Rom 11:13 For I speak to you Gentiles; inasmuch as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I magnify my ministry,
Rom 11:14 if by any means I may provoke to jealousy those who are my flesh and save some of them.
In the middle of Romans 11, Paul shifts his monologue to address the gentiles. He tells the gentiles that they have been grafted into the “tree” of Israel (God’s people). Paul’s teaching is that the Jews and gentiles are now equal before God. This would be a serious point of contention with Paul’s intended audience (as evident by the layout and style of Paul’s arguments).
Paul says that God is doing this in order to provoke the Jews to jealousy and perhaps get the nation of Israel to return to God (Rom 11:11). Paul then states that his purpose is the same as God’s. Paul is using his own writings to attempt to turn individuals to God through jealousy (Rom 11:14). Paul says that this is God’s ultimate goal: the salvation of Israel. God wishes wholeheartedly that they return to Him:
Rom 11:15 For if their being cast away is the reconciling of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead?
The Jews are now “dead” and they can become alive if they become acceptable to God. God wants Israel to return. God has turned to the world. But God ultimately is using this to turn the Jews back to Him. In this sense, the gentile equality is a tool for Jewish salvation.
Paul then turns to a metaphor about tree farming. The original tree (Israel’s covenant relationship with God) is good. It will remain to be good, although individual branches are cut out of and added into this promise. Israel is cut out and the gentiles are grafted in. Paul uses the image of grafting, in which a tree of one type of fruit is welded to a tree of another type of fruit and the branch becomes a functioning part of the tree, bearing its original fruit. This has a second utility for Paul’s metaphor: fruit is often used of “good” and “bad” works throughout the Bible. If a branch bears bad fruit, it will be cut off. The purpose of the tree is ultimately to bear good fruit.
With this image, Paul can illustrate the current position of the gentiles:
Rom 11:16 For if the firstfruit is holy, the lump is also holy; and if the root is holy, so are the branches
Rom 11:17 And if some of the branches were broken off, and you, being a wild olive tree, were grafted in among them, and with them became a partaker of the root and fatness of the olive tree,
Rom 11:18 do not boast against the branches. But if you do boast, remember that you do not support the root, but the root supports you.
Rom 11:19 You will say then, “Branches were broken off that I might be grafted in.”
Rom 11:20 Well said. Because of unbelief they were broken off, and you stand by faith. Do not be haughty, but fear.
Paul tells the gentiles to fear and not to take pride in their newfound status. The gentiles are not the root of the promise (Israel is). Any benefit that the gentiles are receiving has its origin in the promises of Israel. The gentiles are lucky to be included. They are not natural to the root. As a result, Paul tells the gentiles that they can be broken off more easily than the Jews:
Rom 11:21 For if God did not spare the natural branches, He may not spare you either.
Rom 11:22 Therefore consider the goodness and severity of God: on those who fell, severity; but toward you, goodness, if you continue in His goodness. Otherwise you also will be cut off.
Paul is not saying the gentiles must be cut off at some point or that he knows they will be. Paul is saying that God is watching them. If the gentiles rebel in the same fashion as Israel, God will not hesitate to cut them off. God has even less emotional stock in the “wild branches” then He had for the “natural branches”. God operates on a principle of justice. Evil is punished and good is rewarded. Evil branches are cut off and tossed aside. Good branches are grafted into the tree.
It is conceivable that Paul’s converts had been causing fights with Christian Jews concerning equality theology. Paul tells them to not be prideful (Rom 11:20). Paul is most likely quieting those of his converts who are parading their equality in front of unreceptive Jews. In this fashion, Paul’s theology will not be so easily opposed by the church if it is made less of a point of contention. Paul is also placing a moral awareness on his gentile converts. If they do not behave, they will be cut off. God will not stand by and bless the evil.
Paul then maintains that there is hope yet for the Jews that have been cut off. Paul says that they will again be grafted into the people of God:
Rom 11:23 And they also, if they do not continue in unbelief, will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again.
Rom 11:24 For if you were cut out of the olive tree which is wild by nature, and were grafted contrary to nature into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these, who are natural branches, be grafted into their own olive tree?
Notice the key phrase “if they do not continue in unbelief”. All of God’s promises are conditional. If the gentiles misbehave, they will be cut off. If Israel behaves, they will be grafted back in. God is responding in kind to the behavior of people.
