The Tree of Israel (Part II) – Romans 11:16-24

by Roger McCay
8 March 2020
Sermon Passage: Romans 11:16-24
Link to Audio Version

A+B=C   ….  ½ + ½ =1   …   50% + 50% = 100%. The sum of an items parts equals a whole. This is the simple math of Romans 11:1-24.

In this passage, Paul explains the current and future situation of the Jews and gives it an application for the Gentile Christians. Paul explains that the Jewish elect and the Gentile elect together make up the tree that is “True Israel.” The sum of its parts is a whole.

While the math is simple and straightforward, there are some who hold to what is called “Replacement Theology”—the idea that the church has somehow superseded Israel. You see this teaching in various forms with erroneous theologies such as Dispensationalism, including Dispensational Premillennialism (the dangerous theology represented in the fictional “Left Behind” books), and in what is called “Two-Covenant Theology.” We don’t have time this morning to delve into these erroneous theologies, their serious problems, and how they harm the church. I’m going on the general principle of showing what a real dollar looks like so that you can spot the counterfeit. Keep in mind, however, that any theology that divides God’s people into two groups (the Israel of God and the Church of God); any theology that says God works differently (with two different covenants) among the Jews and the church of Jesus Christ; any theology that divides God’s people and how he brings about their salvation, is seriously wrong—a twisting of God’s Word.

Now, some confuse the erroneous thinking of Replacement Theology with Covenant Theology. Yet, such an association betrays a misunderstanding as to the nature of Covenant Theology. Covenant theology holds to the Scripture’s teaching that there has been one covenant all along (the Covenant of Grace), which was first announced in Genesis 3:15, after the fall. Over time, God worked his redemptive purposes through what might be called “sub-covenants” with God’s people (Noah, Abraham, Moses, David). Each covenant was an unfolding of the Covenant of Grace, finding its fulfillment in Christ with the New Covenant in his blood. God’s Covenant of Grace unifies the teachings of the entire Bible. God’s covenant also unifies the people of God. The church is a continuation of Israel under the same Covenant of Grace that God has been working all along. As one man put it “the church has always been the Israel of God and the Israel of God has always been the church.” True Israel has always been the remnant of God’s people, either within the Jewish nation or within the visible Church—the chosen of God, the elect. True Israel has always been saved by grace through faith in the Lord, whether Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Rahab the prostitute of Jericho, Ruth the Moabitess, David, Isaiah, the Apostles, Luke the Physician, Lydia, and so forth, including you—if you are indeed a true believing disciple of Christ.

This continuation of True Israel is what Paul hammers home in our passage today. He uses the illustration of an olive tree. So doing, he also confronts the arrogance of anyone who would brush off the Jews with an arrogance towards Israel, thinking that the Church replaced Israel.

Last week we took a look at Rom. 11:1-15. There we considered Paul’s attestation to how God has never and will never abandon all the Jews. He always saves for himself a remnant. Those who are of the remnant of Jews are saved not because of any intrinsic merit or achievement (be it ethnic heritage or keeping the Law). Rather, they are saved because God chose them according to his grace. Many Jews will harden their hearts against Christ and suffer God’s wrath (the reprobate). Many Jews will ultimately trust in Christ as Savior and Lord and receive all the benefits of God’s grace (the elect). Some Jews are hardened against God, but are elect, so their hardening is an initial hardening. These Jews eventually will trust in Christ, and it will be a wonderful thing—life from the dead. Furthermore, Paul reveals that God overrules the jealousy of the Jews towards the Gentile Christians in order to bring many Jews to grace in Christ. Hence, it is imperative for Christians to evangelize the Jews (and those Gentiles who are like the Jews), by living in obedience of faith, following Jesus, in both word and deed.

After his exposition on the Jews, Paul gives a couple of illustrations in v. 16.

16 If the first-fruit is holy, then the lump is also holy; and if the root is holy, then the branches are also holy.

What is that about? The first-fruit of the dough is a clear reference to Old Testament offerings and sacrifices. In the offering of the first-fruit, the priest took some of the dough from the larger lump and offered it to God (Num. 15:17-21). Paul explains, consistent with the logic of Lev 19:23–25, that in the representative piece the whole is consecrated (made holy)—God’s possession. The holiness of the first part of the dough becomes the holiness of the whole lump of dough.

