Biblical Worship Includes Trees for Both Israel & Gentiles

Tree of Life

Through our series this week, we have seen some pagan and sinful things. No doubt, when God became flesh, He often taught in figures of speech (John 16:25). One of those methods was parables, which we saw in a previous post. Jesus did this so much that the disciples seem to become a bit frustrated with Him and asked Him to speak plainly (John 16:29).

While the Bible is filled with real, literal stories, it is also full of beautiful and perfect symbolism. One of those symbols threaded throughout God’s word is the tree. Consider:

Genesis begins with two trees (Gen. 2:9):

1. The tree of life;

2. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

Revelation closes the Bible with the tree of life bearing 12 fruits in the new earth (Rev. 22:2).

Biblical trees symbolize humanity

1. The righteous

  • A. As trees planted by the riverside (Psm. 1); and
  • B. As trees that bear fruit (Matt. 7:16-20)

2. Israel as a cultivated olive tree (Rom. 11:17-20)

3. Gentiles

  • A. As a wild olive tree (Rom. 11:17)
  • B. Evergreen trees (Psm. 37:35)

Amid the biblical story is the greatest tree – the centrality of the rugged tree to which our Savior was nailed (1 Pet. 2:24).

Trees of celebration and worship

LuLav Branches Consisting of Four Species: Myrtle, Willow, Date Palm, and Citron (Leviticus 23:40)

1. Israel was commanded to rejoice for 8 days at the Feast of Tabernacles and use boughs of various trees in their worship! (Lev. 23:40). These boughs are known as “LuLav” branches (pictured below) and were waved during the reading of the Hallel (Psm. 113-118) at the Feast of Tabernacles.

2. Gentiles used evergreen trees in their pagan worship (Jer. 10:1-5; 17:2).

So, what do evergreen trees have to do with Jesus Christ in worship? The somewhat surprising answer is found in that prophet’s writings who married a prostitute, Hosea. Surely, God’s people would have condemned such a marriage of a prophet of God. Yet God commanded Hosea to marry a prostitute.

In Hosea’s incredible oracles we find that God turns away from Israel because of their incessant prostitution. He promises sovereignly and insistently to cause *all* of Israel’s joy (mirth) to cease, as well as all of Israel’s appointed feasts and sabbaths” to cease (Hos. 2:11). Appointed feasts (God’s commanded set times) were called both “His feasts” (Lev. 23) and “your feasts” or “your appointed feasts” (Num. 10:10; 15:3; 29:39; Hos. 9:5; Amos 5:21; 8:10; Nah. 1:15; Mal. 2:3) and John called these feasts, “Jewish” (John 5:1; 6:4; 19:42). These appointed and commanded feasts cease while God turns to the pagan Gentiles.

An Artist’s Rendering of Hosea Buying Back His Wife, the Prostitute Gomer

The eleven disciples were joyfully commissioned (Matt. 28:19-20; Luke 24:46-49) to take the gospel message to the world (Acts 1:8), which eventually became the work and ministry of Gentile believers because of Jewish confusion, arguing and rejection (Acts 28:23-29).

And as a prophetic sign and symbol of that truth of God’s people welcoming the entire world into the presence of God, Solomon’s second temple was constructed with cypress (evergreen) doors (1 Kings 6:34) a symbol of the Gentile believers, with olive wood as the posts, like a tree (1 Kings 6:33; Rom. 11:17)! In fact, Solomon hired Hiram, king of Tyre, who was mixed race (mother from the tribe of Naphtali and father a Gentile man of Tyre – 1 Kings 7:14) to construct the temple (1 Kings 5:1-8).

These “appointed feasts and Sabbaths” would “cease” or “be forgotten” in Zion, i.e., “the church” (Lamentations 2:6) since Israel had prostituted herself to the nations (Isa. 1:13-14). Now, with the coming of Jesus, God would turn away from a command-motivation (duty) and move to the heart-motivation (love and joy).

Hosea describes this incredible love like a marriage, not commandment-keeping, “And it shall be, in that day, says the LORD, That you will call Me, My Husband, And no longer call Me, My Master” (Hos. 2:16). Hosea continues, “For I (God) will take from her (His bride’s) mouth the names of the Baals…I will betroth you to Me forever in righteousness and justice, in lovingkindness and mercy; I will betroth you to Me in faithfulness” (Hos. 2:17, 19-20) because from their hearts Jesus will come from their lips and mouths.

God will do this! This is why if you believe the celebrating or not celebrating of Christmas entitles or earns you salvation, you have missed the message of the gospel. God performs heart surgery on those who search for Him, find Him and believe in Him. As a result, He accomplishes their salvation. This is why Christians refer people to Christ and the gospel (the power and wisdom of God, 1 Cor. 1:24) rather than to the 10 commandments, Sabbath, or the Bible’s appointed holy days. Notice how Paul does this in his biblical letters. He normally emphasizes Jesus Christ first and foremost, and then by the end of his letter calls people in that power to obedience.

In God’s beautiful story of grace, God turns to the Gentiles as He promised He would (Psm. 9:9-10; 86:9-10; 138:4-5; Jer. 16:19; 23:20; Heb. 1:2; Mal. 1:11) and seems to hint at a promise that He will revive Israel again in the future and possibly with God’s original feasts (Rom. 11: Zech. 12:10; 14:16). But Jesus tells His people, He is like “the green cypress” (an evergreen) tree (Hosea 14:8).

Shepherds in the field at night are visited by an angel proclaiming “good news” of great joy.

Just as Luke 2 describes, when the shepherds on that night were met by an angel proclaiming good news (gospel) of joy of the birth of Jesus, the shepherds were not commanded to go to Jesus. The communication of good news was simply proclaimed, and they in turn chose to go find Jesus. Similarly today, Christmas is not commanded. It is a story with an invitation, like a parable. The true story of Jesus’ birth contains a jewel, a nugget, a treasure that is more valuable than the entire temporary world. The Christmas story is one of a relational, resurrected and undying connection between a holy and righteous God (who has nothing to do with pagans, sin, Gentiles or any unholy people), yet in the midst of our deep darkness, spiritual death, selfish, idolatrous, pagan, sinful hearts God’s Light and Life of the world comes to rescue, secure, and save those in need. And those who go to Him receive life, healing, light, and radical change. They cannot help but speak and tell of Jesus, proclaiming the good news of His coming to rescue sinners.

This is the message of Christmas, which is the New Testament gospel message in the form of a true story, except the date of Jesus’ birth as no one knows exactly what day or date Jesus was born. There is nothing wrong with using fictional elements of a story to get a point across, especially when the celebration is not commanded. The gospel is that pagans and sinners are turned by the power of God’s grace in Jesus Christ into righteous saints who will live and abide forever in the Son of God. Humbled by the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ, they seek to live for Him and serve Him in great joy by His strength and motivation.

Merry Christmas! Praise to Jesus Christ throughout the entire world! May He be your joy and reason you worship the One true God in Him and in His name.

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