The Olive Tree (Rom 11:16-24)


[Note: I recommend reading my treatment of Romans 9 first to better understand Paul’s typology of Israel They are not all Israel, who are of Israel]

Baptists frequently hear the following refrain:

The one olive tree is the covenant people of God. Unbelieving Jews were broken off and Gentiles were grafted in. We live in that present redemptive-historical reality. However, verses 20-22 indicate that branches may yet be cut off. These branches are formally united to the tree (the covenant people with Christ as their root), but not vitally united since they do not have faith and hence do not bear fruit (cf. John 15:2). It will not be until the eschatological consummation that the olive tree will only have fruit-bearing branches. Only then is God’s pruning work complete, and only then will membership in the visible and invisible church be identical.

Camden Bucey

The argument goes:

4. As the infant seed of the people of God are acknowledged on all hands to have been members of the church, equally with their parents under the Old Testament dispensation, so it is equally certain that the church of God is the same in substance now that it was then; and, of course, it is just as reasonable and proper, on principle, that the infant offspring of professed believers should be members of the church now, as it was that they should be members of the ancient church.

I am aware that our Baptist brethren warmly object to this statement, and assert that the church of God under the Old Testament economy and the New, is not the same, but so essentially different, that the same principles can by no means apply to each. They contend that the Old Testament dispensation was a kind of political economy, rather national than spiritual in its character; and, of course, that when the Jews ceased to be a people, the covenant under which they had been placed, was altogether laid aside, and a covenant of an entirely new character introduced. But nothing can be more evident than that this view of the subject is entirely erroneous.

The perpetuity of the Abrahamic covenant, and, of consequence, the identity of the church under both dispensations, is so plainly taught in scripture, and follows so unavoidably from the radical scriptural principles concerning the church of God, that it is indeed wonderful how any believer in the Bible can call in question the fact…

But what places the identity of the church, under both dispensations, in the clearest and strongest light, is that memorable and decisive passage, in the 11th chapter of the epistle to the Romans, in which the church of God is held forth to us under the emblem of an olive tree. Under the same figure had the Lord designated the church by the pen of Jeremiah the prophet. In the 11th chapter of his prophecy, the prophet, speaking of God’s covenanted people under that economy, says, “The LORD called thy name, A green olive tree, fair and of goodly fruit” (Jer. 11:6). But concerning this olive tree, on account of the sin of the people in forsaking the Lord, the prophet declares: “With the noise of a great tumult he hath kindled a fire upon it, and the branches of it are broken.” Let me request you to compare with this, the language of the apostle in the 11th chapter of the epistle to the Romans: “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 grafted 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 grafted 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 broken off. And they also, if they abide not still in unbelief, shall be grafted in: for God is able to graft them in again. For if thou wert cut out of the olive tree which is wild by nature, and wert grafted, contrary to nature into a good olive tree: how much more shall these, which be the natural branches, be grafted into their own olive tree?” (Rom. 11:15-24).

That the apostle is here speaking of the Old Testament church, under the figure of a good olive tree, cannot be doubted, and is, indeed, acknowledged by all; by our Baptist brethren as well as others. Now the inspired apostle says concerning this olive tree, that the natural branches, that is the Jews, were broken off because of unbelief. But what was the consequence of this excision? Was the tree destroyed? By no means. The apostle teaches directly the contrary. It is evident, from his language, that the root and trunk, in all their “fatness,” remained; and Gentiles, branches of an olive tree “wild by nature,” were “grafted into the good olive tree” the same tree from which the natural branches had been broken off. Can anything be more pointedly descriptive of identity than this?

But this is not all. The apostle apprises us that the Jews are to be brought back from their rebellion and wanderings and to be incorporated with the Christian church. And how is this restoration described? It is called “grafting them in again into their own olive tree.” In other words, the “tree” into which the Gentile Christians at the coming of Christ were “grafted,” was the “old olive tree,” of which the ancient covenant people of God were the “natural branches;” and, of course, when the Jews shall be brought in, with the fullness of the Gentiles, into the Christian church, the apostle expressly tells us they shall be “grafted again into their own olive tree.” Surely, if the church of God before the coming of Christ, and the church of God after the advent, were altogether distinct and separate bodies, and not the same in their essential characters, it would be an abuse of terms to represent the Jews, when converted to Christianity, as grafted again into their own olive tree.

Infant Baptism Scriptural and Reasonable: and Baptism by Sprinkling or Affusion the Most Suitable and Edifying Mode By Rev. Samuel Miller

However, Romans 11:15-24 does not warrant such a conclusion. Addressing the passage exegetically presents some challenges to the standard paedobaptist interpretation.

First, what is the olive tree? Samuel Miller above argued “That the apostle is here speaking of the Old Testament church, under the figure of a good olive tree, cannot be doubted.” But that betrays an underlying assumption. If we start with assumptions, we may miss the point of the text. To be more accurate, John Murray notes that “The figure of the olive tree to describe Israel is in accord with the Old Testament usage (Jer 11:16, 17; Hos 14:6).” Therefore the olive tree is Israel.

Second, what is the root? Camden Bucey claimed above that it was Christ (as is common when arguing against baptists). But again, that betrays an underlying assumption not drawn from the text itself. Douglas Moo notes

Most scholars are led by the parallelism to identify the “first fruits” with the patriarchs (Chrysostom; Godet; S-H; Murray; Michel; Kasemann; Wilckens; Schlier; Bourke, Olive Tree, pp. 75-76). But some think that the “first fruits” is Adam or Christ (cf 1 Cor 15:20, 23), while a significant (and growing) number think it is Jewish Christians, the remnant.

