Scripture Text: Romans 11:11-24
What do you believe about the character of God? Who do you think He really is? The answer affects our lives profoundly. Many people who believe in God will say that God is love. Their view of God is one of always loving and never punishing. Others swing to the other side of the pendulum and see God as always vengeful and rarely loving. He is the great Judge in the sky Who is always ready to pronounce punishment on us poor wretched sinners. What does Scripture reveal about God? Scripture actually paints a complex picture of God Who is both good and loving and Who punishes sinners and will one day banish all evil from the world. Through the cross and resurrection, God offers to us His righteousness, provided we repent of our sins and our own self-righteousness. In the cross, we see both the love of God and the justice of God. But, how does that impact our lives? What does it mean for both the unbeliever and the believer?
In his letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul has shown us that what you do — your good deeds and works — do not make you right with God. You cannot work yourself into heaven, although many try to do just that. It is by faith alone in Christ alone that puts you in a right relationship with God. In this passage, Paul addressed the issue of God’s special relationship with Israel and stated that being Jewish does not make you right with God either. The Israelites thought they were a special people, and so they were. God had chosen them out of all of the nations of the world to be His own people. God made a covenant with them and He gave them His Law. He gave them the temple and the order of worship. He promised to bring the world’s Savior through them. Many Israelites were proud of this relationship with God and looked down on everyone else. In this passage, we see the kindness and the severity of God, particularly toward Israel.
Kindness of God to Reconcile the World
The nation of Israel was God’s “son” in the sense that God had chosen them to be the source of blessing to all the world. We see this in the very first book of the Bible. God gave Abraham seven blessings and one of those was to be a blessing to the world.
Genesis 12:2–3 2 And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
Sometimes those who are privileged forget the kindness of the one being good to them. They sometimes think it is their right to have what they have. It is like people who receive a driver’s license and then believe their license gives them the right to own the road. They drive recklessly. They think everyone else needs to get out of their way. Some even think the laws of the road do not apply to them, but to everyone else. A license is really a privilege that has been granted to those who receive it. After God rescued them from Egypt, the Jews quickly began to forget that God’s blessings and their privileged status as His people were gifts of God’s grace, something for which they could take no credit. The Israelites began to presume that because they were privileged they were exempt from God’s discipline. They believed in the “kindness and severity of God,” meaning they deserved God’s kindness, and everyone else, the Gentile heathen, deserved God’s severity. This pride became Israel’s downfall.
As you can imagine, when God’s message of salvation was declared and accepted by the Gentiles, many Jews were filled with jealously. Paul regularly preached to the Jews first, but then turned to the Gentiles when they became jealous and rejected the Gospel. (Acts 13:45-51) Israel was in a special relationship with God, but God had bigger plans than just having one group of people as His own. Paul described God’s kindness to the world as a picture of grafting a branch into a root. Grafting is major surgery. Something must be broken off and something must be grafted into what is left. However, just putting two cut vines together does not guarantee a good graft. Grafting involves wounding the vines, and working with open wounds on both the trunk and branch. Open wounds are susceptible to infection. The shape of the cut must be tailored to allow as much of the necessary tissue on both pieces to contact each other. Healing and growth only takes place if certain layers of both the trunk and the branch are in permanent contact with each other. The grafted vines must also be planted in good soil and receive proper nourishment. This is serious work and not natural for the cut vine.
This is similar to God’s kindness to the world. The kindness of God to the world involves taking wild, unnatural, sinful people, like you and I, and grafting them into the vine of His people. Not only does He take us, the wild olive shoot, but He tends to us, works in our lives though the Holy Spirit, in order to make us a part of His healthy vineyard. Doing this is contrary to our sinful nature. We naturally do not want this. Our sinful nature compels us to reject Christ and turn from God. Our sinful nature compels us to seek our own desires and not His. But by the grace of God, we are drawn to the Father, adopted into His family, and being molded into the image of Jesus Christ. This is done by the grace of God through our faith in Christ, not by any good works that we may do. Many non-Jewish people are grafted into the Jewish vine by the kindness of God. Many proud Jewish people rejected God’s kindness to the world and rejected God’s Son for themselves, and were thus broken off. This leads us to the severity of God.
