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The Olive Tree Metaphor in Romans 11
Some passages of Scripture have suffered under the myosis of its interpreters more than most. At the forefront of these abused passages is surely Romans 11:16-29. For sure, there is a bit of deciphering of Paul’s language to do, but all in all I think the apostle’s thrust is easy to grasp. The problem with so many interpretations of the verses, especially by those who like to employ the NT to interpret the OT, is that they tend to read their theology into the passage while ignoring the details. Here is one example:
Paul’s metaphor of the two olive trees (Rom. 11:16-24) also reflects this same perception: olive shoots from a wild olive tree, that is, Gentiles, are being grafted into the cultivated olive tree, that is, Israel, from which latter tree many natural branches, that is, Jews, had been broken off. This tree, Paul says, has a “holy root” (the patriarchs; see Rom. 11:28). Clearly, Paul envisions saved Gentile Christians as “grafted shoots” in the true “Israel of faith.1
Perhaps a good approach to the Olive Tree passage is to break them down into manageable portions.
For if the firstfruit is holy, the lump is also holy; and if the root is holy, so are the branches. And if some of the branches were broken off, and you, being a wild olive tree, were grafted in among them, and with them became a partaker of the root and fatness of the olive tree, do not boast against the branches. But if you do boast, remember that you do not support the root, but the root supports you. (Romans 11:16-18)
Paul mixes his metaphors in verse 16. The first figure links the quality of the “lump” (or whole dough) to the quality of its firstfruits (or sample). Then he turns to the root (rhiza i.e., of a tree – Matt. 3:10) and its branches. The health of the branches will depend on the health of the root or stock of the tree. Romans 11:17 refers to branches “broken off” from the tree (which by inference is a tended tree in a garden cf. Rom. 11:24). This refers to Israelites.2 Then it refers to “you, being a wild olive tree” being grafted in among them. The “you” refers to Gentile Christians. The kind of tree is now identified; the “Jewish” tree and the “wild” tree are olive trees, although it is only the wild branches of the wild olive tree that serve Paul’s purpose. Notice also that the “root” is now “the root and fatness of the olive tree,” ergo, the roots and trunk. The Gentiles are not to boast since they as branches are supported by the trunk (v.18).
Then the apostle imagines a question (v.19):
You will say then, “Branches were broken off that I might be grafted in.”
To which he responds:
Well said. Because of unbelief they were broken off, and you stand by faith. Do not be haughty, but fear. For if God did not spare the natural branches, He may not spare you either. Therefore consider the goodness and severity of God: on those who fell, severity; but toward you, goodness, if you continue in His goodness. Otherwise you also will be cut off. And they also, if they do not continue in unbelief, will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again.
For if you were cut out of the olive tree which is wild by nature, and were grafted contrary to nature into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these, who are natural branches, be grafted into their own olive tree? (Romans 11:19-24)
Paul’s retort is that faith is the key to inclusion in the olive tree (“Because of unbelief they were broken off, and you stand by faith.” – Rom. 11:20). Therefore, as a group, the Gentiles must continue in belief because if they (as a group) don’t, they too will be broken off (Rom. 11:21-22). Furthermore, God is able to graft the Jews back in again (Rom. 11:24). Now this re-grafting of “Israel” is the predicted restoration of the nation under the auspices of the New covenant as will become clear.
Romans 11:24 signals the end of the Olive Tree metaphor, but it leaves unanswered the identity of the “root and fatness of the olive tree.” What is it? It cannot be Israel because it is represented by the natural branches that remain (i.e., Christian Jews).3 It cannot be the Gentile Christians because they are represented by the wild branches. It cannot be “the people of God” since they comprise the two kinds of branches, and such an interpretation stops the apostle’s argument prematurely.4 By reading slowly and carefully we can discount therefore any interpretation that equates the olive tree with either Israel or the church.
