THE OLIVE TREE, ANTI-SEMITISM AND BIBLE PROPHECY
At a convention of the Pre-Trib Study Group in Dallas, Dr. John Walvoord presented a paper on the Pre-Tribulation Rapture and Premillennial teaching, including the history of doctrines throughout the Church age. I was very much struck by something that Dr. Walvoord said as he analyzed the transition from widely held pre-millennial views of the early church in the first three centuries to the predominantly amillennial, postmillennial or anti-millennial views that developed afterwards, and it centered around Augustine.
Latent Anti-Semitism Caused Amillennialism
I appreciated especially what Dr. Walvoord said, as quoted from the audio tape of his message, in his analysis of what happened in the case of Augustine:
“Augustine arbitrarily made the millennium non-literal, while everything else was literal. Now as far as I’ve been able to find out, there has never been a book on doctrine that explains this. But there is possibly an explanation. In the first two centuries the church was largely Jewish in its background. They were the evangelists, and they were the apostles. But as the gospel grew, the church became largely Gentile. And, of course the millennium is a time when the Jews are prominent, and it could be that there is a latent anti-Semitism here that they were quite unconscious of, that made them question whether Israel is going to have a literal future like it says. And that, of course, would lead to a non-literal millennial kingdom. In any case, that’s what happened, and the Roman Catholic Church became amillennial, and the Protestant Reformers like Calvin, Luther and others went back to Augustine rather than to the Bible, and adopted amillennialism. They brought in, though, a lot of other things that were important, like “every man a priest” and “interpret the Bible yourself,” and so on, very important doctrines that have been the bulwark of Protestantism. But, it wasn’t until the 19th and 20th Centuries when the Bible Conference movement began, and people began to ask what does the Scripture actually say? It was not until then that premillennialism became a prominent feature in the church–as it is today in some churches, at least. And that’s the background. So we have to understand there’s a long history of this, and we are a minority. We believe the Bible is literally true and they don’t, and we believe we have the facts on our side. That’s why we believe what we believe.”
Thus Dr. Walvoord said it was his impression that it was latent anti-Semitism that caused Augustine and those around him to have this transition in their thinking. That’s a remarkable statement. How in the world can latent anti-Semitism have anything to do with one’s eschatological viewpoint, and how can it impact the eschatological viewpoint of the whole church? Well, I think that it does, and that’s one of the things we are going to be looking at in this article.
There is an inherent connection between one’s attitude toward the Jewish people and Israel and one’s attitude toward the Scriptures and eschatology. How does that happen? It’s an understanding of what the Scriptures teach about the nature of the church, the nature of Israel, and the nature of the Olive Tree. As Dr. Walvoord brought out, at the time of the beginning of the Bible Conference movement, there was a rediscovery of Israel and the promises to Israel in the Scriptures. Some of the early works published in this movement had to deal with the future of Israel, as scholars began to rediscover premillennialism and literal eschatology. Of course many of the amillennialists, including Augustine, would have been shocked if someone were to say they were anti-Semitic, and they would deny it strenuously. And they would say, why, there’s not an anti-Semitic bone in my body! All we want to do (they might say) is to take away the promises that God has given to Israel and apply them to the church! Well, that sounds pretty anti-Semitic to me.
The Meaning of the Olive Tree
If then it is true that latent anti-Semitism is a basic cause of much eschatological error, what is the solution? I would suggest that a Biblical understanding of the Olive Tree discourse in Romans 11 would do much to combat latent anti-Semitism among Gentile believers in Christ. The Olive Tree of Romans 11 has been an enigma to many Bible interpreters throughout the centuries of the Church Age:
. . . if the root be holy, so are the branches. 17And 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: 21For if God spared not the natural branches, take heed lest he also spare not thee. 22Behold 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. 23And they also, if they abide not still in unbelief, shall be graffed in: for God is able to graff them in again. 24For 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 outmoded, 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.
To understand the Olive Tree, it seems we have to see it in its broader context in association with the Church and Israel.
