By Dean Ohlman
[Ed. note: This article is part of our series of weekly reflections, called Deep Down Things, published on Wednesdays.]
One way to tell the story of the Gospel is as a story of four trees. In the Garden of Eden, God gave special attention to tree one and tree two, which were tied to the destiny of humankind, the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Tree three is the cross—Calvary’s tree on which the Creator himself died as he bore the eternal weight of our sin. At the far end of this present age is tree four, the Tree of Life promised in the future paradise. This tree will be for the healing of the nations in the coming Kingdom ruled over by King Jesus.
The Trees of Life and Death
Adam and Eve disobeyed God by eating of the forbidden tree, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. They were deceived into thinking that eating the fruit would make them more like God, but experienced the knowledge and reality of evil instead. Their bad decision resulted in their death. Not only that, the consequence of death became their legacy. To keep them from living perpetually in a fallen spiritual condition, God barred them from access to the paradise of Eden and specifically from its Tree of Life [Read Genesis 3].
And the LORD God said, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.” So the LORD God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken. After he drove the man out, he placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life (Genesis 3:22-24).
A further penalty was that God cursed the ground, making the earth resist the efforts of humankind to cultivate it—an act of discipline that reminds us every day that things are not the way they were supposed to be. Thorns and thistles appeared in the land as a sign of the curse. God said, “In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for dust you are, and to dust you shall return” (Gen. 3:19).
This series of events is called “the Fall” (Gen. 3). Theologically, then, we can consider the Tree of Life to be the symbol of unfallen creation—with its promise of eternal life and fellowship with God. The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, then, becomes a tree of death and serves as the symbol of the Fall. This resulted in an earth that was full of “sins and sorrows .” Yet God, with great love for his creation, was grieved by these circumstances. So he made a way not only for people but for his entire creation to be reconciled to him (Acts 3:19-21; Col. 1:20):
The Tree of Redemption
God sent Jesus, his only Son, to earth to experience the full weight of this sin and sorrow and then to die a sacrificial death on a tree, the cross of Calvary, to make atonement for Adam and Eve’s devastating act of disobedience. Not only was Jesus’ death eternally significant for sinful humanity, it provided for the ultimate restoration of the creation to its original state of peace and harmony. This truth is powerfully illustrated by the fact that Jesus was executed on a tree, which we know from the apostle Paul was a curse (Gal. 3:13).
Further, his pain was increased by the curse on the earth—represented by the crown of thorns that was pressed down upon His brow. But wonder of all wonders, the “old rugged cross,” the second tree of death, actually became a provider of new life. We got our first hint of that when Jesus promised the penitent thief crucified with Him, “Today you will be with Me in Paradise” (Lk. 23:43).
When Christ was taken down from the cross to be placed in the tomb, nearly everyone expected his body to eventually return to dust, just like the bodies of all people who had come before. Scripture tells us, however, that Jesus’ body did not suffer such corruption (Acts 2:31). God preserved it and Jesus was resurrected. This great event signaled the ultimate defeat of death and the lifting of the curse.
That part of the story occurred in the past. We who are alive today remain in a period between the initial provision of our ultimate salvation from the curse of sin and death and the consummation when we will actually see the “day of salvation.” We look back with utmost gratitude to the time when Jesus Christ bore the penalty of our sin, and we celebrate that act in the taking of the Lord’s Supper. In this period between the cross and the consummation, however, all of creation continues to suffer from the effects of the Fall and the curse. The apostle Paul described our circumstances:
In my opinion whatever we may have to go through now is less than nothing compared with the magnificent future God has planned for us. The whole creation is on tiptoe to see the wonderful sight of the [children] of God coming into their own. The world of creation cannot as yet see reality, not because it chooses to be blind, but because in God’s purpose it has been so limited— yet it has been given hope. And the hope is that in the end the whole of created life will be rescued from the tyranny of change and decay, and have its share in that magnificent liberty which can only belong to the children of God! It is plain to anyone with eyes to see that at the present time all created life groans in a sort of universal travail. And it is plain, too, that we who have a foretaste of the Spirit are in a state of painful tension, while we wait for that redemption of our bodies which will mean that at last we have realized our full [rights as His children]” (Romans 8:18-23 J. B. PHILLIPS).
The Second Tree of Life
This might have been, in part, what reformer Martin Luther implied when he said, “God writes the Gospel not in the Bible alone, but also on trees, and in the flowers and clouds and stars.” In chapter two of Revelation we hear the pledge of Jesus Christ to those who repent of their sin and then persevere in the faith: “To him who overcomes I will give to eat from the tree of life, which is in the midst of the Paradise of God” (Revelation. 2:7). In this passage it is still a promise, but when we get to the final chapter of the Bible we see it finally as the great bookend of Scripture and of human moral history:
He showed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding from the throne of God and of the Lamb. In the middle of its street, and on either side of the river, was the tree of life, which bore twelve fruits, each tree yielding its fruit every month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations (Revelation. 22:1-2).
Dean Ohlman founded and directed the Christian Nature Federation, which existed from 1989-92. During that time he was involved in the startup of the Evangelical Environmental Network, a contributing editor to Creation Care Magazine, and on the board of Restoring Eden. Dean is now the host of the RBC Ministries website dedicated to creation care and to celebrating the wonder of creation: http://www.wonderofcreation.org/. Dean and his wife, Marge, live in Grand Rapids, Michigan.