If the part of the dough offered as firstfruits is holy, then the whole batch is holy; if the root is holy, so are the branches. If some of the branches have been broken off, and you, though a wild olive shoot, have been grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing sap from the olive root, do not boast over those branches. If you do, consider this. You do not support the root, but the root supports you. You will say then, “Branches were broken off so that I could be grafted in.’ Granted!
Romans 11:16-20

Paul is giving us a basic history lesson. He is recounting the facts of what he has observed since his conversion twenty years earlier. Throughout this period the vast majority of the Jews have been opposing the witness of the first Jewish converts that Jesus was the Son of God and the Messiah. The vast majority had taken the side of their chief priests and the Sanhedrin that Jesus was a liar and blasphemer. So they resisted and persecuted, excommunicated and divorced their fellow countrymen who worshipped our Saviour. And the result of that had been that Christian Jews had turned from their fellow countrymen to the Gentiles and so salvation came to hundreds of thousands of Greeks and Romans and Egyptians and even people from Ethiopia. What riches of life in Christ had come to the Gentiles. Jewish rejection resulted in God being reconciled to the spiritually dead Gentile world. All over Europe and far off in Asia and Africa the gospel was spread. People came alive in Christ. This is simply the history of the first decades of the Christian faith.

Then Paul asks the question that if this had been the result of Jewish rejection what would become of Jewish acceptance of Jesus Christ as the Son of God? And again we know the extraordinary consequences of Jews like Matthew, Mark, John, Paul, Peter, James, Jude and the writer to the Hebrews accepting the gospel of our Lord. They wrote gospels and letters with the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and these writings were spread through all the world. These Jewish-written New Testament Scriptures became the foundation of every single congregation in every nation of the world, and this has resulted in life from the dead for Europe, the Americas, Australia, the islands of the Pacific, Korea, India, China, Russia, Zambia, Ghana and other countries in Africa. The history of the 2000 year long spread of the gospel by the Jewish written New Testament describes how life was brought to dead nations. That is what Paul has said in verse 15 and once again this is simply factual history which has stretched from twenty years to two thousand years. There is no theological or eschatological speculation here; no talk of a millennium or a latter day glory, or the widespread conversion of multitudes of Jews at a future date. We are looking at the history of the last 2000 years and we are saying that it has been ‘life from the dead’ for many nations of the world. It is simply a matter of historical observation and record. Then Paul goes on to give the rational for this dynamic spread of the gospel that had brought eternal life where previously there had been death. He does this in some vivid pictures.


The first picture in verse 16 is that part of the dough that we call yeast. What happens when you add a spoonful of yeast to a mixture of flour and water? Does the dough affect the yeast so that the yeast becomes benign and impotent like a static mixture of flour and water? Or does the yeast affect the dough so that the dough changes and rises? Of course the yeast affects the bread and makes it rise. How does it have that effect? Yeast is a tiny, rounded, colourless, one-celled plant, and it floats through the air everywhere, but yeast is responsible for making all our cakes and breads rise to a nice, fluffy texture. This happens because yeast creates chemical reactions on the starch and sugar in the dough or the batter. Here’s how it works. Yeast cells reproduce very rapidly no matter where they are. This reproduction goes on through a process called budding. In budding, each tiny cell swells, and soon the swollen part separates from the main cell. The new tiny cell then goes on to grow to full size on its own and the budding process continues to repeat itself. During this growth process, the yeast cells produce substances called enzymes. So when the yeast is added to bread dough, one enzyme goes to work on the flour, changing the starch in it into sugar. Another enzyme then takes over and changes the sugar into alcohol and a gas called carbon dioxide. This gas spreads through the dough in the form of bubbles. As the dough bakes into bread or cake, the heat causes the alcohol to evaporate and the bubbles to break. This leaves the tiny air pockets in the final bread or cake, making it light and fluffy. The yeast changes the dough, not the dough the yeast.

Yeast is powerful. When I was fourteen I wanted to make a dandelion and burdock drink both of which herbs were present in abundance in our garden. So I put a few pounds of those leaves in a small tin bath and filled the bath with water. There was always yeast in the house and so I toasted a piece of bread and cut it into two pieces and covered them with yeast. Then I floated them on the top of the dandelion and burdock mixture in the tin bath and left them there for a week. Then I poured the liquid through muslim cloth into bottles and put them into the shed to ferment. One day in the following week there was a screeching sound from the shed. Some of the Corona bottles had wire caps with rubber rings, and the dandelion and burdock was fermenting and forcing carbon dioxide gas out of the bottle between the rubber and the glass and so making this screeching sound. My father picked up a towel to protect himself and advanced on the bottle and picked it up and put it outside and opened it when there was a lot of foam. It did not taste very sweet at all, but my mother said it was probably good for me. Yeast is powerful.

