Lesson 43: Romans 11:11-32
God’s Olive Tree
by Bob Burridge ©2012
I had a good friend when I was growing up. Gary and I did just about everything together. He was the type who always got the highest grades in the class, but was rather quiet. Gary loved the outdoors, and always said he would grow up to be a forest ranger. The last time I saw him was in 1963 when my family moved from Buffalo to live in Florida. I have no idea what became of him.
One of the many things we did together was to learn how to graft tree branches. He got some books from the library about it which he read carefully, then showed me. With some practice, we learned to carefully shape the cut end of a removed branch so it could be inserted into a notch in a tree, take in nourishment, and grow. I suspect there are still some strange trees with branches that are not natural to them scattered throughout the woods in Western New York.
In vineyard cultures grafting is a normal part of producing a good crop. I talked with a young man from Italy who grew up on a vineyard. He said that some trees have a healthy root system and supply nutrients better than others. So the most healthy and productive branches are cut off from the weaker trees and grafted onto the stronger ones. This would have been much more common in the culture of the New Testament than it is in our modern world. When Paul wrote to the believers in Rome, he used grafting as an illustration to bring together some profound spiritual truths.
The point Paul had been making was that a dramatic change had taken place. The old symbolic worship of Ancient Israel had been fulfilled in Jesus Christ. As predicted, the Kingdom of God was expanding beyond just the Jews. Included in this expansion, was a judgment upon Ancient Israel for her apostasy and unbelief.
Paul wanted the Jews to understand that this did not mean that God’s plan had failed. This had been his plan from the beginning. God saves all of those he had eternally foreknown, those with whom he had made his promise. God was still saving Jews. Paul was one of them. However, even among the religious the number actually redeemed and kept by grace is small. The rest of humanity is hardened. They receive what we all justly deserve.
God had a greater purpose in the rejection
of Israel than just her judgment.
Romans 11:11-15, “I say then, have they stumbled that they should fall? Certainly not! But through their fall, to provoke them to jealousy, salvation has come to the Gentiles. Now if their fall is riches for the world, and their failure riches for the Gentiles, how much more their fullness! For I speak to you Gentiles; inasmuch as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I magnify my ministry, if by any means I may provoke to jealousy those who are my flesh and save some of them. For if their being cast away is the reconciling of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead?”
There was a purpose in the spiritual stumbling of Israel that went beyond her fall and impending judgment. It was to stir up apathetic Israel by seeing God’s grace at work in his bringing the Gentiles into the covenant.
God’s grace toward the Gentiles, was used to provoke Israel in two ways. Some responded with anger and persecution. Their hatred of the message of Jesus and the coming in of the Gentiles demonstrated the lostness of hearts not truly redeemed. Though they had been privileged as a nation, they no longer as a whole believed the promises of God’s covenant.
On the other hand, some Jews were provoked to come repentantly in humble faith trusting in the promise of Christ. These elect Jews showed they were among God’s people, foreknown from eternity past.
God had called Paul to be an apostle to the Gentiles. The judgment of the Jews as a nation gloriously opened the door to the Gentiles. How wonderful that the elect from among the Jews believed in God’s true plan of redemption. It was a testimony to God’s work on their hearts. Judgment is surpassed by the wonder of regenerating grace.
Paul’s ministry was being magnified by this expansion of grace as some Jews were being provoked to believe God’s work of redemption through Jesus Christ.
Paul calls this return of repentant Jews, the “fulness” of Israel. The original word here is plaeroma (πληρωμα). It describes something that had come to its completeness.
Paul had been explaining this since the beginning of chapter 9. Outwardly, Israel had been the physical organization of God’s covenant nation. Scattered among those of the physical Jewish nation were those who made up “spiritual Israel”, God’s elect individuals. He distinguished them from the rest of Israel by using several titles in this section: “the children of promise” — “the remnant” — “the chosen” — “those foreknown.” Israel’s “fulness” is her coming to completeness as these elect Jews are converted to Christ, and those of other nations were brought into the covenant family of God.
To illustrate these ideas, and to bring them together
Paul introduces some examples.
