Eight verses describing the olive tree and grafting of wild branches cause as much confusion to those new to mid-Acts Pauline right division than any other passage in Paul’s epistles.
That need not be.
What is clear from the eight verses in Romans 11:16-24 is that there are good olive branches in place to receive Israel’s promises, but they do not receive them. Instead, other olive branches, though wild, are put in their place to receive Israel’s promises.
The confusion arises with the identity of the wild graft.
Since the unique doctrine of the mystery church was given to Paul, the author of Romans, it is easy to hastily presume that the wild branches must in some way be the church of today. This would be a hasty and wrong conclusion.
Romans 9-11 does not look forward and explain the mystery revelation of the one body church. Instead, Paul is going back and explaining how God took away the kingdom promises from stumbling Israel, and gave them to a nation that could bear fruit.
As a result, God proves faithful to keep his promises to the chosen nation (Rom 9:6, Rom 11:29).
Paul was not the first to explain this kingdom replacement. The wild graft can be found in the Lord’s earthly ministry to Israel in Matthew 21.
“Therefore say I unto you, The kingdom of God shall be taken from you, and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof.” – Matthew 21:43
The fruit bearing nation is the same as the wild olive branches. If we can rightly identify the fruit bearing nation in Matthew 21, we will rightly identify the branches grafted into the tree to bear fruit.
As we go back to Matthew 21, we traverse important dispensational boundaries. It should become clear that the wild graft could not be the mystery church, since the Lord had not at that time revealed the mystery to Paul.
Mount of Olive Trees
It is no coincidence that Matthew 21 starts out with the Lord on a mount of olive trees (Matt 21:1). It was from this mount that the Lord rode down into the Jerusalem crowd that was asking, “Who is this?” (Matt 21:10).
It turned out to be the blind and the lame that believed he was the Son of God and were healed by him (Matt 21:14). The children (not the scribes) praised him as the promised Son of David.
It was not mighty men of valor that led him into the city, but fishermen and tax collectors. He did not ride in on a white steed, but a humble beast of burden.
Meanwhile, those priests and scribes, who had the scriptures that spoke of the Messiah, were sore displeased having no faith at all that he was their King (Matt 21:15).
The nation was divided as to who Christ was (Luke 12:51). The weak and wild branches of the nation received him, while the erudite and good looking branches of the nation rejected him.
The Two Sons
To further illustrate this division, the Lord gives an example of two sons. The first was wild, but later repented and obeyed. The second agreed to obey, but later repented and disobeyed (Matt 21:28-31).
Of course the priests in Israel could clearly judge that the first son was the obedient one, even though he was at first wild and resistant (Matt 21:31).
At this, the Lord responds with the identity of the first son: publicans and harlots.
“Jesus saith unto them, Verily I say unto you, That the publicans and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you.” – Matt 21:31
Publicans and harlots had believed Christ was the Messiah, but the scribes and priests did not. By their own judgment, the publicans and harlots would get the kingdom, while they would not in unbelief (Matt 21:32).
The Other Husbandmen
Again, Jesus gives the priests and scribes a chance to see their folly in rejecting him with the parable of the vineyard and the husbandmen (Matt 21:33-41).
The parable explains that at the time of the harvest, the husbandmen killed the servants of the householder. When more servants were sent, the husbandmen killed them as well. Finally, when the householder sent his son, the husbandmen killed him.
The faithless but wise priests and scribes could understand the proper judgment in this situation. They were condemned by their own words, unknowingly cutting the fruitless branch they were sitting on.
“He will miserably destroy those wicked men, and will let out his vineyard unto other husbandmen, which shall render him the fruits in their seasons.” – Matt 21:41
The householder had entrusted the original husbandmen with his vineyard, but when they resisted his servants and his son, he was just to give the vineyard to other husbandmen.
The Fruit Bearing Nation
Then, the Lord explains that these goodly priests and scribes have stumbled by rejecting him as the cornerstone, and that the kingdom would be taken from them.
“Therefore say I unto you, The kingdom of God shall be taken from you, and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof.” – Matt 21:43
Who is this nation that would receive the kingdom? It was not the nation led by the faithless priests and scribes. It would be the nation that cried ‘Hosanna’, the faithful blind, lame, children, tax collectors, fishermen, publicans, and harlots that came to the Lord by faith.
Though these disciples of the Lord were sinners and wild, the Lord gives them the kingdom because they repented and believed the Messiah (Luke 18:13-14).
The Lord blesses this believing remnant nation when he said:
“Fear not, little flock; for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” – Luke 12:32
The Wild Graft and the Church
Matthew 21 is a proper commentary to Romans 11:16-24.
In these eight verses, Paul shows that God had not cast away all Israel, but instead gave his promises to branches that could bear the fruit.
He cut off the good olive branches (scribes, priests, and unbelieving in Israel), and graft in the wild olive branches (blind, publicans, harlots, fishermen, sinners) that made up the faithful little flock. Eventually, even faithful Gentiles would get into the kingdom before faithless and fruitless rulers and priests in Israel (Acts 10:34-35).
After studying Matthew 21, there could be no other identity to the fruitful nation than the little flock of Israel.
If the branches were grafted in according to the Lord’s words in Matt 21:43, then the wild graft could not be the church which did not yet exist.
Even so, there are still those who claim to rightly divide who place the church into Israel’s tree, but they do so at great expense to the foundation of mid-Acts Pauline right division.
If the church is the wild graft in Romans 11:24, then the church must be found in Matthew 21. If the church is found in Matthew 21, then there is no right division between Israel and the Church, and the promises made to Israel are twisted to the point of breaking.
The wild olive graft of Romans 11 is the faithful nation that bears fruit in Matthew 21. It was the people of that wild nation that continued in God’s goodness by faith to receive Israel’s kingdom.