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Lessons From A Tree

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Near my church is a majestic tree known as the Old Schoolhouse Oak. Several years ago, the tree was in decline and slated to be cut down. A cry went up to save it. The region’s most famous tree scientist was enlisted—and his plan worked. The tree, near death, was saved.

It happens that I know the scientist, Tom, who saved this tree. While Tom labored, he cared nothing about the 500 years that had passed since Martin Luther tacked his 95 Theses on the wooden door of the Wittenberg Castle church. Tom was an atheist and had not attended church in 50 years. But he did care passionately about trees.

On a recent Sunday, I shared Tom’s story from the pulpit of my home church. We could see the ancient tree’s crown from a window in the sanctuary. Yet when I asked, “Have you ever heard a sermon on trees in the Bible?” only two or three hands went up.

Such responses, unfortunately, are not unusual. In the last few generations, trees have become Christianity’s “elephant in the living room.” But this has not always been the case.

Illustration of Judges 4:5 by Kenneth Crane

If we had invited Tom to church a century or two ago, we would have had resources to tell him the gospel using trees. A 140-year-old King James Study Bible on my shelf has 20 pages about trees and plants of the Bible. The modern version, by the same publisher, has erased them all. If Tom had dropped into Charles Spurgeon’s church in the late 1800s, he would have heard sermons such as “Christ, the Tree of Life,” “The Tree in God’s Court,” “The Cedars of Lebanon,” “The Apple Tree in the Woods,” “The Beauty of the Olive Tree,” “The Sound in the Mulberry Tree,” and “The Lifeless Tree.”

A century ago, Christians were reading books like At the Back of the North Wind by George D. MacDonald. It is one of the most engaging young adult novels ever, and it vividly describes the trees in heaven. MacDonald’s progeny, C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, also got their tree theology from the Bible. That is why the heroes in Tolkien’s and Lewis’s stories protect trees and the villains wantonly destroy trees. In a world of relativism, we know that arch villains Tash and Sauron are bad guys because the Bible defines them that way.    

Other than God and humans, trees are the most mentioned living thing in the Bible. There’s a tree on the first page of Genesis, on the first page of the Psalms, on the first page of the New Testament, and on the last page of Revelation. Every major character and every major theological event in Scripture has a tree marking the spot.

This trail of trees begins in Genesis. One third of the sentences in the first three chapters of Genesis contains  a tree. One third! In Genesis 1, God describes trees in two classes, what biologists today refer to as angiosperms and gymnosperms. This is just one of many examples (the recent discovery of trees talking through the “Wood Wide Web” is another) where science today is just catching up to what was written by the Creator millennia ago.

Genesis 2:9 tells us that “the Lord God made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight.” This is the benchmark aesthetic standard of God, and He will stick to it whether He is telling His people how to decorate the corbels of the temple, fashion a lamp, or finish the high priest’s robe.

Genesis 2 also gives us Adam’s original job to “dress and keep” the trees (Gen. 2:15, KJV). Adam and Eve disobeyed and did the opposite—dressing themselves by “undressing” the trees.   

Illustration of Exodus 3:2 by Kenneth Crane

As I prepared Sunday’s sermon on trees and Scripture, I struggled with what to include and what to omit. Should I talk about Abraham meeting God under an oak or his planting the first memorial tree? Should I include Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of a felled tree or Jacob’s vision of a wooden ladder (tree) connecting earth and heaven? What about Deborah holding court under a palm? Should we look at the pattern of God doing His most intimate business beside small trees (think Moses, Elijah, and Jonah), or calling us to battle with large trees (such as Gideon and David)?   

We could have done a whole series on Psalm 1, starting with Joseph, a fruitful bough planted by water (Gen. 49:22). In fact, to replant all the trees in Scripture would require several preaching series.   

But what about Jesus? The only physical description of Him says that he looks like a small plant or tree (Isa. 53:2). He grew up in a carpenter’s home. He talked about seeds of faith and said that the Kingdom of heaven was like a tree. He called disciples from under trees and sinners from their branches. His favorite place to pray was an olive grove. The only thing He ever harmed was a tree, and the only thing that could harm Him was a tree.

From the moment Christ was born, people were out to kill Him. They tried to stab Him, stone Him, and throw Him off a cliff. But it didn’t work. He could go 40 days without eating, climb into the ring with the toughest opponent on the planet, and walk away after three rounds. There was no point in trying to drown Him—He’d just walk away. No, the only thing that could kill Jesus was a tree. Why? Because “he who dies on a tree is cursed,” not he who was stabbed, stoned, or starved (Deut. 21:23).

Jesus died on a tree so that we wouldn’t have to (Gal 3:13). 

Illustration of Acts 5:30 by Kenneth Crane

The Bible closes with Jesus warning that only those who keep His commandments are granted access to the Tree of Life (Rev. 22:14). Yet while the most comfortable chair in our homes often faces a television, God’s throne in heaven faces a tree.

On the Saturday before my sermon, I called Tom and invited him to church. I wanted our congregation to thank him for saving the old oak. I wanted to thank him publicly for proofreading my book, Reforesting Faith—twice. But really, I wanted him to share about our new mutual friend who is crazy about trees. “Sorry, I can’t,” Tom answered. “I’ve arranged for four people who don’t know the Lord to come with me to my church tomorrow.”

Want to know what happens when someone who loves creation but doesn’t know the Creator has the trees put back in the Bible? Put the trees back in your theology, pray for your friends who love creation but don’t know the Creator, and find out. For there is hope for a tree (Job 14:7).

2 responses to Lessons From A Tree

  1. Thank you for the wonderful lessons from trees. I’ve been reading one thousand blessings with a friend and number one of my list: budding trees that emerge overnight with their beautiful leaves.

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