Romans Bible Study Lesson 47

Printer friendly version


The Olive Tree

Romans 11:16—18

Paul has been making the case that God is not done with Israel and has been explaining to Jews, within the Roman congregation, what changes have transpired since Israel’s rejection of their Messiah. Chapters 9—11 would not be necessary if there was no change in God’s dealing with Israel. However, when Israel rejected her messiah and the offer of the Kingdom, God temporarily set aside Israel’s prophetic program and turned to the Gentiles. It was after Israel’s rejection that God raised up Paul to be the Apostle to the Gentiles with the Gospel of Grace contained in the Mystery. God is still dealing with mankind through the revelation given directly to Paul by Jesus Christ (Galatians 1:12). This Mystery includes the forming of a new man (the Church, the Body of Christ) formed out of Jews and Gentiles. Today’s Church is not formed from Gentiles being adding to the Kingdom church (found in Matthew 18:17) but is a completely new entity (Ephesians 2:15) composed of Jews and Gentiles. God is now bypassing Israel as His witness and going directly to the world.

As Paul continues to explain the changes that have occurred, he uses a word picture to show what has been happening. Unfortunately, it seems that instead of making things clearer, Paul muddies the water by including an illustration that has been interpreted in a number of different ways.

Verse 16

This verse introduces us to the olive tree illustration by pointing out that anything connected to the tree is holy. He sets this up by saying if the grain of the first-fruits is holy then the lump of dough made from the first-fruits grain will also be holy. To be holy is to be set apart for God’s services. An example of this is the serving utensils in the tabernacle (Exodus 40:9; 1 Kings 8:4; Ezra 8:28).

Verse 17

This verse is better understood by changing the word if to since. Since some of the branches were broken off…you were grafted in. Notice that only some of the branches were broken off and a wild olive branch was grafted in. Since Paul is addressing believers, they must be the wild olive branches.

Here Paul makes reference to the root of the olive tree. There are a number of theories as to what the root represents. The top three choices are: 1. Messiah (Jesus Christ); 2. Israel; 3. The Church; 4. Abraham.

The Root


If the root is the Messiah then anyone connected to the tree as a branch is saved. Verse 16 seems to support this idea since if the root is holy then the branches are also holy. All of Israel was a part of the tree and therefore would be considered saved. The cut-off branches would be the part of Israel who lost their salvation. Gentiles were then allowed to become a part of the tree. The biggest problem with this view is that there is no eternal security. To be cut off from Jesus Christ is to lose your salvation. This goes against other passages written by Paul that make it clear that we cannot lose our salvation (Romans 8:1; Ephesians 4:30).


There are many who believe the roots represent Israel. The Old Testament actually supports this idea.

Isaiah 17:6 Yet gleanings will be left in it like the shaking of an olive tree, Two or three olives on the topmost bough, Four or five on the branches of a fruitful tree, Declares the LORD, the God of Israel.

This verse shows Israel during the coming Tribulation. If Paul’s olive tree is Israel then the church is now connected to Israel. Many use this interpretation to show that the church has replaced Israel. The problem is that Paul is comparing Israel with the branches of the tree and not the root. Part of Israel gets cut off but the root system is untouched.


Many reformed churches teach that the tree is the church. This church was formed way back in the Old Testament and has continued into this present age. God has always had His people to work through. Once it was Israel (they were once the ones who formed the church) but now the Body of Christ has replaced Israel. The biggest mistake in this way of thinking is seeing one gospel and one church. The word church literally means a called out group. This could be Israel, the Body of Christ or even a riotous mob (Acts 19:32). The Church, the Body of Christ was formed after Israel rejected her Messiah and the Apostle Paul was raised up to deliver the Gospel of God’s Grace. The church mentioned in Matthew 18 was a Kingdom church waiting for their Messiah to come back in power and sit on the throne in the Millennial Kingdom.

There is also another problem with this view. When a wild olive branch is grafted into a domesticated olive tree the branch still produces wild olives. The grafted branch does not change into another type of fruit. This olive tree has distinct Jews and Gentiles making up the tree. However, in the Church, the Body of Christ there is no distinction between Jew and Gentile (Galatians 3:28; Ephesians 2:15).


Since Israel came out of Abraham, Abraham would be considered the root of Israel. Paul alludes to this in verse 17 with Israel as the natural branches attached to their rich root. By implication that rich root would be Abraham (or possibly the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob).

We in the church also have a connection to Abraham. Galatians 3:7 says that all who comes to God by faith are sons of Abraham. Galatians 3:14 continues by stating that the blessing of Abraham has come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus. We are drawing from the rich root of the olive tree just as the Jews do. This explanation of the root seems to fit better than the other views.

The Branches

Just as there are many ideas about what the root represents, there are a number of ideas of what the branches signify. We know the branches are holy from verse 16. There are also cultivated and wild olive branches with some of the cultivated branches having been broken off so that the wild olive branches could be grafted in. It also seems that if some of the cultivated olive branches were not broken off then there would be no room for the wild olive branches (verse 19).

The cultivated or natural branches are usually correctly understood to be Israel. God chose Israel to be His servant (Leviticus 25:55). They were to be separate from the world and set apart for God’s service. This is why they would be considered holy. The word holy merely means to be separate. The root of Israel was Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—the patriarchs.

Some of the branches were broken off because of unbelief. True Israel remained a part of the tree while unbelieving Israel was cut off. I believe this corresponds to God partially hardening Israel (verse 25). The Israelites who had already hardened their hearts were now allowed to go the way they wanted to go. God would no longer plead with them to follow Him and so He turned His back on those who turned their back on God. He put the Gentiles in their place.

We still have not defined exactly what being in this tree represents. If being in the tree represents salvation then it would prove that men can lose their salvation and this would contradict other clear passages of Paul. John F. Walvoord says it is a place of blessing and quotes Genesis 12:3 as proof. Alva J. McClain says it represents a place of favor or privilege while Paul M. Sadler says the olive tree identifies God’s witnesses.

I would have to agree with Sadler, that the olive tree identifies through whom God is working and revealing Himself. When He formed Israel, He made her a witness to the world and it was through her that God would reveal Himself through. The Israelites who did not believe were cut off of this tree of witness because they were not doing their job. This goes along with Paul’s definition of who a true Israelite is in Romans 9:8. Having Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as your ancestor meant nothing if you didn’t put your faith in the Messiah. At the time Paul wrote Romans, most of the Jews were cut off leaving a small remnant on the olive tree. Notice that there were Jews on the tree who were unbelievers. This shows that the olive tree could not represent salvation. It also leaves the possibility that the Gentiles grafted in are not necessarily saved, only that God is using them to bring His message to the world (however, I do think the grafted in Gentiles are saved and therefore are members of the church, the Body of Christ).

Verse 18

The root is Abraham and just as Abraham is the root of Israel, he is the source for believers today. We can certainly understand how Abraham is directly connected to Israel but how is he connected to the church? Galatians gives us insight as to how we are tied.

Galatians 3:14 in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we would receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.

Genesis 15:6 Then he believed in the LORD; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness.

Romans 4:16 For this reason it is by faith, in order that it may be in accordance with grace, so that the promise will be guaranteed to all the descendants, not only to those who are of the Law, but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all,

Just as Abraham’s faith was counted for righteousness, our faith (believing in God) is also counted for righteousness. We are connected to Abraham by faith. Abraham is our example for the proper way to come to God—by faith and anyone who comes to God by faith (like Abraham) will be declared righteous.