“Now if some of the branches were broken off, and you, though a wild olive branch, were grafted in among them and have come to share in the rich root of the cultivated olive tree, do not brag that you are better than those branches. But if you do brag — you do not sustain the root, but the root sustains you. Then you will say, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” True enough; they were broken off by unbelief, but you stand by faith. Do not be arrogant, but be afraid. For if God did not spare the natural branches, He will not spare you either. Therefore, consider God’s kindness and severity: severity toward those who have fallen but God’s kindness toward you — if you remain in His kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off. And even they, if they do not remain in unbelief, will be grafted in, because God has the power to graft them in again. For if you were cut off from your native wild olive and against nature were grafted into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these — the natural branches — be grafted into their own olive tree?” (Romans 11:17-24 HCSB)
Early in my career working in technology, I was tasked with building the first computer data network at Oklahoma Baptist University. While I had studied and read about how networks are designed and built the task becomes much more difficult when it moves from theory to application. I had read all of the textbook materials about network design, cabling, topology, protocols and data packets but now I had to make it work. It wasn’t as easy as it sounds. Looking back, I can chuckle at some of my mistakes and missteps. My current knowledge and understanding has far surpassed those early days when I was struggling to understand terminators, tokens and IP addresses.
You might be surprised to learn that in addition to all of documentation and reading, I spent quite a bit of time praying for wisdom and understanding. I mentioned, last week, that I believe I was called to work at OBU as much as I was called to pastor this church but this new challenge was pushing me into areas where I had little knowledge and no skill. I was really, really struggling to get this to work. While the concept of a data network made sense in my head, it was difficult to take theoretical knowledge and get it to work in an actual physical environment. Since I believed God had called me to and provided this job, then I also believed He could provide the understanding needed to achieve this goal. So, I began to “baptize” my study and my efforts in prayer. What else would a good Baptist do?
Fortunately, God heard and answered my prayers. One day as I was struggling over understanding IP addressing and subnetworks, the concept suddenly clicked in my head. I understood what all of those numbers and concepts meant. God had lifted the fog and opened my eyes of understanding. To be honest, the building of that first network was just one of many similar circumstances in which I’ve had to seek God’s help and wisdom as I sought to serve Him in this job to which He had called me. What I experienced in that moment with data networks I also experience every week as I open His Word and begin to study and prepare my sermon and write this blog post. My need for understanding has never subsided and I must continually pray and seek God’s wisdom and understanding as I read, study and share His Word with you.
But pride, arrogance and human self-sufficiency are always sitting nearby, ready to step in and derail my thoughts and God’s desires and that’s what Paul is addressing in today’s focal passage. In the many years that followed God’s provision and insight for building that first data network, I have stumbled over my own arrogance and fallen captive to my own prideful self-sufficiency. The hours I spent in prayer seeking God’s help and insight have continually ebbed and flowed with the difficulty of the task and my understanding and knowledge. In other words, I tend to think “I can do this on my own” and no longer need God’s wisdom and understanding. My personal knowledge, skill set and technical abilities have grown and developed and my desire and tendency to pray over each task has correspondingly decreased. As I grow confident in my own abilities I grow less dependent upon God and that’s a deceptively dangerous place to be and precisely where the Roman church finds itself in this passage. Let’s take a look…
Paul uses a lengthy analogy to help us understand this issue and describes branches that have been broken off a cultivated olive tree while branches from a wild olive tree have been grafted onto it. For many years, most scholars simply assumed Paul was a “city boy” and had little knowledge regarding olive tree agriculture practices. It was believed that you would never graft a wild olive branch onto a cultivated tree because those branches simply would not produce as well as the cultivated branches. However, we’ve recently learned that when a cultivated tree began to ‘slow down’ in its olive production some low producing branches would be removed and wild olive branches would be grafted onto the tree in their place. Somehow, these wild olive branches would reinvigorate the tree, the vital production of sap and cause all of the branches to begin producing more olives.
Paul uses this to describe the situation regarding the Jews and their faith relationship or lack thereof in relation to Jesus. God was in the process of removing certain cultivated olive branches (Jews) that were not producing and replacing them with ‘wild olive’ branches (Gentiles) who were producing a rich harvest of the fruit of faith. However, it appears that this situation has resulted in a sense of growing pride among the Gentile believers regarding this situation. Paul tells them, “do not brag that you are better than those branches.” Paul calls upon them to remember that they (first century Gentile believers) do not sustain the root (Jewish patriarchs of faith) but the root sustains them. In other words, their pride has deceived them into believing that they are the most important element of the church and they’ve forgotten that they stand on the shoulders (or are sustained by the olive root) of the great patriarchs of the Christian faith.
This same sense of pride is very visible in the modern church. Modernism tends to abandon or cut all ties to its historical roots and, in doing so, it overlooks the contributions provided and the lessons learned from its predecessors. Paul’s point, you didn’t get here on your own and your pride blocks you from recognizing this and tends to make you believe you are better than you really are. Just as my technical self-sufficiency resulted in pride and an inflated sense of worth and a declining awareness of my need for God’s help and wisdom so our spiritual pride feeds into a growing sense of spiritual self-sufficiency and a declining awareness of our ongoing need for God’s help, wisdom and sustaining strength. You’ll notice I said that our awareness declines and that is intentional because our need doesn’t decline but only our awareness of that need declines. Pride makes us blind to our need but doesn’t remove our need.
