Discovering God Through the Trees

By Matthew Sleeth –

Photo by Casey Horner.

I love trees. I always have. I love looking at them. I love sitting in their shade. I love hearing the sound of wind rustling through their leaves. But what can trees teach us? Specifically, what can trees teach us about the nature of God and his love for us?

Nearly two decades ago, during a difficult season of my life, I began to search for answers to these questions. At the time I did not believe in God. I was trained in the sciences as a physician.

One Sunday morning at the hospital, I found myself with no patients, so I went looking for something to read. On a coffee table, among back issues of People and National Geographic, I found a Bible. I had never read one. Although we had thousands of books in our home, we didn’t own a Bible. So … I stole it.

I started reading the book of Matthew. Within a few pages I was presented not with answers but with the Bible’s great question: “What say you of Jesus?” Right away I recognized that Jesus was unlike any person I’d ever met. He was both more human and more godly than anyone I’d known. Although my coming to faith was a process, it soon began transforming every aspect of my life. Over the next two years, my son, then my wife, and then my daughter came to believe, as I did, in Jesus as their savior.

Soon after, we started going to a church where the congregation became like family and remain so to this day. The church is a conservative one. That’s why we went there. But when I volunteered to plant trees around the church’s grounds, one of the pastors said I had the theology of a tree hugger. This was not meant as a compliment.

Back then our whole family was new to Christianity. My daughter hadn’t yet married a pastor. My son wasn’t a missionary pediatrician in Africa, and I’d yet to write books on applied theology or preach at more than a thousand colleges and churches around the world. What did I know about the theology of trees? But ever since I encountered the gospel for the first time in my forties, the Bible has been my compass. So when I was called a tree hugger, I turned to Scripture to get my bearings.

God’s trail of trees

Photo by Jeff Rogers.

Other than God and people, the Bible mentions trees more than any other living thing. There is a tree on the first page of Genesis, in the first psalm, on the first page of the New Testament, and on the last page of Revelation. Every significant theological event in the Bible is marked by a tree. Whether it is the Fall, the Flood, or the overthrow of Pharaoh, every major event in the Bible has a tree, branch, fruit, seed, or some part of a tree marking the spot.

Jesus said, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser” (John 15:1). The wisdom of the Bible is a tree of life (Proverbs 3:18). We are told to be “like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season” (Psalm 1:3, NRSV). Moreover, every major character in the Bible appears in conjunction with a tree. In the Old Testament, Noah received the olive leaf (Genesis 8:11), Abraham sat under “the oaks of Mamre” (18:1), and Moses stood barefoot in front of the burning bush (Exodus 3:2-5).

Daniel was given a breathtaking vision of heaven. A vast tree at the center gave shelter to birds and shade to beasts and fed all living creatures on the earth (Daniel 4:10-12). Amos cared for sycamore fig trees before God called him to be a prophet (Amos 7:14-15). King Saul met his councilors under a tree (1 Samuell4:2), and King David was called to battle by God’s Spirit in a tree (2 Samuel 5:24). David’s ambitious and vain son Absalom was caught in a tree by his hair (2 Samuel 18:9, NLT).

In the Psalms we walk under one tree after another. “The righteous flourish like the palm tree and grow like a cedar in Lebanon. They are planted in the house of the Lord; they flourish in the courts of our God. They still bear fruit in old age; they are ever full of sap and green” (92:12-14). Conversely, God’s foes are like “those who swing axes in a forest of trees” (74:5). I could go on and on with all the trees in the lives of the prophets and kings and in the Wisdom Literature.

Christ the True Vine

From Jesus’s birth in a wooden manger to his death on the cross, the life of the Messiah is inseparable from trees. The entire New Testament is filled with roots, fruit, soils, branches, vines, and seeds. From the opening words of Matthew’s gospel describing Jesus’s family tree to Revelation’s closing image of the tree of life at the center of heaven, we encounter a forest of trees.

Think of Zacchaeus climbing the sycamore fig (Luke 19:1-4), the blind man seeing people as if they were trees walking (Mark 8:24), and the disciples gathering on the Mount of Olives (Luke 22:39). The apostle Paul asserted that if we have gone for a walk in the woods, we are without excuse of knowing God (Romans 1:20). Paul also wrote that Christians are like branches grafted into Israel’s tree trunk, with roots that help us stand fast and firm no matter what troubles come our way (11:17-18).

Jesus himself declared that the kingdom of heaven is like a tree (Matthew 13:31-32). The only thing that Jesus ever harmed was a tree (Mark 11:12-14, 20-21), and the only thing that could harm him was a tree. After Jesus was resurrected, he was mistaken for a gardener (John 20:15). This was not a mistake. Jesus is the new Adam who has come to redeem all of creation.

From Genesis to Revelation God has blazed a trail of trees through the Bible. The reason so many people love trees is because we are created in God’s image. God loves trees, and so should we.

The Tree of Life

Photo by Jeff Rogers.

Trees are not randomly placed in Scripture. They mark the most important events, including the Creation, the Fall, the Crucifixion, and the Resurrection. This is not a coincidence. The Bible is one interwoven book, written by one God.

