Pruning the Tree
Beginning in Romans 11:17, Paul begins to explain how some of the "branches" of the Kingdom Tree were broken off and how other branches were grafted in.
17 But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, being a wild olive, were grafted in among them and became partaker with them of the rich root of the olive tree, 18 do not be arrogant toward the branches; but if you are arrogant, remember that it is not you who supports the root, but the root supports you.
Paul was referring primarily to the prophecy of Jer. 11:16, which speaks of Israel being "a green olive tree," whose branches were "broken." The Hebrew word for "broken" is ra'a, which means either "evil" or "broken." The NASB translates it "worthless," in the sense of being "evil." The KJV translates it "broken." Either way, the double meaning indicates that these branches were broken off (pruned) because they were evil, worthless, or unproductive.
Jeremiah 11 is a messianic prophecy of the plot against the coming Messiah, which plainly is what made those branches evil and worthy of being pruned. Beginning in verse 9 we read,
9 Then the Lord said to me, "A conspiracy has been found among the men of Judah and among the inhabitants of Jerusalem. 10 They have turned back to the iniquities of their ancestors who refused to hear My words, and they have gone after other gods to serve them; the House of Israel and the House of Judah have broken My covenant which I made with their fathers.
After continuing the divine indictment against Judah, God then tells Jeremiah not to pray for them, because "I will not listen when they call to Me" (11:14). Continuing, he writes,
15 What right has My beloved in My house when she has done many vile deeds? Can the sacrificial flesh take away from you your disaster, so that you can rejoice?
In other words, what right does Judah and Jerusalem have to come to the House of God "when she has done many vile deeds"? Does Judah have a free pass to sin with immunity? Are there no consequences for sin? Most important, does God not have the right to prune such unproductive branches from the Kingdom Tree?
Can animal sacrifices make up for being unproductive? The priests knew how to do the sacrifices perfectly, but they continued to violate the Covenant.
This tells us that the Old Testament sacrifices, apart from repentance, cannot prevent divine judgment. God is not impressed with such sacrifice and ritual. The people were plotting against Jeremiah. In verse 19 the prophet says, "I was like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter." As a type of Christ, the prophet was being treated in the same manner as the nation would later treat the Messiah Himself. (Compare Jer. 11:19 with Isaiah 53:7.)
In Jesus' day the priests scrupulously offered sacrifice twice daily, and yet they too had hearts of rebellion. Just as they rejected the prophet Jeremiah, so also did they reject the Messiah. In that context, we come to the relevant verse that Paul quotes:
16 The Lord called your name, "A green olive tree, beautiful in fruit and form"; with the noise of a great tumult, He has kindled fire on it, and its branches are worthless(ra'a, "broken"). 17 And the Lord of hosts, who planted you, has pronounced evil against you because of the evil of the House of Israel and of the House of Judah, which they have done to provoke Me by offering up sacrifices to Baal...
The point of this is to show that Israel and Judah (together) was called "a green olive tree." God had planted this "tree" in the land of Canaan in the days of Joshua, but when it came time to bear fruit, its branches were "worthless" and were thus pruned from the "Tree" of the Kingdom.
19 But I was like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter; and I did not know that they had devised plots against me, saying, "Let us destroy the tree with its fruit, and let us cut him off from the land of the living, that his name be remembered no more.
The "conspiracy" against Jeremiah was a Messianic prophecy. Hence, God judges the conspirators according to what they had thought to do to Jeremiah. In verse 19 they desired to cut off "the tree with its fruit," so God cut off their branch. The judgment of the law is "eye for eye," or in this case, branch for branch.
The (united) House of Israel is sometimes pictured as an olive tree (Jer. 11:16), at other times a grape vine (Isaiah 5), and also as a fig tree (Jer. 23). One must study the context to see how each prophecy is applicable. In Isaiah 5:7, the vineyard was the House of Israel, and Judah was the pleasant plant (i.e., grapes). The problem was that the grapes tasted like "wild" grapes (vs. 4). In other words, they were very sour and not worth eating. God asks,
4 What more was there to do for My vineyard that I have not done in it? Why, when I expected it to produce good grapes did it produce worthless ones?
"Worthless" is from the Hebrew word beushiym, which literally means "stinkberries." The prophetic solution in Isaiah 5 is to uproot the entire vineyard and prevent the rain from falling upon it (vs. 5, 6).
So whether we speak prophetically in terms of fig trees, olive trees, or vineyards, we must recognize that they all prophesy of the same biblical principle. When Paul discusses this topic in Romans 11, he uses the term "wild olive." The olive tree was supposed to bear good fruit, but it bore no fruit that God wanted to eat.
The "wild olive" in Rom. 11:17 is obviously being grafted into the "tree" to replace the branches that had been broken off. These "wild olive" branches cannot and will not be grafted into this Kingdom Tree unless they are able to bring forth good fruit. It is plain that something (FAITH) has altered their character to qualify for the engrafting. No branch is engrafted apart from faith.
