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Commentary on Rom. 11:16-24 [Israel and the olive tree]

"For if the first fruit [is] holy, the lump [is] also [holy]: and if the root [is] holy, so [are] the branches. And if some of the branches be broken off, and thou, being a wild olive-tree, art ingrafted among them, and with them partakest of the root and fatness of the olive-tree; Boast not against the branches. But if thou boastest, thou bearest not the root, but the root thee. Thou wilt say then, The branches were broken off, that I might be ingrafted. Well; because of unbelief they were broken off, and thou standest by faith. Be not high-minded, but fear: For if God spared not the natural branches, [take heed] lest he also spare not thee..." (WB)

Synopsis: the following commentary analyses the symbol of the olive tree discussed by the Apostle Paul in Rom. 11:16-24, from which branches were broken off, and wild branches we grafted in. Thus a significant part of Israel - the natural branches - were cut off from the grace of membership in Christ's Body. In their place wild branches were grafted - the called from amongst the Gentiles. In this olive tree symbolism the Abrahamic Covenant is the root, the New Covenant is the tree. Natural branches - Israel according to the flesh - were joined with the tree on the basis of the promise given by God to Abraham, as well as on the basis of the Law Covenant. When Jesus came, it was time to move from the type represented in the Law Covenant to the antitype - the 'reality in Christ' under the New Covenant. However, most Jews rejected the Messiah, wherefore they were themselves cut off - their national inclusion in the New Covenant will take place in the future under the rule of Jesus Christ and the royal priesthood, gathered during the present Gospel Age.

Inclusion of the Gentiles in the Church, referred to in Acts chapters 10-11, gave rise to many doubts on both sides. Believers of the Jewish descent at first accepted this fact reluctantly, and later argued whether believers in Christ - of both Jewish and Gentile descent - were obliged to observe the Mosaic Law. The called from amongst the Gentiles, in turn, were inclined to think that since God has called the Gentiles, the Jewish nation apparently was rejected. The latter issue was taken up by the Apostle Paul in Romans chapter 11, focusing in the passage of Rom. 11:16-24 on the relation of Israel towards the calling to the Body of Christ and participation in the New Covenant.

THE OLIVE TREE AND ITS BRANCHES

To put it somewhat simplistically, the garden olive tree corresponds to the calling of the Gospel Age. In this symbolism Israel represents natural branches. It was to Israel that God said: "Now therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people: for all the earth [is] mine: And ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation". The promise, however, was given on condition: "if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant" (Ex. 19:5,6 KJV). If Israel had listened to the voice of God, they would have accepted Jesus as their Messiah (Jn. 5:45-47). The vast majority of the people - on the contrary - decided to reject him, thereby rejecting the Divine invitation to become the 'kingdom of priests'.

The Jews who did not accept Jesus were thus rejected, "Well; because of unbelief they were broken off" (Rom. 11:20 KJV). At the same time the invitation to become the kingdom of priests - co-kings and co-priests with Jesus Christ in his Kingdom - was passed to the Gentiles. Those who were given faith and made use of it through conversion, were grafted onto the place of the disbelieving Israel, "some of the branches [were] broken off, and thou, being a wild olive tree, wert graffed in among them" (Rom. 11:17 KJV). In consequence, the Apostle Peter writes, this time to the called from amongst the Gentiles: "ye [are] a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation" (1 Pt. 2:9 KJV). Grafted onto the garden olive tree, they are no longer a wild olive tree, but 'partake of the root and fatness of the olive tree' together with the natural branches - the Jews who believed in Jesus Christ (Rom. 11:17; cf. Eph. 2:11-18).

Our Lord prophesied this, even though his service was focused solely on Israel. Seeing the great faith of the centurion, Jesus says: "Verily I say unto you, I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel. And I say unto you, That many shall come from the east and west, and shall sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven. But the children of the kingdom shall be cast out into outer darkness" (Mt. 8:10-12 KJV). Indeed, many "from the east and west" have been called to the Kingdom, whereas the "children of the kingdom" - Jews, who were natural inheritors - were cast off from its privileges.

