The Tree of Life: A Reflective Perspective

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By Al Maxey

“I see a time of Seven Generations when all the colors
of mankind will gather under the Sacred Tree of Life
and the whole earth will become One Circle again.”
Crazy Horse [1840-1877]

Mankind throughout the ages has been fascinated with “The Tree of Life,” and virtually every civilization, both primitive and advanced, ancient or modern, has some version of this tree of life story (e.g. the above quote from the great Native-American warrior and chief). Thus, the concept of a “tree of life” is not unique to the Bible. “All Oriental religions which have risen above the nature stage have their legends of a tree of life” [Dr. James Hastings, Dictionary of the Apostolic Church, vol. 2, p. 613]. “Plants whose fruit conferred life upon the one who ate it were a popular theme in ancient Mesopotamian literature” [Wycliffe Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 2, p. 1738]. “The motif has been common in most pagan religions. … In many of these mythical stories, sacred trees of varied kinds play a more or less prominent role” [The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, vol. 5, p. 811]. Dr. James Hastings (from the work referenced above) states it is an “incontestable fact” that “there was throughout the ancient world a worship of trees, and man’s dependence on particular trees for support of life offered the basis for a profound religious suggestion.” There is no irreverence, therefore, in suggesting that “the description of the trees in Eden stems from traditions which are not indigenous to Israel. The material belongs to that part of Israel’s inheritance of Near Eastern mythology which either was transmitted directly from Northern Mesopotamia by the Hebrew ancestors during the Middle Bronze Age or was mediated through Canaanite culture. The parallels in comparative religion are significant in showing the peculiar form into which Israel reworked these ancient mythical motifs” [The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, vol. 4, p. 695]. We find the same thing with creation accounts and flood stories: almost all peoples have them, and they contain many similarities.

What must be noted here, however, is how the people of God “reworked these ancient mythical motifs” [ibid]. Jesus, for example, took a very common story, with which the people of the first century were familiar, and He reworked it, using it to convey spiritual truths pertaining to final judgment (Luke 16:19ff – Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus). The use of symbols, figures of speech, parables and fables was well-known and widespread in the ancient world, and these were aids to remembering and understanding the truths the Lord sought to convey to His creation. When we begin viewing these symbols as literal, and thus factual realities, our theology suffers. I do not believe that the “tree of life” was/is a literal tree whose fruit imparts immortality and whose leaves heal the nations. I do believe, however, that the Lord used this symbol to convey some very real, and extremely important, eternal realities. “The true character which belonged to these trees was symbolical” [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 1, p. 44]. James Burton Coffman (1905-2006), one of the more recent leaders within the Stone-Campbell Movement, believed, as I do, that the various items depicted in the “Paradise” accounts of both Genesis and Revelation are not, and were never intended to be, literal. “These are symbols, not literal thrones, rivers, streets and trees. … Could this (i.e. ‘the tree of life’) be some literal tree with visible fruit? We believe it to be a beautiful symbol of a far greater reality” [Commentary on Revelation, p. 517-518].

As much as we have all heard about “the tree of life” during our spiritual and religious upbringing, it would be easy to surmise that this particular tree is mentioned time and again throughout the Bible. In point of fact, just the opposite is true. It is found only in Genesis and Revelation. In the biblical description of the garden, which was located in Eden, “the Lord God caused to grow every tree that is pleasing to the sight and good for food” (Genesis 2:9). In that same verse we are told that two trees were placed “in the midst of the garden.” These were “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” and “the tree of life.” After man was placed in this garden (vs. 8) he was told by God, “From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you shall surely die” (vs. 16-17). It is interesting to note that man was not forbidden to eat from the tree of life! From this we may infer that he did so, although for the sake of accuracy we have to admit that we aren’t told whether he did or not. We at least know he was free to do so. God did not forbid it, nor did He bar the way to it. This, I believe, suggests that had man not sinned (by eating of the forbidden tree), he could have enjoyed then and there the gift of everlasting life. His sin, however, led to his forfeiture of that life. From that point his physical body would be subject to decline and ultimately death. That sad story is recorded for us in Genesis 3:22-24 – “And the Lord God said, ‘The man has now become like one of Us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.’ So the Lord God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken. After he drove the man out, He placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life.” From this passage one could make a case that man had not yet eaten from the tree of life (if, in fact, a one-time eating of its fruit secured immortality). On the other hand, some have suggested one must eat time and again from this tree to maintain that life everlasting, and that if the fruit is no longer available, then man would once more fall victim to the effects of mortality. Both views are possible if we take the tree of life as being a literal tree with literal fruit that literally is “the medicine of immortality.”

