School Theme Verse
“They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the LORD for the display of his splendor.”Isaiah 61:1-3
"Serán llamados robles de justicia, plantío del Señor, para mostrar su gloria.”
Trees are everywhere in the Bible. Genesis 1 says that God spoke trees into being on day three; Genesis 2 says that God made “all kinds of trees grow out of the ground” and they were delightful and good for food. Later, God appeared to Abraham near a grove of oaks (Gen. 18). The psalmist described a righteous person as a tree planted by streams of water and Proverbs describes wisdom as “a tree of life to those who take hold of her.” God, it seems, loves trees. In fact, they are the third most mentioned living thing in all of Scripture, coming behind God and humans. We find trees on almost every page of Scripture and the entire biblical narrative is bookended by trees - the trees in the Garden of Eden and the Tree of Life on the last page (Rev 22), the leaves of which are for the “healing of the nations.” And the hinge upon which the entire biblical story rises and falls is the cursed tree on the hill of Golgotha which gives life for the world (cf. Gal. 3:13).
And so when the prophet Isaiah describes the Messiah - the Anointed One - and the signs of God’s Kingdom, he turns to the fruitful image of a tree:
The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn,
and provide for those who grieve in Zion—
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
instead of ashes,
the oil of joy
instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
instead of a spirit of despair.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
a planting of the Lord
for the display of his splendor.
God calls out of bondage, Israel follows.
The prophet Isaiah lived during troubling times; the nation of Israel was divided and enemies were at the gate. The scene was bleak, but Isaiah spoke a word of hope: God would send a rescuer - a Messiah - to save his people and establish justice and goodness in the land. Isaiah 61 tells of this Anointed One (that’s what Messiah means): he will proclaim good news to the poor, bind up the brokenhearted, proclaim freedom for the captives, release for the prisoners, and comfort those who mourn. And they will be called oaks of righteousness. This is good news; this is gospel! All the more fitting, then, that when Jesus began his ministry he turned to this passage as a summary of his redemptive mission (cf. Luke 4).
While this text most clearly points to the work of Jesus, by God’s Spirit we, too, share in Christ’s anointing (cf. Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 31-32). We, too, have the Spirit of the Lord upon us and so teachers and students alike are called to be oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendor. Wherever God plants us, now or in the future, we are called to be an oak of righteousness - a place of flourishing for all of creation and humanity (see below on the meaning of “righteousness").
OAKS AND CHRISTIAN EDUCATION
In the spring of 2023, each GRCS campus was asked to brainstorm ways in which the image of an oak - or trees more broadly - connects to the work of Christian education that we are committed to. Hopefully some of the connections or ideas listed below can help spark your own imagination as well. Here are some of the ideas that were generated at various GRCS campuses:
- …oaks are slow-growing trees; we plant the seeds (acorns) but future generations will benefit from the work of Christian education.
- …we can think of our school community as a large tree. We each have our own roots, but are part of the same tree. We also branch out into the community in our unique ways. Together we bear fruit for the benefit of others.
- …different parts of the tree are parallels to our work as Christian educators. Roots are our faith, branches are the families, each child is a leaf/acorn, trunk is the school. Trees grow towards the light (phototropism) which means they may need to grow in different directions.
- …if the followers of God are a forest of oaks of righteousness, it is the task of Christian education to create and care for the trees. Not to enforce faith, but to grow the righteousness—the relationship with God—of our students.
- …It is like how Jesus said that he is the vine and we are the branches. We need to be within him to bear good fruit and apart from him we cannot do anything. Some other image would be the roots of a tree where as trees grow taller and bigger, more deeper and wider their roots get. It would be like how much we would reach out our roots in our community to serve and help to hold our tree together.
- …we plant in hope; we don't always see the fruit of the work we are doing in the moment (where are graduates now? It's fun to see students years later to see where they are and what they're doing and how their Christian education shaped who they've become)
- …Christian education comes from deep roots; oaks and trees are strong. Sometimes can be messy. Providing shade or respite for those who need it.
- …The image of an Oak is strong, with deep roots reaching out. A Christian education provides deep roots to those in our community so we can go out. The roots reach out and trees support each other.
As we think about being “oaks of righteousness” this year and beyond, the imagery of oaks can be rich. We are learning more and more about the beauty and necessity of trees and the ways that they are essential to human (and creational) flourishing. There are many ways that we can explore the imagery of trees and how they connect to the work of education and Christian education specifically.
