One Covenant, One People
3. The Olive Tree
Last time we looked at three old testament prophecies that speak of coming blessing for Israel, and at the three new testament passages that give us their divinely inspired interpretation. We noticed how in each case the fulfillment of the prophecy is to be seen not in the restoration of an earthly nation, Israel, but in the gathering of the church from every tribe and tongue. Thus the Scriptures teach us the very real unity that exists between God’s people of both testaments.
This time we shall explore some more passages from the new testament and show how they too emphasize the unity of God’s covenant and people throughout all time. In particular we want to look at a familiar passage in Romans chapter 11.
A Jewish olive tree
In Romans 11 Paul takes an illustration from the natural creation and uses it to demonstrate the development and growth of the church of God through history: “For if the first-fruit be holy, the lump is also holy: and if the root be holy, so are the branches. And if some of the branches be broken off, and thou being a wild tree, wert graffed in among them, and with them partakes of the root and fatness of the olive tree; Boast not against the branches. But if thou bearest not the root, but the root thee. Thou wilt say then, The branches were broken off, that I might be graffed in. Well, because of unbelief they were broken off, and thou standest by faith. Be not highminded, but fear: For if God spared not the natural branches, take heed lest he also spare not thee. 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. And they also, if they abide not still in unbelief, shall be graffed in: for God is able to graft them in again. For if thou wert cut out of the olive tree which is wild by nature, and wert graffed contrary to nature into a good olive tree: how much more shall these, which be the natural branches, be graffed into their own tree?” (vss. 16-24).
In actual fact Paul makes use of not one but two metaphors in this passage, the first-fruit and the olive tree. However it is the latter which he develops and which we want to take a closer look at in this article.
To the Jews, knowing their old testament Scriptures, the figure of an olive tree would have been familiar. It was, after all, one of the names that God had given to His old testament people: “The LORD called thy name, A green olive tree, fair, and of goodly fruit.” (Jer. 11:16). Similarly His visitations in judgment were likened to “the shaking of an olive tree” (Isa. 17:6); 24:13). So, in the first place, we see the olive tree symbolizing the family of God in the old dispensation, the church of those days. We see that tree growing, shooting out its many braches as generations of the descendants of Abraham are born. These are what Paul terms the tree’s “natural branches” (vs.21). Those natural branches, therefore, make the tree an exclusively Jewish organism, since for many centuries the church was limited almost entirely to the physical offspring of Abraham.
But, in the second place, we notice that within these natural, Jewish branches the apostle makes a distinction. Some of them have been broken off (vs.17). While others remain on the tree.
Who are represented by the severed branches? The passage tells us that they are characterized by unbelief – “because of unbelief they were broken off” (vs.20).
But we should understand that individual believers can never fall away into unbelief and be cut off, separated for ever from the Christ who redeemed them. The Scriptures teach us that very clearly (e.g. John 6:37-40). The branches that were cut off from the olive tree to lie dead upon the ground, therefore, cannot represent individuals.
No, the branches of the olive tree must represent lines of generations. Family lines can and most certainly do fall away into unbelief. They can be and most certainly are broken off from fellowship with the Lord Jesus Christ and His church. This we know from our own Families, whole branches of which may live and die in unbelief.
The severed branches of the olive tree represent those generations of Jews who, though outwardly members of God’s people and of the seed of Abraham according to the flesh, stumbled at the Stone which God lay in Zion. They are the unspiritual, unfaithful, Christ-rejecting branches. In unbelief they refused to receive Messiah and His gospel, they would not enter His kingdom, so God broke them off.
The branches that remained on the tree, however, were those generations of Jews who did not stumble at the Stone laid in their midst. They saw His marvelous works, heard His profound doctrine, and believed.
