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Who or What is the Olive Tree in Romans 11?, Pt.1

This entry is part 1 of 3 in the series Grafted in

 

‘Replacement Theology” teaches God has no more plans for Israel & the church has  ‘replaced’ them, but this is a doctrine that’s proved wrong by many bible passages one of them found in Romans 11 which tells us that God is not yet done with Israel, even they had rejected Him.

But on the opposite side of the coin we have another kind of ‘Replacement Theology’ were some teach that in order to be saved the ‘church’ needs to be part of Israel, (in other words the church is replaced by Israel). As one of their main points they use Romans 11, which they interpret that gentile believers are grafted into ‘Israel’, and for that reason have to become like them. But this is also wrong, to see it more clearly I’m sharing this next article that contains some nice illustrations:

 

“Grafting”

Written & illustrated by Brian R. Franco, used with permission

 

Preface
In Romans 11, Paul begins speaking to the Gentiles about their salvation, using the imagery of an olive tree and branches to explain the new life they are able to receive (and lose) with their belief (or lack thereof). The question, however, arises of “who or what is this olive tree the Gentiles are grafted into?” I’m going to present and attempt to defend the idea that Christ is the olive tree/root Gentiles are really grafted into. I’m going to do this by analyzing certain chapters, across the whole of Scripture, while explaining my understanding (with a fair amount of illustration to help visualize the ideas) of everything and how it ties together to form the basis for what I believe and why.

Romans 11

Defining Israel
The starting point for this exposition is Romans 11, which starts off as follows (I’ll be using the MEV translation for the most part, unless otherwise stated):

I say then, has God rejected His people? God forbid! For I also am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin. God has not rejected His people whom He foreknew. Do you not know what the Scripture says of Elijah? How he pleads with God against Israel, saying, Lord, they have killed Your prophets and destroyed Your altars. I alone am left, and they seek my life”? But what is the divine reply to him? “I have kept for Myself seven thousand men, who have not bowed the knee to Baal.” So then at this present time there is a remnant according to the election of grace. And if by grace, then it is no longer by works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace. But if it is by works, then is it no longer by grace; otherwise work would no longer be work. What then? Israel has not obtained what it was seeking. But the elect obtained it, and the rest were hardened. vv.1 – 7

Paul had just finished explaining (in chapter 10) how the Gospel has come to save all mankind. Jew or Greek, it didn’t matter; those who call upon the name of the Lord would be saved. The end of the chapter quotes Isaiah 65:2 and points out that the nation of Israel was a “disobedient and contrary people.”

Paul clarifies, however, that this does not mean a complete abandonment of God’s people. Of course, as a self-identifying Israelite (a physical descendant of the tribe of Benjamin), Paul is not trying to say that the gift of salvation has been taken away from his brothers, as he himself was graciously revealed the truth, which we all know had a profound impact on his life.

He draws a parallel with how even Elijah thought he was the “only one” of his people that was still following the Lord, which God corrected by revealing that 7,000 other men had still not fallen to idolatry. Likewise, God’s grace has allowed some of His people (Israel) to “obtain” what they sought (as did Paul) while the rest suffered a greater consequence for their rejection of the Messiah:

As it is written: “God has given them a spirit of slumber, eyes that would not see and ears that would not hear, to this very day. And David says: “Let their table become a snare and a trap, a stumbling block and a retribution to them. Let their eyes be darkened, so that they may not see, and always bow down their backs.” vv.8 – 10

However, God does not allow His people to become blind out of malice, pleasure, or without cause. There was a bigger picture here, a plan:

I say then, have they stumbled that they should fall? God forbid! But through their transgression salvation has come to the Gentiles, to make them jealous. Now if their transgression means riches for the world, and their failure means riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their fullness mean? For I am speaking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch as I am the apostle to the Gentiles, I magnify my ministry, if somehow I may make my kinsmen jealous and may save some of them. For if their rejection means the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance mean but life from the dead? vv.11 – 15

The plan was to expand the gift of salvation from a limited group of people (Israel) to the world (v12). A fortunate side-effect this may have on some, is to spark a jealousy among the Jews, which would hopefully draw them back to their God and save them (v14).

Before continuing, I find it necessary to establish something from Paul’s intro, before continuing forward with the actual “tree portion” of the chapter. I think the context of Chapter 10’s ending and Chapter 11’s beginning gives us a picture of something Paul mentions back in Chapter 9 (verse 6), “For they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel.”  There is a clear issue with Israel in that not everyone who is a physical Israelite is automatically a “child of the promise” (9:8), only a subset of these Israelites (the remnant) seem to partake in the blessings from their Father Abraham.