The Church, Israel and the Olive Tree
Various Entities Created by God
For instance, God created the entity of marriage. That was the first entity or institution, as it were, He created, and we who are married find our relationship with our spouse to be that we are actually “one flesh.” Marriage is an entity in which we have to find our proper Scriptural relationship.
Then there is the entity of the family. That’s a little different. It includes the marriage, but it’s more. There is the relationship between the parents and the child. We have to find and understand our relationship there. There are different Biblical principles involved in our relationships within the family.
He created human government, and we have to find our relationship to Caesar. “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.” We have a responsibility as citizens of government, especially when we are fortunate enough to be in a constitutional republic. The Lord has created the concept of government as well as all of these entities.
God has also created work. We have to find our relationship either as an employee or an employer in a Biblical sense. There is a Biblical attitude we must understand, if we are directed by a boss or if we direct others in our livelihood.
In the realm of divine covenants, though, God has also created the Church, Israel and the Olive Tree. We need to know our Scriptural relationship to all the entities God has created.
The Church as the Body of Christ is described in Eph. 2. Outside the Body of Christ, are the unsaved Jews and the unsaved Gentiles. The Jews are described as being very near. Strange, many have thought that they were a long ways off out in left field, but the Scriptures describe the Jews as being near. The Gentiles are seen as being far off. Unsaved Gentiles are very far off, and between the two, Jews and Gentiles, there is a middle wall of partition. This was symbolized in the Temple, where no Gentile could pass the middle wall of partition, upon penalty of death. Outside of Christ, this wall remains, as forbidding as it ever was, and I don’t think it’s ever been removed. There is still this great wall between unsaved Jews and unsaved Gentiles.
However, when Jews receive Christ, they are baptized into the Body of Christ; and when Gentiles receive Christ, they are baptized into the Body of Christ, the middle wall of partition is broken down, and we are one in Him. There is no difference in status: neither Jew nor Gentile, bond nor free, neither male nor female, we are all one in Him. We are seated together in Heavenly places in Christ Jesus. What remarkable doctrine is the Body of Christ!
To the Church belong unique prophetic promises, including the Rapture before the Tribulation, the Judgment Seat of Christ, the Marriage of the Lamb, Reigning with Christ during the Millennium, and the New Jerusalem for eternity. As a member of the Body of Christ, I would not want to trade places with any other entity God has created.
Next is Israel. Israel has many facets. There is the nation Israel that is under the covenant of God, and that covenant relationship began with Abraham. It continues to this day, and will continue through the Second Coming of Christ, when He will establish Israel as the head of the nations and no longer the tail. All during this time of the covenant, the majority of the nation is unsaved. The majority of the nation is, for all intents and purposes, unbelieving. However, there has always been a remnant according to the election of grace. In Elijah’s time, in Joshua’s time, in our time, there has always been a remnant that has been saved. This is God’s promise. It is one promise God has made to Israel that He has not made to any other nation, that every generation will have a remnant according to the election of grace. In the Church age, the remnant of Israel is a significant part of the Body of Christ. It’s a remarkable thing. But the vast majority of the nation Israel does not know the Messiah. They missed the opportunity to see the Kingdom established when He came to Israel (“the hour of their visitation”), and He has told them “You will not see me henceforth, until you say, ‘Blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord.”
Israel has a glorious future: the restoration of the nation, the national salvation of Israel when Christ returns to the earth, and the glory of being the head of the nations during the Millennium. We are seeing the beginnings of this process now, as the “dry bones” of Ezekiel’s prophecy are being gathered together in preparation for the Tribulation and the Millennium
Furthermore, the Gentiles have a relationship to Israel. It is part of the Abrahamic covenant, and it’s either a promise or a warning to Gentiles: “I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee.” Thus, Gentiles can be blessed by God depending on how they relate to Israel: blessings for blessings, curses for cursings. Also, some Gentiles have become and still do become, to a certain extent, proselytes to Israel. They are added on, by submission to circumcision, the Law of Moses and to Judaism as such.
