tree, 18 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.”
Christians, Martin Luther famously said, are “at the same time just and sinners.” Although we have been declared righteous through faith alone in Christ alone and can stand before the Lord unafraid (Rom. 3:21-26; Gal. 2:15-16), this legal righteousness that we possess does not mean we are now experientially perfected. Sin continues to taint us, and its presence will not be removed from us entirely until our glorification (1 John 1:8-9). We must be ever vigilant and on guard against its presence and corrupting influence.
One common manifestation of remaining sin is pride, and in today’s passage, Paul warns Gentile Christians about pride that might arise from a misunderstanding of what he has been saying about the place of Israel in God’s plan. First, he transitions from his argument that his ministry to the Gentiles will bear fruit for the Jews. Having indicated that the conversion of presently hardened Israel will bless the world tremendously, he pivots to a discussion of dough and trees. Romans 11:16 is loosely tied to verse 15—the Jews’ future acceptance of Christ will result in life from the dead—an allusion to, among other things, the perfected state of God’s people. This gets Paul thinking of holiness more generally and how the holiness of Gentile Christians is tied to the holiness of God’s people Israel. He makes reference to the holiness of “the root” (v. 16) sustaining the holiness of the branches.
The Apostle is borrowing an image of the olive tree as representative of the people of Israel (Jer. 11:16), but it would be a mistake to think that the tree of Israel in Romans 11 refers simply to ethnic Jews. Within this tree, the Apostle makes a distinction between root and branches (vv. 17-18). Some commentators argue that Paul does not use the term root to signify ethnic Jews but rather the patriarchs, which makes sense given that the people of Israel come from the patriarchs (see Ex. 3:16). The olive tree, then, is the people who are connected to and derive their nourishment from the root, from the faith that established the patriarchs as the source of the covenant community. More specifically, these people are represented by the branches, some natural and some grafted in from the wild.
As the Gentiles continued to outnumber the ethnic Jews in the first-century church, there was the temptation for the Gentiles to think it had something to do with their own superiority. Such pride, Paul says, is foolish given that the Gentiles depend on the Jews—on their prophets, covenant, and Messiah—for salvation (Rom. 11:17-18).
As fallen human beings, we are constantly tempted to believe that the reason we are Christians is that we are somehow better than others. Even within the church, we are tempted to believe that we have a monopoly on God’s grace and that others who are not part of our denomination are second-class citizens in the kingdom of heaven. This is a tremendous error, and one against which we should be vigilant at all times. If we find it in ourselves, let us repent.