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Photograph of sunlit leaves by Clare Stober

Jesus Is Coming – Plant a Tree!

N. T. Wright


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Our Garden, God’s Garden

Why the Gospel Calls Us to Life in Community

A reading from Eberhard Arnold on why the gospel calls us to life in community. For Thomas Merton’s perspective, read Arnolds book Why We Live in Community.

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  • Volker Klaue

    The author seems to stress the teaching that God's kingdom has come with Jesus' first coming and that is certainly biblical. N.T. Wright stresses the truth that God's kingdom has come. It came with Jesus' announcement of the Gospel, but N.T.Wright makes the point, that it came with Jesus' resurrection from death. That thought is new to me, but it is meant to support the author's thesis that our present work on earth, even our care for clean air and clean rivers, is kingdom work, and will have some value in a coming kingdom in the future. To me, such argument is not needed. When we understand the meaning of Christian stewardship of all things, temporal and eternal, we will not pollute air and rivers, and plant trees where they are needed for our well being and to beautify the world God made.

  • David Halseth

    Another extrodinary discussion by Wright. Always brings hope and truth at a time in our current history where hope and truth are needed most.

We have declared, in the Nicene Creed, that Jesus Christ “will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom shall have no end,” but neither mainline Catholic nor mainline Protestant theology has explored what exactly we mean by all that, and we have left a vacuum to be filled by various kinds of dualism. In particular, Western Christianity has allowed itself to embrace that dualism whereby the ultimate destiny of God’s people is heaven, seen as a place detached from earth, so that the aim of Christianity as a whole, and of conversion, justification, sanctification, and salvation, is seen in terms of leaving earth behind and going home to a place called heaven.

So powerful is this theme in a great deal of popular preaching, liturgy, and hymnography that it comes as a shock to many people to be told that this is simply not how the earliest Christians saw things. For the early Christians, the resurrection of Jesus launched God’s new creation upon the world, beginning to fulfill the prayer Jesus taught his followers, that God’s kingdom would come “on earth as in heaven” (Matt. 6:10), and anticipating the “new heavens and a new earth” (Isa. 65:17, 66:22; 2 Pet. 3:13; Rev. 21:1) promised by Isaiah and again in the New Testament. From this point of view, as I have often said (though the phrase is not original to me), heaven is undoubtedly important, but it’s not the end of the world. The early Christians were not very interested, in the way our world has been interested, in what happens to people immediately after they die. They were extremely interested in a topic many Western Christians in the last few years have forgotten about altogether, namely the final new creation, new heavens and new earth joined together, and the resurrection of the body that will create new human beings to live in that new world.

The question of how you think about the ultimate future has an obvious direct impact on how you think about the task of the church in the present time. To put it crudely and at the risk of caricaturing: if you suppose that the present world of space, time, and matter is a thoroughly bad thing, then the task is to escape from this world and enable as many others to do so as possible. If you go that route, you will most likely end up in some form of gnosticism, and the gnostic has no interest in improving the lot of human beings, or the state of the physical universe, in the present time. Why wallpaper the house if it’s going to be knocked down tomorrow?

At the opposite end of the spectrum, some theologians have been so impressed with the presence and activity of God in the present world that they have supposed God wants simply to go on working at it as it is, to go on improving it until eventually it becomes the perfect place he has in mind. From this point of view, the task of the Christian is to work at programs of social and cultural improvement, including care for the natural environment, so that God’s kingdom will come on earth through an almost evolutionary process, as in Teilhard de Chardin, or at least until human hard work in the present world attains the result God ultimately intends. . . .

I first ran into the problem I’m addressing here during a weekend of lectures in Thunder Bay, Ontario, in (I think) 1982 or 1983. I was working in Montreal at the time and was asked to talk about Jesus in historical context. . . . To my surprise, the main question people had in mind was not the meaning of the parables or of the cross or the incarnation itself, but questions of ecology: some people in the church had been saying that there was no point in worrying about the trees and acid rain, the rivers and lakes and water pollution, or climate change in relation to crops and harvests, because Jesus was coming back soon and Armageddon would destroy the present world. Not only was there no point in being concerned about the state of the ecosystem; it was actually unspiritual to do so, a form of worldliness that distracted from the real task of the gospel, which was the saving and nurturing of souls for a spiritual eternity. I can’t now remember what sort of answers I gave to these questions, but the questions themselves have stayed with me.

The Large Tree by Paul Gauguin depicts several types of trees in a very green landscape. Paul Gauguin, The Large Tree
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surprised by scripture book cover This article is from N. T. Wright’s recent book Surprised by Scripture: Engaging Contemporary Issues (HarperOne, 2014). Used by permission of the publisher.
green and blue

Paul to the church in Rome (ca. AD 56)

Creation itself is on tiptoe with expectation, eagerly awaiting the moment when God’s children will be revealed. Creation, you see, was subjected to pointless futility, not of its own volition, but because of the one who placed it in this subjection, in the hope that creation itself would be freed from its slavery to decay, to enjoy the freedom that comes when God’s children are glorified.

