A Biblical Theology of the Trees of the Garden
At the outset of the biblical record, two trees stood at the center of God’s covenantal dealing with man–the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and the Tree of Life. Far from being mythological concepts, these trees were–in a very real sense–just like any other trees in the Garden. God did not invest these trees with magical power to confer something out of their own resources, ex opere operato, to our first father; rather He set them apart to represent a reality beyond themselves and to stand in the place of that for which they had become symbols. Like baptism and the Lord’s Supper the two trees were sacramental. They pointed to a reality beyond themselves. Though they had no power within themselves to confer anything, nevertheless, God had so invested them with spiritual meaning so that the covenantal arrangement into which He entered with Adam was signified and sealed with these trees. Their significance cannot be underestimated. They can only now be explained in light of a third tree–the cross on which our Lord Jesus died. The cross is both the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and the Tree of Life. Jesus restores what Adam lost both with regard to moral uprightness and with regard to life. Consider the following biblical-theological aspects of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and the Tree of Life:
The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil
Cornelius Van Til helpfully explained the nature of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil when he wrote:
God chose one tree from among many and “arbitrarily” told man not to eat of it…If the tree of the knowledge of good and evil had been naturally different from other trees it could not have served its unique purpose. That the commandment might appear as purely “arbitrary” the specially chosen tree had to be naturally like other trees. For the supernatural to appear as supernatural the natural had to appear as really natural. The supernatural could not be recognized for what it was unless the natural were also recognized for what it was. There had to be regularity if there was to be a genuine exception.1
This tree was a symbolic representation of what man could attain to, either by obedience or disobedience; it was a probation. Geerhardus Vos explained:
1. By this tree it would be made known and brought to light whether man would fall into the state of evil or would be confirmed in the state of immutable goodness.
2. By this tree man, who for the present knew evil only as an idea, could be led to the practical knowledge of evil. Or also because he, remaining unfallen, would still, by means of temptation overcome, gain clearer insight into the essence of evil as transgression of God’s law and disregard of His sovereign power, and likewise would attain the highest knowledge of immutable moral goodness.2
Vos explained elsewhere how Satan sought to pervert the meaning of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil when he wrote:
From the true conception of the purpose of the tree we must distinguish the interpretation placed upon it by the tempter according to Gen. 3.5. This carries a twofold implication: first that the tree has in itself, magically, the power of conferring knowledge of good and evil. This lowers the plane of the whole transaction from the religious and moral to the pagan-magical sphere. And secondly, Satan explains the prohibition from the motive of envy. … Again, the divine statement in Gen. 3.22 alludes to this deceitful representation of the tempter. It is ironical.2
Adam did indeed attain to the knowledge of good and evil, but, as Vos noted, he attained it from the standpoint of becoming evil and remembering the good in contrast to the evil he performed. He gained the experiential knowledge of good and evil from the evil side. If we make Genesis 1-3 our starting point, and then consider all the occasions in which man is called to make judgments (i.e. to decided between good and evil in each and every situation) we soon discover that he is always prone to choose the evil over the good in his natural state. When the LORD comes to assess Israel’s actions through the prophet Jeremiah this is what He concludes: ” For My people are foolish, they have not known Me. They are silly children, and they have no understanding. They are wise to do evil, But to do good they have no knowledge (Jeremiah 4:22). A little later on the Lord says of Israel, “‘they proceed from evil to evil, And they do not know Me,’ says the LORD.” It was knowledge of the LORD that was the knowledge of good that men lack. There are many similar verses in the prophets, in which the LORD brings the charge that men, including His people Israel, had not learned how to do good. Of course, we know that this is because even within the visible church of the Old Covenant most did not have regenerate hearts. We see the culmination of their evil ways as we approach the second tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil, namely, the cross on which our Lord Jesus died in our place.
