November 10, 2007

A good reason for another tree

In my devotional book today’s focus is on trees, specifically those in the garden of Eden described in Genesis 2:9, “And out of the ground the LORD God made every tree grow that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. The tree of life was also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

My thoughts go to trees in general and their biblical significance to the life of God’s people. I did some digging and found several references that mentioned sitting under a tree.

One is from Micah 4:4. After a well-known prophecy that predicts a day when nations “shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore,” the prophet Micah says, “But everyone shall sit under his vine and under his fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid for the mouth of the LORD of hosts has spoken.

This saying became an expression of peace and prosperity. It is repeated in Zechariah 3:10, “In that day,” says the LORD of hosts, “Everyone will invite his neighbor under his vine and under his fig tree.

By the time of the New Testament, someone told me devout Jews were known to read the Old Testament Scriptures sitting under a fig tree. (I can’t find my source, even though it is vivid in my memory and I trust it.)

For that reason, as I read these verses from the prophets, I thought of the incident in John 1 when Jesus called His disciples. It says that Philip found Nathanael and told him they had found the Messiah. Nathanael was skeptical because Jesus came from a rival town, but went with Philip to check out what he said. As he approached Jesus, Jesus said, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!

Nathanael was obviously astonished and asked, “How do you know me?” Jesus answered, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.

This says a great deal about Jesus; He was not there, but He knew what Nathanael was doing. However, it also says something about Nathanael. Was he studying the Scriptures under that tree? Was it, for him, a place of peace? We know the disciples were not necessarily prosperous financially, but was this man already rich in his relationship with the God of Israel?

I think he was. Jesus said Nathanael was without deceit, a person who was willing to examine for himself who Jesus was. He had an honest seeking heart, and according to what Jesus said, that was an exception. He was without the normal skepticism of his culture, a skepticism that easily slid later into total rejection of the Messiah.

Back under the tree Nathanael took time to learn about God. He no doubt knew the promises and prophecies. He said, “Rabbi, You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” but he wasn’t fooled into thinking the Messiah would be a mere king who came to conquer the Romans. He also realized Jesus could not be understood or described in human terms. This Man was God’s Son.

Nathanael was convinced by Jesus’ supernatural knowledge of him, but I’m convinced that his convictions were undergirded by what he was doing sitting under that tree.

How is this practical for me today? First, it made me question the exact nature of the first sin. Did they do wrong because they ate the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and therefore knowing good and evil is wrong? I don’t think so. They sinned because they took the fruit even though God told them not to. Their sin was disobedience to God; the tree was merely the test.

But not merely. All through Scripture God makes it clear that He wants me to recognize good and evil. The irony is that as a sinner, I’m unable to be totally clear about many issues. I want black and white when some things are grey and fuzzy. Only sitting under the tree with His Book sorts it out for me. As 2 Timothy 3:16 says, “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine (divine teaching), for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man (woman too) of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.

It is November and too cold to go out and sit under a tree, but I’ve been thinking about painting a mural of a bare-branched tree on a wall in my house. Now I’ve a good idea where I’d like to put it—right next to the place where I read my Bible!

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