The Epiphany season reminds us that Jesus is the Savior of Gentiles as well as Jews. Initially, the church in Rome was composed of Jews who believed that Jesus was the Messiah. Almost immediately, Jewish believers evangelized Gentiles. Then, Emperor Claudius banished all Jews from Rome. For 12 years, the Christian church in Rome consisted of only Gentiles. When Nero became Emperor, he invited the Jews back to Rome, noting that they were good for business and trade. The problem was that Gentiles refused to allow Jewish Christians back into the Christian church in Rome.
Paul’s letter to the Romans (about 71 AD) included a parable using cultivated olive and wild olive trees to illustrate Gentile’s proper response to Jewish Christian brethren. Carefully, read what Paul wrote to the Romans (Romans 11:16-24). In this parable of the in-grafted wild olive branch, Paul identified:
- A root and branches (boughs) of a cultivated olive tree. The original cultivated olive tree with its root and branches is the promises God made to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and their offspring, the Jews. This root was solid and sure. Jews who believed in Jesus as Messiah were the original root and branches of the early Christian church. Branches broken off from the cultivated olive tree were Jews who refused to believe that Jesus was the long looked-for Messiah. These were most Jews who lived in Palestine and throughout the Roman Empire at the time.
- A branch (bough) of a wild olive tree. The wild olive branch equated to Gentile Christians who believed that Jesus was the son of God and followed his teachings.
- Grafting a wild olive branch onto a cultivated olive tree. Gentile believers were grafted into—became an integral, productive off shoot—of the Jewish faith.
Despite the lesser value of wild olive tree products than cultivated olive tree products, Paul’s parable didn’t mean that Jewish Christians were more valuable than Gentile Christians. Similarly, although Jewish Christians were represented by branches (more than one) and Gentile Christians by a single branch didn’t mean that there were more Jews than Gentiles in the Christian church at Rome. Probably, the opposite was true. Data aren’t available for the number of Jews who became believers in the early centuries after Christ’s death; but, by the early 21st century, most Christians are Gentiles. Globally, less than one half percent of Jews self-identified as Messianic Jews, Jews who believe in Jesus as Messiah.
Although the cultivated olive tree formed the root and some branches of the olive tree in Paul’s parable, the in-grafted wild olive tree branch resonates with most of us. We, Gentiles, are the wild olive branch. The interpretation of Paul’s parable in the eleventh chapter of Romans is that the Gentile believers were grafted into—became an integral, productive off shoot—of the Jewish faith. Epiphany and the Epiphany season celebrates the extension of Jesus’ saving power to non-Jews.
In the parable of the in-grafted wild olive tree, Paul encouraged a fully integrated church. Paul wasn’t attempting to make the Christian church in Rome a sect of Judaism, nor was he advocating that Gentile Christians replaced the Jews in God’s favor.