But they were broken off because of unbelief, and you stand by faith. Do not be arrogant, but be afraid. For if God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either. Consider therefore the kindness and sternness of God: sternness to those who fell, but kindness to you, provided that you continue in his kindness. Otherwise, you also will be cut off. And if they do not persist in unbelief, they will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again. After all, if you 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, the natural branches, be grafted into their own olive tree!
Romans 11:20-24

I think it was from a Frenchman who was professor of theology in the USA whose name is Dr. Roger Nicole that I got the phrase “the bifurcation of human destinies,” and occasionally (like so many of my phrases) I confess that it just slips out. It must weary you. It means that God has decreed that mankind is going to be divided into two, and as you read the Scriptures you often hear of this ‘Great Separation.’ There is a wide way and there is a narrow way. There are goats and there are sheep. There are believers and unbelievers. There are sinners and saints. There is heaven and hell. There is no middle way (the via media); there is no neutral ground; there is no sitting on the fence. Jesus said that he that is not for me is against me. There is a line that God draws across every gathering, and the God who knows every heart makes a distinction today so that he knows on which side of the line we all are living our lives. We Christians cannot make this judgment infallibly. All twelve disciples heard Jesus tell them that one of them was a goat and not a sheep and that he would betray the Christ, and they were shocked to the core. Nothing in what Judas had done or failed to do had ever suggested that he could have nurtured unbelief in his heart and that he would sell Jesus to be killed for thirty pieces of silver. The state of his heart was invisible to the eyes of Peter and John, “Is it I?” they cried in their perplexity, one after the other. God doesn’t provide us with a divine detector that announces who is on the Lord’s side. God alone has that knowledge, but we do know what a real, credible profession of faith is concerning the core truths that you must confess, and also the moral values by which Christians live. And we also understand when someone tells us he is not a believer.


Paul is speaking in the verses before us of one group whom he refers to as ‘they’ and another group he refers to as ‘you.’ ‘They’ are the unbelieving Jews; while ‘you’ are the believing Gentiles. ‘They’ are the natural branches on this divine olive tree; ‘you’ are the grafted in branches. The difference between them is that one group believes in Christ and the other does not. So Paul is referring to the unbelief of Caiaphas and Annas, the chief priests that orchestrated the trial of Christ the Son of God, and determined that he would be crucified, bribing men to accuse him falsely, and leaning on Pilate so that he passed the death sentence. Paul is speaking of the unbelief of those who stoned Stephen to death. Paul is speaking of men who were at that time as bloodthirsty as he himself once had been. He is referring to the gang of Jews who took an oath that they would eat no food until they had assassinated Paul. “They were broken off” from the living company of the people of God (compared here to a beautiful olive tree laden in fruit) and the root cause of God’s judgment was “because of unbelief” (v.20). Unbelief is sterile and barren. It result in destruction.

i] Unbelief is a sin.  Jesus in the Upper Room before the Last Supper told his disciples that when the promised Holy Spirit came he would convict men of sin “because they do not believe in me” (Jn.16:9). Think how troubled you would be if one of your children, whom you’d cared for and loved all through her life began to say to you in her teens that she didn’t believe that you loved her. How hurt you’d be. How could you have done any more to show your love for her for all fifteen years of her life? Unlike some parents you had naturally said to her at the end of the day, “Night, night, I love you,” and she had had so much of what she wanted without your spoiling her. Now she insisted that she doesn’t believe that you love her. What grief! Did you talk to her teacher about your daughter at a Parents Teachers Evening? Did you go to the doctor and talk to her about your worries? Did you go to your pastor? Did you think of a child psychiatrist? How painful to have your love denied! God loved the world in this way; he gave his only begotten Son. He committed him to go on a journey to Bethlehem to a birth in a stable, and to obscure life in the home of a carpenter for 30 years. He loved us and gave his Son to take man’s guilt and blame in the sacrifice of himself on the cross. He did all this because he loved us, and with the gift of Christ he has freely given every good and beautiful thing you possess, health and intelligence and long life and loving family and friend and possessions. What love he has shown to you, and yet you ignore him. You don’t believe at all that God has loved you.

Or again what if your husband told you after years of what you thought was a happy loving marriage that he no longer believed you were genuine, that you were a fake, a phony, not a true wife, and that he’d stopped believing in you. He couldn’t trust you about anything any longer, that he didn’t trust your words, your promises, or your actions. He didn’t believe in you. Can you see how devastating that would be, how destructive of your marriage? And everything you tried to do and say to make him change his mind he simply further used to accuse you of being a liar. That would be absolutely devastating. It would be the end of the relationship. It would kill your love for him. That is sinful unbelief.

