This sermon was preached at Peace Hill Christian Fellowship on May 5th, 2013. To listen to the audio, just click on this link – 5-5-13.
We have talked about the Garden of Eden as a picture of the human soul – as a foundational picture that tells us about who we are spiritually. This morning, we want to look at the image of the Tree of Life and to trace that image through the Scriptures.
The Tree in the Garden.
The Tree of Life – Gen.2:8-9 & 3:22-24: “Now the Lord God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden, and there he put the man he had formed. And the Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground – trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.”
The first tree we want to look at is the Tree of LIfe. What is interesting is that in the center of the Garden of Eden there were two trees – the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and the Tree of Life. Gen.2:17 clearly states that the the man and woman were not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil – but they were never told not to eat from the Tree of Life. Why? What was the Tree of Life about? I believe that the Tree of Life is a picture of growing life within the soul. Not just physical mortality, like a fountain of youth, but spiritual life – the desire to love God and to please God and to do what is good.
However, the Serpent tempted Eve and she rebelled against God and ate, and Adam (with less persuasion), rebelled and ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, so that, in Gen.3:22-24, God did something that describes a profound spiritual change in man – “ 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.” There are two consequences given here:
- First – the presence of God, which was life and joy to men, became dangerous and deadly. God became a threat to people because they had rebelled against him.
- Second – the man and the woman were separated from something which, before, had been at the center of their existence – the Tree of Life. They no longer had that spiritual life and desire to please God at the center of who they were – they had become distorted, broken beings. In fact, from then on, because they were no longer connected to the Tree of Life, God actually had to make a Law demanding that people he had created should love him and love one another (Deut 6:4, Luke 10:25-28).
Our Separation from the Tree of Life: We need to see that what Genesis says of the man and the woman, here is true of us. We have been separated from what ought to be growing and alive at the center of us – Love for God – the desire for righteousness. Our hearts, now, naturally recoil from God and are drawn towards selfishness, distrust of God and rebellion. And if we are going to come to God, we have to come to God with this understanding – both of who we were made to be, and of who we have become and why we are broken.
The Tree in the Desert.
The Bronze Serpent – Numbers 21:4-9: The second tree image we want to look at is the bronze serpent on a pole. While this isn’t actually a “tree”, it has the same kind of function that the Tree of Life, in the garden had – it is a picture of our heart, or our spiritual life.
Numbers 21:4-9 tells the story of how the Israelites, while they were crossing the wilderness, during the Exodus, “… grew impatient on the way;[and] … spoke against God and against Moses, [saying] “…Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!” In response to their complaining and unthankfulness, their rebellion against God and Moses, God sends poisonous snakes which bite the people and many of them die. When they come to Moses and admit that they were wrong to speak against him and God, God tells Moses to make a snake and put it up on a pole, so that, “… when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived.”
Most people who read this story ask, “Why a snake?”. The snake, or serpent from Genesis would have been well known to these people – as the enemy of God and his people – not as a picture of salvation. They would have thought of the Serpent as the one who enticed Adam and Eve to be discontent with God – to distrust God. They would have seen the Serpent as the one who called God’s motives into question.
This is exactly what the Serpent on the pole was about. God confronted these discontent, unthankful, distrusting Israelites with what their heart was like – they had become like the Serpent. The Serpent on the pole was God’s confrontation of his people. They had been bitten by poisonous snakes – and they had to look at a Serpent on a pole in order to escape death. They had to look at an image of their rebellion against God and of the consequences of that rebellion (death).
Rebels and The Tree of Conviction: This second “tree”, then, could be called The Tree of Conviction. Just like those ancient Israelites, we need to come to the place where we look at our own Serpents on poles – that is, where we are confronted with our unthankful, self-serving, lives by the God who made us and before whom we will stand to give account of our lives one day.
This image captures, in a powerful way, the confrontation of the Israelites with their rebellion. But this is not the only time God confronts them with their rebellion. There needs to be a “first awareness”, when we come to see ourselves in that light – where we understand that we have lived as “serpent people”, but there is, throughout the life of faith, a growing recognition of the nature of our rebellion -a growing sense of the thankfulness with which we should live before God, of what it means to be pure and holy and righteous. We must grow beyond our first awareness – which is, in a sense, a doorway to conviction of sin, that leads us into a new understanding of who we are before God.
The Tree on the Hill.
The Cross – John 3:13-15: “ No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”
The third tree is the cross. Again this is not technically a “tree”, although the cross is described as a tree in the NT – (Acts 5:30, Gal.3:13, 1 Peter 2:24). But Jesus connects the cross to the serpent on the pole and makes an amazing statement. Just as the ungrateful, rebellious Israelites had to look at a picture of their rebellion to be saved – so now Jesus is going to change that picture. He is going to cover the image of the serpent with his own body. Now, when we look at the tree, what we see, rather than just our rebellion and sin, is the body of Jesus covering our rebellion and sin – and dying there for our rebellion. The new tree is a tree of both conviction and forgiveness.
Jesus Has Become the Tree of Life: Jesus, through his death on the cross and resurrection, has become, for us, the new version of the Tree of Life. What does that mean?
We were originally made to be people who loved God naturally, who loved what was right and did what was right – but we are not that any more. The Serpent on the pole showed the Israelites that they could be saved from death – but that they were also rebels who did not love righteousness or God. But when we look at Jesus, on the cross, covering our sin and rebellion, and when we see not only that we have been rebels, but that God has forgiven our rebellion, and we believe – something changes in us. The disposition of our hearts is changed so that we want to be and to become grateful to God, and so that we want to know and understand what is pleasing to God – how to live differently. And this pursuit of “righteousness” becomes the pursuit of our lives.
Eat from the Tree of Life: So this morning we are going to celebrate communion. We have the opportunity, this morning, to eat from the tree of life – or just to eat some good bread and drink some wine. The difference maker is not whether you eat or not – but what you believe and what you need as you eat. If we come to the table saying, by faith, Jesus I need you, I trust you, he becomes, for us a tree of life, and this meal becomes an acceptance of grace and life. If we come merely to take part in a ritual, we will only eat bread.