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.
Paul extends the metaphor of root and branches to deliver a stern warning to Gentiles, whom he addresses seven times as “you.” Gentile believers’ pride and arrogance had become a problem in Rome and throughout the early church, and it was one of Paul’s main motivations in writing Romans and especially chapters 9–11, Douglas Moo says.
If the believers in Rome were particularly guilty of this prideful mindset, a contributing factor may have been the edict of Claudius in A.D. 49 that expelled Jews from Rome (see Acts 18:2). Not all Jews may have obeyed the edict and it lapsed in A.D. 54, but while it was in effect, as Colin Kruse explains, “Gentile believers had little contact with either believing or unbelieving Jews. As a result, they were tempted to think that God had rejected his people in favor of them.”Gentiles are “a wild olive shoot”
For those Gentiles who felt superior to the Jews, Paul has the perfect rebuff. He refines the metaphor—it is the cultivated and treasured olive tree, a symbol of Israel (Jeremiah 11:16, Hosea 14:6). Yes, some of the Jews have forfeited their natural position on the tree through unbelief, but you Gentiles were grafted in from a wild olive tree. How better to pop Gentile pride! “Wild olive branches can produce only small, hard, nubs of fruit containing very little oil. In other words, wild branches are useless!” (Charles Swindoll).
Paul’s point in verse 18 is that wild branches must depend on the natural root for their livelihood while delivering little in return. They derive their spiritual nourishment from the promises given to Israel and from the faithful response of the Jewish patriarchs. “Israel of old still occupies the privileged position of the carrier of life and salvation to the world” (Joseph Fitzmyer).
Paul’s Gentile audience would understand the horticultural reality that a grafted wild branch continues to bear undesirable fruit. Of course, Paul does not intend to press the metaphor that far, but the comparison suits well his purpose to draw the line against arrogance toward the natural branches, even those (temporarily) broken off. Charles Cranfield notes that Paul uses the metaphor “simply as a medium for the expression of his meaning.” In other words, applications based on details of agriculture are unwarranted.
Moo says that the verb translated “be arrogant” means to “boast in triumphant comparison with others.” Paul likely heard that Gentiles were actually rejoicing in triumph over the Jews’ failure. Their behavior was the opposite of love (1 Corinthians 13:4).Gentiles stay on the tree by faith
In verses 19 and 20 Paul grants a representative Gentile (“you” is singular) the truth that the Jews were broken off so Gentiles might be grafted in. But that is only half the story. Cranfield says that to a self-complacent egotist “this half-truth seems a conclusive proof of his own superior importance and a sufficient justification for his contemptuous attitude.” The other half of the story is that Gentiles’ salvation, as Paul said in verses 11 and 13, serves to make Jews jealous in the hope they will by faith return to the tree.
Gentiles obtained their position on the tree by faith, and by faith they remain on the tree. They owe everything to God’s mercy. “So do not become proud, but fear.” Gentiles were grafted into the tree only by “a miracle of grace” (N. T. Wright, quoted by Kruse), so their pride is unjustified and ugly. Their attitude should be one of humble reverence. Commenting on the fear of God, Moo says, “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.”
Verse 21 must have come as a shock to those of Paul’s readers who looked at the Jews with contempt. If Gentiles abandon their faith, they will suffer the same fate as the unbelieving Jews. R. C. Sproul makes this point: “If God did not spare the Jews who are like the natural branches, do you think he will spare the Christian church, if it becomes an instrument of unbelief?” Liberal churches take warning!Not exclusion, but harmony
Many Jews in both Old Testament and New Testament eras failed to believe and were broken off. But God did not cut down the tree! Indeed, some Jewish believers are among the branches still on the tree, and both they and Gentile believers are there by God’s mercy. Divine mercy is at the center of Paul’s message in Romans 9–11, and Cranfield insists the church must take this message to heart:
Cranfield’s quote brings up another message of these chapters and of the entire epistle: All the branches—Jewish Christians who are natural to the tree and Gentile believers who were grafted onto the tree—must live in harmony in the church, as Paul writes in 15:5–6 and 7.