The Bible talks about trees more than any living creation other than people. Have you missed the forest…and the trees? For example, the Bible refers to its wisdom as a Tree of Life (Proverbs 3:18). What is the hidden language of trees that can help us better understand God?
Bible Gateway interviewed Matthew Sleeth, MD (@MatthewSleeth) about his book, Reforesting Faith: What Trees Teach Us About the Nature of God and His Love for Us (WaterBrook, 2019).
Describe how you went from being an atheist to becoming a Christian and the role the Bible had in that transformation.
Dr. Matthew Sleeth: I was married with two children and was chief of staff and head of the emergency department. We lived in a beautiful home on the coast of Maine. We had gone through a series of bad events, starting with my wife’s brother drowning in front of my children. A patient I had resuscitated several times began to stalk me and eventually killed his mother. Then more bad things happened, and I woke up to the fact that there was evil on the planet.
At the time I did not believe in anything that could not be measured or reproduced. But evil is not a scientific concept; it’s a spiritual reality. If evil was real, what was on the other side? I began to look for answers. I read books like the Ramayana, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Qur’an.
Then one morning in the hospital, I came across a Gideon’s Bible. I’d never read the Bible. In fact, even though we had thousands of books in our home, we didn’t own a Bible.
The Bible is a big book. Where does one start? The good news is that my parents named me Matthew. If they’d named me Numbers, things may have turned out differently.
In the Gospel of Matthew, I met Jesus and accepted him for who he is: Lord. Since that time, the Bible has become our family’s compass. My son and his wife serve as full-time medical missionaries in Kenya, and my daughter and her pastor husband just returned from six months in Africa and now serve a church in Appalachia.
What role did trees in the Bible play in your faith?
Dr. Matthew Sleeth: Shortly after becoming a Christian, I volunteered to plant trees at my church. “It would be biblical,” I added. The pastor I was talking with told me I had the theology of a tree-hugger. I went to the Bible to find out what God has to say on the subject.
What I learned is that trees are the most mentioned living thing in the Bible other than people and God. There’s a tree on the first page of Genesis and the last page of Revelation. The first psalm tells us to be like a tree. Every major character and every major theological event has a tree marking the spot. In fact, one-third of the sentences in the opening three chapters of the Bible have a tree in them.
The only thing that Jesus ever harms is a tree, and the only thing that can harm him is a tree. From Moses and Gideon in the Old Testament, to Nathaniel and Zacchaeus in the New Testament, God has a consistent pattern of meeting his people by trees. And this pattern continues, with Martin Luther, A.B. Simpson, and many pastors today encountering the Lord by a tree.
So, if trees are so pervasive in the Bible, why is it that the average Christian has never heard a sermon on trees in the Bible?
Dr. Matthew Sleeth: This is a recent development. If you go back and look at sermons by preachers from a century ago, you’ll see a different story. Spurgeon preached dozens of sermons with titles like Christ, the Tree of Life; The Tree in God’s Court; The Apple Tree in the Woods. Even the fiction of Christian writers like C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and George D. MacDonald cast the good guys as protectors of trees and the bad guys as wanton destroyers of trees. These writers derived their concept of right and wrong concerning trees directly from the pages of Scripture.
Trees also have been subtracted from the commentary section of study Bibles. I have a 140-year-old KJV study Bible published by Thomas Nelson. The study section contains over 20 pages on trees and plants of the Bible. The modern version of this study Bible contains not a single page and only lists three trees in the index.
Unfortunately, trees also have literally been subtracted from the actual text of the Bible. Look at Mark 11:8 in modern Bible translations. In this account of Palm Sunday, people go and cut branches off the “field,” which doesn’t even make sense. Branches come off trees. The word translated as field in this passage is dendron, or tree in Greek.
If you take six tree-related words—tree, seed, leaf, branch, root, and fruit—and count them in a KJV Bible, they occur 967 times. They occur 230 fewer times in the ESV, 267 fewer times in the NIV, and 274 fewer times in the NLT.
