Were evergreen trees a symbol of pagan worship? Did the Romans really decorate their temples with holly, ivy and mistletoe? Should sincere Christians have a Christmas tree in their living room? In this special holiday message, Stephen will trace the extraordinary relationship between trees...and the Christmas story.
“Trees . . . and the Christmas Story”
(Genesis 2:17; Galatians 3:13; Revelation 22:2)
On of my favorite things about the Christmas season is the decorations. I want to thank our decorations team of volunteers for their gift of time, given to make our facilities and this platform, especially, so beautiful. I really like all the Christmas trees.
My wife has a habit of keeping every artificial Christmas tree we’ve ever had . . . we’ve used real ones at times, but you have to throw them away. She tends to use most of them throughout our home during the Christmas season. She surprised me, with the help of the girls, in putting a tree in my study this year, covered with ornaments and lights – I think its terrific.
Some might argue that Christmas trees are a corrupted symbol of pagan worship. Certainly, we can trace the evergreen tree as well as mistletoe and holly to pagan mythology and practice.
The Romans decorated their temples with greenery and candles during the winter season. When the Romans conquered the British Isles, they found Druids who worshipped mistletoe and Saxons who used holly and ivy in religious ceremonies . . . all these things found their way into Christmas customs that have been around for centuries.
John MacArthur, God With Us: The Miracle of Christmas (Zondervan Books, 1989), p. 37
So some would say we are borrowing too heavily or too dangerously upon worldly customs.
I happen to believe that the pagans weren’t the first ones to come up with this stuff.
Study the religions and customs of the world and you can see and hear echoes of the gospel . . . kernels of truth, although re-packaged in lies and distortion.
Two scholars in India are in the process of challenging Hinduism’s adoption of Christian truth and rewriting it as if it were there story. They point to one of Hinduism’s sacred texts, the Vishnu Purana, composed in the first century. This text revealed how their god Vishnu had several incarnations – the most important one of course was Krishna. According to the story, Krishna’s foster-earth father, Nandu, journeyed with his wife, Yashoda, to pay their taxes. The result is that Krishna was born while on their journey – he was born in a cow-stall, with shepherds coming to adore the baby. A powerful meteor appeared at the birth place and a prophet told King Kansa that the child would overthrow him; Kansa ordered the male children of the country put to death.
World Magazine, December 29, 2003
Well, back to the subject of trees!
Isaiah spoke for God when he wrote, “The glory of Lebanon will come to you, the juniper and the cypress together, to beautify the place of My sanctuary.” (Isaiah 60:13)
In other words, God was honored by these magnificent trees which were used in the building of His sanctuary. His glory was revealed in the evergreen and the cypress and His house was made beautiful by their materials.
It should be no surprise that Satan and his demonic underworld would counterfeit and corrupt even this – just as he counterfeits everything else. He would have his followers adopt the use of evergreen and holly so that God is not glorified and honored above His creation; so that that our purely motivated appreciation and use of God’s creation to communicate Biblical truth could be misunderstood or, more tragically, entirely missed.
That’s the way Martin Luther viewed Christmas trees, by the way. Quoting this particular text in Isaiah, Luther the converted monk, in the mid 1500’s used the evergreen tree at Christmas by hanging globed candles on it’s branches, using that decoration as his way of communicating to his culture that Jesus Christ was the light of the world. As far as we know, Luther was the first person to attach light as a symbol of Christ to the Christmas tree.
I have been thinking a lot these past few days about Christmas trees. What initially prompted my thinking was a magazine I received in the mail which listed verses of scripture on the back cover summarizing God’s plan of redemption – and it struck me that the gospel of God is undeniably, uniquely related to a couple of trees.
Now, I say that and immediately realize that I sound like some kind of “new ager.” Well, if you know me very well, and most of you do, I’m not into the new age view of trees, or anything else for that matter.
I have been to France and watched people in a park, hugging 300 year old trees, believing they would receive from that hug a spike of energy and meaning and identity. The only thing they truly walked away with was some bark stuck to their sweaters – although they would be convinced otherwise.
