"Jewish Roots" or "Hebrew Roots"
is a very popular subject today in the Body of Messiah, with many books,
teaching ministries and blogs on the subject. After centuries of
"Replacement Theology," and anti-Semitism from the historic church, we are
witnessing a revival of Christian "philo-semitism" and positive interest in
Israel. Today, millions of Christians around the world are receiving
revelation and Scriptural understanding about the need to positively
connect with Israel and the Jewish people. For many, this includes: Torah
studies, observing Biblical Jewish feasts, understanding the "Hebraic"
mindset, Holy Land tours, standing with Israel politically, etc.
Biblically, the main source for the "roots" teaching is found in Romans
11:16-24, Paul's teaching on the Olive Tree. In this article, we will
take a fresh look at what this teaching meant in its original context, and
how it might speak to us today.
What is the Root of the Olive Tree?
The Apostle Paul writes of an Olive Tree of God's people, its
branches, and its root. The word "root" appears 4 times in Romans 11:16-18.
The overall message of these verses is first a reminder to the Gentile,
Roman believers (the "wild" branches) that they have been graciously and
surprisingly "grafted into" this olive tree community of God's people
- a tree which for many generations had only been "cultivated" among the
Jewish people (the "natural," native, domesticated branches). The apostle
then sternly warns the Romans to not become arrogant or boastful toward
these native, Jewish branches, and to "remember that it is not you who
supports the root but the root supports you" (verse 18). While the
Apostle clearly identifies three kinds of branches (Jewish believer,
Gentile believer, Jewish unbelievers - the "broken off" branches), he
doesn't similarly define the root - nor does the Scripture explicitly
label it as a "Jewish" or "Hebrew" root.
Throughout church history, Biblical interpreters have offered four possible
definitions of the root:
1. Jesus Himself, the "root and offspring" of David (Revelation
2. The patriarchs and/or the patriarchal (Abrahamic) covenant, based on
3. The Jewish people/nation of Israel.
4. The 1st century, Jewish believing community, especially represented by
the Apostolic, Jerusalem church.
As we study these verses together, let's try not to "import" theology
or ideas into the text. Imagine that you are a Gentile Roman Christian
hearing this letter read publicly during a worship meeting. What would it
have sounded like? Who, or what, is this mysterious root?
"And if the part of the dough offered as firstfruits be holy, then the
whole batch is holy; and if the root is holy, so are the branches"
There are two complementary, metaphors here - one about bread, and the
other about trees. On the surface, the second metaphor of roots and
branches looks similar to the first, but its emphasis is actually quite
different: the dough and the rest of the batch are all of the same "stuff"
with one piece just separated from the rest - but not so with roots and
tree! A tree is an organic whole, and you can't pull out some roots to
make an offering to the Lord on behalf of the whole tree! The roots
precede the branches chronologically; and everything else in the tree grows
out of, and is thus historically and organically supported by the
roots. So, if this root is "holy," then the whole tree which grows out
of it must also be "holy."
People Groups in Right Relationship
"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, 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" (Romans 11:17-18).
The Olive Tree is a metaphor. Everything Paul has to say about it, he is
saying about groups of people. Three different kinds of branches are
relationally defined: the Gentile Christians, the Messianic
Jewish branches and the cut-off, unbelieving Jewish branches.
Next, Paul reminds the Roman Christians that they are like branches from a
"wild," uncultivated tree who have been "grafted in among them and become
partakers with them of the rich root of the olive tree." Here is the
wonderful root, but with no clear definition - only that the Jewish &
Gentile branches of the tree are both partaking of its richness. But then
Romans 11:18 establishes a clear proximity between the Jewish branches and
the root - as arrogance towards the Jewish branches is equated with an
arrogant misunderstanding of the nature and identity of the root which
supports the whole tree.
The Gentile believers in Rome could interact with the Jewish "branches" -
both those in the tree, and those broken off. That was part of their
everyday experience living in the Roman metropolis which included a large
number of Jews. But the Jerusalem "church"? The Apostles in the distant
Holy Land? The covenanted nation of Israel? All of this probably seemed to
them a very distant, impersonal reality. Think about it: the average
Gentile believer in Rome came into the tree through the pure, simple Gospel
of Grace and faith in Yeshua. It was (and still is!) possible for a
Christian to be totally ignorant of the preceding, Jewish nature of the
very tree that they have been grafted into (Romans 11:25). This
"Jewishness of the Gospel" can be completely hidden from the Christian,
like a root buried underground! This is why Paul speaks about it only
as "root," and not "trunk:" you can't see it. You usually can't
touch it, and you might not even know this root exists. This is why verses
17-18 establish an equivalency of the Jewish branches straight with the
"root," skipping over the trunk: the Jewish believers represented an
authentic, "organic" ongoing connection with the distant, hidden root - and
it is from this root that rich, covenantal "sap" rises to nourish and
support the whole tree.
In conclusion I suggest this definition of the root:
The faithful remnant of Israel, especially the Apostolic Jerusalem
ekklesia, who carried the full deposit of God's holy
covenants/promises to the rest of Israel, and who held a position in
God's family (the olive tree) of precedence, in that they came first -
before the Gentiles.
This article was previously published in two parts on March
29th and April 6th
on the Revive Israel website; and on April 5th
and April 18th 2017
on Kehila News Israel