So can you see a little clearer how unbelief in the Lord Jesus Christ is wicked.  He came from heaven and fulfilled all those extraordinary messianic prophecies, born of a virgin, despised by his fellow countrymen, sold for 30 pieces of silver, hung on a tree the cursed death of crucifixion, buried in a rich man’s grave, raised the third day – exactly as Scripture prophesied, and yet you don’t believe that he is the Messiah. He did these extraordinary miracles, healing every single sick person he came into contact with, no failures at all. He had power over demons who feared and fled, and power over the winds and the waves. He once walked on water. He could raise the dead, and yet you don’t believe that this was the incarnate God. He made these extraordinary claims of immortality and pre-existence, that “before Abraham was I am,” and yet you don’t believe in him. He claimed that no man came to the Father but by him, and you don’t believe in him. He claimed that he was going to be the Judge of all mankind, and you don’t believe him. He claimed absolute equality with God, “I and my Father are one,” and yet you disbelieve. Then he preached the incredible Sermon on the Mount and told great parables of the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan, and spoke that mighty discourse in the Upper Room, but you haven’t bothered to read them. You will not believe that he was a prophet sent by God. Think of it, that if you weakened for a moment and said, “Oh yes, he was a prophet . . . and he did come from God,” then you must go where that thought takes you! Then who is this God; you must find out more and more about him. Let me talk to this God, and ask him to make himself known to me, and help me understand the Bible. Here is Jesus Christ who so influenced men that they took the gospel round the world and wrote the Bible, but as yet you don’t believe that they are real and true and humble men. You have met many Christians whose lives are full of kindness and love and patience and forgiveness but you believe that they are deluded and self-deceived. Don’t you see how unbelief and rejection of the Lord Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the Living God, is a sin? It is defiance of truth. It is a determination to live as you want to live and not as God wants you to live. You  refuse to have Jesus rule over your life. That is why there is unbelief.

ii] Unbelief is a sin that brings God’s judgment upon you. Here in this history book called the Bible is the extraordinary life of Jesus Christ in all its clarity and beauty. Here is the glory of God shown in the design, creation and sustenance of the world all around us. Here is your conscience that makes you feel guilty when you deny him – that is the voice of God. Here are maybe hundreds of Christian men and women known to you personally, people you admire who speak to you of the reality of the God they know. Here are the Scriptures, with their psalms and gospels and letters. Here is the wonderful experience you’ve had throughout your life of blessing upon blessing – all good gifts around us are sent from heaven above. And you don’t have faith in this good and patient and loving God. You don’t trust him. You are like the husband telling his wife that he does not believe that she is real, that she’s not a true wife – after she has been exemplary all your marriage in her faithfulness, service and devotion to him for decades.

What does God think of your unbelief? Does God say? Is he apologetic and nervous? “I’m sorry, I should have done more. Merely sending my prophets to speak to you, and just sending my Son, and then only sending the apostles and changing the lives of multitudes of people and bringing many of them into your life, and simply making the heavens and the earth full of my godhead and glory, and placing my monitor of the conscience at the heart of your life, and gifting preachers to speak to you – all this was so pathetically inadequate. No wonder you couldn’t believe in me. Whoever could possibly believe in me when I only gave you that stuff? I’m so sorry. It must take more than all of that. If only I pulled aside the curtain of the sky each day and said to you, “Hello! It’s me!” then you would believe.

No. God doesn’t say that. God is conscious that he has done a good and decent job of revealing himself generally to all men and women in creation and conscience, and to many others in the special knowledge of himself in Scripture. It is adequate. It is more than adequate. The work of God in revelation is perfect converting the soul. By these means all the Christians that have come to know God have known him. They heard and saw and listened to their conscience and friends and they read the Bible and thus they came to believe that Jesus Christ was the Son of God. They didn’t see a miracle or hear a voice. The simple hearing of the word about Jesus Christ and their asking God to help them understand and forgive their sins did it all. The preaching did it. The Bible did it. The Holy Spirit did it. For every single one of them, that is how they came to trust God.

