Grafted Branches

One of the vivid metaphors of the believer’s union with Christ is that of a grafted branch. The Lord Jesus uses this image extensively in John 15:1-8 where He is the true vine and believers are branches.

The ones who temporarily are unfruitful are “lifted up” through cleansing, support, and positioning in the sun (v.2).[1] The ones who profess belief without a personal relationship with Christ are the lifeless branches that are collected and burned (v.6).

A similar comparison is used in Romans 11:16-26. Here believing Israel is symbolized by an olive tree. In the context, the apostle Paul is defending the faithfulness, sovereignty, and wisdom of God. Although God had chosen Israel as His covenant people and promised them the Messiah, their leaders had rejected the Lord Jesus.

To understand this apparent inconsistency in the purposes of the LORD, we need His wisdom. Paul gave a preliminary defense of God’s wisdom in 1 Corinthians 2:7,8: “But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, the hidden wisdom which God ordained before the ages for our glory, which none of the rulers of this age knew; for had they known, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.”

In Romans chapter 11, those Israelites who have rejected Messiah Jesus have forfeited their privileges and salvation as God’s chosen people. As such, they are represented by the natural branches who are “broken off” from the olive tree of redemption (v.17; cf. John 19:17; Acts 2:23; 3:14-20). The apostle Peter had boldly proclaimed to the nation’s leaders, “Let it be known to you all, and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead, by Him this man [supernaturally healed] stands here before you whole. This is the ‘stone which was rejected by you builders, which has become the chief cornerstone.’ Nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:10-12).

The Gospel still has a special priority to those with a Biblical heritage: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek” (Rom. 1:16). Nevertheless, the apostasy of the Israelite leaders before governor Pilate, steered the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and David on a detour from God’s redemptive purpose. Paul elsewhere described this reluctance to believe in Messiah Jesus as a “veil” over their hearts (2 Cor. 3:14-16).

Returning to the metaphor of the olive tree, the Gentiles who come to saving faith in Messiah (Christ) are like branches that are grafted into this olive tree of redemption. “…some of the branches were broken off, and you [Gentile believers], being a wild olive tree, were grafted in among them, and with them became a partaker of the root and fatness of the olive tree…” (Rom. 11:17a). How wonderful is God’s grace. He includes those who traditionally had been strangers to His covenants of promise (Eph. 2:12,13). The Holy Spirit has also revealed that Jew and Gentile believers now form one organic family of faith–the dwelling place of God, the Body of Christ (Eph. 2:14-22;1:23; cf. Gal. 3:26-28).

Now the apostle warns Gentile Christians to avoid a smug, self-righteous disdain for Jewish unbelievers. Rather, they should have a reverent gratitude for God’s condescending grace: “… do not boast against the branches [the Jewish people]. But if you do boast, remember that you do not support the root, but the root [the Jewish heritage of faith] supports you. You will say then, ‘Branches were broken off that I might be grafted in'” (Rom. 11:17b-19).

A further warning is given to the church. If Israel could take for granted their privileged position and miss the blessings of the new covenant, the professing Christian church faces this same risk! Salvation is based on personal saving faith; it is not bestowed upon church members by virtue of worship attendance, baptism, creed, or tradition. Paul continued, “Because of unbelief they [Jewish unbelievers] were broken off, and you stand by faith. Do not be haughty, but fear. For if God did not spare the natural branches, He may not spare you either. Therefore consider the goodness and severity of God: on those who fell, severity; but toward you, goodness, if you continue in His goodness. Otherwise you also will be cut off” (Rom. 11:20-22).

Notice the context of this warning. Some have mistakenly assumed that an individual, regenerated child of God could lose his/her salvation if one’s faith would taper off. In response, observe that 1) Those who are regenerated will continue to believe as a sign of their genuine faith and the presence of the Holy Spirit (Col. 1:23; Heb. 3:6; Eph. 4:30). 2) Paul’s warning is NOT addressed to an individual, but the corporate, Gentile professing church.

Church history bears sad testimony to the validity of this warning. For example, the churches addressed by the resurrected Christ in Revelation 2:1-3:20 have had their testimony snuffed out under the march of Islam. A church can drift away from the essentials of Biblical truth and cease communicating the gospel. Or, an explicitly false gospel replaces the true one and the hearers become just as deceived as those who intentionally disassociate themselves from Christ Jesus (Cf. Gal. 1:8,9). Such apostasy among supposed Christian churches will increase in the last days: “Now the Spirit expressly says that in latter times some will depart from the faith, giving heed to deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons” (1 Tim. 4:1). This has been fulfilled in our times by such groups as liberal, Bible-denying churches and the cults.

I recently visited Toronto, Canada and drove by a stately, aged church building. Instead of the expected Christian sign on the front, two large signs proclaimed the religion of its new tenants: “HARE KRISHNA.”

Just as Paul’s defense in Romans 9-11 concerns God’s faithfulness to Israel as a people, so the warning about ceasing to believe is aimed at the Gentile church.[2]

This caution is echoed in the epistle of Jude. He wrote, “Beloved, while I was very diligent to write to you concerning our common salvation, I found it necessary to write to you exhorting you to contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints. For certain men have crept in unnoticed, who long ago were marked out for this condemnation, ungodly men, who turn the grace of our God into lewdness and deny the only Lord God and our Lord Jesus Christ” (Jude 1:3,4). May this admonition garrison the hearts of church leaders that they would defend to the inerrant, infallible Word of God (2 Tim. 3:16).

Jude concludes his letter with a fitting promise to those who have received Christ as Lord and Savior: “Now to Him who is able to keep you from stumbling, And to present you faultless Before the presence of His glory with exceeding joy, To God our Savior, Who alone is wise, Be glory and majesty, Dominion and power, Both now and forever. Amen.”

Fellow believer, give thanks to God for His grace in Christ and don’t forget to “pray for the peace of Jerusalem.”


[1] “Every branch in Me [Christ] that does not bear fruit He takes away [Greek: airo: ‘to raise up, elevate, lift up’] and every branch that bears fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit” (John 15:2). This differs from the scenario in verse 6 (the lost person): “If anyone does not abide in Me, he is cast out as a branch and is withered; and they gather them and throw them into the fire, and they are burned.”

[2] See Grace Note: The Sovereignty of God and the Resposibility of Man: A Quest for Balance (section 3c: Sidlow Baxter’s quote)

“Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: May they prosper who love you” (Psalm 122:6).

Copyright 2007 by John Woodward. Permission is granted to reprint for non-commercial use. Scriptutre quotations are from The New King James Version, copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson.