Consider this: You do not support the root, but the root supports you.
The Early Church’s first crisis revolved around identity. Was Christianity its own religion or an offshoot of Judaism, a post-Messianic sect of Jews who interpreted the Law through the prism of its adopted Savior? Our view of it as distinctive from Judaism makes it tough to imagine the passion firing this controversy. Once Peter and Paul took the reins of the Church and declared it unique unto itself, they definitively opened its doors to non-Jews. This set off a second round of debates and problems, which Paul addresses at length in his Roman letter.
It was a question of background. Christ came to fulfill God’s promise to the Jews. As the Church expanded to include non-Jews, the issue became including them in a way that also entitled them to the promise. (A few went so far as advocating circumcision for male Gentile believers to render them Jews in the flesh before accepting them as Christians in spirit.) While the apostles were adamant Jesus died for all, there remained a hint of prejudice in some congregations, as some Jews viewed Gentiles on the order of stepchildren. In European churches, where non-Jewish members comprised the majority, a sort of reverse snobbery took effect with some Gentiles boasting their inclusion resulted from Jews’ rejection of Jesus. Pulling everyone together made for messy work.
Assuring the Romans of their equality in Christ is the crux of Paul’s letter. It’s written with the thoughtful care of a judicial opinion, building arguments, citing precedents, and upholding Christianity’s distinguishing core principle: “The righteous will live by faith.” (Romans 1.17) In chapter 8, Paul confirms that everyone in Christ is made equal by adoption. “You received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry ‘Abba, Father.’ The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children,” he writes in verses 15 and 16. But he also realizes merely saying that doesn’t fully explain the mechanics of how it works. He gets to that in chapter 11, with the grandest imaginable metaphor.
Paul likens Israel to an olive tree, rooted in God and nourished by the sap of His love and favor. Down through time, however, many Jews fell into unbelief. In the previous chapter, Paul describes how emphasis on observing the Law instead of trusting God’s promise blinded to them to its fulfillment in Jesus. “For I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge,” he writes. (Romans 10.2) When time came to believe, they resisted. Doubt caused them to be broken off, pruned like useless limbs from a tree after which God grafted non-Jewish believers in their place. The nurturing sap would then bring Gentiles—whom Paul compares to branches “cut out of an olive tree that is wild by nature”—into conformity with the remaining “natural branches,” so the whole tree could bear the same fruit and grow at the same rate.
Although the Church eventually resolved its Jew-Gentile issues, it continues to suffer an identity crisis. It consistently relapses into the same mistake many Jews made: focusing on behavioral codes without believing God’s promise of acceptance. Millions of Christians today are more concerned about breaking rules than bearing fruit. Like legalistic Jews, they choose this approach out of self-interest, namely, to ensure their safety in the afterlife. In their zeal for God, they’ve lost vital knowledge of His purpose. They’re dead and don’t know it. They’ve been pruned from the family tree to make room for wild branches hungry for God’s nourishment and eager to produce fruit.
A lot of us are wild branches. We’ve grown up in isolation, fear, and shame. We’ve been shaped by harsh winds and weather. Yet none of this has hampered our desire to believe. One by one, God is grafting us into His family tree, feeding us with His love and mercy, and rejuvenating our spirits to bear fruit. As we take our places alongside other thriving branches, however, it’s important we not abuse God’s grace by boasting over the dead branches we replace. We’re there because God loves us, not because He needs us or we’re better than anyone else. As Paul put it, “You do not support the root, but the root supports you.”
We are grafted in God’s family tree to receive nourishment and bear fruit.
(Tomorrow: It’s All Legal)