Trees do not have spirits or souls or the ability to impart spiritual energy. They do not get irritated when the wrong kind of birds nest in their branches nor do they hurt when they are harvested for building supplies. Only mankind, according to Genesis chapter 1 and 2 was made in the image of God with immortal spirit and soul.
But . . . has it ever occurred to you that the Christmas story and a couple of trees go hand in hand?
Once upon a time, there was a tree – a very special tree created by God in the garden of Eden.
The Bible records in Genesis 2:15. Then the Lord God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it. 16. The Lord God commanded the man, saying, “From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; 17. but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die.”
This tree represented the only prohibition in this garden of “delight,” which is what Eden meant in Hebrew.
“Adam, you can eat anything from any tree you like – just don’t eat from this one – if you do, you will surely die.”
It was a tree of prohibition. And because of that, this tree was actually a tree of priority. What would remain pre-eminent to mankind – obedience and worship and fellowship with God? Or selfish desire and disobedience and independence from God?
Would the man choose to follow after God or would he choose to defy God and follow himself?
You know the answer.
Satan came to Eve and gives the first recorded question in human history. “Hath God said?” (Genesis 3:1)
He was crafty to begin with that question simply because she had never heard God say it. The record of scripture reveals that God told Adam about this tree and what it stood for and what it would mean if he ate from it, before Eve was created.
God evidently expected Adam, as the head of the wife, to communicate and explain the prohibition of this tree, to Eve.
Even in this first marriage, we have the implication that God intended the man to theologically safeguard his wife.
Did he shepherd her? Evidently not well enough. Did he prepare her? Evidently not well enough. Did he give her the reasons why God prohibited that tree? Evidently not.
So Satan meets her by that tree and asks the first question designed to cast doubt on God’s love and plan and care and grace. “Hath God said?”
Both Adam and Eve will eat the fruit of that tree and begin to die.
They lose their innocence before each other; they lose their fellowship with God . . . their innocence between each other and their trust in one another.
Why? Adam and Eve failed at this first tree because Eve doubted God’s word and Adam defied God’s word.
I find it interesting that when the second Adam, Jesus Christ, was introduced into ministry by the prophet John, Jesus was met immediately by Satan in the wilderness.
Would Jesus doubt God’s word? Would He defy God’s word to suit Himself?
Three times Satan hurled at Him a temptation. And three times, Jesus Christ responded by saying, “It is written! It is written! It is written!”
Let the Messiah teach you an unforgettable lesson. The path to spiritual victory is bound up in those three words.
No matter what the attraction . . .
no matter what the pressure . . .
no matter what the temptation . . .
if you will obey what has been written –
if you will follow what has been written –
if you will apply what has been written –
if you will surrender to what has been written,
. . . you will stand and not stumble!
But Adam and Eve stumbled and both of them ran from God. Adam said to God, “I heard the sound of Thee in the garden and I was afraid!” (Genesis 3:10)
This is the first time in the history of the world of humanity you find the experience of fear.
This is the first time in the Bible the word afraid appears.
Genesis 3:10 records that when God came to the garden to visit they ran from God rather than to God because they were now afraid of God.
Before God expelled Adam and Eve from the garden, He gave them a promise in Genesis 3:15. The seed of the woman – the Messiah – would crush the head of the serpent – Satan – while Satan would be allowed to bruise the heel of the Messiah.
This text is called the proto-evangelium – the first mention of the gospel!
The coming Messiah who would bear the penalty of Adam’s sin will be bruised in the process – but, in that same redemptive process, He would crush the strategy of Satan by defeating death and conquering the grave.
You see, there at this first tree, Adam and Eve were told about something that was going to happen on another tree.
Did they know about a Messiah? Yes. Did they know about a crucifixion? Yes! The Old testament saints knew more than we imagine!
According to Galatians 3, Abraham knew about Jesus Christ the Messiah. Paul writes in verse 8 to the Galatian believers, “And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham.”
