“And if some of the branches be broken off, and thou, being a wild olive tree, wert grafted in among them, and with them partakes of the root and fatness of the olive tree; Boast not against the branches. But if thou boast, thou bearest not the root, but the root thee.” Romans 11:17 &18
You all are well aware that the epistle to the Romans is not a book for self-improvement; it is not even a book written to show men and women how to be saved. It is first and foremost a book about God. The epistle to the Romans is the mother of all meta-narratives. Paul essentially begins with the first thought of the first book of the Bible: Genesis 1:1 – “in the beginning God created,” and he keeps talking till he reaches the last thought of the last book of the Bible: Revelation 22:20 – “even so come (quickly) Lord Jesus.” Paul tells God’s story by reaching all the way back to creation and then all the way forward to a common future that we share with God when his Kingdom comes “on earth as it is in heaven.” This epistle is all about the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and how he determined to use Abraham and his family to save humanity and the material world. God did this by promising Abraham and children a piece of real estate, but as time went on it became clear that the little patch of sand we call Israel was the outward and visible sign of the whole wide world and so Paul wrote:
“For the promise, that he should be the heir of the world, was not to Abraham, or to his seed, through the law, but through the righteousness of faith.” Romans 4:13
“Know ye therefore that they which are of faith, the same are the children of Abraham. And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the heathen through faith, preached before the gospel unto Abraham, saying, In thee shall all nations be blessed. So then they which be of faith are blessed with faithful Abraham.” Galatians 3:7-9
St. Paul presents two ways of salvation and by that he makes it clear that he means two ways of being in the Covenant, in the Promise made to Abraham and his family – one way is true the other way is false. The false way was the belief that by being a Jew physically and following the Jewish way, either by birth or conversion, one is in the Covenant God made with Abraham. If one were born into Israel or if one converted to Jewish way (and for the males that means circumcision) then you are a child of the Covenant, a child of the Promise, a child of Abraham – you are in, you have right standing with God. All of Paul’s talk about the Law, about the “righteousness of the Law” or justification through the Law goes back to being a Jew either by natural birth or through conversion and circumcision. It is not a matter of gentiles keeping the Law of Moses; it is a matter of a gentile converting to Judaism.
The Mosaic Law was not an instrument for Jews to work their way to heaven, much less was it given for gentiles to work their way to heaven, but rather the Law was given as the identifying badge of Israel. What I want you to see is that when Paul writes about circumcision or the “works of the Law” he is not abstracting circumcision, nor the “works of the Law” – he is in no way abstracting those beliefs or behaviors and then turning them into universal concepts that apply to everyone. Conceptualists continue to misunderstand and they fail to develop because they are always abstracting concepts from objects in the concrete, relational reality they are embedded in because it is only in the concrete relation that the objects they attempt to abstract have meaning. St. Paul is not a conceptualist and he is always talking about being a Jew and staying a Jew when he speaks about justification. One will go on missing his point if one tries to understand the words justification, righteousness, or even circumcision out of their relational contexts. It is like trying to reduce the meaning of a automobile to the flywheel or it is like trying to reduce the meaning of a narrative to a plot. The Law is another highly misunderstood word: I think there is a common misunderstanding that folks have about the Mosaic Law that runs like this: the Law was given to show that no matter how hard you try, the Law is an impossible standard and one is always doomed to failure. Another mistake that follows is the flawed belief that we Christians know that the Law is an impossible standard and for that reason no one will carry out the works of the Law. That is only partially true. The assumption is that for Jews who were relying on keeping the Law to fail at keeping the Law was devastation. But it was the so-called impossible rigor of the Law that made it a false way. In fact St. Paul makes this very point in Galatians:
“Though I might also have confidence in the flesh. If any other man thinketh that he hath whereof he might trust in the flesh, I more: Circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, an Hebrew of the Hebrews; as touching the law, a Pharisee… touching the righteousness which is in the law, blameless.” Philippians 4:4-6
Paul believed that he had in fact achieved the righteousness offered by the Law. In fact he writes that his achievement the righteousness offered by the Law was flawless, but he did not say he was perfect. What we need to understand is that Jews like St. Paul knew perfectly well that the standards of the Law were impossible but there were provisions within the Law, that is, within Israel, for failure and sin – in other words there are provisions within the Law for forgiveness of sin and restoration. If one makes the rigor of the Law, its impossibility, its essential meaning one will not understand St. Paul. This is what I want you to understand: St. Paul is absolutely asserting that even if you could keep the Mosaic Law perfectly – I mean absolutely to perfection – even if, that would not put you right with God because the issue is not the Law. Being in the right with God begins with being in the Covenant – and that is not achieved by being born or converting to physical Judaism; furthermore no amount of Law keeping and no amount of zeal gets you into the Covenant.