The standard reformed view is that the root is Abraham and the patriarchs. Murray states simply “The root is surely the patriarchs.” Calvin elaborates:

They were then sanctified by the holy covenant, and adorned with peculiar honor, with which God had not at that time favored the Gentiles; but as the efficacy of the covenant appeared then but small, he bids us to look back to Abraham and the patriarchs, in whom the blessing of God was not indeed either empty or void. He hence concludes, that from them an heredity holiness had passed to all their posterity.

But it is here where confusion and ambiguity arises as to whether the root is Abraham or Christ because of prior covenantal commitments. If the olive tree is the covenant of grace, and Christ is the head of the covenant of grace, then he must be the root of the olive tree. And, per Bucey above, a distinction must made between branches vitally united to the root (Christ) and branches formally united to the root (Christ). Hence the inward/outward covenant construct. The olive tree then becomes a description of how the visible church has functioned since Genesis 3:15, with individuals being broken off for unbelief throughout. However, this presents us with some problems.

Nations or Individuals?

If this is simply a description of what has always been the case for individuals in the visible church, how does it make sense of the context? Murray notes:

The act of judgment upon Israel spoken of in verse 15 as the “casting away” is now represented as breaking off of branches. This is the appropriate representation in terms of the figure now being used. The expression “some of the branches” does not seem to agree, however, with the fact that the mass of Israel had been cast away. It is a sufficient answer to this difference to bear in mind that the main interest of the apostle now is focused on the grafting in of the Gentiles and the cutting away of Israel and it is not necessary to reflect on the extent to which the latter takes place.

Paul is referring to national rejection, but also of individual breaking and grafting. Murray’s solution is to dismiss the question as irrelevant. Calvin, on the other hand, insists the passage is referring only to nations, not to individuals.

Let us remember that in this comparison man is not compared with man, but nation with nation. If then a comparison be made between them, they shall be found equal in this respect, that they are both equally the children of Adam; the only difference is that the Jews had been separated from the Gentiles, that they might be a peculiar people to the Lord.

They were then sanctified by the holy covenant, and adorned with peculiar honor, with which God had not at that time favored the Gentiles; but as the efficacy of the covenant appeared then but small, he bids us to look back to Abraham and the patriarchs, in whom the blessing of God was not indeed either empty or void. He hence concludes, that from them an heredity holiness had passed to all their posterity. But this conclusion would not have been right had he spoken of persons, or rather had he not regarded the promise; for when the father is just, he cannot yet transmit his own uprightness to his son: but as the Lord had sanctified Abraham for himself for this end, that his seed might also be holy, and as he thus conferred holiness not only on his person but also on his whole race, the Apostle does not unsuitably draw this conclusion, that all the Jews were sanctified in their father Abraham.

Then to confirm this view, he adduces two similitudes: the one taken from the ceremonies of the law, and the other borrowed from nature. The first-fruits which were offered sanctified the whole lump, in like manner the goodness of the juice diffuses itself from the root to the branches; and posterity hold the same connection with their parents from whom they proceed as the lump has with the first-fruits, and the branches with the tree. It is not then a strange thing that the Jews were sanctified in their father. There is here no difficulty if you understand by holiness the spiritual nobility of the nation, and that indeed not belonging to nature, but what proceeded from the covenant. It may be truly said, I allow, that the Jews were naturally holy, for their adoption was hereditary; but I now speak of our first nature, according to which we are all, as we know, accursed in Adam. Therefore the dignity of an elect people, to speak correctly, is a supernatural privilege.

Calvin’s concern is soteriological: Paul speaks of a hereditary holiness that would be inappropriate if applied to individuals. His solution is to limit the holiness of the Jews (their inclusion as branches) to a national setting apart: “their adoption was hereditary.” The editor of Calvin’s commentary included the following note:

Editor: That the holiness here mentioned is external and relative, and not personal and inward, is evident from the whole context. The children of Israel were denominated holy in all their wickedness and disobedience, because they had been consecrated to God, adopted as his people, and set apart for his service, and they enjoyed all the external privileges of the covenant which God had made with their fathers… “The holiness,” says Turrettin, “of the first-fruits and of the root was no other than an external, federal, and national consecration, such as could be transferred from parents to their children.”

“The attentive reader,” says Scott, “will readily perceive that relative holiness, or consecration to God, is here exclusively meant…”

Calvin goes on to treat the passage as dealing with two groups collectively. In addressing the cutting off of Gentile branches, he argues

we must especially notice and remember what I have before said, — that Paul’s address is not so much to individuals as to the whole body of the Gentiles, among whom there might have been many, who were vainly inflated, professing rather than having faith. On account of these Paul threatens the Gentiles, not without reason, with excision, as we shall hereafter find again… And here again it appears more evident, that the discourse is addressed generally to the body of the Gentiles, for the excision, of which he speaks, could not apply to individuals, whose election is unchangeable, based on the eternal purpose of God. Paul therefore declares to the Gentiles, that if they exulted over the Jews, a reward for their pride would be prepared for them; for God will again reconcile to himself the first people whom he has divorced.

A century later, Westminster Assembly member Samuel Rutherford, following Calvin, expressed it this way:

If the root be holy, so also are the branches (Rom. 11:16). Now this holiness cannot be meant of personal and inherent holiness, for it is not true in that sense. If the fathers and forefathers be truly sanctified and are believers, then are the branches and children sanctified and believers. But the contrary we see in wicked Absalom born of holy David, and many others. Therefore, this holiness must be the holiness of the nation, not of persons. It must be a holiness because of their elected and chosen parents (the patriarchs, prophets, and the holy seed of the Jews), and so the holiness federal, or the holiness of the covenant.

