The intention here is to consider the olive tree in Romans 11:16-28 with particular reference to its boughs; those natural boughs, some of which were broken out, and that strange bough from a wild olive which was ingrafted in place of these. We approach the subject from the viewpoint of a new reader as if we never had read the parable before and that should enable those of you who are well familiar with the subject to compare your understanding with ours, noting where we may differ if we do, so that possibly we can all learn, each one from another.
For the translation of the Greek text as it appears at the end of this article, we are indebted to the late Alexander Thomson, a coeditor of the former Differentiator. Although he recognised the merits of various modern versions, he observed here that in one particular the King James Version preserves an important distinction which, unfortunately, other translators have obscured by an indiscriminate use of the pronoun "you" which fails to distinguish between the singular and plural. Therefore "thou" and "thee" are retained here to preserve the intended sense of the singular. This becomes helpful to the understanding of the parable where we find such phrases as "thou being wild olive" ... "thou art not bearing the root but the root thee"... and "thou by the faith hast been standing." In the last of these quotations, where the King James Version as well as other versions has used the present tense—"thou standest by faith"—we find here instead the past perfect tense: "Thou by the faith HAST BEEN standing." This becomes especially enlightening, for it indicates a relative point of time when the faith which will have been operative until then has ceased to exist. We suggest first what the various elements of the parable signify and then we support this with appropriate Scriptures:
1) The olive tree, referring to the root and trunk as distinguished from the boughs, represents the Word of God.
2) The natural boughs (plural) represent Israel.
3) The bough from the wild olive, though it appears here in the singular, represents all Gentiles collectively; the whole world outside of Israel.
To establish that the Word of God is represented here primarily by the root and trunk of the olive tree, as distinguished from its boughs, we appeal to Scriptures which show that the Word was not always limited to its written form alone. It has been embodied even in human flesh as it certainly was in our Lord when the Word in Him "was made flesh" (John 1:14); yet the same Word, with divine authority, has been expressed even in other persons. In ancient times and as late as apostolic days, until the written Word had been completed, we are reminded that God often spoke by the mouth of prophets.
It is not only here in Romans but in other Scriptures also that olive trees are used to symbolise the Word of God; and there, as we shall see, the Word is represented also in persons who are identified as "two anointed ones" and again as two human witnesses.
Once the prophet Zechariah saw a vision of two olive trees — one standing on each side of a candlestick or lampstand which supported seven lamps. Golden oil, indicative of Holy Spirit, was flowing from the two olive trees to the candlestick through two golden pipes. There a messenger speaking to the prophet explained: "This is the word of the Lord unto Zerubbabel" (Zeohariah 4.6). Please note carefully that the messenger said "THIS IS THE WORD OF THE LORD." Then as the prophet inquired more explicitly, "What are these two olive trees on the right and the left of the lampstand?" (4:11 RSV), the messenger answered, These are the two anointed ones that stand by the Lord of the whole earth" (4:14 KJV). Therefore the two olive trees, first called "the Word of the Lord," are further identified as "two anointed ones," and elsewhere in Scripture two human witnesses will appear who are then identified as "the two olive trees," just as we are about to observe.
That was reflected in revelations long afterward observed by John on Patmos where we are told that two witnesses will reappear for a time of 42 months yet future. There the messenger speaking to John said also, "These are the two olive trees." One of those two witnesses will have power to shut the heavens that it rain not for those 42 months — power such as Elijah the prophet once had — and the other will have power for turning waters into blood as the waters of Egypt were turned into blood at the word of Moses. Thus the two olive trees in the prophecy of Zechariah, identified there as the Word of the Lord and as two anointed ones, are found in the visions of Revelation as being two human witnesses who again will personalise The Law and The Prophets; one witness manifesting the sign of Moses, the other manifesting the sign of Elijah.
While there are two olive trees both in Zechariah and Revelation to represent first the Law and then the Prophets, here in Romans there is only one tree to represent all the Word of God, including now also the gospel or evangel, "attested by the law and the prophets" (Rom. 3:21); "to the Jew first and to the Greek as well" (1:18). By means of the parable Paul speaks to the Gentiles and designates their own place in the olive tree as a single bough which had been hewn out of a wild olive and then ingrafted to the natural olive tree which he then explains by saying, "Thou being wild olive art ingrafted among them"—and "Thou wert hewn out of the olive naturally wild." He speaks to the Gentiles concerning Israel and designates Israel's place in the olive tree as natural boughs, some of which had been broken out because of unbelief while others of the natural boughs had remained.
