The olive tree is a symbol found in Romans 11 that stands for the promises and privileges of God in the earth. I want to make a few points concerning this symbol because there are so many confusing ideas and teachings that involve its use. A large number of teachers and theologians err in making the tree either the church or the nation of Israel. They would have us believe that God cut off the nation of Israel from the body of Christ, or that born-again believers are grafted into the nation of Israel. Both of these ideas are misleading and do not agree with what the passage speaks of. These errors are not just damaging to the proper understanding of Bible prophecy, but also do serious harm to the doctrines of the church.
“Now if their fall is riches for the world, and their failure riches for the Gentiles, how much more their fullness!”
“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.”
The olive tree produces fatness and blessings from God (Rom. 11:17, 22). It is symbolic of the promises and goodness of God on the earth. Because of Israel’s failure, the fatness of the olive tree means riches for the world and riches for the Gentiles. The world enjoys this fatness when Israel is cut off and the Gentiles are grafted in.
The Natural Heirs of the Promises
As long as Israel was acknowledged by God, through natural descent and on the ground of Judaism (birthright and their old legal covenant and law), they were the heirs of the promises through Abraham (Rom. 9:3-5). God honored Israel’s fathers by all of His dealings with the Jews. He chose them as a people and a nation. He delivered them as a people and a nation. By their redemption His presence dwelled in their midst (Ex. 29:45-46). He eventually brings them into the land according to the promises He made to the forefathers. The land itself was called the land of promise. He had given Israel His law and when they failed in responsibility He promised to send them a Prophet greater than Moses. God promised them the throne of David as an eternal throne and reign to give them hope, with the son of David after the flesh pledged to sit on it eternally.
God eventually does this and sends the Messiah of promise to the Jews (Acts 13:23). Jesus Christ became a minister of the circumcision for the truth of God, to confirm the promises made to the fathers (Rom. 15:8). These were the fathers of Israel and this was Jesus as come according to the flesh – a Jewish Messiah. When He came to them as the Anointed One of Jehovah, He preached to them the glad tidings of promises being fulfilled (Luke 4:17-21). The extent and scope of His mission was limited to the lost sheep of Israel. God was faithful and did nothing to deny the prophecies and promises (Matt. 10:5-6, 15:24, Luke 4:42-44). As long as God recognized Israel in this way He could not turn from them to the Gentiles, or do anything that denied them as heirs of the promises (Rom. 9:4-5). That is why it is said quite directly, “…Israelites, to whom pertain…the promises.”
But Israel failed to receive the promises. Often they simply relied on their physical birth and national ties to Abraham (John 8:33-47, Matt. 3:9, Rom. 9:6-8). This was not pleasing to God. Being under the law in human responsibility they failed to attain righteousness, which was necessary to receive the promises (Gal. 3:10-12, 18, Rom. 9:30-32). Their law was not of faith and therefore not of grace, and could not justify them. Their law could not help them maintain their hold on any of the promises. When God sent His Son to them in goodness and grace, they rejected Him, threw Him out, and put Him to death. They rejected the one Seed of Abraham in whom all the promises resided (Gal. 3:16). Israel was set aside by God from the promises. They stumbled at the stumbling stone God had set in Zion (Rom. 9:30-33). Romans 11 describes it as a temporary fall by Israel (Rom. 11:11-15). The kingdom was taken from them and with it all the promises were gone (Matt. 21:43). This is the breaking off and casting aside by God of the natural branches from the olive tree.
Reliance on the Flesh
What were the things that Israel relied on in thinking they obtained the favor of God and the promises? The answer is threefold:
- Israel relied on and boasted in natural birth and descent. They were the physical children of Abraham, according to the flesh. They were the heirs of the promises by birth.
- Israel relied on and boasted in the works of the law, which law was given to them by God. By doing the law they felt they merited the divine favor of God.
- Israel relied on and boasted in religious forms of worship and carnal ordinances. The main emphasis of the former is the temple, the later was circumcision. The males in Israel were circumcised as an outward sign, showing the world they belonged to God and were the only heirs of the promises.
It isn’t hard to see Israel’s reliance on the flesh, and their human pride in doing so. All three things listed are what Paul calls religious confidences of the flesh. They are called confidences for man because he embraces them as the means of gaining God’s favor.
“…confidence in the flesh…circumcised the eight day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews; concerning the law, a Pharisee…concerning the righteousness which is in the law, blameless.”
This portion of Scripture perfectly matches the above list. Israel wholeheartedly embraced the religious confidences of the flesh in order to please God. But if we look at God’s word we will see exactly how far down this path they were able to travel.
1. Natural birth and descent – “For they are not all Israel who are of Israel, nor are they all children because they are the seed of Abraham…that is, those who are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God…” (Rom. 9:6-8) Then John the Baptist says, “…do not think to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’” (Matt. 3:9) And finally when the Jews remarked to Jesus, “We are Abraham’s descendants, and have never been in bondage to anyone…” they were lying, for at that moment the Romans ruled over them. And further, they were not speaking the truth because Jesus replies to them, “You are of your father the devil…” (John 8:31-47)
2. The works of the law – first we should understand that Abraham preceded the law by 430 years and could not actually become a doer of the works of the law. But it becomes clear that Abraham and David, the two fathers most recognized by the nation, were not justified before God by doing works (Rom. 4:1-8). “Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight…” (Rom. 3:19-20, Gal. 2:16)
3. Religious forms of worship and carnal ordinances – if the temple was set aside by God as the place of worship, then all the religious service and forms of worship in Judaism would be equally set aside (John 4:21, Matt. 23:37-24:2). And circumcision, as a carnal ordinance, was not the means by which Abraham was blessed (Rom. 4:9-12). All the remaining carnal ordinances of their religion fall to the wayside along with circumcision (Heb. 9:9-10).