Abraham is the first person in the Bible to plant trees. This is a profound event. In the KJV, Abraham plants a “grove” of trees, while in more modern translations it is downgraded to a single tree.
Do you have thoughts on why trees have been subtracted from Christian literature, sermons, Bible commentaries, and the text of the Bible over the last century?
Dr. Matthew Sleeth: There are probably many explanations, including a shift in our culture from rural to urban. But I think the real reason is that the church at large has entered into a time in which we value the spiritual realm and discount the material. When this occurred in the past, the term dualism was used to describe the phenomenon.
When God wrote the Bible, he knew that trees support human life. This has not always been true for humans. For most of human history, we had no clue that trees were keeping the air on. Without trees, our life on earth would be impossible. God is in the life business. Trees support life; therefore, God is pro-trees (1 Chron. 16:33, Rev. 11:18, Prov. 3:18).
Jesus taught his followers to pray for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. When we turn to chapter 22 in the book of Revelation, we see that The Tree of Life is the central feature of heaven, and that the leaves from this tree will “heal all the nations.”
What spiritual lessons can be learned from trees?
Dr. Matthew Sleeth: Seek the light! Unlike humans, trees always seek light. We, too, should live in the light of the world (John 1:4-5).
Be watered by God’s Word! Trees need water, and we too need the water of God’s Word to sustain us (Psalm 1).
Be fruitful! Jesus said that you could know a tree by its fruit. For a Christian, this is the Fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, and temperance (Gal. 5:22).
Think long-term! God populated the Bible with trees to teach us about time on a non-human scale. Some trees live for thousands of years. God wants us to make plans for the future based on long timescales—generations upon generations and even eternity—not just the threescore-and-ten of our human life.
What is your favorite kind of tree?
Dr. Matthew Sleeth: My favorite individual tree is the 500-year-old live oak known as The Cathedral Oak beside the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in Lafayette, Louisiana. The first branch is estimated to weigh 140,000 pounds. The tree was in decline and had stopped flowering when a Scout came to the rescue. In protecting the roots of the tree and landscaping around it, he not only rescued the tree (it flowers again!); he earned his Eagle Scout rank.
My favorite species of tree is the sugar maple (Acer saccharum). There’s nothing about a sugar maple I don’t love. From their leaves in the fall, to their bipod seeds, they’re a tree that appeals to the child in me. I love their symmetry, their climb-ability, and the sap that rises in them when it’s boiled down to make maple syrup. We literally get to experience what air and water taste like when a maple tree gets ahold of them!
What is your favorite Bible passage?
Dr. Matthew Sleeth: It’s an odd one. I’ve been taken with Isaiah 1:18 since I first read it: “Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool” (ESV). I hear the Lord pleading to the side of us that is rational and reasonable. Life doesn’t have to be so hard; if you’ll just yield yourselves, God calls.
What are your thoughts on Bible Gateway?
Dr. Matthew Sleeth: I couldn’t have written Reforesting Faith or done the type of biblical comparisons necessary without a tool like Bible Gateway. It’s invaluable for any serious student of the Bible. I don’t think I go a single day without using it.
Bio: Matthew Sleeth, MD, a former emergency room physician and chief of the hospital medical staff, resigned from his position to teach, preach, and write about the biblical call to be good stewards of the earth. A highly sought-after speaker, Dr. Sleeth has spoken at more than 1,000 churches, campuses, and events, including serving as the monthly guest preacher at The Washington National Cathedral for a year. Recognized by Newsweek as one of the nation’s most influential evangelical leaders, Dr. Sleeth is a graduate of George Washington University School of Medicine and has two postdoctoral fellowships. He is the executive director of Blessed Earth and author of Serving God, Saving the Planet; 24/6: A Prescription for a Healthier, Happier Life; the introduction to The Green Bible, as well as numerous creation care books and articles. Dr. Sleeth lives in Lexington, KY, with Nancy, his wife of nearly 40 years.
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