I have seen endless debates on this passage about the olive tree in Romans 11. The following is my attempt to speak on what it is that the Apostle Paul is speaking about in this more difficult portion of Scripture. It is especially difficult if we force belief systems into this passage rather than looking at what the passage says and refining our belief systems to what the Book says. Many use this passage to teach against security, or to teach “replacement theology”, and some to combat these teach this passage as in some way not applicable to us today. So now, let us dive in, right to Romans 11:13:
Romans 11:13 — For I speak to you GENTILES, inasmuch as I am the APOSTLE OF THE GENTILES, I magnify mine office:
Here Paul speaks to Gentiles as such. Not to saved Gentiles particularly, nor to unsaved Gentiles, but to Gentiles. He states this as having authority to speak to them because he is the apostle of the Gentiles. The position of apostle of the Gentiles was not a position grasped at, but a position given. “Verily, verily, I say unto you, he that receiveth whomsoever I send receiveth Me; and he that receiveth Me receiveth Him that sent Me” (John 13:20).
Acts 22:21 — “And [the Lord] said unto me, Depart: for I will send thee far hence unto the Gentiles.”
Acts 26:17 — “Delivering thee from the people, and from the Gentiles, unto whom now I send thee…”
Dr. E.W. Bullinger has this to say regarding the importance of understanding this passage as being to the Gentiles as such:
It is absolutely necessary that we should carefully and rightly divide off the Doctrinal portion from which this is Dispensational. Both are true and perfect in their place; the former, as to the standing of the Church in Christ; the later, as to God’s dealings with Jew and Gentile.
In xi. 13, it says emphatically, “I speak to you Gentiles.” If, therefore, we mix up what is said of and to the Gentiles, as such, with what is said of the Church, there can be nothing but confusion.
The Gentiles, as such, are warned (xi. 22) as to their use of the place of privilege which God has given them (while Israel is for a time cast off (from their place of national privilege—C.M.)—The national privileges of Israel are stated in Rom. iii. 1, 2; ix. 4,5), and exhorted to continue in the goodness accorded to them, “otherwise thou shalt also be cut off.” Now to use this truth to destroy the truth of chap. viii, in which the believer is taught that nothing can separate, or cut him off, from the love of God in Christ, is to fall into the snare of the devil, and to make void the Word of God. To use one truth to destroy another truth is the most subtle of all Satan’s devices; and unless we rightly divide God’s Word of Truth, we are in imminent danger of falling into this snare.
The warning given to Gentiles, as such, is true, and is truth.
The assurance of the Christian’s security in Christ is true, and is truth.
Let us then heed these separate truths, as they are divided off, according to the structure.¹
Romans 11:14 — If by any means I may provoke to emulation them which are my flesh, and might save some of them.
Paul is stating here how his ministry and apostleship to the Gentiles, as one function, is a provoking ministry to Israel, to bring them to the Lord that SOME of them might be saved. This thought that SOME of them might be saved is interesting when we come to verse 26.
Romans 11:15 — For if the casting away of them be the reconciling of the world, what shall the receiving of them be, but life from the dead?
We can look ahead to verse 32 to see how the “casting away of them” is the reconciling of the world: “For God hath concluded them all in unbelief, that He might have mercy upon all.” The reconciling of the world is expounded in 2 Corinthians 5:19: “To wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto Himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation.”
God is strictly dealing with all mankind by mercy. Not in any way according to covenants. The covenant relation of Israel has been interupted because of unbelief, and the Gentiles were “strangers from the covenants of promise” (Ephesians 2:12).
The “them” here is who Paul calls “my flesh”, i.e., Israel. The receiving of them here is Israel in belief. For life from the dead, see Ezekiel 37, and the “valley of the dry bones”:
Ezekiel 37:11–14 — “Then [the LORD] said unto me, Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel: behold, they say, Our bones are dried, and our hope is lost: we are cut off for our parts. Therefore prophesy and say unto them, Thus saith the Lord GOD; Behold, O My people, I will open your graves, and cause you to come up out of your graves, and bring you into the land of Israel. And ye shall know that I am the LORD, when I have opened your graves, O My people, and brought you up out of your graves, And shall put My spirit in you, and ye shall live, and I shall place you in your own land: then shall ye know that I the LORD have spoken it, and performed it, saith the LORD.”
What the “receiving of them” means to the Gentiles is shown to us in Isaiah:
Isaiah 60:1–3 — “Arise, shine; for thy light is come, and the glory of the LORD is risen upon thee. For, behold, the darkness shall cover the earth, and gross darkness the people: but the LORD shall arise upon thee, and his glory shall be seen upon thee. And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising.”
