The book of Romans, Paul’s most systematic statement of theology, moves step by step from the universality of sin in the first two chapters through the marvelous statement of what it means to be free of sin in chapter eight. His basic argument continues most logically in chapter twelve, but he interrupts it for an important but parenthetical discussion of the judgment of the Jews.
Near the end of that parenthesis, having concluded that Israel’s rejection of Christ and God’s consequent rejection of Israel are neither total nor final, Paul introduces the analogy of an olive tree.
Taking a branch from one tree and grafting it onto another is a common enough practice. Ordinarily one does not graft a wild branch onto a cultivated tree. A wild olive tree bears poor fruit that doesn’t yield much oil.
Columella, a contemporary of Paul, prescribed that unusual procedure for one special circumstance. If an olive tree ceases to produce a good quantity of good fruit, cutting off old branches and grafting new ones from a wild tree will reinvigorate it.
Ordinarily, a graft produces fruit of the same kind as the tree it came from, but with this kind of graft, the tree gets new life and the wild branch begins to bear fruit as good as the old tree did at its best.
Paul used the tree as an analogy for the failure of Israel and the eagerness of the Gentiles to recognize Jesus. Grafting the Gentiles onto the Jewish tree represented God’s judgment on Israel’s unbelief and his grace toward the previously outcast Gentiles.
Modern Christians must find more here than a history and theology lesson. You and I are part of this tree only so long as we remain there by faith. Grace is freely given and freely received, but it is not cheap. It costs us our lives.
God remains severe in judgment, but kind in grace. Let us keep both the kindness and severity in mind. Let us cling to him in faith, regardless of how much either trouble or complacency tempts us to turn away.