Gentiles

The Grafting Plan

Romans, Chapter 11

As we’ve moved through Romans the last few weeks, I’ve already made the point a couple of times that Paul is writing with a particular question in mind. Why are so many Jews not accepting Jesus as Messiah, while at the same time people from other cultures and belief systems are turning to him in great numbers?

In that context, we have learned much about what Paul has to say regarding the core beliefs of Christianity, and how important it is for us to spread the Good News to nonbelievers. We’re looking at an unusually large chunk of Romans today, all of chapter 11, in part because Paul does some reviewing of what he has said.

As he returns to the matter of the Jews and their relationship to Jesus, he lays out what he sees as God’s plan from the birth of the Christian church to what we sometimes call “the end of time.” If you’ve ever asked the question, “How do we know the end is near,” Paul’s words will certainly contribute to the answer.

As he explains this four-part plan, Paul uses the image of an olive tree, an Old Testament symbol of Israel. This tree is pruned over time and even has new branches grafted into it.

If we’re not familiar with olive trees or grafting, we may have a little trouble imagining what he’s talking about. For those uninitiated to gardening, the best example might be one of those little grafted cactuses you can find in stores, where the colorful top of one plant has been attached to the green base of another, two plants sharing one root and vascular system.

Part 1 of God’s Plan

These were the earliest days of Christianity, just after Jesus’ ascension into heaven and the arrival of the Holy Spirit upon what was, at the time, a very Jewish community. In fact, the vast majority of these early Christians simply thought of themselves as Jews who had seen or experienced the work of their expected Messiah.

They followed Jewish practices, going to the temple or synagogue for worship but also rejoicing in Jesus’ resurrection with other Christians.

It proved to be a relatively short stage, though. Alarmed, the leaders of Judaism quickly began to push back and distinguish between traditional Jews and followers of Christ. Paul saw the Jews who rejected Jesus as Messiah as branches broken off the olive tree for their lack of fruitfulness, or belief.

Part 2: The Wild Tree Grafted In

This was the era Paul found himself in as he wrote Romans around the year 57. Gentiles were becoming the dominant force in Christianity. Paul thought of Gentiles as a “wild olive tree” grafted into the old root system, dependent on what had come before.

In Romans, he has a particular message for this group, and for all Christians who are not of Jewish descent in any era. In short, he’s telling us not to get cocky. Just like the unfruitful branches in the early days of Christianity, the grafted branches can also be cut away if they fail to exhibit belief.

This is such an overt warning, I am left wondering how some Christians manage to maintain the idea of “eternal security” or “perseverance of the saints,” the notion that once a person is truly saved, she or he cannot fall away from salvation. Clearly, Paul speaks to people he thinks of as “grafted in” believers, but he tells them, “If you stop trusting, you also will be cut off.”

In interpreting Paul’s account of God’s plan, the hard part is figuring out what part we are in today. I would like to think we are in Part 2 of the plan but hovering somewhere near Part 3.

Part 3: The Return

Paul asserts something very important: God never breaks his promises. The Jews are his people, and they will make up a significant number of those who find eternal life with God. In fact, their turning back to God through Jesus will mark nearness to the end of time, or the beginning of eternity in the undeniable presence of God, depending on how you look at it.

This assertion made me wonder whether there is any evidence of Part 3 happening now. There are days I love the internet.

I went to the website of Jews for Jesus to do a little research, and I actually got personal, online help. A chat box popped up, and a friendly volunteer named Jeanne began to answer my questions for me.

As you might imagine, it is hard to estimate how many Jewish Christians there might be. She said different studies show there are anywhere from 100,000 to 300,000 Jews who call Jesus Christ Lord and Savior. The most generous estimates from census data say there are about 15 million Jews on the planet right now, although some estimates are much lower.

“What is clear is that Jews are coming to Jesus at an unprecedented rate!” Jeanne told me. The original branches are being grafted back into the ancient olive tree.

Complicating potential Jewish conversions is the atrocious record self-described Christians have had historically in their relationship with Jews. Too often, kings, popes, bishops and even leaders of reformation movements have seen Jews as a group to be converted at swordpoint or gunpoint, or as opponents of God who could be killed with impunity.*

Such atrocities demonstrated deep ignorance of Jesus’ teachings and of what Paul, a Jew himself, is saying in Romans: “They are still the people [God] loves because he chose their ancestors Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. For God’s gifts and his call can never be withdrawn.”

