The unique connection between Jews and Christians is sometimes a fierce debate but the Bible indicates our relationship is found in the symbol of the olive tree. The prophet Jeremiah described Israel as a ‘green olive tree.’ (Jeremiah chapter 11, verse 16) but the Apostle Paul wrote to the church saying: “For if you were cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these, the natural branches, be grafted back into their own olive tree” (Romans chapter 11, verse 24)
Not surprisingly there are two basic varieties of olive tree: the olea europaea which is cultivated and the olea europaea sylvestra, the wild variety.
The often gnarled, irregular trunk of the olive tree indicates strength and durability. The trunk is often bent and hollow because of internal decay, although it continues to bear fruit. How often do we feel in our hearts we are not worthy of such divine blessings but God by His grace uses us to bring glory to His name?
Because of the attractive grain, the wood is used in Israel for the manufacture of small souvenirs. In biblical times, Solomon was instructed to build the doors of the Temple with olive wood (1 Kings chapter 6, verses 31-35). In full bloom, the branches spread out, symbolizing peace and productivity. “His branches shall spread: His beauty shall be like an olive tree.” (Hosea chapter 14, verse 6)
Olive oil was greatly valued in biblical times and was an important export (1 Kings chapter 5, verse 11) I particularly enjoy the next detail. The olive oil produces the most oil between 40-50 years old. The oil was used in cooking, for purposes of health care, to beautify the body and for anointing.
The spiritual significance of olive oil is found when the Psalmist describes how the good oil was poured out upon ‘the beard of Aaron, down on the edge of his garments.’ (Psalm chapter 133 verse 2) The children of Israel considered the grace of God to be as divine oil, being poured out on them. They wore tassels upon their garments to remind them of the streams of the divine oil that God poured out upon them continuously. (Many Christians hunger for that experience!).
Oil was also a source of lighting. God instructed the lighting of the menorah (the seven branch candelabra) and other Temple lights with olive oil (Leviticus chapter 24, verse 2). The menorah was lit with ‘pure oil of pressed olives’ (Exodus chapter 27, verse 20) The oil was to be katit (beaten olives). To produce katit oil, the olives must be squeezed repeatedly, so all liquid from the fruit is removed. Light from katit will be stronger for the oil is thicker since more was pressed. I cannot help but think of the pressing and pounding Jesus took for us. The name Garden of Gethsemane means ‘olive press.’
David, the outstanding biblical hero described himself as being ‘like a green olive tree in the house of God.” (Psalm chapter 52, verse 8)
A wonderful sight at the base of the olive tree is the young roots. Usually ten or twelve new shoots are around the base of the tree. Those new olive shoots speak of new life. We can visualize a family seated around the table, enjoying life together. The Psalmist summed it up: “Your wife shall be like a fruitful vine in the very heart of your house, your children are like olive plants all around your table.” (Psalm chapter 128, verse 3)
The climax in Paul’s letter to the church in Rome is found in chapters 9 to 11. As I mentioned Paul described the wild olives being grafted into the cultivated olive tree, ‘the elder brother.’ Christians are grafted in. Paul is not suggesting we embrace Judaism but we are instructed to embrace the Jewish people and our biblical heritage. We are instructed to ‘look to the rock from which you were cut and to the quarry from which you were hewn; look to Abraham, your father, and to Sarah, who gave you birth.’ (Isaiah chapter 51, verses 1-2)
The famous faith chapter, Hebrews 11, lists Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham in a powerful line up of Jewish heroes. They were blessed and anointed by God and they served with distinction.
I remember my first days walking the streets of Jerusalem. Sitting on the bus, I was impressed with the olive dark features of the men. It hit me! Jesus was Jewish. Hollywood and so many artists got his complexion very wrong. We may think about a Hollywood Jesus but He was the Nazarene. How easily our minds manipulate the facts?
The Bible says, “Do not be conceited, but fear; for if God did not spare the natural branches, He will not spare you either.” (Romans chapter 11, verses 20-21) Paul reminds us ‘they are beloved.’ (Romans chapter 11, verses 28-29) He also said God chose the Jewish people ‘irrevocably’. In ancient times they were the only ones expecting Messiah, back then, our forebears were pagan. “Remember that you were at that time separate from Christ (Messiah), excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.” (Ephesians chapter 2 verse 12) We owe the Jewish people our gratitude for showing us the need for Messiah and for bringing monotheism to our attention.
God is faithful. There has been a cavalcade of Christians who have heroically shown the love of God to the Jewish people. Israel honors those heroes and remembers them at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial centre in Jerusalem.