On the night when our Lord was betrayed and brought before earthly judges, He was struck by one of the soldiers after He explained that He always taught publically–thus vindicating His uprightness. To the soldier that struck Him Jesus replied, “If I have spoken evil, bear witness of the evil; but if good, why do you strike Me (John 18:23)?” Jesus was showing that the knowledge of good and evil is always active and that it is evident that men will irrationally choose evil every time they make a decision in relation to the good. He is the source of all true experiential knowledge of good and evil. He rejected the evil and chose the good. He did what the first Adam failed to do. Now it should be evident in our minds that Jesus is the Good, just as He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Everything that involves Jesus involves the Good and the True. But this is precisely what causes the evil in man’s heart to surface so radically. There is no greater example of this than at the cross.
The cross becomes the “tree” (1 Peter 2:24) of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. At Calvary the Jews and Romans (representative of all men) make the ultimate decision for evil. In the face of their crying, “Crucify Him, crucify Him,” the Divine judge shows to a world blinded by evil, His verdict on that evil. But it is there that the One who did no evil was made sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. The words of Joseph never rang so loudly, “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good” (Gen. 50:20).
The One who hung on the tree restores the knowledge of the Good–to all those who trust in Him–that Adam lost by choosing the evil. God has chosen to reverse, in His image bearers, all that Adam lost by means of the One who hung on this tree, even our Lord Jesus Christ. There is no other tree that so fully manifests the knowledge of good and evil. This is the final probation. What we do with God’s command concerning this tree is the only thing that matters now.
The Tree of Life
The tree of Life was also sacramental–symbolizing something of the eternal life that man could have entered into if he had obeyed with regard to the testing of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Adam, the son of God (Luke 3:38), forfeited our right to the Tree of Life by taking the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Christ, the second Adam, gives us access to the Tree of Life by hanging on the cursed tree. Sinclair Ferguson helpfully explains the relationship between the first Adam–and the Tree from which he ate–and the second Adam–and the Tree from which He ate (spiritually)–when he said:
What was the nature of Jesus’ temptation in the Garden that made Him say, “Let this cup pass from Me–that’s My desire”? That was a perfectly holy desire. Any other desire would have been an unholy and godless desire. Why? Because a holy man can never have any wish or desire or purpose to experience a sense of divine desolation. It was not within our Lord Jesus’ holy humanity to ever desire to be in a position where He would cry out, “My God, I am forsaken by You. Why?”
The holiness of the soul of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane was compelled to say to the Father, “Not that tree;” and in doing so He was undoing what Adam and Eve, in the Garden of Eden, did–because the tree in the Garden of Eden is described in exactly the same terms as any other tree–there’s no other difference. If you had walked past that tree there was no crooked branches saying, “I’m ugly; don’t touch me.” There would have been nothing about the fruit saying “I’m horrible; don’t eat me.” Just read the opening of Genesis 3 you’ll see that tree is described in terms of its nature exactly the same way as every other tree is described. So there was nothing in that tree itself that make Adam say, “Oh, I don’t want that tree.”
What Adam was called to do was to say, “There is no reason in that tree itself for me to say I do not want it–except God has said, “Don’t touch it.” And so, at this point, I have to bow before God and say, “I trust you” even though everything in me says, “That tree looks absolutely delicious.” That’s actually obvious because God would not deceive a human being by making a tree that looked delicious and yet tasted poisonous…And so, as it were, on the other end of this strange spectrum of human history Jesus is facing another tree, and everything about that tree–in contrast with the tree in the Garden of Eden–is saying “You do not want me,” and His Father is saying, “That’s the tree whose fruit I want you to eat, and to do it simply because I’m Your Father, and I’m commanding You to save men and women in this way–So Jesus, take the cup.” And the wonder of it all is (and Hebrews goes on to speak about those loud cryings and tears), is that He took the bitter fruit of Calvary’s tree and consumed its last bitter dregs. That’s why Paul said, “He became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.3
Ferguson continues to develop this in the following way:
