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 reference in Romans 11 to the “root and 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 and her relationship to the church. 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)
Here Paul foresees the time when scattered Israel will return to her true spiritual roots.
Solving the Olive Tree Mystery
So what did Paul mean by “the olive tree”? This mysterious biblical symbolism has generated much scholarly debate – but why? Consider the following. All trees begin from a root, and in Romans 11.16 we read of a holy root. This can be nothing less than a symbol for the one holy and eternal Creator God. Everything in creation begins and grows from this spiritual root. As Genesis says: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”. John 1.1 is more specific and identifies the holy Christ (the Word) with this root; “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”. So Christ is intimately associated with the root of the olive tree, link.
The Abrahamic Covenant: Man’s intimate knowledge of this Holy Root, and specifically man’s introduction to the mystery of Christ, was delivered by the Spirit through the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (renamed Israel, the ancestor of the Israelites). Subsequently more knowledge came through Moses, the prophets and the New Testament. So it is not surprising that the symbolic olive tree, even the root, is often likened to the Abrahamic Covenant (Gen 12.2-3; 17.7-8), link, link. This covenant is God’s unconditional promise to Abraham and his descendants of a great nation and of land for that nation. The covenant also promised that through him all nations would be blessed. What was that blessing? Here is more symbolism. Few realize it can be seen in the lives and experiences of the three patriarchs. Put simply, the lives and experiences of the three patriarchs illustrate man’s relationship to God through Christ:
- ABRAHAM – the purpose and choice of the Creator God
- ISAAC – the Son (Christ) is given
- JACOB – sinful man’s transformation from carnal/soulish to Spiritual
This deep teaching is emphasized in the New Testament, as in Matt 22.31-32 and Luke 13.28.
The Natural and Wild Branches
As stated, since the root is “holy” (Rom 11.16) then Christ must be intimately associated with the root. To expand on this and to accommodate Paul’s concept of “branches” in Romans 11, it can be helpful to see the tree root as the Holy Creator God, the trunk as the Messiah, Christ, and the branches as those who follow God through Christ. So any branches of this tree are holy since the root and the trunk are holy. The New Testament likens ancient Israel to the natural branches of a cultivated olive tree (Rom 11.24). God’s subsequent covenants with Israel (Mosaic, Sabbatical, Davidic, and New) were the ‘cultivation’. So we see that, starting from the Abrahamic Covenant, the Jewish nation was placed under a program governed by covenants. In contrast, Gentile believers are like wild branches in that they had no covenants (Ephesians 2.11-12).
Sadly, and to their hurt, the Jews in Jerusalem rejected Christ as their looked-for Messiah (their Moshiach) and so were symbolically ‘broken off’ from the tree, from Christ. The Jews have suffered ever since, and in their place branches were ‘grafted in’ from a wild olive tree. These were believing Gentiles (Rom 11:13,17,24). Prior to this, the northern kingdom, the so-called ‘ten lost tribes’ had rejected God’s laws and warnings given to them through the prophets. But, pushing the symbolism a little further, they were not totally ‘cutoff’ from the olive tree and a remnant were preserved (Rom 11:3-5).
Christ and the Olive Tree
Let’s pursue the concept of the Creator God as the tree root and Christ as the tree trunk. In Isaiah 11.1 the prophet saw a Shoot coming from the cut-down trunk of the olive tree:
And there shall come forth a Shoot out of the stock of Jesse [David’s father], and a Branch [Sprout] out of his roots shall grow and bear fruit.
This is a clear reference to the first coming of Christ. He is seen here as a Shoot from a stump. Historically, Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, finally destroyed the southern kingdom of Judah in 586 BC and the family of David became like a tree cut down with only its stump left in the ground. But then, whilst in humiliation and obscurity, a descendant of David (a ‘Shoot’) comes out of the tree root (the Creator God). The Shoot which grew out of the stump represented Jesus the Messiah. Crucially then, it is only via the Root (the Creator 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. Conversely, 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)
One Tree: The Coming Unification of Israel and the Church
The olive tree, including its Hebraic association, 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.
The New Testament explains that one day saved (regenerate) natural Israel and the 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 (Revelation 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 national Israel. There the church should bear good fruit as she, as branches, feeds on and is sustained by the Trunk of the tree, Christ. 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 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’, link. God discards them and they die spiritually. Is this a major reason why regular Church of England attendance in the UK 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, the pogroms, and the holocaust.
We can now explain the symbolism of the olive tree in Romans chapter 11. The tree root and trunk are holy and represent God’s place of blessing for mankind. It can be helpful to regard Christ as the tree trunk feeding the branches. Its broken-off branches represent the Jewish rejection of Christ and the added branches represent both Gentile believers and and end-time regenerate Jewish remnant. The tree therefore signifies the covenanted congregation of Israel, made up of both Jew and Gentile. Importantly, it shows that Gentile Christians are really spiritual Jews with their roots in the Hebrew patriarchs.
Clearly, this understanding of the olive tree completely destroys Replacement Theology since it underscores the future role of Jewish Israel following their recognition of Christ as their Messiah, link. Paul warns the church that it should not be foolish and ignorant of this mystery (Rom 11.25).
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) simply means ‘the called out ones’ or an assembly of followers of Christ. So, one Shepherd cares for one sheepfold, and all one in Christ makes one church!