How do I teach about death using a branch?

Photo credit: Matvey Andreyev on flickr

Like every other country in the world, Togo, West Africa, desperately needs to hear a clear Gospel. 70% are animist, 10% Muslim, and 20% “Christian”. Confusion abounds even among many who call themselves Christians. Many have given their businesses names like “Jesus Loves You Pizzeria,” “Thanks to God Bar,” “Jesus Saves Grocery,” yet relatively few have a clear understanding of the Gospel.

In the summers of 2003 and 2004, some of us were privileged to hold several TERM seminars for Christians in Togo. We taught through the French version of All that the Prophets have Spoken. The seminars included teaching the believers how to use simple, indigenous visual aids—which serve to grab and hold people’s attention, as well as strengthen their understanding and retention of God’s story and message.

Among the dozens of visual aids used in TERM, one of my favorites is THE BRANCH. It’s a readily available, effective tool which can help people understand their lost position as helpless sinners separated from their holy Creator. (We must never forget that before folks can understand their need to be reconciled to God, they must recognize that they are separated from Him!)

The use of the branch illustration is not limited to the classroom setting. While traveling in the interior of Togo, our team made a rest stop where several men were seated under a tree, near a mosque. As we chatted with them, before long, I broke a branch off the tree and asked them, “So what do you think? Is this branch dead or alive?” I had their full attention. One of them answered, “It’s dying.” Another replied, “It is dead.” I chided them, “How can you say it’s dead? Look how green it is! It looks alive to me!” One responded, “It looks alive, but it’s really dead because it is separated from the tree, its source of life.” Bingo! I was then able to ask them, “Did you know that you have just given a perfect definition of DEATH according to the Bible? DEATH is not annihilation, but SEPARATION—from the Source of Life.”

Next, we reviewed the story of Adam’s first day in the Garden of Eden (they knew the story fairly well). “God told Adam, ‘You may freely eat of all the trees of the garden, except one. In the very day you eat of this one tree, you will surely die!” I asked them, “What did God say would happen to Adam if he sinned against (disobeyed) God? Did He tell Adam that if he ate of the forbidden fruit, he must start doing religious rituals, praying and going to a mosque or church?” “No,” they answered, “God said Adam would die.”

“You are right,” I told them, “God made it clear: the payment for sin was not doing religious activities. It was DEATH. But, tell me, after Adam and Eve disobeyed God and ate the forbidden fruit, did they fall over dead that very same day?” “No!” they answered. “Well, then, what did God mean when He told Adam, ‘In the day you eat of this fruit, you will surely die!’?” I was able to go on from there and tell them of the three separations* which are included in the Bible’s definition of death—three awful consequences of man’s choice to sin against his Creator-Owner.

1. Spiritual death: SEPARATION of man’s spirit and soul from God.

The same day that Adam and Eve sinned they died spiritually. Like a branch separated from the tree, Adam and Eve’s close relationship with the LORD God was finished. It was dead. “Your iniquities have separated you from your God; and your sins have hidden His face from you…” (Isaiah 59:2) Adam and Eve had become sinners. They no longer wanted to be with their holy and loving Creator. And because God is holy, He could not act as though everything was OK. A single sin is as repulsive to our Creator as it would be to us to have a rotting carcass of a pig in our bedroom, or a drop of poison in our tea. And just as spraying perfume on the decaying carcass or adding pure water to the contaminated tea will not fix the problem, so no amount of religious deeds or good works can remove man’s sin and make him spiritually alive and pure again. Sin separated Adam and Eve from their God. But the news gets even worse.

Look again at this severed branch. What part of it is “dead” as a result of being separated from the tree? Yes, the whole branch is dead— including the little twigs at the tip of the branch. If those twigs and leaves could talk, perhaps they would say something like, “Now wait a minute! It’s not our fault the branch got separated from the tree! We are not affected by what someone else did!” But they are affected. In the same way, since Adam is the head of the entire human race, we are all affected by his sin. As descendants of Adam, we are all members of the same dead “branch.” Sin is a part of our human nature. That is why even little children sin… naturally. When Adam sinned, the entire human race yet to be born was separated from God. Even before we die physically, we are spiritually dead in trespasses and sins.” (Ephesians 2:1)

2. Physical death: SEPARATION of man’s spirit and soul from his body.

The day Adam and Eve sinned, they also began to die physically. Even as the leaves on this broken branch do not dry up instantly, so Adam and Eve’s bodies did not drop dead the day they sinned, but death’s grip had taken hold. Death’s power had installed itself in their bodies. Sin’s consequences included the fact that all living creatures must now “die and return to their dust.” (Psalm 104:29) The Scripture is clear that “…in Adam all die.” (1 Corinthians 15:22)

3. Eternal death: SEPARATION of man’s spirit, soul and body from God forever.

A living branch’s purpose is to bear leaves and fruit. Dead branches have no real purpose. They are gathered up, thrown into the fire and burned. When man sinned against God, he forfeited the awesome purpose for which he was created: To glorify God and enjoy close fellowship with Him forever. Unless the LORD provided a solution for Adam and Eve’s sin problem, once their bodies died, they faced the awful prospect of being eternally separated from God in the lake of fire which God had prepared for the devil and his demons. The Bible calls this “the second death” since it occurs after physical death. “The lake of fire…is the second death. And anyone not found written in the Book of Life was cast into the lake of fire.” (Revelation 20:14,15) If the concept of an eternal hell seems unreasonable to us, perhaps it is due to our failure to grasp the foulness of sin in the sight of a holy of God. “But there shall by no means enter [Paradise] anything that defiles, or causes an abomination or a lie, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s Book of Life.” (Rev. 21:27) Just as God’s established natural laws cause a severed branch to die, wither and be burned, so God’s spiritual laws demand that sin be paid for with DEATH—spiritual, physical and eternal separation from the Source of Life.

This was the bad news that I shared with the men under the tree.

However, before we left them and continued on our journey, I was able to outline God’s Good News—about what the Lord Jesus Christ did for us on the cross by fully paying our sin debt and then by overcoming death itself on the third day. A couple of these men already knew John 3:16 by heart. As we shook hands and said goodbye, one of the men, with deep sincerity in his voice, told us, “Thank you! Thank you! You have helped us to understand many things today.”

A few days later, we used “the Branch” again—this time with some Togolese restaurant workers who joined us at our table (we were the only customers). After listening intently to God’s story and message for more than an hour, the cook (far right) testified that, for the first time in his life, he understood why Jesus had to die on the cross for our sins. He also made it known that he believed and had the assurance that he was now “out of Adam” and “in Christ” and on his way to heaven.

Do you see why many of us love to use the branch as a teaching tool? Can you see how these embedded truths might help a person begin to see the solemn consequences of sin, and prepare them to understand why it was necessary for the sinless Lord Jesus to suffer and die for our sins, and why He cried out from the cross, “My God, My God, Why have You forsaken Me?”? Of course, none of us can fathom the utter horror and desolation of those dreadful, pitch-black hours when the infinite Son of God was separated from His Eternal Father as He suffered in our place the eternal death penalty that we deserve. But the Good News is… that is exactly what He did!

So snap off a branch and tell someone about it!


*These three separations are explained in chapter 4 of By This Name, The Stranger on the Road to Emmaus, or in All that the Prophets have Spoken.


Author: Amos Kwok

Curriculum development manager at the international office.