Preached the gospel – delivered the gospel. And what is the gospel? It is, Paul wrote to the Corinthians – the death burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ! (1 Corinthians 15:1-4)
-Micah told us where the Messiah would be born (Micah 5:2)
-Isaiah wrote about his virgin birth and even what He look
like (Isaiah 53)
-David told us how the Messiah would die on a cross (Ps. 22)
He wrote, of the Messiah’s crucifixion experience, “They have pierced my hands and my feet . . . they cast lots for my clothing” (Psalm 22:16-18)
The gospel hasn’t changed in all of these 4,000 years.
The gospel of the Old Testament believer was that the Messiah was coming; the gospel of the New Testament believer is that the Messiah came.
The Old Testament believer looked forward to the cross; the New Testament believer looks backward to the cross.
What a wonderful message delivered by the angels on the night of Christ’s birth as they announced in the heavens that the Messiah had finally arrived – I find it fascinating that the very first words of this angelic announcement were – “Do not be afraid.” (Luke 2:10)
God was coming back to the garden, lost as it was, infested with sin that it was; groaning under it’s guilt – but God was coming back as it were to physically walk this time in the flesh on planet earth among mankind.
But more than that.
Jesus Christ came to die on a tree.
Paul wrote to the Galatian believers, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us – for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.” (Galatians 3:13)
In ancient Judaism a criminal who was executed, usually by stoning, was then tied to a post, a type of tree, where his body would hang until sunset as a visible representation of rejection by God. He did not become cursed because he was tied to a tree, he was tied to a tree as a sign that he was cursed by God already.
John MacArthur, Galatians (Moody Press), p. 78
The critical issue of Christmas is not that Jesus was born, but why!
There was no salvation in His birth. He could not save in His healing power or his incredible teaching.
He had to die!
Without a doubt Jesus Christ came and revealed God’s truth to mankind. He came and revealed incredible teaching that literally mesmerized and stunned his audiences. He healed sick people and brought some back to life.
But all of that is incidental to His ultimate purpose for coming.
Jesus Christ was born so that He could die!
He would hang, having become cursed for our sake, to bear the penalty of our sin, so that we could be freed from the curse of sin and have communion with God restored!
The Persians believed the earth was sacred and didn't wish to defile the earth with the body of an evil-doer. So they nailed him to a cross and left him to die there, looking for the vultures to finish the job.
Alexander the Great seemed fond of this form of execution, crucifying 2,000 prisoners of war at a time. He introduced the practice to the Carthaginians and the Romans later perfected the torture to produce a slow death with maximum pain and suffering.
To prolong the process they added a crude seat, called a sedulum, which allowed the condemned to live up to 4 or 5 days. They usually died from a combination of dehydration, shock, blood loss, paralysis of the diaphragm and impatient vultures; or Roman soldiers who broke their legs and pushed them sideways off the saddle. Their broken legs would be unable to push them back up and they would die of asphyxiation – unable to inhale and exhale properly as they hung helplessly from their hands.
You need to know the ancients considered the “hand” to include not only the fingers and palm but the wrist as well. Because the spikes would have easily torn through the tissue and small bones of the palm, we know from historical accounts that the Romans actually drove the spikes through the wrist.
Next the feet would be nailed - the legs would be bent in a crouching position and turned to one side. The feet would be overlapped and, with one long spike, pinned to the cross.
A skeleton was discovered some time ago of a young man who had been crucified. His wrists bones were punctured and a spike was still embedded in the bones of his ankles.
The pain would have been excruciating. It’s interesting that the word “excruciating” came from the Latin language which literally means, “out of the cross.” This form of death created its own vocabulary for pain.
I've discovered that respected and godly women of the city took on themselves a ministry of mercy. In obedience to Proverbs 31:6, “Give strong drink to him who is perishing.” These women were known to mix a narcotic, pain-reducing drink that they offered the condemned criminals.
Jesus refused this narcotic - he would allow no alleviation of suffering and would maintain his lucidness to minister mercy to the dying thief as well as give his wonderful final words (we'll look at them next Lord's day).
