The Olive Tree
Behold The Goodness & Severity Of God

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 54b of 83

“… 19 Thou wilt say then, The branches were broken off, that I might be grafted in. 20 Well; because of unbelief they were broken off, and thou standest by faith. Be not highminded, but fear: 21 For if God spared not the natural branches, take heed lest he also spare not thee. 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.…” (Romans 11:17-24).

[We have seen how the Olive Tree in Paul’s analogy is a reference to the Visible Church Universal at a particular point of time. With that in mind, the apostle would have us do three things: First, he reminds us not to boast against the natural root and branches of the Olive Tree (v. 17-18). We considered this reminder in our previous instalment of our exposition of the passage under the heading: “Boast not against the branches” (v. 18). Second, Paul would have us learn something of God’s dealing with the nation of Israel in order that we may know how we ought to conduct ourselves as members of the church (v. 19-22). He wants us to “behold the goodness and severity of God” (v. 22). This is what we turn to in this second instalment. In the third part, we will consider Paul’s reiteration that Israel is not completely cast off. In fact, “God is able to graft them in again” (v. 23). —JJL]

2.  Behold the Goodness and Severity of God

Paul is still dealing with the subject of boasting against the Jews. Apparently, there were people even in Paul’s days who hated the Jews and looked down upon them—

19 Thou wilt say then, The branches were broken off, that I might be grafted in.

Paul is anticipating that some of the Gentiles might justify their attitude towards the Jews by pointing out that the Jews were broken off that we might be grafted in; and therefore the Jews do not deserve respect.

It is like: if two soccer teams pit against one another, then naturally, the winning team will be tempted to boast against the losing team. They will speak about their weaker defences, the poorer strategy and skills, their chaotic co-ordination, etc, etc.

So the Gentile may be tempted to compare himself with the Jews: They were broken off, I was grafted in!

What does Paul say about this boastful attitude?

20 Well; because of unbelief they were broken off, and thou standest by faith.

That is to say: The Jews were broken off from the Olive Tree because of unbelief, not because they were inferior to you. You stand as part of the Olive Tree by faith. Your faith is a gift of God. You are no better than the Jews. Therefore do not boast against the Jews. Indeed…

Be not highminded, but fear: 21 For if God spared not the natural branches, take heed lest he also spare not thee.

Do not be highminded. Do not be arrogant. Rather, have a humble attitude of fear, for if God did not spare the natural branches, but cut them off, do you think He will not cut you off if He needs to? “Take heed lest he also spare not thee.” Take heed lest He cut you off from the Olive Tree.

But what does it mean to be cut off from the Olive Tree?  Does it mean that we can lose our salvation? Well, to understand what Paul means, it is essential for us to know what the Olive Tree is.

What is the Olive Tree?

Some believe that the Tree represents the nation of Israel. But this cannot be correct because faith cannot be a prerequisite for citizenship in a nation. How could unbelieving Jews be broken off if the Tree represents the nation? Conversely, if the Tree is the nation of Israel, how could Gentiles be grafted in unless they migrate to Israel and take up citizenship there?

Another suggestion is that the root of the tree is Christ and the Tree represents true spiritual Israel. The Olive Tree according to this view comprises all true believers.

But how can this be? For the Scripture elsewhere, —such as in Romans 8:35, —teaches us that no true believer will ever lose his salvation, and yet Paul speaks of not only the Jews, but the Gentiles being broken off from the Tree. Notice how he says that in the second part of verse 22 where he warns that if we continue not in God’s goodness, we shall be cut off?

The fact that even the branches that have been grafted in can be cut off indicates that the Olive Tree cannot refer to the true spiritual seed of Abraham, or the elect of Christ.

What then is the Olive Tree?

Well, when we have considered everything from a logical standpoint, and have compared 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, in other words, the Church Visible Universal of Christ, at any particular point of time, both in the Old and New Covenant.

Take careful note that it is the visible church of God comprising all professing believers alive at the moment, 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, —only externally and provisionally.

Paul spoke about these two modes of covenant membership when he said: “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.

The Olive Tree is the Visible Church of Christ. This Tree has been growing since the days of Adam and Eve. It is still growing today. PCC is branch of this Tree and all of us who are members of the church are sub-branches of this Tree.

How is this tree growing? It is growing in two ways: (1) by having new converts grafted in; and (2) by natural generation.

Take note that the Tree is the Visible Church, so it is not growing by regeneration but by natural generation.

It is no co-incidence that David, in Psalm 128, says that the children of everyone who fears the LORD is 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 described 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.

It is for this reason that the Reformers regard it as a great sin for believers not to want to have children. We must never think only of ourselves. We are part of the Olive Tree of Christ. We must desire that this Tree grows by having more children.

But remember that it is possible for the branches and shoots of this Tree to be cut off. As farmers cut off the diseased and fruitless branches of their trees, so God the Master Farmer will prune His tree of fruitless and diseased branches.

In the time of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel their children were part of the Tree. Then Cain killed Abel and he was essentially cut-off.

