The Story of Three Trees

I spend my mornings in physical, intellectual, and spiritual exercises. Recently, I added a new piece of art to our basement rowing / theater room (with my bride’s forbearance). We didn’t need more art, but I wanted a visual reminder that “bodily exercise is beneficial, but godliness has value for all things … the promise of the life which is now, and that life which is to come” (1 Timothy 4:8). Now, as I row and view educational videos, I glimpse a stylized carving of the Tree of Life.

As I’ve prayed for friends’ health struggles, with some recently dying, my thoughts have been drawn to Three Trees in the Bible that represent sober reminders and hopeful promises.

THE TREE OF LIFE. The first tree is “an image of loss and nostalgia … also an image of hope.” (The Dictionary of Biblical Imagery). At the Bible’s beginning and end, the Tree of Life reminds me: I am a mortal, not essentially immortal. Everlasting life is God's gift. To live forever, I need access to the Tree of Life. Sinful mortals were barred from the Tree of Life. Having lost this antidote to death, all mortals must return to the dust. Any everlasting life must pass through death and resurrection. In God's mercy, we were not doomed to an endless physical life in this broken, sinful world. Rather, in a restored world to come, the Tree of Life will grow on both sides of the River of Life, not just in a bounded paradise (Farsi pars for royal park). In the middle of God’s Garden-City, the Tree of Life will provide healing for all nations.

THE TREE OF KNOWLEDGE. The Bible’s second tree represents human hubris, our delusions of self-sufficiency, of life independent from God. It symbolizes the false promise, “you will be like God.” Life is God’s gift. To choose self-definition or self-sufficiency leads to death and decay. Wise children of God enjoy, explore, and delight in God’s royal park, but do not jump over the garden walls to play in dangerous streets. True life is when we “take and eat” the gifts of God. The deceptive and false promise, “grab life on your own terms” is a devil’s bargain.

THE TREE OF CURSE. For ancient Hebrews, death on a tree represented guilt and punishment. For imperial tyrants, death on a cross publicly shamed weak slaves and powerless rebels. Scandalously, for Jesus’ first followers, the cross became the symbol of God’s love, the high price to redeem life. “No man can redeem the life of another … the ransom for a life is costly, no payment is ever enough — that he should live on forever and not see decay … the foolish and the senseless alike perish … But God will redeem my life from the grave; he will surely take me to himself.” (Psalm 49) God’s Son took on human flesh to bear guilt, death, and shame on a Roman cross. Jesus restores human access to the Tree of Life. Our lives, even creation itself, can be raised up and restored from the dust of death.

WISDOM FOR TODAY, HOPE FOR TOMORROW. Between the Bible bookends of Genesis and Revelation, there are only four metaphoric references to the Tree of Life. All are in the book of Proverbs, because, God's Wisdom “is a tree of life to those who embrace her; those who lay hold of her will be blessed” (Proverbs 3:18). These words are often sung in synagogues as the Torah is returned to the Ark after public readings. Some think that the golden lamp stand (or menorah) in the tabernacle and temple was a stylized representation of the Tree of Life.

In this fallen world, we grieve our losses and unfulfilled desires. We long for our hopes to be fulfilled in the resurrection. “Desire fulfilled is a tree of life” (Proverbs 13:12). In this now-not-yet, we find true life by embracing God’s Wisdom: not seeking to know or to live apart from God. Access to the Tree of Life only comes by the Way of the Cross, Christ crucified, foolish to many, but God’s Wisdom and power.

From @IntlBuzz