Let me explain. We know that the entire creation is groaning together, and going through labor pains together, up until the present time. Not only so: we too, we who have the first fruits of the spirit’s life within us, are groaning within ourselves, as we eagerly await our adoption, the redemption of our body (Romans 8:19–23).




cover for The Kingdom New Testament by N. T. Wright from N.T. Wright, The Kingdom New Testament: A Contemporary Translation (Harper One, 2011).
Old olive tree

It is striking how the earliest Christians, like mainstream rabbis of the period, clung to the twin doctrines of creation and judgment: God made the world and made it good, and one day he will come and sort it all out. Take away the goodness of creation, and you have a judgment where the world is thrown away as so much garbage, leaving us sitting on a disembodied cloud playing disembodied harps. Take away judgment, and you have this world rumbling on with no hope except the pantheist one of endless cycles of being and history. Put creation and judgment together, and you get new heavens and new earth, created not ex nihilo but ex vetere, not out of nothing but out of the old one, the existing one.

And the model for that is of course the resurrection of Jesus, who didn’t leave his body behind in the tomb and grow a new one but whose body, dead and buried, was raised to life three days later and recognized by the marks left by the nails and the spear. There is a whole world of eschatological understanding in the resurrection narratives, not least John’s insistence that Easter day is the first day of the week; John, so rooted in creational theology, knows exactly what he is doing. Easter is the beginning of God’s new creation. We don’t have to wait. It has already burst in. And the whole point of John 20 and 21 is that we who believe in Jesus are to become, in the power of his spirit, not only beneficiaries of that new creation but also agents.

I end with an extraordinary verse, 1 Corinthians 15:58: “So, my dear family, be firmly unshakable, always full to overflowing with the Lord’s work. In the Lord, as you know, the work you’re doing will not be worthless.” Now what is that exhortation doing at the end of a chapter on resurrection? If we were to take the normal Western view of life after death, a long chapter on resurrection might end with something like this: “Therefore, my beloved, lift up your head and wait for the wonderful hope that is coming to you eventually.” But for Paul, as is clear throughout 1 Corinthians, the resurrection means that what you do in the present matters into God’s future. That is so for ethics, not least sexual ethics, as in 1 Corinthians 6. But it is also so for everything else. The resurrection, God’s recreation of his wonderful world, which began with the resurrection of Jesus and continues mysteriously as God’s people live in the risen Christ and in the power of his spirit, means that what we do in Christ and by the Spirit in the present is not wasted. It will last and be enhanced in God’s new world.

I have no idea precisely what this means. I do not know how the painting an artist paints today in prayer and wisdom will find a place in God’s new world. I don’t know what musical instruments we will have to play Bach, though I’m sure Bach’s music will be there. I don’t know how my planting a tree today will relate to the wonderful trees that will be in God’s recreated world. I don’t know how my work for justice for the poor, for remission of global debts, will reappear in that new world. But I know that God’s new world of justice and joy, of hope for the whole earth, was launched when Jesus came out of the tomb on Easter morning: I know he calls me and you to live in him and by the power of his spirit, and so to be new-creation people here and now, giving birth to signs and symbols of the kingdom on earth as in heaven. The resurrection of Jesus and the gift of the Spirit mean that we are called to bring forth real and effective signs of God’s renewed creation even in the midst of the present age. Not to do so is at best to put ourselves in the position of those Second Temple Jews who believed they had to wait passively for God to act – when God has acted in Jesus to inaugurate his kingdom on earth as in heaven. At worst, not to bring forth works and signs of renewal in God’s creation is to collude, as gnosticism always does, with the forces of sin and death.

This doesn’t mean that we are called to build the kingdom by our own efforts, or even with the help of the Spirit. The final kingdom, when it comes, will be the free gift of God, a massive act of grace and new creation. But we are called to build for the kingdom. Like craftsmen working on a great cathedral, we have each been given instructions about the particular stone we are to spend our lives carving, without knowing or being able to guess where it will take its place within the grand design. We are assured, by the words of Paul and by Jesus’ resurrection as the launch of that new creation, that the work we do is not in vain. That says it all. That is the mandate we need for every act of justice and mercy, every program of ecology, every effort to reflect God’s wise stewardly image into his creation. In the new creation, the ancient human mandate to look after the garden is dramatically reaffirmed – another point we could draw out of John 20 were there time. The resurrection of Jesus is the reaffirmation of the goodness of creation, and the gift of the Spirit is there to make us the fully human beings we were supposed to be, precisely so that we can fulfill that mandate at last. What are we waiting for? Jesus is coming. Let’s go and plant those trees.

Contributed By N T Wright N. T. Wright

A leading bible scholar and former Anglican bishop, N.T. Wright is professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of St. Andrews.

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