We do not again encounter this tree of life, which was located in the midst of the garden (paradise) of Eden, until the book of Revelation. In Revelation 2:7 Jesus tells the saints in Ephesus, “To him who overcomes, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.” Once again we find this tree in “paradise” (the delightful “garden” where God had first placed man). Man had fallen due to sin; man’s access to life eternal had been lost (which is true whether the tree of life is literal or figurative). Access to that LIFE, though, is promised by Jesus to those who by grace through faith overcome! In figurative language, I believe, Jesus is declaring that the banishment from life never-ending in the beautiful Paradise of God is over. Jesus has Himself paved the way to that restored LIFE. Indeed, Jesus IS the Way to that Life. To convey this truth, Jesus uses a figure or symbol with which they were all familiar: the tree of life guarded in a garden by cherubim so that man could not enter. An interesting note here: the Holy of Holies in the tabernacle and temple, where the ark of the covenant with its mercy seat was located, had cherubim on either end of that mercy seat where God met with man. Only the high priest could enter that guarded place, and only once a year. With the sacrifice of Christ Jesus the veil of separation was torn in two, and, as the book of Hebrews tells us, the way was opened into God’s presence. The sin problem was forever dealt with by God’s Son, and through Jesus, our perfect High Priest, man could once again enter past the cherubim into the presence of the Father where we are told the tree of life exists. In other words, LIFE everlasting is now restored, and it is accomplished by and through JESUS.

The tree of life is mentioned lastly in the final chapter of Revelation. “Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse” (Revelation 22:1-3). The final reference to this tree of life is found in verse 14 of Revelation 22: “Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life and may go through the gates into the city.” In verse 17, the Spirit, referring to this LIFE, says, “Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life.” The mortal has now put on immortality (1 Corinthians 15:51-54); the curse has been lifted; LIFE has been restored; and the images of a life-giving never-ending flow of water and a beautiful tree whose leaves bring healing and whose fruit brings life forever in the paradise of God are images with which the early disciples, and the Jewish believers especially, would have been very familiar. Those who “hunger and thirst” will find God-given refreshment in great abundance. This is the message: that life is restored to those who have had their robes washed white in the cleansing blood of Jesus! They have the “right” to access this life only through Him, not by any effort or efficacy of their own. “Our ‘right to’ the tree of life is due not to our own doings, but to what He has done for us. The ‘right’ or ‘privilege’ is founded not on our merits, but on God’s grace!” [Drs. Jamieson, Fausset and Brown, Commentary Practical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible, p. 1591]. It is a “gift” of grace, one He “freely” gives to those who believe! The abundance of fruit, and the healing power of the leaves, in no way suggests the presence of hunger or disease, or even death, in this restored paradise. Rather, “we see in this bountiful supply of the tree of life an image of the abundance of grace and life in store for the redeemed. … The number twelve signifies completeness. This fruit is yielded twelve times as often as ordinary fruit. The signification, therefore, is that there is an ever-present supply” [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 22, p. 545]. Life without end.

Again, the tree (with its fruit and leaves), as well as the river, are symbols of greater eternal truths, they are not the realities themselves. “Consuming leaves and washing robes is certainly symbolic. The Bible here pictures at the end of the world a reversal of the damage done in its beginning. Basically the use of the tree of life in Revelation supports the symbolic view of the tree of life in Genesis. … Thus, the tree of life stood in the paradise of God as the symbol of blissful eternal life in the presence of God. If the Garden of Eden is a type of heaven, then the tree of life is a type of Christ through whom eternal life may be gained” [The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 4, p. 902]. “These words regarding the tree of life found in Genesis and Revelation thus bind the beginning and the end of the Bible together, all of which, first to last, is concerned with the recovery of that which was lost in the Fall. As to just what the tree of life actually is, it is difficult to think of it as any kind of literal fruit. It undoubtedly has reference to Christ Himself, as indicated by the following: The Hebrew word in Genesis 2:9 was rendered by the LXX translators with a Greek word which means, not ‘tree,’ but ‘wood;’ and the NT writers used that same word (‘wood’) for all four passages where it occurs in Revelation, and in Acts 5:30, 10:39, 13:29, Galatians 3:13, and in 1 Peter 2:24 regarding the cross upon which Jesus died. … It is not unlikely, therefore, that the tree of life is a holy symbol of the Son of God Himself” [Burton Coffman, Commentary on Revelation, p. 50-51].

