The Olive Tree Mystery
“O depth of riches both of [the] wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable his judgments, and untraceable his ways!” Such are the words that begin the apostle’s doxology of Rom. 11: 33–36 (see v33). But what stimulated the apostle to break forth in this way? What caused this outburst of praise? It was the wonder of God’s judgements and ways that had effected Paul, the glorious truth of God’s sovereign mercy towards Israel and the nations, all condensed and encapsulated in the figure of the olive tree.
The apostle says “For I do not wish you to be ignorant, brethren, of this mystery, that ye may not be wise in your own conceits, that blindness in part is happened to Israel, until the fulness of the nations be come in; and so all Israel shall be saved” (Rom. 11: 25, 26). Several times in his epistles, Paul is concerned that the saints are not ignorant about various matters (see 1 Cor. 10: 1; 12: 1; 2 Cor. 1: 8) and indeed the question of ignorance crops up a number of times in this very epistle (see Rom. 1: 13; 6: 3; 7: 1; 10: 3). Paul was “a teacher of [the] nations in faith and truth” 1 Tim. 2: 7), a teacher par excellence, and no teacher wants his students ignorant! Yet many are ignorant, some wilfully so, from the so–called church fathers right down to those today who teach an allegorical interpretation of the Scriptures.
Now this great matter of God’s ways in mercy in connection with Israel and the nations is described as a mystery. The Greek word translated mystery means secret, something that is generally unknown yet familiar to some. So what is this mystery or secret about which Paul did not want the saints to be in ignorance? These are his words: “that blindness in part is happened to Israel, until the fulness of the nations be come in; and so all Israel shall be saved” (Rom. 11: 25, 26). Who is the Apostle speaking about? There is a body of opinion that says that it is all over with Israel as a nation, that God’s promises to Israel are now being fulfilled in the Church and that the only means of blessing now and in the future is by the present Gospel of the grace of God 1. Proponents of this view know little of the distinctive glory of the Church and generally cannot conceive of any blessing beyond that to the individual. As I hope to show, the Scriptures teach very clearly that when Paul refers to Israel, he has the literal nation in mind.
Now, as already mentioned, the outburst of the apostle’s praise is in regard to the ways of God, not His purposes. His purposes were determined in heaven and eternity, but His ways are the execution of those purposes on earth and in time. Every believer knows “that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Tim. 1: 15)—precious truth to the individual! Yet it is just as true in the ways of God “that Jesus Christ became a minister of [the] circumcision for [the] truth of God, to confirm the promises of the fathers; and that the nations should glorify God for mercy” (Rom. 15: 8, 9). This is the Apostle’s theme in Rom. 9–11—chapters in which there is not a single word about the Church. The subject is God’s ways on earth with Israel and the nations, and “Israel” is not the Church, nor a collection of spiritual individuals, but that nation. The teaching of Paul in Rom. 9–11 in general, and the parable of the olive tree in particular, establishes this beyond any shadow of doubt.
To consider Rom. 9–11 in detail would require a sizeable booklet but what is taught by the figure of the olive tree as set out in Rom. 11: 11–36 might just be managed in a short article. However, I must not do so without a brief consideration of the first 13 verses of Romans 9, as these serve as Paul’s introduction to the subject.
In the first three verses, in a manner reminiscent of Moses, the Apostle expresses the depth of his feelings, wishing himself in a moment of extreme emotion a curse from the Christ. What is the object of his great grief?—“my brethren, my kinsmen, according to flesh” (Rom. 9: 3—my emphasis). These are not Jewish believers, they are not some sort of spiritual Israel, but natural Israelites, with or without faith. It is Israel as a nation with all the privileges that Paul lists in verses 4–5. Yes, the grand truth of God’s sovereign mercy in what follows does apply individually to all men. Yes, in the context of the Gospel, the distinctions between Jew and Gentile have gone as Paul insists in Rom. 10: 11–13. Nonetheless, the apostle’s thesis is Israel as a nation, not individuals. One short passage from chapter nine must suffice to show this.
The choice in Rom. 9: 12, 13 is not between Jacob and Esau as individuals, but as representing nations. Hence Paul quotes Gen. 25: 23 which reads “And the elder shall serve the younger” as “The greater shall serve the less”. Search the Scriptures from cover to cover and find a single instance of Esau as a man ever serving Jacob. There is none. Now go back to Gen. 25: 23 and read the verse quoted in context. “And Jehovah said to her, Two nations are in thy womb. And two peoples shall be separated from thy bowels” (my emphasis). Is it not clear that the Apostle is dealing with nations, not individuals? Hence his second quotation comes from Mal. 1: 2 where the words refer not to Jacob and Esau as individuals but as representatives of nations, a fact proved by the use of the plural pronouns in v4.