Unbelief is defiance of what God has given us. The people of Jerusalem, the leaders and the ordinary folk cried, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” and they put to death on a cross the holy, harmless, loving Son of God. And God didn’t say, “I should have made him preach for six years not three. I should have helped him preach two sermons on the mount not one. I should have given him more miracles to do. I can understand only too well why they killed my Son.” No! He does not come to you today and apologize for asking you to believe the impossibly inadequate. He has given you a super-abundance of truth and miracles. The men who crucified Christ had heard the greatest sermons this world has ever heard. They’d talked to Lazarus after Jesus had raised him from the dead. They were just as you are – without excuse for not believing in him. Your unbelief is culpable unbelief. It is unjustifiable unbelief. So what happened to those Jews who killed Christ? “They were broken off because of unbelief” (v.20). God removed these barren unbelieving branches from his fruitful olive tree. In other words they died under the judgment of God. That is the consequence of unbelief.

That is why God says to us all, “Be afraid!” (v.20). And then Paul says this, “If God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either” (v.21). God did not spare the chief priests though they were very religious and moral men. Are you very religious and moral? You say, “Well I wouldn’t say that.” You’re right. Here is a God who didn’t spare moral men who disbelieved and despised and rejected his Son. This God says that he won’t spare you either. God is not going to spare you. You don’t like to hear that. You think I am being harsh. But is this what God says in the Bible? What did Jesus say of those who did not believe? He said that they would perish.

You say that you came here for comfort, that you came to church to hear of the kindness of God, and so do I, but the passage of Scripture before us that was inspired by the Holy Spirit says this to you today, “Consider therefore the kindness and the sternness of God:” (v.22). Not far from us live a mother and father whose faces are quite well known to us. Their six year old daughter was abducted and violated and murdered and the remains of her body were destroyed and hidden. They caught the man that did it and the mother and father went every day to his trial. How did the judge behave? How did the jury behave? How did the lawyers behave? How did the police behave? How did the witnesses, young and old, behave? Did the trial become a music hall? Was it turned into a comedy routine? Were the barristers giving one joke after another? Did the judge just smile benignly at everyone? Did he dismiss the case and wink at the accused?

It was nothing like that, nothing like that at all. There was, thank God, a sternness about the whole proceedings. It was terribly serious because it dealt with taking the life of a little girl in the foulest possible circumstances, and for her sake and for her parents there needed to be quietness, and integrity, and honesty, and the most searching examination of all the evidence to find out who was responsible for this crime. There is a time for sweet levity, and there is a time for sternness.

Today is also a time for sternness. I have spoken to you about the extraordinary life of the Lord Jesus, that in it we see the glory of our Creator. It is a life full of grace and truth, but you do not believe it, and I am saying that if God did not spare the first rejecting generation of men and women who actually saw and heard all that Jesus did and taught then he will not spare you. He will put you in hell. “You also [who persist in unbelief] will be cut off”” (vv.22&23). “I gave you my Son; I gave you the Bible; I gave you a sight of my glory and divinity in creation; I gave some of you Christian parents; I gave you faithful preachers. I needn’t have given you so much, but I did. How then shall you escape if you neglect so great salvation? So we have considered that unbelief is a sin, and unbelief brings the judgment of God upon us. And the only reason I tell you all this is that it is found here in the Bible. Then what follows the warning?


You ask, “What’s in it for me? If I believe in Jesus Christ what will I get out of it? You Christians are simply telling me to give up drink and drugs and swearing and sex. Where’s the fun in life if I have to give everything up?” Three things Paul tells us:

i] You will stand by faith (v.20). The newspapers are full of the stories of people, young and old, who didn’t stand. You personally know of people of your own generation, from your own circle, who didn’t stand. They had problems and they subsided into quiet despair; their lives fell apart. They turned to alcohol and drugs and nicotine and porn on line and a succession of unpleasant relationships because they couldn’t stand upright. God made you for himself, to stand before him in love.

There are a number of references to the Christian as a person who stands straight and walks tall. The Bible describes him as being steadfast. For example, in the letter to the Ephesians Paul exhorts us to protect ourselves from sin in all its forms. He says this, “Therefore put on the full armour of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then,” (Ephs. 6:13&14). You know the army command, “Attention!” It’s an abbreviation of “Stand to attention!” You’re a soldier. There’s a war on. The enemy is at hand. You don’t slouch about with your hands in your pockets. You don’t lounge in an easy chair with your feet on the Algerian hassock. The foe is at the gate! Stand! We are called to a life of service and duty.