Timothy Keller (b. 1950), an American pastor, theologian, and Christian apologist, observed, “Jesus took the tree of death so you could have the tree of life.” Indeed, both “woods” find their ultimate meaning and power IN HIM. Homer Hailey (1903-2000), another great leader in our movement, wrote, “Of course, the whole picture is symbolic. Man must now find his eternal life in a different tree, the one on which the Savior was hanged. In John’s vision, that which was lost in Adam’s paradise is gained in Christ’s City of God” [Revelation: An Introduction and Commentary, p. 422]. Hailey further observes, “A close relationship between these verses in Revelation and the first few chapters of Genesis is readily apparent. In Eden there was a garden, a river, the tree of life, man’s disobedience and separation from these, a curse pronounced on the serpent, the soil and indirectly upon man, for it brought death and separation from God. In the City of God, the eternal Eden of the redeemed, there is the river of the water of life, the tree of life, the absence of a curse, and a perfect and full fellowship of the redeemed with God. What was lost in Eden is now fully restored; God’s purpose is achieved” [ibid, p. 420].

Most biblical scholars feel there is a prophecy about this tree of life (although it is not referred to by that name) in Ezekiel 47:12 – “Fruit trees of all kinds will grow on both banks of the river. Their leaves will not wither, nor will their fruit fail. Every month they will bear fruit, because the water from the sanctuary flows to them. Their fruit will serve for food and their leaves for healing.” A much less likely reference to the tree of life, although still interesting to read, is found in Ezekiel 31. We should also point out, for the sake of thoroughness, that there are four additional mentions of things being a tree of life, although these are not said to actually be the tree of life in the same sense as the Genesis and Revelation tree of life. In other words, the concept of a tree of life is being used as a metaphor. These four are found in the book of Proverbs. “The omission of the definite article before the word ‘life’ in the Proverbs references may indicate that its use of the term is not a conscious reference to the Genesis account” [The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 4, p. 901]. These passages are: (1) Proverbs 3:18 – “She {wisdom} is a tree of life to those who embrace her; those who lay hold of her will be blessed.” (2) Proverbs 11:30 – “The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life, and he who wins souls is wise.” (3) Proverbs 13:12 – “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.” (4) Proverbs 15:4 – “The tongue that brings healing is a tree of life, but a deceitful tongue crushes the spirit.” Again, “none of these proverbs seem to refer to ‘the tree of life’ mentioned in Genesis” [The Holman Bible Dictionary, p. 1367].

Also, I would be remiss if I did not point out that this tree of life is alluded to occasionally in the Jewish non-canonical books, although most of these references are far more fanciful than factual. A couple of examples are: 1 Enoch 24 and 2 Enoch 8. In 2 Esdras 8:52 we find a more biblically focused statement: “For you, paradise is opened, the tree of life is planted, the future time is prepared, abundance is made ready, the city is built, rest is appointed, goodness is established, and wisdom is perfected in advance.” “Rabbinic and Jewish apocalyptic works mention that the glorious age of the Messiah would be a restoration to Edenic conditions before the Fall. Jewish thought joined the concepts of the renewed City of God, the tree of life, and the paradise of God. In the apocalyptic book ‘The Testament of Levi‘ (18:10-11) it is promised that God (or Messiah) ‘shall open the gates of Paradise, and shall remove the threatening sword against Adam, and He shall give the saints to eat from the tree of life, and the Spirit of Holiness shall be upon them'” [The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 12, p. 435]. Thus, it is worthy of note in one’s study of this topic that “outside of the Bible, Jewish sources abound with references to the tree of life. … In fact, the Menorah, the lampstand placed in the temple, may have been an abstract representation of the tree of life. … Rabbinic tradition suggested that the tree of life was so tall that it required a 500 year journey to scale it and reach the top. … There are many other such texts from Judaism. Collectively they tell us that the symbol of the tree of life powerfully evoked yearning for life and spiritual healing among ancient Jews, providing a biblical symbol that they readily embraced” [“The Tree of Life in Jewish Imagery,” The Archaeological Study Bible, p. 2075].

