Commentary on Romans 11:16-24

Notes (NET Translation)

16 If the first portion of the dough offered is holy, then the whole batch is holy, and if the root is holy, so too are the branches.

Both metaphors in this verse are making the same point: “God’s choice of the patriarchs indicates that the people of Israel as a whole are consecrated to him.”1

In according such significance to the patriarchs, Paul of course does not mean that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob possessed any qualities that earned spiritual benefits for themselves and their descendants. As both the OT and Paul make clear (see esp. Rom. 4 and Gal. 3), the patriarchs convey spiritual benefits on their descendants only as recipients and transmitters of the promises of God. Their “holiness” consists in their having been set apart by God for this salvation-historical role. Moreover, the word “holy” (hagios) is taken from OT sacrificial language. The word will not, then, have the technical sense of “set apart by God for salvation” that it usually has in Paul but will connote a being “set apart” by God for special attention in a more general way. Paul is not here asserting the salvation of every Israelite but the continuing “special” identity of the people of Israel in the eyes of the Lord.2

The “first portion of the dough” may allude to Num 15:17-21, where Israelites are commanded to offer a donation from the first fruits of the lump of dough. The following verses indicate the tree in question is an olive tree, a symbol of Israel (Jer 11:16-17; Hos 14:6-7).

Who or what is the “root”? Verses 17-18 say both Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians participate in the richness of the root. Hence, the root is neither Jewish Christians nor Gentile Christians. Verses 28-29 speak of the fathers/patriarchs. Thus, if the root is the patriarchs, we should see the natural branches as the Jews who followed in the footsteps of the faith of Abraham (4:12) and the wild olive shoots as Gentile Christians.

17 Now if some of the branches were broken off, and you, a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among them and participated in the richness of the olive root, 18 do not boast over the branches. But if you boast, remember that you do not support the root, but the root supports you.

Paul is not giving a lesson in horticulture so it makes no sense to attack or defend his comments about grafting in branches and how it relates to ancient practice. He is giving a metaphor about the relationship of Jews and Gentiles in the people of God.

The passive “were broken off” implies that God broke some of the natural branches off. Note that not all of the natural branches were broken off; only the unbelieving Jews were removed from the people of God (11:20). The singular “you” indicates that the individual Gentile is being addressed as a “wild olive shoot”. The Gentiles are among the Jewish Christians as opposed to in place of them. The continuity of the people of God is maintained from the patriarchs, to Christ, and to the Jewish Christians.

Thus Paul reminds the Gentiles: you were grafted into them and became fellow sharers in the fatness (that is, the sap) of the root of the olive tree. This is presumably a symbol of the blessings of that religious heritage and the promises that go with it. How this works is made abundantly clear in Galatians 3-4. Wild olive trees never produce useful oil. Since Paul clearly identifies the Gentiles with wild olive branches that have been grafted in, he is seeking to put overweening Gentile Christians in their place in two ways: He makes it clear that Jewish Christians, and before them the patriarchs, are the natural part of the tree, thus giving Jews precedence in the people of God, and that as wild olive branches the Gentiles bring nothing into the union. God simply grafts them in by pure grace. They should not exult over the broken-off branches or over Jewish Christians because they do not carry the Jewish heritage. Rather, “the root carries you.” On the basis of 1 Enoch 93.5, 8; Philo, Quis rerum divinarum heres 279; and Jubilees 21.24, “root” probably refers to the patriarchs, perhaps Abraham in particular. This conclusion may be supported by Rom. 4.1-2, where Abraham is called “our father according to the flesh.”3

19 Then you will say, “The branches were broken off so that I could be grafted in.”

20 Granted! They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand by faith. Do not be arrogant, but fear!

Paul grants that unbelieving Jews were removed from the people of God but he does not agree that the salvation of Gentiles is the sole purpose of God cutting off the natural branches. The following verses speak of Israel’s restoration.

What Paul says here to the Gentile Christian echoes what he said earlier to the Jews. In response to the Jews’ tendency to boast in their status and accomplishments, Paul emphasized that the gracious nature of God’s dealings with human beings excluded all boasting. It is faith, and faith alone–characterized by humility and receptivity–that is the only way to establish or to maintain a relationship with God (3:27-4:5). Recognizing that every spiritual benefit comes as a sheer gift from our gracious God, the Gentile Christian must stop thinking so highly of his or her accomplishments and take up an attitude of fear. This basic biblical concept combines reverential respect for the God of majesty and glory with a healthy concern to continue to live out of the grace of God in our lives (see esp. Phil 2:12; also 2 Cor. 5:1; 7:1, 11, 15; Col. 3:22).4

21 For if God did not spare the natural branches, perhaps he will not spare you.

Unbelieving Gentiles will not be spared.

22 Notice therefore the kindness and harshness of God — harshness toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness toward you, provided you continue in his kindness; otherwise you also will be cut off.

Paul often warns his readers of the necessity of continuing in the faith in order to be saved (cf. 1 Cor. 10:1-12; Gal. 5:2-4, 21; Col. 1:23; 1 Thess. 3:1-5). One should never conclude from Paul’s teaching on divine election that he downplayed the necessity of human beings continuing to exercise faith in order to obtain eschatological salvation. Those who do so impose an alien system upon the Pauline writings. The warnings are grammatically hypothetical but are seriously intended for believers. Those who do not continue in faith will face God’s judgment. Neither would it be correct to conclude that some of those that God elected will fail to continue in the faith. Murray observes rightly that “God’s saving embrace and endurance are correlative.” When we look at it retrospectively (cf. 2 Tim. 2:11-21; 1 John 2:19) we discover that those who fail to persevere thereby reveal that they were never actually part of the elect community. But we must beware of imposing this retrospective comment upon the warnings so that they lose their function for believers. We must take seriously the words of this text: if we fall away, we shall face final judgment. Those who brush aside the warnings as unnecessary, concluding that they are protected from God’s wrath no matter how they behave, are presuming upon God’s grace.5

23 And even they — if they do not continue in their unbelief — will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again.

Belief/Faith is what is necessary for unbelieving Jews to be grafted back into the tree.

24 For if you were cut off from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these natural branches be grafted back into their own olive tree?

Bibliography

Kruse, Colin G. Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Kindle Edition. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014.

Metzger, Bruce M., ed. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. Second Edition. Hendrickson Pub, 2005.

Moo, Douglas J. The Epistle to the Romans. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996.

Schreiner, Thomas R. Romans. Kindle Edition. Baker Academic, 1998.

Witherington III, Ben, and Darlene Hyatt. Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Kindle Edition. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2004.


  1. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 11729-11730 
  2. Moo 1996, 700-701 
  3. Witherington III 2004, 271 
  4. Moo 1996, 705-706 
  5. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 11876-11886 
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