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The Planting of the Lord

Fig tree

by Dennis Pollock

There is a fascinating little parable offered in the Old Testament, and strangely, I do not recall ever hearing any pastor mentioning this in a sermon. And that’s kind of a shame, since it really makes a very powerful point. The setting is this:

During the days when Israel was ruled by judges rather than kings, God raised up Gideon to lead Israel to victory over their Midianite oppressors. Gideon then enjoyed a leadership role in Israel for many years and enjoyed the fruits of his battle exploits by marrying many wives who bore him seventy sons. In Gideon’s old age he found a young lady he wasn’t quite wanting to marry, and so he made her his concubine. Through this lady his last son, Abimelech, was born. This little boy grew up to bring ruin upon all his brothers.

There was no orderly procession of power in those days, but generally the sons of judges had a good chance of becoming judges themselves if they were up to it. But with seventy sons, this made for quite a dilution of power. Abimelech was not willing to share the power with his brothers, and so he went to his maternal uncles and other men from his mother’s clan. He persuaded them that rather than be ruled by all seventy of Gideon’s sons, whom they did not know, they should help him devise a plan to slaughter all the other brothers. This way their only ruler would be one of their own – namely Abimelech.

Jotham’s Parable

The men of his clan agreed, and the bloody plan was carried out. Every one of Gideon’s sons was murdered, save for Abimelech, with one exception. One of Gideon’s sons, Jotham, managed to escape. While Abimelech’s relatives and friends were busy pronouncing him the territorial king, Jotham made an appearance from an adjoining high hill called Mount Gerizim, to spoil their coronation party. Strangely, he shouted out to them a little story about several different trees, a parable that went like this:

The trees once went forth to anoint a king over them. And they said to the olive tree, ‘Reign over us!’ But the olive tree said to them, ‘Should I cease giving my oil, with which they honor God and men, and go to sway over trees?’ Then the trees said to the fig tree, ‘You come and reign over us!’ But the fig tree said to them, ‘Should I cease my sweetness and my good fruit, and go to sway over trees?’ Then the trees said to the vine, ‘You come and reign over us!’ But the vine said to them, ‘Should I cease my new wine, which cheers both God and men, and go to sway over trees?’ Then all the trees said to the bramble, ‘You come and reign over us!’ And the bramble said to the trees, ‘If in truth you anoint me as king over you, then come and take shelter in my shade; but if not, let fire come out of the bramble and devour the cedars of Lebanon!’ (Judges 9:8-15)

Jotham went on to prophesy that disaster was coming to these evil men, which did indeed come to pass, but for the purpose of this study we will confine our focus to the parable itself, and how it applies to Christians today. The trees are wanting a leader. Who would like to apply? They ask the olive tree if he is interested, but he can’t be bothered. He is too busy producing highly favorable oil to think of leaving his post for a political position. And in turn the trees check with two others of good reputation. Each rejects the offer. The fig tree is not about to cease his production of sweet figs, and the vine has no intention of ending its role in wine production. Finally, they petition the most worthless of all living plants, the bramble. The bramble, useless and prickly plant that it is, gladly agrees. Jotham is, of course, comparing his brother, Abimelech, to the miserable bramble.

Wise Plants and Wise People

But this little parable goes far beyond its historical context. It declares that wise plants and wise people will be content to be what they were made to be and do what they were made to do. And here we have one of the most powerful kingdom secrets of fruitfulness in Jesus Christ. The Bible calls God’s people “trees of righteousness, the planting of the Lord” (Isaiah 61:3). And like the olive tree, the fig tree, and the grapevine, we are never supposed to be rootless wanderers in this world. We are to be planted in several different ways. First and foremost, we are to be planted in Jesus Christ and abide in Him. Secondly God will plant us in local churches where we may serve and build relationships. And thirdly God desires to plant us in particular types of ministry endeavors, that we may be fruitful in our relationship with Jesus.

Far too often Christians tend to be restless. They jump from church to church. They are always looking for some novel form of Christian adventure, and never stay anywhere or in any particular ministry long enough to get truly rooted. They are like trees that uproot themselves every few years, always looking for a little more spiritual excitement.

Billy Graham

Billy Graham

While we certainly must give the Holy Spirit the prerogative to direct us as He pleases and to move us as He pleases, there is something to be said for being rooted. Ministries that accomplish the most good and reach the most people are typically ministries that have been around for quite a few years, doing essentially the same thing month after month and year after year. In the late 1940’s Billy Graham established a format for his evangelistic crusades. Throughout the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s 80’s, and 90’s he kept right on doing that same thing. If you listen to some of his sermons and invitations, there isn’t all that much difference between a meeting from 1964 and one he preached in 1989. The singers changed, and Billy slowed down a bit in his delivery as he got older, but the basic format of the meetings remained intact. The meetings always included an introduction by Cliff Barrows, the mass choirs, a song by George Beverly Shea, a simple message from Billy which always included the cross and resurrection of Jesus, and then an invitation by Billy to come forward and publicly receive Christ. At that point there was the never changing singing of “Just As I Am” – and all of that stayed virtually identical for decades.

