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(Romans 11:17-24) Gentiles in the Family Tree

(Romans 11:17-24) Gentiles in the Family Tree

Ref: Romans 11:16–25

When you see the title, 'Gentiles in the Tree,' you immediately think of Zacchaeus, don't you? But, believe it or not, this sermon isn't about him. This message is about two diverse branches of people


Gentiles in the Family Tree

Romans 11:17-24

A metaphor is a figure of speech where A is compared to Z or where A is said to be Z.

Those of us who interpret the Bible literally – that is we approach it historically, grammatically, theologically – we compare scripture to scripture, believing that the best commentary on scripture is scripture – we then interpret literally, or normally, figures of speech.

Unless the Bible, which is ultimately our best commentary, gives us reason to believe otherwise, we interpret a simile as a simile; a metaphor as a metaphor.

When Jesus Christ said, I am the Door (John 10:9) we understand that He’s not saying He has 3 sets of hinges and is made out of wood.  We simply understand his point to be – “I am the entryway into everlasting life . . . you can’t get inside without coming through me.”

That’s an easy one to interpret.

A more difficult passage to interpret is when Christ said to His disciples, “Here, take, eat, this is My body.”  Then He took the cup and gave thanks and He gave it to them saying, “Drink from it, all of you, for this is My blood of the covenant.” (Matthew 26:26, 27)

If you stop with verse 27 you might become as confused as millions of people throughout the last 17 centuries or believe they are eating Christ’s body and drinking his blood. 

Believing that, in the hands of a priest, the bread and wine somehow becomes the literal flesh and blood of Christ – thus Christ is sacrificed for sin over and over and over, a million times over each week all around the world.

But two verse later in Matthew 26:29, Jesus says, “But I say to you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in My Father’s kingdom.

In other words, it can’t be Jesus’ literal blood, because He said He was going to drink it too and, more importantly, he referred to the cup in that explanatory verse as “the fruit of the vine,” not blood.

But later on Jesus said it this way, (John 6:48-53) “I am the bread of life.  49.  Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died.  50.  This is the bread which comes down out of heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die.  51.  I am the living bread that came down out of heaven; if anyone eats of this bread, he shall live forever; and the bread also which I shall give for the life of the world is My flesh.  Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves.  (and the Jews responded).  52.  The Jews therefore began to argue with one another, saying, “How can this man give us His flesh to eat?”  53.  Jesus therefore said to them, “Truly, truly I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves.”

Wow – this doesn’t sound like a metaphor, does it?

Well, evidently, His answer satisfied the Jewish audience, primarily because they understood His language.

The verb forms were very expressive and packed with meaning and clarification.

Let me illustrate the difference between English and Greek this way.

If I said to you, in English, “I just ate my lunch.”  I could only mean one thing.  I just ate my lunch . . . meaning, my lunch is gone because I ate it.

However, in the Greek language I could choose verb forms that could mean a number of things . . . such as:

  • I just ate my lunch and I’m still in the process of eating it.
  • Or, I just ate my lunch and I’m feeling the effects of it (that happens to me whenever I eat at a Mexican restaurant – I definitely get my money’s worth because I feel the effects of it for the rest of the day!
  • Here’s one more Greek form . . . I could say, “I just ate my lunch for the last time, for the rest of my life.”

That’s the verb form Jesus is using here.

Let me re-read this text and amplify it according to the verb tense: “This is the bread which comes down out of heaven, so that one may eat of it – one time which lasts the rest of their lives; I am the living bread that came down out of heaven; if anyone eats of this bread – one time which will last the rest of their lives – they shall live forever.


This is a metaphor, not describing communion, but salvation.

How many times do you take communion?  Once and it lasts the rest of your life?  No, every time it’s offered.

How many times are you saved?  Once . . . and the effects of that transaction last forever.

What do other scriptures say about the sacrifice of Christ?

Hebrews chapter 10 says this, “We have been sanctified, through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ, once for all!  Later in verse 12, “But He having offered one sacrifice for sins for all time (it’s as if the inspired writer anticipated the doctrinal error that would hold to re-sacrificing the body of Christ) . . . He, having offered one sacrifice for sins for all time, sat down at the right hand of God.  In other words, He finished His priestly role. 

