Years ago, when I was taking a course in Science, the Professor of Physics used to impress on the class the basic principles of Scientific Method. One of the points he used to insist on was: "If you wish to get the right answer, you must ask the right question." If you ask a question which is self-contradictory or embodies a hidden self-contradiction or a meaningless notion; then it is impossible to obtain the right answer, because no right answer can exist. Many a problem in Science has defied solution until someone has analysed the questions asked and framed better ones. The problem of framing a sound question appears quite often in connection with the supposed relation of time to eternity. All such questions are found when carefully analysed to depend on self-contradictory notions about one or other of these ideas. This was discussed in our Vol. 22, No.6.
Another type of wrong question was discussed in our Vol. 14, p. 180 in connection with the "olive tree" allegory in Romans 11. People often ask: "What does the olive tree represent?"; and as no clear answer is obtained from the allegory itself, many expositors make a guess and reply, "Israel." Yet, as I pointed out, if we stand the question on its feet instead of its head and ask instead: "What is represented in the allegory by Israel?" an approximation to the answer is seen at once from Rom. 11:21 to be: "Those naturally boughs." Some of those boughs were broken out (vv. 17, 19, 20) and the meaning of this is explained by the secret that immediately follows the analogy. To the statement in 11:17, the Apostle Paul adds the significant remark: "yet thou, being wild olive, art ingraffed among them." This is Singular Number, which means that it is addressed to an individual and therefore refers to the individual Gentile, just as "those naturally boughs" refers collectively to the sum total of individual Jews.
It is notoriously difficult, perhaps even impossible, to cover every aspect of a subject in a brief exposition; so in my original paper I contented myself with the approximate answer given above, which was near enough to the exact one to serve my purpose at the time. Yet we ought not now to be content with that, because, in fact, the allegory itself does not use the names Israel, Jew, Gentile. The statement immediately preceding it (11:12-15) refers to the Gentiles three times, and they are contrasted with "those of my flesh" (v. 14). These latter must be "Israel according to flesh," for Paul says as much in the opening of this section of the epistle (Rom. 9:3). The word flesh occurs four times in this section, Rom. 9:3, 5, 8; 11:14.
The allegory begins with a reference to "the boughs" (v. 16). Then (v.17) Paul turns to individuals: "some of the boughs" and "thou, being wild olive," the "thou" being emphatic. Right through the allegory Paul is referring to the individual Gentile, "thou" in vv. 17, 18 (twice), 19, 20, 22, 24 and "thee" in vv. 18, 21, 22. In the face of this, the 1930 C.V. Note reads very oddly:—"The apostle is dealing with Israel and the nations—not individuals. No individual believer will be broken out of the olive tree. The nations, however, as such, no longer believe, and are due to be cut out of the olive tree." The injection of the word "believer" speaks for itself, and thoroughly confuses the issue; and it would be interesting to learn what nations "as such" ever have believed. This Note shows, all too plainly, how far even well-intentioned expositors can go in open unbelief. It is a sad business!
At the end of the allegory, Paul changes over to the Plural. Then, and not till then, does he name Israel again (vv. 25, 26). Yet throughout the allegory, though he refers to the individual wild olive (and this can only mean the individual Gentile); the Plural is used for "the boughs" and "those naturally boughs" every time. Nor is the individual Gentile described as a "bough." He is referred to as "thou, being wild olive" (v. 17) and "if thou wert hewn out of the olive naturally wild." In short, Paul takes the very greatest care to separate the two concepts: the individual, "being wild olive," and the group, "those naturally boughs."
Paul's exceedingly careful choice of language in writing on this topic should serve to persuade us to be equally careful in our Own treatment of it. Is it too much to ask that we should keep our exposition within the allegory's own terms of reference instead of trying to cook it up into something to suit an invented system of teaching?
The word tree is not to be found in the allegory and is never used by Paul; but the root is, four times, the first of which refers to "joint-participant of the root and of the fatness of the olive." What, then, is the root? The other occurrence of the word in Romans (15:12) indicates the answer in a quotation from Isa. 11:10: "There will be the root of Jesse, and He Who is arising to be Chief of Gentiles: on Him Gentiles shall be relying." Jesse was father of David the king; and the first and last of Paul's four references to David in his Epistles (Rom. 1:3; 2. Tim. 2:8) remind us that the Lord Jesus Christ was of David's seed and that this is an essential feature both of God's Evangel and of Paul's Evangel. The word fatness, PiotEs occurs here only and plainly refers to the olive oil which gives light. At this point it will be found helpful to go through the occurrences of phOs, light, in the Greek Scriptures, noting particularly the first in Matthew (4:15, 16) and Luke (2:32), both of which have "Gentiles" in their immediate context.
