Jesus as the Tree of Life
In the past I’ve had some exchanges here with Andrew and Peter (and maybe others) on the imminent realization of first-century church expectations, and as Andrew observed, that resulting eschatology should not be called “overrealized.” And Peter, I know we’ve been there too many times, but the issue of “Jesus as the Tree of Life” seems to be a critical one that should be ironed out, or at least considered.
It seems to be evident in the story of creation in Genesis that when God created the Tree of Life, he intended for mankind to eat from this tree. There is no evidence to suggest that mankind was prohibited to eat from the Tree of Life. In Genesis 2:9, we see God creating trees, among which were the Tree of Life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. In Genesis 2:16, we see God giving Adam one commandment: “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.” Evidently, mankind was free to eat from every tree, except one: the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
We also see a picture of fertility and life. Holding a central location in the Garden of Eden, the Tree of Life was readily accessible to man. Some suggest that the act of eating from Tree of Life could have had a physical effect on Adam and Eve, such that continually eating from the tree would have maintained their physical lives forever: i.e. by daily eating from the tree, Adam and Eve could have physically lived forever. In a theological sense this approach seems to be compatible with use of the physical vs. spiritual contrast, but this is just a speculation.
In another article titled Archonology of Sacred Space, I discussed the ages-old notion of Sacred and Profane. The clear presentation of the Garden of Eden as “sacred space” in opposition with the “rest of the world” is what Mircea Eliade describes in his book The Sacred and the Profane, The Nature of Religion:
The narrative needs to be considered in its mythical context rather than a contemporary western one. The painted mythical picture is clear: The Garden of Eden, is where God and Life reside. The outside of the Garden is some sort of “otherworld”, a foreign place ruled by death. The Sacred Space is simply the manifestation of the divine presence into a profane world: what Eliade calls a hierophany.
With this picture in mind, we can now set our sights on the symbolism presented in the New Testament. The Cross, made of the wood from a tree, and Christ, become the ultimate universal Tree of Life standing at the center of the world. Note that many historical and biblical texts describe Jerusalem as “the center of the world” and of course, the place where God resides. Jerusalem was always perceived as sacred space mostly because the Temple, and consequently God’s presence was there: “the city of God, the mountain of holiness. In her places God is known as the Stronghold. The joy of all the earth." (Psalms 48.2-4) In fact in Ezekiel 38:12 Jerusalem is literally called “the center of the world.”
Throughout the Bible, we see a repeating use of the symbolism of centrality, the axis mundi theme common in many religions. Jerusalem in the center of the world; the temple in the center of Jerusalem; the holy of holies in the center of the Temple; the Ark of the Covenant in the center of the holy of holies; ultimately God at the center of the Ark of the Covenant. Of course, consequently Christ was crucified on a cross, in the city considered to be the center of the world or universe. As a side note, if the event of the Cross has universal implications, so does the destruction of the center of the world. (see A.D. 70 events)
In Revelation 21 and 22 we see the physical Jerusalem being renewed…replaced with a city called The New Jerusalem. The pattern of centrality continues: in the center of the New Jerusalem we see a river of life and again the Tree of Life.
The issue is of course with the proposition that the Tree of Life pictured in Revelation 22 is an allegorical representation of Jesus and typologically represents the Tree of Life in Genesis; Andrew disagrees. Interestingly, Jesus is referenced as “the bread of life,” or “the lamb”, “light of the world.” There are also parables told by Jesus in which he makes references to himself in third person, or even objectified references without explaining the meaning of persons and objects in the parable. This begs the question: why cannot the Tree of Life from Revelation 22 be Jesus? Since virtually everything else in the book of Revelation is highly symbolic, why is the Tree of Life not a symbol for Jesus?
Another issue to consider is the doctrine of communion, and Christ teaching His disciples to “eat my flesh and drink my blood.” This eating from the Tree of Life seems to enables the citizens of the New Jerusalem to maintain life and have access to the healing properties of the tree; what other purpose could it have? And what else could the followers of Christ eat, if it is not the body of Christ? Is the suggestion that the “flesh and blood” of Christ will be replaced at some future time with a physical tree and fruit? What would the benefit of this be? This is the ultimate hierophany: eventually the growth of the New Jerusalem would encompass the entire world which would eventually itself become an anti-type of the Garden of Eden: the place where God is; at its center being the New Jerusalem, and at its center being the Tree of Life, Christ.
What is fascinating about this imagery is a statement made by Mircea Eliade during a discussion of hierophany in The Sacred and the Profane. Commenting on the paradoxical nature of hierophanies he writes,
This is the very same approach we see in the Biblical narrative of redemption: there is no need for a physical re-creation of the physical universe, rather the existing creation is manifesting the sacred nature of the Creator, and as a result it becomes something else, it is being renewed in Christ, while it continues to remain itself.
It seems to me that a Christ-Tree of Life representation is biblical and in line with the typological and allegorical aspect of the book of Revelation. It is also important. It seems to help us learn to depend on Christ and His grace; the picture is presenting a continuous need (the fruit is produced every month) for Christ. It may very well remind us of the human need for fallibility. Perfect humans, as they have been presented by a futuristic eschatology may not eventually need God: at some future time we will have perfect physical bodies, minds, understanding, and no will to commit sin; that approach is unreasonably literal and mechanical.
I will end now with a traditional ancient Romanian poem, which illustrates the life-giving effects of the Tree of Life: