The Olive Tree

From the beginning, God has always had His one covenant people. The New Testament church is simply the continuation of the true "Israel of God" (Gal. 6:16), after the false Israel had been cut off. Paul shows how this took place by using an illustration: believing Gentiles were "grafted" into the stock of the people of God, while Israelite branches were being broken off.

And if some of the branches were broken off, and you, being a wild olive tree, were grafted in among them, and with them became a partaker of the root and fatness of the olive tree, do not boast against the branches. But if you boast, remember that you do not support the root, but the root supports you. You will say then, "Branches were broken off that I might be grafted in." Well said. Because of unbelief they were broken off, and you stand by faith. Do not be haughty, but fear. For if God did not spare the natural branches, He may not spare you either. Therefore consider the goodness and severity of God: on those who fell, severity; but toward you, goodness, if you continue in His goodness. Otherwise you also will be cut off (Rem. 11:17-22).

Those who are faithless and disobedient to the covenant are cut off, regardless of their previous standing or genetic heritage, while those who believe are grafted in. This contains an important warning to all who profess the Christian religion, to continue in the faith. The Jews who forsook their Lord could not lay claim to God's blessing and favor; and, as Paul points out, the same is true for Gentile Christians. God requires obedience and perseverance — as Calvin said, a life of continual repentance. "Beware, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief in departing from the living God; but exhort one another daily, while it is called 'Today,' lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin. For we have become partakers of Christ if we hold the beginning of our confidence steadfast until the end" (Heb. 3:12-14).

But Israel's rejection is not to be the final chapter of its history. Although the body of Israel was excommunicated for unbelief, restoration to the covenant will come about through repentance and faith: "And they also, if they do not continue in unbelief, will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again. For if you were cut out of the olive tree which is wild by nature, and were grafted contrary to nature into a good olive tree, how much more will these, who are the natural branches, be grafted into their own olive tree?" (v. 23-24). Note carefully that the text not only says that God can restore "natural" Israel, but that He will do so. This point is reinforced in the following verses:

For I do not desire, brethren, that you should be ignorant of this mystery, lest you should be wise in your own opinion, that hardening in part has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved, as it is written: "The Deliverer will come out of Zion, and He will turn away ungodliness from Jacob; for this is My covenant with them, when I take away their sins" (v. 25-27).

As we saw above, God hardened the people of Israel in unbelief (v. 7-10). But this hardening was only temporary, for Israel as a whole will turn back to the Lord, as Paul states elsewhere:

But their minds were hardened; for until this very day the same veil remains unlifted during the reading of the Old Testament, because the veil is taken away in Christ. But even to this day, when Moses is read, a veil lies on their heart; nevertheless, whenever a man turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away (2 Cor. 3:14-16).

The judicial hardening and rejection of Israel will not last forever. Someday the veil will be lifted, and the people as a whole will be converted back to the true faith. But Israel will not return until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in — in other words, until the Gentiles as a whole have been converted to Christ (compare the usage of the word "fullness" in verses 12 and 25). And thus, after the conversion of the mass of the Gentiles, all Israel will be saved, in fulfillment of God's promises to His ancient people. Even though Israel has been unfaithful, God remains true to His covenant. Israelis now an enemy of the gospel, yet God still loves them for the sake of their fathers. The privileges He bestowed upon them have not been withdrawn forever, and because of His promises, Israel's calling in the covenant is ultimately irrevocable (v. 28-29). Paul repeats the basic lesson: "For just as you were once disobedient to God, yet have now obtained mercy through their disobedience, even so these also have now been disobedient, that through the mercy shown to you they also may obtain mercy. For God has shut up all in disobedience that He might show mercy to all" (v. 30-32).

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