You go through a time of trial, maybe there is a serious health problem, the engagement is broken, your employment is over, you have lost the one you love, you have failed your exams, there is a division in the congregation, there is opposition to your faith in the world. Troubles like this come crashing into your life as they came into the life of Paul. He can list them; in one place, “in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties” (2 Cors.12:10). Do you know these? Do you know them in horrible combinations? Or again he lists the things that try to separate us from the love of God but cannot; “death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation” (Roms 8:38&39). Imagine all these arraigned against you. Yet you are not lying on the floor, helpless and despairing. You stand! You are steadfast, and why? Two reasons. Firstly, you know that none of those things is able to separate you from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord. He is there with you; his arms of love encompassing you. Secondly, God has told you that his grace is sufficient for you. God’s grace is his omnipotence keeping you moment by moment. You are sustained by the power of God which is only perfectly experienced when you have reached the end of all your resources and know that you can only get by through the power of God. You can stand. God’s grace will keep you standing. You can stand because your loving Saviour is there always, right next to you, with his arm around your shoulders keeping you from falling determined to present you faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy. He has begun a good work in you and so he will keep you from falling until the end. Trust in God, in what he promises, and you will stand – by faith in Jesus Christ (v.20). He is the Son of God; he is the all powerful Saviour; he ever lives to make intercession for you and he can save you to the uttermost. So what is in it for you becoming a Christian? You will stand in the future.

ii] You will continue in God’s kindness (v.22). The Christian life is all about keeping at it. Sanctification is all about continuing. The Christian warfare is all about going on. The Christian is someone who stands in all kinds of difficulty and he keeps standing. Surely we are preserved by the grace of God, but we are also called to persevere. Paul and Barnabas went on an evangelistic journey through Antioch and on to Iconium and on to Lystra. It was hard. Paul was left for dead in Lystra. A crowd of men hurled great jagged stones at him hitting him again and again and finally dragging what they thought was his dead body out of the city. When these assassins left him the little group of disciples walked up and surrounded his motionless body broken hearted. Now where was the Christian dream of the church being spread through the Gentile world? Then all of a sudden he opened one eye, and then another, and he looked at them, and smiled, and they helped him up. He was alive. He lived and worked for ten more years. His time had not come, and so what did Paul do? He took Barnabas with him and planted a big strong church in nearby Derbe and then back they went to Lystra where he’d suffered such pain and fear and almost lost his life. There, we are told, he strengthened the disciples, “encouraging them to remain true to the faith. ‘We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God’ they said” (Acts 14:22). Paul didn’t tell lies to them about God wanting all of them to have a big house and chariots and servants and lands and money, and that all they had to do was name it and claim it. And if they didn’t get those things – and they didn’t – then they were told that their faith wasn’t strong enough. They weren’t really, truly, deeply believing. They were fake Christians because real Christians don’t stay poor and their parents don’t get dementia. I tell you that none of that heretical gush was believed or preached by the apostle Paul. Rather this truth, which was true then, and is true today, and is true everywhere, and true until the Saviour returns; “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.”

Didn’t he tell us that the servant is not greater than his Master? Our Master was the Son of God, and yet our Lord was beaten up, and lashed until his blood ran down the back of his legs, and he was nailed to a cross through his hands and feet and lifted up for hours, and a spear was thrust into his side, then what do you anticipate for your life if you love the things he loved, and believe the truths he believed and has taught you to understand, and you preach those things yourselves, while the world of men is still living for itself and hates the message of Christ, then don’t we expect that we also will go through many hardships? Jesus told us that this was going to happen when he first preached the Sermon on the Mount. He made the opposition we were going to face spectacularly clear. He didn’t say blessed are the people who have loads of money. He said, “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me” (Matt. 5:10&11). And if this whole creation is in a fallen state, and groaning and travailing in pain until today, and there are forest fires and this week almost twenty brave young fire-fighters were together burnt to death and suffocated in the line of duty then none of us Christians will ever be exempt from many hardships as we plod on to the kingdom of God.

