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Olive Tree or Apple Tree

By: Rev. Kathryn S. Patterson M.Min., BCCC
To understand Paul’s teaching in his letter to the Romans, especially the 11th chapter, one must not only have a good visual picture and understanding of the olive tree, but also a clear definition of who the olive tree is. The visual picture of the olive tree is one of a gnarled trunk with a soft, green leafy top. Native Israelis are called Sabras named after a fruit that is hard or tough on the outside and soft and tender inside. Here we have the same picture as the olive tree. The trunk is aged, gnarled and tough looking, yet it has soft, tender, green wispy-looking leaves.

For almost 8,000 years olives have been a staple food in the Mediterranean region, including the Middle East. The oil of the olive has been used for cooking, lamps (Ex. 27:20 & Lev. 24:2), and for medical purposes as well as spiritual purposes such as anointing (Ex. 30:25).

Olive trees live in hot, arid climates where other varieties of trees wither and die. Some olive tree root systems are thought to be 2,000 years old. The olive tree was also used to show the flood waters had receded from the earth. It was an olive branch the dove brought to Noah (Gen. 8:11).

The olive tree was also important throughout the Roman Empire. It shared similar importance as a staple and food source item. When writing to the Gentiles in Rome it is not surprising Paul would use the simple, yet well-known visual picture of the olive tree.

Reference to Israel in Scripture as the “Olive Tree” can be found in Jer. 11:16, Hos. 14:6 and Ps. 52:8. There are some differing opinions on what Paul means by the “Olive Tree” in Romans 11. Some believe the tree and root to be Israel; some believe the root to be Jesus; and some believe he root to be the Patriarchs. In my investigation and study, I agree with what appears to be the majority of scholars, the root of the metaphorical olive tree is the Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, (later renamed Israel by God in Gen. 3:28.) No matter what position you take, it is still a Jewish root and tree! It is through this faithful lineage of forefathers that God promised salvation for all mankind.

Romans Chapter 11 is a picture of God’s grace to the Gentiles. It is also a revelation of the mystery, “How do the Gentiles receive this salvation?” The metaphor of “grafted in” is a most interesting way to picture how Gentiles could share and partake of the covenants that God established with his chosen people, the Jews, and the Gospel which they brought. The engrafting is truly a bridge used to bring all peoples together in salvation.

In Romans 11:1 Paul makes it abundantly clear that Israel has not been forsaken by God and has not been cast away (Rm 11:1); that even though Israel may have stumbled not in whole as to fall, but in part, God still has a covenant with them. Paul’s teaching on the “grafted-in” metaphor in Romans 11:11-30 clearly has a two-prong message. The message to the Gentiles, which are the wild branches, is that salvation comes through the Jews. And to partake of that salvation one must by faith be “grafted in” or literally receive nourishment form the Jews, the olive tree. (Keep in mind the Jews also brought the concept of faith. Abraham’s faith or belief was counted to him as righteousness, (Hebrews 11:8-11). And in partaking of this gift they should not boast against the Jews, the natural branches. If Christians forget their roots are in the olive tree, that their roots and nourishment come from the Jews, they may as well be grafted into an apple tree because their true spiritual history will be lost forever.

The flip side of Paul’s message is to the Jews, “The natural olive branches” could be broken off because of lack of belief. But clearly God does not say that “all of the natural branches” will be broken off.  

The visual picture Paul presents is this: A natural olive tree, Israel, healthy and well-cared for, except for some branches here and there that have been broken off because of unbelief (Rm 11:20). And since some branches were broken off the natural olive tree then Gentiles, being the unnatural or wild branches, could be grafted into the natural olive tree. Here Paul uses a Greek word enkentrizo, “to insert, to cut into for the sake of inserting…” (Rm 11:17).