What else is left? Let us keep reading:
For I do not desire, brethren, that you should be ignorant of this mystery, lest you should be wise in your own opinion, that blindness in part has happened to Israel until [achri] the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved, as it is written:
“The Deliverer will come out of Zion,
And He will turn away ungodliness from Jacob;
For this is My covenant with them,
When I take away their sins.” (Romans 11:25-27)
Paul comes to the crux of his argument in these verses. In Romans 11:25 he refers to a “mystery”, which is described as the partial blindness of (please take note) Israel until something called “the fullness of the Gentiles” has been consummated. The preposition “until” (achri) is important here. It points to a change in direction or a terminous. This terminous must occur before Israel’s blindness departs. The term “mystery” (musterion) refers here to something that could not be discovered5 from the OT since the Israel/Church relation is not found there.
But what of “the fullness of the Gentiles”? I and many others link this period to “the Times of the Gentiles” mentioned by Jesus in Luke’s eschatological discourse (Lk. 21:24 which see). It is the final part of those “Times.” I will only say here that “the fullness of the Gentiles” as a phrase, fits logically into Paul’s argument about the coming restoration of Israel (see Rom. 11:1-2, 11-12, 15, 23-24, 28-29). The “fullness of the Gentiles” is the termination of God’s mission to the Gentiles through the Church, after which He will again turn to His covenant nation. Hence, in Romans 11:26a he declares, “And so all Israel will be saved.”
Now that the apostle has brought us around to the salvation of Israel, we should know that we are on New covenant ground. As Williamson observes,
When covenant is next explicitly mentioned (Rom. 11:27) in this important discussion of Israel’s place in God’s plan of salvation, it is not the covenants generally, but the new covenant that is brought into focus.6
This is so because in Jeremiah 31:31-34 it is made clear that future Israel is to be saved via the New covenant. But Paul does not go to Jeremiah 31 to establish his teaching. Instead, he repairs to Isaiah 59:20-21 and 27:9 for support.7 The Isaiah 59 reference notably highlights the role of the Spirit coming upon the people (Isa. 59:21). The link to Isaiah 27:9 is not as obvious, but that text too sits within a restoration context. What is clear is that the “covenant” spoken of in Isaiah 59:21 and connected with the Spirit is the New covenant. Williamson observes,
When covenant is next explicitly mentioned (Rom. 11:27) in this important discussion of Israel’s place in God’s plan of salvation, it is not the covenants generally, but the new covenant that is brought into focus.8
He is quite right. Isaiah 59:20-21 (and 27:9) are New covenant passages, and in the Olive Tree illustration and its application in Romans 11 he rests the weight of his argument upon the New covenant. The New covenant is then the root and fatness of the tree, since it is the main subject of these verses and the only thing that is left to identify with the stock of the Olive Tree. Also, it is the only way of access to salvation (“When I take away their sins” – v. 27b). And since Jesus Christ’s blood is the blood of the New covenant (1 Cor. 11:25), and He Himself mediates it (Heb. 9:15), this implies a messianic understanding of the Olive Tree.9
The passage continues,
Concerning the gospel they are enemies for your sake, but concerning the election they are beloved for the sake of the fathers. For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. (Romans 11:28-29)
I have included these verses because they contribute to the overall understanding of the apostle’s theme. The “gospel” here is of course the one that Paul has been expounding in the epistle (e.g., Rom. 1:15-17, 2:16, 15:16-20). Paul calls Israel “elect” on account of “the fathers.” By this term, Paul has in mind the Jewish saints of the Hebrew Bible: e.g., Acts 13:17; 1 Cor. 10:1 (the Exodus generation); Acts 24:14 (Moses and the Prophets); Acts 26:6-7; Rom. 9:5, 15:8 (the Patriarchs); Acts 28:25 (hearers of the Prophets). In other words, the people of Israel are elect, although not all (Rom. 9:6).
Paul is referring to the remnant who will compose “all Israel” (of Rom. 11:26a).10 Israel’s election is incomprehensible outside of the covenants that Yahweh made with them. God remembers what He has sworn to do, and He will perform it because He has sworn it. If that sentence verges on a tautology, I gladly keep it there to ward off any independent temptation to assert that God does not mean what He says. Paul makes his feelings clear about the matter by emphatically affirming “the gifts and calling of God are (ametamelaytos)” or “irrevocable” (Rom. 11:29)—that is, “not to be repented of.” God has not and will not change His mind about His covenants etc. (cf. Rom. 11:4-5; Gal. 3:17). His saints ought to learn that lesson and interpret their Bibles accordingly.11
Paul speaks of Israel’s “calling” in Romans 11:29. What is Israel’s calling? Surely it is expressed in Exodus 19:5-6? They are called to be “a special treasure to Me above all people.” (Exod. 19:5; Isa. 43:3-4; Zech. 2:8). They are to be (re)married to Yahweh (see Hos. 2. Cf. Isa. 54:5-6). This calling cannot be reconfigured and applied to the church as the “New Israel.” At least not without bringing God’s words under suspicion, which is not an option.
