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At the center of the Christian faith is a fundamental belief: there is no one like God. He is not the creature but the Creator, the One Isaiah says is high and lifted up (Isa. 6:1). How amazing it is, then, that this God would stoop down and make Himself known to finite and sinful creatures like us.
John Calvin loved to say that God is like a nurse who bends low to lisp to a newborn. When we read the Bible, we see this accommodation whenever God uses metaphors to convey His saving message to us in a way that we can understand. These metaphors help us know God and live the Christian life coram Deo, before the face of God.
For example, out of the many ways God could have communicated with Israel, He chose agricultural metaphors. Israel was a people whose existence depended on the soil. Israel was liberated from Egypt to enter the land God promised to her father Abraham. Yet notice how this land is described: it is a land flowing with milk and honey (Ex. 3:8). Agriculture was not only a way of life for Israel; it was a sign of God’s covenant blessing. To enjoy the fruit of the land was a sure indication that God had fulfilled His promises to Abraham.
When Israel sins and breaks the covenant, her punishment is exile from the land and the fruit it bears. It is fitting that the prophets describe Israel as a tree that has been cut down. Nevertheless, God remains faithful to His covenant, promising to raise up a “shoot from the stump of Jesse” so that a “branch from his roots shall bear fruit” (Isa. 11:1). We know from the New Testament that this righteous Branch is none other than Jesus, David’s greater Son, the long-awaited Savior of Israel.
The agricultural metaphor is utilized by Jesus as well. To convey the salvation He offers, Jesus says He is the “bread of life” (John 6:35), an image that no doubt resonated with His listeners who remembered how their fathers received manna from heaven in the wilderness. “For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world” (6:33).
Jesus again turns to agricultural imagery when He describes what it means not only to believe in Him initially but to abide in Him perpetually. In the Old Testament, Israel is called a vine (Ps. 80:8–16; Jer. 2:21) and a vineyard (Isa. 5:1–7; 27:2–6), but Israel is a vine that failed to bear fruit. This agricultural metaphor is a type that pointed forward to the coming of the true vine. That explains why Jesus says: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. . . . I am the vine; you are the branches” (John 15:1–5). Those branches that do not bear fruit the vinedresser breaks off and throws into the fire. Those branches that do bear fruit the vinedresser prunes so that they will bear more fruit (vv. 2, 5–7). On the one hand, Jesus’ words serve as a warning, lest one think he can claim the name of Christ but not live in obedience to Christ. Those who do not truly know and obey Him will experience the judgment to come. On the other hand, the branch that does bear fruit represents the believer who is united to Christ. That union with Christ is by faith alone, but such a union always results in the fruit of good works and obedience.
The New Testament authors use this same agricultural metaphor to describe the Christian life. For example, Paul tells the Galatians that the Holy Spirit is at work to sanctify them more and more in the image of Christ. As any Christian knows, however, this is no easy process, for this side of heaven we continue to fight against temptation. So, Paul warns the Christian against the “works of the flesh,” and, like Jesus’, Paul’s warning is serious: “Those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Gal. 5:21). By contrast, the Christian is to be characterized by the “fruit of the Spirit” (5:22–23). Bearing such fruit may be a painful process: Jesus says branches that abide in the vine must be pruned to bear fruit (John 15:2), and Paul says that “those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Gal. 5:24). Nevertheless, we have every confidence that we can bear fruit because the Holy Spirit, who first united us to Christ, is also helping us live and walk by the Spirit (v. 25).
As we fight against sin and seek to bear fruit, it can be difficult to keep the end goal in mind. Perhaps Psalm 1 can help. There, the righteous man is described as a “tree planted by streams of water” (1:3). Our family has a tree that we love in our backyard; it hovers over the house and provides us with shade. But this past year, half of its branches died because its roots could not find enough water. By contrast, the Christian who abides in Christ is like a tree planted near streams of water. As a result, that tree “yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither” (v. 3). The end result is marvelous: while the “wicked will perish” (v. 6), the righteous man “in all that he does . . . prospers” (v. 3).
Yet the Christian is not only to be that tree that bears fruit; he is also called—to switch agricultural metaphors—to be a fisherman, casting out his line or net to bring in other fish. As Jesus walked the roads of Israel, not only did He see olive trees (John 8:1) and fig trees (Matt. 21:19), but He also saw the seaside. The sea was where He called some of His first disciples. They sat in their boats fishing, but Jesus called them to fish for men instead (Matt. 4:19). If you are a Christian, you desire to be like that tree planted by streams of water. Yet do not forget that the Christian who bears fruit is outward focused, not hiding his fruit but seeking to share it with others. Having tasted how sweet is the fruit of that tree, the Christian is one who goes fishing in his excitement to tell others about the true vine who gives everlasting life. Doing so can feel frightening, but perhaps one more agricultural metaphor can give us the incentive we need: while Adam ate of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil (Gen. 3:6) and plunged humanity into sin, those who trust in the last Adam, Jesus Christ, will eat of the tree of life forever (Gen. 2:9; Rev. 22:14).