If then the Jews in Paul’s time were holy by covenant (howbeit for the present the sons were branches broken off for unbelief), how much more then (seeing God has chosen the race and nation of the gentiles and is become a God to us and to our seed), that the seed must be holy with a holiness of the chosen nation and an external holiness of the covenant, notwithstanding that the father and mother were as wicked as the Jews who slew the Lord of Glory…

So they cite scriptures that by no force of reason do speak for them, as Rom. 4:11 and Rom. 11:16, which say nothing but that ‘if the root be holy’ with the holiness federal and of the external profession, then so are the branches.  But the place speaks nothing of true inherent holiness: for then all holy parents should have holy and visible saints coming out of their loins, which is against scripture and experience…

Sixthly, they say: The church of God is defiled (Hag. 2:14,15; Eze. 44:7) if all infants promiscuously be baptized: for then the people, and every work of their hand and their offering, is unclean.  So Mr. Best.

Answer:  We deny that children born within the visible church are an unclean offering to the Lord and that the baptizing of them pollutes the nation (and all the worship of the nation), as they would gather from Haggai.  For being born of the holy nation, they are holy with a federal and national holiness, Rom. 11:16.  If the root be holy so are the branches.

On the Baptism of the Children of Adherents

So, for Calvin, the Gentile branches that are grafted in are not individuals and the natural branches that are cut off are not individuals. Instead it refers to Jews as a whole and Gentiles as a whole. Take note that Calvin’s motivation for viewing this passage in terms of groups is soteriological: Jews cannot be individually included by hereditary adoption and Gentiles cannot be individually ingrafted for belief and then excised for unbelief. This is clearly inconsistent with the standard paedobaptist interpretation of the text as referring to individuals who are grafted in and cut off from the visible church on a daily basis. For Calvin, this is not a description of how the visible church has always functioned, but instead it is a description of a specific event in redemptive history.

Abraham the root. Israel the tree.

Murray rejects Calvin’s argument, noting “It would press the language and the analogy too far to think of the wild olive as grafted in its entirety into the good olive. As indicated in verse 24 the branches of the wild olive are viewed as grafted in.”

How then are we to resolve this tension? How do we address Murray’s concern that the nation as a whole is cast away, but this happens in terms of individual branches, while at the same time safeguarding Calvin’s soteriological concerns that require a corporate, rather than individual consideration?

The solution lies in adhering closely to the text. Christ and the patriarchs cannot both be the root. It is one or the other. Abraham is the root. Likewise, we will avoid unnecessary problems if we do not import concepts of the visible church into the text and simply acknowledge that the tree is Israel, Abraham’s seed.

Note what John Owen says about Abraham and his seed:

Two privileges did God grant unto Abraham, upon his separation to a special interest in the old promise and covenant: —

First, That according to the flesh he should be the father of the Messiah, the promised seed; who was the very life of the covenant, the fountain and cause of all the blessings contained in it. That this privilege was temporary, having a limited season, time, and end, appointed unto it, the very nature of the thing itself doth demonstrate; for upon this actual exhibition in the flesh, it was to cease. In pursuit hereof were his posterity separated from the rest of the world, and preserved a peculiar people, that through them the promised Seed might be brought forth in the fullness of time, and be of them according unto the flesh, Romans 9:5.

Secondly, Together with this, he had also another privilege granted unto him, namely, that his faith, whereby he was personally interested in the covenant, should be the pattern of the faith of the church in all generations; and that none should ever come to be a member of it, or a sharer in its blessings, but by the same faith that he had fixed on the Seed that was in the promise, to be brought forth from him into the world. On the account of this privilege, he became the father of all them that do believe: for “they which are of faith, the same are the children of Abraham,” Galatians 3:7, Romans 4:11: as also “heir of the world,” Romans 4:13, in that all that should believe throughout the world, being thereby implanted into the covenant made with him, should become his “spiritual children.”

4. Answerably unto this twofold end of the separation of Abraham, there was a double seed allotted unto him; — a seed according to the flesh, separated to the bringing forth of the Messiah according unto the flesh; and a seed according to the promise, that is, such as by faith should have interest in the promise, or all the elect of God. Not that these two seeds were always subjectively diverse, so that the seed separated to the bringing forth of the Messiah in the flesh should neither in whole nor in part be also the seed according to the promise; or, on the contrary, that the seed according to the promise should none of it be his seed after the flesh. Our apostle the contrary in the instances of Isaac and Jacob, with the “remnant” of Israel that shall be saved, Romans 9,10,11. But sometimes the same seed came under diverse considerations, being the seed of Abraham both according to the flesh and according to the promise; and sometimes the seed itself was diverse, those according to the flesh being not of the promise, and so on the contrary. Thus Isaac and Jacob were the seed of Abraham according unto the flesh, separated unto the brining forth of the Messiah after the flesh, because they were his carnal posterity; and they were also of the seed of the promise, because, by their own personal faith, they were interested in the covenant of Abraham their father.

Multitudes afterwards were of the carnal seed of Abraham, and of the number of the people separated to bring forth the Messiah in the flesh, and yet were not of the seed according to the promise, nor interested in the spiritual blessings of the covenant; because they did not personally believe, as our apostle declares, chap. 4 of this epistle. And many, afterwards, who were not of the carnal seed of Abraham, nor interested in the privilege of bringing forth the Messiah in the flesh, were yet designed to be made his spiritual seed by faith; that in them he might become “heir of the world,” and all nations of the earth be blessed in him. Now, it is evident that it is the second privilege, or spiritual seed, wherein the church, to whom the promises are made, is founded, and whereof it doth consist, — namely, in them who by faith are interested in the covenant of Abraham, whether they be of the carnal seed or no.

