Monday, March 22, 2021

Anonymous Asks (137)

“Does the tree of life still exist?”

Many religions have stories about symbolically-important trees, but these trees rarely symbolize precisely the same things. The Buddhist tree, for example, is associated with enlightenment, while the Mayan tree serves as a connection between underworld, earth and sky. The Taoist tradition is closest to the biblical depiction of the “tree of life”. It tells of a tree that produces a peach every 3,000 years, the eating of which confers immortality.

Just like the one in the garden of Eden … minus the peach reference, of course.

Copies and Shadows

In the Old Testament, the expression “tree of life” is ʿēṣ ḥay, two extremely common Hebrew words. In association they take on greater significance. The Greek equivalent is xylon zōē. The phrase occurs at total of ten times in only three books of the Bible: three in Genesis, three more in Revelation and four in Proverbs — beginning, end and middle; Moses, John and Solomon.

The tree of life is not a single, unique specimen of its kind, but rather a tree species plentiful in the heavenly paradise of God. In Revelation these trees are said to grow on either side of the river of the water of life that flows from the throne of God and of the Lamb, as well as in the street of the New Jerusalem. There was at least one such tree in Eden, and probably only one, since it is described as having a specific location in the garden. As with the temple in Jerusalem and the ark of the covenant, our earth has its copies and shadows of heavenly things.

To ask whether the tree of life is literal or metaphorical is really to miss the point. It is both. Jesus and the apostles spoke of the Eden account as having something more than merely mythic resonance, so we should have no difficulty with a literal tree. At the same time, the tree of life is a powerful metaphor not just for extended days but for a hugely expanded capacity for enjoying life in every one of its many facets.

The Tree of Life in Genesis

Very little about the tree of life is revealed in Genesis. In chapter 2 we find it in the midst of the Garden of Eden near the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Unlike this latter tree, the tree of life was not explicitly forbidden to Adam. We cannot even be sure he or Eve knew the benefits to be had by eating its fruit. Having never seen or experienced death, there is no way they can have truly understood the purpose it served, and it does not appear to have held anywhere near the mystique which the tree of the knowledge of good and evil held for Eve.

In Genesis 3 we find that the fruit of the tree is a source of immortality so powerful that even fallen mankind would have lived forever had they eaten it. As a consequence, man was driven out of Eden to ensure this terrible event could never occur and the tree of life guarded in perpetuity by the cherubim and a flaming sword.

The Tree of Life in Proverbs

The four references in Proverbs should be understood exclusively in a metaphorical sense. When Solomon uses the phrase “tree of life”, rather than referring to literal immortality he seems to mean something like the pinnacle of earthly experience. We might paraphrase it as a “taste of heaven”.

To find wisdom is to possess a “tree of life”, the source of happiness, peace and an extended span of earthly years. The outcome of righteous conduct is said to be a “tree of life” in that it enables the righteous man to “capture souls”, or perhaps to preserve others from disaster. Again, the fulfillment of ordinate desire is called a “tree of life”, in contrast with hope perpetually deferred. It is the opposite of heartsickness. Finally, a gentle or wholesome tongue is said to be a “tree of life”, presumably in that it builds up the human spirit rather than breaking it.

To the extent that Proverbs adds to our knowledge about the tree of life and immortality at all, it may be to emphasize its qualitative aspect, something Jesus also did in prayer. “This is eternal life,” he said, “that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” So then, if we think of immortality merely in terms of its endlessness, we have lost the plot.

The Tree of Life in Revelation

The three references in Revelation are a little more expansive. First, we read the promise of the Lord Jesus to his earthly followers (specifically the Ephesian church, but by extension to all believers) that to the “one who conquers” he will grant to eat of the tree of life in the paradise of God. That which was forbidden to Adam and Eve is ours in Christ.

Next, we read that these trees bear twelve kinds of fruit monthly, and that the leaves of the tree of life are for the healing of the nations. Later, the Spirit of God adds that “those who wash their robes” have a right to eat from the tree of life and to enter the city by its gates. This is not true of those left outside.

Finally, a share in the tree of life is denied to anyone who “takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy”, which, given that it is impossible to have eternal life without eating from it, should provide a strong incentive to avoid the temptation of editing the Holy Spirit.

Taken together, the references in Revelation suggest the fruit of the tree of life will be freely available to all who are granted entrance to the New Jerusalem. Eternal life in all its aspects is ours by virtue of our perpetual association with Christ. Unlike his life, which is an independent wellspring, our immortality is not self-generated but depends on our ongoing relationship with him. Those who have no love for the Lord Jesus have no connection to the source of life and immortality. It may accurately be said that the cross of Christ is the believer’s tree of life.

In Short …

So does the tree of life still exist? Absolutely. It simply isn’t accessible to us yet. That’s in keeping with the wisdom of God. In view of the history of our species, it’s impossible to argue that taking the option of immortality off the table during the present era is not a very good thing.

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