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.