NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER ELEVEN (Lesson XXIX)
H. A. Ironside tells a personal story connected to one critic’s assessment of Paul’s illustration about a wild olive branch being grafted into a cultured olive tree. He talks about reading an article by a well-known “higher critic,” some years ago. In this article, the critic was ridiculing the idea of the Apostle Paul’s inspiration because of his apparent ignorance of one of the first principles of horticulture. The critic seemed amused that Paul was so ignorant of the art of grafting that he actually suggested that one could graft wild branches into a good tree and have them bear fruit. Evidently, Paul was not aware of the fact that it is customary to graft good branches into a wild tree.
Ironside counters by noting that it is clear that the Reverend critic had never carefully read the Apostle’s own words, as given in the next verse, or he would not have been caught in such a trap. Paul clearly indicates that his illustration is one which he knew very well to be opposed to that which was ordinarily done by orchard keepers. Paul is clear that if you were to cut off a branch from a wild olive tree and attempt to graft it into a good olive tree, it wouldn’t work. Paul used this to show how natural it would be for God to have taken natural branches – the Jews, of the good olive tree which had fallen off and graft them back into their own natural olive tree1.2 In other words, the Jews needed to see how God did the impossible by assimilating the Gentiles into the covenant with Abraham. This should show them how earnestly God wanted them to join in by their accepting Jesus as the Messiah.
Charles Hodge put this whole concept into easy terms to understand. For him, according to the Scriptures, there is no difference, so far as their relation to God is concerned, between the different races of mankind since all came from Adam and all have sinned. They, therefore, are all unfit for the kingdom of God and are alike in that they are unable to save themselves. But on the other hand, they are all covered in God’s plan of salvation as presented in the Gospel. It was designed to meet the spiritual needs of all classes of people.
So the words used by Paul was to preserve the figure of a good tree and its branches. He was trying to get the Jews of his day to understand that restoration of the Jews back into fellowship with God was a more probable event than the introduction of the Gentiles into the family of God. Didn’t the Jews realize that God already regarded them as His children? Weren’t they aware that in their relationship with Him they were more favored because they were the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? Certainly, they knew that just as He loved their forefathers, He loved them the same. Therefore, the restoration of His people to the blessings of the family of God had always been a more possible and plausible event than the seemingly impossible idea of the Gentiles being chosen to take their place.3
So what went wrong? Why did God have to go pick branches off of non-fruit producing wild olive trees and graft them into the family of God tree? It was a miracle that only God had the power to perform. It was not something God secretly decided to do after they rejected His Son, so He deliberately went out of His way to mistreat the Jews so they would turn against Him, thereby, giving Him the opportunity to break the contract with Abraham and start all over with the Gentiles. Just the opposite. He sent His Son, His only Son to them first because He had promised Him to them from the very beginning.
When His Son paid the price for their redemption and calling, God arranged for the reinvigorated spiritual family of Abraham to be the first among those chosen. But what did they do? They rejected and killed His Son, then they went out of their way to persecute and martyr the first members of the Body of Christ which were fellow Jews. So what option did they leave for God to do in order to make sure that the death and resurrection of His Son were not wasted? Therefore, God had to reach out to the wild olive tree of Gentiles and get some branches from them because the natural Jewish branches had fallen off and were deteriorating and decaying on the ground.
Based on all that we’ve read so far, John Stott says that in this we can see a “chain of blessings.” It comes in the form of the allegory of an olive tree, where the rejection of the Jews (cultivated branches) were broken off, and the Gentiles (uncultivated branches) were grafted in. This was to ensure the Jews that if God could take wild branches and make them fruitful, why can He not take the natural branches and graft them back in again. What the allegory does not permit is any suggestion that through Israel’s restoration the Gentiles will be more richly blessed. The warning and the promise are paramount, however. First the warning: since the natural branches were broken off, the wild ones could be too. The Gentiles could be rejected like the Jews. There is no room for complacency. Secondly, the promise: since the wild branches were grafted in, the natural ones could be too. The Jews could be accepted like the Gentiles. So there is no reason for despair.4
Jewish scholar David Stern questions how some Christian groups reject what Paul is saying here about the olive tree analogy because it raises a critical theological question, “Who are the real people of God?” If you were to ask any orthodox or reformed Jew the same question, they would answer this way: “The Jews.” But if you offered the same question to any reformed or evangelical Christian, they would not doubt exclaim: “The Church.” But from the example of the olive tree, we learn that there are actually three distinct groups present who are all, in some sense, part of God’s people.