Because the indwelling Holy Spirit is in every true believer then we have the life of God, the life of heaven within us and we offer our lives to the Lord. Paul says as a consequence of that we can do all the things that God asks us to do through Christ who strengthens us. We are the salt of the earth and that salt prevents putrefaction and decay. We are the light of the world and the light overcomes the darkness. When you open the blinds in the morning then the darkness of your room doesn’t overcome the light outside, so that everything there becomes dark. No. The darkness in your room is overwhelmed by the light. Yeast is powerful. Salt is powerful. Light is powerful, and that is what God has made every Christian. The believer is powerful.

That is the explanation of the spread of the gospel and life from the dead over the last two thousand years. Greater is he that is in every Christian than he that is in the world. Greater is the Bible than all the books of men. The word of God is alive (like yeast) and powerful and sharper than any two-edged sword. The weapons of our warfare are mighty through God to the pulling down of strongholds, and they always will be mighty, far more powerful than the wisdom of this world. That is how God brought life to the dead nations of the world. Listen to Paul quoting the word of God about what God was doing and has done ever since:

“For it is written: ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.’ Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe . . . For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength. Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things – and the things that are not – to nullify the things that are, so that no-one may boast before him” (I Cors. 1:19-21, 25-29).

So Paul tells us that the holy people of God equipped with the holy weapons of God and driven by the holy power of the Spirit of God are the firstfruits of the new covenant age and so all the growth and influence that it has is in order to make other men and women, boys and girls, also holy. That is the reason for the spread of the gospel, and for the Reformation, and the Great Awakening, and the missionary expansion of the church and the fact that today there are as many Christians in the world as the number of all the Christians in the previous centuries put together. The first fruits were holy men joined to a holy God and offering all they were to him. Thus they wrote a holy Bible and the result today is that the congregation of God’s people world-wide – all the batch of them – is holy. That is the first reason for life from the dead to be the experience of the Gentile nations over the past 2000 years.


The second picture is that of the relationship between the root and the fruit. “If the root is holy so are the branches” (v.16). If you plant a potato (or half a potato as long as it has an ‘eye’), then what will grow will be potatoes. If you plant a rhubarb tuber than fifteen rhubarb tubers will grow from it. If you plant a corn seed or a bean or an acorn then maize or kidney beans or an oak tree will grow from those roots deep down in the earth. The branches and the fruit will reflect one particular root. If the root is a weed the plant will be a weed. If it is Japanese Knotweed then there is a thug in your garden. Branches of Japanese Knotweed can pierce through tarmac and cement floors and it grows seven feet high causing real damage to foundations. Its removal can be a ten year long struggle. If the root is unholy the branches will be unholy too.

What is Paul speaking about? What are we rooted in as Christians? In the Bible, in the word God said to the Serpent about the seed of the woman crushing its head, in the covenant God made with Abraham that one day his seed would bless all the nations of the earth, in the servant of God promised to Isaiah – the child born of a virgin whose name would be called Wonderful Counsellor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father and the Prince of Peace. The Lord would lay on him the iniquity of us all, and in the fulness of time Jesus Christ would be born, the Son of God and his life and work would be described in the gospels. He would rise from the dead and have all authority in heaven and earth. He would send his servants into the whole world and he would give them the sword of the Spirit which is the word of God. He would go with them as they taught men to observe all he had commanded. He has put every one of his people into Christ. He has earthed us into the Lord Jesus. Of his fulness we receive and grace for grace. We are in Christ Jesus; we are therefore new creations. We are rooted in Christ Jesus and therefore there is no condemnation. As long as we are rooted in our holy Saviour then the direction and character of our life will also be holy. “If the root is holy so are the branches.”

