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Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Olive Tree

READ: Romans 11
KEY VERSE: Romans 11:15
DEVOTIONAL:
Romans 11 is a beautiful metaphor explaining God's eternal destiny for the Jewish people, but has been widely misunderstood and misapplied. Before we can venture into an accurate understanding, we will need some background knowledge.
First, the word death literally means "separation" and to die is "to be cut off." It is then amply apparent why the expression "cut off" is a euphemism for death among the Jews and why our modern understanding of what it means to die often causes gross confusion. Death, or being cut-off, can mean spiritual death (Genesis 3 where God and man were separated), physical death (Isaiah 53:8 where body and soul were separated) and perhaps other kinds of division.
Second, the Bible describes us as branches off Jesus Christ, the true vine (John 15:1-6). In this chapter, the Apostle Paul is not speaking of something new, but reminding his readers of an illustration Christ had already used and expounding on it it with the following:
Third, the olive tree is used as a metaphor for the Hebrew people as early as Jeremiah 11:16. Since that verse clearly states that the people of Judah's branches were broken off when they were sent to exile and Paul says that they are cut off for their unbelief, we must understand that it is not the physical territory or genetic traits of Jews which make up the olive tree, but a relationship with the Lord of Hosts, the Jewish God (and only true God) YHWH (usually rendered Lord in small caps). The olive tree has been described, I believe well, as the Spiritual Commonwealth of Israel on Levitt.com.
Last, in a quick botony lesson citizens of ancient Canaan would be very familiar with, an olive tree was the cash crop of the day - cotton and tobacco rolled into one. There was little worry about if wild olives were safe: wild olive trees did not bear anything except small, poor-tasting fruit!
If you were unfamiliar with any of this, I ask you to reread the chapter, slowly filling in the metaphor. You will find the passage very plain now.
Paul opens with a question many have asked: What about the nation of Israel? Did God give them a covenant only to take it away? The scriptural answer is that God could not - in Genesis 15:17, God passes through cloven animals saying he must suffer the same fate as these if he were to break his covenant with Abraham. God offered an unconditional covenant and he did not lie. Paul's response is more personal than that, he cries out against it. He is a Jew, a former member of the Sanhedrin, no less! If God cut the Jews off, he cut Paul off also. But just as God kept 750 of his prophets out of harm's way when Jezebel was on her murderous rampage, he has now made sure that a portion of the Israelites were in a position to accept Jesus (Yeshua in Hebrew) as the long awaited Messiah. Of course, God could have allowed circumstances to prevent Israel from having any Messianic believers and destroying the remnant, but by his "election [choice] of grace (v 5)," God did not allow his people to be abandoned. Verse 6 echoes the basic salvation message: It is by God's grace that we have the opportunity to be saved at all; if it is our works we are bound by, we labor in vain.
In verses 7-10, Paul explains that Israel seeks salvation but has not found it, but the elect (the saved, as discussed previously) have. Those who rejected God were then hardened in their hearts, just as Pharaoh. If this unit of verses were taken alone, it might well be said to support predestination, but the next verse provides context.
The Jews have not fallen beyond recovery, the success of the Gentile Christians is God's way of making them jealous, so they will examine their faith again. But, Paul goes on to say, if their transgression brings the riches of faith to the Gentiles, what greatness will their faithfulness cause in the Millenium? "Life from the dead"! When the Jews are faithful, the spiritual death which has plagued the world for millenia will be replaced with spiritual life - a true relationship with the Holy One when he descends in New Jerusalem. When their foundation is the Lord, they cannot help but be holy (v 16).
In the next unit (17-24), Paul defends his people again. If the Jews were cut off for their unbelief, we should not look down on them. Because salvation is not of works, we know we cannot lose our salvation (see v 29 - by the principle "Analogy of Scripture" we use plain doctrine to interpret metaphorical passages) and so when Paul threatens us with being cut off, it must be something different than when the Jews were cut off. If it is not spiritual death, it must be physical (James 5:20). If we accept the premise, then Paul is saying: "Oh yes, the Jews were cut off spiritually, but God is anxious to take them back. If you fall into sin, you will be cut off as well - physically - and he will not be so eager to return you to your body. So do not look down on them, but fear for your own life!"
The nation of Israel as a whole ("all Israel" not meaning every single citizen, but the group rather than a small remnant), Paul proclaims, will be saved. Jesus Christ is ultimately the Messiah of the Jewish people and he will ride in and remove all ungodliness from Israel (Jacob - see Genesis 35:9).
God has allowed us all, Jew and Gentile, to continue in our sin rather than simply striking us down so that he might be merciful instead of just. Yes, the nation of Israel is now disobedient - but so were we, before we were saved!
This thought excites Paul so that he gives a beautiful doxology in verses 33-36, which is simple and true.
QUESTIONS:
(1) When reading the Scriptures, do you remember the basic principles of interpretation? Who was this written to? What is it meant to say? When was it written? Where was it written to? Why was it written? Or do you take the easy way out and assume metaphors are meant to say what they look like to a 21st century American?
(2) Are you in danger of being physically "cut off" because you hinder the Lord's work?
(3) Do you look and pray for the day that Israel comes to Jesus and He returns in glory?
(4) Write the doxology (vv 33-36) down a few times. Really pray and meditate on the grace of God that He would save such wretches as you and I.

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