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An Unusual Christian Symbol for the Visual Artist


Christian symbols are used throughout the Bible—plants, animals, birds and objects are used as powerful images to embody desirable characteristics or to warn against wickedness.


God's passion for symbolism enriches the narrative, imparting a depth of meaning that is unmatched and bottomless. Symbols are peppered throughout its pages begging the reader to engage in a deeper walk with Him.


Symbolism is not unique to the Bible; its liberal use is evident in all kinds of ancient literature. However, there is something that is completely unique to our Holy Book. It was written by 40 different authors over thousands of years and yet its symbolism is consistent in imagery and intent!


Similar to the use of the colors in the Bible the deliberate use of each Christian symbol with masterful precision offers persuasive proof of a Divine Author. God used the human agency of multiple writers, ranging from shepherds and nomads to kings and noblemen. Through words that He inspired and they wrote, He articulates His intention to bless mankind and the criteria by which He will do so.


The symbol of the fig tree, with its fruit and varying seasons of growth, intrigued me and compelled further study. I sensed that it was pertinent to all visual artists. I treasure the accompanying promises, which form the cornerstone of goals I set as each year draws to a close and a new one looms on the horizon.

I am not terribly precise with goal setting. I tend to think in terms of over arching principles, ideas that I'd like to appropriate for myself for the upcoming year. I rarely set goals of accomplishing a specific number of works of art for each year as some artists do. The symbol of the fig tree keeps me focussed on seeking God's role and participation in my year as opposed to striving for specific predetermined outcomes.

THE CHRISTIAN SYMBOL OF THE FIG TREE

Oil painting detail of a basket of figs by Sara Joseph
First Fruit, Detail, Oil on Canvas, Sara Joseph

The fig tree has precise seasons; a time to be planted, tended, and pruned, followed by a season to blossom and to finally bear rich, sweet fruit.


In the Old Testament, the symbol of the fig tree was used frequently as representative of provision and care of each Israelite by a covenant keeping God.

 

" And Judah and Israel dwelt safely, every man under his vine and under his fig tree, from Dan even to Beersheba, all the days of Solomon." 1Kings 4:25 KJV

 

Underlying the text is the assumption

that to profit from the fig tree close attention was required. Tend the fig tree with diligence and it produced fruit. Neglect it and either miss out on the harvest, or even worse, end up with unpalatable fruit!


The Israelites had to respect and honor the Provider of the fig tree, as much as they had to respect the potential of the tree.


When they honored God, the land enjoyed peace and the trees yielded fruit. When they dishonored God, they frustrated His intent of abundant provision for them. The best expression of honoring God is obeying HIm. Joy and satisfaction were the fruit of honoring Him, as indicated in the verse below.

 

"The vine is dried up, and the fig tree languisheth; the pomegranate tree, the palm tree also, and the apple tree, [even] all the trees of the field, are withered: because joy is withered away from the sons of men." Joel 2:22 KJV

 

Of course, the Israelites did not obey God nor care too deeply about his covenant. Their rebellion opened the door to Satan, who was swift to supply a cheap counterfeit.

Watercolor and Ink Painting of a tree trunk by Sara Joseph
Steadfast, Watercolor & Ink, Sara Joseph

Satan's offer is usually to ignore God completely, and take instead some easy provision that he will readily provide.


In this instance, they were faced with potential starvation and an endless siege, when the King of Assyria, their enemy, made the following offer:


"..for thus saith the king of Assyria, make an agreement with me by a present, and come out to me, and [then] eat ye every man of his own vine, and every one of his fig tree, and drink ye every one the waters of his cistern:"

2 Kings 18:31


Of course, it was more challenging to trust God, who is unseen, and far easier to agree to a covenant with the king of Assyria, whose promise seemed concrete and plausible. The offer of joining the enemy is still presented to Christians today.

But why should this be relevant to you as an artist?


In the Babylonian exile, which was the result of repeated disobedience to God, the first wave of exiles that were marched into the city were princes and those who had creative ability and skill—carpenters, craftsmen, artisans, smiths, engravers…


These skilled workers were obviously prized by their captors for their usefulness to culture and society!


Jeremiah had a prophetic vision years earlier, of a basket of ripe and unripe figs before the temple of God. The ripe figs were a symbol of those taken captive to Babylon. Though the circumstances were trying, God promised Jeremiah that He would watch over them even in the land of their captivity. In the hope of restoring fellowship He made them this wonderful promise despite their prior disobedience.


"And I will give them a heart to know me, that I [am] the LORD: and they shall be my people, and I will be their God: for they shall return unto me with their whole heart.

Jeremiah 24:7


These elite Israelites were promised blessing in the land of their captivity, as well as prosperity, like ripe, sweet figs!


THE CHRISTIAN SYMBOL OF THE FIG TREE IN THE NEW TESTAMENT

In the New Testament, Jesus expressed his frustration with the fig tree that had not produced fruit, although in its outward appearance it was full and verdant.


A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none.

“Then he said to the keeper of his vineyard, ‘Look, for three years I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree and find none. Cut it down; why does it use up the ground?

Luke 13:6-7


Usefulness is important to God. Simply existing without bearing fruit is never His intent. And bearing fruit is not automatic. Much patient work precedes any form of fruitfulness. The importance of the Christian symbol of the fig tree is summarized in this pithy proverb.

 

"Whoever keeps the fig tree will eat its fruit; So he who waits on his master will be honored." Proverbs 27:18

 

As Christian visual artists, we have been blessed with varying abilities and skill. Some of us are saplings while others are mature trees. Our fruitfulness will reflect our careful tending, or our callous neglect of that which the Lord has graciously provided us.


In response I am determined to do the following:


  • I will nurture the soil that I am planted in, by paying close attention to feeding on the Word of God daily.

  • I will guard against weeds that may tend to usurp nutrition intended for me.

  • I will trust the Holy Spirit to alert me to any weeds, in my thoughts or actions.

  • I will trust His power to enable me to pull them out promptly, before they take root.

  • I will be sensitive to light, as it is provided for me by my Master. I will yield to that light, straining after it and growing in response to it.

  • I will submit to the pruning of anything that my Master considers unnecessary or detrimental to my productivity.

  • I will wait on my Master in faith, eagerly expecting the promised fruit, and will not waiver, or be double minded.

Your creativity only flourishes if you lavish time and attention upon it. Purpose to spend more time than ever, faithfully nurturing your gift. Do it in faith, fully expecting the promise to be true for you—that you will eat the sweet fruit.


Never forget that all productivity and increase is only because of your Master, who deserves the highest honor—always.


So wait in His presence and wait for His leading. Never wander away. It is simply not worth it.


Let the Christian symbol of the fig tree remind you that there is a day of harvest. May your harvest be sweet!

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