Why do some fall?

On too many occasions I’ve seen people we all thought to be committed to Christ fall into serious sin or begin to express disbelief in the truth of the Gospel. Eventually, they are no longer part of a church either because they’ve wandered away or because they have had to be put under church discipline.  Perhaps we experience an even greater shock when we see respected Christian leaders fall.  Again, this has been both in terms of belief with pastors and leaders questioning the truth of Scripture or adding to it and in terms of behaviour with moral scandals and abuse cases.  What are we to make of such situations?

Paul is asking a similar question, if on a bigger scale. He is looking at the state of Israel or the Jews, his own people and seeing that those who were meant to be God’s own people, those who perhaps we might expect to benefit first and the most from their coming Messiah have rejected him and in turn seem to be rejected and excluded from the new covenant.

Read Romans 11:11-24.

Lessons from the olive tree

Israel have been caused to trip or stumble. This may even be an illusion to other Scriptures which point to Jesus as the very stone which causes some to stumble.  Paul elsewhere states that the Cross has offence to Jews.  Has God put something in their way so that they will stumble and fall to the ground.  Is one purpose of Christ’s coming that Israel will be judged.  Was it God’s plan that he would use the Gospel to so offend the Jews that it would give him a pretext to end his covenant with them? Again, we have the “by no means” response from Paul.  Yes, Israel have stumbled but that has not been their purpose. Rather, God’s plan was to draw the nations into his covenant through Israel’s trip. In fact, the ultimate goal beyond that was that the response of the Gentiles to the good news would be to cause Israel to become so jealous of their blessing that she would return to God (v11).

Israel’s transgression or trespass has led to the enrichment of the Gentiles and so to the whole world.  Notice two things of interest here. First, Paul talks about Israel’s failure in terms of “trespass”, in other words, he is picking up the Old Testament language of “sins of wandering” rather than high handed rebellion here.  The idea that Israel have wandered off the track, they are like lost sheep.  Secondly, Israel’s failing has led to the nations being blessed so that God’s promise to Abraham that all nations would be blessed in him and in his offspring has been fulfilled. However, if this has been the outcome from Israel’s stumbling, then Paul asks us to consider the greater consequences that will arise from the time when they are no longer hardened and when it is only a remnant who are faithful, when God gathers the full nation of Israel into his people (v12).

This then is why Paul has a specific calling to reach the Gentiles, why he puts so much attention on that ministry and why he talks it up -urging others to support him in it. He sees this as God’s plan, to bless the nations and through that his belief is that the blessing will include his own people to (v13-14). There is a greatness in Israel’s rejection because of the salvation it brings to the nations but there is something greater still to be seen in their acceptance because this is a demonstration of God’s life giving power, it is about the resurrection of God’s people from the dead and specifically, the turning of Israel as a nation to Christ seems to be a big sign pointing to the closeness of Christ’s return and the general resurrection of the dead into eternity. Notice the emphasis on God’s sovereignty here too. Whilst we might think in terms of the Jews rejecting Christ and later accepting him, the more natural reading here is that it is God who rejects Israel for a period time before choosing to accept and welcome them back into his family. This would fit with an Old Testament theme seen especially in the Psalms where references to God forgetting his people are not meant to indicate absent mindedness but rather an intentional forgetting or turning his back on them (v15).  God’s sovereignty at the same time means that he will fulfil his promise to Abraham’s descendants because whilst there is a temporary rejection, they are considered holy, set apart to God. Paul’s theology insists that there is an interconnectedness and so just as yeast leavens a whole batch of dough and the tree branches find their life from the roots, so too is the nation of Israel declared holy because of Abraham, covenant status does depend upon the promises God made to him (v16).

Paul develops the imagery of roots and branches.  He pictures an olive tree (Olive Trees, Fig Trees and Vines were often presented as symbolic of Israel) and describes a known farming process. The cultivated tree can be pruned of its own branches when they don’t bear fruit and those branches can be replaced with branches from another, wild tree. This means that the tree benefits from strong, cultivated roots and the fruitfulness of the other tree.  Paul compares the Jews of his day to the branches that are removed. This means that they are no longer connected to the root and so not considered holy.  Gentile believers are those who have been grafted onto the tree.  They become part of God’s people and so are holy (v17).

Paul now warns the Gentile believers in his audience that they shouldn’t then despise the Jews as rejected and become arrogant and complacent about their own status.  They owe their status to the root, here we are meant to see that whilst Abraham was the physical ancestor and therefore root, he was a type, the blessing is in Christ, so in fact Jesus is the true root and trunk or vine of the tree that we are grafted into.  The temptation is to put the focus on “they were broken off to make room for us” but whilst it is true that their rejection did create room, the specific reason why they were removed was their failure to recognise and believe in Christ. In other words, it was their own self-reliance and pride that caused their rejection. We should heed that warning and not become proud ourselves. God is just as able to reject the new branches as the old (v18-21)

The mistake is to turn our focus in on ourselves and assume that our situation is down to our character, abilities and record. Instead, God calls us to pay attention to God’s character, specifically too aspects of it, his kindness and severity. God is both loving and just. These attributes are not in conflict. God showers out love and compassion upon us but he also firmly judges rebellion and sin. So, just as Jesus once called upon his disciples to remain in him, so too there’s a call here to “continue in his kindness”.  In other words, we are to stick close to Christ and continue to depend upon his grace (v22).

God’s grace, kindness and sovereignty also means that if Israel were to turn back to him then he is just as able to graft them back into his tree. This would in fact, logically be easier given that they are the natural branches. Indeed, it would not be too hard to remove the ingrafted branches in order to make room for the originals. This is a strong warning -although as we will see in the later verses, God’s plan is in fact bigger and more breath taking as his intention is to include both repentant Israel and believing Gentiles in his people (v23-24).

Our priority

So, how then are we to respond when we see others falling?  Well, this should not be something that causes us to become proud or complacent about ourselves, nor are we to become judgemental or disdainful of others. Rather, we should see that God uses his dealings with others to warn, challenge and correct us. 

In the Chronicles of Narnia, Aslan has a ready response to the children whenever they become curious about the fate of others. He insists that that is another story and not for them to worry about. Their focus should be on their own story.  We have a mini-proverb in our house “keep your eyes on your own omelette.” It’s a reminder that if you are cooking an omelette, you don’t want to let it burn by getting distracted by whatever else is going on in the kitchen.  These responses are rooted in John 21:21-23 where an uncomfortable Peter having just been challenged by Jesus attempts to deflect the focus onto John. Jesus’ response is in effect “what happens to him is none of your concern.”  

Now, I believe in the perseverance of the saints, that broader Scripture shows that Christ will keep hold of all those who trust in him – in other words “once saved always saved.” However, this doctrine doesn’t mean that we can become complacent and just assume our faith is solid. There are two reasons for this. First, we can presume that we are saved when we are not. Second, we can be saved but end up falling into sin that will be harmful and damaging even though one day we may be restored. 

So, our priority should be to make sure that we are walking with Christ, continuing to trust him and continuing to obey him in everything.

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