Because of our religious and secular preconditioning, chapter 11 of Romans is one of the most difficult and misunderstood chapters in the New Testament. Paul utilizes symbolic language to emphasize the point he is making which is the eventual restoration of the nation of Israel. Unfortunately, most people today…including theologians, expositors, and pastors…do not have a solid grasp of the symbolism.
Two of the principles of Biblical interpretation that cannot be overemphasized are: The Bible interprets itself, and Context – Context – Context! Context is Always what any passage is about! Paying attention to both of these principles takes some effort and yield a goldmine of riches.
This study focuses on Rom 11:17-24, the cultivated and the wild olive trees.
In this passage, we tend to be thrown off course right from the get-go. Our focus turns immediately to the two olive trees and we assume the timing is this present age. However, the CONTEXT doesn’t support this assumption. Paul’s focus is on Israel’s future restoration, not the here and now. “God has not cast away His people which He foreknew,” verse 2. “…blindness in part is happened to Israel, until the fulness of the Gentiles has come in” verse 25—This can’t be before the rapture of the Church. Some Jews today accept Christ as their Savior and join with the Church… “where there is neither Jew nor Gentile,” but the majority of Jews will deny Christ till this present age, the Church age, has ended. After the rapture will come great tribulation. As the tribulation is drawing to a close, at the appearance of Jesus Christ to rescue His people, the hearts of the Jews will be broken. Zac 12 and 13 tell how deeply they will mourn and cry over their King and Messiah when Christ appears to redeem them.
Without going into much detail, keep in mind that God raised up Israel to be His elect (Isaiah 45:3-4). It was Israel’s “God assigned responsibility” to be a light to the nations drawing them to God (Mat 5:14). But time and again Israel fell into idolatry. God gave them chance after chance and still, they failed. Finally, He sent His Son whom they rejected, “He came unto His own, and His own received Him not,” John 1:11.
As we come to Rom 11:17-24 we are confronted with several difficulties. One of which is the nature and identity of the two olive trees. Another is, who are grafted in, and who are the pruned? Then there is the “elephant in the room,” the Church, the Body of Christ. Where do we fit in? Are we grafted in?
Misunderstanding of this chapter leads to a seeming conundrum. If our salvation is secure in Christ, (which it is) and each of us is an integral member of Christ’s Body (which we are), how can even one of us ever be hacked from the tree? The answer is quite simple, we can’t! Take note that in Paul’s epistles he addresses three distinct groups of people: the Jews, the Gentiles, and the Church (1 Cor 10:32). This fact always plays into the CONTEXT. Each needs to be viewed in its proper perspective. Let’s look at each: the wild olive, Gentiles; The good olive, Israel; the Church, the Body of Christ.
The Wild olive tree…Gentiles…is rooted in the earth. It is uncultivated, left to grow on its own. Its most significant characteristic is that it bear no fruit. The Gentile nations have long ago abandoned God in favor of their pantheon of idols. Although God did provide them sunshine and rain in due season, He mostly left them to themselves, “he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust,” Mat 5:45. Occasionally, God would intervene as with Nineveh in the book of Johan, “And should not I spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; (meaning children) and [also] much cattle?” Jonah 4:11.
The good olive tree, Israel, was blessed, tended, cultivated, groomed, watered, and watched over in hopes that she would bring forth abundant good fruit – thus drawing the nations to God as intended. However, the Jews despised the Gentiles. Even the proselytes (Gentiles who convert to Judaism) were looked down upon. But, in these verses, it isn’t accurate to conclude that the good tree is simply Israel. The symbolism goes much deeper than that.
In Scripture, trees are often symbolic of kingdoms and dominions. Babylon, for example, grew into a mighty tree conquering the known world. Its rootstock was Nebuchadnezzar. His tree grew into a great nation covering the earth, but in the end, his tree was cut down. However, the stump and roots remained in the earth ready to spring up again at a future time (Dan 4:11-15).
