Paul’s parable of the olive tree

Read time: 5 minutes

In Kingdom Conspiracy: Returning to the Radical Mission of the Local Church Scot McKnight takes aim at two broad misconceptions of what the kingdom of God is: the “skinny jeans” reduction of kingdom to social activism, and the more conventionally religious “pleated pants” approach, which regards the kingdom as primarily an expression of God’s redemptive presence in the world.

The church should not be doing mission on the basis of a false view of this central biblical concept. The “kingdom of God” belongs to the story of first century Israel and what it became, and McKnight argues strenuously that how we think about and do mission today must take this historical narrative into account.

The skinny jeans vs. pleated pants conceit is a little too American for my taste. but I think that the basic contention is right and highly pertinent. I tend to go for straight jeans myself, which I think is probably the best you can do hermeneutically.

The thesis , however, raises the question of the relation between Israel and the church. McKnight maintains that the church is not “Israel Replaced” but “Israel Expanded”: “The church is the kingdom called Israel now expanded to include gentile believers” (89).

He points out that in his parable of the olive tree (Rom. 11:16-24) Paul does not say that the old tree of Israel was chopped down and a completely new one planted in its place. God remains faithful to his promises. He won’t push Israel off the cliff. “The unfaithful of Israel are clipped from the same trunk called Israel, and gentile believers are grafted onto that tree trunk called Israel.”

The principle seems correct: the story of the church is an integral continuation of the story of Israel. But I would suggest that a narrative-historical reading of the parable exposes a more complicated transition.

In the Old Testament the expectation is that in the latter days some Gentiles will be included in Israel (e.g., Is. 66:21), but the nations will come as nations—not as “expanded” Israel—to a splendidly restored Jerusalem to pay homage to and learn from, etc., the God of Israel (e.g., Ps. 86:9; Is. 2:2-3; Zech. 8:22-23; 14:16-19). It is a thorough-going geopolitical vision centred on Mount Zion.

That is not what Paul sees. His argument in Romans starts from his fear that Israel—his own people—will not repent of their disobedience and confess that their God has made Jesus Lord and Christ. He is deeply troubled about the fate of “all Israel” (Rom. 9:3; 11:26).

A relatively small number of Jews remain attached to the rich root of the patriarchs—the church in Judea, the apostles, and a small number of converts from the synagogues of the diaspora. But many have been cut off—or have cut themselves off by their often violent rejection of the apostles’ message (cf. 1 Thess. 2:14-16). The video tells the basic story (it looks better on YouTube).

Paul is hopeful that the lopped Jewish branches will be grafted in again, if not before, then after judgment, which I think is the point of the quotations from Isaiah in Romans 11:26-27. But this will not happen if Israel does not repent, if the Jews “continue in their unbelief”, if they do not change their minds about Jesus.

If they are not shamed into repentance en masse by the faithfulness of the engrafted Gentiles before judgment, and if they are not persuaded after judgment by the concrete demonstration of God’s wrath towards Jerusalem, then there was nothing more that could be done. All Israel would not be saved.

This bleak outcome was not foreseen in the Old Testament. Paul is reluctant to contemplate it. But it now becomes a distinct historical (and theological) possibility that such a large number of wild Gentile branches will be added that the tree becomes a Gentile tree. The patriarchal root of the cultivated tree is still in place, but to all intents and purposes the tree ceases to be Jewish. This is a massive disruption of the biblical narrative.

Does it mean that YHWH has, in fact, not remained faithful to his promises?

No, because the promise was not to Israel, it was to the patriarchs, to Abraham. Israel had been entrusted with the promises (Rom. 9:4), but having the promises, in Paul’s view, any more than having the Law, was no guarantee of salvation. There is no automatic entitlement. “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion” (Rom. 9:15). The re-engrafting of the cut branches of Israel was always contingent upon repentance (Rom. 11:23).

If in the end the destruction of the “vessels of wrath” was unavoidable, God has nevertheless ensured that Abraham will still have a family, in the midst of the nations, to be blessed and to be a blessing: “it is not the children of the flesh who are children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring” (Rom. 9:8).

So the church, as it turned out—it might have been very different—is not quite “Israel Replaced” but it is not “Israel Expanded” either. The Israelite identity of the people of God was finally lost when the Jews did not repent after the punishing events of AD 70 and confess that YHWH had made his Son Lord and Christ—though Paul did not live to see the outcome.

It is the rich root of the patriarchs that ensured continuity in Paul’s argument, not Israel as a nation. The church has been “the family of Abraham reimagined” as a Gentile community. That is a matter of historical fact. It is not a development that the Old Testament predicted or that Paul embraced, but it can be grafted quite easily on to the parable.

We then might wonder what has happened to the tree in the modern era.

Paul Prins | Tue, 10/25/2016 - 15:43 | Permalink

I enjoyed reading this Andrew. At the end I was wondering how you may overlay the need for faith in relationship to the Promise. Faith & belief in God were critical and defining characteristics in the patriarchs. From reading this post it would seem that Israel circa 40-100CE failed to believe and therefore were excluded by their own disbelief? Wondering if/how you might include this aspect in this grafting discussion.

