Olive trees produce an abundance of oil by means of their “fruit”, the olive. This may not strike you as significant, but in the lives of the people of the Scriptures it meant a great deal in various ways. The olive was among the top if not the leading agricultural product. It was a vital element of their diet, and even found a place as a regular part of religious practice. Because of all of this, the olive was naturally included in the imagery described by God in the Scriptures pertaining to His relationship with His people. He used it for the same reason He uses many things; it was something they understood well. Because of the belief that the olive tree was a “light to the world” (via its oil used in lamps) it can possibly shed some light on various places in the Scripture and illuminate areas that perhaps in some of our minds has grown dark.
The olive tree is a leading plant in its frequent appearance in the pages of Scripture. For example, God called the land of Israel a land with “olive oil and honey” (Deut 8:8). The olive tree’s importance is also seen in Jotham's parable, where the other trees had chosen the olive tree as a king over them (Judges 9:8-9). As the Scriptures often tell it, the olive tree is beautiful (Jeremiah 11:16; Hosea 14:6). Those following the God of Israel and who remain vigilant and faithful are even compared to vigorous olive trees (Psalm 52:8).
Olive trees begin to produce olives when they are between six and ten years old, and at forty to fifty years, they reach their peak. Many even continue to produce after being literally hundreds of years old.
When the trunk becomes large and has grown old, the branches are trimmed off, leaving behind what appears to be a dead stump. But in the next year, fresh shoots from the sawn-off stump begin pushing vibrant new growth and eventually a crop of olives.
This was well known imagery in the world of the Hebrews. Job compared human beings to olive trees and said that the olive tree did not die when cut down but sprang to life again, unlike people who die and are gone (Job 14:7-9) (which is another subject). God’s people are compared to the many small shoots that spring continually from the root system of the tree, continuing the existence of the family (Psalm 128:3).
God used the metaphor of an olive tree (as well as other trees and vines) to describe His relationship with His people. He describes Himself as a farmer who plants a beautiful olive tree (Jeremiah 11:16-17; Psalm 52:8), but He said He would set them on fire for their evil (that of unfaithfulness with Baal -Jeremiah 11:17). (If you look in Matthew 3:10, 7:19; and Isaiah 5:1-7—a vineyard was used to convey same picture.) By God’s decree His people were “chopped down,” and it appeared that they were nothing but a dead stump. However, the faithful Hebrews knew that from that sawn off stump, life would emerge in the form of new shoots (metaphorically of course).
There was one such shoot in particular that was of utmost significance. The shoot of a man named Jesse. His stump was unique because upon it rested the spirit of YHVH (Adonai/LORD -Isaiah 11:1-2). That shoot became Yeshua, who dwelt in the village of Nazareth (which means “branch”—Matthew 2:21-23).
Now as a side note, some who are not familiar with this could soon take the words of Matthew (2:23) and ask, “where do the Scriptures (Hebrew Scriptures-Old Testament) mention Nazareth?” (“he will be called a Nazarene”). Did the gospel writer Matthew make a mistake? Did he forget to put in the reference? Perhaps there is a far simpler explanation to this particular passage.
The prophets of God had long foretold of a time when God would once again actively be involved in and through His people. He would do so by an “ordained” or “anointed one”, a king. This king (in contrast to his predecessors) would be a righteous king. This was “good news” (hence gospel) to the Hebrews, because they had experienced their share of wicked kings leading them off to exile through their disobedient and idolatrous ways.
The prophet Zachariah spoke at a time in history when there was no king on the throne and prophesied that there would be a restored monarchy and new priesthood (Zech 6:9-15). Jeremiah said that a new king would “execute justice and righteousness in the land” (Jer 33:14-26). Isaiah spoke of the God of Israel working through a king whose reign would be set apart by wisdom, justice and shalom (Isaiah 11:1-9). The prophets spoke of this highly anticipated messianic character in different ways and by using varying metaphors. This king would stand out in stark contrast to the wicked kings that governed the world through all ages (Daniel 2). Haggai and Isaiah spoke of this one as a “servant” of YHVH. The term shepherd is also a favorite of Micah and Ezekiel. “David” is used as well by a few including Amos. But a common thread among them is the term “branch”. They used this term to refer to the new king that God would raise up from the house of David to sit on His throne (Isaiah 4:2, 11:1, Jer 23:5, Zech 3:8, 6:12).
The Hebrew word is comprised of three consonants (on which Hebrew is built) NZR. The village NaZaReth is built from this root word. (Oddly enough there is another word “nozeri” meaning shoot that Jews still call Christians to this day connecting them with the “sect of the Nazarenes”). It seems as though Matthew is not crazy after all. He was connecting this word Natzrat to the Hebrew netzer (branch) as spoken of by the prophets in relation to this “coming one”. This was one of many means Matthew used to sound the alarm as to the identity of the one chosen by God to be the Messiah, and he did so by making reference to a boy from an obscure little Galilean town (“can anything good come from Nazareth? – John 1:46).
Based on this discovery, it is most fascinating then that it is Matthew (more so than the others) who carries through very strongly the banner of the Kingdom of God or Reign of God through this newly anointed King. This indeed was good news (gospel). When the prophets spoke, they did not necessarily envision a sleepy little town in a remote region of the Galilee, but by this Hebrew word connection, Matthew makes a most profound link. For in it, the one who knew their text would hear what was being communicated loud and clear.
Like mentioned before, there are various prophecies describing the Messiah as a branch or a shoot, which no doubt draw on the image of the olive tree as a main staple of Hebraic social life (Jeremiah 23:5, 33:15; Zech 3:8, 6:12). Yeshua is the shoot from a stump in the olive grove of Israel. His fruit is obedience and fulfillment of long foretold prophecy concerning certain “blossoming” that would take place from among the “brethren” of Israel (Deut 18).
Paul takes this exact same imagery and continues to build upon it because of the relevance to the Messiah and the importance it held in his culture. For instance, he took the image of the Jewish farmer who grafted a cultivated olive shoot onto the root system of a wild tree. Israel, who was God's carefully tended tree (which not surprisingly shows up in Yeshua’s parables), had some of its branches removed (as prophecy told and history records). God grafted the branches of believing Gentiles into this “tree”. Paul on these premises, reminds the Gentiles of their Jewish/Hebraic roots, and reaffirms that God's love and concern for His “tree” has not “withered away” but continues on until once again will come under full production. Since God had to remove natural branches for not bearing any fruit, He warned them that the ones which were grafted in would be even “easier” to remove (Romans 11:11-24) should they prove unproductive or dead.
The olive tree has been and continues to be an excellent example of many things in our relationship to God. As believers, we have Jewish roots, and Yeshua is our Jewish “netzer” (branch). God had to tell Peter very explicitly that He has broken down the wall which once separated the Jew from the Gentile. He did not instruct the Jews to assimilate into the Gentiles or Hellenism, but rather invited the Gentiles to join the Jews, His people. The olive tree stands as a continual reminder that Yeshua is the conduit through whom we have life—he is our Branch our trunk. Through him runs all the nutrients and sustenance we need as individual believers and as a whole unit (body). He grew up from Jewish roots (Isaiah 53:2) and because we are in him, so do we. God's love and expectation is that all His branches will bear fruit in abundance, represented in the picture of the Branch on the Olive Tree.