The confidences of the flesh that the Jews relied upon were useless, and gained them no favor with God. There were three things necessary for Israel to receive the promises – justification, righteousness, and the principle of grace through faith. Yet they could not attain these very things through their law. It may be helpful to break these thoughts down and distinguish them in another list.
- The issue of justification – “But that no one is justified by the law in the sight of God is evident…” (Gal. 3:11) Israel could not be justified through their religion.
- And we know that the justified shall have life through the principle of grace and faith, “…for the just shall live by faith.”(Gal. 3:11)
- “Yet the law is not of faith…” The law is not according to the principle of grace and faith, but rather the opposite principle. The man who does all the commandments and statutes of the law shall have life by the doing of them (Gal. 3:12). “…but the man who does them shall live by them.” The working principle of the law is human responsibility.
- The issue of righteousness – we read also, “For Moses writes about the righteousness which is of the law, ‘The man who does those things shall live by them.’” (Rom. 10:5) So the law given to Israel, by its own working principle, could not justify or make righteous, and could not give life. This is the law, and this is their religion.
- The principle of grace through faith – “…but Israel, pursuing the law of righteousness, has not attained to the law of righteousness. Why? Because they did not seek it by faith, but as it were, by the works of the law.” (Rom. 9:31-32)
- The principle of grace through faith – “Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt. But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness.”(Rom. 4:4-5) In this passage we have all four words – justify, righteousness, grace, and faith. We see how they are connected together while other words are excluded – law, curse, works, wages, debt, and boasting. We also read,“And if by grace, then it is no longer of works; otherwise grace is no longer grace. But if it is of works, it is no longer grace; otherwise work is no longer work. What then? Israel has not obtained what it seeks…but…were hardened.”(Rom. 11:6-7)
- The sending of Messiah to Israel – “For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” (John 1:17) When Jesus came in grace, Israel rejected Him. They would have had all the promises if they received Him. Even after the crucifixion and after Pentecost Israel was offered an invitation of grace (Matt. 22:1-7). But they refused it, made light of it, and went their way.
Israel set aside by God
These were God’s reasons for setting aside Israel and casting them off from the olive tree as the natural branches. Israel never receives the kingdom nor maintains the promises. Yet we see that the promises made to the Jewish forefathers were secured in Jesus Christ by His resurrection (Acts 13:30-34, Rom. 15:8). We should not fail to see both the irony of these events as well as the wisdom of the plan of God in them. Israel’s hatred by crucifying Jesus Christ is their stumbling and falling on the stone God had set in Zion (Matt. 21:42-44). It is the reason for God temporarily setting them aside, while at the same time, His death and resurrection secures for them their future restoration in the land with all the promises. This will be done, the nation grafted in and accepted, according to the fulfillment of all promises based on the faithfulness of Jehovah. This will include the return of the Messiah to them whom the nation had previously killed (Acts. 2:22-24). But Israel must wait until God acknowledges them again as His people, and He as their God (Jer. 24:7, 31:33, 32:38, Ez. 11:20, 37:23, 37:27, Zech. 8:8, Heb. 8:10 – every verse listed here uses this phrase and points to the millennium when Israel is again acknowledged and restored by God. At the present time they are not His people, and He is not their God – Hosea 1:9).
Israel is cut off from the fatness of the tree. “For if the inheritance is of the law, it is no longer of promise; but God gave it to Abraham by promise.” (Gal. 3:18) “Now to Abraham and his Seed were the promises made.” (Gal. 3:16) His one Seed is Jesus Christ, in whom all the promises of God are found (II Cor. 1:20). Abraham is the root of the olive tree. In him were all the promises deposited (Heb. 7:6). His one Seed, Jesus Christ, met and fulfilled all the conditions for blessing. Israel’s law could not make them fit for the promises and then they crucified the one Seed. They are set aside by God and hardened, except for a very small Jewish remnant that remains as natural branches in the tree (Rom. 11:5-10). And now the Gentiles come in (Rom. 11:11-13).
God turns to the Gentiles
“Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding is ready, but those who were invited were not worthy. Therefore go into the highways, and as many as you find, invite to the wedding. So those servants went out into the highways and gathered together all whom they found, both bad and good. And the wedding hall was filled with guests.”
God turns to the Gentiles in a general and dispensational way. “That Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have attained to righteousness, even the righteousness of faith.” (Rom. 9:30) And later in Romans Paul says, “But through their fall, to provoke them to jealousy, salvation has come to the Gentiles.” (Rom. 11:11) Israel’s failure and fall from the olive tree means riches for the Gentiles and riches for the world (Rom. 11:12). Not once is Paul directly speaking of the church seated in the heavens or the believer in glory with Christ. But he speaks of the Gentiles in general. He speaks of God turning to them with the offer of blessing and grace by the gospel of salvation through faith. In the above verse it is through the gospel that the servants gather in the Gentiles both good and bad. It is similar to the net cast into the sea or the spoiled crop in the field in the kingdom of heaven. The Gentiles are grafted in, standing in a profession of faith, in order to be partakers of the root and fatness of the olive tree (Rom. 11:17-20). The availability of salvation and the promise of the Spirit, as well as God’s general favor, are part of the present fatness and blessing of the olive tree that the Gentiles currently are offered and enjoy (Gal. 3:14).
