Mustard Trees and Seeds

Jesus seemed to like the tiny mustard seed; he used it to illustrate faith in several settings. One teaching found in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, illustrated how the Christian Church would grow. Here’s how Mark recorded Jesus’s words about growth of the Church:

What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest seed you plant in the ground. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds of the air can perch in its shade (Mark 4.30-32 NIV).

This illustration described the growth and expansion of God’s kingdom on earth, i.e., growth of the Christian Church. Although the Church began in a small province of the Roman Empire, it grew larger than the mightiest empire on earth.

Another time Jesus used the mustard seed in an illustration, he was in Caesarea Philippi. Jesus wasn’t with disciples when a man asked them to heal his son, possessed by a demon. Disciples were unable to heal the son. Jesus arrived and ordered the demon to leave the boy (Matthew 17.14-21).  After Jesus expelled the demon, disciples asked him why they couldn’t heal the man’s son.  Jesus responded that they had too little faith.  He told them that if they had faith the size of a mustard seed, they could say to a mountain, “Move from here to there” and the mountain would move (Matthew 17.21 ESV).  Jesus’s point was that nothing is impossible with sufficient faith, even when that amount of faith is as small as a tiny mustard seed.

Mustard Tree

In scientific communities, the mustard tree is the Salvadora perisica, commonly called the toothbrush tree.6 Indigenous to Persia (Iran), the mustard tree could have been brought into Palestine by traders. Alternatively, returned Jewish exiles may have brought  mustard tree seeds from Persia and planted them in gardens and fields. The mustard seed grows best in hot, arid climates; high humidity stunts tree growth. The mustard tree is an evergreen that can grow to twenty feet. Often, mustard trees have many branches that start to grow from the tree trunk low to the ground. The mustard tree can grow as wide as tall. Mustard trees reach full size in a few years.

Spread of Christianity

Like branches of a mustard tree, Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire and into India and Ethiopia. In a few centuries, Christianity went from unheard of, to being outlawed, to the official religion of an empire. Mustard trees were used for shade because of their low-growing branches. Similarly, people from all nations took refuge under the canopy of Christianity. Unlike thorn trees (Ziziphus spina-christi), mustard trees have no thorns to  deter individuals from resting beneath them. Although wild animals sometimes fed on tree shoots, many branches grew high enough that predators couldn’t reach birds that nested in them.

Warning?????

In Jesus’s teaching about the mustard tree, birds settled in its branches. Some Bible commentators interpreted this clause as a warning to keep the early Christian church pure. In Old Testament scriptures, the phrase “birds of the air” was sometimes used to symbolize demonic forces. From this perspective, Jesus warned disciples to beware that Satan would attempt to encroach on the kingdom of God.

Certainly, Jesus warning became reality. In the first few centuries of the Christian church, Jews (Judaizers) advocated that newly converted Christian could be justified only by observing Jewish laws, i.e., circumcision, adherence to Jewish dietary laws. The Gnostics claimed they possessed elevated knowledge, a “higher truth.” The higher knowledge was acquired, not from the Bible or apostles’ teachings, but, from a higher mystical plain of existence. Individual with this special knowledge, for example, Jezebel in the Thyatiran church, believed they were elevated above other Christians because of their deeper knowledge (Revelation 2.18-25).

Not Really

At times, Bible scholars concluded that the black mustard (Brassica nigra) plant was the source of the mustard seed that Jesus referred to in teachings that used the mustard seed. Very likely, the true mustard tree was the Salvadora perisica.

Many powerful men attempted to stop the spread of “The Way,” the early name for the Christian church. The Jerusalem Jewish leadership tried to stop it when they arrested Jesus and turned him over to Pilate for crucifixion. King Herod attempted to stifle apostle’s teachings when he killed the apostle James and had Peter arrested. Paul was beaten, confined to house arrest, jailed, and finally murdered; however, Paul’s letters, many written while he was confined or jailed, were important to the spread of  the good news of Jesus in the Gentile world.

Despite many deterrents, the fledgling Christian church grew in numbers. Through Paul, Peter, and John’s letters, converts deepened their understanding of Jesus as Son of God. They came to understand the role of the Holy Spirit in individual lives and in the church. Jesus’s  mustard seed illustration came true in early centuries after his death and remains true today. Even with  anti-Christian rhetoric and entire denominations turning from God’s commands, continuance—even extension—of the church Jesus founded is inevitable.

Important for westernized societies is the answer to the question, “Where will Christianity spread next and/or grow even deeper roots?” Will it be in Greece, Rome, or Asia Minor where Christianity was first embraced? Perhaps, Germany and Great Britain, homes to great reformation thought? What about the United States, founded on principles of religious liberty? We need to pray that individuals in all nations experience Christian revival, so they can rest in the shade of God’s love.

