by Jeanne Kun
Several years ago a devastating windstorm wreaked havoc in our town. Roofs were blown off houses, telephone and utility poles came down, and live electrical wires crackled and snapped on the sidewalks. Trees were uprooted and overturned, many of them falling across streets, blocking traffic; others crashed through car roofs and windows or smashed through housetops. Even the pavement was cracked and torn up by the roots of these trees as they were felled by the wind.
As I walked through the neighborhood and saw so many trees laying about, totally ripped out of the earth, I mused on the function of their roots, now exposed to view. Some of the familiar verses and parables of Scripture came alive and took on clearer meaning to me as I pondered the sights of the storm's aftermath.
Both the Old and New Testaments draw on images of the plant world to describe God's people and teach us valuable lessons about our spiritual condition. Nature surrounds us; its images are familiar to us and can aptly communicate spiritual truths to us because we understand them so well.
The prophet Jeremiah expressed one of the most beautiful analogies in the Old Testament, comparing the faith-filled person with a strong, flourishing tree: "Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, whose hope is the Lord. He is like a tree planted beside waters, that stretches out its roots to the stream. It fears not the heat when it comes, its leaves stay green. In the year of drought it shows no distress, but still bears fruit" (Jer. 17:7-9).
It is worth a closer look at the purpose and function of the root system of a tree to see the full significance of Jeremiah's analogy.
The root system serves to guarantee the existence of the whole tree. Without roots, a tree simply could not even survive. One of the roots' functions is to anchor the tree in the soil, providing stability and a firm base for the entire structure of the trunk, branches, leaves, and fruit. For example, the root system of a maple tree, primarily hidden underground, is often as extensive and broad as the crown of the tree, and its longest roots may reach as deep in the earth as the tree is tall.
Another purpose of the roots is to take up water and minerals from the soil, synthesizing food and growth regulators that are transmitted through the woody portions of the roots to the trunk. The thicker, more substantial roots are actually covered with thousands of finer roots and root hairs which increase the absorbing surface of the main roots and come in contact with a tremendous volume of soil and nutrients. As much as 30 feet of root fibers have been found in one inch of soil when examined with a microscope!
In order to take up water and minerals, the roots penetrate into the soil, seeking the best conditions. In temperate climates, roots are found closer to the surface of the ground, but in drier, arid areas, roots penetrate to a much deeper level, seeking moisture. Some desert shrubs have roots that extend downwards in the earth as deeply as 230 feet!
A final task of the root system is to store food for later use in the growth of the tree's trunk, branches, and foliage. In the climate of Palestine, tree and plant life are often threatened by heat and drought. When we realize this, we can better appreciate the beauty and spiritual reality of Jeremiah's analogy of a man's trust in the Lord being like a tree whose roots sustain it in adverse conditions: "It fears not the heat when it comes, its leaves stay green. In the year of drought it shows no distress, but still bears fruit."
In the last chapter of the book of Hosea, the prophet repeats the image of Israel as a fruitful plant or tree watered and sustained by his relationship with the Lord: "I will be like the dew of Israel: he shall blossom like the lily; he shall strike root like the Lebanon cedar, and put forth his shoots. His splendour shall be like the olive tree and his fragrance like the Lebanon cedar. Again they shall dwell in his shade and raise grain. They shall blossom like the vine, and his fame shall be like the wine of Lebanon... Because of me you bear fruit!" (Hos. 14:6-8).
Another image drawn from the plant world is that of a tree that has been cut down, but whose roots survive to send up a new shoot that can grow into a tree again. This image is applied to the coming Messiah. Isaiah prophesied, "A shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse, and from his roots a bud shall blossom.... On that day, the root of Jesse, set up as a signal for the nations, the gentiles shall seek out, for his dwelling shall be glorious. On that day the Lord shall again take it in hand to reclaim the remnant of his people" (Isa. 11:1, 10-11). Jeremiah also foretold: "Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up a righteous shoot to David. As king he shall reign and govern wisely, he shall do what is just and right in the land" (Jer. 23:5).