In regards to the people of God, who was the first-fruit? Abraham. Like Abraham (the first-fruit) was made holy, so also the descendants (the lump) of Abraham are made holy. Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness (Gen. 15:6; Rom. 4:3). Where did that righteousness come from? It was from the Son of God, the Lord Jesus Christ, sacrificed on the cross, who fulfilled God’s covenant with his blood (2 Cor. 5:21). So, the first-fruit was Abraham.

Who are Abraham’s descendants? As Rom. 4:11 puts it, “He is the father of all who believe,” be it Jew or Gentile. Like Abraham (the first-fruit), anyone who receives Christ’s righteousness by God’s grace through faith is a descendant of Abraham (part of the lump). This includes every believer, all God’s people, for all time, even those who lived before Christ’s sacrifice (Heb. 9:15 & 10:4). So, Abraham’s descendants are all true believers in God’s covenant promises fulfilled in Christ.

Then, what are the root and the branches? The root is Abraham, and likewise the patriarchs in the context of God’s covenant with them (a metaphor similarly used in various ancient Jewish texts – e.g. 1 Enoch, Jubilees, and also Philo). The branches are all of God’s people, rooted in God’s covenant fulfilled by Christ.

Paul elaborates on these branches in vv. 17-24 through the illustration of the olive tree. From this picture of a tree, Paul shows that God’s people are all those who receive their spiritual nourishment from the blessings of God’s covenant of grace—initially just the Jews, and later, with the Gentile Christians—both of which make up True Israel.

Let’s look vv. 17-24 again.

17 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, 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. 19 Then you will say, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” 20 That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but fear. 21 For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you. 22 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. 23 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. 24 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.

Paul goes all out on his illustration of the olive tree.  Why? Well, not only had the Jews been referred to as an olive tree in the OT (for example in Jeremiah 11), but how the olive tree was tended and pruned precisely illustrated the situation with true Israel.

Sir William Ramsey wrote an article concerning this in 1905. He wrote that the process Paul describes was still in use in Palestine.

“In exceptional circumstances…it is customary to reinvigorate an olive tree which is ceasing to bear fruit by grafting it with a shoot of the wild-olive, so that the sap of the tree ennobles this wild shoot and the tree now again begins to bear fruit.” [1]

In the case of the olive tree in Paul’s illustration, true Israel is the tree, with the patriarchs as its roots, rooted within God’s covenant. These roots nourish the whole tree with the promises and blessings of God which are part of the covenant. Thus, all the branches on the tree benefit from them.

The natural branches are the Jews naturally descended from the patriarchs. Those who rejected God’s covenant in Christ did not bear fruit, because they were spiritually dead. Due to their apostasy, God cut them off. As v. 20 puts it, they were broken off for their unbelief.

Then, in v. 17, God engrafted onto the tree the wild olive shoot (the Gentile Christians). This was due to God’s grace and their faith in Christ. As such, they have become part of true Israel, receiving all the promises and blessings of the patriarchs and the covenant. As Paul wrote in Gal. 3:29:“If you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.”

Hence, all of True Israel consists of the Gentile Christians and the Jewish Christians. Indeed, the distinction is done away with, as there is now neither “Jew nor Greek” (Gal. 3:28). All Christians, whatever their ethnic heritage, are supported by the root which is grounded in the foundation of God’s work towards our salvation in Christ—one people, unified in Christ, one tree of true Israel.

As part of this whole process, Paul also points out a couple of ways that we can see how God works—v. 22—the kindness and the severity of God. God is a God of mercy and justice. His just judgment on the Jews who do not receive Jesus as the promised Messiah, their Savior, is to cut them off the tree. As natural descendants of Abraham and the patriarchs, they had a distinct advantage due to their rich history of God’s working through their nation to bring salvation to all the world. Yet, despite all that, most Jews hardened their hearts against Christ. Hence, God’s severity is shown in his cutting them off. However, the Gentiles Christians, who weren’t even looking for the Messiah, received the gospel message and believed. Therefore, God brought Gentiles into the fold of True Israel.

