A Mystery Few Choose to Understand
The Bible refers to a “mystery” surrounding the historic nation of Israel (Rom 11.25). A mystery is defined as “something that is difficult to understand or explain”, and the New Testament reference to “branches of an olive tree” is a good example. In fact, this is an extremely important example because if we fail to understand the symbolism (mystery) of the olive branches we will fail to understand the real significance of modern Israel. Sadly, many in Western institutionalized churches choose not to understand this mystery and so fall into error. The end result is a dying, anti-Semitic church!
The apostle Paul likened the nation of Israel to the natural branches of a cultivated olive tree. When talking to the early Gentile church he said:
For if you were cut off from what is by nature a wild olive tree and were grafted contrary to nature into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these who are the natural branches be grafted into their own olive tree? (Rom 11.24)
Solving the Mystery
So what did Paul mean? Let’s examine the mysterious biblical symbolism. All trees begin from a root, and in Romans 11.16 we read of a holy root – a symbol for the holy and eternal creator God. Everything in creation begins from this spiritual root. John 1.1 is more specific and identifies Christ (the Word) with this root; “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”. Man’s knowledge of this holy root, and specifically his knowledge of Christ the Word of God, was delivered by the Spirit through Moses, then through the Patriarchs (Abraham and his descendants) and subsequently through the prophets.
Let’s move on to the olive tree itself. In Isaiah 11.1 the prophet saw its trunk shoot to form a holy Branch – a clear reference to the first coming of Christ. It is seen here as a ‘shoot from the line of David’. Historically, that family was like a tree cut down with only its stump left in the ground, and the Shoot or Branch which grew out of the stump represented Jesus the Messiah. Crucially, it is only via the root (the Word of God) and the re-grown trunk (the Messiah, Christ) that the rest of the branches of the tree receive the sustenance of life. So all subsequent branches grow from and are sustained by Christ the Messiah, but the branch that breaks away from the tree (from the Messiah) dries up and dies! Jesus emphasized this point when He said:
I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing (Jn 15.5)
The tree ‘cultivation’ Paul mentions in Rom 11.24 is seen in the Abrahamic covenants, and from these the Jewish nation was placed under a program governed by covenants. So the natural branches are the people of Israel. On the other hand, Gentile believers are like wild branches in that they had no covenants (Ephesians 2.11-12).
One Tree: The Coming Unification of Israel and the Church
The olive tree represents the place of blessing in God’s plan for mankind. But due to unbelief (rebellion, stumbling, transgression) God broke off national Israel (the natural branches) from the tree and grafted Gentiles (the wild branches) into the place of blessing (Rom 11.17). In horticulture a lone wild olive tree is unfruitful, or its fruit is very imperfect and useless. So, as in horticulture, Gentile believers can only bear good fruit once they are grafted into the living tree, Christ. They can only be productive once they recognize that their faith stems from the same tree that bore historic Israel.
The New Testament explains that one day saved (regenerate) natural Israel and the (true) church (spiritual Israel) will be “one tree”. It refers to this one tree as “all Israel”. At that time we see God’s people, saved Jew and saved Gentile as “one tree”. Referring to Jewish Israel’s spiritual restoration and to her future ‘oneness’ with the true church, Paul wrote:
And so all Israel will be saved (Rom 11.26)
Jesus made the same point:
I have other sheep (Gentiles), too, that are not in this sheepfold (Jews). I must bring them also … and there will be one flock with one shepherd (Jn 10.16, NLT)
This “oneness” of Israel and the true church is also seen in the New Jerusalem (Rev 21). Here this future symbolic city has all 12 tribes of Israel associated with the gates of the city, and all 12 apostles of the early church are associated with the city walls.
A Warning to the Western Church
Currently, Gentile believers occupy the place of blessing formerly held by Israel. There the church should bear good fruit as she feeds on and is sustained by the Root and Trunk of the tree, Christ, (Rom 11.16). But does this church recognize her Hebrew roots? Does she recognize that she is really like wild branches that have been grafted into a tree which first bore national Israel? And does she recognize that God will soon graft the chosen remnant of national Israel (the broken branches) back into their own olive tree (Rom 11.5,23,24)?
Sadly, many in the institutionalized Western churches choose to ignore this point, become anti-Semitic, and ‘dry-up’. God discards them and they die spiritually. Is this a major reason why UK Church of England attendance is now less than 2% of the population, link? Historically, the lack of will to understand the olive tree perpetrated outrageous acts towards the “natural branches” (the Jewish people) during the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the Pogroms.
We can now see the full symbolism of the olive tree described by Paul. The mystery is explained. The tree signifies the covenanted congregation of Israel made up of both Jew and Gentile, and where Gentile Christians are really spiritual Jews. Clearly, this deep symbolism of the olive tree completely destroys Replacement Theology since it underscores the future role of Jewish Israel, link. Looked at another way, upon their turning to Christ both Jews and Gentiles will be incorporated into one church. Recall that ‘church’ (Ekklesia in Greek) means ‘the called out ones’ or simply an assembly of followers of Christ. So, one Shepherd makes one sheepfold and all one in Christ makes one church!