Israel’s rootstock is Father Abraham and extends through Isaac and Jacob (Dan 1:8; Dan 9:5,27; 2Ki 13:23; Jer 33:24-26). It is Abraham’s “faith” from which Israel grew. Abraham and his faith are why Israel is blessed and the chosen…elect…people of God. He is why they are called a “holy nation,” “For if the firstfruit [be] holy, the lump [is] also [holy]: and if the root [be] holy, so [are] the branches,” Rom 11:16. Although they have failed, in God’s eyes they are still a holy nation. He promises that one day, “…all Israel shall be saved: as it is written, There shall come out of Sion the Deliverer, and shall turn away ungodliness from Jacob: 27 For this [is] my covenant unto them, when I shall take away their sins,” Rom 11:26-27.
On the other hand, the Church is composed of faithful followers of Jesus Christ springing up from the rootstock of faithful Father Abraham. The Church is Christ’s flesh and bones, (Eph 5:30-32) and has no relationship with or path to God through Isaac or Jacob. The following passages give us a clear perspective as to where we, who are of the faith of Abraham, stand.
“Therefore [it is] of faith, that [it might be] by grace; to the end the promise might be sure to all the seed; not to that only which is of the law, but to that also which is of the faith of Abraham; who is the father of us all,” Rom 4:16.
“Even as Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness. 7 Know ye therefore that they which are of faith, the same are the children of Abraham. 8 And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the heathen through faith, preached before the gospel unto Abraham, [saying], In thee shall all nations be blessed. 9 So then they which be of faith are blessed with faithful Abraham,” Gal 3:6-9.
The answer to our dilemma is that the Church, Body of Christ, is NOT grafted into the olive tree…the earthly, faithful nation of Israel…into which believing, faithful Nations will be grafted in. Nonetheless, we are of the faithful seed of Abraham. The Nations are grafted into the good olive tree so that they will produce abundant good fruit—branches who will be fruit bearers. Both Jew and Gentile are blessed while the fruitless, unfaithful branches are cast away to be burned (John 15:6).
The Timing: In chapter nine Paul examined Israel’s history and reaffirms that Abraham’s earthly family will come through Isaac and Jacob because of their election, verse 11. In chapter ten Paul looks at Israel’s present state (first century A. D.). He states emphatically that Israel “has a zeal for God but without knowledge.” They seek to establish their own righteousness while denying Christ their Messiah and King, who is the righteousness of God. They were not producing fruit…they should have been a light on the hill. Heartbreaking as it is, in chapter ten Paul acknowledges that Israel has lost her way, “But to Israel he saith, All day long I have stretched forth my hands unto a disobedient and gainsaying people,” Rom 10:21. Chapter 11 confirms Israel’s future restoration – which lies beyond the Church age. This is when they will finally be that light on a hill drawing Nations to Christ as they evangelize the world during His millennial reign.
How do we identify the Gentiles who are grafted in? They cannot be members of the Body of Christ, the Church. As we have already seen, the Church is “in Christ,” secure. Jesus isn’t going to be loping off His limbs, arms, fingers, ears, whatever. Each member of the Body is sealed by the Holy Spirit. It is only our works…wood, hay, stubble – gold, silver, precious jewels…that will be judged (1 Corinthians 3:11-15). Thus, the time of the grafting and pruning must be outside of the Church age. In Paul’s day, the Church (Body of Christ) was under construction. It was a transition period during which Israel was diminishing as the Church grew. There were Kingdom Gentiles coming to God through Israel – The Centurion in Mat 8:1-13; the faithful Canaanite woman in Mat 15:22-28; Cornelius with his family and servants in Acts 10:1-38 are just a few examples.
Where in the Bible can we find an occasion that fits this scenario? Is there an incident where some Gentiles are grafted into the Kingdom and others are pruned? YES!