THINKING “RIGHTLY” ABOUT RIGHTEOUSNESS
Righteousness can be a tricky word. It can sound like a church-y word and for some might conjure up ideas of strict moral purity (a list of moral Dos and Don’ts). For others, the word may suggest self-righteousness. But that’s not really what the word means; instead it is meant to be a word that suggests right-living that promotes flourishing for all of creation and humanity. In Scripture, righteousness (Hebrew: tsedeqah) and justice (Hebrew: mishpat) are often paired together - not quite as twins, but as inseparable siblings. Christian philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff helpfully describes righteousness as “acting justly” or “doing the right thing” so that our relationships with God, the world and others “go rightly.” In other words, righteousness is doing the right thing so that all things get made right. (Journey Toward Justice, 92-97)
Because righteousness is such an important biblical concept but can be easily misunderstood, I’ve included a number of longer quotations for reading and reflections from the excellent book The Justice Calling by Bethany Hanke Hoang and Kristen Deede Johnson. As you read you might reflect on the following questions:
How does this challenge my own understanding of righteousness?
How does this encourage me to live more faithfully as a follower of Jesus?
How could I try to communicate these ideas to my own students in age-appropriate ways?
Excerpts from The Justice Calling: Where Passion Meets Perseverance.
“In its most direct biblical formulation, justice can be best described as setting things right. But how do we even know what “right” is? How do we make sure that we are pursuing God’s vision of “right” rather than our own distorted or culturally constricted vision as we seek justice? The short answer is that we learn what is right when we look to Jesus Christ and the whole story of Scripture.
As we grapple with the idea of righteousness, it is illuminating to note that the Scripture describes righteousness using the imagery and metaphor of a plumb line (Isa 28:17). God’s righteousness helps us to see the path of right living we are called to follow and to gauge whether we are living “rightly” and treating one another and the created world in accordance with how God created and redeemed us to live.
Every leveling tool needs a point of reference. In our pursuit of what it means to be “right,” Jesus Christ is that standard. Jesus embodies what is perfectly right, and his life serves as a measure against which we can determine what is right and what is not right. … Exemplifying how God intended humanity to live from the very beginning, he showed us right relationships, right living, and the right use of power, undertaken out of love for God and love for others. …
The biblical sense of justice as setting things right comes into play after the fall, when humans begin to use the power God has given them to seek their own selfish ambitions rather than seeking God’s vision. Shalom, the Hebrew word used to refer to the flourishing of all of God’s creation, involves God, humans, and the rest of creation living together in harmony, wholeness, justice, and delight. The English translation of shalom is “peace,” but that word fails to capture the rich and vibrant life that the Hebrew concept entails. In keeping with God’s intentions, a world that truly embodies shalom is a world of justice and righteousness, with everyone and everything flourishing as a result of living “rightly” - that is, living in accordance with the ways God created them to live and to flourish.” (The Justice Calling, 11-13)
“Even though righteousness can have negative connotations in our culture today - conjuring up images of people who care more about following the rules and laws of the faith than loving others - this could not be further from the biblical intention of righteousness. Biblically speaking, the word righteousness probably better captures the big vision toward which we who are passionate about justice today are aiming. We want to see a world in which all people and all of creation are treated rightly and are given what they need to be able to flourish. This is a vision of abundant life, rather than the scarcity and disorder that comes with injustice. …
The root of the Hebrew word for righteousness, tsedeqah, refers to behavior that is called for based on the relationships between people or between people and God. Righteousness is not about an abstract moral standard to which we need to adhere perfectly but rather about living faithfully in each of our relationships. … Just like justice, righteousness is concerned for the community. (The Justice Calling, 20-21)
“Scholar and ministry practitioner Amy Sherman notes that biblical righteousness expresses itself in three directions - up, in, and out. Righteousness expresses itself in an upward direction as we live our lives in ways that glorify God and demonstrate our love of God, in humble dependence on God’s grace and Spirit. It expresses itself inwardly as we live with internal holiness and purity, with transformed and purified hearts, and through the grace and transforming work of God in Christ and the Spirit. Righteousness also needs to manifest itself outwardly in righteousness toward others, as we love our neighbors near and far through Jesus Christ and the Spirit.” (The Justice Calling, 21).
“As we live and love with righteousness and justice, we bear witness to God’s kingdom. Shattering our conception of righteousness as having to do with individuals self-righteously living morally perfect lives, Jesus tells us that the righteousness feed the hungry, offer drink to the thirsty, invite in strangers, offer clothes to those in need, look after the sick, and visit the imprisoned. He says that as we do these things, we are serving God himself and living in anticipation of the kingdom of God…” (The Justice Calling, 133).