If it were all going to be one big party and one big cheque after another why did Jesus say, “Count the cost first before you seek to enter the kingdom of God”? What he did say was before you start an expensive building project you count the cost, and before you declare war on another country you count the cost. And if you set out to enter the kingdom of God you first count the cost. Am I prepared to lose the whole world to gain the salvation of my soul? Am I prepared to die to all the enchantments and glittering prizes of the world to live for Jesus Christ? And the Christian is determined to continue. God has begun a good work in him and he will complete what he has begun. The Christian has as his hero Bunyan’s portrait of the “very grave” servant of God, “and this was the fashion of it; it had eyes lifted up to heaven, the best of books in its hand, the law of truth was written upon its lips, the world was behind its back; it stood as if it pleaded with men, and a crown of gold did hang over its head.” This is a man who has counted the cost and is persevering by the kindness of God in the Christian life. So the promise of God is made that we will stand in the faith and continue in God’s kindness. He will continue to show his kindness to you as long as you continue each day in his kindness; “Lord I can only get by this day and this week by your kindness” (v.22).

iii] You will receive all the help you need from the life of God in you; “you were cut out of an olive tree that is wild by nature, and contrary to nature were grafted into a cultivated olive tree” (v.24). We have spoken of this already. Paul has been describing this in the earlier verses. Let’s think again of the Christian in union with the Lord Jesus – being in Christ – plugged into the very life of heaven. Let us get some fresh light on it from two passages in the Bible.

There’s the picture of the true vine in John chapter 15. Jesus says, “I am the true vine” – as he is saying in effect here in Romans 11 “I am the true olive tree.” Now each Christian is a living branch attached to the olive or the vine and so he partakes of the life of the tree itself, in other words, of the actual living person and graces and power of our Lord Jesus Christ. That is being communicated to us. Not something that’s very like his life; it is not something that is like the life of Jesus at all, but we are receiving day by day and moment by moment his very life, the actual vitality and purity and energy of the heavenly Lord Jesus. That is flowing to us and in us while we are in this world. Streams of heavenly mercy never ceasing come to our hearts and minds and souls and spirits and affections day after day from Jesus because day by day and every passing moment we are joined to him unbreakably and irreversibly. This is the only explanation of these wonderful Christian men and women we’ve known, people like Elisabeth Elliot and John Murray and Dr. Lloyd-Jones. The only explanation for how they lived those extraordinary lives was that they were joined to the life of Jesus Christ himself and so were being changed from one degree of glory to another by that life, by the Spirit of Jesus Christ. People like that are proof of the existence of God. That is the first picture of us as branches in the vine. By the life of the True Vine in you you will experience the more abundant life.

Then there is a very great and simple picture of this reality in the book of the prophet Zechariah and in the opening verses of chapter four. “Then the angel who talked with me returned and wakened me, as a man is wakened from his sleep. He asked me, ‘What do you see?’ I answered, ‘I see a solid gold lamp stand with a bowl at the top and seven lights on it, with seven channels to the lights. Also there are two olive trees by it, one on the right of the bowl and the other on its left.’ I asked the angel who talked with me, ‘What are these, my lord?’ He answered, ‘Do you not know what these are?’ ‘No, my lord,’ I replied. So he said to me, ‘This is the word of the LORD to Zerubbabel: “Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,” says the LORD Almighty’” (Zech. 4:1-6).

We are called to be the light of the world and that our lights are to shine before men, and yet quickly we find ourselves running out of power and light and warmth, but then we receive the benefits of the kindness of God as we continue in his kindness. We experience more oil being given to us. The church of Jesus Christ shining in the world is being compared to a golden lamp stand with a seven fold candelabra all of whose separate branches are alight, a seven fold illumination is shining from this lamp. Then you think that the reservoir of oil will quickly be used up with all this radiation, but no, there are two great olive trees standing each side of the reservoir bowl, and they are laden with big fat olives which are dropping and dropping and dropping their oil into the bowl so that it is full to the brim always. That again is a picture of our relationship with the Lord Jesus. So the Scripture says that of the fulness of Jesus we receive and grace for grace. When we’re approaching the end of our resources then we find the truth that “he giveth and giveth and giveth again.” Streams of mercy are never ceasing. The fulness of every grace and every virtue is in the ascended and glorified Jesus Christ, the one with all authority in heaven and earth. If it is more wisdom we need then we will receive it from him. If it is patience we need, or forgiveness, or kindness, or gentleness, or joy, or a united heart, or contentment then all such graces in an infinite and immeasurable amount are to be found in him. Take your empty vessels to him and ask him to fill them. Then the more you use the more he will fill you up again and again.

That is the great promise that is found in this passage. There are the warnings of what unbelief can do in destroying our lives. Don’t be arrogant concerning the privileges you have enjoyed from the kindness of God in your lives. Fear him who can condemn body and soul in hell. Consider both the kindness and severity of God, kindness in that he has joined every single Christian to Christ, and he will never put you anywhere where his grace cannot keep you.

7th July 2013                 GEOFF THOMAS