Chapter VIII, The Mystery Of The Olive Tree

If my reader has followed me thus far, he will be prepared now to examine with a degree of intelligence the place that the Great Parenthesis occupies in what is itself a parenthesis—the great dispensational division of the Epistle to the Romans as set forth in chapters 9, 10 and 11. It is proper to speak of these chapters as a parenthesis because so far as the doctrinal unfolding of the truth of the righteousness of God as revealed in the Gospel is concerned, one could move on without being conscious that anything was missing between the closing verses of chapter 8 and the opening verses of chapter 12. In the first eight chapters of this epistle we have unfolded for us God’s method of dealing with sin according to the righteous demands of His throne, and His Way of providing a perfect righteousness for men who have none of their own. Then in chapters 12 to 16 we see the effects of all this upon the life of the obedient believer: practical righteousness manifested in the lives of those who have been made the righteousness of God in Christ. But between chapters 8 and 12 we have a great parenthetic division in which the Apostle turns aside, as guided by the Holy Spirit, to show how the present proclamation of the Gospel of the grace of God harmonizes with God’s former revelation to Israel and His electing grace in making them His covenant people.

In Romans 3 we learn that there is no difference, that all have sinned and come short of the glory of God. The Jew is shown to have no more claim upon the grace of God in Christ than the Gentile. All must come to God in exactly the same way, as needy sinners trusting His blessed Son for salvation. This would naturally raise the question in the mind of any honest Jew: But what then of the special promises made to Israel? What of the covenant entered into at Sinai? How does this affect the promise made to Abraham and to his seed? These questions and others of kindred character are answered fully and completely in chapters 9 to 11.

In chapter 9 the Spirit of God speaks particularly of the Lord’s past dealings with Israel; in chapter 10, of His present dealings with them; and in chapter 11, of His future dealings, which will be in exact accord with the prophetic Word.

Turning, then, to chapter 9, we see that Israel was an elect nation. It pleased God to separate this people from all other peoples unto Himself in order that they might occupy a special place of testimony in the earth. This privilege was not given to them because of any merit of their own. It was in sovereign, electing grace that God chose Isaac and set Ishmael to one side, and again chose Jacob and set Esau to one side. God was not unrighteous in doing this. He was the Creator. Like the potter, He had power over the clay to make of it whatever He would. If any object to the truth of election in this sense, the answer to every objection is simply this: God has a right to do as He wills. He chose Israel and made that nation the depositary of His promises, and this was in order that they might be a means of blessing to the whole world.

It is a great mistake, however, to attempt to read eternal things into the ninth chapter of Romans. There is nothing in this chapter about election to eternal life or a place in heaven, and certainly nothing about reprobation to eternal judgment in hell. When hyper-Calvinists attempt to use this portion of Scripture to support their God-dishonoring views, they wrest the Word from its true setting. It is election to a place of privilege on earth, not to eternal blessedness, and the rejection of which it speaks must be looked at in the same way, as having to do with earthly things and not with heavenly. God chose Abraham to be the father of the covenant people. In the next generation He declared: “In Isaac shall thy seed be called”; and in regard to the sons of Isaac it is written: “The children being not yet born, neither having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works, but of him that calleth; it was said unto her [that is, unto Rebekah], The elder shall serve the younger. As it is written, Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated” (Romans 9:11-13). Observe, it was not said: “The younger shall go to heaven and the elder shall go to hell.” God was not speaking of eternal things at all, but the elder was set aside in favor of the younger so far as privilege on earth was concerned.

The thirteenth verse must be understood relatively. Compared with the blessing God gave to Jacob, it would seem as though He hated Esau, but we need to remem- ber that this statement was not made before the children were born, but long years after in the book of Malachi, chapter 1, verses 2 and 3, where God is tracing out the history of His ways with the descendants of the two sons of Isaac, and He shows how privileged Jacob, or Israel, had been and how destitute of many similar blessings Esau, or Edom, had been.

Now if God thus chose to take up the seed of Abraham after the flesh and they failed completely as a nation to appreciate His goodness, and when His own Son came into the world they fulfilled their own Scriptures in condemning Him, who shall question the righteousness of God in setting them to one side and taking up the Gentiles and giving to them the glorious privileges that they now enjoy?

