Holy Scripture uses gripping metaphors to describe the Christian life. These biblical metaphors abound. In a particularly beautiful one, the psalmist figures the “blessed man” as a “tree planted by streams of water” (Ps. 1:3). We will focus only on one aspect of this metaphor. The psalmist wants us to note that flourishing, as a human condition, is a possibility. Humans can be trees that “yield fruit in its season.”
Trees, however, do not have the ability to produce fruit, in and of themselves. The imagery of the tree helps us to see that we depend on something else, not ourselves, to be fruitful. Rather, our hope is in the stream of water beside which we are planted. The possibility of human flourishing isn’t something we can produce. In other words: flourishing requires our being attached to something external to ourselves.
The Christian life, then, is one of radical dependence. Chiefly, a radical dependence upon God, the one who provides “wells of salvation” (Isa. 12:3), in the person and work of Jesus Christ, himself our source of water and eternal life (John 4:13–14), who gives us His Spirit, so that we, as trees, produce fruit (Gal 5:22–23). The great Christian hope, then, is not self-actualization, but our being united to the Triune God, the one for whom we were created, the one in whom we have eternal blessed life.
Become a Tree
Repent, then, stop drinking “evil like water” (Job 15:16), and drink the fresh water of eternal life God offers you in Jesus Christ. Placing our faith in Jesus Christ, the one who became like a tree (Gal. 3:13), who was raised up on a piece of wood (John 3:14–15), enables us to become like the trees in Psalm 92:12–15, dwelling in the house of the Lord forever.
Metaphors encourage biblical thinking. Studying the biblical metaphors helps the Word to become your spectacles, the things by which you see God and His creation. If you remember that God wants you to be a tree, you’ll be reminded of the life God offers you, your mortality, your inability to secure life for yourself, and God’s goodness in providing life to you.
Metaphors, according to George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, don’t just capture and conceptualize reality for us. They change the way we see reality. I think Scripture uses metaphor as a way of showing us how we should experience something. Detailed above is how Christians are to live. Christians are to be trees.
Kevin Vanhoozer writes that the “use of metaphors . . . is one way of inciting hearers to become doers” (70). Another well-known metaphor in Scripture, to which we will now turn, illustrates how God envisions the Christian and the Christian life.
Existing For (and To) One Another
The Apostle Paul uses the biblical metaphor of “body” to describe the reality of the church for reasons similar to those outlined above. A difference, however, is that Paul emphasizes the interdependence between Christians (1 Cor. 12:12–26) in these verses. Christians are discrete realities on different anatomical sites: one is an eye, another is a foot, one is an arm. Each fills a particular role, for a particular purpose.
Note, though, that Paul’s main point is not that you’re to fulfill your role as some kind of personal fulfillment. Rather, God allots these gifts for the “common good” (1 Cor. 12:7) of the church. Being a doer of the Word consists in using your gifts for others. My point here is to encourage “anthropo-sensitivity,” (to borrow a term from Kelly Kapic) not anthropocentrism. You’re important, but you’re important for and to other people. You are only important insofar as you live like God intends you to: for others.
One Body, Many Parts
Paul is at pains to stress the unity and “one-ness” implicit in the metaphor of “body.” There is “one body,” for which the eye, arm, or foot exists. The eye exists so the foot can sojourn safely. The foot exists so the eye can travel to its’ desired destination. You exist for the good of those around you. If a major function of being made in God’s image is relationality (which I take to be the case), then “Being human in God’s image is fundamentally about communion, loving God and neighbor” (Kapic, in Chrisitan Dogmatics, 178).
Combining these insights, then, is to say that being truly human is to live like Christ: exercising your gifts and abilities unto others, for the glory of God. Loving God and neighbor is to obediently exercise the gifts God has given you unto your neighbor. Humans, made in God’s image, are to observe and mimic the one who is God’s image, Jesus Christ.
Paul is helping us to understand our need for one another. In Ephesians 4, Paul makes clear that Jesus Christ, by virtue of His descent and ascension, gives gifts to the church to build them up (notice the conceptual link between being “built up” and “flourishing”). God ensures His people flourish because He provides not only eternal life but the gifts that will build His people into the “fullness of Christ” (Eph 4:13). For Paul, the church is the site of God’s special grace, a kind of grace that is fructifying, effectual, and aimed at making you look less like yourself, and more like Jesus Christ.
To make this a bit more explicit: God has created you for community, but not for some amorphous, 21st-century notion of community. He has created you for Himself, and those with whom He has fellowship: His church. This is true, generally, in that I belong to the Christian in Holland, as I belong to the Christian in Fayetteville, Arkansas, where I live. It’s also true, specifically, in that I belong to a particular instantiation of God’s universal church: a particular local church. Theologians have always demarcated the local church (a specific spatio-temporal instantiation of Christ’s Kingdom) and universal church (all believers everywhere, at all times in history).
Paul’s letters are written to specific local churches (a point I have no doubt will be well-attested and substantiated by other contributors to this blog). Because God wants us to exercise goodness and the gifts He has given to us, He has also given us particular contexts in which to do so: our church. Virtue and goodness are particulars for the human. They’re to be exercised—in real time and space. And others, especially the members of your local church, are to be on the receiving end of that Spirit-created virtue and goodness.
Your Role in the Church
You are to exercise your gifts, generally, to all Christians, yes. You are called to exercise them more specifically in the same way the Christian at the church in Corinth was responsible to other Christians at the church at Corinth. Paul didn’t accredit the foolishness of the church at Galatia to the church in Ephesus. Church life is a particularized life, just like the Christian life is not abstract but concretized life.
It is good to have a disposition of benevolence to being in general; it’s also good to have a disposition of particular benevolence to particular beings. For Kierkegaard, specific acts of love must attend to the particularities of that person. For the Christian, then, specific acts of love must attend to said person’s most important particularity: that person’s belonging to Christ.
Loving someone is attending to their being-in-Christ. In other words: speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love. (Eph 4:15–17)
God calls you to exist for others, such that the body grows, building itself up in love. God’s church is where you belong, my friend. God promises your flourishing in the faithful local church, wherein you can exercise the purpose for which you were created: to build others into Christ and be built up into Him.
Streams of Water
Meditating on biblical metaphors (something perfected, in this author’s mind, by the Puritans, especially in this book; for a wonderful introduction to the Puritans see here, here, and here, as well as a wonderful devotional here) is a way of warming your heart to the Lord who has saved you. In searching Scripture’s metaphors, you begin to think about what is true, and, especially, how something is true.
Scripture, then, doesn’t employ metaphor simply to describe reality: it is trying to change how we understand reality so that we will act differently. God’s Spirit uses these biblical metaphors to bring about these realities in the life of God’s people as they take up and read God’s Word.
Humans are created for communion. The biblical metaphors of “tree” and body” show us how we are to be humans-in-communion: Connected to the stream of the Triune God, in whom eternal life is found, and connected to one another, exercising our gifts for one another’s good.
As the Triune God becomes our water source, in the Father’s electing our salvation, Christ securing it, and the Spirit applying it, we, too, are to become sources of water (John 7:38). In being united to Christ by the gift of faith, we become like him: we become streams of water for the sake of others, to the glory of God.