Paul's Use of Diatribe
It is a mistake to say the Jewish people had to be cast away in order for gentiles to be saved:
1 I say then, Hath God cast away his people? God forbid. For I also am an Israelite, of the seed of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin.2 God hath not cast away his people which he foreknew. Wot ye not what the scripture saith of Elias? how he maketh intercession to God against Israel saying, 3 Lord, they have killed thy prophets, and digged down thine altars; and I am left alone, and they seek my life. 4 But what saith the answer of God unto him? I have reserved to myself seven thousand men, who have not bowed the knee to the image of Baal. 5 Even so then at this present time also there is a remnant according to the election of grace. (Romans 11 KJV)
Paul begins the passage by explicitly stating they were not cast away and he is part of a remnant who brought the Gospel to the gentiles. None had to be broken off, lost, or rejected. That some were meant there were fewer Jewish evangelists. God's works were such that an initial rejection by some of the Jewish people (and those gentiles who likewise rejected the message) led to a greater display of His mercy and grace.
Next, of verse 11:19 Leander E. Keck comments (emphasis added):
11:19 In diatribe style, Paul formulates a hypothetical objection of gentile Christians.
19 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 only through faith. So do not become proud, but stand in awe. 21 For if God did not spare the natural branches, perhaps he will not spare you. 22 Note the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God's kindness toward you, provided you continue in his kindness; otherwise you also will be cut off. 23 And even those of Israel, if they do not persist in unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again. 24 For if you have been cut off from nature a wild tree and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these natural branches be grafted back into their own tree. (Romans 11 NRSV)
Paul's hypothetical argument is addressed specifically to gentile Christians warning them not to become proud (vv. 20-21) and should not taken literally as doctrine.
2 Obviously, not all Jewish people were cut off. Some, like Paul were instrumental in the gentiles being grafted on (11:1-6) and others will be grafted back on (11:24). There was never a necessity for any to be cut off.
The Two Trees
The metaphor uses trees to represent the Jewish people and the gentiles. Before breaking off and grafting, branches of belief (green) and/or unbelief (red) could be found on both trees:
A person was either Jewish or gentile and either a believer or not. However, God's grace, which planted and cultivated the tree and then left a remnant of believing branches, now gives gentiles the ability to become "Jewish" through faith (Romans 4). That is, belief and acceptance of God's grace replaced physical ancestry as the means by which the world is divided:
Since the final condition is determined by the root (11:16), branches must be exchanged: an unbelieving branch must not remain on the tree with a holy root, nor a believing branch on the tree lacking a holy root.
In the metaphor placement is not permanent as branches may be "returned" to their original tree. In other words, neither cultivated nor wild branches of unbelief were "cast away." They were moved or left in place to create a tree of unbelief. Also, all of the branches on the cultivated tree are there for the same reason: God's grace. And all of the branches are on the wild tree for the same reason: rejecting God's grace. In essence, God, who planted and cultivated the tree to initiate salvation, is continuing His work by exchanging branches to make a tree of His choosing.
Branches from the cultivated tree which were broken off because of unbelief are now in the same condition as the wild branches of unbelief. Moreover, when the message of belief is seen as the main purpose, the gist of the warning is a gentile Christian who believes a Jewish person cannot still be saved, is an unbeliever. That is, they do not believe in salvation by grace and risk being returned to the tree of unbelief (11:23-24). Apparently, unbelief in any form, will be cut off from the tree of belief. The metaphor's primary purpose then is to stress the importance to continue to believe in God's mercy and grace.
Whether or not Paul intended, the imagery parallels the two trees in the Garden of Eden. The cultivated olive tree is the tree of life and the wild tree the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The cultivated branches on the wild tree correspond to the knowledge of good, and the wild branches, the knowledge of evil. The cultivated branches now on the tree of unbelief give the tree an appearance of having the knowledge of good because the Jewish people who rejected The Christ still have the Law. In the Garden, man had to be removed to prevent him eating from the tree of life; in the metaphor, the exchanging of branches ensures all who eat from the cultivated tree, "eat" only from a branch of belief nourished by a holy root.
