A Commentary by John Stott
Thirdly, *do not be arrogant, but be afraid* (20). For you must not forget what happened to unbelieving Israel, which belonged naturally to the olive tree. *For if God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either* (21), for you do not naturally belong. Fourthly, you must constantly meditate on the character of God. *Consider therefore the kindness and sternness of God, sternness* in judgment upon *those who fell*, the apostate Jews, *but kindness to you*, believing Gentiles, who have been incorporated by sheer grace alone, *provided that you continue in his kindness. Otherwise you will be cut off* (22). Not that those who truly belong to him will ever be rejected, but that continuance or perseverance is the hallmark of God’s authentic children (E.g. Heb.3:14; 1 Jn.2:19).
This exhortation to Gentile believers not to boast, together with arguments with which it is buttressed, was undoubtedly much needed in Rome. For although the Jews were tolerated and protected by law from Gentile molestation, they suffered a great deal of popular Gentile ill will and sometimes from outbreaks of violence. Resisting assimilation to Gentile culture, and refusing to abandon or modify their own practices, ‘their exclusiveness bred the unpopularity out of which anti-Semitism was born. The Jew was a figure of amusement, contempt or hatred to the Gentiles among whom he lived.’ Paul was determined that Gentile believers in Rome would have no share in such anti-Semitic prejudice.
After this warning to Gentile believers against pride and presumption, Paul is ready with his promise to Jewish unbelievers. His argument is that if those grafted in could be cut off, then those cut off could be grafted in again. The key word is *persist (epimeno)*, the same verb as is rendered ‘continue’ in the previous verse: *And if they do not persist in unbelief, they will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again* (23). Moreover, the assurance of this is drawn from the contrast between the natural and the unnatural branches: *After all, if you (sc. Gentile believers) were cut out of an olive tree that is wild by nature, and contrary to nature were grafted into a cultivated olive tree, how much more readily will these (sc. Jewish believers), the natural branches be grafted into their own olive tree!* (24). In other words, ‘the restoration of Israel is an easier process than the call of the Gentiles.
Much of the ‘chain of blessing’, then, is included in the allegory of the olive tree, especially the rejection of the Jews (cultivated branches broken off), the incorporation of the Gentiles (the wild shoot grafted in) and the expected restoration of the Jews (natural branches grafted back in again). What the allegory does not permit is the further truth that through Israel’s restoration the Gentiles will be yet more richly blessed. The warning and the promise are paramount, however, First the warning: since the natural branches were broken off, the wild ones could be too (21). The Gentiles could be rejected like the Jews. There is no room for complacency. Secondly, the promise: since the wild branches were grafted in, the natural ones could be too (24). The Jews could be accepted like the Gentiles. There is no room for despair.