“…salvation for the Gentiles,” is a vague and general statement only to be understood as a change in the dispensational dealings of God (Rom. 11:11). In fact, not all Gentiles are saved and we will not find all Gentiles in heaven. “Now if their fall is riches for the world…”, again is a phrase that can only be understood by dispensation (Rom. 11:12). God cuts Israel off from the promises and turns His attention and dealings to the rest of the world – to the Gentiles.
The future Millennial Fullness of Israel
We should understand that the full measure of Romans 11:12 is pointing to the millennium when Israel will be grafted back into the fatness of the olive tree and will finally be restored and have ‘their fullness’. If the blessing was so great for the world with Israel ‘fallen’ and in failure, how much more will it be blessing and riches for the Gentile nations when Israel is restored in ‘fullness’ in their land? It is during the coming millennium that Israel will grow to be the greatest and most blessed nation on the face of the earth and the Gentiles, the world, will be blessed through them. Israel, as a formed nation, will be back from the dead (Rom. 11:15).
But notice the verse says, “…their fullness.” During the millennium Israel is still a separated people and nation, distinct from the Gentiles. It will be Israel in the land, it won’t be the Gentiles or the church living there with them. The Gentile nations will be blessed from the overflow of blessings, but Israel will remain a separated nation. [Please see Deut. 32:8. The name for God as the Most High points to the millennium. This verse shows that God will make Israel the center of the millennial earth.] It will be at the beginning of the millennium that God will say to the saved Jewish remnant in the land (Rom. 9:27), “…I will be their God, and they shall be My people.” God will form a nation from this elect and chosen remnant (Isa. 10:20-23, 66:6-9, Rev. 7:3-8). This is where the new covenant comes in, at the time when God again acknowledges Israel as His people. The new covenant will be instituted when God again recognizes Israel’s calling (Rom. 11:29).
“But now He has obtained a more excellent ministry, inasmuch as He is also Mediator of a better covenant, which was established on better promises.
7 For if that first covenant had been faultless, then no place would have been sought for a second. 8 Because finding fault with them, He says: “Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah— 9 not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt; because they did not continue in My covenant, and I disregarded them, says the Lord. 10 For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put My laws in their mind and write them on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. 11 None of them shall teach his neighbor, and none his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them. 12 For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more.”
13 In that He says, “A new covenant,” He has made the first obsolete. Now what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.”
If I may be direct, there are a few points to be made here that are hard to dispute. The first point is that what is called the ‘new covenant’ is a second covenant made between God and Israel. Regardless of what your thoughts are of the ‘new covenant’ and who you think is involved in the agreement, the above passage is fairly clear. It stands to reason that if the first covenant was made between God and Israel, and the second replaces the first, then the second covenant is made between God and Israel. The new covenant will be made with the house of Israel and Judah, bringing them back together as one nation and one people before God. Therefore He says, “…I will be their God, and they shall be My people.” The first covenant was not formally made with the Gentiles. The first covenant separated Israel from the Gentiles.
When Israel was set aside by God and He ended the practice of the first covenant by destroying Jerusalem and the temple, the remaining Jews were scattered into the nations (Luke 21:24). They are no longer separated from the Gentiles. From God’s viewpoint they live among the Gentiles as the Gentiles, and so doing, they defile His name (Ez. 36:19-24). They do not currently have a covenant, for if they did, it would separate them from the rest. The obvious conclusion is this: there is no recognition from God of the Jews being His people, no separation from the Gentiles, no land, and no covenant.
God will have to return Israel to the land in order to make the second or new covenant with them. The formal implementation of the new covenant will once again separate Israel from the Gentile nations. Then God will acknowledge Israel as His people, they will be separated from the Gentiles, they will possess the land, and the new covenant will be formally made with them. Jehovah will hallow His own name by doing this for Israel. If their ‘new covenant’ re-establishes the nation as distinct and separate from the Gentiles, how can we think the new covenant is made with the Gentiles?
The Common Character of God’s Covenants
If I may be direct again in speaking of the character and nature of covenants in general:
- Covenants are agreements made by God. They explain God’s dealings in blessing with the earth and man on the earth and in connection with the first creation. Scripturally this is man in the first Adam and man in the flesh.
- Except for the first covenants ( those made with creation and the ones made with Abraham), all the remaining ones are made with Israel after they became a nation. This explains why the Scriptures say, “…Israelites, to whom pertain…the covenants…” (Rom. 9:4)
- The covenant with creation, for which the rainbow is a sign, involves God preserving the earth for future blessing. During the millennium the curse on creation, which God placed at the fall of man, will be removed. The first creation is currently under futility and corruption, but placed there by God in hope (Rom. 8:19-22). We see that God deals by covenant with the first creation and the earth.
- The covenants with Abraham all deal with blessing in the earth, the dividing of land for inheritance, or the building of nations on the earth. One particular promise from God says this, “In you all the nations or families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Gen. 12:3, 18:18) There is more to this particular covenant than meets the eye. Some previously hidden blessings come in, related as auxiliaries to the original words of promise made to Abraham. The explanation of this is found in the understanding that the Spirit has been sent down from heaven. He reveals the mystery of Christ and the glory of Christ, who is Himself the one Seed of Abraham (Eph. 3:1-6, Gal. 3:16). The believer comes into association with Abraham through the gospel and its founding principle of grace through faith – the same principle that distinguished Abraham (Gal. 3:6-9, 14). However, for this particular point in reference to Abraham, if we speak of nations or families of the earth, we are referring to relationships connected with the world and the first creation (Gen. 12:2-3). In the plain words of the promise it references the world and the earth, not the church. Through Abraham the Gentile nations will be blessed during the millennium.
