Dr. Thomas McCall, the Senior Theologian of our ministry, has written many articles for the Levitt Letter. He holds a Th.M. in Old Testament studies and a Th.D. in Semitic languages and Old Testament. He has served as Zola’s co-author, mentor, pastor, and friend for nearly 30 years.
This article appeared originally in the March 2001 Levitt Letter.
The Olive Tree of Romans 11 has been an enigma to many Bible interpreters throughout the centuries of the Church Age:
16 … if the root be holy, so are the branches. 17 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; 18 Boast not against the branches. But if thou boast, thou bearest not the root, but the root thee. 19 Thou wilt say then, The branches were broken off, that I might be graffed in. 20 Well; because of unbelief they were broken off, and thou standest by faith. Be not highminded, but fear: 21 For if God spared not the natural branches, take heed lest he also spare not thee. 22 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. 23 And they also, if they abide not still in unbelief, shall be graffed in: for God is able to graff them in again. 24 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 11:16b-24)
Most amillennial commentaries have jumped to the conclusion that the Olive Tree is the Church, beginning in Old Testament times and continuing on to the present in its current form. Thus, the Church becomes the New Improved Israel, and the Jewish people are relegated to the dustbin of history as an out-moded, irrelevant part of God’s plan, sort of like an appendix — a vestigial organ. With this type of thinking, replacement theology was born and continues as the dominant teaching of the vast majority of Church scholars.
At the other extreme, some more recent interpreters have suggested that the Olive Tree is Israel, the Jewish people, and that Gentile believers, through their being grafted in, have become Israelites, now have a “Jewish heart,” and should be considered themselves as Jews. While this interpretation may lie closer to the truth than the replacement theology noted above, it too seems to fall short of what the Apostle Paul, inspired by the Spirit, is endeavoring to teach us.
It should be understood that the Olive Tree is not the Church. Some people are born naturally into the Olive Tree, but no one is born physically into the Church, the Body of Christ. The only way one can enter into the Body of Christ is by being born again by personal faith in the Lord Jesus. Furthermore, it is clear from the New Testament that the Church began at the celebration of the Feast of Pentecost about 33 AD, when the believers were baptized into the Body of Christ, not in the Old Testament! The Olive Tree, which began with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the fathers, cannot be identical with the Church.
Also, the Olive Tree cannot be Israel. Some natural branches are broken off the Olive Tree, representing Jews who do not believe in Jesus the Messiah, even though they are physically still alive. They are physically alive but are spiritually dead, broken off branches. However, no one can be broken off of Israel, as long as he is physically alive. The often-heard dictum, “I was born a Jew and I will die a Jew,” is an accurate saying. Once a person is born into the covenant nation of Israel, he remains within it until physically dead.
If the Olive Tree is not the Church and it is not Israel, what is it? My conviction is that it is what Paul elsewhere refers to as the Commonwealth of Israel, and that the Olive Tree is none other than the Spiritual Commonwealth of Israel.
11 Wherefore remember, that ye being in time past Gentiles in the flesh, who are called Uncircumcision by that which is called the Circumcision in the flesh made by hands; 12 That at that time ye were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world: 13 But now in Christ Jesus ye who sometimes were far off are made nigh by the blood of Christ. (Eph. 2:11-13)
The word the Apostle uses for commonwealth is politeiva (politeias), akin to the English words politics, peoplehood or nationhood. Through the blood of Israel’s Messiah (Christ), we Gentiles who were once aliens, have been made nigh (near) to the Commonwealth of Israel, but not identical to it. Thus we have the figure of the Olive Tree, which I suggest is the Spiritual Commonwealth of Israel. It is spiritual, because only righteous, born-again, blood-bought believers are in the Olive Tree, whether Jews or Gentiles. It pertains to Israel, because the root is the fathers of Israel — Abraham, Isaac and Jacob — and the natural branches are Messianic Jews, who remain in the Olive Tree by virtue of their faith in Yeshua, the Christ.
Furthermore, the Olive Tree is the Commonwealth of Israel, because Gentiles who have been attached (grafted in) to the Olive Tree owe allegiance to Israel’s Book (the Bible), Israel’s God, and Israel’s Messiah. It is similar to the British Commonwealth, in which the people of Canada and Australia are not actually citizens of England, but owe allegiance to the Queen, and have a special relationship with the British people. We Gentiles who have trusted in Jesus the Messiah have a special relationship with Israel, its people and Land, and have sworn allegiance to the King of the Jews.
In addition to our special relationship to Israel, we Gentiles who have been grafted in to the Olive Tree by faith in Christ among the natural branches, have a special relationship to the Jewish believers in Christ, who are the natural branches. The tragedy is that the two kinds of branches in the Olive Tree (Jewish and Gentile believers in Christ) have such a hard time worshipping our Lord together. What a powerful testimony we would have to the unsaved world if we could find a way to be seated together in earthly places, as we have been positionally “seated together in heavenly places.”