So physical Israel declared that if you want right standing with God you have to be in the Covenant (that much is right) – but the way into the Covenant is through your natural birth as a physical Jew or through conversion and the first act of conversion was circumcision. Thus being right with God was reduced to being a physical Jew by birth or by conversion. Remember the distinction Paul made between physical Israel, his “kinsmen according to the flesh,” and what he calls the “Israel of God.”
The second way, the true and only way of salvation, of becoming a child of the Covenant, of becoming a child of the Promise, a child of Abraham – of being in the right with God is through conversion to Jesus Christ as the Messiah of Israel whom God raised from the dead.
“And if some of the branches be broken off, and thou, being a wild olive tree, wert grafted in among them, and with them partakes of the root and fatness of the olive tree…” Romans 11:17
Jesus Christ through his own faith in God the Father brought the Promise that was made to Abraham to maturity, to finality. The faith of Abraham is answered by the faith of Jesus the Messiah, the Promised Seed and the circle is drawn, the Promise is completed: Jesus embodies Israel and through his faith, the faith of Jesus, through his unwavering faith in his Father, he went to the Cross – not through mere obedience or any need to provide a legal satisfaction for sin – but through his faith in God at the hour of his betray, torture and crucifixion – his faith, the faith of the Seed of the Promise, Jesus the Messiah sealed up, perfected the faith of Abraham, brought the Promise to complete fulfillment. And his resurrection from the dead is God’s ratification of Jesus’ last word on the Cross: “It is finished” is God’s last word on sin and death: “It is finished.” It is not the end of the Promise it is the end of sin and death and now God’s Promise to Abraham will be filled up with the children he was swore both Jew and Gentile who will all bear the family mark of faith. The Church is the instantiation of the Abrahamic Promise comes to fruition and so by God’s amazing grace we Gentiles are grafted in.
I have spoken about this before. We are all born as branches upon the same Vine, Adam, the father of us all and when he disobeyed God, he died spiritually: he was deprived of the supernatural grace of God, and as we have seen, he suffered the four wounds of the fall. Our first parents were created to love God with their whole heart, soul and mind, but now not only can we not love God, we cannot love anything rightly without God’s help. Self-concern, self-centeredness, rebellion against God, and bias are never far off. We desire the good, but for the wrong reason and in the wrong manner. We are born as branches upon this dying Vine called Adam and though we receive from him true humanity, the true image of God, we also receive all the deadly consequences of the fall. But the good news is that there is another Vine, the Vine of the Church, the Body of Christ, and the New Israel, the instantiation of the Abrahamic Covenant. The Church is the Vine because Christ planted this Vine. To be a member of the Church is to be a member of the New Israel, the New Adam, a member of Christ, a child of Abraham. The Vine of Christ is living; in fact the Vine of Christ is true life. Christ who is Israel is the root of this Vine and we partake of that its life-giving fatness, which is the life-giving sap of the Vine. In Romans 11:17 St. Paul writes that we have been grafted into God’s olive tree — which is the true Israel, Jesus Christ — and we now feed upon the “fatness” of that olive tree. In other words God’s olive tree is saturated with the life of God himself according to the logic of St. Paul’s imagery. To be a member of the Israel, the Olive Tree that God’s has cultivated is to be a member of Vine of Christ, which is to have the privilege of feeding upon the life of God. So on the one hand we are born as branches upon the Vine of Adam and if we continue to feed upon him we are ultimately feeding upon death. On the other hand, we have the New Adam, the New Israel, Jesus Christ, who is full of life and the richness of all the privileges God has given his Son. Therefore the only question remaining is “How do we get ourselves attached to this new Vine of Christ?” The answer is that we have to be grafted in. That means that we have to be broken off the old Vine of Adam and grafted into the New Vine of Christ, which is his living Body the Church.