- All the remaining covenants that exist were made directly with Israel. As a nation on the earth they have two major covenants. God found fault with the first covenant and made it obsolete (Heb. 8:7, 13). The second covenant, the ‘new covenant’, has yet to be made with them. It is a covenant made with a future Jewish remnant after they are brought into their land. By this covenant they will be physically blessed and all their sins will be forgiven (Jer. 31:31-34).
- Of all the covenants God ever made, only one was the basis for God’s testing of man in the flesh in the principle of human responsibility. That covenant was made at Mt. Sinai with Israel. It is the essence of Judaism and that which the Scriptures call the law. In the above passage from Hebrews 8 it is referred to as ‘the first covenant’. It is significant that this particular covenant has passed away – it is the only covenant that God makes that will ever do this. You must see the connection between God completing His testing of man in human responsibility, looking for fruit, and this covenant passing away (Heb. 8:7, 13). Now this is a great teaching point: Of all the covenants God made, this one alone, made at Mt. Sinai, has ended. It clearly shows that human responsibility on its own can never sustain anything. Even when God highly privileged Israel and showed them favoritism, there was no good fruit produced, only failure.
The common character of covenants is for the blessing of the earth, and the blessing of man in Adam on the earth. These are essential characteristics in the foreground of every covenant God has made – whether He makes it with creation (Gen. 8:21-22), with Abraham by promise (Gal. 3:16, Gen. 12:2-3), or with the nation of Israel (Deut. 28:1-14, Jer. 31:31).
Regarding the individual believer and the body of Christ, covenants are a lot like the subject of prophecy. The church is hidden, it is mystery and obscure. It is clear what the covenants will do for a future Jewish remnant. It is equally clear what the covenants will do for the remaining nations on the earth who survive the coming tribulation and judgments. In Abraham all the families of the earth will be blessed (Gen. 12:3). However, the believer will be conformed into the image of His Son. There isn’t a covenantal agreement spelled out in Scripture that will do that. God predestined it to be before the world was created, before man existed, before Adam was in the garden and sinned – bringing the entire human race under the dominion of sin. God settled in His eternal purpose and counsels what He would do for the believer before there was man in paradise and a need for covenants with a cursed creation and a fallen man (Eph. 1:3-6). Covenants come into existence after the foundations of the world and therefore are part of the world – agreements from God for man in the world and connected to the first creation. This is easily seen in the plain and straight forward language of all the covenants. They are earthy in their character and for physical blessing. They never specifically deal with the believer being blessed with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in the second Adam (Eph. 1:3). The believer in Christ and the body of Christ are in the counsels of God before the foundations of the world (Eph. 1:4). They are wholly set apart from the world. They are wholly set apart from the first creation. They are as Christ, who ended all relationship with this world by His death and resurrection (John 12:24, 32).
The Olive Tree – God’s favor on the earth in Dispensation
If we turn our attention back to the olive tree we will find a similar character in God’s dealings – blessings on the earth for man in Adam. The tree represents God’s dealings with two different groups – the nation of Israel and the Gentiles (Rom. 11:1-15). The broad wording found in Romans 9-11 is what gives this passage its dispensational character, rather than covenantal.
“You will say then, “Branches were broken off that I might be grafted in.” (20) Well said. Because of unbelief they were broken off, and you stand by faith. Do not be haughty, but fear. (21) For if God did not spare the natural branches, He may not spare you either. (22) 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.”
Please forgive me if I repeat myself, but the proper understanding of the olive tree will clear up much confusion of doctrine. The entire eleventh chapter of Romans is speaking about these two dispensations – the Jewish dispensation in which Israel is acknowledged by God in calling, and a subsequent general Gentile dispensation with the spoiled crop in the world (Matt. 13:24-30). The Jewish dispensation ends when Israel, as a whole, is cut off from the olive tree of the promises of God in blessing and goodness (Rom. 11:15, 20-22). Israel is hardened (Rom 11:7). One thing is clear – Israel is not the olive tree. As a nation, Israel was cut off from the tree and hardened.
The Progression of Israel as associated with the Olive Tree
What is the final outcome for Israel? Has God cast away His people for good? (Rom. 11:1) The chapter clearly answers these questions. Israel’s final outcome will be exactly according to the Old Testament prophecies, fulfilled by the faithfulness, the sovereign grace, and the power of God. This chapter presents the prominent elements found in those prophecies and God’s counsels toward Israel.
- There is an obvious setting aside of the nation where they have not attained what they sought – Rom. 11:7-10. Israel at this present time is not acknowledged as His people. They have no existing covenant with God. He does not recognize their calling.
- There are Jewish remnants that God is pleased to save by sovereign grace – an election of grace. This is the only way you can ever define the biblical use of the word ‘grace’; this shows what the grace of God actually is, in its character, as always the sovereign election of God – Rom. 11:2-6
- God will turn back to Israel at a future point in time. He has to do this. He has to be shown to be the faithful God and Israel’s Jehovah, who keeps covenant with Israel for the sake of their forefathers (Ex. 3:6, 15, Ex. 6:2-4, Ex. 32:12-13, Deut. 7:9) It will be when the Gentile dispensation is cut off and ended, when God’s fullness of the Gentiles has come in – Rom. 11:25. The Gentiles will not continue in the goodness of God – Rom. 11:21-22. He will acknowledge Israel again as ‘His people, and He as their God’ – Rom. 11:23-27. In the end it will be done by God in His faithfulness to Israel, because the gifts and callings of God are without repentance – Rom. 11:28-29
- The phrase ‘the fullness of the Gentiles’ refers to the time when the Gentile dispensation will end. The Gentiles ‘not continuing in the goodness of God’ refers to Christendom as a spoiled crop in the world associated with the olive tree of God’s favor. The first thought has a positive connotation, while the second has a negative one. ‘The fullness’refers to the dispensation, while ‘the continuing’ refers to the corporate responsibility of the external body of Christendom. God’s purpose and counsels involve the dispensation and its timing. He has patience and longsuffering with human responsibility and Christendom’s failure. In the chapter we see that both, out of mutual necessity, must end at the same time. Then God turns back to acknowledge the nation of Israel.
