How would you like to be a tree?

You can almost see Jesus sitting on that hillside, the disciples gathered around Him, the crowds perched on rocks and under trees, straining to hear His every word. It was not like any preaching they had ever heard before. This carpenter, turned Rabbi, had redefined what it meant to expound the word of God. And this was only the beginning.

Instead of toiling over the seemingly endless scrolls of doctrine, arguing about what some obscure statement might have meant, this man Jesus went into the law and came up with practical, specific, conclusive instructions to obey. He took the demands of the law with their black and white regulations and tore open the doorway to the human heart to reveal inside the motives and the attitudes that provoked men and women to commit the acts themselves. He spoke of the trauma of murder and the absolute that framed it; but rather than stop there, you felt the sensitive touch of One who knew why people killed. He added, “but I say unto you...” He revealed how a heart of anger was the deadly weapon that caused men to kill, and He actually said that God saw the anger as murder of the heart.

He spoke of the grievous sin of adultery. But rather than focus only on the physical punishment the law provided for, He took that absolute, looked once more into the human heart, and said, "But I say unto you." He likened lust to the product of the heart from which adultery comes, adding, "He that lusts has committed adultery in his heart."

This was not the kind of preaching they were used to hearing. So distinctive was His style, so powerful and practical were His illustrations, that as the day concluded you could hear people whisper to one another, "This man speaks with authority and power, not as the Scribes and the Pharisees." Indeed. He was taking the law and removing the top layer. He was digging down into the soul to expose the reasons we sin. He was challenging men and women to repent at that level.

Something else was decidedly different about His preaching. He seemed to be teaching topically. Instead of expounding on the book of Exodus, word for word and line for line, for example, this man Jesus was preaching about topics they needed to have addressed to them, and He was gathering passages from all over the Holy Scriptures and putting them together so His audience could hear everything God had to say about a subject at one time. In one brief passage, He quoted from Exodus, then Deuteronomy, then Job, then back to Exodus, Deuteronomy, and Proverbs. He wasn’t teaching a seminary class, to be sure. He was bringing the Scripture down to where the people were: the regular people, the people who were out there struggling to make it work in a workaday world.

Still a third characteristic of His teaching began to blossom in this mountainside message. Jesus began to take physical illustrations and weave them into spiritual truth. He began to paint pictures of nature, or tell stories of incidents that were real world portraits, and then call on His congregation to make the spiritual switch.

The spiritual switch would be the process of taking that which God had created or allowed in the physical realm and overlaying it with spiritual principles which revealed the real reason God created that object the way He did. He was setting the stage for the rest of His ministry: a teaching and preaching ministry that would be dominated by the introductory phrase, and He spake a parable unto them, saying... or the kingdom of heaven is like... Then, He would tell a simple, childlike story about something they were most familiar with: seeds, pearls, vines, weddings, rebellious children, labor-management problems, to name a few. He would take that simple story and weave into its context deep, rich veins of solid gold truth which could only be appropriated by “those who had ears to hear”.

Using these stories, Jesus told truth after truth about the kingdom of heaven. It was to be the trademark of His preaching. It would be the stepping stone from which He walked into the human heart and spoke of the things that really mattered in the spirit realm.

Even before He began His parable preaching ministry, Jesus, on that hillside, set the stage for the spiritual switch with still another classic teaching tool. He began to take simple things that were evident in nature and use them as spiritual illustrations. These were not stories as of yet. He was setting the stage for the stories. These were simply things we see in nature every day, taken to a new level of understanding, because everything God made in the physical realm He had made in order to teach spiritual truth. Jesus would make that evident as He went along.

God did not look around one day for an illustration of spiritual growth, glance over at a tree, and say, “That would make a good basis for teaching truth”. He made trees in eternity past with those illustrations in mind. God is Spirit. Everything He does has a spiritual purpose. He didn’t sit down and scratch His head one day, looking for something to illustrate the way the Spirit works, and seeing the wind blow, decided to use that. He created the wind so that one day He could call it to the attention of man and liken it to the way His Spirit blows across the horizon, saying:

John 3:8 The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.

The Holy Spirit was taking that which was obvious in the physical realm and using those things as abbreviated parables to paint pictures of God’s plan for man. They would differ from other parables in that they might not have a cast of characters or a plot. They might simply be living illustrations of spiritual reality, created in eternity past as constant reminders of what God’s real intent was in creating them.

This would open up a whole new realm in Bible teaching. Jesus was about to unveil a world of illustrations that could serve as living reminders of virtually every expression of the will of God. You need never again see a tree and not see its spiritual significance. You need never again see the wind blow the trees and not think of the Spirit.