Paul is careful to warn the “wild branches” not to boast against the natural branches; and to keep in mind they, the wild branches, are not the nourishment and root that supports the tree (Rm 11: 19), but the natural root is what nourishes the tree. In Rm 11:10 & 24 Paul concludes this visual picture by making it quite clear that Gentiles should recognize that without Israel’s unbelief in part there would be no salvation for them. Paul says, not to be boastful or haughty about your new position on the tree, because if God did not spare the natural branches the Gentile grafted-in-branches may not be spared either (Rm 11:21). 
Does this mean Israel is forsaken by God? Certainly not (Rm 11:1)! Does this mean Israel has stumbled and fallen beyond hope? Certainly not (Rm 11:1)! It does mean without their stumble, i.e., some broken branches, salvation would have not come to the Gentiles, the wild branches, (Rm11:11). Paul goes on to say that if these broken branches do not continue in unbelief, God will graft them in again (Rm11: 23). This is the mystery Paul talks about. The mystery is how salvation comes to the Gentiles.

Now, why is all this important? Why is our spiritual heritage, our spiritual family tree important to Christians? In John 4:22 Jesus, in his conversation with the woman at the well clearly teaches that “salvation is from the Jews.” To partake of the salvation, as Paul teaches in Romans 11, we must become part of Israel’s family tree. Without that understanding, how can Gentiles claim a heritage in God? Keeping in mind that heritage, there are thousands of God’s promises to His people recorded in Scripture, and the majority are in the Old Testament. These promises are clearly made to Israel, Abraham’s seed. Who then is Abraham’s seed? In Gal. 3:29, Paul teaches, “…if you are Christ’s then you are Abraham’s seed and heirs according to the promise.” What is the promise to Abraham? Gen. 12:2-3: (2) “I will make you a great nation; I will bless you and make your name great; and you shall be a blessing. (3) I will bless those who bless you and I will curse him who curses you; and in you all the families of the Earth shall be blessed.”

Christians are always claiming these promises for themselves. For instance, the Psalms are filled with comforting promises that we cling to in difficult times. If we keep in mind God did not make these promises to the Gentiles, but to Israel, unless we become part of Israel, how is it Christians can claim these promises from God?

You could look at it this way: The family living next door lived a certain life style that seemed to invite blessings into their home on a regular basis. And the envious neighbor wanted to partake of those blessings, but couldn’t because he was not part of the blessed family. No matter how hard the envious neighbor tried to claim the blessings for himself, it was impossible, because the promise of the blessing was not made to him but to someone else.  

One cannot claim and receive something that belongs to someone else, unless it is stolen. When Christians supersede Israel, and claim the promises God made to Israel as their own and then boast against Israel, they have, in effect, stolen the promises. As Paul says in Rm 11:18, “…do not boast against the branches. But if you do boast, remember that you do not support the root but the root support you.” And then in Rm 11:21, “for if God did not spare the natural branches, He may not spare you either.” What Paul is saying is simple: Gentiles can be grafted into the olive tree and partake of the root and fatness, but cannot replace Israel and become the olive tree or God may remove them from the olive tree for boasting against Israel. 

God has many attributes, but this one is counted on all the time by Christians: Mal. 3:6 “For I am the LORD, I do not change.” This attribute is expressed by Christians regularly in associating His sovereignty over them and His faithfulness to them. If we truly believe God does not change then we cannot at the same time believe he will cast away His chosen people in favor of another people. Romans 11:29 tells us the gifts and callings of God are irrevocable. All of Psalm 89 extols God’s faithfulness to His chosen people. God clearly repeats His covenant (Ps 89:28) that He made with David and his generations is forever. Then again in 
Ps 89:34 God repeats that He will not break His covenant nor alter His covenant with David. (v 28 “My mercy I will keep for him forever, and my covenant shall stand firm with him.” “My covenant I will not break, nor alter the word that has gone out from My lips.” v 34)

Keeping in mind God’s faithfulness there are two important questions before us:
The first question: If God has not and will not forsake or discard His covenant people should we as Christians? Should we boast against the natural branches? If we take Paul at his written word, clearly “NO” we should do neither.
The second question: Why should this matter to Christians? It should matter to Christians because without the Jews we have no Patriarchs, no Prophets, no Apostles, no Bible, no form of worship or prayer example, no idea of one God, no concept of faith and no Savior. Without all of this, how do we partake of God’s salvation? We can’t. Without all we have from the olive tree we become an apple tree with pretty fruit and no nourishing, spiritual roots. These were all gifts and blessings from the Jews, and we partake of these gifts and blessings by becoming part of Israel just as Paul clearly explained in his letter to the Romans.