@Paul Prins:

I see your point.

The Jews did not believe, in the first place, that there was a problem—that they faced the wrath of God, a “final” judgment; and secondly, they did not believe that Jesus was the solution to the problem—that although he had been executed as sinner, God had raised him from the dead, vindicated him, and put in his hands the right to judge and rule over this people as king.

It is this disbelief, not specifically disbelief in the promises made to the patriarchs, that was cutting them off from the tree, in Paul’s view.

Gentiles, on the other hand, in growing numbers, were coming to believe that the one living creator God had indeed raised his Son from the dead and that his exaltation to the right hand of God would have far-reaching consequences for their world.

Paul then has to make sense of this. He does so by rethinking the significance of Abraham.

He argues, on the one hand, that God has acted in this way in order to keep his promise to Abraham. Israel stood condemned according to the Law and faced destruction. So God has to demonstrate his righteousness apart from the Law by putting forward Jesus as the one who guaranteed a new future for this people (Rom. 3:21-26).

To use Jesus’ image, sinful, stubborn, hard-hearted Israel was on broad road, condemned by the Law to destruction; but Jesus had established a narrow and difficult path that would lead to life.

On the other hand, Paul can argue that the belief of Gentile Christians—as indeed the belief of Jewish Christians—was like the belief of Abraham by which he was accounted righteous, in the right. Abraham did not just believe. He believed a specific promise—that God would give him a future through the birth of a son, etc. Likewise, Gentiles were not simplified “justified by faith” in abstract terms. They were justified by their belief in a radically different future for their world.

In other words, I think what Paul is claiming is that during this period of “eschatological” crisis and transformation, the true family of Abraham, those who would inherit the world, were defined not by the Law, or for that matter by their righteous deeds, though such works were not altogether irrelevant. They were defined by their belief that the resurrection of Jesus pointed to a very different future—a future in which the descendants of Abraham would not only survive, they would also inherit the old pagan world.

Simple, huh?

John Clements | Tue, 10/25/2016 - 17:48 | Permalink

Arguably, the church tree does not wither and die, but is again replanted amongst the Majority World nations…

It sounds like you think Paul did his best to bring Isaiah’s prophesy to fruition, hoping Gentile converts would cause national repentance. Since this didn’t happen, does it make Isaiah a false prophet?

BTW, I liked the video although the ending was very abrupt and sad…


It’s a good question, isn’t it?

The Old Testament (not just Isaiah) does not envisage a fully Gentile people of God. The final vision is always of restored Israel, living on a peaceful and prosperous Mount Zion, scattered Jews brought back from their exile, and the nations coming as pilgrims and envoys to worship Israel’s God.

I’m not sure that the New Testament envisages a fully Gentile people of God. Paul’s argument in Ephesians 2:11-22 is that Gentiles become part of the the “commonwealth of Israel”, members of the established Jewish household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets. He did not have in mind a time frame that would allow the near complete erasure of the church’s Jewish character before the victory over paganism was gained.

I’m not sure what we should do about that.

peter wilkinson | Thu, 10/27/2016 - 12:11 | Permalink

I just watched the Olive Tree video, and it focused me more on what you were saying (most of which I am in agreement with).

Traditionally, Paul is interpreted as saying that ‘All Israel’ (that is, Israel/the Jews who are alive at that time) will one day in the future repent and be grafted back into the olive tree. The prophetic fanatics would connect this with the conversion of Israel the modern nation state. You aren’t saying that, and neither would I (though who knows?),

I would see things rather differently on the basis of Romans 11. Paul says “Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in, and so all Israel will be saved”.

The key words are: “in part”, which means that even in Paul’s time, a significant number of Jews had believed; “until”, which does not necessarily mean until the AD 70 terminus (or the downfall of pagan Rome; he might be looking beyond even that).

The third key phrase is “And so … ” v.26, which does not mean “And then . . ” which is what the traditional view tends to asume. The word “so” is “heutos” — “in this way”, as in “God so loved the world” — John 3:16. My view, as I’ve said before, though you disagree, is that Paul is describing a tortuous process by which some/many Jews would come to be part of God’s reconstituted people (“neither Jew nor Greek”). Going to Romans 11:11, this would occur by becoming envious of the Gentiles. (I also see this as the actual fulfilment of Isaiah’s prediction of the Gentiles bringing the Jews back from exile — the new exodus, but I wouldn’t want to be inflammatory).

The final key phrase is “All Israel” — which dos not mean Israel in its entirety, then or in the future, but a representative sample of the whole people, which is its use in the OT, as Pau would have been well aware.

This is how Israel will be saved throughout time. However, my exposition is probably made entirely irrelevant if you have already decided (decreed?) that “saved” means being saved from AD 70 or the like.

Well, at least I tried.