I think we’ll agree that the marvelous wonder of God’s kindness cannot be overstated. What a wonder!

Even so, Paul gives a warning. In v. 22, he says that if you (referring to the Gentiles) do not continue in His kindness you will be cut off. What is up with that? Is Paul saying we can lose our salvation? Not at all. Paul’s statement is consistent with the teachings of Scripture, where the hallmark of God’s authentic people is perseverance until the end—cf. Hebrews 3:14. Further, Paul would be contradicting himself (Rom. 8:28-30; etc.).

What Paul is saying is this: If you do not, as Paul puts it, “continue in His kindness” by living according to faith, you have shown that you were never really part of True Israel. You show that somehow you never had true saving faith. Accordingly, your branch cannot be properly grafted to the tree and produce fruit and will be cut off. Jesus illustrates this concept in the parable of the sower and the seed in Mark 4.

John Calvin helps clarify this a bit in regards to individual situations:

“…bear in mind, that there are three modes of incision [that is engrafting], and two modes of excision [that is being cut off].

[First] For instance, the children of the faithful are engrafted, to whom the promise belongs according to the covenant made with the fathers; [Second] engrafted are also they who indeed receive the seed of the gospel, but it strikes no root, or it is choked before it brings any fruit; and thirdly, the elect are engrafted, who are illuminated unto eternal life according to the immutable purpose of God.

The first are cut off, when they refuse the promise given to their fathers, or do not receive it on account of their ingratitude; the second are cut off, when the seed is withered and destroyed; and as the danger of this impends over all, with regard to their own nature, it must be allowed that this warning which Paul gives belongs in a certain way to the faithful, lest they indulge themselves in the sloth of the flesh.

But with regard to the present passage, it is enough for us to know, that the vengeance which God had executed on the Jews, is pronounced on the Gentiles, in case they become like them.” [2]

Hence, God’s true people, the elect, the true Christians, will remain until the end.

What about God’s kindness and mercy towards the Jews? It sounds like they are getting a pretty hard deal. Not so! Verse 23 tells us God’s mercy and kindness also extends to the Jews, for if they come to believe, they will be engrafted back in. Furthermore, as natural branches, it will be so very right. C.S. Lewis, on this point, comments:

“In a sense, the converted Jew is the only normal human being in the world.  Everyone else is, from one point of view, a special case dealt with under emergency conditions.”[3]

Considering these realities, what kind of attitudes are we Gentile Christians to have? In v. 18 Paul specifically chides us not to boast against the branches that have been broken off. The history of the church proves how easy it is to fall into a type of elitism with anti-Semite tendencies. It is a temptation we must resist. We are falling in on their roots, and God isn’t finished with them. There are many of them who will later come to faith. We must not be proud and conceited, but fear God as the Judge of all the earth.

If you have become arrogant, thinking you are something special because of your status as a Christian, you should do some introspection and consider whether you have true faith. The truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ necessarily causes believers to be humbled before God. Undeserving sinners who have experienced God’s grace and forgiveness have no other logical position before God than humble gratitude and worship—not arrogance. Arrogance before God is insanity—hubris! If you are one of God’s elect, God’s choice for you to be one of his people has absolutely nothing to do with your ethnic heritage or any works you’ve ever done or ever will do. God’s choice is entirely grounded in his grace.

Saved by the grace of God, let us, in a spirit of humble faithfulness, live within God’s kindness, grateful to Him for our salvation. Secure in Christ, let us strive continually, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to obey him in every area of our life.

It’s simple math. The sum of an items parts equals a whole. The Jewish Christians and the Gentile Christians make up the whole of God’s people—unified as one in Christ. We are true Israel, the Lord’s elect, and he will never reject us. Rejoicing in this truth, let us live lives of humble faith, following Jesus, our Lord, nourished in the riches of his kindness and covenantal grace. Because God does not reject His people, we must live humbly before Him.


[1] John R. W. Stott, The Message of Romans: God’s Good News for the World, The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 300, quoting William Ramsay, Pauline and Other Studies (1906), pp. 217ff.

[2] John Calvin, Commentary on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 433–434.

[3] C.S. Lewis, in the forward of Joy Davidson’s book Smoke on the Mountains (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1985), 7.