THE OLIVE TREE and THE GRAPE VINE

The olive tree and the grape vine are two of the most valuable gifts of nature in ancient Palestine. When the Israelites first took possession of Canaan, they were the only two floras which were specifically highlighted (cf. Deut 6:11; Jos 24:13). There were other agricultural items (cf. Deut 8:8), but they were apparently not valued as much. The olive tree and the grape vine continued to be esteemed as the most valuable sources of revenue throughout most of Old Testament history (e.g., 1 Sam 8:14; 2 Kgs 5:26).

It is not surprising, therefore, that the olive tree and the grape vine have much poetic and symbolic significance in the Old Testament. Both the olive tree and the grape vine are used symbolically to speak of the Old Testament covenant people of God, Israel (see, for examples, Jeremiah 11:16; Hosea 14:6; Psalm 80:8, 14; Jeremiah 2:21; Hosea 10:1). The olive and vine are also used to describe the individual Israelite in the Old Covenant. Job’s friend Eliphaz describes the wicked under the temporal judgement of God as one who “shall shake off his unripe grape as the vine, and shall cast off his flower as the olive” (Job 15:33). Conversely, the Psalmist encourages the man who fears the LORD with the words: “Thy wife shall be as a fruitful vine by the sides of thine house: thy children like olive plants round about thy table” (Ps 128:3). Notice the mixed metaphor in this verse. The wife is described as a fruitful vine, meaning she will have many children, which means the grapes would represent the children. However, when he speaks about the children, he calls them “olive plants.” Now, we must not understand the plants here are we do when we talk about “money plant” or “orchid plant.” The word translated ‘plants’ (in Hebrew: shetil) can be more unambiguously rendered ‘shoots’ (as is done in NIV, RSV and NRSV). There are [Hebrew] words that would describe the individual plants as we understand it (e.g., siycha; natha; yownek), but these words are not used here. The picture that the Psalmist is painting of the godly man is either that of a branch of an olive tree which has many shoots, or of an olive tree that has many shoots growing up from its roots (this apparently happens, especially when the tree is cut down).

In the New Testament, the olive tree and the grape vine continue to have symbolic significance, notably in John 15:1–7 for the vine, and Romans 11:16–24 for the olive tree. These two metaphors have been interpreted in a variety of ways. But I believe there is only one correct interpretation for each; and both metaphors are related.

Obviously, in this short article, it would not be possible for us to expound both passages thoroughly. However, once we understand what the vine and the olive tree represent in these two passages, it would not be difficult to work out the details.

The Olive Tree

Let’s first look at the olive tree metaphor. The Apostle Paul says in the eleventh chapter of Romans:

[16] For if the firstfruit be holy, the lump is also holy: and if the root be holy, so are the branches. [17] And if some of the branches be broken off, and thou, being a wild olive tree, wert grafted in among them, and with them partakest of the root and fatness of the olive tree;  [18] Boast not against the branches. But if thou boast, thou bearest not the root, but the root thee. [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. [23] And they also, if they abide not still in unbelief, shall be grafted in: for God is able to graft them in again. [24] For if thou wert cut out of the olive tree which is wild by nature, and wert grafted contrary to nature into a good olive tree: how much more shall these, which be the natural branches, be grafted into their own olive tree? (Rom 11:16–24).

What does the olive tree represent in this passage? There are some who would say it does not represent anything in particular: that it is simply used as a figure of speech to teach Gentiles not to boast against the Jews. This is true as far as it goes. It is true that one of the main thoughts in the metaphor is that the wild olive shoots are grafted into the cultivated tree, against the normal practice of olive tree cultivation. You see, the fruits of the wild olive tree are small and worthless. In order to make a wild tree useful, fruitful cultivated stocks had to be grafted onto it. This was the common practice in those days. It would be unnatural to do the reverse. But according to the metaphor, this (the reverse) is exactly what God has done for the Gentiles. Therefore Gentiles must not boast against the ethnic Jews even though the latter may have been broken off because of unbelief. They must not despise them, much less, persecute them.

But is this all that the Apostle Paul intends to illustrate with the olive tree? No, because Paul introduces the metaphor with a theological statement: “For if the firstfruit be holy, the lump is also holy: and if the root be holy, so are the branches” (v. 16). The first part of the statement relates to the meal offering with which we will not concern ourselves at the moment. The second part brings us immediately into the metaphor of the olive tree: as the root of the tree is holy, so the branches are holy too. Moreover, Paul speaks about partaking of the root and fatness of the tree (v. 17), and about God’s breaking off some of the branches of the tree on account of unbelief (vv. 19–21). Each of these statements suggests that the olive tree is intended to represent something. 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? What does grafting mean? Quite obviously, the olive tree is deliberately chosen to fit into a theological concept that Paul has in mind; and once we understand what the tree represents, each of his statements would become very clear.