- Israel will be saved as a remnant, according to the many Old Testament prophecies and the book of Revelation. God always has a remnant of Israel according to the election of grace. When the chapter speaks of all Israel being saved in the end (Rom. 11:26-27), it is as a final distinct remnant (Rev. 7:1-8, 14:1-4, Rom. 9:27-29, Isaiah 6:13, 8:18, 10:20-23, 11:11, 16, 37:31-32, Joel 2:28-32, Dan. 12:1). This Jewish remnant forms national Israel for the millennium (Isa. 66:6-9). Shall a nation be born at once? Israel will realize their fullness in blessings, being grafted back in and partaking of the root and fatness of the olive tree (Rom. 11:12, 17). Their acceptance by God will be, for the nation, life from the dead (Rom. 11:15, Ez. 37:1-14).
God turns to the Gentiles in a Dispensation
If there was a Jewish dispensation (and there was), then it is now set aside by God (Isaiah 8:14-17, Heb. 8:9, Matt. 21:42-44, 23:37-39). According to this chapter (Romans 11), when He cut Israel off and hardened them, He turned to the Gentiles. Israel being cast aside, as far as God’s ways and dealings, means the reconciling of the world, the accepted time, the day of salvation (Rom. 11:15). This general turning away from Israel and turning to the Gentiles by God is seen in this earlier passage.
“What shall we say then? That Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have attained to righteousness, even the righteousness of faith; (31) but Israel, pursuing the law of righteousness, has not attained to the law of righteousness. (32) Why? Because they did not seek it by faith, but as it were, by the works of the law. For they stumbled at that stumbling stone. (33) As it is written:
“Behold, I lay in Zion a stumbling stone and rock of offense,
And whoever believes on Him will not be put to shame.”
If we read Romans 9-11 closely we see that God’s ways and dealings in history first involved Israel, then the Gentiles, and then Israel again. These dealings are very distinct in timing with little overlap. This portion of Romans gives us a general understanding of two groups and God’s dealings with them, separately and distinctly, but in a dispensational arrangement. God’s general turning to the Gentiles is also confirmed in a passage at the end of Acts (Acts 28:23-29). The Jewish dispensation ended and a Gentile dispensation began. It will continue until the fullness of the Gentiles comes in and the Gentile dispensation is cut off (Rom. 11:22, 25). Romans eleven (11) views Christendom, in a sense, as consisting of a small Jewish remnant (Rom. 11:7) and an overwhelming majority of Gentiles. It is such a majority in composition that the chapter refers to the dispensation as that of the Gentiles (Rom 11:11-14).
The Body of Christ is not the Olive Tree
The olive tree is never a picture of the body of Christ and its doctrines. The church is the body united to the Head in heavenly glory by the power of the Holy Spirit. The church’s union is with the glorified Son of Man at the right hand of God. There is no thought of this with the olive tree, for it is on the earth. When anyone looks into the world what they see is Christendom. They do not see the body of Christ. Israel is cut off from the tree, except for a small believing remnant (Rom. 11:5). The church is not the olive tree and Christ is not the olive tree, because the nation of Israel was never in Christ or in the church.
The Gentiles will be cut off later. This cannot be the true church because God’s work – the body of Christ – cannot fail in His eternal purposes. The true church cannot be broken off. But the spoiled crop in the field can be cut off and will be cut off. The Gentile dispensation will come to an end. The Gentiles did not continue in the goodness of God. The olive tree is on the earth and not in heaven. It represents the administration of God’s promises and blessings on the earth in a dispensational way.
“For if you were cut out of the olive tree which is wild by nature, and were grafted contrary to nature into a good olive tree, how much more will these, who are the natural branches, be grafted into their own olive tree? For I do not desire, brethren, that you should be ignorant of this mystery, lest you should be wise in your own opinion, that hardening in part has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved…”
- God sets Israel aside. They are cut off. They are hardened (Rom. 11:7).
- God turns to the Gentiles, after Messiah’s rejection and after Stephen’s death.
- The Gentiles are grafted in. Christendom grows up in the earth as a spoiled crop.
- The Gentiles fail to continue in the goodness of God and their dispensation ends.
- Israel is acknowledged again by God. “You are My people, and I am your God.”
The nation of Israel was heir of God’s promises according to the flesh and natural descent (Rom. 9:3-5). They were the ‘natural’ branches. The wild branches of the wild olive tree were the Gentiles, who were aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the promises (Eph. 2:11-13). The olive tree recognizes Jews and Gentiles. The body of Christ does not (Gal. 3:28). The church was formed by Jews and Gentiles brought together creating a ‘new man’ in Christ (Eph. 2:11-15). This new man is where there is neither Jew nor Gentile (Col. 3:10-11). The olive tree does not represent a new position or a new man, but rather the previous position of Israel on the earth and associated with the favor of God. The body of Christ does not recognize Jews and Gentiles while the olive tree does recognize them. The olive tree is not the true church. The true church is a new position, a new man.