The light rose on the people of Israel once. The Lord Himself, Who would “save His people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21), was among them, and the “people which sat in darkness saw a great light” (Matthew 4:16). He was among them a “light to the Gentiles, and the glory of [His] people Israel” (Luke 2:32).
Yet He “came unto His own, and His own received Him not” (John 1:11). What would this mean for the Gentiles who would come to the brightness of Israel’s rising? Was all hope lost?
No, God would send His salvation to the Gentiles in spite of Israel’s unbelief (Acts 28:28). This is a most important aspect of “the preaching of Jesus Christ according to the revelation of the mystery” (Romans 16:25). But think of the greatness of when He completes His purpose according to prophecy, and the “Gentiles upon whom [the LORD’s] Name is called” (see Acts 15:17, where James looks to the future when the tabernacle of David is rebuilt and the Gentiles indeed come to the light of Israel’s rising) come to the light of the rising of Israel as “life from the dead”. What a wonderful day it will be for the earth, when the Lord Jesus Christ, God’s Chosen Messiah, Redeemer, and King of kings will rule this earth! Until that time, God’s salvation to the Gentiles apart from Israel is preached by His apostle of the Gentiles. Do we hear?
So now back to our passage at hand, to understand the figure of the olive tree:
Romans 11:16 — For if the firstfruit be holy, the lump is also holy: and if the root be holy, so are the branches.
Paul brings in a figure from harvesting, and how we know whether to cultivate a crop or not. This figure from farming is understandable, but since a similar figure from manufacturing is much more familiar to me, I will attempt to explain the same figure through the lens of a production run.
Rather than a “firstfruit”, I will use a “first article”. It is the same idea, but it is like this: Before a production run is started, a first article must be approved by quality control (QC). This first article is a representative of the entire lot. The entire lot is analogous to the lump. QC accepts the lot as a qualified or authorized production run on the basis of acceptance of the first article. That does not mean that every piece in the lot is acceptable, but that the lot can be accepted. It will still be subject to inspections to determine acceptability of individual pieces, but the lot is allowed to run.
The firstfruit in this passage seems to me to be a reference to Abraham, the friend of God, and the lump his descendants through Isaac and Jacob, Israel. The lump is holy, that is, a people set apart for the Lord.
Exodus 19:5–6 — “Now therefore, if ye will obey My voice indeed, and keep My covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto Me above all people: for all the earth is Mine: And ye shall be unto Me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation. These are the words which thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel.”
As we move on to the next phrase, the figure of the root and the branches, the figure is simple: any tree branch carries the same characteristics as the root. So with this, we look at the next verse, and we see quality control:
Romans 11:17 — And if SOME of the branches be broken off, and THOU, being a wild olive tree, wert graffed in among them, and with them partakest of the root and fatness of the olive tree;
The branches were not broken off arbitrarily, as we will see from verse 20. The branches that were broken off did not have the faith of father Abraham. Notice that SOME of the branches are said to be broken off, not all. Notice also THOU, a wild olive tree, or a Gentile, spoken to as a singular is said to be graffed in. The wild olive tree is just that, growing with no purpose, not cultivated, no quality control.
Who then is graffed in among them? GENTILES are graffed in to the “olive tree”, which is the figure of the people of God that He is cultivating. “Them” is the group of natural branches, the cultivated people of God. The Gentiles now have a place in the “olive tree” as such. This is partaking of the root and fatness of the tree. God has reconciled the world to Himself. All of the sinners of this world are made savable by the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is a propitiation for the sins of the whole world (Romans 3:24–26, 1 John 2:2). The “righteousness of God, by faith of Jesus Christ” (Romans 3:22) is “unto all”, yet it is only “upon all that believe”. There indeed is “no difference”. “All have sinned”, yet now all can be saved, because all who believe are “justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:24). Now here comes the warning:
Romans 11:18 — Boast not against the branches. But if thou boast, thou bearest not the root, but the root thee.
Do not boast against the branches, either in or out of the tree. THOU, Gentile, are only growing because THOU art in the root. (I kept THOU here because it is a singular pronoun — This is individual) The root is not growing because of you. You are growing because of the root. God is cultivating a tree and has graffed Gentiles into that tree.
Romans 11:19 — Thou wilt say then, The branches were broken off, that I might be graffed in.
