16 For if the firstfruit be holy, the lump is also holy: and if the root be holy, so are the branches.
“Firstfruit” refers to the Israel’s practice of offering the first and best of a crop to God. Through that offering the entire crop was sanctified unto God. “Firstfruit” and “root” are Abraham and the “lump” and “branches” are all the Jews. Holiness is the natural state for Jews, given their origins in Abraham. Jews are special to God, so their conversion back to God will be even more special than the Gentiles conversion. Their being formed out of the lump into vessels of wrath is unnatural.
17 And if some of the branches be broken off, and thou, being a wild olive tree, wert graffed in among them, and with them partakest of the root and fatness of the olive tree; 18 Boast not against the branches. But if thou boast, thou bearest not the root, but the root thee.
The Jews are the branches broken off from the root, which is Abraham and the promise God made to Abraham. They are no longer spiritual Jews. When Christ came and the Jews rejected Him and God cut them off. God grafted the believing Gentiles into the Jews place.
Most translations insert an implied “remember” between “if thou boast” and “thou bearest not the root, but the root thee”. So the NKJV, NIV, NET, ESV and NRSV. The thought is that the Gentiles are not to forget where they came from. The promise given to Abraham is the reason they are righteous.
The Jews had been saying they were spiritually superior to their Gentile neighbors because they received blessings as God’s chosen people. The Gentiles were fighting back, say the Jews were now rejected and they accepted. In a way that was true, but certainly not a reason to boast. Paul explains that it’s not due to Gentiles’ superiority that they are now blessed, but due to God’s original promise.
19 Thou wilt say then, The branches were broken off, that I might be graffed in. 20 Well; because of unbelief they were broken off, and thou standest by faith. Be not highminded, but fear: 21 For if God spared not the natural branches, take heed lest he also spare not thee.
Paul affirms that God’s purpose in hardening the Jews was to spread the Gospel to the Gentiles. While it’s true that the reason the Jews are rejected and don’t get to participate in the blessings God promised to Abraham is their unbelief and that the Gentiles do is their faith, they are still not to boast. Why not? They should be afraid. Because if God didn’t spare the Jews for unbelief, He would not spare them either.
22 Behold therefore the goodness and severity of God: on them which fell, severity; but toward thee, goodness, if thou continue in his goodness: otherwise thou also shalt be cut off. 23 And they also, if they abide not still in unbelief, shall be graffed in: for God is able to graff them in again.
God punished the Jews severely by hardening them. He showed great kindness to the Gentiles, by justifying them through faith. But the Gentiles need to continue in God’s kindness which justifies, otherwise God will handle them like the Jews. And if the Jews don’t stay unbelievers, they will be blessed again, God is able to make them righteous through the promise to Abraham.
The same word for God’s ability here is used on Romans 9:22: chestotes “although willing to demonstrate His wrath and make his power known”. God’s power that hardens is also His power that heals.
24 For if thou wert cut out of the olive tree which is wild by nature, and wert graffed contrary to nature into a good olive tree: how much more shall these, which be the natural branches, be graffed into their own olive tree?
The reason for Israel’s hardening is given as unbelief. They were being cut off and hardened, because they were rejecting Christ. They were in a state of blessing beforehand, but they are now removed. However, they are not past hope, God is able to add them back in. Israel, as a nation, will be added back.
The Gentiles on the other hand were being added in their place because they were accepting the Gospel. However, they too will be cut off if they stop believing.
This passage demonstrates that the election is God’s plan to save people through faith. Note that the election:
- Does not exclude the Jews or Gentiles
- Started and was established among the Jews but is now spreading
- Is only effective for those who have faith
- Rejection of the Gospel requires cutting off or hardening
God chose to work through the Patriarchs which did two things; it established Israel as a nation and established the Gospel. Christ’s lineage passed directly through the fathers. God’s choice of them led to the blessings of the Jews nationally and the blessings of both Jews and Gentiles spiritually. The Jews are now cut off, because they are Israel nationally, but not spiritually.
Since they are national Jews, it will be quite natural for them to be restored. This is the converse of verse 21. Just as it’s natural for the Gentiles to be rejected, because they are not from Abraham, so to it’s natural for the Jews to be accepted, because they are from Abraham.