As long as the Word of God consisted only of The Law and The Prophets, it belonged exclusively to Israel as their own Scriptures also declare: "He sheweth His Word unto Jacob, His statutes and His judgments unto Israel. He hath not dealt so with any (other) nation" (Psalm 147:19, 20) and "You only have I known of all the families of the earth" (Amos )3:2). Until the evangel had appeared, the Word of God in The Law and The Prophets was as unnatural to the Gentiles as a wild olive would be strange and foreign to a natural olive tree. The Gentiles then had no access to God in their own right. They could approach Him only by becoming proselytes of Israel, seeking Israel's God through The Law and The Prophets of Israel's Scriptures.
As the life and vigor of an olive tree depends on the sap it receives from the tree - sap drawn upward from the root through the trunk into the boughs -- so the spiritual life of the Jew in one era and the Gentile in another era is dependent on the spiritual nourishment derived from the Word of God through the operation of the Holy Spirit by the gift of faith. Thus it was by faith in the Word of God that Israel's place in the olive tree had been sustained; and it was afterward due to unbelief, the absence of faith, that some of Israel were calloused and temporarily cast away like withered boughs broken out from the tree. Normally, of course, such withered boughs never could be reunited with a natural olive tree, but the abnormal point of the parable teaches there will be a future time when the whole nation of Israel then living shall be saved (11:26); reunited, as it were, to their own olive tree.
Now in like manner, it is by faith that the rest of humanity, collectively represented here by the singular "thee" or "thou," has been united to the Word of God like a single bough ingrafted from a wild olive tree. Accordingly when faith shall have vanished from the Gentile world, it will be severed from any further identity with the Word of God, like a bough hewn out from the olive. Thereupon a new generation of Israel will emerge from unbelief because of divine intervention which will extricate that generation from among all other nations, like a former generation of theirs was supernaturally delivered from Egypt by the hand of Moses, though they did not realise then that this was to serve as a type of a greater exodus yet to come (Isa. 11:12; Jer. 23:7, 8). That will be preparatory to Israel's reestablishment in the Word of God, like boughs once withered but then revitalised as they are reunited with their own olive tree. After that the Gentiles' only approach to God will be once again as proselytes of Israel, like Gentiles of long ago, before "callousing in part" had befallen some of Israel as indicated by those boughs which were broken out.
We understand that the scope of the parable is limited to the changing fortunes which Jew and Gentile would experience in their respective eras of this present eon. Its application does not extend to eventual resurrections from the dead. Resurrections are of course involved in the CONSEQUENCES of all what the parable teaches, as also verse 15 appears to indicate, but they are not directly reflected in the olive tree or any of its boughs. Therefore according to the parable, when those natural boughs which now long since were broken out shall be reingrafted to their own olive tree, this will be realised by a new generation in Israel who then will be living descendants of that former generation represented by the boughs broken out.
It is significant that Israel's place in the olive tree is represented by all of the boughs except the one ingrafted from the wild olive. Since the whole world outside of Israel is left to be represented by that single bough from the wild olive, it is united to the olive as one composite unit, and when that bough is hewn out of the olive tree it necessarily means that the whole world of Gentiles is severed from its then previous identity with the Word of God.
Israel, unlike the Gentiles, is represented by numerous boughs and of two different kinds; some which remain in the olive tree and others which are broken out. It was only "in part" that callousing had befallen them and only until a fullness from the Gentiles will have entered. Some would become "a remnant according to the choice of grace" (11:5), and their faith would extend beyond the former limits of The Law and The Prophets, for they would receive and appropriate Paul's evangel of salvation in grace through faith (Eph. 2:8,9) "apart from works of law" (Rom. 3:28). For them, even as for Paul himself, this would involve both loss and gain. They would forfeit the benefits of God's covenant with Israel, based on law, so they would have no part in the future earthly glory of that nation, but they would become a new creation in Christ Jesus where all national distinctions such as Jew and Greek have passed away (Gal. 3:27-28). Theirs would be the glory of a celestial destiny. Having received Paul's evangel, they the same as he would thus die unto law that they might live unto God (Gal. 2:19) and therefore they will enjoy a glory which pertains exclusively to all "in Christ Jesus;" a term unique to Paul's evangel, for it is used by no one else in Scripture.