Here we must remember that SOME of the branches were broken off. Paul is imagining what a Gentile might say. Yes, the Gentiles as Gentiles are graffed in, but take this warning to heart, dear Gentile:
Romans 11:20 — Well; because of unbelief they were broken off, and thou standest by faith. Be not highminded, but fear:
The unbelievers of Israel were broken off because of that unbelief, and a Gentile will not fare any better in unbelief. “Be not highminded but fear” places the Gentiles on warning. They were not graffed in because of belief, they were graffed in by an act of God. This figure is not to be confused with the baptism by the Spirit into the Body of Christ. The point is that now it is the accepted time. That is what the day of salvation (2 Corinthians 6:2) is all about. The Gentile has opportunity because he is graffed into the olive tree, yet he will also be broken off because of unbelief.
Romans 11:21 — For if God spared not the natural branches, take heed lest He also spare not thee.
The natural branches that are broken off from partaking of the fatness and goodness of the olive tree were broken off because of unbelief. The same is true of the wild olive tree branches that are graffed in. “Now is the accepted time, now is the day of salvation” (2 Corinthians 6:1–2). If the wild branches graffed in (Gentiles) do not believe, they will be cut off too. They will not be spared.
Romans 11:22 — 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.
Yes, God severely cut off the national privilege of the natural branches, and by doing so, concluded the whole world in unbelief that He might have mercy on all. But if the wild branches also do not believe, they also will be cut off. And the natural branches…
Romans 11:23 — And they also, if they abide not still in unbelief, shall be graffed in: for God is able to graff them in again.
The “they” in this verse is the Israelite, the natural branch. The unbelieving Israelite CAN still be saved IF HE BELIEVES. God will graff them back in individually when they believe. This is the purpose of the jealousy Paul is provoking them to. Paul was provoking them with his Gentile ministry to save SOME of the natural branches that were broken off.
Romans 11:14 — “If by any means I may provoke to emulation them which are my flesh, and might save some of them.”
Romans 11:24 — 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 olive tree?
The unbelievers of Israel can still partake of the fatness — if they believe:
2 Corinthians 3:14-16 — “But their minds were blinded: for until this day remaineth the same vail untaken away in the reading of the old testament; which vail is done away in Christ. But even unto this day, when Moses is read, the vail is upon their heart. Nevertheless when it shall turn to the Lord, the vail shall be taken away.”
Now we will get to the point here. We go from now, where Gentiles are being graffed in to God’s olive tree, and Jews can be graffed back in if they believe in the gospel of Jesus Christ, that He died for our sins, was buried, and rose again. They also must, in doing this, accept that He truly is their promised Messiah, because He and He alone shall save His people from their sins.
But the nation as a nation, though set aside, does still have a future. Now wouldn’t you know it, but the very things that Paul says that he would not have us ignorant of are the very things that the “professing church” has been historically ignorant of. This is the nation’s future:
ROMANS 11:25–27 — FOR I WOULD NOT, BRETHREN, THAT YE SHOULD BE IGNORANT OF THIS MYSTERY, LEST YE SHOULD BE WISE IN YOUR OWN CONCEITS; THAT BLINDNESS IN PART IS HAPPENED TO ISRAEL, UNTIL THE FULNESS OF THE GENTILES BE COME IN. AND SO ALL ISRAEL SHALL BE SAVED: AS IT IS WRITTEN, THERE SHALL COME OUT OF SION THE DELIVERER, AND SHALL TURN AWAY UNGODLINESS FROM JACOB: FOR THIS IS MY COVENANT UNTO THEM, WHEN I SHALL TAKE AWAY THEIR SINS.
When the nation, as a nation turns to the Lord Jesus Christ in belief, the new covenant will be fulfilled to Israel. The Scripture says of our Lord Jesus that He will save His people from their sins (Matthew 1:21), and He will do just that:
Isaiah 59:20-21 — “And the Redeemer shall come to Zion, and unto them that turn from transgression in Jacob, saith the LORD. As for Me, this is My covenant with them, saith the LORD; My spirit that is upon thee, and My words which I have put in thy mouth, shall not depart out of thy mouth, nor out of the mouth of thy seed, nor out of the mouth of thy seed’s seed, saith the LORD, from henceforth and for ever.”
Yes, God is not through with His people, Israel, but now, whether you are a natural branch, or a wild branch, you can be saved by grace through faith in the death of Christ for your sins, and that He is our RISEN SAVIOR. But take heed that you are not broken of because of unbelief.
2 Corinthians 5:20-21 KJV – “…we pray you in Christ’s stead, be ye reconciled to God. For [God] hath made [Christ] to be sin for us, [Christ] Who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him.”
Bullinger, E. W. (1928). The Church Epistles: Romans to Thessalonians. London: Eyre & Spottiswoode.