Trees make life possible. They provide shade, beauty and numerous other gifts—from the tires on our cars to the aspirin in our medicine cabinets. But beyond meeting physical needs, trees can also teach spiritual lessons.
Other than people, trees are mentioned more than any other creation in the Bible. There is a tree on the first page of Genesis and on the last page of Revelation. The first Psalm exhorts believers to be like a tree. Every major character and every major theological event has a tree marking the spot. Indeed, Adam’s first instructions were to “dress and keep” (Genesis 2:15 KJV) the trees in Eden.
Here are four important spiritual lessons we can learn from the trees God planted in Scripture.
Turn toward the Light
One of the clearest memories I have of kindergarten is planting seeds in two pots. One was placed on the window sill; the other was placed in a dark closet. Every day we examined both of the pots. For several weeks, nothing happened. Then, the seeds sprouted.
At first, both plants looked the same. Then they began to diverge. The plant on the window sill began turning its leaves toward the sun. The one in the closet became pale, thin, and grew in a confused manner. Trees grow toward light in a process called phototropism, from the Greek phos (light) and tropos (turning).
Jesus said, “I am the light of the world.” (John 8:12). A tree naturally seeks light. We can follow their example and seek the Light of the world.
Put down roots
Trees need water as much as they need light. The first Psalm is a description of what Godly women and men look like. They are like “trees planted by rivers of water” and they “meditate” on God’s law day and night—i.e., they are thinking about what Bible reveals about God’s will and plan for our lives. In order to do this, we need to study the Word of God—His Bible.
The deeper our “roots” go in the Bible, the more we’re able to withstand the trials, troubles, and other droughts that come our way. Healthy, mature trees have roots that travel in all directions seeking water and nutrients.
Before Bibles came in book form, they were attached to scrolls. The handles of these Biblical scrolls were called the etz hayim, Hebrew for tree of life. Proverb 3:18 says that the Bible’s wisdom is a tree of life to those who take ahold of it, and that happiness results from knowing this life-giving book.
Bring forth fruit
What good would an apple tree be if it never produced any apples? Likewise, our lives should produce meaningful fruit. It’s easy to look like a fruit tree, but Jesus said that we’d be known by the fruit we produce (Matt 7:16-20).
We should not only produce outward fruit—but inward. What is inner fruit? It is the fruit of the Holy Spirit working in our mind and soul to make us into the image of Christ. Paul the Apostle described the fruit of the Spirit in his letter to the Galatians, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance.” (Gal 5:22-23). In fact, Jesus chose you for the very purpose of bearing fruit (John 15:16).
Think long term
Human lives are short. Not so for trees. There are trees alive today that were alive in the time of Moses. God put the notion of living on a vast time scale in our hearts (Eccl 3:11).
How many times do we make decisions based upon short-term gain? What would the world look like if the first thing we thought about were our roles as stewards, responsible for the coming generations?
According to the book of Revelation, trees have a place in heaven as well. Revelation 22 describes the tree of life, saying, “the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.” Trees remind us that life is much bigger than our present moment. Their deep roots and sprawling branches call us to look to heaven and eternity.
Matthew Sleeth, MD, is a speaker, author, and executive director of Blessed Earth, an organization promoting faithful stewardship of all creation.
His most recent book, Reforesting Faith: What Trees Teach Us About the Nature of God and His Love for Us (WaterBrook), was released in April 2019.
*This article first appeared on Guideposts.org
Dr. Matthew Sleeth loves trees. Not just because they are beautiful, but because he believes they can teach us a lot about God’s nature.
In his new book Reforesting Faith: What Trees Teach Us About the Nature of God and His Love for Us, he unpacks the significance of one of the Bible’s most prevalent symbols.
We recently spoke with Dr. Sleeth about the book, the spiritual lessons we can learn from trees and the importance of protecting creation.
What drew you to these parallels between nature and deeper spiritual lessons?
It really began when I volunteered to plant trees around my church, and the pastor said I have the theology of a tree hugger. He didn’t mean it as a compliment.
I thought maybe my theology was wrong, so I went to scripture and read from Genesis to Revelation, and what I found astounded me. Trees are the most-mentioned living thing in scripture other than God and people.
There’s a tree on the first page of the Bible. We’re told to be a tree in the first Psalm. There’s a tree on the first page of the New Testament and on the last page of scripture. Every major event in scripture has a tree marking the spot. So what I found in scripture was different than what I was seeing and hearing in the church.
I’d like to start at the beginning, then. What can you tell me about the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil mentioned in Genesis?
Well, the garden is filled with trees. If you highlighted every sentence that has a tree in it in the first three chapters of the Bible, you’ll highlight a third of scripture.
We’re told trees are beautiful in God’s sight. We’re told our place is among the trees. We are told our work was to dress and keep them or protect and tend them, and that’s where we started.
There are two particularly important trees, the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and we’re told not to eat from [the latter] and that’s God assigning human agency to us. We are allowed to choose right from wrong, and of course, we made the wrong choice.
When everything goes upside down and Adam and Eve realize they are naked, they go undress the tree and tear fig leaves off a fig tree. When they hear God’s voice, they run and they hide behind trees, so trees are absolutely pivotal to understanding why the world is as messed up as it is today.
Another reference is the time Jesus cursed the fig tree. It’s a hard parable to understand. Is that something you were able to wrestle with when writing the book?