5. And herein lay the great mistake of the Jews of old, wherein they are followed by their posterity unto this day. They thought no more was needful to interest them in the covenant of Abraham but that they were his seed according to the flesh; and they constantly pleaded the latter privilege as the ground and reason of the former. It is true, they were the children of Abraham according to the flesh: but on that account they can have no other privilege than Abraham had in the flesh himself; and this was, as we have showed, that he should he set apart as a special channel, through whose loins God would derive the promised Seed into the world. In like manner were they separated to be a peculiar people, as his posterity, from amongst whom He should be so brought forth.

That this separation and privilege was to cease when the end of it was accomplished and the Messiah exhibited, the very nature of the thing declares; for to what purpose should it be continued when that was fully effected whereunto it was designed? But they would extend this privilege, and mix it with the other, contending that, because they were the children of Abraham according to the flesh, the whole blessing and covenant of Abraham belonged unto them. But as our Savior proved that in the latter sense they were the children of Abraham, because they did not the works of Abraham; so our apostle plainly demonstrates, Romans 4:9. 10. 11. Galatians 3:4., that those of them who had not the faith of Abraham had no interest in his blessing and covenant. Seeing, therefore, that their other privilege was come to an end, with all the carnal ordinances that attended it, by the actual coming of the Messiah, whereunto they were subservient, if they did not, by faith in the promised seed, attain an interest in this of the spiritual blessing, it is evident that they could on no account be considered as actual sharers in the covenant of God.

6. We have seen that Abraham, on the account of his faith, and not of his separation according to the flesh, was the father of all that believe, and heir of the world. And in the covenant made with him, as to that which concerns, not the bringing forth of the promised Seed according to the flesh, but as unto faith therein, and in the work of redemption to be performed thereby, lies the foundation of the church in all ages.

Wheresoever this covenant is, and with whomsoever it is established, with them is the church; unto whom all the promises and privileges of the church do belong. Hence it was, that at the coming of the Messiah there was not one church taken away, and another set up in the room thereof; but the church continued the same, in those that were the children of Abraham according to the faith. The Christian church is not another church, but the very same that was before the coming of Christ, having the same faith with it, and interested in the same covenant.

It is true, the former carnal privilege of Abraham and his posterity expiring, on the grounds before mentioned, the ordinances of worship which were suited thereunto did necessarily cease also. And this cast the Jews into great perplexities, and proved the last trial that God made of them; for whereas both these, — namely, the carnal and spiritual privileges of Abraham’s covenant, — had been carried on together in a mixed way for many generations, coming now to be separated, and a trial to be made (Malachi 3) who of the Jews had interest in both, who in one only, those who had only the carnal privilege, of being children of Abraham according to the flesh, contended for a share on that single account in the other also, — that is, in all the promises annexed unto the covenant. But the foundation of their plea was taken away, and the church, unto which the promises belong, remained with them that were heirs of Abraham’s faith only.

7. It remains, then, that the church founded in the covenant, and unto which all the promises did and do belong, abode at the coming of Christ, and doth abide ever since, in and among those who are the children of Abraham by faith. The old church was not taken away, and a new one set up, but the same church was continued, only in those who by faith inherited the promises. Great alterations, indeed, were then made in the outward state and condition of the church; as, —
(1.) The carnal privilege of the Jews, in their separation to bring forth the Messiah, then failed; and therewith their claim on that account to be the children of Abraham.
(2.) The ordinances of worship suited unto that privilege expired and came to an end.
(3.) New ordinances of worship were appointed, suited unto the new light and grace then granted unto the church.
(4.) The Gentiles came in to the faith of Abraham together with the Jews, to be fellow-heirs with them in his blessing. But none of these, nor all of them together, made any such alteration in the church but that it was still one and the same. The olive-tree was the same, only some branches were broken off, and others planted in; the Jews fell, and the Gentiles came in their room.

The Oneness of the Church

Here’s what we learn from Owen:

  1. Abraham had a seed according to the flesh, separated to the bringing forth of the Messiah according unto the flesh.
  2. He had a seed according to the promise, that is, such as by faith should have interest in the promise, or all the elect of God.
  3. These two seeds had been carried on together in a mixed way for many generations.
  4. At a specific point in history they came now to be separated, and a trial to be made (Malachi 3).
  5. The carnal seed lost their privilege.
  6. What remained was the spiritual seed (“all the elect of God”).

This is all simply Paul’s line of reasoning in Romans 9 and Galatians 4:21-31 where Paul argues typologically from the historical account of Abraham’s seed according to the flesh, giving “children of promise” a double meaning: one typological, the other anti-typological. According to Paul, the relationship between Abraham’s two seeds is typological. For a detailed explanation of this, see They are not all Israel, who are of Israel.

The olive tree, Israel, consists of both of Abraham’s seed. As Calvin said “the Jews were naturally holy, for their adoption was hereditary” and this “heredity holiness” (Calvin), “external consecration” (Turretin), or “relative holiness” (Scott) came to an end at Christ’s coming. This answers the question of a national casting off of a group. The branches that remained were those with “personal and inward” holiness “such as by faith should have interest in the promise, or all the elect of God,” thus answering the question of individual branches.

Two Covenants

In the above, Owen divided the Abrahamic covenant into Abraham’s two privileges.

We have seen that Abraham, on the account of his faith, and not of his separation according to the flesh, was the father of all that believe, and heir of the world. And in the covenant made with him, as to that which concerns, not the bringing forth of the promised Seed according to the flesh, but as unto faith therein, and in the work of redemption to be performed thereby, lies the foundation of the church in all ages.

He later clarified this division of privileges by separating them into two covenants:

When we speak of the “new covenant,” we do not intend the covenant of grace absolutely, as though it were not before in existence and effect, before the introduction of that which is promised here. For it was always the same, substantially, from the beginning. It passed through the whole dispensation of times before the law, and under the law, of the same nature and effectiveness, unalterable, “everlasting, ordered in all things, and sure.” All who contend about these things, the Socinians only excepted, grant that the covenant of grace, considered absolutely, — that is, the promise of grace in and by Jesus Christ, —was the only way and means of salvation to the church, from the first entrance of sin.