In the light of these facts (provided we keep within their context and do not allow extraneous notions to intrude) we may now understand the olive allegory in all its beautiful simplicity. The root is the Lord Jesus Christ, the oil its fatness is the light that comes from and through Him, those naturally boughs are His covenant people, the wild olive is the individual Gentile. If these four facts are kept in mind, there is no difficulty in understanding the allegory. Cover it with a mass of guesses and speculations and stupid questionings (Titus 3:9), and the only result is futility and strife. For irrelevant questions are, by that very fact, meaningless in the context and therefore rightly to be described as stupid.
Another question recently put was, "When was Paul's ministry to Israel terminated?" The very intelligent person who asked it did not realize at all that though it seemed plain enough it was, in fact, meaningless. This is because it contained an unproven assumption which is contrary to Scripture.
The point becomes easier to appreciate if we ask a similar question: "When was Paul's ministry to the church which is Christ's body terminated?" The meaninglessness of this question is obvious, for this ministry has not terminated. Although something like nineteen hundred years have passed since Paul's life on earth terminated, his ministry remains, and we ourselves are (or should be) actively engaged in it. The fact that he himself died long ago has no bearing at all on this; so we may entirely reasonably deduce that his death had no more bearing on his ministry to Israel than it had on his ministry to us.
We do not find anything about Paul's ministry to Israel in the Prison Epistles for the sufficient reason that these epistles are not concerned with it, but with other matters. It would be unreasonable in the extreme to expect Paul to recapitulate in each of them what he had previously set out before starting to write about his main purpose. And, in fact, though Philemon is one of the Prison Epistles, there is no reference in it to the great themes set out by the others. It deals with its own subject, that is all, and deals with it perfectly, as do all the other epistles'. Where we do find most about Paul's ministry to Israel is in Romans. Just look at the things in Romans that concern the Jew at least as much as anyone else. Rom. 1:1—2:13 is universal and actually "to Jew first." Then in 2:14-16 Paul turns to the Gentiles, but in 2:17 back he goes to the Jew, right on to 3:3. What follows applies to both, but, even so, 3:19, 20 applies primarily to the Jew. From 3:29 Paul's message is to Jews and Gentiles alternately, for God's Evangel is concerned with both, even though we are reminded that it was Abraham the Gentile (in uncircumcision 4:12) who is "father of us all" (4:16). Then Paul turns to the foundation doctrines on which the Prison Epistles are based, but in Romans 9-11 he deals with the interrelations of Israel's calling and ours; yet it all leads up to Israel's salvation (11:26). After this, even though he touches on such truths as our being "one body in Christ" (12:5), Israel is not forgotten, for in 15:8 we are reminded that "Christ has become Servant of circumcision for the sake of God's truth to confirm the promises of the fathers," though immediately he makes the point that "the Gentiles are to glorify God for His mercy" (15:9). Yes, the Gentiles—we ourselves, all of us—for it is His mercy that has brought us to the glories that are ours in prospect and presently will be ours in splendid reality.
Even the followers of J. J. B. Coles find it hard to dispense with Romans and therefore with Paul's ministry to Israel.
Let us not be so obsessed with what we have exclusively for ourselves as to overlook what we have in common with other saints. Romans was written for them as well as for us!
The questioner had been searching for the time of termination of Paul's ministry to Israel without realizing that, before the question could have any meaning at all, it was necessary to show that the ministry had actually terminated. The impossibility of fixing t!1e time from Scripture indicates, to the full believer, that those who wrote the Greek Scriptures did not consider the point relevant or important or meaningful; so we ought to follow their lead. But as it has now been raised we may, for the moment, waive that objection and consider the matter.
The solution reached by the questioner was that the point of termination is—need I say it!—Acts 28:28! Certainly, we have been told this often enough, yet the cold fact remains that for this answer to be extracted from that much misrepresented word of Paul's, it must first be read into it. Simply, it is not to be found in what Luke himself writes.
Lest this should be dismissed as merely negative, it must be said that positive evidence exists in Acts 28 itself; although the "frontier" theorists have overlooked it, no doubt because, with minds already made up, they have not troubled to search for it. Yet v. 24 tells us plainly concerning the Roman Jews: "And some, indeed, were persuaded by what was said, yet some disbelieved." This verb epeithonto is in the Middle Voice, as also in Acts 5:36, 37, so we might render it freely, "allowed themselves to be persuaded." The corresponding Passive form does not occur, but epeisthEsan, the Aorist Passive, does, in Acts 5:40; 17:4, where the question whether those persuaded were or were not willing does not arise. Thus, some were persuaded of their own accord to believe Paul; and, no doubt, it was due to these that the Jews subsequently had so much disputation among themselves (v. 29). The closing verses show Paul freely carrying out his ministry in Rome; and, in the complete absence of any indication that it was confined to Gentiles, we have no option but to assume that the Jews who had accepted his persuasion must have been among those whom he welcomed. In the face of the fact that some of the Jews were persuaded willingly, the onus of proof is on any who might argue that no more Jews were reached subsequently. Mr. Welch's expression "the dismissal of the Jew at Acts 28" implies this; but, as usual when unscriptural terms are employed, one cannot be quite sure what the writer intends. Israel's casting away was revealed some time before Acts 28, yet this did not end Paul's ministry to Israel recorded in Acts; and, in fact, it still stands even though it does not operate while Israel does not believe.