Stern goes on to say that this is something that no proper theology can ignore. First, there are the Messianic Jews (converted Jews who believe in Jesus as the Messiah), who are the natural branches that are part of the cultivated olive tree. Then there are the Gentile Christians, the wild olive branches which have been grafted into the cultivated olive tree. And finally, there are the Non-Messianic Jews (Jews who do not accept Jesus as the Messiah and still practice their religion as it has been for thousands of years). They are the natural branches which have fallen off the cultivated olive tree but can easily be grafted back in again. This is what Stern calls “olive tree theology,” and must be understood as including all three groups and all three kinds of “branches,” in defining and describing the past, present, and future of God’s people.
Stern continues with the examination of some modern interpretations. He notes that theologians, like other people, want a simple life. The most widespread Christian oversimplification is found in some forms of Covenant theology,5 which is more correctly called Replacement theology.6 This erroneous theology says that the Jews used to be God’s chosen people; but when they spurned Jesus, God spurned them and chose a new people, the Church, to replace them – so that now the Church receives all of God’s promises and blessings, while the Jews get only the curses. Were this thinly disguised antisemitism true, Paul would have to picture a cultivated olive tree with its root, trunk and branches all dead, and the wild olive branches living by themselves, grafted into nothing alive.7
In one article written on the question of whether the church has replaced Israel, we are told that if you have ever seen the Broadway show or film, “Fiddler on the Roof,” you might remember a character named Tevye saying to God, “I know, I know. We are the chosen people. But, once in a while, can’t You choose someone else?” This line expresses a general frustration that at least some Jews feel regarding the challenges, trials, and tribulations that seem to go along with being God’s chosen people – everything from misunderstandings to dispersions and even persecution. Today, the Jewish people and the role of Israel itself are often misunderstood, even in the evangelical church. While some scholars say the church has replaced Israel, others say that God will continue to have a place for Israel in His program.8
And in another article on the subject we are asked if God has a separate purpose and redemptive program for Israel and the church? Or, does the Gospel of Jesus Christ fulfill God’s purpose to gather a people from every tribe, tongue, and nation, Jews and Gentiles alike, into one worldwide family? When the Apostle Paul declares in the first chapter of Romans that the Gospel is the “power of God unto salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Gentile,”9 he declares that there is one way of salvation for all who believe in Jesus Christ. Yet he simultaneously affirms that this salvation does not displace or supersede God’s redemptive purpose for the Jews, but, rather, fulfills it. The ongoing debate about Israel and the church needs to maintain the Apostle’s balance, neither separating Israel and the church nor displacing Israel with the church.10
Also, in a debate on whether the Church has replaced Israel, Dr. Michael Brown, and Gary DeMar share their theories. The topic of their debate is simply a springboard for discussion of the dispute between two general modern positions: one which sees important First Covenant promises as pertaining specifically and only to ethnic Israelites, and another in which those promises are to all believers – the Church.11
1 Verse 24
2 Harry A. Ironside: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
3 Charles Hodge: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 576
4 John Stott: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
5 Covenant Theology is a prominent feature in Protestant theology, especially in the Presbyterian and Reformed churches, and a similar form is found in Methodism and Reformed Baptist churches. In brief, Covenant Theology teaches that God has established two great covenants with mankind and a covenant within the Godhead to deal with how the other two relate. The first covenant in logical order, usually called the Covenant of Redemption, is the agreement within the Godhead that the Father would appoint His son Jesus to give up His life for mankind and that Jesus would do so (cf. Titus 1:1-3).
6 It is not uncommon today to hear the argument advanced that Covenant Theology is anti-semitic, because it is erroneously accused of teaching that the New Testament Church replaces God’s Old Testament people, ethnic Israel. Some of these critics of Covenant Theology (such as Dispensationalists and Progressive Covenantalists) use the pejorative term “Replacement Theology” to describe what they believe Covenant Theology teaches.
7 David H. Stern: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
8 By Dallas Theological Seminary, October 14, 2014
9 Romans 1:16
10 The Church and Israel: The Issue, by Dr. Cornelis Venema, Tabletalk, Ligonier Ministries
11 To listen to an audio version of this debate, go to the following website and download a copy: http://americanvision.org/12098/the-brown-demar-debate-has-the-church-replaced-israel/