The River and the Tree of Life
In Ezekiel 47 the prophet sees an unusual sight. This is not the first unusual thing Ezekiel has seen as he gets a guided tour of a new temple. The prophet is exposed to all sorts of changes in the design of the temple, its sacrificial system, and in the surrounding allotment of land to the twelve tribes of Israel. God is making all things new, as it were. Jerusalem, the temple, and the priesthood, not to mention the whole of the land, have been defiled by all kinds of idolatry, sin, and degradation. It was this departure from the law of God that led to the destruction of the northern and then the southern kingdom and finally the exile. But the exile was not the end of the story. As Ezekiel’s heavenly vision reveals, God is not finished with his people.
What is this unusual sight that Ezekiel sees? It is the trickle of water out from the base of the temple. Ezekiel’s angelic guide leads him around the temple and at various points the prophet notes that the water deepens. First it is just a trickle. Then it is ankle deep, then knee deep, then waist deep, and finally the water becomes a river that Ezekiel can swim in and eventually it cannot even be crossed.
Eventually the river flowed out into the desert and then into the sea. The amazing thing about this river is that it not only deepens as it goes along but it also freshens salt water. It heals. It provides nourishment and sustenance. Yet, it does not completely eliminate salt water. It leaves the swamps and marshes salty. This river is a river of life. Water is a recurring theme in Scripture and specifically we find references to rivers in various places throughout the Bible that help us to understand its significance here and throughout the Bible as a whole.
In Genesis 2:10-14 we find the account of a river in the Garden of Eden that then divides into four rivers. In Psalm 1 we are told that the godly man is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in season and whose leaves never wither. In Psalm 46:4 the psalmist tells us a river whose streams make glad the city of God. Jeremiah 17:8 echoes the thought of Psalm 1 in that the godly are like a tree planted by water that yields leaves that never wither and a constant supply of fruit. Indeed, there seems to be a connection between the river of the waters of life in Scripture and fully blossoming trees. This makes perfect sense, does it not? No tree can survive, let alone thrive, without drawing upon a fresh supply of water.
This theme of the river of life continues to the end of the Bible. In Revelation 22 the angel guide takes the apostle John through the New Jerusalem that comes down from God in heaven. There we find a river of the water of life flowing from the throne of God and the Lamb. As we might expect, we also find the presence of trees gaining their sustenance from the river. Indeed, the tree of life (which we saw in Eden) grows on either side of the river of the water of life and we are told that it yields twelve kinds of fruit and that its leaves are for the healing of the nations.
Interestingly, only those who have persevered to the end gain access to this tree of life. But who can persevere to the end? In the Garden of Eden in the midst of all the trees there were two special trees, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and the tree of life. While it may be debatable, it seems that Adam would not be allowed access to the tree of life until after he had passed the test regarding the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Notice that after the Fall, the cherubim and the flaming sword blocked the way to the tree of life.
So how does one gain access to the tree of life which feeds on the waters of the river of life? How can one be godly and in an analogous way be like the tree planted by the waters? Quite simply, we become like a tree planted by the water and we gain access to the tree of life by tapping into the source of living water. That is, we by faith unite to Jesus Christ. When Jesus spoke with the Samaritan woman in John 4 he told her that he was the source of living water and later in John 7 Jesus announced that if anyone was thirsty they ought to come to him and in coming to him and believing on him rivers of living water (a reference to the Holy Spirit) would flow out of him.
Those who have their spiritual thirst quenched by Christ have the Holy Spirit in them and as it were rivers of living water flow forth from them and in this way they can become like the tree of life and will gain access to the real thing in the New Jerusalem. As we have come to expect, Jesus Christ is the key to understanding the theme of water and the river of life and the tree of life. Have you slaked your thirst at the fountain of Christ? Come while you can.
How does baptism fit into the watery story?