@peter wilkinson:

No harm in trying. Some considerations, though…

1. There has been much debate whether “in part” is adverbial or adjectival. Elsewhere in Paul apo merous is always adverbial, which would mean in this case that it qualifies either the hardening or the “coming upon”.

The construction with the dative, apo merous tō Israēl, is not parallel to the genitive construction to plērōma tōn ethnōn. Paul does not say “upon part of Israel” but “in part upon Israel”. The adjectival meaning seems grammatically unlikely to me: why not just say “they came near to the region of Phoenicia (εἰς μέρος τῆς Φοινίκης)” (Ex. 16:35 LXX)?

So, for example, Dunn:

As in its other occurrences in Paul ἀπὸ μέρους should be taken adverbially, that is, with πώρωσις rather than Ἰσραήλ—so “partial hardening or blindness” (BGD, NEB; cf NIV) rather than “part of Israel” (RSV, NJB); cf 15:15; 2 Cor 1:14; 2:5. It is not unimportant that Paul still retains a concept of Israel as a unified whole: the people suffering partial blindness, rather than only part of the people suffering blindness; even in his criticism of his people Paul still feels himself to be part of a single people.

2. The salvation of “all Israel” needs to be interpreted in light of the quotation from Isaiah 59:20-21 (and 27:9), which you don’t mention. The Old Testament narrative is that wrath will come upon Jerusalem but “the one who delivers will come for Sion’s sake, and he will turn impiety away from Jacob” (LXX). Israel is judged and saved as a people, as a nation. “All Israel” is the people which Paul defines in Romans 9:4-5:

They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen.

3. I would agree that “all Israel” does not have to mean every individual, certainly not every individual ever. But Paul still has in mind, I think, Israel as nation, as his own people, with its distinctive corporate-ethnic identity, even if following judgment it no longer has the land and the temple. In the LXX pas Israēl seems to have the sense of the people acting as one, collectively.

That said, Daniel 9:9-12 LXX looks especially relevant:

To the Lord belongs justice and mercy, for we have rebelled against you and have not obeyed the voice of the Lord our God by following your law, which you gave before Moses and us through your servants the prophets. And all Israel (pas Israēl) has forsaken your law and turned away in order not to hear your voice. And the curse and the oath written in the law of Moses, the servant of God, have come upon us, because we have sinned against him.

This lends considerable support to my argument. “All Israel” is the nation, which has turned from God and suffered the punishment of the destruction of Jerusalem and exile. “All Israel” will be saved, therefore, after seventy weeks of years, after transgression has been atoned for, when Jerusalem and the temple—the symbol of the nation’s relationship with YHWH—are restored (Dan. 9:24).

@Andrew Perriman:

My understanding of what you are saying in your post is that the branches could have been grafted back in (All Israel = the nation) but weren’t because Israel (the nation) did not repent. From your point of view Isaiah59/27 were not fulfilled and will not be — is that correct?

But Paul modifies his definition of Israel “Not all who are descended from Israel are Israel” — 9:6. There always was a faithful remnant within Israel. So “Israel” does not always mean the entire nation.

Working through your points:

1. I’m not sure that the adverbial or adjectival construction of “in part” makes any substantial difference to the case, though I may be missing something — but thanks for pointing it out.

2. It’s unlikely that Paul would have quoted OT prophecy (Isaiah 59/27) only for it to be made redundant in the light of what happened. More likely (to my mind) is that the passages refer to Jesus who has already come to “turn away godlessness from Zion/to take away their sins”, but he did it by his death on the cross for those who believe.

3. This maintains the interpretation of “All Israel” in its normal OT usage. Even the LXX Daniel which you quote does not necessarily imply anything different. “All Israel” is a figure of speech; even in Daniel’s day there was a faithful remnant, which notably included himself and his companions. “All Israel” was a way of saying Israel “in general”, as summed up, in this case, by the majority. I don’t think the phrase ever meant anything more than that, and in most cases, it meant a representative sample of the whole.

Written slightly in haste, so I’m open for further discussion.

@peter wilkinson:

Andrew & Peter,

Interesting discussion.

I tend to take “all Israel” as follows.  The two tribes that remained in Jerusalem (Judah and Benjamin) combined with the Jews of the diaspora; the other 10 tribes, together make up “all” Israel.  This is why Paul was sent out among the Gentiles.  In preaching the Gospel to the Gentiles he was also preaching to the Jews of the diaspora.  In the end (AD 70), all Israel, the believing Jews from all 12 tribes (Paul’s remnant and the 144,000 in Revelation) were saved.

The best read (I think) on the topic comes from Max King’s booklet, “All Israel will be Saved”, which Riley O’Brien was so kind to put up on her website.…

rose white | Sun, 04/11/2021 - 10:20 | Permalink

Paul’s words can only be understood if it is realised that the Israel Paul is speaking of is the Ten Lost Tribes of Northern Israel that were transported up to the Caspian area and from there migrated into Northern Europe, Northern England and then over to America.

The Jews of Jerusalem who killed Jesus are sun worshipping pagans inbred with Babylonians and Canaanites.