I think there’s a couple things going on there. First of all, the ficus family of trees is the only tree Jesus ever says by name. A fig is the first mentioned tree in scripture that we can identify, and it is the symbol of the separation between us and God. We were in communion with the Lord, but after the first sin we tried to hide ourselves with the fig leaves, and so the fig becomes a symbol of that separation.
That story [of Jesus cursing the fig tree] has two meanings: One is that a tree should not only have leaves, but bear fruit. We’re told that with our lives, we’re to not just exist but be fruitful. [Secondly] in the story in which Jesus calls Nathaniel as His disciple, Jesus knows exactly who Nathaniel is because He saw him under the fig tree. That’s Jesus’ way of saying there’s no more hiding from the Lord behind fig trees. I’m here. I see you.
What’s the significance of the tree as it relates to the cross?
God wrote this Bible and the story of redemption using trees. The only thing that can kill Jesus is a tree. To really unpack that you have to look at how many times people tried to kill Jesus. They tried to stab him as an infant, that didn’t work; they tried to stone him; they tried to throw him off a cliff. The only way you can kill Jesus is with a tree and Jesus knows that.
He’s telling His disciples, ‘I must be raised up on a tree.’ As we look back in the book of Deuteronomy, we find this curious line that ‘He who hangs on a tree is cursed,’ and Jesus has to take the curse on Himself that you and I rightfully deserve. Trees are essential to telling the gospel.
What was one thing that surprised you most while you were researching and writing this book?
I think it was just the sheer number of trees and their use [in the Bible] from one end to the other. The Bible refers to itself as a tree. The only thing Jesus ever harms is a tree, and the only thing that can harm Jesus is a tree.
Great Christian writers like Tolkien and Lewis and George D. MacDonald always cast the good guys as those who would take care of the trees and the bad guys as those who would [cut them down].
I think the big surprise for me is how far from the Bible the Church is today, [to the point where it’s] subtracting trees from the text. Some words I counted up in the Bible—tree, seed, leaf, branch, root and fruit—occurred 967 times in the King James Bible, but in the ESB they’ve been subtracted 230 times and in the NIV translation, 267. Our bible translators have literally taken these words out of scripture.
I’ll give you an example: We just went by Palm Sunday, and if you look at Mark 11:8 it says in modern translations that people went and cut branches in the fields. That’s ridiculous, you go and cut branches off trees, and that’s what it says in the Greek. Our theologians and translators have literally subtracted trees from scripture.
There seems to be such hostility toward ideas like climate change or other environmental initiatives. What would you suggest more Christians advocate for?
We have to recognize, first of all, in the United States we have the oldest, biggest trees. Not every country has been blessed like we are and some countries have not been as kind to their forests as we may have been.
There is a link between poverty and trees. If you take the most deforested country in the Western hemisphere—Haiti—it also happens to be the poorest. If you take the second-most deforested country in the Western hemisphere—Honduras—it happens to be the second poorest. I think we need to help those around the world who cannot afford to plant trees, and we need to take care of our own trees.
When you write this much about the way God puts an emphasis on nature and trees, does it influence your own perspective on conservation?
I believe the world is facing a number of environmental challenges in my part of the country. I live in Kentucky; the ash trees are virtually all going to die here. The lodge pole pines in the west are under a lot of stress at the moment, too. All over the world trees need our advocacy.
The first thing God put us on the planet to do was take care of the trees, and I hope that one of the outcomes of this book is that we’ll ask how we do that in a responsible manner that glorifies God.
What is your favorite tree and what meaning does it hold to you?
Sugar maple, hands down. It’s as if God got together with a committee of kids and they designed the perfect tree. I’ve seen them in their best latitude—northern New England—and they grow to massive size. They give syrup, the leaves are perfect…there’s just nothing I don’t like about a sugar maple.
Jesse Carey is an editor at RELEVANT and a mainstay on the weekly RELEVANT Podcast. He lives in Virginia Beach with his wife and two kids.
This article originally appeared in Relevant Online.
About Reforesting Faith
The Bible talks about trees more than any living creation other than people. Perhaps you’ve missed the forest…and the trees.
In this groundbreaking walk through Scripture, former physician and carpenter Dr. Matthew Sleeth makes the convincing case why trees are essential to every Christian’s understanding of God.
Yet we’ve mostly missed how God has chosen to tell His story–and ours–through the lens of trees. There’s a tree on the first page of Genesis and the last page of Revelation. The Bible refers to its wisdom as a Tree of Life (Proverbs 3:18). Every major Biblical character has a tree associated with them. Jesus himself says he is the true vine (John 15:1). A tree was used to kill Jesus–and a tree is the only thing the Messiah ever harmed.
This is no accident. When we subtract trees from Scripture, we miss lessons of faith necessary for our growth.
This is the rare book that connects those who love the Creator with creation, and those who love creation with the Creator. It offers inspirational yet practical ways to express our love for God–and our neighbors–by planting spiritual trees and physical trees in the world.
Join Dr. Sleeth as he navigates the Bible’s trail of trees to explore the wonders of life, death, and rebirth. You’ll be amazed at how science is just beginning to catch up to the truths described in Scripture thousands of years ago. Once you discover the hidden language of trees, your walk through the woods–and through Scripture–will never be the same.
Click the Link below to View the Guide