In this sense the "wild olive" represents the ethnos. They are not only non-Israelites by nature, but also included the ex-Israelites of the dispersion whose ancestors were "wild."
This "grafting" process is the prophetic expression of the regathering of Israel and other ethnos into the Kingdom through faith in Jesus Christ. All of the ethnos who were considered to be "not My people" had been producing stinkberries. The regathering of Israel was to include many others, all on the grounds of faith. Isaiah 56 says,
3 Let not the foreigner who has joined himself to the Lord say, "The Lord will surely separate [badal, "separate, divide, or distinguish"] me from His people." Neither let the eunuch say, "Behold, I am a dry tree."
In the same passage, the prophet says,
6 Also the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord… 7 even those I will bring to My holy mountain and make them joyful in My house of prayer… For My house will be called a house of prayer for all the peoples. 8 The Lord God, who gathers the dispersed of Israel, declares, "Yet OTHERS I will gather to them, to those already gathered."
Isaiah clearly prophesies that non-Israelites will be gathered with the House of Israel. The prophet makes it clear that these foreigners need not fret about discrimination, for God will not distinguish between genealogical Israelites and other ethnic groups. The Hebrew word badal in verse 3 above is defined in Gesenius' Lexicon:
"To separate; to disjoin [Lev. 1:17]; as two places by a veil, fence, wall."
Does this not prophecy against the dividing wall in the temple that existed in the first century? God never commanded that such a dividing wall be built in His "house of prayer for all people." Yet the priests divided Jewish men from both the women and other ethnic worshipers.
Paul says in Eph. 2:14 that Jesus Christ broke down and abolished that dividing wall. He understood Isaiah 56:3 and believed that he was called to minister to all of the "not My people" equally. It was this particular issue that caused the Jews in the synagogues—and even some from the church in Jerusalem—to oppose his teaching.
Paul makes it clear that the only way to avoid producing stinkberries is through faith in Jesus Christ. Those who have faith are gathered (or regathered) as the House of Israel and Judah into the Kingdom of God. As I showed in my study of Romans 2, the circumcision of the heart qualifies a person to join the tribe of Judah. The overcomers are those who grow up to spiritual maturity in Christ and are given the name Israel.
Hence, by faith all who have faith are grafted into the Tree of the Kingdom, whose root is Jesus Christ. By definition, these cease to produce stinkberries and become productive in the fruit of the Spirit which God can enjoy for lunch.
Those "natural branches," who continue to reject the Messiah and to support the original conspiracy against Jeremiah and against Christ, are incapable of bringing forth the quality of fruit that God requires of His Tree. This is why they were pruned from the Tree in the first place. Branches must be connected to Christ in order to have any life in them, for Jesus said in John 15:4-6,
4 Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you, unless you abide in Me. . . 6 If anyone does not abide in Me, he is thrown away as a branch, and dries up; and they gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned.
Those who rejected Jesus Christ were branches that were cut off and "thrown away as a branch." They cannot claim descent from Abraham as a reason to remain "alive," for their life comes only by being connected to Jesus Christ.
Paul warns the newly-engrafted branches not to be arrogant against those branches that had been cut off. It is as if he sensed that the Church would later come into a position of power and would use that power to oppress the Jews and punish them, trying to coerce them by the flesh into accepting Jesus Christ. That is the "arrogant" spirit that Paul foresaw in the Church.
19 You will say then, "Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in." 20 Quite right, they were broken off for their unbelief, but you stand by your faith. Do not be conceited, but fear; 21 for if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will He spare you. 22 Behold then the kindness and severity of God; to those who fell, severity; but to you, God's kindness, if you continue in His kindness; otherwise you also will be cut off.
The Law of God is impartial toward all. Those with faith are treated with "kindness." Those who do not have faith receive the "severity of God." One cannot appeal to a genealogical connection with Abraham to obtain God's kindness (grace) or to avoid His severity. There is only one way to be a branch on the Kingdom Tree. It is by faith in Jesus Christ alone.
23 And they also, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in; for God is able to graft them in again.
Those Judeans (and Israelites) who repent of their rejection of Jesus Christ are as easily grafted back into the Kingdom Tree as anyone else. It requires faith in the Mediator of the New Covenant. One must believe that He was the true Sacrifice for sin and that He was raised from the dead and is the Heir of all things.
24 For if you were cut off from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and were grafted contrary to nature into a cultivated olive tree, how much more shall these who are the natural branches be grafted into their own olive tree?
Normally, one would graft good olive branches upon a wild olive stock to produce good fruit. But God does the reverse. He takes the wild olive branches and grafts them into the good olive stock (Christ). The only condition is faith, but faith is what changes the branches from "wild" to "cultivated."
The problem in Jeremiah's day was the same as in the days of Paul—the people thought that their covenant with God was based on their genealogy, rather than upon their faith. Paul, however, refused to given them a free pass into the Kingdom, insisting that there is only one Door, and that is Jesus Christ.