The Bible is a book of both concrete truth and creative metaphors. God is gentle and God is a rock. Jesus was born of the virgin Mary and Jesus is living water. Humans are selfish creatures and humans are branches. Yahweh is faithful and Yahweh is a shepherd. God is divine and God is a king. And metaphor within metaphor – God’s kingdom has arrived and it is a mustard seed.
As words, metaphors give shape to non-concrete realities. As images, metaphors invite us to see, discover, understand, and experience the embodied truth.
One of the most commonly mentioned things in the Bible is also one of its most powerful theological metaphors – trees. (Check out this article for more thoughts on trees in scripture. Then get the book Reforesting Faith by the article’s author.)
God’s expansive story begins with all kinds of beautiful trees, and also two very specific trees (Gen. 2:11). It ends with two healing trees of life flanking a river of living water (Rev. 22:1-2). Within the story, both God’s people and God himself are described as trees (Ps. 52:8, Hos. 14:8). Wisdom is a tree of life (Prov. 3:18). Isaiah tells trees to sing and clap their hands. Those who love, fear, and hope in Yahweh are trees planted by a riverbank (Ps. 1, Jer. 17). Those who love, trust, and follow Jesus are deeply rooted in him (Col. 2).
Deep roots, strong trunks, healthy branches, flourishing fruit, and sometimes beautiful flowers are concrete earthly realities that reflect profound spiritual truth.
Discipleship has been visualized in many ways: four chairs, a wheel, a directional triangle, a roadmap, and more. Some of these are linear. Some are limited in scope.
It seems that a tree – a living, organic, growing, fruitful, and universally understood image – offers a beautifully profound yet simple vision of discipleship.
Here’s a downloadable PDF of the tree image along with the Biblical framework: DOWNLOADABLE FILE.
Even non-arborists understand enough about trees to grasp the truths in this image:
- Deep, strong roots help support a strong trunk and branches.
- Deep, strong roots lead to growth.
- As branches grow and leaves multiply, more of the sun’s energy gets to the roots, resulting in further growth.
- Much of what happens in a tree isn’t visible to other people.
- Even the smallest tree – with brand new roots, a wisp of a trunk, and slim flexible branches – is still a tree.
The image can guide every follower of Jesus as we:
- carefully contemplate what it means to follow Jesus in both general and specific ways
- honestly reflect on our own personal lives of discipleship
- prayerfully consider our discipleship hopes and desires for those in our ministries, our families, our small groups, and any other community of believers.
Here are some reflection questions and dialogue prompts:
- How do the three main tree elements relate and work together?
- roots – time in scripture, prayer, worship – which happen both in solitude and in communal congregational life
- trunk – a strong core of love, trust, humility, obedience
- branches – expressions or displays of specific behaviors and attitudes repeatedly highlighted throughout scripture
- In your current season of life, how do engage in, experience, or express each of the different elements in the tree?
- What specific areas (within trunk, core, branches) of your personal discipleship are most in need of attention, guidance, or challenge?
- How can you lean into those things intentionally and purposefully?
- What specific areas of your personal discipleship (within trunk, core, branches) do you naturally embrace and dig into? Why? What does that look like?
- For those involved in ministry, consider your ministry focus (children, middle school, high school, college, young professionals, families, etc.) and your specific ministry context (community size, location, primary culture, specific sub-cultures, socio-economics, etc.). Based on those realities, what are your hopes and desires for those you disciple? For example, what do you hope “time in scripture” will begin to look like for a college-aged new believer? Or how do you hope a small group of 7th grade guys will begin to display “faithful witness” at home and at school? And so on.