The Goodness & Severity Of God
The Olive Tree

In a Brief Survey of the Epistle of Paul to the Romans
Based on sermons preached in PCC Worship Services, July 2003 to Sep 2005
Part 55a of 83

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. 23 And they also, if they abide not still in unbelief, shall be grafted in: for God is able to graft them in again” (Romans 11:22-23).

The apostle is a very profound writer. He writes with intensively logical and persuasive arguments that leave his reader no room for doubt as to the truth he is seeking to convey. But Paul is also powerfully memorable in his presentation because of His careful use of illustrations. We think of his illustration of the church as a body (1 Cor 12:12-27); of false teachers as angels of light (cf. 2 Cor 11:14); of the Law as a pedagogue (Gal 3:24); of the divide between Jews and Gentiles as the middle-wall of partition (Eph 2:14); of our heavenly citizenship (Phil 3:20); of our sin being nailed to the cross as part of Christ’s charge-title (Col 2:14); and here in our text, of The Olive Tree.

From this illustration we may learn much about the relationship between the Jews and the Gentile church as we saw in our previous study. But springing out of the same illustration are important lessons for us who are Gentile Christians. Paul says:

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.

The Lord helping us, we must consider three things from these words. First, we must re-establish what the Olive Tree represents; secondly, we must consider what is the goodness of God; and thirdly, we must clarify what exactly is implied by the severity of God.

1. The Olive Tree

It is quite impossible for us to interpret our text in isolation of its context. Paul talks about grafting in (v. 23) and cutting off (v. 22). Grafting-in to what, cutting-off from what? The context makes it clear: it is the Olive Tree (v. 17). But what is the Olive Tree? Unless we understand what the Olive Tree is, we will not understand what it means to be grafted in or to be cut off from it.

So, what is the Olive Tree? Some say that it does not represent anything in particular, as it is only a prop for the apostle to convey his admonition graphically. It is like when we use the idiom, “in a nutshell,” we are not saying that the nut or the shell represents anything.

If this is the case, then we should not try to figure out what the Tree represents, but look at what Paul has to say as an abstract whole. According to this view, all that the apostle is saying is that: As it is unusual for wild olive shoots to be grafted into a cultivated olive tree, so it is an unusual condescension of God that Gentiles should share in God’s blessings which He had reserved for the Jews.

This is true. But is this all that the apostle intends to illustrate with the Olive Tree? I don’t think so: because the Olive Tree is not mentioned only in passing. Paul says a lot more than grafting in. He speaks of the holiness of the branches: “If the root be holy, so are the branches” (v. 16b). He speaks about partaking of the root and fatness of the tree (v. 17)); and of God’s breaking off some of the branches of the tree (v. 19-21).

Each of these statements suggests that the Olive Tree is intended as a significant illustration to represent something substantive. Why is the root of the tree holy? What is the “root and fatness” of the tree? We know that the branches are people, but what does being broken off mean? Broken off from what? Indeed, what does grafting mean? Quite obviously, the Olive Tree represents a theological concept or entity that Paul has in mind; and unless we see what the concept or entity is, we cannot understand clearly what he is saying.

For this reason, several ideas have been surfaced concerning what the Olive Tree represents. Some believe that the Tree represents national Israel. But this cannot be correct since faith has never been a prerequisite for citizenship in Israel. How could unbelieving Jews be broken off if the Tree represents the nation.

Another suggestion is that the tree represents believing or true Israel, or as one commentator puts it: “the spiritual stock of Abraham.” However, if the olive tree represents true Israel, why is there a need to break off unbelieving branches? Would not Paul be contradicting himself, for he had already made it clear that no one can separate those who are in Christ from the love of Christ (Rom 8:35)! There must be another explanation to what the Tree represents.

b. When we have considered everything from a logical standpoint and comparing Scripture with Scripture, we find that there is only one convincing answer to what the tree represents. I have no doubt that it represents the visible covenant people of God, or the Visible Church of Christ both in the Old and New Covenant.