But for two reasons, it is not expressly called a covenant, without respect to any other things, nor was it called a covenant under the old testament. When God renewed the promise of it to Abraham, he is said to make a covenant with him; and he did so, but this covenant with Abraham was with respect to other things, especially the proceeding of the promised Seed from his loins. But absolutely, under the old testament, the covenant of grace consisted only in a promise; and as such only is proposed in the Scripture…

Exposition of the Book of Hebrews 8:6

Thus the Abrahamic covenant consecrated Abraham’s carnal seed for the temporary purpose of bringing forth the Messiah, while the New Covenant (covenant of grace) is the “foundation of the church in all ages” working prior to Christ by way of “promise”. Again, this is all directly in line with Paul’s understanding of the typology of Israel in Romans 9 and Galatians 4:21-31 (where he specifically applies it to two covenants – for more, again, see They are not all Israel, who are of Israel).

We are asserting that those Messianic promises point to the Messianic Covenant, that is the New Covenant, the covenant of grace, and that as such they point to a covenant distinct from the covenant of circumcision with Abraham and his natural offspring. This means that not only has that typical, external covenantal relationship been abrogated and passed away, but also that the Messianic and eternal relationship was always active, embedded within that external covenant. The internal and external circles, visible in the Old Testament, are not the result of two levels of covenantal membership, but are the result of two different covenants, the covenant of circumcision and the covenant of grace.

Micah and Samuel Renihan, Reformed Baptist Covenant Theology and Biblical Theology, Recovering a Covenantal Heritage

The olive tree, Israel, therefore includes multiple covenants and thus should not be identified with a covenant itself. The covenantal context of Jeremiah 11:16 refers to the Old Covenant that Israel broke. The violation of the Old Covenant was the grounds for the carnal seed’s being cut off. See Why Did God Exile Israel? and Why Did God Destroy Israel?, as well as my post on John 15.

Note Iain H. Murray’s comments on the Olivet Discourse and the Olive Tree:

This prophetic discourse followed Christ’s announcement concerning the temple, ‘There shall not be left one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down’ – clearly a reference to the destruction of the city which came about at the hands of the Romans in A.D. 70. In the discourse itself there is much that applies specifically to the ‘breaking off’ (Rom. 11:19) of the Jewish nation in the first century A.D.

The Puritan Hope, p. 79

Again, this means that Paul is describing a one-time unique event in redemptive history, rather than a general principle of pruning that has occurred and will continue throughout the history of the church on a daily basis. The breaking off of the natural branches corresponds to Jesus’ prophecy of the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., which is the final, conclusive curse of the Old Covenant, which is now obsolete (Heb. 8:13).

Typology of Israel

The standard reformed paedobaptist explanation of Israel is derived from Romans 9:6 “Not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel” (again, see They are not all Israel, who are of Israel) in conjunction with Romans 2:29 “a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart.” From these passages they develop the concept of an inward and outward covenant of grace where Israel after the flesh constitutes the outward covenant and Israel after the promise constitutes the inward covenant.

However, based upon the above distinctions, and in conjunction with the overwhelming thrust of Scripture, we can say that the relationship between carnal Israel and spiritual Israel is one of type and anti-type. Just as the olive tree does not simply describe the way things have always been, but instead describes a specific event in redemptive history, so too does the distinction between Israel and Israel.

[T]his rejection of Israel and this new formation of God’s people is not simply something of the eschatological future, but has already begun to be realized with the coming of Jesus.

Ridderbos, Kingdom, 352.

Ernst Kasemann notes:

Ephesians regards the union of Jewish and Gentile Christians in the church as the eschatological mystery as such and lets Pauline theology lead to that. The apostle at least builds a path toward such a view. For “not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles” says that the church cannot be compared either to a Jewish or to a Gentile society. In continuity with God’s ancient people it is the true Israel, while in antithesis to this people it is the new people of God and the new covenant. In the Jewish view still found in Paul, Jews and Gentiles characterize the world in its unity and contradiction. Hence the church, in which both are found, is more than a religious group or even a people; it is the new world. (273)

In sum:

In the Old Testament, the Old Covenant was a type and shadow of the fullness to come. That fullness was shrouded in mystery and types waiting for its revelation in Christ. With the coming of Christ we now have that fullness. The external, typological elements of the Old Covenant are cast off. The mystery and shadows are gone. With the New Covenant comes the in-breaking of the eschatological age in its “already-not yet” form.

Micah and Samuel Renihan, Reformed Baptist Covenant Theology and Biblical Theology, Recovering a Covenantal Heritage

The distinction Paul makes in Romans 9:6 between Israel and Israel is eschatological in nature. He is describing a new reality, a new eschatological redefinition of Israel, not a description of what it has always meant. As Richard Barcellos notes “the church is actually the eschatological Israel of Old Testament prophecy.” Abraham’s carnal seed was a type of Abraham’s spiritual seed. And both typical and anti-typical Israel are represented in the olive tree of Israel, with the type being cut off. In representing Israel, the tree is not either/or, but both/and. Augustine notes:

[P]rophetic utterances of three kinds are to be found; forasmuch as there are some relating to the earthly Jerusalem, some to the heavenly, and some to both… this kind of prophecy, as it were compacted and commingled of both the others in the ancient canonical books, containing historical narratives, is of very great significance, and has exercised and exercises greatly the wits of those who search holy writ.
-City of God “Of the Three-Fold Meaning of the Prophecies, Which are to Be Referred Now to the Earthly, Now to the Heavenly Jerusalem, and Now Again to Both.”