Reflection: Will Christianity grow in your sphere of influence?

Copyright 10/03/2018; Carolyn A. Roth

I will stand my watch

Bible Reference: Book of Habakkuk

I will stand at my watch
and station myself on the ramparts;
I will look to see what he will say to me (Habakkuk 2.1)

Though the fig tree does not bud
and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails
and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen
and no cattle in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
I will be joyful in God my Savior (Habakkuk 3.17-18).

Grapes from Thornbushes

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus averred that a man can’t gather grapes from thorn bushes. The second time that Jesus spoke of thorns in gospels was in the familiar parable of the sower and the seed. Most of us can recite this parable:

A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them.  Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them.  Other seeds fell on good soil and produced grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty (Matthew 13.3-8 ESV).

In the first century, many farmers scattered (broadcast) seed on top of the soil rather than plow soil, scattered seeds, then re-plowed soil to cover seeds.  The challenge with broadcasting seed is that seed falls various places, i.e., on a pathway, in thin soil, among thorns. Seeds sprouted and grew; but, thorns can surround good seedlings and choke their growth. Jesus’s interpretation of seed which fell among thorns is: “As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful” (Matthew 13.22 ESV).  

Thornbush

First century Palestine contained several types of thorns and thorn bushes. The Bible names several to them, i.e., Jotham’s thorn tree in Judges, crackling thorn bushes in Ecclesiastes, and Isaiah’s buckthorn (Rhamnus lycioides, R. palaestinus). In Israel, buckthorns grow in wood, shrub-lands, and the mountain vegetation of Mount Hermon.  The buckthorn is a slow-growing shrub, rarely reaching a height of six feet.

The Palestine buckthorn is evergreen.  It grows with a many-branched, tangled form, and velvety thorns.  Young stems are green; with maturity, bark turns gray. The buckthorn fruit is a small (1/4 inch), oval berry. Initially, the berry is green, but, turns black when ripe. Berries are poisonous to humans, but a good source of food for birds.

Symbolism: Trash

A Hebrew word for thorn is shayith1 which translates as trash, scrub, and thorn.  Trash is debris from plant materials, something worth little or nothing, and something thrown away. Trash is an excellent symbol for individuals who make a commitment to Jesus; then, quit living a Christian life because worldly cares choke their commitment. God’s judgment will fall on people who treat God and his laws as worthless, i.e., as if they are trash.  If individuals want to be something thrown away like trash, God will allow them to be this way (Romans 1.28).  God will give them over to a reprobate mind.

Reflection: How do you behave in a “trashy” manner?

Copyright: 10/2/2018; Carolyn Adams Roth

Grape, Vine, Vineyards

Bible References: John 2.1-12; Mark 12.1-12.

Jesus was familiar with symbolism of vines and vineyards. He knew that often when the Old Testament prophets referenced vine or vineyard, they spoke about judgment that God would bring upon disobedient Israelites. The grapevine didn’t elicit positive images to first-century Jews. The first time Gospel writers recorded an interaction with Jesus and the grapevine, he performed a miracle at Cana in Galilee.  Subsequently, several of Jesus’s teachings used grapevines, vineyards, and wine.

Very early in Jesus’s ministry, he and disciples were at a marriage feast. The feast was at the bridegroom’s home. Possibly, the groom was a friend or relative of Jesus’s family. Mary, Jesus’s mother, was there; she was concerned that all went well at the feast. Servants obeyed Mary’s directions. When the wine ran out, Mary told Jesus, clearly expecting him to do something. Although a little reluctant to become involved, Jesus turn water into wine and performed his first-recorded miracle. Jesus’s miracles pointed to him as Messiah and were designed to honor God.

God told Israelites that seven plants would be available to them in the promised land (Deuteronomy 8.8) The grapevine was one a plant. Vitis vinifera is the botanical name for the grapevine that grew in Israel.  In ancient Israel, grapevines were a principle crop because grapes could be eaten fresh, dried, or made into wine. Although the Negev was a popular area for wine production in ancient times, today, grapes and wineries are present throughout Israel.

When Jewish leaders began to oppose him, Jesus started to use parables to make points. One parable focused on a vineyard (Mark 12.1-12). A man planted a vineyard. He protected the vineyard by putting a fence around it and adding a watch tower. He dug a pit for the winepress. Then, the man leased the vineyard to tenants and left the country. After a season, the owner sent a series of servants to obtain the fruit (money) the vineyard produced. Tenants beat and/or killed each servant. Not once did tenants pay the owner what was due him. Finally, the owner said to himself:  I will send my beloved son, my heir, to collect what is due me. Surely, the tenants will respect my son; but, instead of respecting the owner’s son, they killed him.