God chose a tree as his symbol of life. The largest and longest-lived form of life on the earth is a tree. Whether dead or alive, trees are always supporting life. It is not surprising then that the author of life would put a tree at the beginning, middle, and end of his message to us, the Bible.

Within the first two chapters of the Bible, life, death, human agency, respiration, food, aesthetics, human purpose, and a connection to God all are tied to trees. The link between plants and animals isn’t just an academic curiosity; it is an inescapable fact of life. Without humans, trees would manage just fine. Without trees, people would perish. Everything on the earth that moves uses energy that is stored in bonds between carbon atoms, first formed in a green plant through the process of photosynthesis. You, me, earthworms, ants, bees, tigers, sloths, and aphids: we all run on trees. And it’s not just that we use plant energy (calories) to power our brains and bodies. We need the oxygen from trees to burn this fuel. The tree of life is aptly named on every level.

Genesis 2:8-9 states that God placed the first human in a garden, and then God planted “every tree that is pleasant to the sight.” If you are new to the Bible, this phrase may not seem unusual. But it is without parallel. It represents God’s weighing in on the issue of beauty. If you like the looks of trees, you’re not alone. You share your aesthetic with God.

Trees in Paradise

God planted two special trees in the middle of Eden: the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The tree of life stands for all life created by God, and he declared it “good.” It is a tree of justice, beauty, truth, love, light, and righteousness. While in the garden, Adam and Eve ate freely from the tree of life. To eat from, be grafted into, or take hold of this tree is to obtain everlasting life. Thus, by definition, the tree of life stands for Christ.

The other tree planted in the middle of paradise was the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. This tree opens the door to pride, evil, greed, arrogance, hatred, cruelty, malice, ugliness, and callousness. To eat from this tree is bad, while to consciously avoid this tree is good. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil symbolizes death, and death is bad.

God put the poisonous tree in the middle of the garden, where Adam and Eve couldn’t mistake it. “This tree will kill you the minute you eat from it,” God warned. He then offered some helpful advice: “The tree of life is always here right beside temptation – just to remind you.” Beside every bad decision in life, there is a good alternative.

Crown of thorns, crown of glory

When I read the Bible for the first time, one thing that came through to me was that I could trust Jesus. He never lied. He was unaffected by the vanities and failings of the people around him. He had no personal ambition. He had no economic incentives that drove his work. The more famous he became, the less attention he paid to the crowds.

Jesus said he had to be lifted up and hung on a tree, and I believe him. Some believe that science and faith are incompatible. But I think of my faith in Jesus and what happened on the cross as the ultimate science experiment. It takes only one life and the faith of a mustard seed to find out the results. If I’m right and Jesus is the one to be trusted above all else, the reward is great. If I’m wrong, I suspect I’ll never know.

When Jesus died on the cross, he balanced an equation. He took the sins of all humankind on himself. The crown of thorns around his head represented the curse of the earth – the thorns and thistles Adam was burdened with in Genesis 3 – and this curse was absorbed by Christ.

Three days after Jesus was crucified and buried, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb to pay her respects. The tomb was empty. With her eyes burning from crying for days, Mary turned and saw Jesus. But she did not recognize him. She thought he was the gardener (John 20:14-16). This was no mistake. Jesus is the gardener. He is the new Adam (Romans 5:12-18), come to dress and keep the garden, not destroy and plunder it.

Like the pattern of trees we’ve been tracing, the larger creation-care mandate runs from Genesis to Revelation. “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof,” Psalm 24:1 thunders, signing God’s name to the earth’s title and deed.

The earth and everything on it belong to God, not us. We are given dominion as God’s appointed stewards, but that dominion implies tremendous responsibility. We should pass along the earth, from one generation to the next, in as good or better shape than we received it. We are but sojourners; God is the earth’s rightful and permanent owner.

Every time our bejeweled planet completes another circle around the sun, God gives every tree on the earth a new ring. Tick goes the clock, and another year goes by. This year will we see the trees? Will we heed the call to protect them? Will we plant the small tree today that the next generation will climb and the following one will find shade under? Will we plant in faith? Will we be called “oaks of righteousness” (Isaiah 61:3)?

Two opposing forces are at war on this planet. One says, “Look to yourself. It’s all about you.” The other says, “Love God, and love your neighbor.” The man who said the latter claimed to be the true vine and the tree of life.

Matthew Sleeth, M.D., is the executive director of Blessed Earth. Adapted from Reforesting Faith: What Trees Teach Us About the Nature of God and His Love for Us by Matthew Sleeth. Copyright © 2019 by Matthew Sleeth. Published by WaterBrook, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.

Comments

  1. Lawrence Kreh says

    As a Christian we are indeed stewards, not owners of the earth. Yet many Christian’s simply and wrongly associate this principle with so-called leftist politics. Yet I want my grandchildren to be able to proclaim:
    For the beauty of the earth,
    For the glory of the sky,
    For the love which from our birth,
    Over and around us lies.

    Lord of all from Thee we raise
    This our hymn of grateful praise

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