No Natural Branches Remain

Since the type is cut off, there remains no more natural connection to the root. Thus all natural branches without faith were cut off. They can be grafted in again (v24) only if they come to have faith. And wild branches can only be grafted in through faith. So how can natural branches of the wild olive tree (natural offspring of Gentile believers) be grafted in? They cannot. Every branch must have a connection to the root, and the root is Abraham. The natural connection to Abraham has become obsolete (Hebrews 8:13), which is why the natural branches were cut off. The only connection to the root (Abraham) that remains is faith, through which one is made a spiritual seed of Abraham.

Are the unregenerate children of believers connected to Abraham (the root) in any way? No, they are not. They are connected to their parents naturally, but their parents are not the root. Abraham is. And here we see a foundational flaw of paedobaptism. They put every believer in the place of Abraham, claiming that every child of the believer is set apart. This was never the case. No Israelite was set apart because of their parents’ faith. A Jew was set apart because he was a child of Abraham – because he was connected to the root.

Let us point out in the next place that Abraham’s covenant was strictly peculiar to himself; for neither in the Old Testament nor in the New is it ever said that the covenant with Abraham was made on behalf of all believers, or that it is given to them. The great thing that the covenant secured to Abraham was that he should have a seed, and that God would be the God of that seed; but Christians have no divine warrant that He will be the God of their seed, nor even that they shall have any children at all. As a matter of fact, many of them have no posterity; and therefore they cannot have the covenant of Abraham. The covenant of Abraham was as peculiar to himself as the one God made with Phinehas, “And he shall have it, and his seed after him, even the covenant of an everlasting priesthood” (Num. 25:13), and as the covenant of royalty which God made with David and his seed (2 Sam. 7:12-16). In each case a divine promise was given securing a posterity; and had no children been born to those men, then God had broken His covenant.

Look at the original promises made to Abraham: “And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing. And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee; and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed” (Gen. 12:2, 3). Has God promised every Christian that He will make of him a “great nation”? or that He will make his “name great”—celebrated like the patriarch’s was and is? or that in him “all the families of the earth shall be blessed”? Surely there is no room for argument here: the very asking of such questions answers them. Nothing could be more extravagant and absurd than to suppose that any such promises as these were made to us. If God fulfils the covenant with Abraham and his seed to every believer and his seed, then He does so in accord with the terms of the covenant itself. But if we turn to and carefully examine its contents, it will at once appear that they were not to be fulfilled in the case of all believers, in addition to Abraham himself. In that covenant God promises that Abraham should be “a father of many nations,” that “kings shall come out of thee,” that “I will give thee and to thy seed after thee, the land wherein thou art a stranger, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession” (Gen. 17:5-8). But Christians are not made the fathers of many nations; kings do not come out of them; nor do their descendants occupy the land of Canaan, either literally or spiritually. How many a godly believer has had to mourn with David: “Although my house be not so with God; yet he hath made with me an everlasting covenant, ordered in all things and sure, for this is all my salvation” (2 Sam. 23:5).

The covenant established no spiritual relation between Abraham and his offspring; still less does it establish a spiritual relation between every believer and his babes. Abraham was not the spiritual father of his own natural offspring, for spiritual qualities cannot be propagated by carnal generation. Was he the spiritual father of Ishmael? Was he the spiritual father of Esau? No, indeed; instead, Abraham was “the father of all them that believe” (Rom. 4:11). So far as his natural descendants were concerned, Scripture declares that Abraham was “the father of circumcision to them who are not of the circumcision only, but who also walk in the steps of that faith of our father Abraham, which he had being yet uncircumcised” (Rom. 4:12). What could be plainer? Let us beware of adding to God’s Word. No theory or practice, no matter how venerable it be or how widely held, is tenable, if no clear Scripture can be found to warrant and establish it.

Pink, Arthur W. (2010-03-19). The Divine Covenants (Kindle Locations 2112-2143). . Kindle Edition.

Nehemiah Coxe made the same point:

He who holds himself obliged by the command and interested in the promises of the covenant of circumcision is equally involved in all of them since together they are that covenant. Therefore, he who applies one promise or branch of this covenant to the carnal seed of a believing parent (esteeming every such parent to have an interest in the covenant coordinate with Abraham’s) ought seriously to consider the whole promissory part of the covenant in its true import and extent, and see whether he can make such an undivided application of it without manifest absurdity.

For example, if I may conclude my concern in this covenant is such that by one of its promises I am assured that God has taken my immediate seed into covenant with himself, I must on the same ground conclude also that my seed in remote generations will be no less in covenant with him, since the promise extends to the seed in their generations. I must also conclude that this seed will be separated from other nations as a peculiar people to God and will have the land of Canaan for an everlasting possession since all these things are included in the covenant of circumcision. But because these things cannot be allowed, nor are they pleaded for by anyone that I know of, we must conclude that Abraham was considered in this covenant, not in the capacity or respect of a private believing parent, but of one chosen of God to be the father of and a federal root to a nation that for special ends would be separated to God by a peculiar covenant. When those ends are accomplished, the covenant by which they obtained that right and relation must cease. And no one can plead anything similar without reviving the whole economy built on it.

-Nehemiah Coxe, A Discourse of the Covenants, p. 105-6

You will find proof of this criticism exemplified in Meredith Kline’s handling of the Olive Tree. He argues that the Abrahamic Covenant was an administration of the common concept of parental authority.

It has been observed that covenants of grant such as God gave to Abraham were closely related in concept and terminology to legal formulations pertaining to family inheritance. There was thus congruity between the legal form in which God’s promises were bestowed and the family nature of the recipients. Indeed, the covenant of grant to Abraham adopted this family structure of the Abrahamites as its own governmental form. In the patriarchal age, covenant polity was family polity.

