Tuesday, May 14, 2019

The Olive Tree in Romans

Significant numbers of Christians over the years have had difficulty understanding the image of the olive tree the apostle Paul uses in Romans 11. If you doubt this, consult any combination of online commentaries. You’ll quickly see interpretations differ wildly.

For those who wonder why something like this matters enough to merit an entire blog post, bear in the mind that Romans 11 speaks of the future place in God’s purposes of his earthly people, the nation of Israel. An increasing number of Christians are convinced all God’s promises to Israel are fully realized in the Church, and that the “Israel” of which the Old Testament speaks is actually … well … us.

How you understand the olive tree is all tied up in that.

Disinheriting God’s Earthly People

Christians who conflate the Church and Israel are often called Replacement Theologians or Supersessionists by their critics, though they rarely use those names to describe themselves. Their theologians write comparatively few books about their beliefs, yet they make up a very large bloc among evangelicals today.

The Supersessionist view of scripture is not only both unnecessary and interpretively inconsistent, it is also occasionally used to provide cover for anti-Semitic views and the promotion of Middle East policy initiatives from which Christians rightly ought to distance ourselves.

Thus, a more biblical understanding of the imagery used in Romans 11 might be useful in encouraging accurate Christian thinking about the past, the future, about the Church, about Israel, and about our position in Christ.

Consulting the Dictionary

“[The olive tree] is referred to as an emblem of prosperity and beauty and religious privilege (Psalms 52:8; Jeremiah 11:16; Hosea 14:6). The two ‘witnesses’ mentioned in Revelation 11:4 are spoken of as ‘two olive trees standing before the God of the earth.’ (Compare Zechariah 4:3; Zechariah 4:11-14.)”
Eh. Not far off. There’s quite a bit there to chew on.

You will find a careful look through a concordance shows that in both Old and New Testaments the symbol of the olive tree is reliably associated with two things: blessing and testimony.

Blessing and Favor

As to blessing, we see its connection with the olive tree consistently from Genesis through the books of the Law, the Psalms and the Prophets:
  • In Genesis, the dove released by Noah brought back an olive leaf. Noah thus understood that the waters of the flood had subsided and that it was safe to leave the ark. God’s judgment was over and his gracious favor toward mankind had recommenced. God would tell Noah twice, “be fruitful and multiply.”
  • In Deuteronomy, God’s blessing to Israel in their new home in Canaan was said to consist of “houses full of all good things that you did not fill, and cisterns that you did not dig, and vineyards and olive trees that you did not plant.” The olive tree signified God’s thoroughly unmerited favor to his people. They had not planted the trees, but they benefited from them notwithstanding. Provided they kept his commands as they had promised to do, Israel could expect to continue to benefit materially in these sorts of ways.
  • When Israel rebelled against God, the reverse was true: “You shall have olive trees throughout all your territory, but you shall not anoint yourself with the oil, for your olives shall drop off.” In such times, it was the crickets that were blessed with the fallen olives, not the sinful Israelites.
  • The Psalms draw a contrast between the man who trusts in the abundance of his riches and the man who enjoys the blessing of his God. David replies, “But I am like a green olive tree in the house of my God.” In other words, I am getting my necessary love and nourishment from my relationship with Heaven. I am blessed.
  • In the Prophets, God speaks to his people through the prophet Hosea, saying: “I will be like the dew to Israel; his beauty shall be like the olive.” When God is blessing you, everybody knows it. How? Well, you’re just like a fruitful olive tree: productive and appealing.
All through the Old Testament, the olive tree is connected with material and spiritual blessing. If you want to break that down into “prosperity, beauty and religious privilege”, fair enough. But bear in mind that the “religious privilege” was not exclusive to Israelites. It was also on offer to the world by way of conversion from the very beginning, as any proselyte to the God of Israel could attest, including those who came out of Egypt.

A Continual Witness

The olive tree is not just a symbol of God’s blessing but also a witness to his presence and power. Once again, this is true from one end of the scriptures to another:
  • In Exodus, a lamp was to burn in the tabernacle continually to signal God’s presence among his people. That lamp was fed by olive oil.
  • Zechariah had a vision of a lampstand continuously fed by two olive trees. An angel told Zechariah those olive trees symbolized “the two anointed ones who stand by the Lord of the whole earth.”
  • In Revelation, a similar symbolic lampstand/olive tree combination is interpreted as “my two witnesses”, who will prophesy to the world in a future day.
In fact, we might argue that at times blessing and testimony amount to very nearly the same thing. The blessing of God on his servants IS a testimony to the world. For this reason, the Israelites were instructed not to be too careful to reap their entire olive crop. The surplus was for “the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow.” It was evidence of God’s care for them, and a witness to the world that God’s presence and blessing were to be found among his people. When Israel was obedient to God, no man or woman among them needed to be stingy. There was plenty for everyone.

Confused by the Not-So-Confusing

Thus, throughout scripture, whenever the olive is used figuratively, it is usually blessing and/or testimony that are in view. Few students of the Bible would argue the point. If you are disposed to, as I say, a concordance will set you straight in no time.

I point this out because in Romans 11, as mentioned, commentators struggle mightily to unpack an image whose meaning is already well established for us in the word of God. The olive tree symbolism does not suddenly require a novel twist when we come to the Roman epistle. Creative interpreters need not apply.

Let me suggest that the olive tree of verses 17-24 is not the Church, as Matthew Henry opines, nor is it Israel, as others insist. Sure, Abraham’s faith is indeed the “root” to which Paul refers, but that doesn’t necessarily make the olive tree itself either Israel or the Church, regardless of how you may define these two ideas.

Neither does the olive tree represent “Messianic salvation”, as still others attest, nor is it “redemption”, as yet another commentator has claimed in a link I can no longer locate.

No, I believe the olive tree of Romans 11 represents the same things it has always represented from Genesis through Revelation. The olive tree is God’s vehicle of blessing and testimony in the world.

Biblical Consistency

Such an interpretation is both biblically consistent and soteriologically sound. It removes the theological difficulty of Gentile branches potentially being “cut off” from salvation because they have displayed arrogance toward the Jewish people. Pride is definitely a significant sin, but are we prepared to speculate that all Gentile churchgoers who belittle the place of God’s earthly people in his future plans are in reality unsaved? I for one am not willing to go there.

Instead, plug the standard scriptural meaning of the “olive tree” symbol into Romans 11 and mull it over for a while. I believe you’ll find such an interpretation eliminates all kinds of potential problems.

For one, there’s this: salvation does not depend on one’s favorable attitude toward Jewish restoration, but rather on one’s relationship with the Lord Jesus.

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