Israel is not the Olive Tree
Is the olive tree Israel, and is the church grafted into Israel? The Jews and their law and religion may recognize Gentiles, but only in a negative way by keeping away from them. The law and Judaism is a wall of separation from the Gentiles. A wall of separation is the opposite from the thought of Gentiles grafted into Israel. The wall of separation is abolished in the body of Christ, but it is always present in the nation of Israel. The basis of God’s government of the world during the millennium is the law. All through the millennium Israel will be in their land, separated from the Gentile nations.
Is the Olive Tree the family of God?
Romans 9-11 is a portion of Scripture that has caused much confusion in Christian teaching and doctrine. We see the tree is not the church or Israel. Does the olive tree represent the general family of God? It would seem that the details of the passage would support this idea until the point the Gentiles are cut off, allowing all Israel to be saved. Gentiles cut off from the family of God? I can’t comprehend the thought of the tree representing God’s family, and have it make sense for the entire passage.
It also is very difficult to call the body of Christ a dispensation. The true church has a heavenly calling. One of the features of dispensations is that their character involves God’s dealings with man on the earth. This thought should be further qualified as God’s dealings with man in Adam and the first creation. In this way dispensations are similar and have common character with covenants. Christendom is the spoiled crop on the earth and is easily seen as a dispensation. The crop is a mixture of three different works – that of God, of the devil, and of man. Christendom will end in the same way as all the other dispensations that preceded it – in human failure. Laodicea is spewed out. The Gentiles are cut off.
As soon as an unbeliever becomes a believer, God moves him out of the first Adam and the first creation and into the second Adam and the new creation of God (Rom. 8:9, Gal. 3:26-27, II Cor. 5:17). As soon as he is sealed by the Spirit (Eph. 1:13), he is baptized by this same Spirit into the body of Christ (I Cor. 12:13). The individual believer and the body of Christ are not of the earth or world (John 17:14-16). The Gentile dispensation that Romans 11 speaks of is that of the spoiled crop in the field of the world or the dispensation of the kingdom of heaven in mystery (in profession). These are the things that are on the earth and of the world, and may be viewed as a dispensation concerning the time period in which the Gentiles are grafted into the olive tree.
The Olive Tree and Human Responsibility
It remains that the olive tree speaks of a ‘position or place’ that Israel originally held by natural birth and descent. It is a position that is maintained in human responsibility. Israel failed in this responsibility and has not kept her place. The nation is now cut off from the tree. It is crucial to see that this is not a failure in sovereign grace on God’s part. Grace cannot fail, and when paired together with God’s calling the two are said by Scripture to be without repentance (Rom. 11:29).
Presently God gives the Gentiles this position or place of blessing as wild olive branches grafted into the original olive tree. But they only stay grafted in by human responsibility – if they continue in His goodness (Rom. 11:22). This is a key understanding for the olive tree. The Gentiles were not grafted in by sovereign grace and they are not secured in place by sovereign grace. They only remain in the tree if they continue in the goodness of God, that is, by human responsibility. This entire book documents with Scripture Christendom’s failure in this present dispensation. Christendom has not continued in the goodness of God. It is safe to say it will be cut off and the Gentile dispensation will end. Christendom will come to an end on the earth (Matt. 13:30, 40-43, 49-50).
The entire teaching of Romans 11 centers around the question asked at the beginning of the chapter – has God cast away His people Israel, the ones He foreknew (Rom. 11:1-2). God forbid! Those He did foreknow form a Jewish remnant that is part of the true church. As for the nation, the gifts and callings of God are without repentance. He has cast them off temporarily, but they will realize the promises in the end – through God’s faithfulness and sovereign grace, which cannot fail. Israel will not be cut off from the olive tree a second time. When the Jewish remnant is restored as the nation in the land and they have ‘their fullness’, this final dispensation will be sustained in the sovereign power and grace of God through the rule and reign of the Son of Man on the earth. From beginning to end this final dispensation will not fail (Eph. 1:10). It is known as ‘the dispensation of the fullness of times’. This stands in contrast to all the dispensations that preceded it.
In the above passage the Gentile dispensation is assumed to exist in apostasy. This is based on the fact that its continuance depends on maintaining itself by responsibility in the goodness and blessing of God (Rom. 11:21-22). Are the popes, the cult of the saints and virgin, infidelity, worldliness, divisions and denominations, cathedral building, state churches, and inquisitions, the continuing in the goodness of God? Is the minding of earthly things, which they who do such things are enemies of the cross of Christ (Phil. 3:18-19), the continuing in the goodness of God?
Will there be Revival?
We should also notice that the dispensation has no promise of general revival during its course or at its end. Failure to continue in God’s goodness is ruinous without hope of recovery. It is easily said that professing Christianity is anything but a continuance in the goodness of God in which it was started. Ephesus did not repent and return to its first state from which it had fallen (Rev. 2:5). Before the end of the age there may be an extraordinary testimony of warning to gather out the remnant before the judgments. However this is not the promise of revival.
We have not continued in His goodness, for if we had, such a corrupt state of things would not exist. When apostasy comes in, God’s true people suffer in it, and are contained in it, though they did not begin it. The true church is scattered and divided, and in many things it is worldly. We are not as Jesus prayed, “that they all may be one…that the world may believe that you sent Me.” Christendom does not stand as one. It has been divided up by man in every imaginable way. The world does not believe that Jesus was sent by God into this world, this based upon the unity and testimony of the professing church (John 17:20-21). Christendom will soon be cut off from the olive tree.
