One Tree

This post is part of the the people of god series (click to view the other posts in this series).

In Romans 11, Paul uses the metaphor of an olive tree to teach the Roman Christians – whether Jew or Gentile - about their place in the people of God.  Paul begins this chapter by asserting that though Israel rejected the Messiah, God did not reject His people.  Paul is anticipating the question, “Did God reject His people?” because the reality is that Israel, as a nation, has found herself separated from God.  They have, as Paul said in Romans 9:32, “…stumbled over the stumbling stone.”  They had sought to establish their own righteousness before God and had rejected the only One (Jesus) in whom righteousness can be found.  So then, the reality is that Israel is, in fact, separated from God.  And because of this reality, Paul anticipates and deals with the question, “has God rejected His people?”  He answers with an emphatic, “no.”   

Paul says in verse 1 and following, “I ask then: Did God reject his people?  By no means!  I am an Israelite myself, a descendant of Abraham, from the tribe of Benjamin.  God did not reject his people, whom he foreknew…So too, at the present time there is a remnant chosen by grace.”  As was discussed in my previous blog in this series, at no time was all Israel, the nation, saved simply because they were born into ethnic Israel.  They were born into the covenant family of God and enjoyed the blessings of that, but that did not qualify them for salvation.  The nation of Israel functioned as the church and just as there are those within the visible (local) church today who are not saved, there were those within the visible church of the Old Testament who were not saved.  Salvation is only by faith.  This is exactly what Paul was teaching in Romans 2:28-29 where he says, “For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly; neither is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh.  But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God.” 

Therefore, it was not circumcision that made one a Jew (a true Israelite), no more than baptism makes one a Christian (a true Israelite), but the inward working of the Spirit who circumcises the heart. There was a true Israel within ethnic Israel; Paul calls them the remnant.  God will always have His remnant in every age.  Paul goes on to say that because of Israel’s (as a whole) transgression, “salvation has come to the Gentiles to make Israel envious.”  The gospel had gone out to the Gentiles that Israel might become envious and turn to Christ and so, therefore, be grafted into the true olive tree along with the believing Israelites and believing Gentiles.  Paul, then, speaking to the Gentiles, explains to them that by their belief they have been “grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing sap from the olive root.”  Paul does tell us that there are two trees: a wild olive tree and a cultivated olive tree.  The wild olive tree is the seed of the serpent and its branches will be thrown into the fire and burned.  But the cultivated olive tree is God’s people - His remnant, the seed of the woman - that by grace, through faith, will share in all the blessings of being co-heirs with Christ.  But the point here is that there is only one cultivated olive tree and Scripture no where speaks of there being another. Jesus has opened the door of faith to the Gentiles and Japheth will dwell in the tents of Shem (Genesis 9:27).  Abram’s name was changed for a purpose, not that he would be the father of a nation, but the “father of many nations” (Genesis 17:4). 

Interestingly, proponents of both sides of the debate concerning the people of God use this passage of Scripture in Romans 11 to prove their point.  The non-dispensationalists use Romans 11 to show that there is one cultivated tree.  However, the dispensationalists use Romans 11 to argue that at some future time, all Israel (national) will be saved using verse 26, “And so all Israel will be saved…”   But we must remember the context; Paul’s argument is that some Roman Christians (Gentile believers) were looking down upon the Jewish Christians and did not want to worship together with them.  Paul was telling the Gentiles both their place and the Jews’ place in the tree – he was telling them that they all are part of the same tree.  When all God’s elect, both Jew and Gentile, are engrafted into the tree, all Israel will be saved.

Many theologians do see a time in the future that there will be a mass conversion of Jews.  Many believe that “all Israel will be saved” points to a great engrafting back in of the Jews at the end of this age.  Certainly, Paul plainly teaches that the “natural branches are grafted back in” in some way, at some time.  And yet, the important thing (the absolutely crucial thing) to consider is this:  those natural branches aren’t grafted in outside of Jesus Christ.  The way they are grafted back in is through faith in Jesus Christ – not simply because they are Jews.  This, of course, goes back to the fact of the one plan of God.  It is also of utmost importance here to understand correctly the root of the tree.  To confuse this is to be Israel-centric rather than Christo-centric.  May Jesus Christ not be eclipsed by a people for whom He came to save.  Israel is not the root of the olive tree.  They are branches so long as they are in Christ, just as those Gentiles are branches so long as they are in Christ.  This really is the crux of the matter - Jesus Christ is the root of the tree.  Many today have failed to apply this all-important truth.  In Romans 11, Paul speaks of all the branches sharing in the nourishing “root” of the olive tree – the faith of their fathers – that faith placed in the promise of a Messiah, the Messiah who was to come and now, the Messiah who has come.  He warns against being arrogant in thinking that it is the branches supporting the root rather than the root supporting the branches.  He is here specifically speaking of the Gentiles but just as important is a warning of attributing to the Jews a place that is reserved for Jesus Christ. 

Paul quotes Isaiah in Romans 15:12, “The root of Jesse will come, even he who arises to rule the Gentiles.”  Revelation 5:5 says, “Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.”  And then so beautifully and wonderfully clear, Jesus proclaims in Revelation 22:16, “I, Jesus, have sent my angel to testify to you about these things for the churches.  I am the root and the descendent of David, the bright morning star.” 
May there be no mistaking who the “root of the tree” truly is.  May there be no giving of the honor and glory of Christ Jesus to any one else! 

There is one plan and one tree.

Application to faith and life:

Maybe you, as a young person, are enjoying or, as an adult enjoyed, the privileges of being raised in a Christian home.  Are you trusting your genealogy for your salvation?  Many Jews did that, too, and as you have learned, Paul tells us that they were cut off from the “nourishing sap” of the olive root.  They perished along with others who did not possess faith in Christ and died without hope.  In Genesis 3:15, and forward throughout the Scriptures, God points us to His Son as the only way - His only plan of salvation, to be engrafted into the cultivated olive tree. 

I am often asked about the turmoil in the Middle East and what significance I thought it played in the discussion of biblical prophecy.  Rather than answering directly, I often ask, “What is the biggest need for those in the Middle East?”  So often, the church gets so caught up in “end-times” hysteria as prophecy is interpreted through the media (newspaper exegesis) that the fact is forgotten that thousands of men and women are dying without Christ to spend an eternity separated from God.  Their greatest need there, whether Jew or Gentile, is not temporal peace; it is not even to settle the land dispute, it is that they need the precious gospel of Jesus Christ.  Paul said the gospel has gone to Gentiles that Israel (ethnic) might be envious; have we made them envious?  Instead of making them envious we’ve sought to comfort them in their rejection of Christ.  Have we acted as though the Scriptures of the Old Testament belong to them and the New Testament belong to us?  What have they to be jealous about?  Too many Christians today have never been taught to read the Scripture as Christians, even as Christ has taught, with Him both as the lens and the object (Luke 24:27, “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself), and therefore they remain in the shadows.  Read the Scripture as a Christian and see Jesus and the fulfillment of God’s redemptive purposes in all its wonder (2 Corinthians 3:14-16).

This post is part of the the people of god series (click to view the other posts in this series).