Summary: Paul calls on us to fear, using the terrifying picture of an olive tree.
March 17, 2013 Romans 11:16-21
If the root is holy, so are the branches. If some of the branches have been broken off, and you, though a wild olive shoot, have been grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing sap from the olive root, do not boast over those branches. If you do, consider this: You do not support the root, but the root supports you. You will say then, “Branches were broken off so that I could be grafted in.” Granted. But they were broken off because of unbelief, and you stand by faith. Do not be arrogant, but be afraid. For if God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either.
When Jesus rose from the dead and stood in the middle of the disciples in the Upper Room, the first thing He said was, “Don’t be afraid.” When the women arrived at the empty tomb, the angels said, “Don’t be afraid.”
Today’s text from Paul is the exact opposite. “Be afraid.” It seems strange and foreign to our theology to preach on fear. The whole message of the Gospel and salvation by faith is that you don’t need to fear God’s wrath. God’s wrath already came down on Christ. We don’t want people who believe in Jesus to be afraid. John says that perfect love drives out fear. We don’t want people being driven by fear but by faith and love of God. Nonetheless, Paul preaches fear. How do we understand that? Let’s listen to Paul and find out.
Paul uses the picture of an olive tree to drum up fear. Trees aren’t usually scary. Adam and Eve should have feared the consequences of eating from that Tree. You could say that Jesus feared the tree of the cross when He knew that He was going to be punished for our sins on it. He sweated drops of blood. So Paul uses and olive tree and waves it before our eyes. Let’s look at this picture of the tree and see what’s so scary about it.
First of all, let’s take note that Paul specifically spoke of the OLIVE tree. Olive trees are referenced several times in the Scriptures.
• Judges 9:9 personifies the olive tree and has it ask, “Should I give up my oil, by which both gods and men are honored?’
• Exodus 35:28 says that olive oil is used for light, anointing and for the fragrant incense.
So the olive tree may have been used by Paul because it is the means by which the true God is honored, light shines in the world, and people are anointed into the kingdom through the fragrance of Christ. The olive tree would be a good picture of how God plants and uses the church. But what does that have to do with fear?
Paul makes a distinction between a cultivated olive tree and a wild olive tree. A cultivated olive tree would be one that was specifically and specially planted by a gardener. He would make sure to plant it in a place that had good water and sunshine. He would look over the tree to make sure that it grew well. From a farming perspective, he would put time and effort into the tree specifically so it would produce olives. He would make sure to prune it and get it the nutrients it needs and also to keep bugs and insects from making it decay.
This is a picture of how God established the Israelite nation. He called Abraham and planted him in Israel. He made him fruitful and enabled his family tree to grow. He nourished his descendants with the promise that the Messiah would come through them. He gave them specific laws to live by which made them different than any other nation. The LORD set the Israelites aside and treated them special; different than any other nation. They were supposed to be the people through which the LORD would show the world how He was her Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier.
The other nations were like wild olive trees. They grew wherever it was convenient. Their branches were not trimmed. They were allowed to grow sideways and crooked. They had no special caretaker. This would be representative of all of the other nations who marched to their own beat and did their own thing. They established their own laws and lived by their own morality. You might think of any variety of nations in the Bible or even in more recent times. The Assyrians who were especially cruel or the Ammonites who practiced child sacrifice; the Romans who had wide spread slavery and immorality; the native Americans who ran wild in north America and worshiped the earth. They are all wild in their own unique ways; springing up in a variety of ways and times.