If the first portion of the dough (firstfruit) is holy, the batch is also holy. And if the root is holy, so are the branches. But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, being a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among them and became a partaker with them of the root and richness of the olive tree, do not boast against the branches. If you boast, remember you do not sustain the root, but the root sustains you. You will say then, “The branches were broken off, so that I might be grafted in.” This is correct. They were broken off because of unbelief, but you stand by faith. Do not be arrogant, but fear. For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will He spare you. Therefore consider the goodness and severity of God—severity toward those who fell, but goodness toward you, if you continue in His goodness. Otherwise, you also will be cut off. vv. 16 – 22

We get one final bit of imagery before we start with the the tree, and it’s simply to show a sort of inheriting property that occurs here. Paul compares a portion of dough with its batch and parallels it to the root and its branches. The root, being holy, would naturally produce holy branches. It’s an interesting and undeniable property, despite the fact that this has no bearing on whether that branch remains holy, and possibly broken off (should it lose its holiness, I’d imagine). …

Editor’s Quote: The first piece of the dough (firstfruits) describes Jesus (1 Cor. 15:23.). The “lump” or “batch” refers to the believers.

 

The Olive Tree
Now we start with the plant-based metaphors. We must immediately establish the elements Paul conjures up here. First off, a root. This root is holy. We switch over to a new element, leaving the root still somewhat undefined. We have some branches, and they too are holy. However, these branches have apparently been broken off, and then Paul makes the connection with the Gentiles (his current targeted audience, v13) to being wild olive shoots who are apparently a distinct set of branches as well who were grafted in among the other (unbroken) branches. We can deduce from the earlier portion of the chapter that Paul is referencing the Jews as the other (original, natural,  later on) branches. He warns the Gentiles not to boast against the Jews, because they (as branches) do not sustain the root, but vice versa. Although not directly stated, it seems quite clear that no branch sustains the root, the root sustains all the branches.

Paul goes back to what he had stated before about God’s people, Israel, receiving a sort of blindness to allow the Gentiles to rise. He parallels this by saying “the branches were broken off so that I [Gentiles] may be grafted in.” Now we must remember that it’s not as if God broke off all the branches to graft in the wild shoots. We are left with 3 types of branches:
The natural branch that remains, the natural branch that was broken off, and the wild branch that is grafted in among the first, partaking from the same root (which we’ve established, sustains all the branches). We can visualize this as so:

Now, I’ve summarized the characteristics of the elements in this chapter’s imagery to clarify some things. A natural question arises in that, being “natural” branches, wouldn’t they technically be the “same thing” as the root (i.e. why wouldn’t they be colored the same in the illustration above)? After all, a plum tree grows plum branches, and if you were going to graft a peach branch, you’d say you were grafting it into “the plum.” Similarly, it’s possible to conclude that, seeing as how Israel is the one branching out of the root, that the root is also Israel. However, I think it’s clear that the branches and root are completely different.

Root vs. Branches
For starters, we have the characteristics from the illustration above. The root:

1. Is holy (v16),

2. Is rich (v18),

3. Sustains (v18), and unlike the branches,

4. doesn’t seem to  be breakable.

Admittedly, the first characteristic is shared. However, it’s important to point out the cause and effect here (which we’ll recall is stated in v16): the only reason the branches are holy, is because the root is holy. The branches don’t obtain any sort of holiness on their own; they derive it from the root. The root, as far as we can tell, simply is holy by nature. The root provides its richness to the branches and sustains them. The branches cannot sustain themselves or the root. Considering that the (natural) branches are Israel (be it the whole nation of which most is cut off, or the remaining “true” subset known as the remnant), then it wouldn’t make sense that Israel is sustaining itself. Not only that, but we can see that the branches can be (and are) removed for their unbelief. If, hypothetically, you were to remove all the natural branches, then that would mean none of Israel would be partaking in the richness and life of the root (which continues to provide these elements). Of course, that is not the case here, but the differences between Israel (branches) and the root are too much to consider them one and the same.

