The Tree(s) of Life

“The Tree of Life” by Marc Chagall

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“Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life” (Revelation 22:1-2a).

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Each of the last three weeks, our Epistle from Revelation has shown us a vision of the new heaven and earth. In chapter 21, we heard of “the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (v 1-2). Last week, John saw “the Bride, the wife of the Lamb” and went on to describe her beauty and radiance in detail (21:9 ff). Today, the depiction of the new heaven and earth is reminiscent of the Garden of Eden.

To better understand this depiction, we go back to Genesis 2, “And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there He put the man whom He had formed. And out of the ground the Lord God made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. The tree of life was in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (v 8, 9).

God planted two trees in the middle of the garden—the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Not much is said about the tree of life in Genesis since it never got to serve the purpose God intended for it. Judging from what God said in Genesis 3:22, its purpose was to confirm Adam and Eve in their physical life. Perhaps if they had not sinned by eating of the tree of knowledge of good and evil but had chosen to eat of the tree of life, they would have lived forever. According to Revelation 2:7, when we one day live in God’s presence in Paradise, we will eat of the tree of life, and nothing will interrupt that perfect life.

The second tree mentioned specifically is the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. People who know how this story comes out have asked: Why did God have to put that tree with the forbidden fruit in the garden in the first place? Since Adam and Eve weren’t permitted to eat of its fruit, why put it there at all? Rather than attempting to read God’s mind, let’s just let the text speak for itself.

“You may surely eat of every tree of the garden,” the Lord said. Adam had a wide range of foods to pick from, and the command to abstain from one tree was not burdensome. But God did make it clear: “Of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”

When Adam received this command from God, He was, in the fullest sense of the term, alive. He was bound to God by the most intimate bond of love and trust. If Adam refused to obey God, by that act, he would separate himself from God. That’s death. And as evidence that man had cut himself off from his Creator, he would then also be subject to physical death, the separation of body and soul.

Since that tree had such fateful consequences for Adam and the entire human race, why did God plant it in the garden? Was it just to test Adam, to see what he would do when facing temptation? That doesn’t seem right. Genesis 2 speaks of what God did to make His children happy, and this special tree was no exception.

God never designed human beings to be puppets or robots whom He regulates by pulling strings or pushing buttons. You can’t love or be loved by a puppet or a robot! By placing the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the garden, God was giving Adam the opportunity to obey God of his own free will. In so doing, God realized the risk involved, that Adam might choose to disobey Him. God was giving the man a chance to grow. When God created Adam, he was in a state of innocence. By giving Adam the command not to eat, God was offering him the opportunity to progress from created innocence to conscious holiness. God wanted His highest creature to be holy by choice, not by accident.

Martin Luther used an illustration that makes God’s intent clear. “This tree of the knowledge of good and evil was Adam’s church, his altar, his pulpit. Here, he was to yield to God the obedience he owed, to give recognition to the Word and will of God, to give thanks to God, and to call upon God for aid against temptation.” That tree in the middle of the garden was Adam’s place to worship God. He was reminded of God’s goodness to him. There he could thank God for His mercy. There he could respond by giving God glad obedience.

The Creator had endowed Adam with a free will, an inborn freedom to do what pleased God. God wanted him to exercise that free will. If Adam had, the experience would have produced a knowledge of good and evil similar to that which God Himself has. Adam’s intellect would have become more keenly aware of what God wanted and what He didn’t want. His emotions would have found joy in the Creator’s will and would have convinced him of what a dreadful thing it would be to rebel against God. And Adam’s will would have consciously chosen to follow God’s command to have nothing to do with the forbidden fruit.

Alas, he did not, the consequences of Adam and Eve’s sin reverberated throughout all of creation to this very day. The serpent was cursed, the ground was cursed, childbearing and marriage would come with great pain and frustration, and Adam and Eve and all their children would die and return to the dust from which they were created. Even so, God promised a Savior, the Seed of the woman who would crush the serpent’s head.

A statement that God made toward the end of this episode may puzzle some. “Behold, the man has become like one of Us in knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:22). Luther remarked, “God says this in holy irony.” After Adam and Eve had eaten the forbidden fruit, they knew from experience what good and evil are, but that knowledge was a caricature of the knowledge God had intended for them to have. They now knew good as something they had forfeited and lost. They now knew evil as something that permeated their whole being, a built-in enemy against which they would have to struggle even after they had been brought to faith.

It follows then, that there was one more thing God had to do, and it required of God what we sometimes call “tough love.” He had to drive the two people out of the garden. God did not want them, in their sin-stained condition, to eat of the tree of life, for that would have perpetuated their present form of life. God didn’t want them to live permanently in bodies enslaved to sin, like the damned in hell; that would have made Christ’s magnificent work of restoration impossible.