The concept was not totally new, of course. The Old Testament was written by the same author, and often He sprinkled its pages with figures or types of illustrations of events to come. Isaiah spoke of the rain and the snow coming down from heaven and not returning void. Then He likened it to the Word of God which, too, could never return void. It would always accomplish that for which it was intended. It would give food to the one receiving it and bless the one teaching it at the same time. The Old Testament had long been a means of communication, but it was Jesus who took these “living illustrations” and turned them into portraits of power that made such an indelible impression that many spiritual truths are seemingly only triggered in our minds when we see or hear of the physical portraits from which they come.

Jesus was embarking on a three year ministry of teaching men and women to “make the spiritual switch”: to take the things they see and touch every day, and use them as springboards to cause their minds to think of spiritual things. Soon He would begin speaking in parables. First, however, He would set the stage for the way those parables would reach out and touch someone by lifting living illustrations out of nature and challenging man to “make that spiritual switch”.

Most of the well-known physical symbols of spiritual truth have been studied and brought to life again and again. We will not focus just on those portraits in this introductory chapter, so much as we will look for the process of teaching that way, so that as we endeavor to instruct our children, or bring spiritual truth to light in our discipleship groups or our Sunday School classes, we will be able to do what Jesus did: take regular, familiar things and use them as physical illustrations of spiritual reality. The first step is to take everything Jesus used and catalog it and develop our own way of communicating that truth. The second step will be to look for more truths in nature itself and draw from them the way Jesus did. The third step would be to take even the man-made things in our world, which God knew we would create, and see the spiritual parallels, so that as we teach, we will have living illustrations that are intensely familiar.

A good modern illustration is the computer. I believe God allowed man to invent this machine that has literally taken over our lives in this generation in order to give us a myriad of portraits of the human mind and how it works. We can talk all day about storing the Word in our hearts, but if we have a computer, we understand how it works. We can struggle to communicate how wrong information allowed into our lives can one day emerge and destroy us, but we don’t quite get the picture until we see how a corrupted file behaves and what it does. We can even see the principle of the spiritual switch itself when we click on an “icon” and see how the picture represents what’s inside, and suddenly it opens up and the document the picture represents appears on our screens.

Automobiles can be good illustrations, too. A shiny, new convertible without an engine can make a good impression, but without the power to drive it, it will never go anywhere. The same thing is true if a man looks and acts spiritual but doesn’t have the Holy Spirit. Even with the engine, if we don’t keep fuel in it, it won’t go far, for sure. The Word of God is the fuel that enables the engine of the Spirit to take us to spiritual heights.

Living illustrations. Vivid portraits of the kingdom of God embedded carefully on the canvas of life, so that when the Spirit in us is set free to use them, we see flow from our hearts to the hearts of others actual photographs of spiritual reality. It is called “making the spiritual switch”.

Back now to that mountainside ministry on practical preaching. Jesus has gathered together a composite constituency accustomed to mixed methodology. He has, in other words, a varied audience. Some have come to find a way to trap Him. Others are hungry for this fresh approach to knowing God. Still others are there only out of curiosity. All, however, are being exposed, perhaps for the first time, to a very simple kind of teaching about some very complex subjects.

Listen carefully. You are sitting on a rock on the side of a hill, and Jesus is sitting across the way speaking to the crowd with the same kind of demeanor you would expect if He were speaking only to you. His gentle manner is overwhelming. You are accustomed to the more authoritative delivery of the Rabbis. He seems so kind. He seems so sensitive to issues of the heart, but He also speaks with a different kind of authority. You almost feel you are hearing from God Himself. There is, you find out later, a good reason for that. He begins by describing the life of “blessedness” that awaits God’s child, and it is an alarming contrast to what you have always considered a “blessing” to be. He is speaking of the blessing of mourning, the blessing of meekness, the blessing of persecution. How something bitter can be turned into something spiritually sweet is yet too deep for you, but you take mental note, nonetheless. It is as though He senses that you cannot yet discern such depth, and He changes pace. He says:

Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his savor, wherewith shall it be salted? it is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men.

Hello? Salt? The Living Son of God is walking planet earth. He has stopped to communicate the deepest of principles, and He wants to talk about table salt? What does that word mean? Your concordance indicates that it has at least four meanings: The word is: halas {hal'-as}

  1. salt with which food is seasoned and sacrifices are sprinkled
  2. those kinds of saline matter used to fertilize arable land
  3. a symbol of lasting concord, because it protects food from putrefaction and preserves it unchanged. Accordingly, in the solemn ratification of compacts, the Orientals were, and are to this day, accustomed to partake of salt together
  4. wisdom and grace exhibited in speech

Those seated and standing on that hillside that day understood what salt was. They didn’t need a religious interpreter for that. Salt seasons. Without it, most foods taste drab and undesirable. Salt was used to fertilize and help some crops to grow. Salt was used to ratify agreements, indicating the removal of conflict and the celebration of peace. Salt was used to describe conversation that encouraged and brought benefit, as opposed to that which was contentious or demeaning. Salt was a known commodity with known characteristics.