The Olive Tree
Then there is the third entity, which is the Olive Tree. It has as its roots in the fathers: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. If the root is holy, so are the branches. This is the good and cultivated Olive Tree, which has been tended to through the centuries, and the natural branches are the Jews. They are born into the Olive Tree naturally. But, it is only believing Jews who remain in the Olive Tree. Unbelieving Jews, of all things, are broken off. They are dead, lying at the side of the tree. Strangely enough, there are also these wild olive trees, and branches from the wild olive trees that are grafted into the good Olive Tree, the cultivated Olive Tree, and live off the nourishment from the roots and the sustaining power of God.
That is how the Olive Tree is described. But what is the Olive Tree? How can it be defined? First, it helps to clarify what the Olive Tree is not.
The Olive Tree is not the Church
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 after Christ ascended to Heaven, when the believers were baptized into the Body of Christ. The Church did not begin in the Old Testament! The Church began at Pentecost and will end its current ministry on the earth with the Rapture. The Olive Tree, on the other hand, began with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the fathers (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob), and continues on earth past the Rapture, and on through the Tribulation and the Millennium. Thus, the Olive Tree cannot be the Church.
The Olive Tree is not Israel
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 an Israelite until he is physically dead.
Furthermore, Gentiles are not grafted into the nation Israel as Gentiles. The only way Gentiles can become a part of the nation Israel is by conversion to the Law of Moses and ceremonial circumcision. The Gentiles in the Olive Tree remain Gentiles, even though they have been grafted in. Thus the Olive Tree cannot be Israel.
While at the Pre-Trib Conference, and before I spoke to the study group about this issue, I wanted to discuss it with Arnold Fruchtenbaum, who has done a lot of work on Jewish studies, including his major book on Israelology. He reviewed this material, and made an interesting suggestion. He pointed out that since the Jews in the end time “will be grafted into their own olive tree,” this shows that the Jews possess the Olive Tree, and therefore the Olive Tree is not identical to the Jews or Israel. This further strengthens the argument that the Olive Tree is not Israel.
The Olive Tree is the Spiritual Commonwealth of Israel
If the Olive Tree is not the Church and it is not Israel, what is it? The Olive Tree is a tertiam quid, a third entity, in this whole series of relationships. Some have suggested it should be called the Abrahamic Covenant, and that approximates a good definition. It comes close to what is involved here. Some say it’s the position of spiritual blessing, and that also comes close to the truth. I would suggest that a good working definition of the Olive Tree is that it is the Spiritual Commonwealth of Israel, and each of those terms has meaning.
Paul elsewhere speaks of the Commonwealth of Israel, and I believe the Olive Tree could well be understood to be the spiritual commonwealth of Israel. In the context of his description of unsaved Gentiles, Paul says in Ephesians. 2:
11Wherefore 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; 12That 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: 13But now in Christ Jesus ye who sometimes were far off are made nigh by the blood of Christ.
That is a very stinging rebuke of unsaved Gentiles. The Scriptures say some pretty hard things about unsaved Jewish people, but nothing comes close, I think, to this description of unsaved Gentiles, “being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, having no hope and without God in the world.” Did you know that you, if you are a Gentile, were an alien before you received the Lord? But in Christ, we have been brought near to the Commonwealth of Israel, and it is indeed spiritual. Let us consider further these distinct terms of our working definition: the Spiritual Commonwealth of Israel.
The Olive Tree is Spiritual, Composed of Righteous, Born Again People
In contrast to the nation Israel, composed of believers and unbelievers, the Olive Tree is spiritual, because only righteous, born again, blood bought believers are in the Olive Tree, whether Jews or Gentiles. Nobody else is in it. Unsaved Gentiles are not in the Olive Tree. Unsaved Jews do not remain in the Olive Tree. Only born again believers are in the Olive Tree.
