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


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. We have not fully been restored and we are not fully enjoying the benefits of eternal life. Our participation in the Tree of Life remains but a foretaste.

In this already-not-yet reality, the Tree of Life is a symbol of eschatological hope, for it appears again in Revelation 22 in the midst of a new Garden of Eden free from the Adamic curse:

Then he showed me a river of the water of life, clear as crystal, coming from the throne of God and of the Lamb, in the middle of its street. On either side of the river was the tree of life, bearing twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit every month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. There will no longer be any curse; and the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and His bondservants will serve Him. (Rev. 22:1-3)

In this description of the river and the Tree of Life, the New Jerusalem clearly parallels the Garden of Eden.[7] The presence of the throne symbolizes the reclamation of the kingdom, and the presence of the Lamb (as temple sacrifice) symbolizes the restoration of the temple-city, God’s presence once again dwelling with man in the Garden. The Tree of Life, with twelve kinds of fruit, reflects the twelve tribes and the universal salvation of men from every tribe, nation, and tongue, fulfilling the typology of the golden candlestick in the Temple. This new Tree of Life within the new temple-city confirms the end of the Adamic curse and functions as a sign that the eternal life promised to Adam and Eve in the Covenant of Works is now fulfilled in Christ. All that mankind lost through Adam is fully regained through Christ, and in fulfillment of the covenant promises of the Covenant of Works, the Tree of Life is once again offered for eternal life, a sacrament of the eternal life given through Christ and received through union with him.

The Tree of Life and the Lord’s Supper

In the New Covenant, before its final consummation, we are given the sign and seal of the Lord’s Supper, and the Supper is to us in many ways what the Tree of Life was to Adam and Eve during the probationary period. The Supper brings together the two aspects of the Tree of Life we have considered above: Christ being the true Tree of Life, and the Tree being an eschatological symbol of hope and future fulfillment. With Christ’s incarnation and fulfillment of the Covenant of Works as the second Adam and perfect high priest, present fellowship with God and eschatological hope is symbolized and sealed in the Lord’s Supper as the sacrament of the new covenant and sacrament of the new Temple, a new type of food we are commanded to “take and eat.”

The connection between the Tree of Life and the Lord’s Supper finds precedence within the writings of the Reformers. As David Chytraeus (1530-1600) states,

“For just as the Tree of Life promised immortality of the body when received, so also is there divine power for immortality in this sacrament of communion, for it offers us a taste of wisdom and transforms our souls and bodies for eternal life. [. . .] The tree of the cross of Christ appears to be shriveled and sorrowful, but to those who eat of its fruit, it becomes the tree of eternal life.”[8]

Christ has taken what Satan had perverted, renewing and redeeming God’s command in the Garden to “take and eat;” for as we partake of Christ, the true Tree of Life, the covenant relationship is restored once again. Christ gave Himself to restore fellowship with us, becoming a sacrament—the sign and the thing signified, the hope of eternal life and eternal life itself.

Like the Tree of Life, the Lord’s Supper functions as a testimony that the Church has life in God and communion with Him once again: it is a sign and seal of God’s saving grace through the work of Christ, serving as a reminder that we can only find true spiritual life and nourishment of our souls if we take and eat of Him (Jn. 6:56).[9] Like the Tree of Life, it is a means of sharing in the life of Christ, that we possess nothing in ourselves, that He is our fullness, that we find our “nourishment” in Him alone.[10] He is our bread and our wine, and God has said that we “may surely eat of it” (Gen. 2:16). As we take and eat of the bread and the wine, we are reminded that daily we must come to the throne of grace and heavenly temple to find life and fellowship mediated through Christ, our Tree of Life.

The Lord’s Supper also functions as a sacrament of eschatological hope, a sign and seal of God’s promises yet to be fulfilled. When we partake, we proclaim our hope that Christ will finish the work he started, spreading his kingdom “far as the curse is found” until the curse is no more and mankind will be finally unified to each other and made one with Christ.

We will not always need the Lord’s Supper as a reminder that our life subsists only in Christ, for the Tree of Life will be ours once again, this time with a diversity of fruit (Rev. 22:2), symbolic of the complete and abundant life found within the intimate relationship of the marriage union with Christ forever enjoyed in the New Jerusalem. And so as we partake of the Lord’s Supper on this earth, we look forward to partaking of the Tree of Life in the New Jerusalem within the context of a perfect and complete communion with Christ. 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.

Nathan Johnson is Assistant Dean of Academics, Head of Program, and Teaching Fellow at New College Franklin. He holds two M.A. degrees in Biblical Studies and Theological Studies from Reformed Theological Seminary (Charlotte) and an M.A. in Liberal Arts from St. John’s College. He also serves as a Lecturer in Philosophy at Davenant Hall.

  1. Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 1-15 (Waco: Word, 1987), 62; G.K. Beale, “Eden, the Temple, and the Church’s Mission in the New Creation,” JETS 48, no. 1 (2005): 8.

  2. G.K. Beale, “Eden, the Temple, and the Church’s Mission in the New Creation,” JETS 48, no. 1 (2005): 8.

  3. Jerome, in Andrew Louth, ed. Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Genesis 1-11, Vol. 1. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2001), 55.

  4. Gregory, in Louth, Gen. 1-11, 55.

  5. Augustine, Against the Manichees Book 2 in The Fathers of The Church: St. Augustine on Genesis, trans. Roland J. Teske (Washington D.C.: Catholic University, 1991), 130.

  6. Peter Martyr Vermigli “Genesis 2:9,” In Primum Librum Mosis (1569). This translation is given in the Reformation Commentary on Scripture: Genesis 1-11, ed. John L. Thompson (Downers Grove: IVP, 2012).

  7. Beale, “Eden,” 25.

  8. David Chytraeus, “Genesis 2:16-17,” In Genesin Enarratio (1576). This translation is given in the Reformation Commentary on Scripture: Genesis 1-11, ed. John L. Thompson (Downers Grove: IVP, 2012).

  9. John Calvin, Treatises on the Sacraments, trans. Henry Beveridge (Grand Rapids: Christian Heritage, 2002), 186.

  10. John Calvin, Sermons on Genesis 1-11, trans. Rob Roy McGregor (East Peoria, IL: Banner of Truth, 2009), 342.

*Image Credit: Flickr


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