From the beginning the institution of the family was consistently respected in determining the constituency of the covenant family. The continuation of this administrative principle under the Abrahamic Covenant becomes most prominent and explicit in the regulations governing the covenant sign of circumcision. (See above for the symbolic meaning of this sign.) As a sign performed on an organ of generation, circumcision alluded to the descendants of the one who was circumcised. Thus, in symbolizing the curse on the covenant-breaker, circumcision included a reference to the cutting off of one’s descendants and so of one’s name and future place in the covenant community. However, insofar as circumcision was a sign of consecration, it signified that the issue of the circumcised member was consecrated to the Lord of the covenant and thereby set aside form profane to holy status, that is, to membership in the covenant institution. Agreeably, God promised to establish the covenant with Abraham’s descendants after him (Gen 17:7). In the stipulation that the infant sons of the Abrahamites be circumcised on their eighth day (Gen 17:12) the administrative principle is most clearly expressed that the parental authority of the confessors of the covenant faith defines the bounds of the covenant community. Those under the parental authority are to be consigned to the congregation. By divine appointment it is the duty of the one who enters God’s covenant to exercise his parental authority by bringing those under that authority along with himself under the covenantal jurisdiction of the Lord God…

When ordering the polity of the new covenant church the Lord continued, as ever, to honor the family institution and its authority structure. This is clearly taught by Paul in connection with his treatment of the covenant in Romans 11:16ff. under the image of the olive tree that represents the old and new covenants in their organic institutional continuity. Directing attention to the holy root of this tree, which would be Abraham, the apostle declares that if the root is holy the rest of the tree deriving from that root is holy. This holiness is not that inward spiritual holiness which is the fruit of the sanctifying work of the Spirit in the elect, for it is shared by those (branches) whose nonelection is betrayed by their eventually being broken off from the olive tree. Hence the olive tree as such does not represent the election but the covenant, and the holiness attributed to the tree, root, and branches, is the formal status-holiness of membership in the covenant institution. The affirmation that the holy root imparts holiness to the tree growing up from it is to be understood, therefore, as a figurative expression of the administrative principle that parental authority determines inclusively the bounds of the covenant constituency. This principle, illustrated in the first instance by the relation of Abraham (the root) to his descendants, has repeated application in each generation, beyond the ability of the olive tree metaphor to convey. Each successive part of the tree, as it were, becomes a new holy root imparting holiness to its own branching extensions. The apostle is thus teaching as an ongoing principle of covenant polity that if the parent is a member of the holy covenant, so is the child.

-Meredith Kline, Kingdom Prologue, p. 361-3

Kline is clear that it is not the natural child’s relation to Abraham, but to their believing parent, that secures their status as holy. They are not rooted in Abraham, but in their parents. Notice Kline’s candid admission that the olive tree metaphor cannot (and thus does not) convey his position that every believer becomes a new root for natural branches. In light of such an admission, it is foolish for Kline to conclude “The apostle is thus teaching as an ongoing principle of covenant polity that if the parent is a member of the holy covenant, so is the child.” Let us all be on guard of being so blinded by our assumptions that we cannot see the text.

Elect Excised?

If the type has been cast off and there remain no natural branches, no hereditary branches in the olive tree, but only elect branches grafted in through faith, how should we understand the warning of v18-24. Can those united through faith be cut off? No. The warning is a means of humbling them.

The observation that “by their unbelief they were broken off” is made in this instance, however, to emphasize that by which Gentiles have come to stand and occupy a place in the olive tree, namely, by faith. The main interest of the context is to rebuke and correct vain boasting. The emphasis falls on “faith” because it is faith that removes all ground for boasting. If those grafted in have come to stand by faith, then all thought of merit is excluded (cf 9:32; 11:6; 3:27).


Note, the individual Gentiles were not added by profession but by belief. They are threatened with removal if they do not continue believing. Can someone who once believes later fall away? No, they cannot. Thus, although branches can still be cut off, none are cut off because the only remaining branches, per Paul, are those who believe. As Calvin said “the excision, of which he speaks, could not apply to individuals, whose election is unchangeable, based on the eternal purpose of God.” Nowhere does Paul refer to a branch that once believed but is now cut off. His comment is purely hypothetical. The logic is simple:

P1 If believing branches do not continue in their faith, they will be cut off.
P2 The perseverance of the saints teaches us that believers will continue in their faith.
C Believing branches will not be cut off.

In the person of the Gentiles he brings forward what they might have pleaded for themselves; but that was of such a nature as ought not to have filled them with pride, but, on the contrary, to have made them humble. For if the cutting off of the Jews was through unbelief, and if the ingrafting of the Gentiles was by faith, what was their duty but to acknowledge the favor of God, and also to cherish modesty and humbleness of mind? For it is the nature of faith, and what properly belongs to it, to generate humility and fear. But by fear understand that which is in no way inconsistent with the assurance of faith; for Paul would not have our faith to vacillate or to alternate with doubt, much less would he have us to be frightened or to quake with fear.

Of what kind then is this fear? As the Lord bids us to take into our consideration two things, so two kinds of feeling must thereby be produced. For he would have us ever to bear in mind the miserable condition of our nature; and this can produce nothing but dread, weariness, anxiety, and despair; and it is indeed expedient that we should thus be thoroughly laid prostrate and broken down, that we may at length groan to him; but this dread, derived from the knowledge of ourselves, keeps not our minds while relying on his goodness, from continuing calm; this weariness hinders us not from enjoying full consolation in him; this anxiety, this despair, does not prevent us from obtaining in him real joy and hope. Hence the fear, of which he speaks, is set up as an antidote to proud contempt; for as every one claims for himself more than what is right, and becomes too secure and at length insolent towards others, we ought then so far to fear, that our heart may not swell with pride and elate itself.

