ESSAY
Arboreal theology: Trees in Colossians
POSTED
January 10, 2023

The Bible is a book about trees. We start in Eden with two trees, we end in the New Jerusalem with a single double-trunked tree, and the story hinges around the tree they nailed our Lord to.

Seeing the Forest

We find trees singled out on day three of creation. When we enter the Garden it’s dominated by two trees: life and the knowledge of good and bad. As the story unfolds, people meet with God at trees. We find Abraham encountering God at the Oak of Morah (Genesis 12.6), the Oaks of Mamre (Genesis 13.18), and the Tamarisk at Beersheba (Genesis 21.33). Hagar meets God at a bush (Genesis 21.15), God provides a ram (which shares the same root as ‘oak’) with a thorny crown for Isaac (Genesis 22.13), and meets Jacob at Luz, which means ‘almond tree’ (Genesis 28.19).

The theme continues as we leave Genesis, with Moses encountering God at a burning bush (Exodus 3.2), Marah’s bitter water becoming sweet when a tree is thrown in it (Exodus 15.25), and then Sinai itself, named for the burning thornbush where Moses first encountered Yahweh.

There are many more characters who meet God beside trees, but notably the tabernacle and later the Temple are built to mirror the Garden of Eden, where heaven touched earth. They share the threefold shape of Eden > Garden > Trees, mirrored in the Courtyard > Tabernacle > Holy of Holies. It’s decorated with trees (1 Kings 6.31-32), had Almond Trees as lampstands (Exodus 37.20), and was built from trees (1 Kings 6.18). The temple is a forest—a wooded mountaintop.

At the high point of the Song of Songs, we find Eden regained (Song 8.5-6). Love that leads to resurrection and the fire of God descending is found underneath apple trees.

We meet with God at trees. We could draw a line here to the tree on which they hung Christ, at whose feet we meet with God, and the tree-with-two-trunks that dominates the City of God in John’s vision of heaven meeting earth (Revelation 22.2). It would be right to do so.

I’d like to draw two other insights out though, before exploring how Paul uses them in his epistle to the Colossians.

Firstly, that the Old Testament describes people as trees. Secondly, that the fruit of good trees is considered to be wisdom.

We are the Trees

When the man appears on Day 6 (Genesis 1.26-31) he is described as a tree. Paralleling the creation of land and fruiting trees on Day 3, the man is set in analogy to the tree. He too is to be fruitful. Trees are described as self-generating (Genesis 1.11-12), yielding their own seeds and fruits. It is almost as though they experience a sort of eternal life as they pass from plant to seed and then to plant again. The call to be fruitful and multiply (Genesis 1.28) is describing us as though we were trees.

In Genesis 2, Adam too sprouts from the earth (Genesis 2.7) and is placed in a garden among the trees (Genesis 2.8-9), which has in the middle the two trees. Humanity is commissioned to bear fruit, and the refrain of the seed of the woman begins in the protoevangelium but continues through the story of the patriarchs as each person we meet is given a choice to be a fruiting tree (a Son of God) or thorns sprung from the ground (a Son of the Serpent).

In Psalm 1, one of the two introductory Pillars of the Psalter (like the Temple’s Pillars, as the Psalter is Temple-shaped, Psalm 1 is Jachin-Priest to Psalm 2’s Boaz-King), the righteous man is a tree planted by streams of water (Psalm 1.3), a theme that is picked up elsewhere (e.g. Psalm 92.12-14).

We could add Isaiah’s repeated descriptions of Israel as a tree (e.g. Isaiah 5.5-7, 6.13, 17.6, 41.19), the way that the Hebrew word for barren (aqār) shares its root with the word for ‘to uproot’ (aqar), the way Moses wants to ‘plant’ the people on Zion (Exodus 15.17), or that Solomon tells us that the fruit of the righteous is ‘a tree of life’ (Proverbs 11.30).

Wisdom’s Fruit

We’re trees, and the fruit we bear is wisdom. We read in Proverbs 3.13-18 that wisdom is a tree of life. We find this link back in the garden of Genesis 2 with the two trees standing central to the Garden. The Tree of Life we’re comfortable with, but the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Bad is often confusing to us.

In my experience the second tree is often misconstrued as a tree whose fruit would tell us the difference between good and evil—in other words that would teach us what sin is. Why would God keep that from us? It sounds like a helpful thing for us to know to prevent us from sinning. Or perhaps it’s a tree of temptation, leading us to ask why it’s been placed in this most holy place of this holy garden.

