Romans 11:19-22, “19 Then you will say, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” 20 That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but fear. 21 For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you. 22 Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off.”
Olive trees provided oil to light the lamps of ancient Israel and served as important sources of income for trade inside and outside the boundaries of the Promised Land. Thus, we often find Scripture using these trees as symbols of the goodness of Canaan and what it could provide to the Israelites (Deut. 6:10-11). In time, olive trees became so associated with the land of Israel that the prophet Jeremiah could represent the old covenant community as an olive tree (Jer. 11:16). Paul’s use of the olive tree metaphor in Romans 11:16-24, therefore, stands in a tradition that associated the olive tree with God’s covenant people.
As the Apostle strives to clarify his point about the hardening of ethnic Israel, he uses the olive tree metaphor to warn the Gentiles about the unwarranted pride that might arise from their majority presence in the church. Paul does not want to be misunderstood. Yes, many natural olive branches—ethnic Jews who were the physical descendants of the patriarchs—have been broken off from the olive tree Israel, and yes, many wild olive branches—ethnic Gentiles who before Christ came were outside the covenant of promise—have been grafted into the olive tree Israel. Yet this should not lead to arrogance on the part of the Gentiles, for they can enjoy salvation only on account of the covenant with the Israelites. These wild olive branches receive their spiritual nourishment from the root of the olive tree Israel, namely, the patriarchs and the covenant God made with them. Even if many Jews reject their Messiah, salvation is still from the Jews—from their history and relationship with God that bears fruit in Christ—and we must never forget that (John 4:22).
At this point, it should be relatively clear that the olive tree metaphor that Paul uses for Israel is multilayered. From one perspective, the tree consists of Jews according to the flesh, including natural Jewish branches. From another perspective, the tree that is Israel represents the entire believing community regardless of ethnicity. Natural Jewish branches can be broken off from the tree and wild Gentile branches can be grafted in so that Gentiles become part of the people of God that can rightly and collectively be designated as Israel. Notice that the Gentiles do not replace the Jews in God’s plan, and the church does not replace Israel. Instead, Israel is both expanded to include Gentile Christians and narrowed to refer, in the final analysis, to the children of the promise alone. The Lord’s true Israel is the invisible church that is made up of faithful Jews and Gentiles (see Gal. 6:16).
In the name of Jesus, many Gentiles have committed atrocities against Jewish people due to their rejection of Christ, showing that Paul’s concern about Gentile arrogance was not unfounded. Those who committed such evils may not have been true believers in Jesus; however, our Jewish friends and neighbors may be unable to make such distinctions. This calls for sensitivity on our part as we preach the gospel to Jewish people and are firm that salvation is in Jesus alone.