Now surely these faithful branches were very few in number at the time of Paul’s writing, representing a mere remnant, the remnant according to the election of grace. With so few limbs we might picture the olive tree as being a sorry sight indeed. So what does the heavenly Tree Surgeon do? Does He abandon this old olive tree? Does He root it up and discard it in favour of a wholly new and flourishing olive tree? No, it is still “a good olive tree” (vs.24). He keeps it, and in the place of the branches He has broken off, He grafts in branches from a wild olive tree (vs.17).
That old olive tree whose natural branches are Jewish now receives branches from another tree, a wild tree whose natural branches are not Jewish, but Gentile. Gentile generations are now grafted into the church of Christ to become one spiritual body with Jews, in Christ, and to partake with them of the nourishing sap that flows from the root.
Here, then, is the point towards which we have been working: the olive tree that existed and grew during the old dispensation, which was Jewish, and the olive tree into which Gentiles have been grafted and on which the branches of their generations flourish today, is the same olive tree. It has lost branches, yes, and it has received branches from another tree, a wild tree even, but it retains its identity. It continues to develop in the same organic manner as before, still sending out its branches, the difference being that now those branches are generations of Gentiles as well as Jews. And these Gentile generations are warned lest they too should fall into unbelief and be cut off. “For if God spared not the natural branches, take heed lest he also spare not thee” (vs. 21).
Among the many truths that Romans 11 teaches us, this one shines out so very clearly, that God does not have, nor ever has had, two olive trees, only one! And if further proof were needed it is surely found in verses 23 and 24 were the Jews who “abide not still in unbelief” are said to be graffed back “into their own olive tree”.
Paul’s metaphor symbolizes most powerfully the principle that the church of Jesus Christ is one, spanning both old and new covenants.
It is striking how Paul emphasizes that “the root and fatness of the olive tree”, those benefits and blessings of the covenant which were previously the sole preserve of Jews, are now partaken “with them” by Gentiles also (vs. 17).
There is an important lesson for us here, teaching us that the covenantal blessings promised to the Jews were never the earthly, temporal elements of land and physical prosperity, but always the heavenly, spiritual delights of eternal salvation that springs from Christ. He is the holy root from which the branches derive their holiness (vs. 16). He is the source of all blessings, and those blessings are now for Gentile as well as for Jew, richly to enjoy.
This same thought is found a few chapters later on in Romans were Paul writes, “For if the Gentiles have been made partakers of their [the Jews’] spiritual things, their duty is also to minister unto them in carnal things” (Rom. 15:27). The blessings which until so vert recently had belonged solely to the Jews, by virtue of the covenant that God had made with Abraham, were “spiritual things”, and by grafting Gentiles into the olive tree, God has made Gentiles, made us, partakers or sharers of those same spiritual things. Their God is now our God. He has made us to be His people, bringing us into fellowship with Himself, giving us all the blessings of His salvation so that we can join in praise with the old saints and sing, “Blessed be the LORD, who daily leadeth us with benefits, even the God of our salvation.” (Ps. 68:19). “Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits: Who forgiveth all thy iniquities; who healeth all thy diseases; Who redeemeth thy life from destruction; who crowneth thee with lovingkindness and tender mercies; Who satisfieth thy mouth with good things; so that thy youth is renewed like the eagle’s” (Ps. 103:2-5).
Surely here is one of the great benefits to our souls of singing psalms: we give tangible expression to the unity of God’s people throughout all ages, old covenant and new, all singing from the same ‘hymn sheet’- God’s own hymnbook.
This idea that Gentiles have been united to God’s old covenant Jewish people and enter into their covenant blessings and promises is a recurring theme throughout the new testament. We shall look at just two further examples.
In Ephesians 2:11, 12 Paul describes the Ephesians believers as having once been “Gentiles in the flesh, who are called Uncircumcision by that which is called the Circumcision in the flesh made by hands; That at that time ye were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promises, having no hope, and without God in the world.”
We want to notice especially two things. In the first place, the Ephesians had been “aliens from the commonwealth of Israel”, and in the second place, they were “strangers from the covenants of promise”.