No old Testament priest ever sat down – there were no chairs in the holy place for the priests – they were always up and moving about their duties of temporary atonement that had to be repeated over and over again.  But Christ, both our High priest and perfect, final sacrifice, offered himself once for all and then sat down at the right hand of the Father. 

When Jesus Christ said from the cross, “It is finished.” He meant just that.  He didn’t say, “This is my first sacrifice . . . to be experienced over and over again, but, this is my one and only.” 

It is finished – tetelestai – I’ve paid for sin in full!  Not, “I’ve just made the first payment for sin, and there are millions of payments left to be made.”  No,  Christ meant, this is the first and final payment for – it’s finished.

I can’t tell you how thrilling it has been over the years to explain the finality of Christ’s sacrifice to searching individuals who have come to Colonial.

My new members class typically has 10-15 different denominations represented.

The class I just started last Sunday night is no exception.

Presbyterians . . . Lutheran . . . Brethren . . . Wesleyan . . . Methodist . . . Mennonite . . . Alliance . . . Mormon . . . Catholic.

I’ve gotta tell you this . . . I’ll eventually finish my introduction – last Sunday night, I asked my new class of around 130 people, how they came to Colonial.  I said, “How many of you came because you were invited by a friend or acquaintance?”  I was going to use their show of hands to encourage them – that’s the way the church grows – by personal invitation.  But only a few hands went up.  I was surprised.  I said, “Well, how many of you came on your own, without even being invited by anybody . . . you just showed up?”  And at least 100 of them raised their hands.  Which completely ruined my illustration . . . but was so fascinating. 

Right now, I have in my GreenHouse, one of the largest number of people who’ve come to Colonial from the Catholic church that we’ve ever had before.

In fact, one new member said to me some time ago, “You know we ought to start a small group ministry for all the people at Colonial who left the Catholic church – so we can discuss our past and search the scriptures in relation to what we had been taught.”   And I say . . . go for it.  If you want to do that, call me up . . . in fact, don’t even bother with me, I don’t want to slow you down.  Call the office and we’ll put an announcement in the Communiqué; you can start meeting.

We have a growing number of Jewish men and women who have come to Christ – it’s been suggested that we do the same for them to encourage them in their faith, especially in light of the isolation they may feel from their families because of their new-found faith.

This is the church – people from all walks of life.

I had lunch not too long ago with a former drug addict who’s life has been changed by Jesus Christ.  He’s been clean for, if I remember correctly, around 20-24 months.  He told me his story and how another believer in this church challenged and discipled him . . . brought him to church where his heart was brought to life in Christ . . . man, to hear his story of now growing in Christ . . . being drug free . . . finishing specialized training in a profession . . . getting a job . . . beginning a new life in Christ like you can’t imagine.

That’s the believing community of people sitting around you . . . I think of Paul when he wrote to a group of believers and said, “Fornicators . . . idolaters, adulterers . . . homosexuals . . . thieves . . . drunkards . . . shall not inherit the kingdom of God.  And then Paul says what?  “But  such were some of you! But you are washed . . . you are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God. (I Corinthians 6:9-11)

This is what the church is all about – redeemed, repentant sinners, who have eaten the bread of life and drunk from the fountain of His blood . . . and found forgiveness for sin – past, present and future – all paid for when Jesus Christ said, “It is finished.”  

And the redeemed are those who come to Christ like beggars with nothing to offer but simply ask for that meal of flesh and blood – representing Christ’s sacrifice and offer of salvation. 

What a powerful metaphor that speaks everlasting life for those who’ve come to Christ.

Now the Apostle Paul uses a different set of metaphors to illustrate the nation Israel and the Gentile nations of the world.

Everything we just covered about flesh and blood/bread and wine was purposefully given to provide a quick primer on the interpretation of metaphor.

One of the key principles to remember is to not interpret and apply every detail of a metaphor.

Again, when Jesus said, “I am the door.”  We don’t need to sit around and guess how tall the door was; what kind of wood he’s talking about - oak or cherry or mahogany.  That’s not the point – a metaphor usually has one or maybe 2 main points . . . the rest of the analogy can’t be strictly interpreted without getting into strange anomalies and doctrinal error.