It is vitally important to note that there are no separate boughs to represent only those from the Gentiles who in faith receive the evangel as there are for those from Israel represented by the natural boughs which remain in the tree. All Gentiles, collectively, are represented only by the single bough ingrafted from the wild olive which obviously includes the chosen ones, for it is by their faith alone that the whole world of Gentiles is temporarily represented in the olive tree. Yet it is no less important that Paul recognised the Gentiles as being "JOINT-PARTICIPANTS" of the root and fatness of the olive.
The position of Gentiles as members of a "joint body" according to Ephesians 3:6 is not reflected in this parable, nor does it appear elsewhere in Romans, but in chapter twelve Paul did refer to saints both from Gentiles and Jews as "one body in Christ" (12:5). Still there the various members of the body were said to have different functions here in the flesh which were not equal and in that sense not "joint," While in Ephesians Paul refers to a joint body in spirit where all former distinctions according to flesh have disappeared. Nevertheless, in the parable of the olive tree the Gentiles represented by a wild bough were said to be "joint-participants of the root and fatness of the olive" because they enjoyed a newfound access to the Word of God, equal in that sense with those from Israel represented by the natural boughs. Thus even in Romans we find something of a precedent for the "joint" terminology in Ephesians, though not to the same degree of revelation.
The evangel Paul submitted in Romans was indeed "to the Jew first" before it could be submitted "to the Greek as well." It could not be proclaimed for acceptance by the Gentiles until the Jew had the first opportunity to receive or refuse it, and it is apparent that most of them did refuse. Then when the same evangel was submitted to the Gentiles, they received it gladly in larger numbers. Thus the Jew had enjoyed a brief priority as to time but not otherwise a preference over the Gentiles. Those among the Gentiles who soon afterward received the evangel became joint beneficiaries with others from Israel who had disavowed their former covenant privilege to become "a new creation in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 6:15) where there is no longer either Jew or Greek (Gal. 3:28).
Yet most Gentiles, like most Jews, have declined to receive the evangel and some of them have boasted as if their present misused right to the Word of God would never end. So it is to the ungrateful and unbelieving Gentile that Paul's warning is directed: "Be not haughty but be fearing; for if God spares not THOSE NATURALLY BOUGHS, neither will He be sparing thee." Though he indicates further that eventually the Gentile world as such will be severed from the Word of God like a wild bough hewn out from the olive tree, this anticipates a time when those in Christ Jesus will have been snatched away (I Thess. 4:15-17). When the bough from the old olive is hewn out, there will be no remaining faith in the Gentile world, even as the text implies by the past tense: "Thou by the faith HAST BEEN standing." Even as Israel's former place of favor, figured by the natural boughs of the olive, had always depended on the faith of a relative few, despite the unbelief of many, so now the present lingering favor to the Gentiles depends only on the faith of a relative few, and those few may be also of diminishing number.
Our attention turns now to a long exiled and calloused Israel, represented by the natural boughs broken out from the olive. Some new generation of theirs will reoccupy that place of favor which their forefathers lost when Israel was calloused "in part." Obviously this cannot occur until some unrevealed time after the fullness from the Gentiles shall have entered. Until then the descendants of Israel will be dwelling in the land of their enemies and, unlike those of their forefathers who received Paul's evangel, those of that future day will remain under law, subject to the covenant God made with their fathers at Sinai through the mediator Moses. On Israel's part that covenant was broken almost the moment it was made but on God's part it remains inviolate. He will not break His covenant with Israel as He said long ago through the mouth of Moses: "Yet for all that, when they be in the land of their enemies, I will not break my covenant with them.... but I will for their sake remember the covenant of their ancestors whom I brought forth out of the land of Egypt" (Lev. 26:44-45). As concerning the evangel, they have been enemies for our sake but in view of a different choice for their future blessing, Israel always will be "1oveable because of the fathers," especially their fathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
Just as God foreknew and intended the circumstances resulting in Israel's "callousness," He has predesigned future conditions to revive their spiritual consciousness and to motivate their forthcoming exodus from every land. According to Ezekiel's prophecy, He will bring them into a future "wilderness" as He brought their fathers into the wilderness of Sinai. There we read that He will bring them "under the bond of the covenant" (20: 3'1), then into their own land where He will make with them a "covenant of peace" (34:25; 37:26). All this is to prepare Israel for a further "new covenant" at some later time, a covenant based on better promises than the one from Sinai (Jer. 31:31-34; Heb. 8:6-13). Meanwhile in Israel's native land the sons of Zadok from the lineage of Levi will serve as priests (Ezek. 43:19) under a restored administration of Mosaic law (Mal. 4:4-6) while the law once again is to serve as an "escort" which eventually will bring Israel to Christ (Gal. 3:24).