The Olive Tree continued to grow and bear fruit to the glory of God with Seth and his 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, and bore fruit unto the glory of God, 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 was not a child of the promise. He despised the goodness of God by denying his birthright. He was 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 and their children saying: “His blood be on us, and on our children” (Mt 27:25; cf. Acts 18:6). In so doing, they 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. This is why the branches of the Olive Tree are mostly Gentile, though the trunk of the tree is Jewish.

Will the tree still bear bad branches that need to be pruned under the New Covenant? Of course! As there were fruitless and dead branches in the Old Covenant, there will be fruitless and dead branches in the New Covenant.

This is why Paul warns against unbelief. Those who persist in unbelief should be cut off.

How will they be cut off? Well, knowing that the Olive Tree represents the Visible Church, we know that a branch is cut off either by death in unbelief, or by biblical church discipline (Mt 16:19, 18:15-18).

What about those who die in faith? Well, these are not cut off, but are promoted to the Church Triumphant. They do not remain on the Church Visible.

Only when we understand this, will we fully appreciate what Paul means when he says (v. 28):

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.

In other words, if we know that the Olive Tree is the Visible Church and that to be cut off is to be disciplined by the church or to die in unbelief, then we know that by the goodness and severity of God, Paul has in mind God’s dealing with us through the visible church.

The unbelieving Jews experienced the severity of God in that they were cut off from the church of Christ and therefore from the means of grace by which Christ nurtures His people. What are the means of grace? (1) The preaching of the Word, (2) the administration of sacraments, (3) as well as church government and discipline.

The unbelieving Jews had these privileges taken from them. Instead, they are exposed to the world, to the onslaught of the evil One and finally to the wrath of God against all who remain impenitent.

The converse is true for the Gentile believers. We have been grafted into the church of Christ. We are experiencing the goodness of God, —(1) not only in His special providential protection, and (2) the fellowship of His saints, (3) but also in the means of grace.

Yes, the means of grace available to us is a very important manifestation of God’s goodness towards us. Therefore, let us never despise the preaching of the word of God, the administration of sacraments, as well as church government and discipline.

Of course we can only experience the blessing of church government and discipline if we are members of a local congregation that is a true branch of the Church of Christ, the Olive Tree.

Therefore, it is essential for all Christians, —whether young or old, —to be faithful and fruitful members of a local congregation.  Those who despise the importance of church membership, despise also the goodness of God. The goodness of God is, after all, in a large part manifested through the means of grace appointed to the church for her members.

Let us dearly beloved and friends take these things to heart. Let us consider whether our lives reflect a right attitude towards the goodness of God.

Or let me put it this way: If you are not members of a true church, you are not part of the Olive Tree. Or let me put it in another way: if you cannot be cut off, then you are not part of the Olive Tree. That is to say: if you are not a member of the church, and you cannot be disciplined, then you are not part of the Olive Tree.

Now if you are not part of the Olive Tree, you cannot have any assurance that you belong to Christ. Why? Paul reminds us that if we fail to continue in God’s goodness, we shall be cut off. Can you see how he assumes that all believers will be part of the Olive Tree as members of a true branch of Christ?

The fact is: in the early church a person who was not a member of the church would generally not be considered a believer.

Consider the example of Paul. Paul was converted in a dramatic encounter with the Lord Jesus Christ on the road to Damascus. After his conversion, we are told that he “assayed [i.e. attempted] to join himself to the disciples” (Acts 9:26). Now, the word translated “to join” (Acts 9:26) is a Greek word (κολλάω, kollaō) which literally means “to glue” or “to unite closely.” The word requires that there be an existing body of believers who are already united together. Paul was clearly desiring to be part of the existing body. He was, in other words, trying to join the membership of the church at Jerusalem.

Were he not a member of the church, he would not have been considered as a brother by the other believers. So if you are not a member in a local congregation, I would urge you to consider these things seriously.

Remember that being a Christian is not only about professing Christ privately. It is also about a covenantal relationship with brothers and sisters in the body of Christ. Christians are united together by union with Christ. This union of the saints finds expression in local churches. Therefore, individual Christian lives cannot be divorced from corporate Christian life. When an olive branch is not connected to the Olive Tree, it dries up and dies.

How I pray that none of us are dead olive branches!

But if you are a member of the church, remember the admonishment of the apostle Paul, —Continue in the goodness of God, or you will be cut off. Make use of the means of grace, and seek to be fruitful and faithful in the congregation that the Lord has placed you in. If you forsake the assembling of yourself with the saints, you are in danger of being cut off from the Olive Tree.

Behold the goodness and severity of God. Take warning from the severity of God against the unbelieving Jews; and walk gratefully with the Lord in the enjoyment of His goodness. This is Paul’s second lesson for us.

But let us return briefly to the 3rd lesson that Paul would have us learn, namely, that God is able to graft the Jews back to the Olive Tree again.

…to be continued, next issue

—JJ Lim