For this reason, several ideas have been surfaced concerning what the olive tree represent. Some believe that the tree represents national 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 represent the nation? Conversely, how could Gentiles be grafted in if the tree is the nation unless we emigrate to Israel? Moreover, no one would dispute that the proselytes (converts to Judaism under the Old Covenant; see Acts 2:9–11) were already in the tree before the Gentiles were grafted in; and the proselytes were not Jewish citizens.

The tree must, therefore, be defined religiously. One suggestion then, is that the root of the tree is Christ and the tree represents believing Israel or true Israel. This again cannot be entirely correct. If the tree represents true Israel, why is there a need to break off unbelieving branches?

Now, there are some others who will combine the two views and say: the tree was Israel as a nation under the Old Covenant, but under the New Covenant, it refers to the people of God since under the New Covenant only true believers are in covenant relationship with God. This view sounds plausible at first sight, but is really impossible, for the Apostle warns those who have been grafted into the tree under the New Covenant that, if they do not continue in the goodness of God, they too will be cut off (v. 21–22). If the tree under the New Covenant comprise only true believers, Paul would at best be teaching that true believers can loose their salvation, and at worst be using an empty threat against the people of God. I do not know of any sound biblical expositor who would say that a believer can loose his salvation. Neither would anyone agree that Paul could possibly be guilty of falsehood. Someone may object: “But don’t we tell all elect that if they do not persevere in obedience, they will be cut off and prove themselves to have never been in the faith?” This objection is a strange one, and shows that the person is confused in his understanding. In the first place, we do not know who are the elect of God. In the second place, if we know who are the elect we would not make that kind of statement. The statement is founded on the fact that God has chosen not to reveal to us who are the elect and the reprobate. We are never to relate to a person based on whether he is elect or not. We must rather relate to him on the basis of whether he professes to be a believer or not. Now; then, if Paul had in mind that the grafted branches comprise only the elect, it would be meaningless for him to warn them against falling. There must be another explanation to what the tree represents.

What, then, does the tree represent?

When we have considered everything, we find that there is only one convincing answer to what the tree represents. I have no doubt that it represents the covenant people of God or the visible church of God, both in the Old and New Covenants.

The root of the tree is no doubt Christ. Prophet Isaiah had already referred to Christ as the Root: “And in that day there shall be a root of Jesse, which shall stand for an ensign of the people; to it shall the Gentiles seek: and his rest shall be glorious” (Isa 11:10). In this same verse, it was prophesied that the Gentiles would also seek after Him and cleave unto Him. The prophet Jeremiah had already spoken of the “house of Israel and the house of Judah” (Jer 11:10) as an olive tree: “The LORD called thy name, A green olive tree, fair, and of goodly fruit: with the noise of a great tumult he hath kindled fire upon it, and the branches of it are broken” (Jer 11:16). Notice how Jeremiah also speaks about the breaking off of branches, though by the fire of temporal judgement. But think for a moment of how a person gets incorporated into the tree in the first place. Surely there is no doubt that it is by natural descent except in the case of proselytes who are grafted in. This is why Israel is not a basket of figs or even pearls. It is a tree. A tree grows. But there is more. The Lord had instructed Abraham that if any Jewish child be uncircumcised, he should be cut off from his people (Gen 17:14). In other words, by nature all olive shoots (Ps 128:3) would be part of the tree. But if any of the shoots be not marked out by appropriating the sign and seal of the covenant, then it will be cut off. This is consistent with the fact that proselytes must be circumcised to be included into the membership of the covenant people (Ex 12:48). After the institution of circumcision, it served to ratify the membership of the proselytes as well as the native-born. But the tree was already growing before that.

It began growing with Adam and Eve. Their children were part of it. Cain and Abel were part of it. Then Cain killed Abel and he was essentially cut-off or, if you like, excommunicated. The olive tree continued to grow with Seth and other sons and daughters. Eventually Noah and his family was one of the branches on the tree. The other parts of the tree were unbelieving. They were cut off by the great flood. After the flood, the tree continued to grow, and continued to be pruned such as when the unbelievers were killed in 722 BC (collapse of the Northern Kingdom) and 586 BC (collapse of the Southern Kingdom).

What was the shape of the tree when the Lord was born? It 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 the Lord’s blood, and even called a curse upon themselves and their children: “Then answered all the people, and said, 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. At the same time, those who identified with them and did not believe in the Lord Jesus Christ also cut themselves off by denying the Root. The Gentiles, on the other hand, were grafted in when they confessed the Lord Jesus Christ and were baptised (as the Old Covenant proselytes were circumcised).