So, in chapter 10 we have, as already intimated, God’s present dealings with Israel. He has set the nation as such to one side during all this long parenthetic period which we have been considering, but that does not mean that the individual Jew is left without an opportunity of salvation for eternity. Any Jew who will, may come to God in Christ and find salvation on exactly the same basis as any Gentile. So we read in verse 12: “There is no difference between the Jew and the Greek: for the same Lord over all is rich unto all that call upon him.” And the apostle adds in verse 13: “For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” During all this present period, while Israel nationally is set to one side, God’s “whosoever message” is going out to the world, and Jew or Gentile may avail themselves of it if they will, and if they refuse to do so, they are responsible for their own judgment.

In chapter 11 we have the future of this covenant people. We are told first that their eyes were blinded because they were so occupied with their own works that they rebelled against the grace of God. National Israel is judicially blinded to this present day, and this is in accordance with prophetic intimations, as we see in verses 7 to 12:

“What then? Israel hath not obtained that which he seeketh for; but the election hath obtained it, and the rest were blinded (according as it is written, God hath given them the spirit of slumber, eyes that they should not see, and ears that they should not hear;) unto this day. And David saith, Let their table be made a snare, and a trap, and a stumbling-block, and a recompense unto them: let their eyes be darkened, that they may not see, and bow down their back alway. I say then, Have they stumbled that they should fall? God forbid; but rather through their fall salvation is come unto the Gentiles, for to provoke them to jealousy. Now if the fall of them be the riches of the world, and the diminishing of them the riches of the Gentiles; how much more their fullness?” (Romans 11:7-12).

God then has, if one may so say, taken advantage of the Jews’ unbelief to open wide the door of grace to all men everywhere; and so the Gentiles are really indebted to the unbelieving Jews for their present wonderful opportunity. Surely it ill becomes any Gentile to look with contempt on or to speak in an unkind, derogatory way of the Jew because of his failure to understand God’s plan when the Lord Jesus appeared on earth in accordance with the prophetic Scriptures! They did not understand, and so they lost a glorious opportunity, even as our Lord Himself said: “If thou hadst known, even thou, at least in this thy day, the things which belong unto thy peace! but now they are hid from thine eyes” (Luke 19:42). “Your house is left unto you desolate: and verily I say unto you, Ye shall not see me, until the time come when ye shall say, Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord” (Luke 13:35).

And so with the setting aside of Israel, we have the Gospel of grace going out to the nations. Speaking from the standpoint of the Apostle of the Gentiles, Paul continues:

“For if the casting away of them be the reconciling of the world, what shall the receiving of them be, but life from the dead? For if the firstfruit be holy, the lump is also holy: and if the root be holy, so are the branches. And if some of the branches be broken off, and thou, being a wild olive tree, wert graffed in among them, and with them partakest of the root and fatness of the olive tree; boast not against the branches. But if thou boast, thou bearest not the root, but the root thee. Thou wilt say then, The branches were broken off, that I might be graffed in. Well; because of unbelief they were broken off, and thou standest by faith. Be not highminded, but fear: for if God spared not the natural branches, take heed lest he also spare not thee. 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. And they also, if they abide not still in unbelief, shall be graffed in: for God is able to graff them in again” (Romans 11:15-23).

The figure of the olive tree used here is taken from the book of Jeremiah, chapter 11 and verse 16:

“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.”

There are three plants used in a special way as representing Israel. The vine speaks of them as God’s testimony in the earth. The fig tree is the symbol of Israel nationally, and the olive tree tells of them as the covenant people in special relation to God. Because of their unfaithfulness and particularly their rejection of the Lord Jesus Christ, the natural branches were broken off from the olive tree of which Abraham is the root. He is the father of all that believe. Israel failed here, and so these branches were torn out of the tree of the covenant. In place of them, wild branches representing the Gentiles were grafted in, but we need to remember that these branches do not necessarily speak of individual souls actually saved, but of Gentile nations to whom privileges have now been granted which were heretofore uncovenanted so far as they were concerned. If there is real faith, they partake of the root and fatness of the blive tree. As we read in Galatians, “They that be of faith are blessed with faithful Abraham.” But where the Gentiles manifest unbelief and heedlessness to the Word of God, they expose themselves to the same judgment that has already fallen upon Israel. The day will come when they will be torn out of the olive tree and their special privileges will come to an end.