I believe Romans 9-11 paints a clear picture: the nation of Israel rejected God. Through his grace and mercy, God doesn’t flat out cut off all of Israel from the promises He made but rather allows a (temporary) blindness to come upon (most of) them so that He can continue his plan of bringing salvation to the world. The illustration Paul paints in chapter 11 should solely be taken from this context. It’s a way to visualize God’s chosen people being removed from this gift (which was originally given to them) because of their rejection of the Messiah, and God bringing in the rest of the world (Gentiles) to experience the richness of life that the root provides, should they follow Christ. Israel (physical or “true/spiritual”) does not provide life, nor salvation. I feel like this is sufficiently clear simply from the verses we can see in Romans 11. However, it’s worth analyzing other portions of Scripture to see what they say. One of the obvious go-to’s is all the way back in Jeremiah, where we see yet another olive tree.

Continues . . ( Part 2)

Who or What is the Olive Tree in Romans 11 ?, Pt.2

This entry is part 2 of 3 in the series Grafted in
“Grafting”

Written & illustrated by Brian R. Franco, used with permission

Jeremiah 11

Kindled Tree
The Lord called your name, “A green olive tree, fair in fruit and form.” With the noise of a great tumult He has kindled fire upon it, and its branches are broken. v16

Jeremiah 11:16 is the verse that is probably most known as a reference to Israel being an olive tree. I would completely agree, especially considering the context:

The Lord said to me: A conspiracy has been found among the men of Judah and among the inhabitants of Jerusalem. They have turned back to the iniquities of their forefathers who refused to hear My words. And they have gone after other gods to serve them. The house of Israel and the house of Judah have broken My covenant which I made with their fathers. Therefore thus says the Lord, Surely, I will bring calamity upon them which they will not be able to escape. And though they cry to Me, I will not listen to them. Then the cities of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem will go and cry to the gods to whom they offer incense. But they will not save them at all in the time of their trouble. For according to the number of your cities are your gods, O Judah. And according to the number of the streets of Jerusalem you have set up altars to that shameful thing, even altars to burn incense to Baal. Therefore do not pray for this people, nor lift up a cry or prayer for them. For I will not hear them in the time that they cry to Me because of their trouble.

What right has My beloved in My house, seeing that she has done many lewd deeds? Can the sacrificial meat take away from you your disaster, so that you can rejoice while doing evil?

The Lord called your name, “A green olive tree, fair in fruit and form.” With the noise of a great tumult He has kindled fire upon it, and its branches are broken. vv. 9 – 16

Over and over again we see Judah and Jerusalem, Israel being mentioned, leading up to the olive tree picture. However, this tree shows a very different image to the one in Romans:

With the noise of a great tumult He has kindled fire upon it, and its branches are broken. For the Lord of Hosts, who planted you, has pronounced disaster against you, because of the evil of the house of Israel and of the house of Judah, which they have done against themselves to provoke Me to anger in offering incense to Baal. vv.16b – 17

Although similar in that, once again, Israel has rebelled against God and is being broken off, this tree has disaster pronounced against it and has been kindled by fire. I can’t imagine God bringing His Son into the world along with the gift of salvation, only to graft Gentiles into a doomed burning/burnt tree. You can’t simply take the “tree is Israel” part without also taking the “kindle with fire and doomed” part as well. However, this does seem to conflict with verse 16, so how can these facts be reconciled?

Continue reading

Who or What is the Olive Tree in Romans 11 ?, Pt.3

This entry is part 3 of 3 in the series Grafted in

 

There is one final chapter that should be examined, the second “go to” portion of scripture usually used to defend the viewpoint of Israel being the olive tree: Ephesians 2.

 

Ephesians 2

Therefore remember that formerly you, the Gentiles in the flesh, who are called the “uncircumcision” by the so-called “circumcision” in the flesh by human hands, were at that time apart from Christ, alienated from the citizenship of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who were formerly far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. vv.11 – 13

 

Let’s begin with the main portion that is used in regards to Romans 11. Here we see that the Gentiles were “alienated from the citizenship of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise.” However, now “you who were formerly far away have been brought near.” Then, you take a look at verse 19:

 

Now, therefore, you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God,

 

With that it would seem  “you are no longer strangers and foreigners” but rather the Gentiles have become “fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.” Israel, right? I would completely disagree, and I believe Ephesians 2 is quite clear in what it’s trying to say. Context is key, and so I want to start from the start of the chapter:

 

And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the age of this world and according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience, among them we all also once lived in the lusts of our flesh, doing the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and we were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest. vv.1 -3

 

The first half of chapter 2 has a very specific topic. We are all sinners, dead in our trespasses, children of wrath who only desired to do what was in our lustful hearts.