Now go to Romans 11. Verse 28 reads “As regards the glad tidings, [they are] enemies on your account; but as regards election, beloved on account of the fathers”. To whom do the English pronouns “they” and “your” refer? Like all pronouns, they refer to previous nouns. The “they” refers to “Israel” in v26 (for grammatically the OT quotation in–between must be taken as a parenthesis) and the “your” refers to “brethren” in v25. But who is this Israel? Spiritual, converted Jews? Hardly, for as regards the Gospel, they are enemies! Who were the great adversaries of the Gospel in the history of the Acts? The Gentiles? Not so, but the Jews as a nation. There are some 35 examples of opposition recorded in the Acts, of which only five may be attributed to Gentiles. In Acts 13: 45 we read “But the Jews … contradicted the things said by Paul” and this sort of statement occurs again and again (see 13: 50; 14: 2, 4; 14: 19; 17: 5, 13; 28: 19). Yet this same nation is beloved on account of the fathers. Not beloved on their own account, not beloved because of their faith, but on account of the fathers, that is, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (see Acts 3: 13, 25 etc.). Has God given up Israel as a nation? No. Why? “For the gifts and the calling of God [are] not subject to repentance” (Rom. 11: 29). The calling of God is first seen in regard to Abraham. God called him out in separation from everything around him and gave him unconditional promises (see Gen.12: 1–3). These are irrevocable—not subject to repentance. Now Israel after the flesh was also called (see Hos. 11: 1; Is. 48: 12) and also had promises (see Rom. 9: 4) and God will yet fulfil those promises to Israel as a nation. This brings us at last to the olive tree.
Beyond controversy, trees are planted, not in heaven, but on earth. The parable of the olive tree therefore, has to do with the ways of God on earth and so in his outburst of praise Paul exclaims “how ... untraceable his ways!” (Rom. 11: 33). Now it is an olive tree—not a fig or a vine but an olive. When the dove returned to Noah, she brought an olive leaf in her beak, a blessed promise that the waters were receding. The mount of Olives is referred to twelve times in the NT and twice in Zech. 14: 4, where we have the testimony of the promise in regard to the Lord’s return to earth that His feet shall stand in that day on that mountain. The figure of the “good olive tree” (Rom. 11: 24) then has to do with the promises of God.
Now the good olive tree is not exactly Israel, but as the Apostle says in v24 it belongs to them—it is “their own olive tree”. In a word it represents the title to the blessings promised to Abraham and that are rooted in him. Those promises belonged to Israel as a nation but could not be realised apart from faith on their part. By birth, Israel nationally was descended from Abraham, but God must have the branches in keeping with the root: “Now if the first–fruit [be] holy, the lump also; and if the root [be] holy, the branches also” (v16). Holiness is separation from evil. Abraham was the first person in Scripture to receive the call of God, and this call brought him out in separation (see Gen. 12: 1–3). Israel as a nation was also called to be separate from all the nations around them (see Num. 23: 9). They had the promises given to Abraham, the olive tree was theirs, but when the Christ came, the heir who would fulfil those promises, they killed him (see Mark 12: 7). This sin was not just individual but national, as Peter made abundantly clear on the day of Pentecost: “Let the whole house of Israel therefore know assuredly that God has made him, this Jesus whom ye have crucified, both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2: 36—my emphasis). God did not begin to execute His judgment immediately. He waited a year (see the parable of the fig–tree in Luke 13: 6–9) before the testimony went out to the Gentiles in Acts 10.
The Gentile was a wild olive tree, uncultivated, that could not bear fruit of any practical value. This was to be grafted in to bear fruit in place of the branches that were cut out. As Paul says in Rom. 11: 11, the object of Israel’s stumbling was not so that they might fall but that God could exercise mercy and offer salvation to the Gentile nations. But this is not the end of the matter. While a remnant of Israel was blessed on the day of Pentecost and thereafter, what God has in mind is to bless the whole of that nation—their “fulness” (v12). However, like the blessing of the nations, it also will also be on the ground of sovereign mercy. The nations are now in the position of provisional reconciliation (see v15) 2.
Now while it is clearly stated that the natural branches were broken out through unbelief, and that the engrafted tree would be cut away likewise, it is nowhere said that either secured a place in the tree by faith. The Jew was there because of natural descent from Abraham, not through any exercise of faith on his part. God grafted the Gentile in, not because of faith, whether individually, or collectively, but because Israel stumbled. Hence the tree does not represent personal individual blessing.
It is clear from Rom. 11: 12, 15 that the present state of things is not going to last for ever. The fulness of Israel, in contradistinction to the blessing of the remnant at the present time, will come “and so all Israel shall be saved” (v26). When will this take place? Their blindness will continue “until the fulness of the nations be come in” (v25). Contrary to what many of the allegorical school seek to argue, the word until means just that, a definite measure of time. When God determines that the compliment of the nations is complete, that is their fulness—the full number of those of the nations that are to be blessed—then the blindness in Israel will be lifted and it is God who will do it. There will be a national repentance and a national salvation, and the Apostle uses Is. 59: 20, 21 as the basis for this. The Deliverer will be Israel’s Messiah come out of Zion.