"...AND IF THE ROOT [BE] HOLY, SO [ARE] THE BRANCHES"

However, limiting the sense of the olive tree to the assembling of the royal priesthood does not exhaust the subject. At the very beginning of the text in hand the Apostle Paul says that "if the firstfruit [be] holy, the lump [is] also [holy]: and if the root [be] holy, so [are] the branches" (Rom. 11:16 KJV). Even though some of the natural branches were broken off, the ingrafted branches have no reason to feel thay are better (Rom. 11:17-20). "And they also," says Paul, "if they abide not still in unbelief, shall be graffed in: for God is able to graff them in again" (Rom. 11:23 KJV).

Even more so, futher on we will read that God will graft Jews again, and not only as individuals who believe in Jesus Christ at the present time, but also as a nation in the future. "For I would not, brethren, that ye should be ignorant of this mystery, lest ye should be wise in your own conceits; that blindness in part is happened to Israel, until the fulness of the Gentiles be come in [when the royal priesthood is gathered]. And so all Israel shall be saved" (Rom. 11:25,26 KJV). So disbelief affected only a part of the nation and only for a time. Even though presently they are 'enemies of the Gospel', "concerning the election, [they are] beloved for the father's sakes" (Rzym. 11:28 WB). If, then, the remaining part of Israel is to be ingrafted after royal priesthood has been completed, the meaning of the olive tree has to reach beyond the gathering of those who will be kings with Jesus Christ in his Kingdom.

Israel as God's chosen people did not grow in a vacuum. Their entering the relation with God on the basis of the Law Covenant was a consequence of what happened earlier - the covenant made by God with Abraham. Israel emerged as fulfillment of the promise given by God to Abraham in Charan: "Depart ... And I will make of thee a great nation" (Gen. 12:1,2 WB). There also appears the thread of redemption: "and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed" (Gen. 12:3 WB), expanded after Abraham passed the test with Isaac. There we learn not only of the earthly seed ("sand on the sea shore"), but also the heavenly seed ("stars of heaven"), which is later identified by the Apostle Paul with the Church of the Gospel age (Gen. 22:16-18; Gal. 3:29).

Israel as a nation grew out of the 'holy root' of the Abrahamic Covenant. Jews' rejection of Jesus Christ does not mean they have ceased to be Abraham's descendants, and as such they remain to be covered by the covenant God made with their forefather.

TWO COVENANTS

The sense of the Jews being cut off from the root of the Abrahamic Covenant will become evident when we see two main branches growing out of it: the Law Covenant and the New Covenant. The relationship between God and man is based on covenants from the very beginning. A covenant was made with Adam, Noah and Abraham. Also with the promised descendants of Abraham God made a covenant - the Law Covenant at Sinai and the New Covenant with Jesus Christ as its mediator (Heb. 9:11-13). In this sense the Law Covenant and the New Covenant grow out of the root of the Abrahamic Covenant and constitute a twofold tool for the fulfillment of the promises contained therein.

Whereas the whole Jewish nation entered the Law Covenant, entering the New Covenant requires faith in Jesus Christ; "he is the mediator of the new testament that ... they which are called might receive the promise of eternal inheritance" and become the royal priesthood - kings and priests with Jesus Christ in the glory of his Kingdom (Heb. 9:15 KJV). This is the next stage in the development of the great divine plan of salvation in which "thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies; And in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed" (Gen. 22:16-18 KJV; 1 Cor. 15:25,26; Rom. 16:20). The Jews of Jesus' time, as well as their descendants, largely did not understand it and voluntarily, as if with their own hands, cut themselves off from participation in this glorious installment of the divine plan of salvation.