Paul then anticipates their response, “Then you will say, branches were broken off so that I (Greek: ego) might be grafted in.” Notice the emphasis on the “I” in that statement. The statement emphasizes the person in such a way as to say “apparently I am better, that’s why God rejected them and grafted me in.” While it is technically true that Jewish branches were broken off in order to graft in wild or Gentile branches, they missed the reason and God’s purpose in doing so: “they were broken off by unbelief, but you stand by faith. Do not be arrogant, but fearful.” So Paul cautions the Gentile believers regarding their personal arrogance and calls them, instead, to be fearful. It would be very easy to skip right over that statement in an effort to keep things upbeat and positive but Paul gives this caution for a reason and I would be remiss if I ignored it. The line between prideful arrogance and humble faith is much more narrow than we often realize and the Gentile believers were in danger of falling on the wrong side of it.
The Jews were broken off because of their unbelief that resulted in their rejection of Jesus and their rebellion against God’s Word. In their efforts at being obedient to the letter of the law they refused to believe and obey God. They thought they understood God and, in their arrogance, they refused to believe Jesus because He didn’t fit their expectations and understandings. Paul warns the Gentile believers to be careful, “for it God did not spare the natural branches, He will not spare you either.” I want to be very clear, the issue is not obedience but arrogance. In their efforts to be obedient, the Jews had become arrogantly disobedient. They understood the teachings of the Old Testament in a very specific and religiously rigid way. They believed that it was enough to obey while ignoring their attitudes, their hearts. “These people honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me.” (Matthew 15:8 HCSB)
Paul warns, “don’t be arrogant, but be afraid.” Baptists often talk about the security of the believer or “once saved, always saved” and I’m not here to discredit that belief. However, it is easy to become arrogant in our beliefs to the point of misunderstanding them in the same way as the Pharisees, that I cited in the previous paragraph. I truly believe that salvation cannot be lost by our disobedience but I also believe that it is possible to be arrogantly wrong about your salvation and, thus, to never have true salvation while being blinded by and clinging to your personal pride and arrogance. There are many who have been told, “simply pray this prayer and you’ll be saved.” But the words of a prayer are not magical and do NOT provide salvation. Just as Paul pointed out in Romans 10, salvation is the result of “confessing with our mouths that Jesus is Lord and believing in our hearts that God has raised Him from the dead.” Repeating the words of a prayer might be the expression of our confession of Jesus as Lord and the belief of our hearts, but simply reciting those words cannot save.
In a similar way, some folks put their trust in the act of baptism and just like the words of that prayer, baptism can be a true expression of our confession and belief. But some have simply gotten wet because their baptism didn’t accompany that confession of His lordship and their belief in His atoning sacrifice and life giving resurrection. Baptism is a beautiful act of obedience and should be our first response to the lordship of Christ, but it must be accompanied by that confession and faith. Some branches were broken off because of their unbelief, but you and I are able to stand only by faith. Let that sink in… we stand only by faith. We don’t stand because of our orthodoxy, though it is vitally important to believe the right things, to know and believe the truth. We don’t stand because of our act of obedience through baptism, though baptism is commanded for all believers. We don’t stand because we’ve received the cup and bread of communion, though the cup and bread are the blood and body of Christ. You and I stand by FAITH, but our trust is expressed in our obedience. Our obedience to the truth of God’s Word and through our baptism and our humble receiving of the cup and the bread.
Paul then calls us to reflect on the character and nature of God and our response to it, “consider God’s kindness and severity: severity towards those who have fallen but kindness towards you — if you remain in His kindness.” Ah, there it is… “if you remain in His kindness.” See, I knew it was too good to be true. It is possible to slip up and lose your salvation. Or is it? Perseverance. That’s the issue. Christian perseverance. Consider John’s words: “They went out from us, but they did not belong to us; for if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us. However, they went out so that it might be made clear that none of them belongs to us.” (1 John 2:19 HCSB) To put it simply, all true believers persevere until the end and that seems to be Paul’s point here. If you stand by faith, then you will continue to stand by faith and God will be at work in you to destroy your pride and elevate your humility even as He makes you into the image of Christ.
Notice, God responds severely towards those who reject Him through unbelief but responds kindly towards those who receive Him by faith in Christ. Our culture embraces God’s love and kindness when it is reflective of their view and understanding of God, but they don’t like this view of God’s severity towards unbelief and rejection of Jesus. God is good, loving and kind but He is also just, holy and sovereign. This isn’t a cafeteria line of beliefs about God, you can’t take the ones you like and turn your nose up at those you don’t. You must love and accept Him as He is and as He’s revealed Himself (in Jesus) or else you’ve made yourself god and stolen His throne.
Paul ends this section with a simple reminder to the Gentile believers in Rome and to us, if God is able to cut them off and graft you in because of their unbelief then He can also do the opposite. He can cut off the unbelieving Gentiles and graft in Jews who turn to faith in Christ. The modern church needs to hear this and hear it well. In some ways, we’ve become prideful and arrogant before our God. We often seem more interested in building our own kingdom instead of His Kingdom. We’re more concerned with budget projections and building projects than Gospel proclamation and disciple building. If there’s one thing I know about God it is that He will move mountains to fulfill His mission and purpose and a lack of resources is never an issue when He begins to work.
So, instead of asking how we can meet our ministry goals and budget objectives perhaps we should step back and ask, “is this where God is working?” If so, then jump in with both feet and be prepared to be amazed. If not, then no amount of planning, preparation or budget resources can make it fit or be successful and God glorifying. It is easy to become arrogant, prideful and self-sufficient. It is also easy to misread our plans as God’s plans, our goals as His goals and our efforts as His efforts. Religious fervor and orthodoxy are never guarantees of God’s blessings. You and I stand by faith, and we will continue to stand by faith. Let’s seek out God’s plan and purpose in our church and then pursue it with unhindered faith. As for me, I’m praying that God will send workers into the harvest fields.