Part 4: Glory!

This is what we live for. This is what gives us hope. We reach the point where God considers the community of Jewish and Gentile believers complete, and the promised resurrection of the dead occurs.

We celebrate as children of God together for all eternity! What a glorious plan it is.


*To read more about why Jews are resistant to the Christian message, I would recommend a paper by David Brickner.

Of Crows and Cardinals

For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.1 Corinthians 1:18

To the world, the message of the cross is like cake crumbled in the snow.

I like cake very much, particularly yellow cake with chocolate frosting. My wife knows this, and being an excellent baker and cook, she sometimes makes yellow cakes with chocolate frosting from scratch for me, a loving and time-consuming act in a Duncan Hines culture.

They usually do not last long. But shortly after she made the most recent one, I caught that nasty stomach virus that has been going around. With my first and second child out of the house and my third child very sick with a cold, half the cake went stale before being eaten.

When I recovered, I found the remaining cake in its container. Not wanting it to be completely wasted, I carved the chocolate icing off the top, crumbled the cake, and scattered it in the front yard, where I could watch the birds eat it from the parsonage’s front window as I worked.

This was Thursday, Jan. 30, the last of the bitterly cold days we’ve experienced in Northeast Tennessee. I figured the birds would be quite hungry for yellow cake at 3 o’clock in the afternoon. Hey, I usually am. And as I scattered it about, I even heard a rising, collective twitter from the trees at the edge of the yard.

I went back inside and sat down before the window. This is when I began to learn the message of the cross is like cake crumbled in the snow.

About 30 minutes after I put the cake out, two enormous crows landed in a large maple tree overhanging the winter treat. These two will have it all eaten in five minutes, I thought. And they certainly seemed to study what was on the ground, cawing and turning their heads.

I suppose crows have reason to be suspicious of anything unusual. In Tennessee, people can hunt unlimited numbers of them for sport from June through February, despite the fact that no one wants to eat crow. I’ve seen shotgunners do this, using electronic calls to draw them in like black clouds and then drop them like rain. You’re not being paranoid if people really are trying to kill you.

But hey—this was cake, in the midst of the hungry season! Surely the crows would find life in the midst of death. But they did not, overthinking the situation. After a few minutes, they cawed again and flew away. I wondered if their cries meant “foolishness, foolishness” in crow talk.

Other birds remained in the surrounding trees; I couldn’t see them, but their little chirps continued. Finally, two brave female cardinals ventured forth.

The first one out hopped around the edge of the crumbs, looking but not touching. She chirped loudly, in what I suppose is excitement for a cardinal. But she would not dive in. She finally flew from my view. I supposed the cake must have been too different for her, too.

The second one was bolder. She began pecking at the tiny crumbs, and you could see her excitement build. She would stop and chirp loudly, and then return to eating. Once, she briefly flew up in the tree, chirped again, and then went back to the ground, eating some more. She had found what she needed, and not only that, I’m convinced she was trying to tell the others, “Look what I’ve found! Come and have some!” No one joined her, however.

Finally, she grabbed a thumb-sized chunk in her beak and carried it off, again out of my sight. I wondered if she shared it.

I could hear birds chattering through the rest of the afternoon, but to my surprise, the cake remained. As the sun set and the landscape once again hardened into a deep freeze, the crumbs were still there. The scene made me sad.

A postscript, though: When I looked out just after sunrise the next day, the cake was all gone, replaced by dozens of tiny footprints in the snow. The suburb’s undesirables—racoons—had come during the coldest, most desperate hours and found what they could not have expected to receive.

I thought of Gentiles taking up what most good Jews had rejected; I thought of the drunk, the drug addict, or the prostitute accepting what a thinking, affluent person might deem a risk or a waste of time.

The message of the cross is like cake crumbled in the snow. Christ has been broken for us, and in that breaking we have the opportunity to find joy and eternal life. It is a strange message, one now scattered all across the landscape. And it does look foolish to those who are used to the ways of a sinful world.

The message of the cross is a joy to be consumed, however. It also is a message to be carried to others. And be you a crow, songbird or racoon, it is for you.