By the first expression is meant that they had been excluded from the Jewish theocracy which was Israel. They were strangers to it, like citizens of a foreign land, and hence denied all the privileges that citizenship incurred, i.e., the laws and religious ordinances of God.
By the second expression is meant that God’s covenant of grace, established and reaffirmed so many times to His old covenant people, such as Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had been withheld from them. In short, they were “far off” (vs. 13).
The relationship between Jew and Gentile was characterized by open and mutual hostility. Jew would not mix with Gentile for fear of defilement (John 18: 28), while Gentile viewed Jew with disdain and contempt (John 18:35). Significantly, when Paul and Silas were hauled before the magistrates at Philippi, the accusation made was “These men, being Jews, do exceedingly trouble our city…” (Acts 16:20).
Later in Ephesians 2 Paul describes his Gentile reader rather differently: “Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellow-citizens with the saints, and of the household of God” (vs. 19). What has happened? The antipathy between Jew and Gentile has been removed by the Lord Jesus Christ. He is “our peace, who hath made both one, and hath broken down the middle wall of partition between us” (vs. 14). He has made it “in himself of twain one new man, so making peace; And that he might reconcile both unto God in one body by the cross, having slain the enmity thereby” (vs. 15, 16).
This has been achieved because by Christ’s blood “ye who were far off are made nigh” (vs. 13). “At the cross Jew and Gentile, both reconciled to God, had embraced each other” (William Hendriksen). Those who had been aliens and foreigners, are now fellow-citizens with the patriarchs, Moses, David, and the other old covenant saints, of the Israel of God. We are all citizens together of the same state and nation; all members together of the same family, the household of God, the church. We are present not merely as invited guests, but as those who belong to the family, into which God has brought us that we might enjoy all the privileges, right, and blessings of family members.
Gentiles are no longer aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, but included as members of that commonwealth. No longer are they strangers from the covenants of promise, but heirs of those same covenants, “fellow heirs, and of the same body, and partakers of his promise in Christ by the gospel” (Eph. 3:6; see also Gal. 3:29; 4:28). Peter exclaimed on the day of Pentecost that from then, “the promise is unto you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call” (Acts 2:39).
“God has levelled up the outcast and despised Gentiles and has admitted us to all the privileges of his covenant, making us heirs of Abraham….He has given us all the blessings which belong to Abraham’s seed, because we too possess like precious faith as the father of the faithful himself had”. (Spurgeon)
This is precisely what the old testament Scriptures themselves had foretold. From the beginning it was never God’s purpose to restrict His covenant with Abraham, with its promises and blessings, to just one family or nation. He had said to Abraham “in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed” (Gen. 12:3; 22: 18; 26:4). In Galatians 3:8 Paul gives us the inspired interpretation of these very words: “And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the heathen through faith, preached before the gospel unto Abraham, saying, In thee shall all nations be blessed.”
The door is opened wide for Gentiles to be welcomed into the family and household of God. The days foretold by the prophets are here, days when “many” nations shall come, and say, Come, and let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, and to the house of God of Jacob….” (Micah 4:2; Isa. 2:3).
This idea can be traced back further, even to Genesis 9:27 where we read Noah’s prophecy, “God shall enlarge Japheth, and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem”. Johannes Vos writes, “In the Hebrew idiom, to dwell in the tents of someone means to be the inheritor of that person’s wealth and estate”. We are Japhethites, but we dwell in the tents of Shem. We are Gentiles, but in Christ, by faith, we are made inheritors of riches that are unsearchable and without price, a spiritual estate of inestimable worth and eternal duration, promised to Abraham and his seed.