I doubt, however, if a single person on that hillside had ever heard a message about salt before. If there had been a concordance for the scrolls, there would have been little reference to salt. Salt wasn’t a spiritual thing. It was something you had in a container in the house. It was something farmers had in sacks or bags. It was something governments used when treaties were signed. It was not, however, something you preached about. What was there about salt that was spiritual?

I’ll tell you. Salt is a spiritual Polaroid picture. When you look at it through the lens of the spiritual switch, this normally drab household item begins to crystallize in living color into a picture of the believer as he or she infiltrates the kingdom of this world.

You are supposed to flavor the world you live in. Your life in Christ is to take that which is dull and drab and tasteless, and by your presence or your entrance onto the scene, make the very same situation a beehive of spiritual activity. Life springs out of death. Joy springs out of sorrow. That’s why blessed are those who mourn. Your demeanor or response of humility will put to shame the arrogance of the world and call attention to a higher way. That’s the reason blessed are the meek. The things that satisfy the world will not be needed by you for happiness. That’s the reason blessed are they which hunger and thirst after righteousness. You are the flavor of the world. Therefore, you must maintain the source of your saltiness.

If you pretend to be salt but you no longer have the capacity to flavor, you are less than worthless, because you are pretending to be something you aren’t. The world is sprinkling you on its food and tasting nothing new. You are, henceforth, good for nothing but to be trampled underfoot.

You are the fertilizer that makes life grow. But if you have lost your capacity to bring life, you are a hopeless sham, for people are expecting something to spring forth from your ministry. If you wear the label “salt”, but no longer have any growth characteristics, they will wear themselves out pouring your life on dead ground, and nothing will happen. What a waste.

You can almost hear Jesus pause for a second while the wheels turned inside the heads of this somewhat stunned audience. Little light bulbs began to go on in the eyes of men and women who, for the first time, were beginning to get the picture. They were salt. They were to make a difference in their world. He didn’t pause for long, however. Immediately He added another dimension:

Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid. Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.

I doubt if anyone had ever referred to those amazed listeners on that hillside as “lights” before. They weren’t just the recipients of light; they were the light itself. How strange. God had placed an Energizer battery inside their souls, and they now would be the lights that extinguished the darkness on this drab, dreary planet. Darkness would be indicative of sin. Light would be indicative of God. When sin prevailed, man would live in the throes of night. When God entered, the light would cast out the darkness. The light wasn’t in the temple. The light wasn’t in the priesthood. The light was in every believer. Oh! Now, that’s astounding theology. That makes religion real. That makes the power personal.

It also brings about a choice. Either you put your light under a bushel and hide it, or you set God free to use you as the light you are. You “let it shine”. You let men see God working through you so they can glorify Him. You get blessed. God gets glorified. Others get saved. What an incredible process! Jesus had two choices: He could have gone into a deep theological discussion of the dissemination of truth through the usage of human instrumentality, while quoting the opinions of Rabbis in generations past, or He could hold up the image of a candle and let the Polaroid develop into the testimony of the saints. He made the spiritual switch, and the Truth became simple, perhaps for the first time in their lives. The “light” was dawning. The picture was developing. The image was getting clearer. God was drawing pictures for His children, and these new “visual aids” were beginning to make sense.

Jesus had taken the miracle of mental imagery and the paintbrush of human experience and melded the two into a ministry tool of epic proportions. He had taken the profound and made it simple. The Pharisees had created a whole industry of taking the simple and making it complicated. What a refreshing change.

You could almost sense the atmosphere changing in that hillside sanctuary. You had passed from the stilted, legalistic coldness in the temple to a kind of refreshing, natural, real-world time in the Word of God. The setting was on a hillside. The teacher was an unknown carpenter. The authority was the Scripture. The key was simplicity.

Salt. Light. So much for the indwelling Spirit and the outpouring life; could this practical picture principle apply to other spiritual issues? In Matthew 6:19-20, Jesus adds another dimension. He says:

Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

He could have talked all day about the potential of another life and the differences between physical and spiritual rewards. He could have defined that which was tangible and contrasted it to that which was intangible but spiritually visible. He could have, but everyone there understood what happens to things when they were allowed to decay. When there is no salt to preserve them, they go bad. What doesn’t decay tends to be ripe for thieves and robbers. Life is fleeting. Things are temporary. Why, Jesus could have preached for days about that. He could have.