It is better I think, following James B. Jordan and Tim Mackie, to understand this as a tree of choosing between good and bad options. Jordan describes it as a tree of judgement, the kingly virtue of choosing. Mackie describes it as a tree of discernment. Either way, we’re in the realm not of choosing whether or not to sin, but of wisdom. The trees in the garden are life and wisdom.

The implication is both that wisdom is something which cannot be taken but must be gifted, and that Adam as a king would eventually be given to eat from the tree. Instead, he and Eve took instead of waiting to receive, and attempted to gain by force what can only be gifted by time, suffering, and the generosity of God.

It’s as Christ in Gethsemane (Matthew 26.39) chooses to wait to receive at the Will of the Father, rather than take, that the Garden is recapitulated. Jesus was then hung on wisdom’s tree, sacrificing Himself for us to gain His reward: the fruit of wisdom’s tree. He is Himself a fruiting tree, His very blood is grapes that we press into wine. When we drink at the Lord’s Supper we drink freely of His reward, we are gifted wisdom.

This is a gift to be cultivated like a gardener in our own lives so that we in turn bear fruit, but it is first a gift. We see in John’s Revelation that the two trees are now one, with a trunk on either side of the river (Revelation 22.2). They have become entwined, Life and Wisdom, Bread and Wine, all gifted to us in Christ.

Colossians: Arboreal Theology

This background is at play in Paul’s epistle to the Colossians—where he uses images of trees and fruits while calling on the rich Biblical allusions. We are meant to be trees who bear good fruit, and that requires gardening.

As Paul launches into his letter we are greeted with the concept of virtue. He thanks God for their faith (1.4), love (1.4), and hope (1.4). This virtue comes from the gospel, the word of truth (1.5), which in turn bears fruit in his readers (1.6). Virtue comes through the gospel which bears fruit in us. Bearing fruit sits at the centre of a chiastic paragraph (1.3-9), that’s what Paul wants for them.

It’s an image that paints people as trees, common throughout the Bible. We’re cast back to the commission that God gave mankind in Genesis 1, to bear fruit. This is a creation mandate, but here in Colossians it’s a new creation mandate. Participating in the new creation through the church is to grow in order to bear fruit, to develop virtue, to become mature.

In other words, the church is a tree, and we are trees: invited to a life of developing wisdom, faith, hope, and love.

Paul’s prayer is that this church would be filled with knowledge in spiritual wisdom (1.9) for the purpose of walking ‘in a manner worthy of the Lord’ (1.10), which he defines, again, as bearing fruit. We’re meant to be trees that walk.

The fruit we bear, broadly construed as virtue in the previous paragraph, is now good works and increasing with the knowledge of God (1.10). He expands this into endurance, patience, joy, and gratitude (1.11-12).

We should consider this fruit in its biblical background as wisdom that leads to maturity, that bears the fruit of the inheritance of the saints in light (1.12).

Trees that Grow

We find Paul’s aim for encouraging them to bear fruit after his beautiful exhalations of the glories of Christ: he wants to present everyone mature in Christ (1.28), with wisdom. Maturity is also in view in Colossians parallel letter, Ephesians, though without the arboreal imagery, as Paul describes the various ministries given to the church until she matures into the stature of the fullness of Christ (Ephesians 4.11-13).

He’s begun to speak of rejoicing in our sufferings (1.24f). The fruit of maturity, of wisdom, grows through sharing in Christ’s suffering in eHis church. It is as we are broken like bread, our petty dreams shattered to be replaced by a truer vision of the face of God, that we mature and are gifted wisdom.

One of the dangers that Paul is attending to with this strange Colossian obsession with spiritual mysteries and accessing them through grand encounters with angels, is that they would attempt to shortcut the slow work of growing trees that is following Jesus. We’ve seen how well that goes down in Eden. The spiritual dramas that the church at Colossae was excited by might seem flashy, but all the ‘treasures of wisdom and knowledge’ (2.3) are hidden in Christ. Sometimes the treasures can look as exciting as watching grass grow, but that’s the pace that wisdom works at.

Paul instructs his readers to be trees that are rooted in Christ (2.7), along with a metaphor about walking a path (2.6) and one about building a temple (2.7). To be rooted is to do as you were taught, he says, abounding in thanksgiving, continuing in Christ alone. He is our spiritual water, of which we drink by staying in the apostles’ teaching and by learning the discipline of gratitude. To switch horticultural metaphors, it is as branches abide in the vine that they bear fruit (John 15.1-11).