Just what was Paul's ministry to Israel? The answer is to be found by reading through Romans, noting every reference to Jew, Israel and circumcision. Has anyone of these truths been terminated even now? The only possible answer is, "No." So we reach the conclusion—we really have no option—that it is meaningless to ask when Paul's ministry to Israel terminated.
Lest anyone should be inclined to regard this as a quibble, it must be pointed out that even if by "Paul's ministry to Israel" we mean his active ministry carried out personally, we still cannot fix a defined place in Scripture where it terminated. Beyond what is written in Acts and a number of glimpses from the epistles, we know nothing of the history of his life. Certainly, Acts tells us more about him than about any other apostle; but there are many things it does not tell us. Of his ministry after his arrival in Rome we have explicit history only in the last fifteen verses of Acts, and these are largely confined to one interview, and do not tell us beyond a few words anything of what occurred during the two whole years or anything at all of what followed. This means that of what happened subsequently we can only guess from the aforesaid glimpses, and guesses are a rotten foundation on which to build, though some seem content with them. We do not know how long Paul lived or what he did thereafter, we do not know how, when or where he died. There really remains for us only the obvious fact that he did die; but when this happened is unknowable; and it is nonsense to pretend to have such knowledge, and less than honest also.
Paul's warning in Titus 3:9 is largely ignored by Christians. That is one reason, perhaps the most important reason, why so many fantastic theories and speculations breed like rabbits among us. We cannot affirm that Scripture is always simple, though it usually is; but we can declare with the certainty that comes from experience that it is always simpler and usually very much simpler than the questions people ask about it and the theories expositors all too often weave around it. The truth about the matters we have been examining is simple indeed, the theories are more complicated than any maze ever devised. That is why it has been found necessary to discuss this matter at such length and in such detail. People who, in running their lives, are quite reasonable and prudent, seem all too often to discard reason and prudence when they come to Scripture. Scientists, even, who laugh to scorn any irrationality in their own subject, drop all rational notions when they come to Theology; though the leaders of the churches are largely to blame for this. It seems absurd that one should have to urge Christians to be reasonable in matters of faith; yet, in fact, almost all our divisions are due to people being unreasonable.
When the typing of this paper was almost completed, a small pamphlet arrived from "Truth for To-day. R2 Warsaw, Indiana," asking a number of questions. The last of them (No. 40) clearly shows that the answer to the other thirty-nine expected by their compiler is, "Acts 28:28"; but, in fact, it is not the correct answer to any of them. Many are un answerable, either because they are insufficiently precise or because no answer exists. The remainder are meaningless.
For instance, No.6 asks, "When did Paul cease to preach the New Covenant?" That is easily answered: It is meaningless, because Paul never preached the New Covenant (whatever that expression may mean, if anything at all). No.8: "When did the Gentiles cease to be a graffed-in wild olive branch. . . ?" is also meaningless. The olive allegory still applies to the Gentile. No. 23 even asks when was the olive tree cut down, but Scripture knows nothing of this. Another meaningless question is (No. 10) when did both Jew and Gentile cease to be blessed through faithful Abraham; for no one ever was so blessed, but "together with" him. Perhaps the extreme of absurdity is reached in No. 25: "When did churches on the earth cease to be the church of God?" One can only ask, "Which churches?" Even so, No. 38, "When was the Jew released from his obligation of observing the Sabbath and the Lord's Supper" runs it very close; for thought the answer to the first part is simple: "He has never been released," the second part is extraordinary, for the Jew, as Jew, has never been under such obligation.
When I started to draft this paper I never guessed that I was soon to be supplied with so compendious a collection of stupid questionings. My sorrow is great for those who are misled by the show of learning they display.
Such questions, particularly Nos. 10 and 38 are deliberately designed to undermine the Evangel by subtlety, and the Lord's Supper is a favourite point of attack. To me, it is a privilege much to be desired to be able to announce the Lord's death in the bread and cup of wine; and I cannot understand how it is that so many reject it on the strength of a refusal to take Matt. 13:14, 15 at its face value and an insistence on taking Acts 28:23-28 at much more than its face value. As I have so often observed, if you add to God's Word at one place you automatically have to subtract from it at another. Why not accept it as it stands, and, like Abraham, I believe God?
R.B.W. Last updated 31.12.2005