The "Loss" of the Jewish People
Verse 15 is a rhetorical question which the King James Version renders as "casting away:"
For if the casting away (ἀποβολὴ) of them be the reconciling of the world, what shall the receiving of them be, but life from the dead?
I believe there are two confusing aspects of this translation. First, the passage is preceded by two statements God has not cast them away:
I say then, Hath God cast away (ἀπώσατο) his people? God forbid... (11:1 KJV)
God hath not cast away (ἀπώσατο) his people which he foreknew... (11:2 KJV)
It is misleading to say the people were cast away when Paul opened the passage by stating and immediately repeating, that is not what happened.
Second, ἀποβολὴ is a noun meaning rejection or a loss and ἀπωθέω in vv. 1-2 is a verb meaning to thrust away, push away, repel; to thrust away from one's self, to drive away from one's self; repudiate, reject, refuse.
Apparently translators are challenged by the lack of a verb in verse 15 and choose "casting away" or "rejecting" to express the action, despite the earlier statements that is not what happened.
The better approach to the verse is to preserve both the opening statements and the original text:
For if the loss (ἀποβολὴ) of them be the reconciliation (καταλλαγὴ) of the world, what shall the receiving (πρόσληψις) of them be, but life from the dead? (DRA)
This follows the only other use of ἀποβολὴ, also by Paul:
I urge you now to keep up your courage, for there will be no loss of life among you, but only of the ship. (Acts 27:22)
The essence of Romans 11:15 is found in the three nouns which describe three different states:
These three are also found in the tree/branch metaphor. The cultivated tree "lost" some of its original branches. The loss was not total as the cultivated tree retained a remnant. The tree took on different branches by "exchanging" unbelieving branches for believing ones. The initial loss is not permanent as the cultivated tree will "receive" them again. Finally, the important action in this verb less rhetorical question is in the answer: branches received back on to the cultivated tree is an action like resurrection from the dead.
How did the temporary loss of the Jewish people result in the reconciliation of the world? It proved grace is the only way anyone is made righteous before God:
- Grace planted the tree with a holy root
- Grace cultivated the tree
- Grace ensured a remnant remained on the tree
- Grace grafted wild branches onto a holy root
- Grace preserved all of the unbelieving branches
- Grace will continue to graft believing branches onto a holy root
If there is a necessity in temporarily "casting away" some Jewish people, it is the need to prevent distorting the message of God's grace. That is, after being chosen by grace and receiving the Word of God by grace, some Jewish people teach righteousness is determined by physical ancestry and by works; left unbridled this will pervert God's works which show grace is the only means to obtain righteousness and to remain righteous. Essentially there are two groups of Jewish evangelists, one who preach God's grace as the means to obtain righteousness and one who preach God's Law.
However, the other side of the "cast away" condition is the continued display of God's grace: the gentiles are brought in. Therefore the new condition is more of the same: grace is the only way anyone will be made and remain righteous. Just as God's mercy and grace was only reason for planting and cultivating the tree, it is proved to be the only reason anyone remains or is added. "Casting away" was not necessary, if all had believed, the message would still have gone to the gentiles. Those who reject grace as the means of righteousness become proof grace is the only means and when they return there is a greater display of God's grace; for in His mercy, He receives back those whom He foreknew and chose but rejected Him.
The Christ, having made the ultimate and final sacrifice, has forever eradicated any human sacrifice as a means of being made righteous, or restoring righteousness after sin. Once saved (or chosen) by grace, the solution for breaking the Law, is not to be found in the explicit rituals of The Law, but in seeking the same mercy and grace of the one who brought salvation:
If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9 NRSV)
1. Leander E. Keck, The Harper Collins Study Bible, Harper Collins Publishers, 1993, p. 2131
2. "...otherwise you also will be cut off." (v 22) is not doctrine about salvation.