Romans 11:16-24, “For if the firstfruit is holy, the lump is also holy; and if the root is holy, so are the branches. And if some of the branches were broken off, and you, being a wild olive tree, were grafted in among them, and with them became a partaker of the root and fatness of the olive tree, do not boast against the branches. But if you do boast, remember that you do not support the root, but the root supports you. You will say then, ‘Branches were broken off that I might be grafted in.’ Well said. Because of unbelief they were broken off, and you stand by faith. Do not be haughty, but fear. For if God did not spare the natural branches, He may not spare you either. Therefore consider the goodness and severity of God: on those who fell, severity; but toward you, goodness, if you continue in His goodness. Otherwise you also will be cut off. And they also, if they do not continue in unbelief, will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again. For if you were cut out of the olive tree which is wild by nature, and were grafted contrary to nature into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these, who are natural branches, be grafted into their own olive tree?”
First Paul reviews the covenant idea shown in the law of the first fruit. This was introduced in Numbers 15:18-20, “… When you come into the land to which I bring you, then it will be, when you eat of the bread of the land, that you shall offer up a heave offering to the LORD. You shall offer up a cake of the first of your ground meal as a heave offering; as a heave offering of the threshing floor, so shall you offer it up.”
The first dough made from the grain harvest was made into a single cake offered to the Lord. It represented the whole harvest as being consecrated thankfully to God who made it grow. Paul said, “For if the firstfruit is holy, the lump is also holy.” The holiness of the first piece had nothing to do with innocence from sin. Grain does not sin. Holiness here is “covenantal holiness.” It identifies something as being set aside and consecrated as “special.” That is the meaning of the word “holiness”.
This is the holiness God promised to Israel as his Covenant Nation. It did not mean that all Israelites were made innocent of sin by God’s choosing the Jews. It meant they were set aside as the Lord’s. They were consecrated for a special purpose. They were to show God’s glory to the world. When they sinned, God’s justice was demonstrated. When they were forgiven and protected unworthily, God’s mercy was shown. Within that special nation there were also God’s chosen children, the elect. When they were redeemed it showed God’s election of Grace.
The same is true of the church as God’s covenant people today. The church was established by Jesus and the Apostles as an organization under Elders. Not all belonging to it are true spiritual children of God. Yet the church as a whole is given advantages and duties to perform as God’s chosen people. That is why it is so serious when those in the church live with disregard for the Lord. They specially offend Christ because they bear his name falsely to the world.
Next, Paul gave the illustration of the Olive Tree: It shows the process God uses in perfecting his church. This section has been the subject of many careless interpretations. It effects our view of Israel, the church, the end times, salvation, and many other issues. Many become confused in this section because they fail to see that Paul speaks of two olive trees, and four distinct kinds of branches.
1. There is the good root stock, the healthy root (16), the rich root (17). The healthy tree represents the Outward Covenant Nation of God. They were counted as holy, consecrated by the promise of God’s covenant. They grew up within the advantages of the influence of God’s word and blessing. However, this was not a holiness of moral or judicial innocence. They were not all automatically saved from condemnation for their sins. It was a holiness of duty. They were set aside specially to represent God to the world.
2. The other is the wild olive tree (17), the poor root stock. They are the Gentiles, born and growing up outside the covenant influence. They are not holy because it grew from a root which was wild, not set aside by God’s choice. They had no outward covenantal advantages. The Gentile Roman Christians Paul was writing to were from this tree. They were not natural branches of the Holy Root of God’s people. Their repentance, belief and obedience could only been produced by one thing: God’s grace.
The two different olive trees in this example each had natural branches. From the Good Root came the Jews at that time, the descendents of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. From the Wild Root came the Gentiles, born outside the covenant in paganism
There was a hidden quality not seen in the natural branches. Some branches growing on the Good Tree of Israel were of God’s elect, the rest were not. Even growing on the Wild Tree of the Gentiles, some were God’s elect, the rest were not.
God was cultivating the Holy Root-stock. Two processes were at work to make the good olive tree produce the best crop. These show the two processes God uses to perfect his Church for his greatest glory.