A final look at an Old Testament image of nature drawn by the author of the book of Job leaves us with profound spiritual hope when we consider our own repeated sins and failures to live a holy life: "For a tree there is hope, if it be cut down, that it will sprout again and that its tender shoots will not cease. Even though its roots grow old in the earth and its stump die in the dust, yet at the first whiff of water it may flourish again and put forth branches like a young plant" (Job 14:7-9). I remember once coming across the heartening sight of a dry, old stump of a tree that had been chopped down, out of which down close to the roots, small, new branches were sprouting, bearing tender, fresh green leaves!
The New Testament expands on these images. Jesus knew the value of using parables from nature for his listeners. He often spoke about the organic cycle of life, fruit-bearing, and death to illustrate the truths of the life of the spirit.
Perhaps the best-known example is the parable of the sower and the seed. Once again we see the importance of our connection with the Lord himself-how we need to be rooted securely in him to sustain life and bear fruit: "Some of the seed landed on rocky ground where it had little soil; it sprouted immediately because the soil had no depth. Then, when the sun rose and scorched it, it began to wither for lack of roots" (Mark 4:5-6). These seeds put down roots, and the roots struggled to find anchorage, but the soil was rocky. Finally the plant withered and died, because the roots found no source of water and nutrients. As Jesus explained, "Those sown on rocky ground are people who on listening to the word accept it joyfully at the outset. Being rootless, they last only a while. When some pressure or persecution overtakes them because of the word, they falter" (Mark 4:16-17). Thus we see how important it is that we strike root deep in the Lord, being anchored firmly in faith, and sustained by our fellowship with him.
Jesus also spoke another word-both of warning and of hope-in this parable recorded by Luke: "A man had a fig tree growing in his vineyard, and he came out looking for fruit on it but did not find any. He said to the vine-dresser, 'Look here! For three years now I have come in search of fruit on this fig tree and found none. Cut it down. Why should it clutter up the ground?' In answer the man said, 'Sir, leave it another year, while I hoe around it and manure it. Then perhaps it will bear fruit. If not, it shall be cut down'" (Luke 13:6-9). Mercifully, Jesus offers us the opportunity to grow and amend our ways.
The parable challenges us to examine our own lives and relationship with the Lord, our responsiveness to him, and our use of the talents he has given us. We should ask ourselves what Jesus would find in our lives if he were to come seeking fruit. Do I produce healthy growth through abiding in Jesus, or is my spiritual life withering because I am not rooted in him? Am I putting his gifts to use for others, or are they failing to blossom? Perhaps I am producing all leafy show, pretty foliage that pleases the eye, but has no fruit.
Jesus spoke of this reality in greater depth on the last evening of his life as he instructed the disciples: "Live on in me, as I do in you. No more than a branch can bear fruit of itself apart from the vine, can you bear fruit apart from me. I am the vine, you are the branches. He who lives in me, and I in him, will produce abundantly, for apart from me you can do nothing. A man who does not live in me is like a withered, rejected branch, picked up to be thrown in the fire and burned. If you live in me and my words stay part of you, you may ask what you will: it will be done for you" (John 15:4-7).
Finally, Paul used an analogy similar to those that Jesus frequently used. To the members of the church at Colossae he stressed the importance of living in union with Christ. In his choice of words Paul used the same Greek verb for "to be rooted" that is used throughout the gospels when Jesus spoke his parables about putting down roots in him: "As therefore you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so live in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving" (Col. 2:6-7).
One of the most effective ways we can be rooted in Christ is to immerse
ourselves in his word. When you read and study Scripture, remember that
it is a lifeline with the Lord. You are striking your roots deeper and
deeper into good life-giving soil and drinking from the living waters:
"Happy the man who... delights in the law of the Lord and meditates on
his law day and night. He is like a tree planted near running water, that
yields its fruit in due season, whose leaves never fade" (Psalm 1:1, 2-3).