Now if you were a Roman citizen you need never fear death this way. . .Cicero the Roman statesman said, “Let the cross never come near the body of a Roman citizen; nay, not even near his thoughts or eyes or ears.”
Cultured Gentiles refrained from even saying the word “cross.”
That had interesting implications as Paul would later write to Roman and Gentile believers that every believer was “crucified with Christ.” That Paul would write, “God forbid that I should glory save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Galatians 6:14)
In the seventeenth century, a popular devotional writer was Lewis Bayly. Rather unknown today, his devotional handbook, Practice of Piety was popular reading a few centuries ago. In fact, John Bunyan, who would later write, A Pilgrim's Progress, was given this devotional volume by his wife as a wedding present. Near the end of that devotional guide, there is a conversation between the soul and Christ in which Christ explains to the soul the meaning of the cross.
Let me read of few lines of that imaginary, yet profound conversation.
Soul: Lord, why wouldest Thou be taken, when Thou mightest have escaped Thine enemies?
Christ: That thy spiritual enemies should not take thee, and cast thee into the prison of utter darkness.
Soul: Lord, why wouldest Thou be bound?
Christ: That I might loose the chords of Thine iniquities.
Soul: Lord, why wouldest Thou be lifted up upon a cross?
Christ: That I might lift thee up with Me to heaven.
Soul: Lord, why were Thy hands and feet nailed to the cross?
Christ: To enlarge thy hands to do the works of
righteousness and to set thy feet at liberty, to walk in the
ways of peace.
Soul: Lord, why wouldest Thou have Thine arms nailed abroad?
Christ: That I might embrace thee more lovingly.
Soul: Lord, why was Thy side opened with a spear?
Christ: That thou mightest have a way to come near to
Ladies and Gentlemen, there was a tree in Eden . . . and it revealed the pride of man.
There was a tree on Calvary . . . and it revealed the pardon of God.
The foot of Calvary’s tree touched earth as if to say, God has come to earth to touch man; the top of the cross pointed toward the heavens as if to point the way there; the arms of the cross stretched outward as if to say, whosoever will, may come.
There was a tree in Eden . . . but there was a tree on Golgotha.
The first tree brought separation . . . the second tree brings reconciliation.
But there’s another tree . . . this one is still in our future.
Revelation chapter 21 describes the new heaven and the new earth. And Jerusalem, the heavenly city, is an amazing, spectacular wonder.
Made of jewels, gates of pearl, streets of translucent gold. The measurements of the city more than 2 million square miles. The ground floor alone would provide enough living space for more people than have ever lived in the history of the world.
Samuel Gordon, Revelation: Worthy is the Lamb (Emerald House, 2001), p. 432
The city has a main boulevard coming from the throne of God. In the center of the boulevard is a crystal clear river flowing with incredible beauty. (Revelation 22:2)
And guess what has been planted next to this river flowing throughout the eternal city? A tree – the only vegetation mentioned in the description of heaven . . . not because it is the only vegetation, but because it is the most important vegetation. It happens to be a tree . . . the tree of life.
It was there in the garden of Eden – Adam and Eve were banished from it lest they eat of and live forever in the flesh, bound to sin.
Here it shows up again – it may not even be one tree but an orchard of trees, planted along the river in the heavenly city – bearing fruit every month all year long.
My friend, if you’ve been cursed by the sin of the first tree – and you have – for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; you must run to the second tree – where you find pardon in the death of Christ – and if you have come by way of the second tree – you will one day eat the fruit from the third tree . . . and enjoy the splendor of heaven and join the celebration of the redeemed.
The next time you look at a Christmas tree – remember the trees of the gospel story. The trees of Christmas.
- The first tree communicated prohibition.
- The second tree communicated pardon.
- The third tree communicated the return to eternal and everlasting paradise.
- The first tree represented the pride of man
- The second tree revealed the humility of God
- The third tree reveals the glory of heaven and the grace of God.