Romans 11 and the Parable of the Olive Tree (Part 2)


In Part 1, we followed along as the apostle Paul explained that God has not forsaken the people of Israel. Instead, He is temporarily punishing them. Now, he explains why the punishment is necessary. So, Paul deploys a sort of parable to explain God’s divine rescue plan.

The parable of the olive tree (vv. 11:13-24)

Paul is the apostle to the nations. But, along the way, he hopes to “somehow arouse my own people to envy and save some of them,” (Rom 11:14). Remember that, for the moment, God is saving a remnant of the people of Israel and Paul aims to scoop some of them up as he goes along. He declares “if the root is holy, so are the branches” (Rom 11:16). That is, if the people of Israel are the channel for all the covenants, the patriarchs, the promises (Rom 9:3-5)—i.e., “the root” of the Christian family—then surely the “branches” downstream of the patriarchs (the people of Israel alive in this present age) have a future, too.1 Their restoration will be like a resurrection from the dead (Rom 11:16)!

Paul now segues into the olive tree parable:

If some of the branches have been broken off, and you, though a wild olive shoot, have been grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing sap from the olive root, do not consider yourself to be superior to those other branches. (Romans 11:17-18)

God has broken some of these downstream Israelite “branches” off, and grafted non-native “olive shoots” into the tree. They “now share in the nourishing sap from the olive root.” This is not a substitution or a replacement—it is an unexpected addition. Both (a) the native branches which remain, and (b) the non-native branches which God has added to the tree, partake of the same nutrients from the same root. “The Gentiles nourish themselves on the rich root of the patriarchal promise”2 because, as the apostle writes elsewhere, “if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Gal 3:29).

Because these new “olive shoots” are non-native, they must not become arrogant. “You will say then, ‘Branches were broken off so that I could be grafted in’” (Rom 11:19). This is true, but the people of Israel were “hardened” or “blinded” (i.e., branches cut off from the tree) because of their unbelief. In contrast, the nations (i.e., the non-native olive shoots) only remain “in” this tree and stand firm because of faith. Faith is the determining factor, so “[d]o not be arrogant, but tremble” (Rom 11:20).

If you ever get to the point that you think your relationship with God is because of who you are, what you have done, what you bring to the table—that it is about something other than faith + trust in Jesus (Rom 11:20)—then you will be cut out of the tree just as surely as the people of Israel have been (Rom 11:22).

The players in the parable are now clear:

One olive tree → One family of God

Two types of branches on this tree → Two different people groups within God’s family

There is (a) one family of God, (b) from two different places, (c) drawing on the same Lord, the same faith, the same baptism (Eph 4:5; i.e., the same sap). There is one flock, governed by the same shepherd and king. There is the same divine rescue, the same love, the same grace, the same forgiveness. This is the secret or mystery which has now been revealed by the Holy Spirit to God’s apostles and prophets: “the secret is that, through the Good News, the nations are fellow-heirs, and united in one family, and sharers together in God’s promise in relationship with Christ Jesus,” (Eph 3:6, my translation).

  • Jesus spoke of “other sheep” that were not native to His flock: “I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock, and one shepherd” (Jn 10:16).
  • John wrote that the high priest Caiphas spoke better than he knew when he suggested it would be for the greater good if they killed the troublesome Jesus: “[H]e prophesied that Jesus would die for the Jewish nation, and not only for that nation but also for the scattered children of God, to bring them together and make them one” (Jn 10:51-52). This refers to the nations.
  • The prophet Isaiah records the words of the mysterious “suffering servant” as he recalls Yahweh’s instructions. It was not enough for the Servant to just rescue the people of Israel: “I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth” (Isa 49:6).

This parable means the people of Israel have a future (vv. 11:25-32)

This means Paul’s olive tree parable is a restatement of an old promise in new clothes. And to be sure, it is not over for the people of Israel (cp. Rom 11:11)—“if they do not persist in unbelief, they will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again,” (Rom 11:23).

Paul is using the parable of the olive tree to explain God’s rescue plan—how does the tree come to its finished form? It will be a three-step process:

I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers and sisters, so that you may not be conceited: Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in, and in this way all Israel will be saved. (Romans 11:25-26)3

It has never been a secret that God plans to rescue His people. What has been a secret is the specific way this rescue plan happens. Paul does not want the nations to be in the dark any longer, else they might become arrogant and think themselves wiser than they are. Here, Paul writes, is the mystery:

  • First, most of the people of Israel do not believe God’s good news of righteousness as a gift, by means of faith. Instead, they choose to pursue it by means of “resume-ism.” So, this majority of Israelites are the branches whom God has “broken off” and to whom He has temporarily sent “blindness” and “hardness of heart”—a dullness of spirit.
  • So, second, God has now pivoted to the nations and to the Jewish remnant—He is grafting the “wild olive shoots” into the tree. This present stage of God’s rescue plan will last “until the full number of the nations have entered in” and joined God’s kingdom family, at which time God lifts the divine “blindness” and rescue operations will proceed for the people of Israel.
  • And so, third, this is how “all Israel will be rescued.”