The apostle warns them against false fruit, especially for those taken in by the elemental spirits, the powers and principalities of the world. Don’t ruin your garden, or the chance to enjoy the fruit you’ve grown by taking up with snakes. The centre of the letter is to not do what is ‘not according to Christ’ (2.8). We must learn to discern the difference between what has the appearance of wisdom (2.23) and the fruit of wisdom’s tree.

Pastoral Gardening

But how do we do that? Through good gardeners.

Paul has two major struggles he explains to the Colossians. He struggles to proclaim Christ (1.24-27) and to present the churches in Colossae and Laodicea as mature (1.28). He is a gardener who works by the sweat of his brow to plant—to proclaim Christ—and to prune—to make them fruit into mature trees.

Epaphras is also described as a gardener among them (4.12) with the same burden to prune the garden. His pruning hook is prayer. Pastors are gardeners. Like Adam was, and like Christ was revealed to be in John 21, appearing as the gardener in the Resurrection, those who are appointed to serve churches are to plant and to prune. It may seem like a twisting of the metaphor to suggest that we are not only trees but gardeners, but Jesus seems happy to call himself both in John 15, so I think we’re on safe ground.

This is how we as individuals know the difference between what will lead to good and bad fruit.

There are three temptations that shepherd-gardeners need to be live to:

Firstly, the temptation not to prune. No one enjoys being pruned, and some people actively dislike it. We don’t like it when someone points out our sin, or gently suggests we’re growing in the wrong direction, or drinking from ‘water’ that is fouled rather than the pure well of Christ. If we’ve experienced bad pruning—even pruning that cut off good fruit—in the past, it can be especially difficult to receive that sort of pastoral care and counsel again. As we pastor, we must be courageous to prune what needs pruning, and gentle as we prune like Jesus who neither snuffed out a smoking flax (Isaiah 42.3) or crushed a bruised reed.

Secondly, the temptation not to plant at all, but to buy someone else’s produce. Human trees are grown into maturity by the slow work of word and sacrament over decades. The latest ministerial fad, or just the good work that the church down the road is doing, is not going to sustain your people. Do your work as a gardener.

Thirdly, there’s a temptation to rush. We live in an instant world that wants results. Wisdom cannot be earned through process, only through gift and growth. It takes long years of work, sometimes with little seeming reward in the meantime.

Finally, Paul encourages all at Colossae and Laodicea to join in with the pruning of each other by ‘teaching and admonishing in all wisdom.’ We do so in singing psalms, hymns & spiritual songs—the Church’s gathered worship is an act of pruning and will lead to good fruit (3.16-17).

Eating the Fruit

It is after we eat of wisdom’s tree that we are ‘renewed in knowledge’ (3.10) after having first been cursed by knowledge taken rather than gifted. This happens sacramentally as we drink of the fruit of wisdom’s tree in wine at the Lord’s Supper. Paul’s description of our new selves as being renewed in knowledge comes after two tables of five sins (3.5 & 3.8), ten prohibitions to mirror the commandments, and just before out new clothing—the new self that we put on—is described as love with a sevenfold explanation of what love looks like (3.12-14).

This is what wisdom’s fruit looks like: wisdom leads to Christlike love. This is the same principle written into the wisdom literature of the Old Testament, with the Song of Songs as its pinnacle. This love is variously described as clothing we are gifted and wear, fruit we grow, and fruit we receive to eat. The guest can only be grateful to the host for the clothing they provide as we come in from the furious rain, the tree can only be grateful to the gardener for the fruit they grow as they are pruned and tended through clement weather and foul, and the child can only be grateful to the parent for the fruit they provide for breakfast.

Our goal is the wisdom of the gods, which in every myth of the ancient world produces pride. Christian wisdom that produces love, over the slow growing seasons of life, cannot produce pride. It is a gift from the God of gifts. Gratitude is the only correct response. Even when our wisdom is the product of a life well-lived and suffering weathered, it is not ours in which to be proud. It remains a gift. The fruit of proud trees is poisonous and will poison our own fruit in turn.

The answer is, as it always is, in the Way of Jesus, in thanksgiving for bountiful, gratuitous gifts.


T. M. Suffield is a Pastor, Writer, and University Manager from Birmingham, England. He tweets at @timsuffield. You can read more of his writing at nuakh.uk.

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