And if the part of the dough offered as firstfruits be holy, then the whole batch is holy; and if the root is holy, so are the branches. – Romans 11:16
There are two parallel, or complementary, metaphors here—one about bread, and the other about roots/trees. On the surface, the second metaphor of roots and branches looks similar to the first, but its emphasis is actually quite different: the dough and the rest of the batch are all of the same “stuff,” with one piece just separated from the rest—but not so with roots and tree! A tree is an organic whole, and you can’t pull out some roots to make an offering to the Lord on behalf of the whole tree! If an offering from a tree is to be made, it will be from the fruits, not the roots. The point here is that the roots precede the branches chronologically; and that everything else in the tree that comes later grows out of, and is thus historically and organically supported by, the roots. So, if this root is “holy,” then the whole tree which grows out of it must also be “holy.” As with the bread metaphor, it is not too hard to figure out from the context that Paul is speaking a message primarily to the Gentile Christians in Rome, not the Jewish ones. In chapters 9-11, he has been talking a lot about the remnant of Israel, the Jewish church. So if we had to stop here and define this root, it would be something like: “the remnant of Jewish believers, especially the Jerusalem church, who carry the full deposit of God’s holy promises to the rest of Israel, and who hold a position in God’s family olive tree of precedence, in that they came first—before the Gentiles.”
Now we’re ready to study the following verses which speak more of the root, and see how it sharpens this definition.
But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, being a wild olive, were grafted in among them and became partaker with them of the rich root of the olive tree, do not be arrogant toward the branches; but if you are arrogant, remember that it is not you who supports the root, but the root supports you. – Romans 11:17-18
First, let’s remember that all of this is obviously figurative—this Olive Tree is just a metaphor! Everything Paul has to say about it, he is saying about groups of people. Three different kinds of branches are relationally defined: “you branches” signifies the Gentile Christians, and Paul warns them against being arrogant towards two groups of other branches, both Jewish—the Messianic Jewish branches and the cut-off, unbelieving Jewish branches. Next, Paul reminds the Roman Christians that they are like branches from a “wild,” uncultivated tree who have been “grafted in among them and became partakers with them of the rich root of the olive tree.” Here is the wonderful root, but with no clear definition—only that the Jewish & Gentile branches of the tree are both partaking of its richness. But the following sentence gives us a huge hint. Here the Scripture establishes a clear equivalency, or proximity, between the Jewish branches and the root—as arrogance towards the Jewish branches is equated with an arrogant misunderstanding of the nature and identity of the root which supports the whole tree.
The Gentile believers in Rome could see and experience the Jewish branches—both those in the tree, and those broken off. That was part of their everyday experience living in the Roman metropolis. But the Jerusalem church? The covenanted nation of Israel? All of this probably seemed to them a very distant, impersonal reality to them. Think about it: the average Gentile believer in Rome came into the tree through the pure, simple Gospel of Grace and faith in Yeshua. It was (and still is!) possible for a Christian to be totally ignorant of the preceding, Jewish nature of the very tree that they have been grafted into. (Rom 11:25) This “Jewishness of the Gospel” can be completely hidden from the Christian, like a root buried underground! This is why Paul speaks about it only as “root,” and not “a trunk”: — you can’t see them, you usually can’t touch them, and unless you have a little education or revelation, you might not even know this root exists!! This is why verses 17-18 establish an equivalency of the Jewish branches straight with the “root,” skipping over the trunk: the Jewish believers represented an authentic, “organic,” ongoing connection with the distant, hidden root—and it is from this root that rich, covenantal “sap” rises to nourish and support the whole tree.
In conclusion, let’s expand our definition of the root to “the remnant of Jewish believers, especially the Apostolic Jerusalem church, who carried the full deposit of God’s holy covenants/promises to the rest of Israel, and who held a position in God’s family (the olive tree) of precedence, in that they came first—before the Gentiles.” So what about the meaning of this root for us today? That’s what we’ll look at next time.
Read the previous blog here