The Tree of Life
The Mysterious Symbol at the Heart of the New
Peter D. Goodgame
May 19, 2015
story of the Gospel is the greatest epic drama that could ever be
imagined. At its heart the Gospel is the story of the redemption of
fallen members of the Family of God. It is a story of Reconciliation
and Restoration. The Apostle Paul offers a good summary of the
cosmic purpose of the Gospel in 2 Corinthians 5:16-21, calling it
the Ministry of Reconciliation:
From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
At the center of the Gospel we have this mysterious object known as the Tree of Life. At the beginning we have Adam and Eve given free access to the Tree of Life, but shortly after due to disobedience they are cut off from the Tree of Life. The entire rest of the story is the chronicle of humankind’s New Exodus journey, out of the wilderness that they were thrown into, and back to the Tree of Life, which is finally shown planted at the center of the New Jerusalem at the end of the book of Revelation:
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.
For those who are tempted to look upon the Tree of Life as a literal living wooden tree, which bore literal fruit that was once eaten by Adam and Eve and will one day be literally eaten again, I would say, not so fast. Let’s not be so superficial and let’s try to understand this object from a deeper spiritual perspective.
The metaphor of a tree and its branches shows up throughout Scripture. In Romans 11 Paul refers to a Tree with Jewish and Gentile branches whose root is (on one level) Old Covenant Israel, and also Christ Himself (on another level). In fact it is the Old Testament prophet Isaiah who points to the Messiah as the true root of the people of God:
In that day the root of Jesse, who shall stand as a signal for the
—of him shall the nations inquire,
and his resting place shall be glorious.
Isaiah wrote the five Servant Songs that initially describe Israel as God’s servant, which transition into prophecies of the Messiah who is identified as the embodiment of faithful Israel fulfilling everything that Israel was called to do. When Paul spoke about a Tree with human branches in Romans 11 he was very specifically drawing from the prophecies of Isaiah:
In days to come Jacob shall take root,
Israel shall blossom and put forth shoots
and fill the whole world with fruit.
And the surviving remnant of the house of Judah
shall again take root downward and bear fruit upward.
For he grew up before him like a young plant,
and like a root out of dry ground;
he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
and no beauty that we should desire him.
In John 15:1-8 Jesus refers to Himself as the Vine. He is drawing specifically from Isaiah 5 that describes the House of Israel as the Vineyard of the Lord. With these words Jesus is identifying Himself as the embodiment of faithful Israel:
I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.
In this passage Jesus is also identifying Himself as the Tree of Life. He is the source of Life, and without being attached to Him there is only death. The message that Jesus gave to His disciples in John 15 was only building upon a previous teaching that He had shared in John 6, in which Jesus declared that He was the “Bread of Life” that must be “eaten” in order to gain Life:
Jesus then said to them, "Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world… I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst… I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh… Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread the fathers ate, and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever." John 6:32-58
Here Jesus says that if we “eat of Him” we will abide in Him, just as He taught in John 15 that He is our Vine and we must abide in Him as one of His branches. Whether we look to Him as the Bread of Life that we must eat (just as Adam and Eve had access to the fruit of the Tree of Life), or as the Tree itself that we must attach to, the common point is that we must “abide in Him” to receive Life.
Just as Jesus is speaking metaphorically and spiritually here in John 6, I also think that we must look at the story of Adam and Eve and the Tree of Life as metaphorical and spiritual as well. The Tree of Life is not, and never was, a literal tree. The Tree of Life is a parabolic representation of the Family of God. Eating the fruit of it represents entrance into the Family of God. We eat of the Tree and then we become grafted onto that Tree. Jesus Himself is both the Tree of Life and the Fruit of that Tree that can be eaten to conquer death and gain life in that eternal Family.
The book of Genesis, the teachings of Jesus in the Gospel of John, and the book of Revelation are all filled with parabolic teaching drawing from our understanding of literal objects but pointing towards cosmic spiritual truths. This is much deeper than the “literal interpretation” that so many Christians have become comfortable with.
Below is a snapshot of my own biological family tree as I have recently compiled it with help from DNA analysis:
This is a picture of my genealogical/ancestral family tree. I can’t call it a Tree of Life though, because every name in the upper branches of this tree has suffered biological death.
However, I do know that many of my ancestors were faithful believers and followers of the Lord Jesus Christ. For instance, one of the branches of my tree is filled with Mennonites who trace back to the Netherlands by way of Molotschna Colony in the Ukraine. Another is filled with Lutherans who trace back to Germany by way of Bessarabia. I am very hopeful that although their biological bodies have passed away their Spirits remain attached to the Tree of Life through their faith in Jesus Christ.
You see, my ancestry is really the story of two trees. One of them is biological and one of them is spiritual. One of them is fleshly and has a purely biological history, while another one is spiritual with a spiritual history and a heavenly destiny.
When I look at the story of Adam and Eve, and look past the literal descriptions of two trees, a forbidden fruit, and a tempting serpent, I think there is actually something much deeper going on here. This is a spiritual parable of two “trees,” hiding a mystery that promises to reveal something radical and awe-inspiring about human origins, both biological and spiritual. Do we dare dig beneath the surface to discover hidden gems, to find something that further explains the mystery of the Gospel and the absolute need for the Ministry of Reconciliation for all humankind from a new perspective?
This will mean breaking out of the theological box of fundamentalist “literal interpretation” and young-earth creationism, but I feel that the time for this is long overdue and that the rewards promise to far outweigh the risks that may lurk along the way.
Stay tuned for more in the weeks ahead…
It is the
glory of God to conceal things,
but the glory of kings is to search things out.
To you it has been given to know the
secrets of the kingdom of God,
but for others they are in parables,
so that 'seeing they may not see,
and hearing they may not understand.'
For nothing is hidden that will not
be made manifest,
nor is anything secret that will not be known and come to light.
Therefore every scribe who has been
trained for the kingdom of heaven
is like a master of a house,
who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.
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