To block any attempt Adam and Eve might make to reenter the garden, God stationed the cherubim with a flaming sword at the entrance. By doing so, God was announcing that life is no longer continual paradise but a time of grace, a period God gives us in which we can find our way back through Jesus Christ.

In Revelation 22, the scene is similar, but not identical, to the Garden of Eden. In the new heaven and earth, there is only the tree of life. As the tree of life grows continuously, eternal life grows forever from grace. Confirmed in holiness; we cannot sin so we cannot die. So, we will have continuous access to this tree.

Heaven will perfectly restore the paradise we lost through the sins of Adam and Eve. God cursed the ground because of Adam’s sin, and the Lord banished him from the Garden of Eden. But now in the new heaven and earth, the tree of life produces twelve crops of fruit, one crop each month. The tree of life provides healing of the nations. All the suffering caused by Adam’s fall will be ended. “No longer will there be anything accursed” (Revelation 22:3). Heaven is a place of beauty, safety, perfection, and eternal life.

I don’t have to tell you that you’re not in the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve were exiled from there a long time ago, and with them all mankind. You’re obviously not in heaven, either. You’re in a place with sin and sorrow, pain and death. It’s not just around you; it’s in you. According to the Word of God, you’re guilty of all the sins in this text. As one who doubts, you’re among the dogs. As one who wants your own will over God’s, you are among the sorcerers. As one who views God’s plan for sex with contempt, you are among the sexually immoral. As one who does not love his neighbor, you are among the murderers. As one who places trust in other things, you are among the idolaters. And as one who all too frequently believes God loves you because of who you are, you are one who loves and practices falsehood.

It’s no fun to hear; but remember: to break one part of God’s law is to be guilty of it all. You do not have to act to be a murderer or adulterer: you only have to have hate or lust in your heart. It is important to acknowledge this: because it is true, and because it makes all the clearer the need for forgiveness.

You see, you would be numbered among the wicked outside, but there is a crucial difference. While you’re not yet in heaven—while you’ve not yet come into the glorious presence of Christ, Christ has come into this world and into your presence. Your Savior, Jesus Christ, became flesh and dwelt among us. Between Eden and heaven, His is the tree of life. Our Thanksgiving Prayer in the Service of the Sacrament for Divine Service 4, links the tree of life in the Garden of Eden to Christ and His cross. We pray:

In Your righteous judgment You condemned the sin of Adam and Eve, who ate the forbidden fruit, and You justly barred them and all their children from the tree of life. Yet, in Your great mercy, You promised salvation by a second Adam, Your Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord, and made His cross a life-giving tree for all who trust in Him.

We give You thanks for the redemption You have prepared for us through Jesus Christ. Grant us Your Holy Spirit that we may faithfully eat and drink of the fruits of His cross and receive the blessings of forgiveness, life, and salvation that come to us in His body and blood.

Jesus saved us from death by dying in our place. He hung on the cursed tree of the cross so that we who were accursed are blessed. On the cross, Christ suffered hell for you so that you might be with Him in Paradise. In Eden and heaven, there is the tree of life planted by God so that His people may eat of it and live. On Calvary, there is a tree planted by Roman soldiers. It has one crossbeam for its branch. One precious fruit hung on that tree: the bloody, beaten body of our dear dead Savior. That tree is the tree of life in this world, because by His crucifixion Christ has redeemed you for heaven. Now He is risen from the dead, having borne on that tree the fruit of forgiveness and life.

And before we move on, remember the penitent thief on the cross. Following his ill-spent life of crime, he would be numbered among the transgressors. But by God’s gift of faith, he believed that Jesus is his Savior. Repentant, he said to Jesus, “Remember me when You come into Your Kingdom.” And Jesus responded, “Today you will be with Me in Paradise.”

“Paradise,” by the way, is a Persian word that means “garden,” most specifically the Garden of Eden. Jesus, in effect, says to the thief on the cross, “Today you will be with Me in Eden restored—you’ll be with Me in the new heaven and earth.”

Because of sin, you are outside of Paradise, but Christ is with you. And by means of His sacrifice on the cross, He has brought the tree of life and the hope of the garden to you. You are no longer a thing accursed because you are blessed. For the Lord says, “Blessed is the one who keeps the prophecy of this book.” So blessed you are: for God has put His saving Word into your ears; and by the grace and faith that He gives you, you keep His Word—you hold onto it and gladly trust in Christ as your Savior.

He says, “Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of life and that they may enter the city by the gates” (Revelation 22:14). So blessed are you: for your robe has been washed white in the blood of the Lamb. The river of life flowed at the font at your baptism, where Christ joined you to His death and washed your sins away. The fruit of the tree of life—the forgiveness won at the cross—is still given to you in His Word and Supper.

Go in the peace of the Lord and serve your neighbor with joy. You are forgiven for all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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