But it seems that he throws in a doubt as to salvation, since he reminds them to beware lest they also should not be spared. To this I answer, — that as this exhortation refers to the subduing of the flesh, which is ever insolent even in the children of God, he derogates nothing from the certainty of faith.



In sum, here is what we find in the Romans 11 olive tree:

  1. Natural branches (Israel after the flesh) were vitally connected to the root (Abraham) apart from faith.
  2. At one specific point in history (the end of the Old Covenant), unbelieving natural branches lost their connection to the root and were corporately cut off.
  3. The branches that remained (Israel after the spirit) were only those vitally connected to the root (Abraham) through faith.
  4. Wild believing branches (Israel after the spirit) were grafted in and vitally connected to the root (Abraham) through faith.
  5. Believing branches will not be cut off because God preserves their faith.
  6. There are now no branches in the olive tree without faith.
  7. The tree represents Israel, both as type (Israel after the flesh) and later anti-type (Israel after the spirit).

For more, see

See also:

20 thoughts on “The Olive Tree (Rom 11:16-24)

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  4. markmcculley

    John Owen—Amyrald contends that it belongs not unto the Christian church, but unto the Jews only. Had he said it belonged unto the Jews in the first place who should be converted unto Christ, he had not gone so wide from the truth nor from the sense of other expositors, though he had said more than he could prove. But to suppose that any grace, any mercy, any privilege by Jesus Christ, is promised unto the Jews, wherein Gentile believers shall be no sharers, that they should not partake of the same kind, whoever hath the prerogative as to degrees, is fond and impious;


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  8. John

    Brandon, I’m curious about this statement:

    “Note Iain H. Murray’s comments on the Olivet Discourse and the Olive Tree:

    This prophetic discourse followed Christ’s announcement concerning the temple, ‘There shall not be left one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down’ – clearly a reference to the destruction of the city which came about at the hands of the Romans in A.D. 70. In the discourse itself there is much that applies specifically to the ‘breaking off’ (Rom. 11:19) of the Jewish nation in the first century A.D.

    The Puritan Hope, p. 79

    Again, this means that Paul is describing a one-time unique event in redemptive history, rather than a general principle of pruning that has occurred and will continue throughout the history of the church on a daily basis. The breaking off of the natural branches corresponds to Jesus’ prophecy of the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., which is the final, conclusive curse of the Old Covenant, which is now obsolete (Heb. 8:13).”

    The reason why this strikes me is because I’m struggling with Romans 11 and the usual futurist interpretation for ethnic Israel, regardless of whether “all Israel” means a remnant or the Church. My difficulty is that 1) Israel was never considered a strict ethnic entity and 2) Israel’s identity is explicitly tied to the Old Covenant. If the O.C. finally fades into obsolescence (Heb. 8:13) with the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D., then it would seem the identity to which Israel held would likewise fade. This has profound implications on the controversial passage of Rom. 11:25-26 and would seem to identify the when of the “fullness of the gentiles” (70 A.D.) as well as the who of “all Israel” (those Jews living in and around Jerusalem at that time).

    In other words, if the type has finally given way to the antitype conclusively in 70 A.D., then wouldn’t any notion of a futuristic conversion of “all Israel” on any basis of ethnicity, remnant or otherwise, necessarily be dismissed? This of course does not mean that those identifying as modern Jews should not be evangelized.

    Is this the logical conclusion of the statement you included from Murray?

    Grace and Peace,


    1. Hi John,

      I believe Israel was an ethnic entity, which is why Paul can refer to his “kinsmen according to the flesh” as “Israelites” who “from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ” (Rom 9:3-5).

      Yes, Israel’s identity is tied to the Old Covenant and thus I believe their identity is now obsolete. In which case, yes, I disagree with the idea that Rom 11:25-26 refers to some future event related to ethnic Israel. I think that Lee Irons’ essay is excellent on this:

      Liked by 2 people

  9. tothepraiseofhisgloriousgrace

    In reading the article by Irons, he critiques Robertson on his position. My understanding is that Robertson changed his position at some point to that of what Irons is defending here. Am I wrong on this?


    1. I don’t know. That would be interesting if it were, the case, but I don’t think I’ve heard that before. Sam Waldron did change his view from Robertson’s to Irons’ though.


  10. markmcculley

    circumcised Moses is also a son of circumcised Abraham. . Galatians 4:22 For it is written that Abraham had TWO sons, one by a slave and the other by a free woman.

    Genesis 15: 13 Then the Lord said to Abram, “Know this for certain: Your offspring will be foreigners in a land that does not belong to them; they will be enslaved and oppressed 400 years. 14 However, I will judge the nation they serve, and afterward they will go out with many possessions

    Genesis 17: 9 God also said to Abraham, “As for you, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations are to keep My covenant. 10 This is My covenant, which you are to keep, between Me and you and your offspring after you: Every one of your males must be circumcised. 11 You must circumcise the flesh of your foreskin to serve as a sign of the covenant between Me and you. 12 Throughout your generations, every male among you at eight days old is to be circumcised. This includes a slave born in your house and one purchased with money from any foreigner. The one who is not your offspring, 13 a slave born in your house, as well as one purchased with money, must be circumcised. My covenant will be marked in your flesh as a lasting covenant. 14 If any male is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that man will be cut off from his people; he has broken My covenant.

    Genesis 22: 15 Then the Angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven 16 and said, “By Myself I have sworn,” this is the Lord’s declaration: “Because you have done this thing and have not withheld your only son,17 I will indeed bless you and make your offspring as numerous as the stars of the sky and the sand on the seashore. Your offspring will possess the gates of their enemies. 18 And all the nations of the earth will be blessed by your offspring because you have obeyed My command.”


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