9 May 2021
A Commentary by John Stott
This Paul now elaborates. What are the *much greater riches* which the fulness of Israel will bring to the Gentiles (12)? He responds: *For if their rejection is the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead?* (15). We note how, in this restatement of what he has already written, his vocabulary has advanced. Israel’s ‘fall’, ‘transgression’ and ‘defeat’ have now become her ‘rejection’ by God, even though God has not rejected his people altogether or forever (1-2). The ‘salvation’ and ‘riches’ which the Gentiles have already received are now said to be ‘the reconciliation of the world’, surely because Christ ‘has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility’ both between them and God and between them and the Jews (Eph.2:11ff.). The ‘fulness’ of restored Israel is now called their ‘acceptance’, reversing their temporary and partial ‘rejection’. And the ‘much greater riches’ which Israel’s fulness will bring to the Gentiles are defined as ‘life from the dead’. This last expression has brought much puzzlement to commentators. There are three main interpretations.
The first is *literal*, namely that Paul is referring to the general resurrection on the last day, ‘the final consummation, the resurrection of the dead, and that eternal life that follows. Thus the conversion of Israel ‘will be the signal for the resurrection, the last stage of the eschatological process initiated by the death and resurrection of Jesus’. Certainly in Jewish apocalyptic the restoration of Israel was usually associated with the resurrection of the dead, and certainly Paul has used ‘life’ in referring to the body (8:11). Nevertheless, ‘life from the dead’ would be a most unusual expression for the resurrection, especially when *anastasis* was a perfectly good word which was ready to hand. Also, did Paul really believe that his own ministry to Jews and Gentiles would trigger the parousia and the resurrection? The evidence for this is lacking.
A second interpretation is *spiritual*, namely that Paul is referring to our being ‘raised’ with Christ, which is one of his favourite themes (E.g. Eph.2:1ff.; Col.3:1ff.). And earlier he has described us as ‘those who have been brought from death to life’ (6:13). But this is the status and experience of all Christian people. It belongs to the ‘salvation’ and ‘riches’ which Gentile Christians have already received. *Much greater riches* demands to be understood as something new, even spectacular. To refer it to the new life in Christ which we already enjoy would be an anticlimax.
Thirdly, there is the *figurative* interpretation. Paul foresees that ‘unimaginable blessing’ is going to enrich the Gentiles, a world-wide blessing which will so far surpass anything before experienced that it can only be likened to new life out of death. Perhaps Paul is taking a backward glance to Ezekiel’s vision, in which the restoration of Israel is depicted as the coming together of dead, dry bones which are then given both flesh and life (Ezk.37:3ff.). Does Paul now apply this vision to the Gentile world? Does he prophesy ‘a vast and intense revival of true religion from a state which, by comparison, was religious death’, ‘an unprecedented quickening for the world in the expansion and success of the gospel’? If God could use the tragedy of Israel’s rejection to bring salvation to the Gentiles, with what further blessing could he not enrich the world through Israel’s acceptance and fulness?
The apostle now uses two little metaphors, which function like proverbs, one taken from the ceremonial life of Israel, and the other from the agricultural. Both are clearly intended in some way to justify Paul’s confidence in the spread or escalation of blessings which he has been describing, and, like verse 15, both parts of verse 16 are ‘if’ clauses. *If the part of the dough offered as firstfruits is holy, then the whole batch is holy* (16a) (cf. Num. 15:17ff.). Perhaps this should be interpreted as follows. As when a representative piece is consecrated to God, the whole belongs to him, so when the first converts believe, the conversion of the rest can be expected to follow. Next, *if the root is holy, so are the branches* (16b), perhaps meaning that as the Jewish patriarchs belong to God by covenant so do their descendants who are included in the covenant. It seems to be this ‘root’ and ‘branches’ picture which leads Paul now to develop his allegory of the olive tree.