That is the reason why the conversion of the nations took place that was life from the dead. These Christians were crucified with Christ, nevertheless they lived, yet not them, Christ lived in them, and the life that they now lived was by trusting day by day in the Son of God who loved them and had given himself for them. When Murray M’Cheyne was asked what was the greatest need of his congregation he answered that it was his own holiness as their pastor. M’Cheyne could only get that if he were rooted into the blessed holy Trinity. What was the reason for the triumph of the Reformation, and the spread of the Puritan movement, and the way God blessed Whitefield and Edwards and Daniel Rowland, and then in the next century gave such success to Princeton Seminary and to New College in Edinburgh in inspiring their graduates? They were holy men whose lives were rooted in the holiness of God’s Word and his covenants and promises. These men loved a holy day and were indwelt by a holy Spirit and enjoyed holy fellowship and holy worship, and that is what conquered the world. Their roots were holy roots and so their branches bore holy fruit.

Think of today’s worship branches. Because many are not rooted in the great living God of the Bible the branches are shaped by men. I mean that what is of primary importance to many congregations today is the fellowship of the worshippers with one another, the fact that they are involved together, that they feel comfortable with what is said and done, that every effort is being made to ensure that no-one is being cut off, or left out, or left cold from anything done or said, and certainly that young people will be attracted. The branches are branches of informality and soon they become branches of popular entertainment. Bring on the clowns! The roots are unholy and that affects the branches.

Or think of the prayer branches of modern meetings. There is little awe and little fear and little reverence, or maybe none of that at all. Prayers are rattled on in easy Christian clichés. “We just want to thank you, Lord. We’re just really glad to be here. We ask you Lord to give us a really good time tonight. Just help us and all the worship leaders and those who play instruments . . .” And then if you need to pad the prayer or boost its earnestness you can always insert ‘Father’ or ‘Jesus’ every third or fourth word. They are meaningless, vulgar, commonplace redundancies. They are cant phraseology. The reason for the lack of holiness is because the man or woman praying is not rooted in the thrice holy God, or praying through the power of the Holy Spirit, or in accord with the Holy Bible. And all the instructions given in how to lead in worship and improve our services and attract people are all directed to the branches and not to the roots. But the early church spread around the world and brought life to the dead because its roots were holy earthed in the Son of God..


Then Paul uses the third metaphor, and this time it is of a twig grafted into a tree. We had five apple trees in our large garden in Station House, Hengoed. Three produced tons of sharp cooking apples almost all of which fell to the ground and rotted. Another seemed to be a barren tree, but the fifth apple tree produced sweet eating apples. A widower from Radnorshire married Mrs. Knock a widow from our Baptist Church and moved into her house and transformed her garden. He had a barren apple tree and knew of the prowess of our eating apple tree, and so in the spring when the sap was rising he asked for some twigs that he could graft into his tree. I watched the whole process with interest. He cut his tree down to a stump and cut five twigs off our one good tree. He cut five triangular notches into the stump and similarly shaped the five twigs and hammered them gently into the stump so that the bark of the twigs touched the bark of the tree-stump. He bound them carefully, round and round with some tape and then protected the top with clay. That was grafting, and I watched the whole process. He hoped that some of the twigs would receive the sap and life of the old tree to support the fruitfulness of a new tree.

Paul is using that image here in describing what has happened to the Jews and Gentiles. He makes a few points:

i] Some of the branches have been broken off the olive tree (v.17). These would be the generation of men such as Caiaphas and Annas the chief priests, most of the Sanhedrin, the persecuting Pharisees and the hateful anti-Christian Jews. These were all the kind of branches that had been broken off God’s olive tree by God himself. He had discarded them from the life and fruitfulness of that trust and love for the Lord that none but his loved ones know. They withered and died. Soon the Temple and its Sadducees would be no more. There would no longer be priests and levites, kings and judges – they were all be dead branches broken off by Jehovah in his judgment on them for how they treated his Son. So how are they replaced and the tree keep its for and beauty?

ii] The Gentiles who believe in Jesus as God’s Son, are those grafted into the olive tree of the people of God. We disciples of the Lord are the ones who replace the dead branches that God pruned away. What were the Corinthian converts who had been idolaters, and perverts, and adulterers, and drunkards, and thieves? They’d been wild olive shoots. What was Saul of Tarsus but a wild olive shoot. Would my old friend in Raglan Road, Hengoed, have cut and shaped some twigs from the barren apple tree or twigs from the sour cooking apple tree in our garden and grafted them into his living tree? Of course not, and no competent olive farmer would do that. Yet that’s what God incredibly does. He chooses the foolish twigs and the weak twigs and the lowly twigs, and the despised twigs and twigs that don’t seem to be twigs at all, and he grafts into his true olive tree these people who put their trust in the Lord Jesus. What grace God shows to the Gentiles! They don’t naturally belong in his tree. They are not physically part of the family tree of Abraham. They have no entitlement, and no merit, but the divine Husbandman has chosen them and has grafted them in, and they receive life and nutrition from the sap of the host tree and they produce much fruit. They feed on Israel’s covenant blessings – the covenant of grace with Abraham.