Now, let’s read the paragraph and then I’ll fill in some blanks.

16. If the first piece of dough is holy, the lump is also; and if the root is holy, the branches are too.  17.  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,  18.  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.  19.  You will say then, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.”  20.  Quite right, they were broken off for their unbelief, but you stand by your faith. Do not be conceited, but fear;  21.  for if God did not spare the natural branches, He will not spare you, either.  22.  Behold then the kindness and severity of God; to those who fell, severity, but to you, God’s kindness, if you continue in His kindness; otherwise you also will be cut off.  23.  And they also, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again.  24.  For if you were cut off from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and were grafted contrary to nature into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these who are the natural branches be grafted into their own olive tree?  25.  For I do not want you, brethren, to be uninformed of this mystery—so that you will not be wise in your own estimation—that a partial hardening has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in.

Let me explain what the four different pieces of this metaphor are referring to:

1)  The first-fruits or piece of dough and the root of the tree is Abraham. 

In verse 16, Paul refers to the lump of dough or the first-fruits being holy. The Jews would have immediately recognized this as a reference to the offering of firstfruits where the priest took some of the dough from the larger lump and offered it to God.

Paul was making the point that if the lump offered to God was acceptable, the rest would naturally be accepted as well.  The firstfruit was Abraham, the father of the Jewish nation, and he was accepted before God.  Thus it was natural to consider his descendants to be accepted before God as well. 

R. Kent Hughes, Romans: Righteousness from Heaven (Crossway Books, 1991), p. 197

Of course, the metaphor delivers the news that some of Abraham’s descendants were cut off, by their unbelief.

In Genesis, God promised that Abraham’s descendants would bring forth the Redeemer.  God in Jewish flesh.

So, the firstfruits or dough and the root of the tree spells the beginning of that redemptive purpose.

2)  The lump from which the dough came and the olive tree which came from the root represent the blessing of God.

This divine blessing was primarily experienced by Israel in the former Dispensation or era of God’s management of time.  Now, this Divine blessing is primarily experienced by Gentiles in this dispensation.

Let me add this in passing – chapter 11 of Romans does not specifically address the church – the church as a corporate body is not mentioned here – don’t confuse the olive tree with the church.

In fact, it does not save anyone to be in this olive tree.

Alva J. McClain, Romans: The Gospel of God’s Grace (BMH Books, 1973, p. 201

Missing this point will lead you to believe you can lose your salvation – you can be cut off).  It’s obvious from this text that unbelieving Jews experienced the blessing of God and unbelieving Gentiles today experience the common grace of God as well.

If you apply the Olive tree to salvation, you’ll get to verse 22. which says, “If you continue in His kindness, otherwise you also will be cut off” and say, “Well, I guess I can lose my salvation.” 

The olive tree is not the church and it is not salvation.  It represents the blessing of God through Abraham that, first, went to the Jewish nation.  They did not believe and God judged them by setting them aside.

You’ll notice throughout this passage that Paul is addressing the Gentiles as a whole – he says that the offer of “salvation has come to the Gentiles (v. 11); there are riches for the Gentiles (12b);  “I am speaking to you who are Gentiles (v 13). 

Paul is saying, in effect, “If the Gentiles, to whom the offer of the gospel is now being advanced, refuse to believe, they will miss their opportunity for Divine blessing, just as Israel, as a whole, missed theirs and they will be cut off.

3)  The Cultivated branches represent Israelites in general

4)  The Grafted wild olive branches represent Gentiles in general

Five Things to Remember in This passage

I think this is the best way to give this to you, so that you can, if you wish, study further and deeper beyond today.

Let me say some of the same things another way . . . which may clarify even more this metaphor.

Three more things to remember as you study this passage:

1)  Some Israelites have been temporarily cut off the tree because of unbelief – verses 17 & 20

That is, they were removed from experiencing God’s blessing.