The “all Israel” refers to the ethnic Jewish people who are alive at the time God moves to the third stage, after the full number of the nations have entered the family.4

  • It cannot mean “every Jewish person who ever lived.” God is not a universalist (even at the sub-category level), and it would be absurd to suppose Caiphas will be walking the streets of glory.
  • Paul is not referring to a re-defined “Israel” consisting of all true believers (cp. Gal 3, 6:16; Rom 4). His focus here in Romans 9-11 is ethnic Jewish people.
  • He is not referring to all “true” ethnic Jewish people from all time, because Paul’s burden in Romans 9-11 is to explain what is happening to the people of Israel right now in relation to His divine timetable.

But, through it all, it is still the same Jesus, the same king, the same divine rescue mission. Two people groups merged into the same family, the same tree, partaking of the same “sap.” God has not pushed away the people of Israel—there is (a) the remnant which can meanwhile choose to pursue God by means of faith, and (b) the entire number of Jewish people who will embrace Jesus as Messiah after the full number of the nations have come in. The people of Israel “are loved on account of the patriarchs, for God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable” (Rom 11:28-29).

This three-stage rescue plan, culminating in God rescuing all the ethnic people of Israel then alive when Christ returns, is just what scripture foretold (“as it is written,” Rom 11:26). The prophet Isaiah tells us that one day the Lord looked about and saw the human situation was hopeless—that He Himself must enter the arena to set things right. “So his own arm achieved salvation for him, and his own righteousness sustained him,” (Isa 59:16). And so the Redeemer would one day come to Zion—“to those in Jacob who repent of their sins” (Isa 59:20). The covenant Yahweh swore to make with His people would take away their sins, because “My Spirit, who is on you, will not depart from you” (Isa 59:21). The apostle quotes the former citation and paraphrases the latter as support for a future for the people of Israel (Rom 11:26b-27).

One God and father of all

Paul never again probed so far behind the divine curtain. The see-saw of God’s rescue plan—Israel, then the nations, then Israel again (Rom 11:12, 30-32)—overwhelms him. “How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!” (Rom 11:33).

Commentators have spilt gallons of ink and gigabytes of megapixels on interpreting this passage—especially Romans 11:25-26. What is clear is that the people of Israel have a future. It is not a “blank cheque” future which encourages a laissez-faire life of spiritual fakery. Nor is it a “I’ll never get tickets to the show!” kind of defeatism that one has when trying to purchase Taylor Swift concert tickets. There will be more than a “lucky few” Israelites grafted back into God’s olive tree! It is a real future—(a) the remnant chosen by grace now, followed by (b) “all Israel” present here when Christ returns later.

Yes, God has unfinished business with Israel during the Millennium, but that is merely the last stop before journey’s end. The “Israel maximizers” make a mistake if they hop off the train here,5 because there is yet one more stop to go. The train decommissions in Revelation 22, when there will be one family, one tree, “one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all,” (Eph 4:6). God will restore Eden, and the tree of life will be available to all “for the healing of the nations” (Rev 22:1-5).

Of course, Paul does not discuss that here. But the people of Israel will be there … along with all the other nations who are blessed through Abraham (Gal 3:8) and have become His offspring.


1 Leon Morris, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), pp. 411-412.

2 Brunner, Romans, p. 96.

3 Gk: Οὐ γὰρ θέλω ὑμᾶς ἀγνοεῖν, ἀδελφοί, τὸ μυστήριον τοῦτο (dir. obj.), ἵνα μὴ ἦτε (purpose clause) παρʼ ἑαυτοῖς φρόνιμοι. ὅτι(appositional—explains the mystery) πώρωσις ἀπὸ μέρους (paired to τῷ Ἰσραὴλ) τῷ Ἰσραὴλ (dative of reference) γέγονεν ἄχρι οὗ τὸ πλήρωμα τῶν ἐθνῶν (partitive)εἰσέλθῃ 26 καὶ (conclusion) οὕτως (adverb of manner) πᾶς Ἰσραὴλ σωθήσεται, καθὼς γέγραπται.

“Now, I don’t want you all to be in the dark about this secret, brothers and sisters, so that you won’t think you’re wiser than you are. The secret is that a dullness of spirit has come upon some of the people of Israel until the full number of the nations have entered in. And so, that is how all Israel will be rescued …”

4 “… Paul speaks of a future salvation of ethnic Israel near or at the return of Jesus Christ,” (Tom Schreiner, Romans, in BECNT, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2018), pp. 598ff). See also Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, in NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), p. 723.

5 Tom Schreiner rightly warns: “The purpose of this revelation is not to titillate the interest of the church or to satisfy their curiosity about future events. The mystery is disclosed so that the gentiles will not fall prey to pride …” (Romans, p. 595).