(Rom. 11:17-21 ESV) 17 But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, although a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing root of the olive tree, 18 do not be arrogant toward the branches. If you are, remember it is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you. 19 Then you will say, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” 20 That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but fear. 21 For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you.
Paul uses an olive tree as a metaphor for Israel. The OT and intertestamental literature uses the same image many times.
Jer. 11:16 and Hos. 14:6 use the olive tree metaphor, and in both texts the focus is on God’s judgment, about broken branches, and in Hosea about restoration to a beautiful condition beyond judgment. So it is Israel’s broken condition that calls for use of the metaphor of the olive tree.
Ben Witherington III and Darlene Hyatt, Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2004), 270.
But Paul’s metaphor is contrary to agricultural practice. Normally, the domestic tree is grafted into the wild root. In some species (such as pecan trees in these parts), the domestic variety that produces the best fruit has a weak root system, and so domestic trees are grafted into a wild root (the “stock”). And yet Paul reverses the image: wild branches grafted into a domestic stock.
Paul begins with the assertion that some of the branches were broken off (the passive suggests that God broke them off). Only some. Had God totally rejected his people once and for all, we would have expected Paul to say “all,” and we would have expected there to be no Jewish Christians like Paul. But this was certainly not God’s plan. Paul addresses the Gentiles in his audience directly, using singular “you,” which suggests that he has individual Gentiles in mind. They are all wild olive branches that have been grafted “into them.” En autois must mean “in among them,” not “in place of them.”
This strongly suggests that for Paul the continuity with the OT people of God is in Jewish Christians, and before them, in Christ, and before him, in the patriarchs. Paul’s understanding that the gospel has gone out into the Diaspora also supports the conclusion that the “remnant” in his day is viewed as Jewish Christians, rather than just any pious Jews. He is also not suggesting that these Christian Gentiles were mysteriously and secretly grafted into non-Christian Israel of his own day. The remnant for Paul is not pious Jews in general but rather Jewish Christians like himself, who have the job of mediating the Jewish heritage to Gentiles.
Ben Witherington III and Darlene Hyatt, Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2004), 270–271 (paragraphing and emphasis added).
Now, although the Calvinist camp wants to claim this passage, Paul clearly speaks of the natural branches (the Jews) being broken off for unbelief, not unbelieving because they were broken off. Moreover, I can’t imagine how you argue for perseverance of the saints in light of “you stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but fear. 21 For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you.”
(Rom. 11:22-24 ESV) 22 Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off. 23 And even they, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again. 24 For if you were cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these, the natural branches, be grafted back into their own olive tree.
God is kind to those who believe — both Jews and Gentiles. For those who “have fallen” — that is, Jewish unbelievers — God’s attitude is one of severity. Where does Paul get this? Well, from Lev 26 and Deu 27-29, which both promise a long string of curses on those fail to honor covenant with God.
(Lev. 26:14-16; 31-33 ESV) 14 “But if you will not listen to me and will not do all these commandments, 15 if you spurn my statutes, and if your soul abhors my rules, so that you will not do all my commandments, but break my covenant, 16 then I will do this to you: … 31 And I will lay your cities waste and will make your sanctuaries desolate, and I will not smell your pleasing aromas. 32 And I myself will devastate the land, so that your enemies who settle in it shall be appalled at it. 33 And I will scatter you among the nations, and I will unsheathe the sword after you, and your land shall be a desolation, and your cities shall be a waste ...
And much worse. God’s severity as promised in the Torah is amply demonstrated by the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD.
Now, the Gentiles who are grafted in enjoy the blessings of covenant with God — a covenant God made with the Jews.
(Lev. 26:11-12 ESV) 11 I will make my dwelling among you, and my soul shall not abhor you. 12 And I will walk among you and will be your God, and you shall be my people.
But, Paul hastens to add, Gentiles who give up their faith in Jesus will be broken off just as surely as the unbelieving Jews.
Finally, Paul points out that God is more anxious to graft the broken Jewish branches back in than he was to graft in the Gentiles. The door for penitence is open to the Jews, and always will be.