And the fruit of his ministry just kept coming and coming and coming. Billy’s ties got wider and narrower with the current styles, he made sure he brought in singers who could appeal to the younger generation, especially as he got older, but that was about as novel as he got. Some suggested that, as popular as he was, Billy should run for political office, but he couldn’t be bothered. He had more important work to do, and like the olive tree, would not allow himself to cease his production of fruit for the sake of prestige.

A Post to Fill

This is not to suggest that we cannot or should not be innovators. Nearly all of the most fruitful Christians have had a spark of innovation and creativity in them. And there may sometimes be two or three different seasonal changes over the course of our lives where God calls us to radically change our form of ministry. But we must recognize that for each and every Christian there is a post to fill; there is a divine planting to which we must submit. And not just for a few months or a couple of years, but essentially “until further notice,” and often for the rest of our days. Any opportunity that attempts to entice us away from that place of service and fruitfulness must be vigorously rejected. It is not a geographical place of service, but a spiritual one. I started out ministering in Missouri, was then led by the Holy Spirit to New Mexico, and finally given a very clear word to move to Texas. In the process I have changed jobs, churches, and friends. But the calling of God on my life has never changed. And I find that as I abide in Jesus, and abide in His calling, His fruit appears from time to time. Not at the Billy Graham level, of course. But at the Dennis Pollock level. Grapevines, try as they might, cannot transform themselves into olive trees. And olive trees can never by positive thinking somehow evolve into oak trees.

There is great freedom in finding your place in the vineyard of Jesus Christ, and determining to “settle in.” I cannot be certain that I will live in Texas for the rest of my days, although at this point it seems pretty likely. But I can be sure that wherever I am, I will always write; I will always seek ways to instruct young Christians. This is what I do; it is part of my spiritual DNA.

Every Christian has his or her own unique spiritual DNA. The gifts and the calling of God are not only without repentance – they are marvelous to behold, and oh, so creative. Sometimes the work is difficult; sometimes God calls us to do things that are not at all convenient, not always dazzling and sparkly, and fun. George Whitefield, toward the end of his life, a life of continual traveling, preaching, and wearing himself out, said, “I get tired in the work, but never of the work.”

Attempting Too Much

Sometimes our problem is not so much that we want to do something other than God’s plan, but we want too much to do it bigger than God ever intended. As I have studied the lives of highly successful ministers, I have noticed that there is often a danger in tackling a project that is just plain too much for them. It’s easy to understand why they do this. Up to that point they have known nothing but success. Their ministry has prospered in a tremendous way, and it seems they sometimes feel that it will just keep on growing indefinitely, and that there is no project, no plan, no faith endeavor that they can conceive which will not succeed. And then they launch into the straw that breaks the camel’s back. They attempt something that they cannot possibly sustain and they fail in a great big public way for the first time in their ministries. Sometimes it becomes too much for them and they can never recover. Other times they learn from their mistakes and recognize that they are mortal after all, and that God is not going to automatically rubber-stamp their every endeavor with a divine yes.

The truth is, growth is natural, but it has its limits. Baby people, baby horses, baby elephants, baby fish, baby ants… they all grow in a wonderful way in those early days and months and years of their lives. But their DNA has set a limit as to just how tall they get. And once men, plants, or animals reach a certain age, differing with every species, the growth will stop. Once we hit our twenties, about the only growth we will ever experience from then on will be that outward kind. I’ve been five feet ten inches tall for decades now and don’t have any anticipation of ever reaching six feet. But it doesn’t bother me too much. If I had continued to grow the way I was growing in my teen years I would be over fifteen feet tall by now, which probably would be more of a liability than an asset.

As with men, so with churches, and evangelistic associations, and Sunday Schools, and missionary societies, and nearly every other type of ministry. We will likely grow marvelously in the early years, but at a certain point we may well level off. The key thing is that we keep abiding in Jesus and producing the fruit He has ordained for us. If our church or our ministry or our home meeting or our singing career isn’t growing as fast as it once did, it doesn’t mean we’re now a failure. Perhaps we have just grown up.

The truth is, none of us, by ourselves, is going to conquer the world for Christ. Oh, I know we love to say things like that, and it makes us feel kind of militant and powerful, but in reality we are all just a small part of a huge, worldwide endeavor called the body of Christ. Neither you, nor me, nor any pastor, nor anyone else has to win the world for Christ. We simply have to find our place of planting, and just stay there and let the fruit come. And through Jesus Christ, the true Vine, the Source of life in this world, it will surely come!


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