Severity of God to Punish Sin
Paul gave us several analogies in this passage to describe the kindness and severity of God. For instance, the root can be understood as the patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) and the saving promises God gave to them. This was foundational to God’s plan for salvation to the world through Israel. (Genesis 12:3) The branches represent all who become children of God, both the natural descendants of Abraham (natural branches) and the Gentiles grafted into the vine (wild olive shoot). It is God’s kindness that allows people to be included as His people, but we should not discount God’s severity. Many Christians forget the severity of God and act like the privileged driver who thinks he or she owns the road. The severity of God is seen in breaking off certain branches.
Romans 11:16–18 16 If the dough offered as firstfruits is holy, so is the whole lump, and if the root is holy, so are the branches. 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.
We should realize that some of the “natural” branches who were already attached to the root were broken off. This describes Israel’s unfaithfulness and those who did not accept Jesus Christ as their Savior. God was kind to Israel, but severe in punishing them for not being faithful. Thus, God’s kindness now extended to the Gentiles, which was supposed to make Israel jealous. God wanted His kindness to the Gentiles to draw Israel back into fellowship with Him. However, Paul issued a warning to the Gentiles about God’s severity. If God broke off Israel for their unfaithfulness, He would do the same to them. Several times in Romans chapter eleven Paul warned the Gentiles to not become proud, especially too proud in their relation to Jewish people. Paul wrote in verse eighteen, “Do not be arrogant toward the branches,” the Jewish people who do not believe in Jesus. In verse twenty Paul wrote, “Do not become proud, but stand in awe.” God’s kindness was not meant to produce entitlement or arrogance.
The grace of God should humble us. It should cause us to stand in awe of God. Arrogance flies in the face of grace. It is a perversion of grace, which is unmerited and is sovereignly bestowed. Grace is given to the needy who believe, not to the self-righteous who think they deserve it. Those who accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior have no reason to boast in themselves. They can boast in Christ, but not themselves. Paul had warned Jewish Christians about the danger of arrogance, that they could not claim special privileges because of their “Jewishness”. Likewise, he warned Gentile believers to not consider themselves better than the Israelites who do not believe. They should not look down on the Jewish people who have not yet accepted Jesus Christ. It is God’s saving promises (the root), not their own goodness, that saved them. Do we sometimes become arrogant in our position as the Church? Do we sometimes look down on others who have not yet accepted Jesus Christ? We should not, lest we fall.
Paul’s metaphor about the root and the branches is similar to Jesus’ teaching about the “true vine” and the “branches”. (John 15:1–11) In John chapter fifteen, the branches that do not produce fruit are broken off to make way for abundant branches. According to Paul’s metaphor, the olive tree’s natural (but unfruitful) branches are broken off and physically replaced. Those that did not produce fruits of righteousness were broken off so that other branches could thrive. Grafting a living branch or shoot into an aged tree rejuvenated the tree, leading to a fruitful harvest. God’s severity to the Israelites should provoke fear and awe (profound respect and reverence, a fear of offending), for certain Jews were removed because they failed to believe in Jesus Christ. Likewise, the Gentiles remain only because of their continued trust in Jesus Christ. There is no room for sinful arrogance. Fear here does not refer to a paralyzing fear. Rather, it is the kind of humble fear that does not take God or salvation for granted, or think lightly of his displeasure. It is a fear that motivates us to serve God and bear fruit.
Kindness of God for Continued Faith
Lastly, this passage denies the notion of an all-loving, non-judgmental kind of God that so many people believe. Maybe you have believed that. Did God accept Israel as His people and leave them to do whatever they wanted? If so, then why did God “break them off” and graft others into the root? God cannot and will not accept anyone who is unrighteous. God accepts only those who are justified—those who are declared righteous through the person and work of Jesus Christ. God accepts people only on the basis of faith. How does one become grafted into the root without faith? They do not!