After telling this parable, Jesus asked listeners what the vineyard owner should do. He gave an answer—the owner will destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others. In response to Jesus’s answer, religious leaders wanted to arrest Jesus. They knew that God was the vineyard owner who sent multiple prophets to claim the fruit that Israel should have produced. The Israelites/Jews beat or killed prophets.  They knew that Jesus’s parable meant that God was going to take the spiritual vineyard from Jews and give it to another people. Perhaps these same Jewish leaders started to think of killing Jesus this early in his ministry. Did they even imagine that by killing Jesus, they were killing God’s son?

Reflection: Do you ever act in a way that God wants to take his spiritual vineyard away from you?

Copyright: August 13, 2018. Carolyn A. Roth

Visit my website at http://www.CarolynRothMinistry.com.

Zillah, wife and plant

Bible Reference: Genesis chapter 4.

In Genesis chapter four, we read about the offspring of Cain. The chapter provides a contrast to chapter five in which the offspring of Seth is outlined. In the offspring of Cain, Lamech, a seventh-generation grandson of Adam, had two wives simultaneously.  This is the first time that plural wives were identified in the Bible.  Lamech’s second wife was named Zillah. One source identified that Zillah was a third cousin of Lamech. Zillah birthed at least two children: Tubal-Cain, who forged tools from bronze and iron, and a daughter named Naamah.

Although we know little about Zillah, we know that her husband was a murderer. He admitted to his two wives that he murdered a young man for injuring him. Lamech averred that if God planned to take sevenfold vengeance on anyone killing Cain, then he, Lamech, should be avenged 77 times. Contemplating Lamech’s words, readers aren’t sure whether his is bragging about his actions or admitting his wrong. Whichever Lamech did, most certainly his  wife Zillah, reaped  consequences.

Zillah was named after a spiny, woody shrub (Zilla spinosa) that grows in desert, to include extreme desert, regions.7  Stems can grow up to five feet tall. The zilla grows as wide as tall so that the zilla appears rounded. Stem and spine color are bluish-gray. Fruit resembles chickpeas (garbanzo beans). When mature, the plant  loosens from soil. Winds blow it  across the desert similar to a tumbleweed in western United States.

In contrast to the overall unpleasant stems and spines, Zilla spinosa produces a lovely four-petal lavender, occasionally pink, flower. I imagine that Zillah was named after the flower rather than after the spiny plant.

The website, Flowers in Israel,7 included that the brier named by Ezekiel is the zilla plant: “No longer will the people of Israel have malicious neighbors who are painful briers and sharp thorns. Then they will know that I am the Sovereign LORD” (Ezekiel 28.24 NIV). Ezekiel’s complete prophecy against Sidon is in Ezekiel 28.20-26. Sidon was a  Phoenician city.  Originally, Sidon was included in the inheritance of the tribe of Asher, but Asher didn’t conquer it. Sidon  gloated when Jerusalem was destroyed by Babylon.

If I identified one word that encompassed the story of Zillah in Genesis and the prophecy of Ezekiel against Sidon, that word would be malicious. Malicious means a desire to cause pain, distress,  or injury to another.3 Maliciously, Lamech  injured a young man in the process of murdering him. Most likely, Lamech’s action caused distress to the young man’s family and distress to his wife, Zillah. Sidon’s gloat over Judah’s pain, injury, and distress was malicious. I can just imagine Sidonians rubbing their hands together and laughing when Jerusalem fell.

The take-away message from the Zilla spinosa is that beautiful flowers may occur simultaneously with spines which cause injury. Importantly, we can stop pondering how loved ones hurt us and reframe our thinking. How do we, although beautiful individuals, have the capacity to  injure and distress others with our words and behavior.

Reflection: A dear friend told me recently that a mutual friend’s words hurt her through what she said. At about the same time, the mutual friend shared that she was hurt by my dear friend’s words. I need to always look at my own behavior and make sure that I don’t cause pain, injury, or distress to others. Do you find it easier to criticize others than to take accountability for what you do?

Copyright: December 1, 2018; Carolyn Adams Roth

Persian (Iran) Shield

The prophet Isaiah lived around 735-681 BC. He foresaw the sacking of Jerusalem by the Babylonians and the Jews taken into captivity into Babylon. The Persians defeated the Babylonians. As predicted by Isaiah, Cyrus, a Persian king,  allowed the Jewish exiles throughout the Persian Empire to return to Jerusalem and rebuild God temple there. Judah became Judea, a province of the Persian Empire which was the height of its power 550-330 BC.

The Persia Empire acted as a shield for small Judea, even allowing Judea to have its own governor. Persia protected Judea from other countries, i.e., Egypt.  Persians (present day Iran) continued to protect the Jews. For example, Esther became Queen in Persia and shielded the Jews in the Persian Empire from being massacred.  Astrologers followed a star from Persia to Jerusalem to find and worship Jesus. They shielded Jesus by withholding information from King Herod about the specific location of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus’s home. Thus, Joseph had time to escape King Herod by taking his family to Egypt.