“When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, (at the end of the Great Tribulation) then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory: 32 And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth [his] sheep from the goats: 33 And he shall set the sheep on his right hand (grafted in), but the goats on the left (lopped off). 34 Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, (the fruit bearing branches) Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world… 41 Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, (the dead, fruitless branches) Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels… 46 And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal” Matthew 25:31-34; 41-46.
Paul’s point in chapter eleven is twofold.
First, “God hath not cast away his people which he foreknew…” Rom 11:2. There is a future restoration of the nation of Israel.
Second, through their fall…Israel’s rejection of their Messiah and King…salvation had come to the Gentiles. How has this happened? After the Jews rejected God, the pathway to Him for the nations was no longer through Israel, through the “oracles of God,” (Moses and the prophets). In eternity past, before the foundation of the world God had already devised a plan, a “mystery” which was kept secret for before the foundation of the world (Rom 16:25) – the Church, the Body of Christ. This would not be the church in the wilderness or the church in the four gospels, but a new creation, an ecclesia called out in Jesus Christ to spread the knowledge of His coming and the “Gospel of the grace of God” throughout all the earth. Jesus raised up Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles, to begin building His Church, His Body (Acts 9:1-a6). As Israel has roots in an earthly Kingdom, the Church, the Body of Christ, is seated with Christ in heavenly places (Eph 1:21-23). The Church is both Abraham’s seed and coheirs with Christ (bypassing Isaac and Jacob, the roots of Israel),
“And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with [him], that we may be also glorified together,” Rom 8:17.
“And if ye [be] Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” Gal 3:29.
Israel would soon be placed in abeyance till the time of the Gentiles is completed – during the Great Tribulation when Gentile reign over the earth will end at the appearance of Jesus Christ to rescue His people. Israel was to lose her land, Temple and priesthood (Rome murdered every last priest – Josephus), and would be dispersed throughout the earth but were to remain a distinct people never to take root outside the land of Judea, “For, lo, I will command, and I will sift the house of Israel among all nations, like as [corn] is sifted in a sieve, yet shall not the least grain fall upon the earth” Amos 9:9.
During the “Kingdom age” Israel will once again have the responsibility of being the “light to the nations,” and drawing Gentiles to Christ while living in a perfect world ruled by Jesus Christ Himself. Sadly, when Satan is released for a little while at the end of the millennia, many will yield to their carnal lusts. Not satisfied with the abundance they have and desiring to control and possess what their neighbors have, to their detriment they will follow after their father Satan and attack the saints of God and the holy city, (Revelation 20:7-9).
Unlike the Church, the Body of Jesus Christ…His flesh and bones…neither Jews nor Gentile proselytes were ever “sealed” by the Holy Spirit (2Co 1:22; Eph 1:13; Eph 4:30). Yes, they were filled with the Spirit just as Old Testament prophets were, but never sealed. As we see, when Israel had her kingdom Jews and Gentile proselytes could fall from faith and be pruned from the good olive tree—Just as it will be in the millennium.
One last thought. Regardless of what your pastor may teach, everyone who confesses that Jesus is the Christ and trusts in Him as their Lord and Savior is sealed with the Holy Spirit and cannot lose their salvation. Repeat, CANNOT! That is a promise from God.
Warren W. Wiersbe in his commentary on Romans 11 says: It is worth noting that, according to Bible prophecy, the professing Gentile church will be “cut off” because of apostasy. First Timothy 4 and 2 Timothy 3, along with 2 Thessalonians 2, all indicate that the professing church in the last days will depart from the faith. There is no hope for the apostate church, but there is hope for apostate Israel! Why? Because of the roots of the olive tree. God will keep His promises to the patriarchs, but God will break off the Gentiles because of their unbelief.
No matter how far Israel may stray from the truth of God, the roots are still good. God is still the “God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (Ex. 3:6; Matt. 22:23). He will keep His promises to these patriarchs. This means that the olive tree will flourish again!
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