What Do We Know about the Other Tree in the Garden of Eden?
Jack Campbell (Nicolas Cage) is a wealthy, fast-paced investment banker living the dream life in New York City. However, on Christmas Eve, he's unexpectedly transported to an alternate reality where he's married to his college sweetheart and raising a family in suburban New Jersey. As Jack grapples with the contrasting worlds, he must decide between his high-powered career and the love and simplicity of family life.
That’s the basic plotline of “The Family Man,” a film made in 2000. I think I watched it before I came to know Jesus — so this isn’t a recommendation of the film. Truth be told, I only remember the part about him waking up to an entirely alternate reality. I’ve always found that an intriguing thought. Our life is made up of several choices — some major, many inconsequential. What would our lives look like with different choices?
As I’ve pondered this question, I’ve thought about the first couple. Should they have eaten that fruit? What would have happened if they would have rejected the serpent’s ploy? But there is actually another question we could ask. Not only did they eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they also rejected eating from another tree — the tree of life. What if they had eaten from that instead?
What is this tree of life? What does it symbolize? Does it matter for us today?
Where Is the Tree of Life in the Bible?
Though the concept which it represents is woven throughout the Scriptures, the actual tree of life is only mentioned twice. It makes its first appearance in the book of Genesis, in the Garden of Eden. It is mentioned in Genesis 2:9 (NIV), where it is described as one of the trees in the garden:
"The Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground — trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil."
The concept reemerges in the book of Revelation, where the Apostle John describes a vision of the New Jerusalem. In Revelation 22:2 (NIV), he writes, "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."
Though it only appears in these two verses, the tree of life has become a powerful symbol in many cultures. What does it mean? What does it symbolize?
What Is the Tree of Life?
When the first couple took of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they were cast out of the Garden. In Genesis 3:22, the Lord God tells us why, “Since the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil, he must not reach out, take from the tree of life, eat, and live forever.”
We see, then, that this tree is about eternal life. But in their fallen condition, this eternal life would be synonymous with an eternal death. Because of the consequence of our sin, earthly life would now be marked by death, sorrow, fruitless toil, pain, isolation, and all the bad things which keep us tossing and turning at night. God graciously wanted humanity to have eternal life, thus he booted us out of the Garden.
Some theologians believe that there is more to this tree than just physical life. There is a fellowship component to the tree. As the Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible explains:
“The Genesis narrative suggests that God intended the tree of life to provide Adam and Eve with a sacramental symbol of life in fellowship with and dependence on him. Man’s life, as distinguished from that of the animals, was much more than merely biological; it was also spiritual and found its deepest significance in fellowship with God. Life in the fullness of its physical and spiritual dimensions, however, could remain man’s possession only so long as he remained obedient to God’s command (Gen 2:17).”
The tree of life, then, isn’t just about living forever. It’s about living forever in fellowship with God. This meaning is picked up in Proverbs 3:18 where wisdom is likened to “a tree of life to those who lay hold of her.” Wisdom, then, is a reprieve from the curse of death which has washed over the world. Wisdom is a path towards redemption. In wisdom we live according to the reality by which God governs the world.
The Israelites also had symbols of the tree of life woven into their rhythms of worship. The tabernacle, and later the temple, were constructed as miniature gardens of Eden. And the golden lampstand took the form of a tree. Fruits and vines were also part of the construction of the temple — little pointers to once again enjoying the fruit of fellowship with God.
But Israel failed in her task. She wasn’t able to get back to the garden. We ultimately reject the path of wisdom and choose the path of folly instead. We continue down the path of our first ancestors, choosing the wrong tree. As such, we also are booted out of the Garden.
Yet, we see the tree of life reappear in Revelation 22. It is there in the center of the city, yielding perpetual fruit, and providing healing to the nations. And after its appearance we read of the specifics of that healing in Revelation 22:3-5. All the darkness is gone. The curse is broken. Life is restored. We are back in the Garden — but this time, enjoying the fruit of the tree of life. How did that happen?
The Tree of Life Restored
I would argue that we eat from the tree of life, because Jesus — our new representative — chose the right tree. He picked the fruit of eternal life instead of the forbidden fruit. Satan tempted him with that forbidden fruit, just as in the Garden, but Christ resisted. And as such He provided the perfect record for us.
Yet, there was still the matter of death. The curse had to be broken. And it is here that we see another tree. This tree is a cruel and wicked instrument of death. But on it would hang the God-Man, bearing in His body the curse of the forbidden. Cursed is everyone who hangs on this tree. And by hanging on that tree, the perfectly obedient Son of Man became a curse for us.
But on that morning when the Son of God rose from the grave, the tree of life was once again opened. Life is now where death once was.
I’m not alone in this understanding. Charles Spurgeon said this:
“We believe our Lord Jesus Christ to be none other than that tree of life, whose leaves are for the healing of the nations. We can scarcely conceive of any other interpretation, as this seems to us to be so full of meaning, and to afford us such unspeakable satisfaction. At any rate, beloved, if this be not the absolute purpose of the sublime vision that John saw, it is most certainly true that our Lord Jesus Christ is life from the dead, and life to his own living people. He is all in all to them; and by him, and by him alone, must their spiritual life be maintained.”
Christ Provides Healing
We are caught in a world between these two trees. In one sense we’re still living in a world cursed by our affinity for that forbidden tree. But in another sense, redemption has already sprung. Christ has provided healing, is providing healing, and will provide full and total healing.
Apart from grace we are stuck in the cycle of rebellion. We’re truly and honestly offered the tree of life — but we, just like our first couple, are drawn to the forbidden. But Christ has broken the cycle. In Christ, we have all the fruits from the tree of life. Through His Spirit we slowly but surely begin to bear this fruit. And someday, it’ll be the only tree we know.
Walter A. Elwell and Barry J. Beitzel, “Tree of Life,” Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988), 2105.
C. H. Spurgeon, “Christ the Tree of Life,” in The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit Sermons, vol. 57 (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1911), 241–242.
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