Paul is talking about sinners who believe right into our Lord for salvation, who are all one in Christ Jesus, becoming new creations because they are in Christ Jesus. Our Lord is made unto them wisdom, righteousness, sanctification and redemption. Of his fulness they receive and grace for grace. And every virtue they possess and every victory won and every thought of holiness are his alone. All this becomes theirs as they are joined by faith as branches into the Lord Christ the tree. You remember what Paul tells the Galatian Christians, “If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Gals. 3:29). Remember, they are still Gentile twigs and always will be. They didn’t have to become Jews in order to be beneficiaries of the promise God made to Abraham. Even the Jews have to become joined to Christ. They all need to become a branch of the Lord Jesus, to have his life flowing through them. Then they were a new olive tree in Philippi, and in Ephesus there was another new olive tree there, and in Rome there was another identical olive tree with many Gentile branches grafted onto the Jewish trunk, and all of them were producing fruit – love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faithfulness meekness and self-control because we are grafted into Jesus Christ. And wonder of wonders there is an identical olive tree growing here in Aberystwyth today but every one of us without exception has been grafted in as wild olive shoots because we’re all Gentiles.

iii] Our fruitfulness depends on our abiding in Christ and he in us, for without him we can produce no fruit at all. Or, as Paul says to the believing Gentiles in our text concerning the believing Jews, “You now share in the nourishing sap from the olive root” (v.18). And we do, even ourselves in this congregation. In the last couple of years we have studied together the whole book of Genesis, the creation of the world by the One whom our souls love, without whom was not anything made that was made, the lives of the patriarchs and of Joseph. I found it enormously nourishing, the whole doctrine of God found in Genesis, Jehovah the God of creation and the God of redemption and the God of providence. We were strengthened as we found Jehovah Jesus throughout the book of Genesis. He is the Seed of the woman; he is the one who will bruise the serpent’s head; he is the Ark of refuge from the flood of destruction; he is the messenger from God who spoke to Abraham; he is the one who wrestled with Jacob; he is the protector of Joseph and he is also the suffering servant in prison. It is the Saviour of believing Jews and Gentiles, Jesus Christ, who is there in all of Genesis, and we wild olive shoots are now receiving our full share of the nourishing sap from the olive tree Israel. The covenant promises of grace are found in Scripture and they bind the one true and living God to us – we in him and he in us. So we have these three pictures of yeast becoming dough, and roots producing branches laden with fruit, and twigs grafted into a tree. Then we discover three lasting lessons from these verses.


i] Engrafted branches are not to boast over the natural branches. Can you imagine the cartoon? There is this one grafted branch gossiping to another grafted branch about those natural branches on the other side of the tree. “Poor dears! I feel so SORRY for them. They’ve always been here. They’ve had so little experience of life, no adventure, such boring branches . . . we had such a journey to get here and oh what memories we’ve got. What an experience we had arriving where we are today. How exciting it all was, being converted from wild olive shoots to become part of this tree . . .”

There were new Gentile converts who boasted in their translation and conversion from the old tree to this new tree. They were even boasting like this, “Branches were broken off so that I could be grafted in” (v.19). in other words, “Can’t you see how important I am? The very chief priests themselves and the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem were snapped off the tree to make room for me!” What arrogance and presumptive confidence they showed as they considered the place of privilege and honour they had in the kingdom of God. “Those pathetic Jews – broken off and discarded – so that we could have their place!” Do you see this streak of contempt for the Jews? Do you see the incipient racism here? We might think that we are far better than that, but I guess we are being challenged if there has been some discipline in a congregation like ours today, and someone has had to be removed from office and another person has been called upon to take the sinner’s place and he is gloating over his new rank! He is looking with disdain over the fallen man who was once his companion and brother in the faith. How unseemly!