Instead, He made three succinct statements that blew the dust off of all the deep religious myths about another life and another kind of rewards. First of all, He said there are only two places you can store treasures, and there are only two kinds of treasures. Those two aren’t the savings and loans and the credit unions. They are the storehouses of earth and the storehouse of heaven. In fact, those are the only two choices you have.

Treasures stored on earth are earthly treasures. They have two basic problems inherent in their relationship with time.

  1. They decay. They diminish in value. They become less and less valuable as metal rusts, fabric ages, the elements thrust their harsh assaults against the materials of earth and one by one they turn to ashes. They just don’t last. Clothes become moth eaten. Metal begins to rust and deteriorate. Technology becomes obsolete. Styles render that which was so valuable as worthless in a matter of months. Since the fall of man, earth has been the object of decay. Therefore, if you are focusing your life on accumulating things which take the form of earthly treasures, you are a fool. They won’t be there when you go to redeem them. They’ll have lost their value; their attractiveness will have waned; their demand will have diminished.
  2. Secondly, those things that maintain some degree of value are ripe for thieves and robbers. You can have the costliest and most valuable of jewels in your collection but be afraid to wear them for fear you’ll lose them or be held up at knife point and have them taken from you. So you hide them in a lock box or a safe somewhere, and they never see the light of day. Big deal. What kind of treasure is that?

Contrast that with spiritual riches. They not only don’t decay, they increase in value as time goes on. Secondly, not only can they not be stolen here, they are kept by God in the vaults of heaven, ready to be revealed at the last day. What a contrast. What a picture. What a way to communicate the difference between striving for this world’s treasures and giving your life for things eternal. Jesus could have spent hours preaching on the obvious and not so obvious revelations of spiritual reality in the universe, but He didn’t. He just talked about treasures for about 2 minutes. He concluded with one final, incredible statement:

Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

Once again, Jesus takes the truth of treasures and goes back to the matters of the heart. Go out and get the metal-detector of the Spirit and scan the surface of your life. Sooner or later, you’ll find your treasure. It may be your home and all that you’ve invested therein. It may be your business and the compromises you’ve made to keep it afloat. It may be your relationships or your place of significance in the community. Or it may even be your religious influence and the confidence you gain from being recognized in the church.

Wherever it is, find it. Trace your feelings back to their roots. When you find where the treasure is buried, you will find the key to your heart. Who you really are is not what you see in the mirror. It is what you see when you unearth the treasure box that contains what matters most to you. Jesus said it in one sentence. Ten words. A complete sermon in ten words. And the impact of those ten words has spanned the centuries and still touches the nerve ends of real life bringing about conviction and possible transformation. And all He did was take something familiar and make the spiritual switch.

He has separated the two kingdoms in the minds of His hearers. Now He begins to differentiate between the two and refers to them as “competing masters” striving to control a person’s life. He makes the spiritual switch again and uses something as familiar as birds and flowers to explain the incredible freedom that is now being offered through the appropriation of the sovereignty of God. He says:

No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon. Therefore I say unto you, Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment? Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they? Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature? And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith? Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed? (For after all these things do the Gentiles seek:) for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you. Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.

Are you being overwhelmed by the stresses of this life? It’s no wonder, Jesus said. This world is a taskmaster, and if you yield to its value system, you will have to give up God’s value system. They can’t coexist. You can’t serve them both. More than that, whichever one you love will cause you to hate the other. Intrinsically, it’s a given.

If that’s true, and you choose to trust God with your life, then what do you have to worry about? “Let me give you a couple of real-life illustrations” Jesus was saying. And with that, He made the spiritual switch once again. He took the miraculous paintbrush of eternity and sketched on the tablet of Scripture a three-dimensional picture of a flock of those winged wonders that we call birds.

We love to look out in our back yard where we have a bird feeder and watch the different species of birds and the different habits they have. We see how they protect their loved ones and how they flock to wherever the food is. They don’t have to worry about having enough to eat. How do you know? Jesus said so. He said no bird has ever had to plant a seed, and no bird has ever had to plow a field or help with the harvest. Never. But God takes care of them, doesn’t He? He sees that wherever they are, there is something to eat. Learn one of life’s greatest lessons by bird-watching. Make the spiritual switch.