At the end of the article referenced above, the writer points out that the apostle John, in the book of Revelation, utilized this well-known biblical symbol, and “was, in effect, saying that the only way to the true tree of life is through Jesus Christ” [ibid]. The Lord said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through Me” (John 14:6). He not only is the way to this abundant and everlasting life, He is that life. Thus, if we are “in Him,” by grace through faith, we have that LIFE. “God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have the life. These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, in order that you may know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5:11-13). Sadly, mankind has always searched for this eternal life somewhere else, placing their trust in anything and everything other than Jesus Christ. Jesus addressed this misplaced focus in John 5:39-40 – “You search the Scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; but it is these that bear witness of Me; and you are unwilling to come to Me, that you may have life.” With this in mind, we must be very careful not to repeat this mistake by assuming, and teaching, that our immortality is attained and maintained by eating the literal fruit of a literal “tree of life,” and that Jesus merely provided access to that source of life. NO … Jesus IS the life! This “tree of life” (just as “the bread of life” and the “river or water of life”) is a symbol; it is not the reality. When we make a sacrament of a symbol, we err greatly!

“Using the language of apocalypticism, the apostle John, in the Revelation, pictures man’s restoration to fellowship with God in terms of the return of the blessings of Eden” [The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, vol. 4, p. 697]. In other words, John employed figurative language, filled with symbolism, to present greater spiritual realities which oftentimes are too much for our finite minds to grasp. The tree of life is a symbol. I do not believe it is literal; yet it does indeed proclaim a vital Truth. “True life is not gained through a magical tree, but only through the proper relationship to God. It is because he has lost this relationship that man is expelled from paradise. The Genesis writer has skillfully employed this older mythical motif to symbolize a false solution to man’s ultimate problem of life and death” [ibid]. The tree of life is not the answer to the life/death issue; rather, it points the way, through powerful symbolism, to the One who is the solution to the life/death issue. When we suggest that the redeemed must routinely and continually eat literal fruit from a literal tree in the restored paradise of God, then we are teaching as Truth that life is attained and maintained in an object, rather than in/by Deity. Thus, life is in this tree, and Jesus merely points the way to it and allows us access to it. It also suggests that our eternal life in the new heavens and earth is conditional: we must continually eat from this tree to live, and if we miss a few meals we perish. Deity, therefore, cannot sustain our lives eternally, but must rely upon our own determination to eat of this tree. Such teaching, frankly, is counter to the very message of redemption our Lord proclaimed.

John Calvin (1509-1564) declared this “would be an attempt to justify ourselves by works instead of faith.” If we place our hope and trust in a tree for life everlasting, we have a misplaced trust. Calvin further observed, and I believe rightfully so, “it is certain that man would not have been able, had he even devoured the whole tree, to enjoy life against the will of God.” John Calvin was addressing the belief that if Adam and Eve had managed to get to the tree before God barred access to it, then they could, by eating of that special tree, thwart the will of God Almighty and live forever. Let us not confuse symbol with substance. “The river and the tree of life are symbols of the life bestowed by the grace of God” [Dr. B.W. Johnson, The People’s New Testament with Explanatory Notes, p. 420]. “The imagery of abundant fruit and medicinal leaves should be understood as symbolic of the far-reaching effects of the death of Christ in the redeemed community” [The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 12, p. 599]. God has given us many wonderful symbols that point the way to greater truths and realities: the rainbow, the tree of life, the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper, baptism in water, and on and on. NONE of these are in any way redemptive; they are rather reflective, and powerfully so, as they excite our hearts and minds, and motivate us to more godly attitudes and actions. I love the imagery and symbolism of the tree of life, for it points me to the One who IS that LIFE. May we daily keep our eyes of faith upon HIM, rather than the countless figures and types and emblems and symbols that merely point to Him. Brethren, take care to put your trust in Him, rather than in them.


Read more from Al at his website!

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