The attentive reader of Romans 11 will see that the solution to this “reversal” problem is supplied by the apostle himself in Romans 11:12 and 15:
Now if their fall is riches for the world, and their failure riches for the Gentiles, how much more their fullness!… if their being cast away is the reconciling of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead?
By “life from the dead” we are not to understand the resurrection, since that is secured by Christ not Israel. Rather, because “the regeneration” as Jesus calls it in Matthew 19:28, starts in the environs of Jerusalem (cf. Isa. 2:2-4; Jer. 33:15-16; Zech. 14:8. Acts 1:11 with 3:21), Israel is the first place affected by this regeneration. Hence, the “fullness” of Israel is nothing less than their becoming “the head and not the tail” (Deut. 28:14; Isa. 46:13; Zeph. 3:20).
The whole section (Romans 9 – 11) closes with Paul’s doxology extolling the wisdom of the divine plan for the ages. When Romans 11:33 asks rhetorically, “How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out?” it is not saying that God’s way of communicating with men is an unsolvable riddle, or that some secret interpretive key (maybe a specific kind of typology?) only recently uncovered now lies in the hands of a handful of knowing scholars. It is an exclamation of the great and unfathomable wisdom of God from before the earth was formed, which is still operating and guiding history to its predetermined and preinterpreted telos. It is praising the Creation Project.
1 Robert L. Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, Second Edition, Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2002, 526-527.
2 In Paul’s time there were still a lot of Jews who made up the Church. It serves his purpose therefore to say “some” of the natural branches were broken off. In our day Gentiles overwhelmingly make up the majority of the Church. That being the case we can rightly say that the “natural branches” (see v.24) represent the remnant of Israel (cf. v.26).
3 A recent work which promotes this view says, “Ethnic Israel have pulled away from theological Israel and the Gentiles have been called into Israel…” – Chris Bruno, Jared Compton, and Kevin McFadden, Biblical Theology According to the Apostles, 140.
4 As e.g., Thomas R. Schreiner, Covenant, 110-111.
5 Musterion does not always bear this meaning. In Ephesians 5:32 it simply means something hard to comprehend. CF. also Eph. 1:9.
6 Paul R. Williamson, Sealed with an Oath, 189.
7 See here Richard N. Longenecker, The Epistle to the Romans, NIGNTC, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016, 898-900. Also, W. S. Campbell, “Covenant and New Covenant,” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, edited by Gerald F. Hawthorne and Ralph P. Martin, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1993, 181.
8 Paul R. Williamson, Sealed with an Oath, 189. Walter Kaiser says that Romans 11:27 clearly references Jeremiah 31:31-34. See Walter C. Kaiser, “Kingdom Promises as Spiritual and National,” in Continuity and Discontinuity, edited by John S. Feinberg, 302.
9 Some have argued that the root and trunk of the olive tree is the covenants (plural), but that is not where Paul lands. Others insist that the Abrahamic covenant is indicated since there are provisions in it for Israel and the Church. But the Abrahamic covenant is not a salvation covenant. Rather, it is a promissory covenant which relies on the saving work of God. No, the texts Paul cites refer to the New covenant.
10 See the discussion in Robert L. Saucy, The Case for Progressive Dispensationalism, 252-256.
11 A useful cautionary article here is Robert Dean, “A Critique of O. Palmer Robertson’s Interpretation of Romans 11,” available at https://www.pre-trib.org/articles/all-articles/message/a-critique-of-o-…
Paul Martin Henebury is a native of Manchester, England and a graduate of London Theological Seminary and Tyndale Theological Seminary (MDiv, PhD). He has been a Church-planter, pastor and a professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics. He was also editor of the Conservative Theological Journal (suggesting its new name, Journal of Dispensational Theology, prior to leaving that post). He is now the President of Telos School of Theology.