Chapter 17: Endnotes
 There are further points to be made, associated with man’s constant failure in human responsibility. Judaism, as a religion, is the ‘first covenant’. Judaism passed away as a religion when God ended the first covenant (Heb. 8:6-8, 13). Now it all passes away for a very specific reason – it was based entirely on the principle of human responsibility, and this principle always leads to failure.
How important is it for you to be able to distinguish between human responsibility and sovereign grace? How important is it for you to be able to recognize the difference between man’s work and God’s work? How important is it to realize when something is basedentirely on a certain principle, and to have the spiritual understanding – that which only those who possess the Spirit of God and are taught by that same Spirit can be given – of that principle, to the point that we readily see the guaranteed outcomes and results consequent to the action and effect of that principle? The entire basis of the ‘first covenant’, and therefore the same for Judaism as a religion, is the principle of human responsibility. The guaranteed outcome was failure. It depended on man’s obedience.
Now we can look at this other principle – sovereign grace. What is this the basis of? It is the foundational principle of all God’s work, except for that which is known as God’s strange work – His judgment and wrath. If we exclude judgment, then all God does is based on the principle of grace. It is the basis of the wheat in the field, as planted by the Son of Man. It is the principle by which the wheat is preserved in the field as wheat. It is the basis by which the wheat will eventually be removed from the field, all together and at once, and placed in His barn. And so, what are the outcomes of this principle of sovereign grace? It is nothing short of the fact that God’s work cannot fail and is always eternal in its results. This is also what the apostle is saying in reference to grace, as well as the principle of calling, when Paul says these two are without repentance concerning God’s ways (Rom. 11:29). The two being irrevocable means that God will never waver from them and that they cannot be stopped. Both calling and grace will accomplish God’s full intended purpose. Both must be viewed in the sovereignty of God.
It should be profitable to compare the two dispensations – the Jewish dispensation and the dispensation of the kingdom of heaven in mystery that replaced it. We know the Jewish dispensation failed and ended, being entirely based on human responsibility and God testing this principle in man. God ends the testing. God ends the Jewish dispensation. God ends their ‘first covenant’. God ends the practice of their religion. God destroys their city and temple. The kingdom is taken from them. God sets Israel aside – they are not His people. They are cut off from the olive tree. Scripture cannot be more clear in the teaching of these things.
What of the kingdom of heaven, the dispensation that replaced the Jewish one? Well, it would be odd and senseless if the new dispensation was based entirely on the same principle that doomed the Jewish dispensation to failure. And so we find that it isn’t. As I said previously in the book, the kingdom of heaven is a mixture of three separate works – that of God, that of man, and that of the devil. Only the work of God that is the wheat is based on the principle of sovereign grace – the wheat is planted, the wheat is preserved, and the wheat is removed from the field. This sequence of the specific effects and outcomes of sovereign grace cannot fail at any point – it is the work of God.
Yet man’s work is always based on human responsibility and will fail. Satan’s work is of himself and is evil, deceitful, beguiling, and untruthful. His intentions are to corrupt the work of God if he can. But he cannot touch the wheat. Man’s work and Satan’s work is subject to the judgment of God. But God will never judge His own work, for He is not a workman that needs to do so. In the kingdom of heaven then, we find that which is based on the principle of sovereign grace and will not fail, right alongside and mixed in with that which does fail and will be judged. This is the spoiled crop in the field. At the end of the age the wheat is removed from the world and the tares are bundled together to be burned.
 The olive tree is not Israel. As a nation, Israel was cut off from the tree as ‘natural’ branches. This gives the impression that the olive tree was the promises of God and that Israel, as the chosen and privileged people of God, naturally had the promises (Rom. 9:4). Also the olive tree could be seen as the kingdom of God in general, as it develops upon the earth, and the possibility of entrance into the kingdom of God. The parable of the vineyard in Matt. 21:33-44 shows Israel’s failure in their responsibility and they could not produce fruit pleasing to God. This passage concludes with the kingdom of God being taken away from them as a nation. Here, in a sense, Israel loses the promises of God and the kingdom, and is cut off.
The very next parable shows how Israel, as a whole, refused the invitation of grace offered to them after the cross (Matt. 22:2-14). This is the parable of the wedding of the king’s son, and speaks of the time of the kingdom of heaven as a progressing development of the general kingdom of God. This time follows after the previous parable showing Israel’s failure in responsibility. They now refuse the offer or invitation of grace from God. Israel’s failure is double. First, as privileged above all other nations, they failed in responsibility. Second, when invited in grace, they refuse and reject grace. “Israel has not attained what it seeks, but…were hardened.” (Rom. 11:7)
God turned away from Israel with the offer and invitation of grace and the kingdom, and turned to the Gentiles in general. This is the essence of Romans 9-11. It is God’s dealings with these two different groups at separate times, but in a general dispensational arrangement. I say this because God’s dealings in Romans 9-11 are with the two groups, not with individuals. The church, the body of Christ, is not one of the two groups. It is excluded from any consideration in the three chapters. And so, the olive tree represents the promises of God. In the Old Testament the promises were through Abraham, and the covenants made with him. Israel was in the olive tree by ‘natural descent’. They were the natural branches as for receiving the blessings of God. But they rejected the one ‘Seed’ of Abraham, to whom the promises were confirmed in that very covenant. Therefore Israel was cut off and hardened after they rejected the one Seed of Abraham (Gal. 3:16-19). Then God turned to the ‘wild’ olive branches, which were the Gentiles in general and dispensationally.