Unbelieving critics have ridiculed the figure used here by the Apostle Paul, and have even taken occasion to point to it as a positive proof that the epistles are not definitely inspired by God. “How,” they ask, “could God make such a mistake as that which Paul has made here? He speaks of grafting wild branches into a good tree, and every horticulturalist knows that you do not graft wild branches into a good tree, but you graft good branches into a wild tree in order to change completely the character of its fruit.” But here, as elsewhere, it is the critics who are wrong. They do not read carefully enough, nor, shall I say, far enough. When we turn to verses 23 and 24, we read:

“And they also, if they abide not still in unbelief, shall be graffed in: for God is able to graff them in again. For if thou wert cut out of the olive tree which is wild by nature, and wert graffed contrary to nature into a good olive tree: how much more shall these, which be the natural branches, be graffed into their own olive tree?” (Romans 11:23-24).

Notice the expression, “If thou wert graffed contrary to nature into a good olive tree.” Paul draws attention to the fact that the illustration he is using is not in accordance with ordinary custom, but is contrary to it, just as the matchless grace of God is contrary to the thoughts of man’s legalistic heart. And if the Gentile nations have thus been so highly privileged, why should anyone wonder if, upon their failure, God should turn back again to Israel and graft in the natural branches into their own olive tree? This is exactly what He will do when the present period which we have described as the Great Parenthesis comes to an end.

And so we read in verse 25: “For I would not, brethren, that ye should be ignorant of this mystery, lest ye should be wise in your own conceits; that blindness in part is happened to Israel, until the fulness of the Gentiles be come in.” We need to distinguish between “the times of the Gentiles” and “the fulness of the Gentiles.” We have already seen that “the times of the Gentiles” covers the entire period during which the nation of the Jews, the city of Jerusalem, and the land of Palestine are under Gentile domination. This began with Nebuchadnezzar’s conquest of Palestine and will end at the revelation of the Lord Jesus Christ from heaven at the close of the Great Tribulation, or as Daniel puts it, “the last end of the indignation.” But the other term, “the fulness of the Gentiles,” has to do with God’s present work of grace. When He has taken out from among the Gentiles a people for His Name, when the last soul who is to be saved in this age has come to Christ, the Church will be completed and “the fulness of the Gentiles” will have come in. Then that Church will be caught up to be with the Lord before the seventieth week of Daniel begins. God will then take up Israel, and after the terrible time of tribulation spoken of specifically as “the time of Jacob’s trouble,” out of which Israel is to be saved, shall come to an end, the remainder of the nation will be brought into blessing. The apostate part of Israel will be destroyed as a result of the terrible experiences of the Great Tribulation. The remnant will be looked upon by God as the nation. And so says the Apostle in verse 26:

“And so all Israel shall be saved: as it is written, There shall come out of Zion the Deliverer, and shall turn away ungodliness from Jacob: for this is my covenant unto them, when I shall take away their sins. As concerning the gospel, they are enemies for your sakes: but as touching the election, they are beloved for the fathers’ sakes. For the gifts and calling of God are without repentance. For as ye in times past have not believed God, yet have now obtained mercy through their unbelief: even so have these also now not believed, that through your mercy they also may obtain mercy. For God hath concluded them all in unbelief, that he might have mercy upon all. 0 the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out! For who hath known the mind of the Lord? or who hath been his counsellor? Or who hath first given to him, and it shall be recompensed unto him again? For of him, and through him, and to him, are all things: to whom be glory for ever. Amen” (Romans 11:26-36).

Surely it is clear that these three chapters, then, fit in perfectly with what we have found elsewhere as to this parenthetic period between the sufferings of Christ and the glories that shall follow. The Old Testament reveals the truth that Israel would not recognize their Messiah when He came and that trouble and disaster would fall upon them because of this, but it gave no intimation of what God would do during this time of their setting aside in taking out a vast company of Gentiles to be associated with His Son throughout the Kingdom Age as His body and His bride. This is part of the great secret which had been kept in His heart from times eternal but now has been made known.

It may be well to point out what has been often noticed by others, that a “mystery” as spoken of in the New Testament is not necessarily something mysterious. It is a sacred secret which man could know nothing about until God revealed it. This mystery of the olive tree was made known only after the rejection of Christ and the consequent setting aside of the chosen nation.

What a day it will be when, God’s present program completed, He will take up Israel once more and bring them at last to confess their sin and to look up in faith to the Saviour whom their fathers rejected, and confess Him as their Redeemer and their long waited for Messiah! Then Israel shall blossom and bud and fill the face of the whole earth with fruit, for they will become God’s instruments for the enlightenment of the Gentile world.