Take careful note that it is the Visible Church of God comprising all professing believers, and not the invisible church comprising all the elect. When we talk about the covenant people of God, we must realise that there are two ways in which a person may be a member of this covenant. One is externally and provisionally, the other is internally and actually. A true believer or an elect of Christ is a member of the covenant in the full sense of the word; but a mere professor of faith is also a member of the covenant, —but only externally and provisionally. Paul is speaking about these two modes of covenant membership when he says “they are not all Israel, which are of Israel” (Rom 9:6). All Israel under the Old Testament was the people of God, but not all Israel were circumcised in the heart and therefore truly members of the covenant.

Now, we are saying that the Olive Tree represents the visible covenant body or the Visible Church of God both in the Old and New Testaments.

This interpretation fits seamlessly and logically into what Paul is saying concerning the Olive Tree from at least three angles.

Firstly, consider the fact that just as it is possible to graft a branch into an olive tree, so it is possible for one who is not in the Visible Church to be grafted into it. Under the Old Covenant, converts to Judaism were circumcised in order to be incorporated into the Olive Tree (Ex 12:48).

Under the New Covenant, converts to Christianity are incorporated into the Olive Tree by baptism. The apostle Paul says:

For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit (1 Cor 12:13, Acts 2:41).

Now, Paul is indeed talking about Spirit-Baptism; but water-baptism has its significance in Spirit-Baptism, and it is the visible sign and seal of it. As Spirit-Baptism ratifies one’s membership in the Church Invisible, so water-baptism ratifies one’s membership in the Church Visible. Thus, at Pentecost, three thousand souls were baptised, and these were said to be added to the church. So today, we are, in a sense, officially engrafted to the olive tree by baptism.

Secondly, consider the fact that the visible covenant body of Christ grows, just as an olive tree grows. It is no co-incidence that David in Psalm 128, says that the children of everyone who fears the Lord are like olive plants or olive shoots. The Olive Tree began growing with Adam and Eve, and their children. It grew with Noah and his family. It grew with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and his children, etc.

What about today? Has the tree stopped growing? Of course not! If it stops growing it can no more be describe as a tree! The fact is that the tree continues to grow with believers and their children, whether Jewish or Gentile (Acts 2:39). “For the promise is unto you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call” (Acts 2:39), says the apostle Peter.

Thirdly, consider the fact that it is possible for someone to be cut-off from the covenant body just as the branch of an olive tree may be cut off. In the time of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel their children were part of the covenant. Then Cain killed Abel and he was essentially cut-off when he was banished. The Olive Tree continued to grow with Seth and other sons and daughters. But eventually, only Noah and his family remained on the Tree. The other parts of the Tree were unbelieving. They were cut off by the great flood. After the flood the Olive Tree continued to grow, especially in the line of Shem. In the days of Isaac, the Tree appeared set to have two great branches, Esau and Jacob. But Esau who was not a child of the promise, despised the goodness of God by denying his birthright. He was essentially cut off, and the Olive Tree continued to grow with Jacob and his twelve children.

By the time the Lord Jesus was born, the Olive Tree had many branches. The branches were holy (Rom 11:16) because the Jews were still the covenant people of God. Many were dead or fruitless branches, but they were still part of the Tree. But later, a large number of these branches clamoured for Lord’s blood, and even called a curse upon themselves saying: “His blood be on us, and on our children” (Mt 27:25; cf. Acts 18:6). In so doing, they and all Jews who deny Christ, essentially cut themselves and their children from the Olive Tree! The Gentiles, on the other hand, were grafted in when they confessed the Lord Jesus Christ and were baptised.

Considering these three points, I trust you can see clearly now how beautifully the Olive Tree represents the Visible Church. Only the Visible Church will grow. Only the Visible Church can be engrafted into. Only the Visible Church needs pruning.

Here then is our first lesson. The Olive Tree refers to the Visible Church. You must view the congregation of which you are a member as a branch of the Olive Tree. Individual members may be regarded as sprigs, whereas covenant children may be viewed as olive shoots.

…to be Continued Next Issue

—JJ Lim