Next, He talks about the lilies of the field. They don’t have to produce anything, either. They are the product of God’s hand. They simply relax and God not only makes them grow, He produces something more beautiful than the most elegant wardrobe ever worn by the man with the greatest capacity to astonish the world with his elegance: Solomon himself. In other words, left to His handiwork, God can and will make something beautiful out of everything that happens in your life. Don’t believe it? Look at the lilies. Look at the birds. He inserts in between these two graphic illustrations still another. He asks if any one there has ever known any one, any time, who has been able to struggle and by worrying, add a single day to his life. In contrast, worry may shorten life, but it won’t lengthen it.

Simple illustrations, almost childlike in their expression. Yet those searching souls perched on that hillside were understanding things they never understood before. Little light bulbs were flashing in their spirits, and little daggers were penetrating their hearts. Instead of dull, dry doctrine, they were hearing real life living. Instead of complicated theological terminology, they were listening to words right out of their children’s story books. Salt. Light. Birds. Flowers. Treasures. Nothing profound about the subject matter; the profundity came when they made the spiritual switch. When they took things that simple and related them to things that deep, heaven opened up and light flooded their hearts with understanding.

And so it shall ever be. When you and I are willing to invest at least a portion of our lives in learning to relate the common everyday things we see and touch to the realms of the spirit, we will begin to see living pictures form in our minds that will teach us again and again the truths of God as we see again and again those objects in real life.

You see birds and flowers every day. But do you stop every day and thank God that, like them, you don’t have to worry? God takes care of them, and they are of much less significance to Him than you are. “If God so feeds them and clothes them, shall He not care for you, oh, you of little faith?”

Have you taught your children or grandchildren the message of the birds? The message of the lily? The message of the lamp? The message of the saltshaker? Better still, have you learned it yourself? Have you learned to search the Scriptures and catalog all of the treasures of natural photographs that God has planted in the garden of His Word for us to translate into spiritual truth?

If you have, has there ever been a time when you were simply driving along or walking along and you saw something in nature, the very behavior of which reminded you of a corresponding spiritual reality? Have you stopped to write it down or stopped to thank God for it? Have you begun to learn to take the modern day conveniences we take for granted— cell phones, computers, airplanes, rockets, remote controls— and use them as stepping stones to teach spiritual truth?

I beg you, Beloved, pack your bags and embark on the journey of your life. Learn to make the spiritual switch. Learn to open the eyes of your spirit to the world of living pictures. Ask God to give you the creative joy of taking the illustrations of life and translating them into the deep things of God. Read and reread the Scriptures, searching for God’s Polaroid snapshots. When you see them, stop. Ask God to allow you to marvel at His wisdom as the portraits emerge, as the colors turn into rich hues of majestic brilliance, as the simplicity of God’s message makes itself known in profound and deeply transforming ways.

Learn to make the spiritual switch, and learn to reread the parables of Scripture over and over. Each time you do, new truths will emerge. Each time you do, new portraits will engrave themselves on the screen of your heart and new messages will form in the studio of your mind for you to share with those to whom God sends you.

If you were walking through a field of hidden treasure and you knew the treasure was there, just waiting to be claimed, would you just walk away? I think not.

The treasure is there. Take it.

A Challenge to Further Study and Application

  1. Imagine in your mind how many of the illustrations that Jesus was using were actually visible to those who sat on that hillside listening to Him teach. Think about His talking about birds as birds flew overhead. Imagine His talking about being lights as the sun began to set. How can this help you in your learning to use God’s natural visual aids in your teaching?
  2. Reread Matthew 6:19-21 Try to draw a picture in your mind of how you could communicate this truth to a group of children, for instance, in a way that would help them to actually visualize the two different kinds of treasures. Do you think about “laying up treasures in heaven” on a daily basis? What kinds of treasures are acceptable in the Bank of Eternity?
  3. Make Matthew 6:24-34 a passage for meditation all next week. Ask yourself: What does the word “serve” mean in verse 24? What does the word “mammon” mean?
  4. What do you think “take no thought” really means?
  5. Do a study of some birds or other wildlife this week. Look for the miracles in the way God created them and in how God provides for them. How can you make the spiritual switch?
  6. Why do you think God used His provision for caring for birds and lilies as an illustration of His tender love? How can this help you in sharing your faith with others?
  7. Find a flower garden this week and bow before God and thank Him for the beauty with which He clothes that which is only temporary. As you do, surrender your own needs and worries once again and enter into His rest.

Memorize Matthew 6:33-34

© Russell Kelfer. All rights reserved.

Last Update: May 16, 2003

For more messages in the series, Making the Spiritual Switch, contact Discipleship Tape Ministries.© 2003 Discipleship Tape Ministries, Inc. All rights reserved.

© 2003 Discipleship Tape Ministries, Inc. All rights reserved.

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