We must come to God acknowledging our sin and trusting in the shed blood of Jesus Christ. The condition for God’s acceptance is to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. Apart from faith, we are lost. And so, Paul issued the following statement.
Romans 11:22–23 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.
God’s severity was on the Jews who had not believed in Christ, but his kindness was poured out on the Gentiles who responded in faith. Still, we must persevere in faith, otherwise, we too will be judged as unbelievers. If we continue in faith, if we continue to follow Jesus, then God’s kindness continues to rest on us. The next question raised is whether or not Israel’s failure to believe had led to their absolute ruin. Had Israel stumbled too far? Were they beyond recovery? Once again the answer is “Not at all!” God will graft back into the olive tree any Jews who place their faith in Christ. God is not done with the Jewish people. Israel’s origins make her restoration into the vine of God’s people the most natural thing. Although some Israelites had stumbled, they had not fallen past the point of redemption. God will take them back as His people if they accept Christ as their Lord and Savior. Again, the means for restoration is faith in the Son of God, Jesus Christ. As Paul has already explained before, not every Jewish person will be saved, but God will be faithful to his promises and many Jews will be saved.
Salvation is by faith and God pleads with us to turn to Him in faith. If we persist in disbelief, there may be a time when our hearts will be hardened, our eyes will not see, and our ears will not hear. This is not “easy believism”. If we do not continue in faith and produce fruit of righteousness, we may become like Israel. If we do not continue in faith, God will break us off the root, like Israel. But if we repent, God will graft us in again. Now, some may see this as God removing those who were once His. Maybe the question is really what does it take to remain His? God has already promised several times that He does not reject us, or leave us, or forsake us. If a branch, however, gets “cocky” and says, “I no longer need the root,” it will die. If a branch is grafted into the vine and the graft does not take, it will die. The graft has to take hold for the branch to grow. This is similar to our faith. We do not support the vine, it supports us. Like grafting a vine, we must be in permanent contact (by faith) with Jesus Christ in order to remain in the root. How close are you to Christ today? Are you persisting in faith?
So, what is the point of this message? Look—really look!—at the kindness and the severity of God. Look at both. God is both kind and severe. To see the kindness and the severity of God, we have to look no further than the cross of Jesus Christ. There, the grace of God met the justice of God. The goodness and severity of God can also be seen in the two comings of our Lord. In His first coming, Jesus came to “seek and to save those who are lost.” He came to be gracious to sinners. When He comes the second time, it will be to judge the wicked. The Gospel is a message of life and freedom; however, it is not only a word of liberation. To those who refuse it, it is a word of judgment. If you choose to reject it, you reject the grace and kindness of God. The only thing left is the severity of God’s judgement. If you have not accepted the kindness of God, you can by trusting in Christ today.
But, if you have accepted Christ, how can you maintain your faith? How do you fight the fight of faith? How do you keep on believing? How do you defeat pride in your life? You do it by standing in awe of God’s severity. You look at the severity of God and take seriously His judgement and discipline. The aim of looking at God’s severity is to keep you in His kindness. Kindness is what we fly to. Severity is what we flee from. The fear of God’s severity should send us flying to God’s kindness. When it does that, kindness casts out anxious fear. Fear of God’s judgment will continue to have a good effect in our lives and waken us again and again to think clearly about the preciousness of His kindness and drive us away from all false and deceptive hopes into the arms of God. We just should not be arrogant and prideful for what He has graciously given us. Therefore, if you are in Christ, be humble, be grateful and be in awe of God’s kindness and severity. Stand fast in faith and trust in Christ. Amen!
This sermon was delivered at Good Hope Baptist Church in Wake Forest, NC. More information about Good Hope may be found at the following site: www.GoodHopeBC.org.