Has the tree stopped growing except by grafting and by the Jewish branches that are still on it? Of course not! The tree continues to grow with believers and their children, whether Jewish or Gentile (Acts 2:39). Will the tree still bear bad branches that need to be pruned? Of course! As there were bad branches in the Old Covenant, there will be bad branches in the New. This is why Paul warns against unbelief. Those who persist in unbelief should be cut off by the church (Mt 16:19, 18:15–18), or they will be cut off by God Himself eventually. This fact, as we shall see, is also taught in our Lord’s parable of the vine.

The Olive Tree

The Lord says:

[1] I am the true vine, and my Father is the husbandman. [2] Every branch in me that beareth not fruit he taketh away: and every branch that beareth fruit, he purgeth it, that it may bring forth more fruit. [3] Now ye are clean through the word which I have spoken unto you. [4] Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me. [5] I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing. [6] If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and men gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned. [7] If ye abide in me, and my words abide in you, ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you (Jn 15:1–7)

We will have to be brief in this section. Here, there is no question of who is the vine (the main stem of the grape plant from which the branches proceed). It is the Lord Jesus Christ Himself! But the question we need to ask is: Who are the branches? The most common answer to this question is that they are truebelievers or the elect; after all, how could a reprobate or a false believer be united with Christ or said to be in Christ as a branch?

There is, however, a severe difficulty with this view, for if that be the case, than how could any of the branch ever fail to bring forth fruits and be cast away (v. 6)? Could the Arminians be right, after all, that a believer can fall from grace? A Calvinist may respond: the person who is fruitless is a false professor of faith. He is never really united with Christ. But if so, it may be argued that the true believer is also not really united with Christ, for the union that the false professor have had, for verse 6 to make sense, is the same union that the fruit bearers have.

What then is the solution? The solution is to be found in the fact that the union of the branches to the vine is the same in essence with the union of the branches of the olive tree to the root. This should hardly surprise anyone since the vine, like the olive tree, has from Old Testament time been used to describe the church visible. For example, the prophet Hosea had said: “Israel is an empty vine, he bringeth forth fruit unto himself: according to the multitude of his fruit he hath increased the altars; according to the goodness of his land they have made goodly images” (Hos 10:1). The Lord has no doubt changed the analogy slightly in that He calls Himself the vine, whereas in the Old Testament, the vine is His covenant people. But remember that this is an analogy, and we can easily conceive of calling the Church (the body of Christ) the vine because it is united with Christ.

So, then, the union between the branches and the vine is to be seen in the context of God’s covenant with His people. This is how there could be false professors attached to the vine. But one question remains unanswered: How could the branches abide in the vine in any sense at all if they are reprobate? The answer is to be found in the fact that when we look at the church as an olive tree or as a grape vine, we are saying that the church is to be viewed organically. The whole church is to be regarded as holy because the Root is holy. However, it is only the elect who are the “children of the promise” (Rom 9:8; Gal 4:28) and so are actually imputed with the righteousness of Christ and therefore holy. The rest are regarded as holy on account of their membership in the visible church. In other words, since no man can see the hearts of fellow men, every man who has appropriated the seal of the covenant is to regarded as being united with Christ, unless he proves fruitless ultimately, and has to be purged, cut-off or excommunicated.

Conclusion

The metaphors of the olive tree and vine have baffled me for a long time. My discussions with a number of people led to nowhere but contradictions. It was only as I begun to more fully understand covenant theology and the relationship between Israel and the Church, and realising that they are one, that I began to appreciate the meaning of the olive tree. What a joy it was when I read Herman Hoeksema’s Believers and Their Seed (Reformed Free Publishing Association, 1997 [1971]), and discovered a well-written articulation of what I was beginning to appreciate of the two metaphors.  

I am convinced that the interpretations of the metaphors as presented above are correct. And I believe that unless we grasp the meaning of the two metaphors, it would be difficult for us to slip into the errors of Dispensationalism and Anti-Pedobaptism. The olive tree shows us that God has only one people throughout the ages. It explains also why the people of the Old Covenant could be called the “people of God” or the “holy nation” or the wife of Jehovah when often times, the greater proportion of the people were living in sin and unbelief. The covenantal interpretation of the vine most satisfactorily explains why one who is said to be united with Christ could fall from grace. Both metaphors teach us how we are to treat and instruct anyone who has been baptised as a member of the church, whether adult or infant. They must be unambiguously treated as being united with Christ, and yet taught of the necessity of conversion and warned against final apostasy.

JJ Lim