Now there are some modern cults – who call themselves Christians, who take these verses to say there are 10 lost tribes of Israel – who dissolved into the Anglo-Saxon people.  There view is referred to as British-Israelism.  It sounds intriguing, but a casual look at the prophets description of the future, reveals a number of references to all the tribes of Israel.  Furthermore, Jesus refers to a future judgment of all 12 tribes of Israel. (Matthew 19:27-29)

2)  Gentiles have been grafted into a position of blessing.

Here Paul uses the illustration of grafting to picture Gentiles being placed in a position of blessing.

Notice verse 17.  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.

I want to admit to you, the challenge I had in understanding this text was that I have absolutely no experience or knowledge of grafting or  working with fruit bearing trees.

I can’t get grass to grow, much less understand this marvel of horticulture.

I spent several hours studying this subject just to get a grip on what Paul meant.

The practice of grafting olive trees worked like this.  The farmer took a healthy olive branch and grafted it into the wild olive tree.  They never took a wild olive branch and grafted  it into a healthy olive tree because that would ruin the tree from the graft down.

But that’s what Paul said happens here.  God dose something “unnatural” so to speak.  He goes against nature – verse 24.

In other words, God takes the wild Gentile branch and puts him into the root of Abraham so he could, not become a Jew, but become a partaker of the rich root of God’s blessing.

And instead of ruining the tree (God’s place of divine blessing) it provides blessing to the Gentile.

Let me add this important point before going to the next point: every true believer is in this tree (of Divine Blessing), but everyone in the tree is not a believer.

3)  Israel will be grafted back in later – v. 23 & 26

As God moves to restore Israel, He plans to reconnect them to Divine blessing – this is a reference to a period of time during the tribulation when God is both severe with Israel – nearly 30% of the nation is wiped out – and kind – the nation is restored and this time sees the Messiah coming in the clouds as the tribulation comes to a close and believes and enters the millennial kingdom.

Remember, this passage is basically answering the main question, “What happens to Israel in the future?” (1, 15, 25)

The time of Divine blessing for Gentiles is also a record of unbelief.

Verse 25 informs us that the times of the Gentiles will come to a close as the bride of Christ is completed.  Only a minority of Gentile peoples will have believed. 

Christ predicted, Broad is the path that leads to destruction and many there be that find it, but narrow is the gate that leads to life and few there be that find it (Matthew 7:13-14)

We’ve studied together the history of the Jew and their disbelief of Christ.  Even now, the Gentile nations of the world show utter disregard for the gospel.

You can trace decline of belief among the Gentile nations over the course of the last 2,000 years.

The Gospel began in Asia Minor, modern day Turkey.  Paul’s missionary journeys brought great fruit in places like  Derbe and Ephesus and Sardis and Philadelphia.  By the year 113, the Roman governor of Bithynia complained to the Roman emperor Trajan that this new faith was affecting the older worship patterns.  People were neglecting the ancient gods, and the temple revenues had fallen off.

Today, Turkey and the surrounding area has totally abandoned Christianity in favor of Islam.  The gospel has effectively been snuffed out.

Travel to North Africa, a place were Tertullian and Origen and Athanasius once lived.  The great theological centers developed there in the 2nd and 3rd centuries.  The St. Augustine, one of the greatest theologians of the early church led the North African church.

Today, North Africa is dominated by Islam and people have long since abandoned the Messiah of Athanasius and Augustine.

Go over to Italy, where the great Council of Nicaea took place in the fourth century.  Where the church prospered, but eventually became corrupt, sparking the reformation.  John Calvin explained the church in Rome abandoning the gospel of God’s grace by applying Romans 11 to its decay.

Go into Europe, the former place of leading 16th century theologians, vibrant churches and schools.  Today, Germany, Switzerland, Holland and France are among the hardest soils to penetrate with the gospel.  I know missionaries in France that say it takes several years to simply develop in a Frenchman the foundation whereby he begins to ask about his soul.  Today, the cathedrals of Europe are gilded graveyards.  Less than 4% of Europeans attend a service, even on religious holidays.

The church in England once held in the 17th and 18th centuries the power points of the gospel.  Modern missions was born there as an Englishman named William Carey left for India.  Charles Spurgeon preached to 10,000 every Sunday . . . schools and seminaries produced leaders, thinkers and missionaries.  Today church attendance is slightly better than Europe . . . the country has largely forgotten it’s Christian heritage.