The child and the man
The second new testament passage we want to look at develops further the theme of inheritance. It is found spanning the close of the third and opening of the fourth chapters of Galatians:
But before faith came, we were kept under the law, shut up unto the faith which should afterwards be revealed. Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us to unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster. For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus. And if ye be Christ’s that are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. Now I say, That the heir, as long as he is a child, differeth nothing from a servant, though he be lord of all; But is under tutors and governors until the time appointed of the father. Even so we, when we were children, were in bondage under the elements of the world: But when the fullness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, To redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons. And because ye are sons, God hath sent forth the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, crying, Abba, Father. Wherefore thou art no more a servant, but a son; and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ.” (3:23-4:7).
There is much instruction in this passage, and we will turn to it again next time, but there is just one point we wish to make at this stage.
The apostle uses the illustration of a little child. The child is a son who is heir to a wonderful inheritance, but it is an inheritance which he cannot possess as yet because he is still only a child, a minor. Although technically he is “lord of all” he may as well be a servant, for as far as actual possession is concerned there is no difference between them.
The child is in need of instruction to prepare him for the day when he will receive his inheritance. That instruction is given to him by a schoolmaster, the law, under whose authority he must live until such time as he reaches the age of maturityand can receive the inheritance that is rightly his.
That child pictured here is the church of the old dispensation. That church is represented as being heir of all things and lord of all, yet, as a minor, is under the tutelage of the law and on different from a servant. When the fullness of time is come, however, and God sends forth His Son, then the church ‘comes of age’ and God brings it into the full privilege of sonship and the possession of its inheritance.
In this passage, then, Paul shows us a child and an adult. Not two different people, but the same person. As a child grows into adulthood, so the church, the one people of God, has grown up from the old dispensation regime of tutors and governors, into the new dispensation of full sonship and the blessings of eternal inheritance.
The church of Christ is one body.
Where is boasting?
But to conclude we must return to the olive tree. In Romans 11 Paul is at pains to impress upon his readers that they have no grounds for boasting. Yes, natural branches had been broken off the olive tree so that they, Gentiles, might be grafted in among the remaining Jewish branches, but this is no reason for Gentiles to boast against those rejected branches. They are the wild tree; they are the outsiders who have been grafted in to the cultivated tree to partake of its “root and fatness”. Paul reminds his Gentiles readers, as a remedy for their boasting, that it is not they who support the root, but the root that supports them. All the spiritual blessings that they enjoy stem from the root of that cultivated tree. As some old commentator has put it, “The Jews received no advantage from the Gentiles; but, on the contrary, the Gentiles have received much from the Jews. ….
The Gentile believers become the children of Abraham, and all the blessings they enjoy are in virtue of that relation. Hence the covenant (Jer. 31:13) includes all believers; yet is said only to be made with the house of Israel and Judah.” (Robert Haldane)
It is true that Jewish branches were rejected and felled by God in order to make room for Gentile ones, but why were the Jewish branches broken off? Unbelief! And on what basis are the Gentile branches grafted in? Their superiority in the sight of God? Their merits? No, faith alone! And faith is the gift of God, sovereignly bestowed on whom He wills, leaving no room for arrogance, pride, or boasting. “Be not highminded”, says Paul, “but fear” (vs 20).
There ought to be no room for anti-Semitism in the heart of the Gentile believer. What, after all, makes him differ from those rejected natural branches? Only faith. True, they rejected the Lord of glory, Messiah, but how careful Scripture is to record that they did so “with the Gentiles” (Acts 4:27).
Gentile believers owe their Jewish brethren a spiritual debt, one which was felt and openly acknowledged in the early church. Setting an example to us all of doctrine being outworked in practical godliness, the Greek Christians were motivated by this sense of debt to send material help to the suffering Jewish believers of Jerusalem (Rom. 15:25-27). “If the Gentiles have come to share in the Jews’ spiritual blessings, they owe it to the Jews to share with them their material blessings” (Hendriksen).
But the greatest debt we owe is to the God of the covenant who by His grace has grafted us into His olive tree that we might yet partake of blessings which eye has not seen, nor ear heard. “O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God”. (Rom. 11:33).
John Hooper “Tamar Reformed Witness”,
No. 32, Feb. 1999Articles 1-2