Old Testament Sacraments, Pt. 2: The Tree of Life in the New Covenant

Old Testament Sacraments, Pt. 2: The Tree of Life in the New Covenant

While partaking of the Tree of Knowledge caused irreparable division between man and man (Gen. 3:16) and man and God, the Lord’s Supper proclaims with certainty that a new Tree, Christ our Tree of Life, will unite us together and unite us with God at last. And we will no longer hunger or thirst, for we may take and eat of him forever.

In our previous post, we explored how the Tree of Life functioned as the sacrament of the Covenant of Works. It was a sign and seal of that covenant’s promises of the life and presence of God in Eden, God’s kingdom and temple.

We should note that, even though Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden, the Tree of Life was not destroyed–indeed, Adam and Eve are expelled in order to stop them from eating from the Tree of Life. This suggests that one day the tree may be accessed again, once the promised “seed of the woman” had arrived to crush the “seed of the serpent” (Gen. 3:15).

The tree reappears later in the Old Testament. In the tabernacle and temple, it is signified in the golden candlestick (shaped with branches like a tree), whose light illuminated the twelve loaves that represented the twelve tribes of Israel (Ex. 25:31-35; Lev 24: 1-9, et al).[1] The two cherubim above the mercy seat recall the two cherubim that guard the way to the Tree of Life (Num. 7:89).[2] By being deprived of the sacrament of the Covenant of Works but reminded of it in the Tabernacle and Temple, Israel was made to long for the fulfillment of the Covenant of Works by the “seed of the woman,” the restoration of the true temple of God, and eternal access to a new Tree of Life. It signified the day when a new priest-king would arise and restore access to God’s presence, a holy of holies accessible without the fear of death. Within this context, the work of Christ comes into focus.

Christ as the Tree of Life

Because the eternal life offered to Adam and Eve upon condition of obedience is of the same substance as the eternal life offered to us through Christ (union and communion with God for eternity), many theologians in the early church and Reformation recognized that the tree was a type of Christ in several senses. The Tree of Life was specifically understood as a symbol of wisdom (cf. Ps. 1; Prov. 3:18, 11:30, 13:12, 15:4), fulfilled in Christ who is himself the very wisdom of God (cf. Prov. 8; Col. 2:3).[3]

The Tree of Life has also been long understood as a sign of the cross: as Gregory of Nazianzus argues, “Christ is brought up to the tree and nailed to it—yet by the tree of life he restores us. Yes, he saves even a thief crucified with him; he wraps all the visible world in darkness.”[4] Calling Christ the true Tree of Life, Augustine states that “man was dismissed into the labors of this life so that he might at some point stretch forth his hand to the Tree of Life and live forever. The stretching forth of the hand clearly signifies the cross by which eternal life is recovered.”[5] Having fulfilled the Covenant of Works as the second Adam, Christ enables mankind once again to enjoy God’s presence and partake of the Tree of Life—His own body and blood—by which mankind can attain eternal life. Christ is thus the Way back into Eden, the true Wisdom of God, and the eternal Life offered to those who enter (Jn. 14:6). [6]

Eschatological Significance of the Tree of Life

Although there is much in the Gospels and Epistles which suggests that the benefits once offered through the Tree of Life in the Covenant of Works are enjoyed presently through Christ in the Covenant of Grace, we must note that explicit use of the image of the Tree of Life in the New Testament seems to be reserved for the Book of Revelation. It therefore seems to have a particular eschatological significance.

While Christ as the second Adam has given his people access to a renewed relationship with God in which we can partake of all his benefits, mankind still feels the curse of Adam and the burden of exile still weighs down the souls of men.

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