Adapted from James M. Boice, Romans: Volume 3 (Baker Books, 1993), p. 1352

America is following along . . . already the most popular churches in America are theme shows where the pastors are prone to quote business leaders rather than scripture; he is more prone to follow motivational leaders and marketing strategies more than the great commission. 

One evangelical leader scoffed at the idea of Bible exposition when he told a reporter that he would never get up in front of his congregation and read some verses and then explain what they meant.  As if to say, how old fashioned is that.

Study the western world and the fall of Gentile nations from the rich blessing of God is unmistakable.

That doesn’t mean it’s over.  Right now the church in China is becoming a powerhouse . . . though persecuted, it’s 80 million believers are already sending missionaries to other parts of the world . . . other Asian countries are sending missionaries out as well . . . some are being sent to America.

3 Exhortations as we apply some timeless truths to believers today:

1)  Don’t be arrogant: genuine faith should produce humility before others and reverence before God (v. 20b)

18  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 . . .  20b. Do not be conceited, but fear.

The Greek word for conceited is “high thoughts”

Being “conceited” – is thinking high thoughts of yourself.

Don’t be conceited, Paul says to those experiencing God’s blessing.


Instead, Paul says, “to fear – or to show reverence”

Being conceited is thinking high thoughts about yourself;

Being humbly reverential is thinking high thoughts about God.

Let me ask you a question – how much time do you spend thinking about yourself . . . how much time do you spend thinking about God?!

2)  Don’t be led astray: genuine truth about God is not one-sided.  Paul speaks of both the kindness and severity of God in verse 22. 

The world would rather have us only talk of our God as a God of love and kindness.  He is that too!  But He also is a God of wrath and severity.

All I can do is exhort you to take advantage of this era, this dispensation of grace and opportunity for the Gentiles . . . yes, the invitation of grace is open to the Jew as well . . . but, unlike any time in world history, the Gentile is being offered the free gift of salvation, by grace through faith in Christ.

Don’t be led astray – anybody who tells you God is only love, doesn’t know the God of this Book.  He is both kind and severe.

3)  Don’t be apathetic: genuine believers are challenged to genuinely change

I don’t know where the expression came from which we often use when we say, “You’re out of your tree”  “You obviously fell out of your tree.”  But it fits Romans 11.

Living a cultivated life is the challenge of the believer.  Paul implies in verse 24 that you, the Gentile believer was once a wild olive branch – unable to do anything for God . . . unable to produce any olive oil – any spiritual fruit.

But now you’ve been grafted into the blessing and dignity of God’s grace.

I couldn’t help but think of that classic play, My Fair Lady, where a dirty, rough, crass flower girl is taken off the streets of London and brought into the home of a gentleman who is determined to change her into a lady of refinement.  He works with her diction and her wardrobe and her bearing.  Until finally she fools everyone and, in fact, does indeed become a lady.

There’s a sense that we as believers have been placed into the culture of grace.  It’s an academy of spiritual refinement.  It should affect our vocabulary; it should refine our dress.  I don’t mean we run around in bowties and cumber-buns . . . but the culture of God’s grace should impacts our bearing, our modesty, our dignity, our relationships . . . that’s what chapter 12 is all about.  This is how we’re to live, now that we’ve been inducted into the riches of Christ.

Look quickly at chapter 12 and verse  9 Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil; cling to what is good.  10.  Bedevoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honor;  11.  not lagging behind in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord;  12.  rejoicing in hope, persevering in tribulation, devoted to prayer,  13.  contributing to the needs of the saints, practicing hospitality . . . look down at verse 17.  Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men.  18.  If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men.

Man, I have no idea how long it’s going to take to get through chapter 12 . . . it’s packed.

Listen, we are not to be apathetic . . . God has taken us off the streets and cleaned us up and lavished on us His grace . . . He intends to change everything about us. 

We who’ve eaten the bread of life and found forgiveness in the fountain of His blood – we are in the tree – one day we’ll be with Christ in His kingdom and beyond.

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