The Olive Tree is a Commonwealth, with Allegiance to the King of the Jews
The word the Apostle uses for commonwealth is “politeiva” (politeias), akin to our politics, people-hood 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. It appears that what Paul is describing as the Commonwealth of Israel is very similar to what he describes in more detail as the Olive Tree.
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.
My conviction, then, is that the Olive Tree is none other than the Spiritual Commonwealth of Israel.
Gentile Believers Must Recognize They are Grafted In Among the Natural Branches
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.”
Gentile believers also have a special relationship with the revived nation of Israel. To some Christians, Israel has no more significance than Uganda or Pakistan. But if we understand our role in the Olive Tree, we see that we are in the Commonwealth of Israel, and everything about Israel is important to us: its history, archaeology, politics, preservation and prophecy. Nothing about the Land of the Bible should be foreign to us, as the time of the return of the Messiah draws ever nearer, when Jerusalem, Israel’s capital, will be a prime focus of the Lord’s Millennial reign on earth.
Boast Not against the Branches
How ominous and prophetic is the command the Apostle Paul issues to the Roman Christians, when he warns them, “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 graffed in.”
Why would Gentile believers boast against the unsaved Jewish branches? Amazingly, they would boast that the Jews were broken off, so that the Gentiles could replace them. This is the origin of Replacement Theology, which blossomed so greatly early in church history, and continues unabated until today. As it is understood today, the largely Gentile Church has replaced the Israel of the Old Testament. Indeed, the Church is the new, improved and enlarged Israel. This has become the predominant theological view in most Christian circles, and is also found in evangelical circles, as well. The Lord, however, condemns this boasting against the branches as something that is abhorrent to Him.
Provoke to Jealousy
One of the responsibilities that Gentiles who believe in Christ have toward the nation Israel is to provoke them to jealousy, as we read in Romans 11. We must admit we have not done a very good job. Some have said, rather than provoking the Jews to jealousy, we have mostly just provoked the Jews. But when a Jewish person sees Gentile believers in Christ, his reaction is supposed to be, “What is that Gentile, that goy, doing with my God, my Bible and my Messiah? I want them.” The good part about it is that we can all have them. But I fear that we have not live our lives in such a way that it would cause many Jewish people to be provoked to jealousy.
Understanding of The Olive Tree is Essential to Biblical Ecclesiology & Eschatology
As stated as the outset, the Olive Tree has been an enigma to Bible interpreters for most of the church age, and is often ignored more than explored. My conviction is that the Olive Tree is the Spiritual Commonwealth of Israel. It does not detract from the unique features of the Church or Israel, but it is a special entity created by God. Just as we need to find our proper relationship to the Church and Israel, we also must relate in an obedient manner with reference to the Olive Tree. Anything less would be intentional blindness to the revealed Word of God.
There is also a serious problem about attempting to do prophetic study with an attitude that ignores the teachings of the Olive Tree and leans toward an anti-Semitic or anti-Israel position. There are wonderful prophecies specifically about the Church in the Scriptures, including the imminent Rapture, the Judgment Seat of Christ, the Marriage of the Lamb, the reigning with Christ in the Millennium, and the New Jerusalem. However, most of the volume of prophecy in the Bible has to do with the future destiny of Israel, such as Preservation in the Diaspora, the Perpetual Remnant, the Time of Jacob’s Trouble, the National Reconciliation with Messiah Jesus, the Restoration of Israel in preparation for and during the Millennium, and the New Jerusalem.
If we do not understand Israel or the Olive Tree, we will be prone to make many errors in interpretation of Bible Prophecy. Sadly, this is what has happened in much of church history, in the development of Replacement Theology, Amillennialism, and, more recently, Progressive Dispensationalism. It is only the Apostolic premillennial, literal interpretation of the Word that recognizes the Church, Israel and the Olive Tree, and their rightful position in the plan of God.
Posted with permission of the author
Thomas S. McCall Th.D.
Some Artwork selections by Daniel E Woodhead