 There is no evidence or promise of recovery and revival to be found in the Scriptures concerning this present time or dispensation. The implied course of things in Romans 11 is that the Gentiles will not continue in the goodness of God. The Gentile dispensation will be stopped and cut off. The general course of the kingdom of heaven is good and evil mixed together until the end of the age, and men not holding to their responsibilities. The crop in the field is ripening in evil and corruption. As for the candlesticks, they are dimming and are removed. In the seven messages of the Son of Man to Christendom there is not one indication of recovery and restoration before the end – no general revival of the corporate entity. In Philadelphia, the best of the seven, they are weak with little power, and hanging on and holding fast to what they have, remaining faithful and looking for the Lord’s return. Philadelphia represents what the Lord wants us to be about, here at the end. But this is not the message we are hearing from our ministers.
 At the time the law was given to Israel and before the tablets were brought down the mountain and into the camp, Israel had begun its apostasy by fashioning a golden idol. It was the zeal of Moses that rescued Israel from the consequences of their departure from Jehovah. Instead of acting towards them by the just consequences of the law, God acts in goodness and mercy, forbearing the sins of some by passing over them (Rom. 3:25). Even though Israel was sustained by the intercession of Moses, the apostasy had come in and was present. In His sovereignty Jehovah showed mercy and compassion on whomever He willed (Ex.33:19, Rom. 9:14-16). Nevertheless the law was still present and many were destroyed in the wilderness (Jude 5, I Cor. 10:5-10). As for this Jewish dispensation the patience and longsuffering of God was not exhausted until Israel rejected His Son, although at many times and in many ways Israel tested God and angered Him.
One of those times was when the twelve spies were sent out into the land. Ten returned with an evil report while Joshua and Caleb had the good report of faith. Yet what were the consequences for the two of faith in the midst of the evil majority? They had to suffer in the wilderness for forty years with those in apostasy, until all those in unbelief died. God sustained Joshua and Caleb and those with them in faith, but they still spent forty years in the wilderness. This example becomes very important to understand, for it shows and proves the existence of corporate responsibility and its consequences when there is failure in the majority.
These events are all types and shadows for our present instruction. The true believer is on a walk of faith in the wilderness of the world. Israel as a whole, when in the wilderness, represents professing Christianity in the world. Israel consisted of wheat and tares, just like the corporate body of professing Christianity – the spoiled crop in the field. God will bundle together the tares of Christendom and eventually burn them in judgment in the wilderness (the world), just as He did with the unbelief associated with the nation of Israel (Heb. 3:16-19). The remaining Israelites, after the forty years of wandering, did cross the Jordan into the land under Joshua. This represents the wheat removed from the field (the wilderness), the rapture of the true church (crossing Jordan) and our entrance into the rest of God (the land – Heb. 4:1-11). Jesus Himself (Joshua) will come for us to take us into the presence of our God and Father. Nevertheless, the point is that true believers will live in the midst of the apostasy of professing Christianity while all the time this corporate body exists in the wilderness. Joshua and Caleb were not exempt from suffering just because they gave the report of faith.There is such a thing as corporate responsibility, where the entire body as a whole is held responsible before God. In this sense, Joshua and Caleb partook of the circumstances and conditions of failure, in that they could not change it. They may have been preserved through the conditions, but they definitely experienced the consequences of corporate failure for forty years.
Modern teachings in Christendom on the topics of grace and faith would have us question why Joshua and Caleb didn’t receive what they desired. Why would they have to wait forty years? Why not use the principles and methods and laws of faith that we are taught today to get what they desired? They certainly had the correct report and right confession! In these modern teachings there is a serious lack of depth of understanding of any true biblical principles from God’s word. They are filled with the leaven of humanism – human effort and accomplishment. I believe Joshua and Caleb had great faith. But their faith was not based on principles, methods, and following laws, but rather it was faith in God. In faith they were preserved by God and kept strong for forty years in the wilderness.
Here is another example. We are taught that we have great authority as believers in the name of Jesus. But this is often presented as a broad blanket statement without any understanding of biblical principles, parameters, or circumstances. We are taught that we have this authority in the name of Jesus and we should use it to bind Satan, bind enemies, bind certain avenues of thinking, change things, etc. We justify our use of His name by referring to what He said to His disciples after His resurrection – “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.” (Matt. 28:18) But we should realize that at this present time Jesus is sitting hidden and in patience at the right hand of God, and that He hasn’t taken up His power and authority, as in actively and directly using it, in order to reign on this earth (Col. 3:1-3, Heb. 10:12-13). He sits hidden from the world and He sits waiting in patience. I do not doubt that when Paul preached the gospel wherever he went, he did so in the name of Jesus. So Paul says this concerning his preaching of the gospel, “But even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, whose minds the god of this age has blinded…” (II Cor. 4:3-4) The thought, in view of our modern teachings, would be to ask why Paul didn’t just use his ‘great authority’, not only as a believer, but also as an apostle. Why didn’t he use the name of Jesus to stop Satan from blinding unbelievers?
There are many teachings in the church world that are unsound doctrines simply because there is no understanding in them of these biblical principles. We do not exhibit much understanding of the kingdom of heaven, what it is, how it exists, or how it is judged by God in the end. We do not understand the spoiled crop in the field, the enemy sowing tares among the wheat, and how these things progress in time on the earth (the history of Christianity). We do not comprehend the corporate responsibility of the spoiled crop in the field, and consequences, and that all the works of man on the earth done in human responsibility will be judged by God. The dispensation of the kingdom of heaven exists in apostasy, and true believers are in the midst of it, just like Joshua and Caleb, like Elijah, and again like Jeremiah.