Let us now look briefly at the two major blunders in the interpretation of the figure of the olive tree. Firstly, that it represents the Church, consisting of Jew and Gentile. To support this view Eph. 2: 12, might be quoted: “that ye were at that time without Christ, aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world”. These verses do indeed describe the state of the nations in the past as outside of the olive tree, but they are addressed to believers, to those “in Christ Jesus” (v13). Paul goes on to say “For he is our peace, who has made both one, and has broken down the middle wall of enclosure, having annulled the enmity in his flesh, the law of commandments in ordinances, that he might form the two in himself into one new man, making peace; and might reconcile both in one body to God by the cross, having by it slain the enmity” (Eph. 2: 14–16). Who are the “both” of v14 and v16? Gentile and Jew. What is the “middle wall of enclosure”? That which separated Gentile and Jew in the temple, dividing the court of the Gentiles from the temple proper. Gentile and Jew are now described as one body and one new man. This obliteration of distinction in the one new man is spelt out to the Colossians: “Do not lie to one another, having put off the old man with his deeds, and having put on the new, renewed into full knowledge according to [the] image of him that has created him; wherein there is not Greek and Jew, circumcision and uncircumcision, barbarian, Scythian, bondman, freeman; but Christ [is] everything, and in all” (Col. 3: 9–11). In the new man, the one body, the Church, all natural differences are gone. Thus the olive tree cannot represent the Church for the distinctions are still there. In the future it is branches of Israel that will be grafted back in (see Rom. 11: 24) as distinct from the nations, just as in the past the nations had been grafted in as distinct from Israel. Throughout his description of the figure, Paul consistently uses the single pronouns thou and thee to describe the Gentiles, and the plural pronouns they and them to describe Israel, carefully maintaining the distinction. Hence the olive tree does not represent the Church.
Another, but much worse error, is to say that the olive tree represents the salvation into which individual Gentiles now enter. This is based on the blunder that all distinctions between Jew and Gentile have gone forever. Now it is quite true that in his discourse on the subject Paul insists that with reference to the Gospel there is no difference between Jew and Gentile: “For there is no difference of Jew and Greek; for the same Lord of all [is] rich towards all that call upon him” (Rom. 10: 12). Again, throughout his description of the olive tree, he does use singular pronouns thou, thee and I in referring to the nations. However, this has nothing to do with the Gospel and personal salvation. For if this describes my personal salvation, then as there is the possibility of being “cut away” (Rom. 11: 22) it makes that salvation conditional, and I am no longer eternally secure. By contrast, the Lord said “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me; and I give them life eternal; and they shall never perish, and no one shall seize them out of my hand. My Father who has given [them] to me is greater than all, and no one can seize out of the hand of my Father. I and the Father are one” (John 10: 27–30).
Now Rom. 11: 11 does not say that anyone is saved. “Salvation to the nations” means what it says, namely that salvation is available to the nations—that is the position. But if that is so, why does Paul use singular pronouns in regard to the Gentiles? Plural pronouns are used in regard to Israel as they refer back to the branches (v17) of which there are two types: those still in the tree and those broken out. He uses the singular pronouns thou, thee and I in connection with the nations because they refer back, not to branches, but to “a wild olive tree” (v17) which is singular. You may say, ‘But only a branch of the wild olive tree is to be grafted in, not the whole tree and it does say “For if thou hast been cut out of the olive tree wild by nature” (v24).’ True, but we must always take account of how things are put in the Scriptures. Nowhere in the figure is the plural used in regard to the nations. The teaching is not as to a collection of individuals, represented by branches, in connection with the Gentiles, but the Gentile nations viewed as a single entity. Thus the figure has nothing to do with individual salvation at all, but the outward position of privilege into which the Gentiles, as distinct from Israel, have been placed by God.
Summing up, the figure of the olive tree sets out God’s ways in mercy with Israel and the nations on the earth, not only in the past but in the future. Israel had title to blessing, the Gentile had none. Israel forfeited that title and so God will bless both on the grounds of sovereign mercy. Thus all is traced back to God. The source is God, the means are divine and the great object in everything is God’s glory: “For of him, and through him, and for him [are] all things: to him be glory for ever. Amen” (Rom. 11: 36).
1 While individual faith is always essential for eternal blessing, the testimony on which it rests varies. The testimony to the Jew when the Lord came was that of the Gospel of the Kingdom (see Mark 1: 14, 15), not the Gospel of the grace of God (see Acts 20: 24; 1 Cor. 15: 1–4).
2 Once more, this is not individual, for individual reconciliation requires a work of God in the soul and the exercise of faith in the Gospel at the present time. A place in the olive tree is simply being in the position of outward privilege, of having title to the promises of blessing. The nations are no longer left in darkness, but God is actively towards them in grace. This is what is meant by provisional reconciliation.