First is the process of God’s judgment. The unbelieving Israelites were being cut off. By rejecting and killing the Messiah, many of the Jews showed that their faith was not real. They were outwardly God’s holy nation, but inwardly remained spiritually dead. John explained this in his First Epistle 2:19, “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; but they went out that they might be made manifest, that none of them were of us.” The unbelieving Israelites were being purged, pruned away as defective branches.
Second is the process of evangelism. Believing Gentiles were being grafted in. Though they were born of the wild tree, some of them were God’s eternally chosen children. When they believed they were grafted into the good olive tree. They became part of God’s covenant people.
These two processes continue today as God cultivates his church. The wild olive tree is the pagan world outside the professing church, just as it was with the nation of Israel back then. The good olive tree of course is no longer limited to Israel. Today it is the church of Jesus Christ. Its natural branches are those born into covenant families. The grafted in branches are those outside the church who join by professing the gospel. By evangelism God is grafting in pagans as they come to believe. By his judgments he is removing false branches from his church.
There is also a warning here for all individuals as branches in the church today. When members show that they are false believers God may remove them.
Some of the natural branches born and raised in the church may not truly be Christ’s. Also, some false Christians are among those grafted in from paganism. They join a church for wrong, selfish reasons. They come thinking that joining the blessed tree would redeem them from sin. They come looking for a way to find peace by self-effort or by the minister’s efforts. Or they come to get social or material benefits from the church. Their fraudulent christianity is exposed by their unwillingness to submit to the ways and true teachings of Christ.
The process of removal is carried out practically in one of two ways.
Some defect on their own by leaving the true church. Israel as a nation became apostate and rejected the Messiah. They walked away from the message God had delivered to them. They established congregations based upon false teachings. Israel as a nation had become what the Bible called a “synagogue of Satan”. The liberal churches today have confused what Messiah is and came to do. Some individuals hear things in church they don’t like, so they leave to find a church that adjusts its message to what is more comfortable to them. They abandon what the Bible teaches to find a place where they hear what they prefer over God’s truth.
Some must be removed from the church by the Elders through church discipline. In Matthew 18:17 Jesus summarized the process explained throughout Scripture. Those who continue in disobedience to Christ, and who will not submit to the church, are to be removed from membership and barred from the Lord’s Table. This is one of the major duties God in the New Testament entrusts to the local church Elders. They do not judge a person’s salvation or their hearts. However, based upon their lives, testimony, and actions, these are removed
to defend the purity of the church.
By this process of evangelism and judgment God gathers his people, and perfects his church. New branches are grafted in by faith, and unfaithful branches are cut off. At the return of Christ, the completed Church will be presented to the Father.
Paul then adds a serious warning against arrogance. If God has cut off even the natural branches of the tree for their unbelief, those who are grafted in from paganism should understand that if they are not truly his, they too will be removed.
There was also a promise to the Jews. This is that special blessing Paul enjoyed in his Apostleship. Those from the rejected tribes of Israel who come to Christ in humble repentance and faith will be grafted into the church, back into the good olive tree.
This was the point Paul started with back at the start of chapter 9. The true promised seed of Israel is never abandoned by God. It is those who say they are his, but are not, who are in grave danger of judgment. God will cut them off from his church, and will abandon them to eternal torment. By seeing this process of evangelizing pagans, and cutting off the falsely religious, it becomes all the more clear that salvation is by grace alone, unearned, undeserved.
This manifests the severity and goodness of God (11:22). His severity is shown in his judgment, by removing the unbelieving branches. His goodness is shown in his redemption and restoration of the repentantly faithful.
So the hardening of Israel in Paul’s time
was partial, not total.
Romans 11:25-32, “For I do not desire, brethren, that you should be ignorant of this mystery, lest you should be wise in your own opinion, that blindness in part has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved, as it is written: ‘The Deliverer will come out of Zion, And He will turn away ungodliness from Jacob; For this is My covenant with them, When I take away their sins.’ Concerning the gospel they are enemies for your sake, but concerning the election they are beloved for the sake of the fathers. For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. For as you were once disobedient to God, yet have now obtained mercy through their disobedience, even so these also have now been disobedient, that through the mercy shown you they also may obtain mercy. For God has committed them all to disobedience, that He might have mercy on all.”
