30 March 2012

Romans 11:13-24

"... you stand only through faith. So do not become proud but stand in awe." (v. 20)


One of the remarkable things about early Christianity is that although it is deeply rooted in the Old Testament, and Jesus himself was a Jew, it spread much more rapidly among Gentiles (non Jews) than among the Jewish people. Paul himself contributed to this, being specifically called to preach to Gentiles, but he was not alone. What then of those Jews who do not believe? Romans chapters 9 to 11 are devoted to that question.

Paul cannot believe that God has given up on the Jewish people. Rather, their refusal, in general, to respond to the message was the trigger for taking it to the wider world. Now Gentiles are included. But Paul warns against a misplaced pride. The key factor is believing. Just as for a Jew relying on birth and observance of the law of Moses and looking down on Gentiles is a form of arrogance, so too for a Gentile to look down on Jews who have not accepted Christ, as though they were now outside God's love, is arrogant.

Paul resorts to metaphors to make his point. Verse 16 is not wholly clear. The main thrust is that we cannot separate the part from the whole. If some Jews (and Gentiles) have now responded in faith, that does not mean that the rest have been rejected as worthless.

In verses 17 to 24 Paul turns to horticulture. It was a practice in his day, improbable as it may seem to us, to graft wild olive shoots onto a cultivated stem to improve the yield. It would have been less usual to graft a cultivated shoot back again. He quotes the practice as a warning to his Gentile readers. If God can reject the Jewish people because of their unbelief, God can equally reject unfaithful Gentile Christians. And if God has incorporated Gentiles into his chosen people, then God can re-incorporate Jews. There is no place for pride.

What are we to make of verse 14? Paul hopes that by talking up his call from God to preach to the Gentiles he will challenge Jewish unbelievers to reconsider their position.

To Ponder

Reflect on the tendency of religious people to look down on those who do not share their faith. What are the safeguards against it?

What may this passage be saying about Christian-Jewish relations today?

To what extent does your image of God include severity as well as kindness (verse 22)?

Bible notes author

The Revd Brian Beck

Brian Beck is a Methodist minister, now retired, and a former president and secretary of the Methodist Conference. A large part of his ministry has been spent in theological education, both in Limuru, Kenya, and in Cambridge, England..