Paul’s overall point is that because Israel was a chosen people then they can more easily reclaim that status than the gentiles (who were not the chosen people). Here, Paul is linking his theology to mainstream Jewish theology. Paul is telling his readers that his theology does not overturn God’s promises to Israel. Israel is still the chosen people. In Paul’s theology, Israel can leverage this advantage. This promise’s to Israel were not revoked.
In keeping with this idea, Paul tells of a future time in which Israel will reclaim her birthright:
Rom 11:25 For I do not desire, brethren, that you should be ignorant of this mystery, lest you should be wise in your own opinion, that blindness in part has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in.
Rom 11:26 And so all Israel will be saved, as it is written: “THE DELIVERER WILL COME OUT OF ZION, AND HE WILL TURN AWAY UNGODLINESS FROM JACOB;
Rom 11:27 FOR THIS IS MY COVENANT WITH THEM, WHEN I TAKE AWAY THEIR SINS.”
Paul references back to Old Testament eschatology. Paul is telling his readers that he still accepts standard Jewish eschatology that his “gentile equality” theology is not incompatible with their views of a future Jewish rulership. This will allow his readers to more easily accept Paul’s teachings on temporary gentile equality. Paul is stating that this phase with the gentiles has to run its course before God renews His covenant with Israel.
Paul then talks about the Jews which have been rejected. The promises yet apply to them as a people group. Although they hate the gentiles and reject the gentiles as equals, they still have been elected by God:
Rom 11:28 Concerning the gospel they are enemies for your sake, but concerning the election they are beloved for the sake of the fathers.
Rom 11:29 For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.
Notice that Paul is attempting to use the Jewish arguments to his own benefit. The Jews have argued that their status as a chosen people is irrevocable. Paul uses this and incorporates it into his own theology. Paul is diffusing their argument. The way that Israel’s promises are not revoked is that God still plans on fulfilling Jewish eschatology. Israel will still rule in a new world.
Paul does not detail the specifics as to how this operates with the gentiles who have been grafted into God’s people. Paul also does not assume this is a fated event. Throughout this passage, those who turn to God are accepted. If Israel continues in rebellion (per the fig tree imagery), they will not be grafted into the promise. It is only if Israel repents that they can reclaim their future promises.
Paul then reiterates the fact that all of God’s acts are based in justice and mercy. God operates with justice, blessing those who are good and punishing those who are evil. God responds to obedience. But God also operates with mercy. God cut off Israel because of their disobedience, but is using this turn of events to attempt to recall them to obedience:
Rom 11:30 For as you were once disobedient to God, yet have now obtained mercy through their disobedience,
Rom 11:31 even so these also have now been disobedient, that through the mercy shown you they also may obtain mercy.
Rom 11:32 For God has committed them all to disobedience, that He might have mercy on all.
The ultimate goal of this plan is to have “mercy on all”.
Paul ends this section, realizing that his audience will be hesitant to believe him. They will reject his theology. They will claim it is convoluted and makes no sense. So Paul appeals to God’s complexity:
Rom 11:33 Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out!
Rom 11:34 “FOR WHO HAS KNOWN THE MIND OF THE LORD? OR WHO HAS BECOME HIS COUNSELOR?”
Rom 11:35 “OR WHO HAS FIRST GIVEN TO HIM AND IT SHALL BE REPAID TO HIM?”
If Paul’s hearers deny Paul’s message, they are rejecting God’s complex plans. God’s plans might be, on face value, confusing, but they are in no place to questions God’s acts.
This is not saying that no one can understand God’s plans; Paul has just explained it to his hearers in depth. Paul is saying that if the reader rejects Paul’s theology on complexity grounds, they misunderstand how God operates and with what detail of planning God can act. They are not even in a position to advise God on what God should do. God’s plan of Jewish-gentile equality is final and cannot be rejected.
To Paul, God operates based on the concepts of justice and mercy. God will punish an unbelieving Israel, but God’s punishment will be a form of rehabilitation for Israel. God is using the punishment to emotionally manipulate Israel into repentance and acceptance of God. God’s ultimate goal is to fulfill His eternal promises to Israel, but He cannot do that unless they become His righteous people. God responds.
God also has a heart for the gentiles. God is using Israel to bless the entire world. This is part of standard Jewish eschatology and it features prominently in Paul’s theology of Jewish-gentile equality. This illustrates God’s justice and mercy. Anyone who turns to God will be accepted by God (conversely, anyone who rebels will be cut off). God is willing to accept people of all nations and God is actively doing things (not just for the Jews) but for the entire world.