The New Testament doesn’t make much of the fact that there is a connectedness between the tree in the Garden of Eden and the tree on which Christ was crucified except that we do have Man coming to the tree and the curse falling upon Him because of what happens at the tree; and then there is, inbuilt into the Old Testament law, that the man who hangs on a tree is accursed of God–and Paul picks that up…in Galatians 3:13 to say quite specifically “It’s not accidental that Jesus was not stoned to death.” There is a huge divine significance in the manner in which He died. That’s another exposition of why it is that He dies by crucifixion and not by any other way…
That parallel then is rooted in the notion of Paul in Romans 5:12-21–I think it lies behind Philippians 2:5-11–that the first Adam is disobedient; the second Adam is obedient. The first Adam grasps at equality with God; the second Adam who possesses equality with God doesn’t count it a thing to be made a special consideration for Himself but humbles Himself, takes the form of a servant–being found in human form–He dies, and not just dies, but specifically dies the death of the cross.4
The Purtian, Thomas Watson, summed up the whole matter by drawing a contrast between Adam “taking and eating” from the tree of which he was commanded not to eat, and Christ “taking and eating” from the tree of which he was commanded to eat. Christ now commands His people to “take and eat” from this tree in the institution of the Supper. The cross is, in the truest sense of the word, “The Tree of Life” for those who eat of its fruit. Christ has caused the fruit of life to be born that we might experientially learn the knowledge of Good and Evil by choosing the good (i.e. Christ) and rejecting the evil. In glory, all those who have trusted in Christ will eat of the Tree of Life forever by feeding on Him forever (Rev. 2:7; 22:2). We will have the Knowledge of Good and Evil restored perfectly so that we will every choose the good and reject the evil. May we be found in Christ by faith so that we may know the reversal of all that the first Adam brought upon us by taking from the tree of which God commanded him not to eat, and that we might know the blessing of now being able to take and eat of the Tree of Life.
1. An excerpt taken from Cornelius Van Til’s article, “Nature and Scripture,” in The Infallible Word.
2. Geerhardus Vos (2012–2014). Reformed Dogmatics. (A. Godbehere, R. van Ijken, D. van der Kraan, H. Boonstra, J. Pater, & A. Janssen, Trans., R. B. Gaffin, Ed.) (Vol. 2, pp. 28–29). Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.
3. Vos, Geerhardus Biblical Theology (1948), pp. 27-33.
4. Sinclair Ferguson “Why the God-Man?” from the 2011 Ligonier Ministries National Conference (at the 53:33 mark).
5. Ferguson “Q & A” from 2011 Ligonier Ministries National Conference (beginning at the 31:34 mark).
A wonderful delineation. I have sent this to as many people as I can reach.
Excellent article. Thanks, Nick.
I appreciated the article, thank you for your work.
In reading the article quickly I may have overlooked the connection, but can you interact with the importance of the cross vs. stoning, etc… as it relates to the OT passages, “Cursed is every man that hangeth upon a tree”?
Christ was made a curse for us, made sin for us, even though he knew no sin. God demonstrates that clearly by foreordaining His Son Jesus Christ to die in the manner of those that are clearly cursed, even death on the cross. So the cross as the means of death is significant because it is the picture of one that is cursed.
Just wanted to see if you could interact with these thoughts a little in conjunction with the emphasis on the tree being important due to the two trees in the Garden of Eden.
Thank you for your time and consideration.
B, I do interact with that some in a Reformation 21 article I wrote years ago. You can find it at http://www.reformation21.org/articles/the-blessed-cursed-tree.php
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Am I correct in assuming that you believe God has chosen who will be saved and who will be condemned? Seems to me the two trees demonstrates that man has a free will to choose good and evil, therefore to choose or reject the work of Christ on the cross. There are numerous scriptures that express his death was for the whole world and for all (period). If he died for only the few, then there is a contradiction in the word. My personal belief is that what some interpret “predestined” , “chosen” and “elect” to mean, may not actually be accurate. This would explain the contradiction. Thanks for your consideration of my question.
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Nick, thank you for this illuminating essay.
Please provide the reference for the Watson quote.
“ The Purtian, Thomas Watson, summed up the whole matter by drawing a contrast between Adam “taking and eating” from the tree of which he was commanded not to eat, and Christ “taking and eating” from the tree of which he was commanded to eat. ”