Failing to accept Jesus Christ, they take no part in the New Covenant and, consequently, no part in the Church, with no hope for participation in the future glory of God's Kingdom. However, a time will come when they too will be grafted. "And so all Israel shall be saved: as it is written, There shall come out of Sion the Deliverer, and shall turn away ungodliness from Jacob: For this [is] my covenant unto them, when I shall take away their sins" (Rom. 11:26,27 KJV; Jer. 31:33,34). This implantation into the New Covenant will not give Israel another opportunity to reach for the glory of the royal priesthood because completion of this class in the divine plan is limited to the present Gospel age. The deliverer that will come out Sion will be Jesus Christ with his already completed royal priests. Nevertheless, Israel remains to be the chosen people. Even in times of the future Kingdom they will be the first nation on earth, even though first amongst the 'grains of sand' (Gen. 22:17; Is. 2:3,4; Jer. 31:36).

Therefore, cutting off of the disbelieving part of Israel does not mean they have been cut off from Abrahamic Covenant, but from the New Covenant - the covenant in which they were grafted on the basis of the promise given to Abraham and figuratively as subjects of the Law Covenant, which was "a shadow of things to come" (Col. 2:17). Nevertheless, this cutting off was for a time. Because 'all things are to be gathered together in Christ', also the disbelieving Israel of the Gospel age will be in its due time grafted in the Body of Christ under the New Covenant, but without the opportunity to reach for the top positions of co-kings with Jesus Christ (Eph. 1:10). Meanwhile, in the Gospel age God's special interest lies with the election of the Church and choosing from amongst its members those who will constitute the kingdom of priests, whereas the house of Israel lies desolate (Mt. 23:38).

"... OTHERWISE THOU ALSO SHALT BE CUT OFF"

The whole symbolism of the olive tree in Rom. 11:16-24 was written in the manner of a warning aimed at the elect from amongst the Gentiles. If God did not hesitate to cut off natural branches, says Paul, the more He will not hesitate to cut off wild branches, grafted onto "the root and fatness", if they fail to bring the desired fruit (Rom. 11:17 KJV; Jn. 15:1,2). "Behold therefore the goodness and severity of God: on them which fell, severity; but toward thee, goodness, if thou continue in [his] goodness: otherwise thou also shalt be cut off" (Rom. 11:22 KJV).

Goodness, in which the elect are to continue, is translated from Greek chrestotes, which refers to good will stemming from the consecrating love agape. Continuing in chrestotes, therefore, means holding onto consecration, to which "the love of Christ constraineth us" (2 Cor. 5:14,15 KJV). It is no coincidence that the Apostle Paul rounds up the 11th chapter of his letter to the Romans with a call for consecration in Rom. 12:1 - "I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, [which is] your reasonable service" (KJV). The prospect of obtaining the reward of the calling to the Church is based upon completion of our consecration, or 'continuing in his goodness', "otherwise thou also shalt be cut off" (Rom. 11:22 KJV).

Cutting off of wild branches mentioned in Rom. 11:22 apparently refers to the loss of position in the calling. Interestingly, Paul speaks of re-grafting of the Jews, though not a word is said about the possibility of re-grafting of wild branches that happen to be cut off, which suggests a certain twofoldedness of the olive tree symbolism. If the Jews can be grafted in, why not the called from amongst the Gentiles? We need to make a note, however, of the special position of Israel as a nation that grew from the root of the Abrahamic Covenant and the Law Covenant by extension. Israel's separation from the olive tree does not change this basic relationship: they are still subject to the Law Covenant, awaiting inclusion into the New Covenant.

The position of the called from amongst the Gentiles is different. Both Jews and non-Jews who convert and receive the new birth of the spirit enter the New Covenant (Heb. 9:15, 12:22-24). The loss of the spirit in this state leaves eternal death as the only possibility (Heb. 6:4-6, 10:26). That is why the Apostle Paul does not give the elect from amongst the Gentiles any hope of re-grafting onto the olive tree - they are cut off without hope. The same is true in relation to the Jews who prove to be unfaithful after they have received the new spiritual birth. However, in Rom. 11:16-24 Paul does not speak of this relatively small group of the Jews, but about the nation as a whole. As a nation Israel has never entered the New Covenant in the real sense through the birth of the spirit, but only figuratively through the Law Covenant, and for this reason their exclusion from the olive tree can be temporary.


Keywords: Rom. 11:16-24, Israel, olive tree
 
Bible translations used in the commentary:
KJV - King James Version
WB - Webster Bible


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