Yet prior to Israel's ultimate deliverance in the prophetic Day of Jehovah, as Paul himself also reminds us in his second Thessalonian letter, they will once more degenerate into another apostasy before the day of the Lord arrives. In the meanwhile however, as the prophet Joel indicates, a new covenant will emerge from among them, remindful of that former "remnant" in Paul's day (Compare Joel 2:32 and Rom. 11:5). It is in Joel we find that "In mount Zion and in Jerusalem shall be deliverance, as the LORD hath said, and in the remnant whom the LORD shall call."
It is then that "all Israel shall be saved" (Rom. 11:26) as a nation born in one day (Isa. 66:8). Then the natural boughs restored to the parent tree will be thriving on the root and fatness of the olive, the Word of God both revealed and fulfilled. "This is for them," saith the LORD, "the covenant from Me, whenever I may be eliminating their sins."
In concluding this study, it is of paramount importance to emphasise that when the bough from the wild olive representing the Gentiles is once hewn out of its present viable state, the parable does not suggest that it ever will be reunited with the tree. This is notably different from Paul's clear indication that the broken out natural boughs representing Israel will be REINGRAFTED to thrive once again on the root and fatness of the olive. This should be a sobering revelation to all present-day Gentiles, for it indicates that the grace they now enjoy is a fleeting opportunity which expires once and for all with the end of the present calling to obtain that "fullness" which completes the body of Christ. Even in a far future eon beyond the judgment of the Great White Throne, the new heavens and the new earth will be distinguished only by a new Jerusalem descending from the heavens with a glory incomparably transcendent to any Gentile city of historic fame. On its twelve foundations are the names of the twelve beloved apostles from Israel while the twelve messengers at the City's twelve portals will have the names of Israel's twelve immortal tribes. The oracles of God which the Gentiles now possess and often take lightly for granted are then restored to their hallowed place in the sanctuary of Israel's prophetic New Covenant. All will be walking in a reflected light of Israel's glory (Rev. 21:24). Then as in ancient times the Gentiles may seek God only as proselytes of Israel, the nation reborn with a new heart and a new spirit as Israel becomes at long last that unique channel of blessing to all the families of the earth which God foreknew and predetermined in His covenant with Abraham.
Melvin E. Johnson (Treasures of Truth, Instalment Eight, February-March 1973)
16. New if the firstfruit is holy, the mass is also; and if the root is holy, the boughs are also.
17. Now if some of the boughs are broken out, yet THOU, being wild olive, art ingraffed among them, and becamest joint-participant of the root and fatness of the olive,
18. be not vaunting over the boughs. Now if thou dost vaunt, THOU art not bearing the root, but the root thee.
19. Thou wilt be declaring then, "Boughs are broken out that I may be ingraffed."
20. Ideally! By the unbelief they were broken out, yet THOU by the faith hast been standing. Be not haughty, but be fearing,
21. For if God spares not THOSE NATURALLY BOUGHS, neither will He be sparing THEE!
22. Perceive, then, God's kindness and sternness! On these, indeed, who are falling, sternness; yet on thee God's kindness, if thou shouldest be persisting in the kindness; else THOU also shalt be hewn out.
23. And THEY, if they should not be persisting in the unbelief, will be ingraffed, for God is ABLE to ingraff them again.
24. For if THOU wert hewn out of the olive NATURALLY wild, and beside nature art ingraffed into the fine olive; how much rather shall these - the natural ones - be ingraffed to their own olive?
25. For I am not willing for you to be ignorant of this secret, brethren; lest you be in yourselves prudent; that callousing in part has befallen Israel, until which (time) the fullness of the Gentiles may be entering.
26. And thus all Israel shall be saved, according as it has been written: "There shall be arriving out of Zion the Rescuer; He will be turning away irreverence from Jacob.
27. And this is FOR THEM the covenant FROM ME, Whenever I may be eliminating their sins."
28. As to the evangel, indeed, (they are) enemies, because of you; yet, as to the choice, loveable, because of the fathers.