But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in sins, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and He raised us up and seated us together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. vv.4 – 7

Then comes along our merciful God who loved us, and made us alive with Christ. He brings about all these blessings, grace, and kindness in Christ. Paul then explains in verses 8 – 10 how this salvation is by grace, through faith, and not of works. Now (“therefore”, i.e. based off of these contrasts) we once again reach verses 11 – 13 which I see completely differently. Yes, the Gentiles have the following characteristics:

were in the flesh – the Gentiles were of the world. They did not know God nor his commandments and so lived according to their flesh.
called the uncircumcision – Unlike the Jews, the Gentiles did not circumcise themselves.
were apart from Christ  – again, they did not know God
were alienated from the citizenship of Israel – Israel was a nation set apart, chosen for God. Every other nation (Gentile) would therefore be alienated from the citizenship of that holy nation.
were strangers to the covenants of promise – since they were not of Israel, the Gentiles did not have any “fathers” with which God had made any sort of covenants with like the Jews did with Abraham.
were without hope and God – with no promises, no God, and seemingly no way to escape their sinful ways, the Gentiles had no hope of salvation…

…that is, until Christ provided a way. Now in Christ the Gentiles have been brought near by the blood of Christ. The key here, however, is that the Gentiles are brought near to Christ, not Israel.

The Gentiles were dead but now are made alive, with Christ
They walked according to the world but will now be seated in the heavenly places, in Christ
They were without hope but will now be shown the riches of his grace and kindness, in Christ
They were formerly far away from Christ, but now through His blood are brought near to Him.

Is the pattern not sufficiently clear? Continuing on from verse 19:
Now, therefore, you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, having been built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone, in whom the entire building, tightly framed together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling place of God through the Spirit. vv.19 – 22

It’s almost amusing how, though now a more architecturally oriented vocabulary, the image here is almost exactly like that of Romans. We have this building (tree), where the Gentiles and Jews (branches) are being built together (Gentiles are now “also” being built together with them, similar to grafting) and we have a foundation (which, if we accept the theory previously, can be somewhat likened to the covenant with Abraham) which all ultimately is centered on the chief cornerstone (or root), Jesus Christ.

 

 

Conclusion

There are a ton of rabbit trails that we can go down on with this study. For example, although I think Ephesians 2:14 – 18 add even more to the “not Israel, but one in Christ” idea, it also leads down to a whole different subject. We could dive more into that “true” Israel, into Abraham’s promises, etc. There’s the whole “Replacement Theology” idea which I will not touch (but will say I disagree with completely, and feel Romans 11 shows sufficiently that there is a plan for the rest of Israel after he’s done his work with all the branches). However, I think I’ve concisely summed up the very specific topic at hand: who or what are the Gentiles grafted into. My conclusion is Christ, not Israel the nation, not true/spiritual Israel, just Christ himself. If that were not the case, then I would ask:

Can we derive life/sustenance from anything or anyone but Christ?
Why is it automatically assumed that the “saints and members of the household of God” are Israel when “household of God” is never used to describe Israel and Paul always uses “saints” (hagios) to simply describe believers? Why can’t it simply be “a body of believers” (which Israel could be, but is not the sole or whole of it)?
If physical Israel is clearly not the root, why assume the “true” or “spiritual” Israel is, when they too are simply branches? How can wild branches be grafted onto other branches?
Is it against Scripture to believe that God doesn’t see us as Jew, Gentile, Greek, slave, free, or any sort of “kind” besides that of one who believes in His Son and one who doesn’t?
Why can’t we be “one in Christ”? Why do we have to be one in “Israel”?
If 1 Corinthians 12 says we were “baptized by one Spirit into one body,” and Ephesians 1 says “…the church, which is his body,” wouldn’t that mean the collection of believers (Jews/Gentiles) mentioned later on in chapter 2, those who are one in Christ, be the church? I constantly see mention of the church/body of Christ as the group of believers, when is “Israel” used (post-Christ) in reference to the joined group of believing Gentiles and Jews?
Is “true/spiritual” Israel something more than the believing “subset” of physical Israel and how would you prove that?

Those are just a few of the things I would need absolutely clear understanding of (with Scripture to back it up, of course) if I were to even consider the idea that we are not grafted into Christ, but I feel I’ve provided enough evidence to at least show a solid, Biblical basis for where I stand.

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