Paul was explaining a mystery, a truth God was just then revealing more fully. A hardening was happening to part of Israel. As we saw in our last study, this “hardening” was the spiritual dulling of the heart and mind. God was giving some of the Jews over to their own hatred and perversions.
This would continue “until of the fulness of the Gentiles (the non-Jewish nations) has come in”. During the first century, the Jews were the greatest antagonists to the gospel. It was the apostates among the Jews who stirred up the Romans to hate the Christians by slandering them. As more of the Gentiles came into the church, the olive tree became less “Jewish”. This fulness of the Gentiles marked the end of physical Israel as God’s people. God even used pagan Rome in 70 AD to crush Jerusalem, to destroy the temple the Priests had defiled, and to mark the final end to the special privilege of the physical seed of Abraham.
It is by this process that all Israel will be saved. The words describe the process by which God’s true Israel will be saved. It is not a prediction of some yet future event. Those who see here a future promise for the abandoned and apostate nation of Abraham, are missing Paul’s point about what constitutes the truly good olive tree.
It is not just Physical Israel. It is the outward Covenant Family of God. In the time between Abraham and Jesus, the tree was the nation of the Jews. In the time after Jesus, the tree is the Apostolic church, God’s Spiritual Israel (see Romans 9:6). As the elect from all nations are evangelized and brought in, the tree grows toward fulness. As the apostate and unbelieving are removed, the tree improves in purity. It is in this way that all of God’s true Israel will be saved. The New Testament Church does not replace Israel. The church is Israel in her completed form.
Paul quotes from Isaiah 59:20-21 which promises that “The Deliverer will come to Zion,” and that God will, by his covenant, “take away their sins.” Clearly this is not national Israel, for no such promise was made to all Jews. God’s promise was to redeem the elect of Israel, then to add to them the elect from every nation, and to remove the ungodly in his judgment. This is the process shown in the illustration of the Olive Tree.
God had not yet finished with his people. As explained in chapter 9, God’s promise to Abraham was not to save all his children, but only those who were of the promise, those of his son Isaac (Romans 9:7). And of the seed of Isaac, God chose Jacob and hated Esau (Romans 9:13). So God’s promise to the fathers continues. The apostate children of Israel were never more than outwardly consecrated to God. At the time Paul wrote this letter to the Romans, God was using his grace toward the Gentiles to provoke the elect among the Jews to believe. When they see such grace that redeems even the pagan, these will understand that salvation is not a reward of merit, descent, or of human choice It is a special act of the Holy Spirit alone based upon the merit of Jesus Christ. They will all be redeemed who are God’s true Israel, the children of the spiritual promise. Therefore, even the disobedience God permits, will become a dramatic lesson of mercy.
Each person who has submitted to church membership under the care of shepherding Elders, is one of the branches of the good olive tree which is God’s covenant nation on earth.
What kind of branch are you? Some of those in the church are natural branches. They were born into covenant families, raised to know God’s truth, his promises, the principles he commands by which we are to live, and the gospel that alone makes us able to believe and obey. Some were grafted in by professing faith in Jesus Christ as their Savior from sin and its offensiveness to God. Those grafted in were once ignorant of the truth until mercy set them free. However, regardless of how someone becomes a part of the good olive tree of God, they become branches of it.
Each should ask himself, “Am I a blessed branch? truly humbled by grace? bearing fruit for God’s glory in my life? Or am I a fruitless branch? self-proud? drawing from the tree’s sap ungratefully? enjoying outward benefits but not truly transformed by the work of grace?
This is a serious warning. Consider your attitude about God’s grace and your love for him. Are you hardened, dull, and uncaring about the mercy that God shows to you? Is the fruit of your life selfish and empty of humble service for God? Many false christians deceive themselves and elude the discipline of the church Elders.
When our Lord returns for his church, any dead branches which remain will be identified and removed. He will present up to the Father a church purified and complete. When the final unfit branches are trimmed away at the coming of Jesus Christ will you be preserved or cut off? God’s church will be perfected. Make certain you are among its branches, bearing fruit by Christ’s power in you, and moved by your gratitude for the Savior’s grace.
(The Bible quotations in this lesson are from the New King James Version of the Bible unless otherwise noted.)