Persian Shield Plant

This plant was developed in Myanmar, a country in Southeast Asia south of China and east of India. Myanmar has a tropical climate. The plant is most success in USDA plant zone 10 but can (sometimes) grow in zones 8 -11 outdoors. Most gardeners  grow this beautiful plant indoors to regulate its environment and keep it flourishing. When growing the plant indoors, the plant must be in heat of over 60 degrees. Space Persian shield plants about 36 – 48 inches apart. On the back deck (Plant Zone 7), my plant grew as tall as three feet in one season.

One of the appeals of a Persian shield plant is its natural bushiness. However, you can make it even more bushy in appearance by pinching the stems back every now and then. Persian shield plants require constant moisture. Water them thoroughly and evenly twice a week. The top six inches of soil should be constantly moist.

Symbolism: Shield

Because the Persian shield plant was only recently developed, it is not a Bible plant. However, the symbolism of Persia acting as a shield for Judea and even Jesus is seen in the Bible.  Persia is present-day Iran. The name Persian shield most likely came from the motif on the shield of Persia soldiers during Persia’s years of conquest and rule.

A shield is a protective device. It prevents arrows, javelins, and other projectile devices from killing or wounding a soldier. St. Paul wrote that with the shield of faith, Christians can withstand the fiery darts of Satan (Ephesians 6.16).

Reflection: How’s your shielding? Wouldn’t it be great if Persia (Iran) acted as Israel’s shield in the 21st century?

Copyright September 12, 2018; Carolyn Adams Roth

Alpha & Omega of Myrrh

Use of myrrh was recorded throughout the Bible. In Genesis (37.25), Joseph was sold to Ishmaelites, who included myrrh in their trade caravan. Esther (2.12) completed a 12-month beauty treatment, which included myrrh, before she was taken to King Xerxes. Myrrh perfumed the robes of a king (Psalm 45.8) and the bed of an adulteress (Proverbs 7.17). Myrrh was catalogued seven times in Song of Songs to describe the Lover, the Maid (Bride), and Solomon’s gardens. In Revelation (18.13), John listed myrrh as a commodity no one would buy after Roman fell.

Despite the various times myrrh was identified in the Bible, three  times stand out:

  1. The earliest is in Exodus. Myrrh was a component of anointing oil used in the tabernacle (Exodus 30.22-33). This same anointing oil was used in the temple in 1st century Jerusalem.
  2. Myrrh was a gift that the wise men brought to Jesus at his birth (Matthew 2.11). There, myrrh symbolized the deity of Jesus; he was the Son of God. Also, myrrh represented “gifts;” God gave his son as a gift to mankind. Thirty-three years after Jesus’s birth, Jesus gave his life as a gift for mankind. In turn, the gift that Jesus wants from each of us is that we belief in him as risen Savior. When we belief in Jesus as Savior, we accept God’s gift of his son and Jesus’s gift of his life.
  3. Myrrh was present at Jesus’s burial. Following the death of Jesus, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus wrapped Jesus’s body in linen saturated with myrrh and aloes (John 19.39). Then, they laid Jesus’ body in a tomb carved in rock.

Likely New Testament myrrh was from a different plant than in the Old  Testament. Further, different plant species were used to make myrrh in different countries. Most myrrh in the Roman Empire came from the Commiphora myrrha plant; however, in Israel the plant used to make myrrh was the C. abyssinica (C. habessinica, myrrh tree, Arabian myrrh, Yeman myrrh). Probably, the myrrh used by Nicodemus and Joseph was from the C. abyssinica plant. The Hebrew word for myrrh is môr or môwr which means bitter because myrrh had a bitter taste.

The Plant Product

Myrrh is a dried resin from myrrh trees. In present day Israel, pilgrims can view myrrh trees in the Biblical Landscape Reserve. The myrrh plant is a small tree that grows up to twenty feet tall. The trunk (bole) is as tall as thirteen feet. When myrrh resin is harvested, lateral cuts are made on the tree trunk or branches. An aromatic gum resin seeps from the wounds. When exposed to air, gum hardens forming irregular-shaped yellow or brown globules. The globules smell pleasant, but, taste bitter. Today, myrrh is sold by vendors in the bazaar in the old city of Jerusalem. Most the sold myrrh is sharp-edged, marble-size pieces.

Reflection: The Greek word for myrrh is smurna, which translates “strengthened for.” At Jesus’s birth, the Magi brought Jesus a gift that symbolically strengthen him for his life on earth. Considering how Jesus was persecuted on earth, a gift that even symbolically strengthen him was a superlative gift.

Copyright 10/11/2018; Carolyn A. Roth