What is the truth of the status of these engrafted Gentile branches? They did not run, or jump, or fly to this tree. They did not engraft themselves. They were not even pollen blown by the wind which landed on this tree. They were chosen by the divine gardener, and they were cut out by his pruning knife, and with all his horticultural skill he grafted them into this alien tree and did it so effectually that they did not die but had wonderful new life and growth and fruitfulness that they did not have before. They owe it all to Him! They did nothing; they were passive and he did it all. If they had stayed where they were one day they would have been chopped down and burned as barren trees. Their little fruit was as hard as ball-bearings and as bitter as sour gooseberries, but they were transformed and made delicious by the power and care of a wise master husbandman. They owe everything to his handiwork. “It is not we who made us but God himself!” they have to acknowledge. Boasting is foolish. They are what they are by the grace of God.

What were we before we became Christians? We were wild. That is the word Paul uses here, “a wild olive shoot” (v.17). We were wild in our beliefs, wild in our fantasies and imaginations, wild in the way we spent money, wild in our relationships with our families and friends. Where did this wildness come from? Not from the culture we lived in, not from our education, not from our homes, not from our companions. Its root was our own hearts. See the wildness of Saul of Tarsus. See the wildness of Peter at the fireside in the courtyard. See the wildness of David on the roof being a peeping Tom. See the wildness of Samson and the wildness of Lot, and the wildness of Judah. Yet God had pity on wild men and women. “Tis mercy all immense and free, and O my God it found out me.” Please make every effort to prune the wildness by the power of the Spirit and encourage every grace through faith in Christ your Saviour.

They may be loaded with such a crop of delicious fruit, but that is only because they have been attached to this tree and its rising sap has changed them. That tree doesn’t stand erect, come wind come weather, and bear fruit because of the branches. “Consider this: You do not support the root but the root supports you!” (v.18). Are we taking heed and standing today? Yes. Then thank God for that. Is God being upheld by us? God forbid. God is upholding us. We are what we are by the grace of God keeping us, loving us with a love that will not let us go. We live and love and have our being in God. God does not live and move and have his being in us. Omnipotence is utterly apart from us, and God will be the infinite, eternal and unchangeable one for ever and ever no matter who we rise and fall. God endures unchanging on!

ii] There is just one people of God. There is one kingdom of God, and there is one people of God. There are not two olive trees, a Jewish olive tree and a Gentile olive tree. There is one people of God. It might be natural in the congregation in Rome for the Jews to sit together and the Gentiles to sit together. It might have been natural but let’s hear all sorts of alarm bells ringing. There is no longer Jew and Gentile. We are all one in Christ Jesus. So let’s be careful at every level, even at the level of fellowship lunch or a Christian love feast when some food is kosher and other dishes contain pork chops. Let us be so careful that we don’t raise issues that cause argument and criticism. We come from different backgrounds and cultures; we bring our traditions and tastes into the church with us. They must never be allowed to become an issue of resentment and antagonism. We have to respect one another’s convictions. Let the Gentile Christian remember that Abraham is his father too. He is the father of all who are saved. He is the root of this tree of the one covenant of grace. All of us in the church are saved the same way as Abraham was saved. We heard the word of God and we believed and obeyed. So we all became joined to this one olive tree.

ii] The goal of all the people of God is to bear fruit. The point of being a part of this fruit tree with its holy roots is to bear holy fruit. The point of being grafted into this tree is to become fruitful. The tree is the workmanship of God the gardener, and it is created in Christ Jesus unto good works – that is the fruit – which God had before ordained that we should walk in them. Paul is reminding us not of the necessity of Christian fruitfulness, nor of the rarity of Christian unfruitfulness, but the impossibility of Christian barrenness. He is telling us that either fruit is going to end the barrenness or barrenness is going to end the fruitfulness. God has saved us that we become the light of the world and that light is our Christ-likeness. Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we shall reap a harvest if we do not give up. You think of those searching words of the lord Jesus in John 15: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing” (Jn 15:1-5). Don’t live a fruitless life. How will God know you are one of his children when you stand before him? Jesus answers us, “By their fruits I shall know him.” Tonight the chiming of midnight tells us another half a year has gone and we start the second half of this year. What fruit has developed in this past six months? There are personality problems in our midst, a sinful reserve, an independence of action, a selfishness, a bullying spirit, hidden lust, a greed, a laziness, in my life and your life and so on. Paul speaks here about boasting. Boasting is being proud of our own supposed achievements. What folly it is and what ignorance it displays. What are you doing to kill those weeds, and what are you doing to encourage the contrary graces? Only this life gives you the opportunity to grow in victory over sin and in Christlikeness.

30th June 2013 GEOFF THOMAS