A Commentary by John Stott
Romans 11:17-24. b). The allegory of the olive tree.
The olive, cultivated in groves or orchards throughout Palestine, was an accepted emblem of Israel (Je.11:16; Ho.14:6), as was also the vine (E.g. Ps. 80:8ff.). Paul now develops the metaphor in such a way as to accommodate and illustrate his teaching about Jews and Gentiles. The cultivated olive is the people of God, whose root is the patriarchs and whose stem represented the continuity of the centuries. Now *some of the branches have been broken off*, standing for the unbelieving Jews who have been temporarily discarded, *and you* (Gentile believers), *though a wild olive shoot, have been grafted in among the others* (the Jewish remnant), so that you *now share* with them *in the nourishment sap from the olive root* (17).
Some commentators make heavy weather of Paul’s allegory. They point out that, according to the normal procedure, ‘grafts must necessarily be branches from a cultivated olive inserted into a wild stock, the reverse process being one which would be valueless and is never performed’. C.H.Dodd goes further and makes merry at Paul’s expense. ‘Paul had the limitations of the town-bred man…and he had not the curiosity to inquire what went on in the olive-yards which fringed every road he walked’. Poor ignorant city boy! So some scholars draw attention to Paul’s reference in verse 24 to what is ‘contrary to nature’ and suggest that Paul knew what he was saying and was deliberately wishing to teach theological rather than horticultural lessons.
In 1905, however, Sir William Ramsay wrote an interesting article, which is still quoted, in which he drew on both ancient and modern authorities. The process Paul described, he wrote, was still in use in Palestine ‘in exceptional circumstances…’, for ‘it is customary to reinvigorate an olive tree which is ceasing to bear fruit by grafting it with a shoot of the wild-olive, so that the sap of the tree ennobles this wild shoot and the tree now again begins to bear fruit’. Paul’s reference, therefore, is not to ‘the ordinary process of grafting the young olive-tree’ but to ‘the method of invigorating a decadent olive-tree’. In this case what is ‘contrary to nature’ is not the ‘grafting’ but the ‘belonging’, namely that the shoot has been cut from the wild olive to which it naturally belonged and has been grafted into the cultivated olive to which it does not naturally belong.
Paul develops his allegory in such a way as to play on the themes of ‘broken off’ and ‘grafted in’, and to teach two complementary lessons. The first is a warning to the Gentile believers not to presume (17-22), and the second a promise to the Israelite unbelievers that they could be restored (23-24).
The warning to the believing Gentile is clear. The olive has experienced both a pruning and a grafting. Some branches have been cut out of the cultivated tree. That is, some Jews have been rejected. And in their place a wild shoot has been grafted in. That is, some Gentiles have believed and been welcomed into God’s covenant people. *Do not boast over those branches*. This is the warning, which Paul corroborates with a number of arguments. First, he says, you must remember your dependence on the root, for branches have no life in themselves. *Consider this: You do not support the root, but the root supports you* (18). Secondly, you must reflect that your stability is due to your faith alone. You may protest that ‘*Branches were broken off so that I could be grafted in’* (19). This is formally true. *Granted. But they were broken off because of unbelief, and you stand by faith* (20). So your position is decidedly vulnerable.
Tomorrow: Romans 11:17-24 b). The allegory of the olive tree (continued).
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of Romans: Christ the Controversialist. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.