Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Tree of Life

Advent Series: Four Christmas Trees

Part Four: The Tree of Life

It’s the last Sunday of the year. That makes it the “Omega Sunday.” Omega is the last letter of the Greek alphabet. Back in 1971, Charlton Heston starred in a movie called The Omega Man. Guess what? It’s about the last man on earth. Kind of depressing, huh?

But I have good news. In the Bible, Omega is good news! In Revelation 22:13, Jesus says, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.” Jesus, from beginning to end; the “A to Z”, the alpha and omega. Don’t think of Omega as “last” so much the fullness, the conclusion, crossing the finish line. It’s not bad news when the game is over and your team won!

The world as we know it is going to end. The game is going to be over. It’s going to have its omega day. Genesis is the book of beginnings—the kick off; Revelation the book of endings, of fulfillment; it’s the award ceremony at the end. And in it all, Jesus is Lord. He’s there, from Genesis to Revelation. He was there when the word was called into being; He will be there for us at the end of this age, and He’ll be there for us for all eternity to come.

And it’s a funny thing: the story of our world begins with a tree in a garden, and it concludes with a tree in the new earth.

These last few weeks we have been looking at the story of God’s love in Jesus through what I’ve called “biblical Christmas trees.” Is it possible to tell the Christmas story through these biblical Christmas trees? Here are the four Christmas trees we’ve used this season:

· The Eden Tree: how we got into this mess

· The Family Tree of Jesus: the plan of God moves forward

· The Calvary Tree of Jesus: The Cross

· The Tree of Life: God’s Plan is fulfilled

To get to the end, you have to go back to the beginning. If you go back to Genesis, you’ll discover that there were two trees mentioned in Eden: The tree of the knowledge of good and evil and as well as the tree of life. We read in Genesis 2:8-9:

8Now the LORD God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed. 9And 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.

There were two important trees in the garden: the one God told the first humans not to eat from, and this tree, the Tree of Life. As a matter of fact, the Tree of Life gets first billing here.

What’s this Tree of Life all about? Well, the Bible gives us a lot to go on here. The Tree of Life is mentioned numerous places in the Bible. For example, in Proverbs 3:18, we read,

She [wisdom] is a tree of life to those who embrace her; those who lay hold of her will be blessed.

Two other places in Proverbs use the phrase “tree of life” and in each place the meaning is clear: a tree of life is a source of life that comes from God Himself.[1]

So the main idea of the Tree of Life is this: trust God for guidance. Trust Him for wisdom. Trust Him for knowledge. He’s the giver of life, the source of life, as a matter of fact, Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth and the life” (John 14:6). That’s what the tree of life is all about: knowing God and enjoying Him forever.

One thing that’s interesting to think about: Adam and Eve were never told not to eat from the tree of life. A lot of people presume that they didn’t, but I think the most straight-forward reading of Genesis is that they did eat from this tree, on a regular basis. It was a symbol of the life they shared with God, the gift of life they enjoyed, and the relationship with God they enjoyed. But after they sinned, God barred the way to the tree of life; after all, the Bible defines eternal life as fellowship with God[2], and that’s exactly what the first humans lost when they sinned against God. They had life with God; then they lost it.

Now, much later in Scripture we have the book of the prophet Ezekiel. Ezekiel 47 has a vision of the end of the age which includes fruit trees growing on the shore of the once very dead Dead Sea that now sprout and bear fruit every month of the year.[3]

In Revelation, the apostle John sees beyond what Ezekiel saw. John sees the image of the Tree of Life in full bloom in the Omega book, the book of Revelation. To the faithful of the church of Ephesus, Jesus makes this promise (Revelation 2:7):

He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.

Then, in the last chapter of the last book of the Bible, we have three references to the Tree of Life. The first and most important is in the opening verses, 1-6, and you really have to read the whole section to get the full force of it. The context is—this is the final state of the blessed; this is the new heaven and the new earth, what you can think of us complete, final heaven. Revelation 22:1-6:

1Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. 3No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. 4They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. 5There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever. 6The angel said to me, "These words are trustworthy and true. The Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, sent his angel to show his servants the things that must soon take place."

Just like a flag can be both a real thing (a piece of cloth) and a symbol (standing for a country), so we should understand the Tree of Life in Eden and the Tree of Life in New Earth as both a real tree and as a symbol.

John sees “the river of the water of life” flowing from God’s throne—from the throne of God the Father and God the Son, the Lamb. He’s the source of all life, and especially here the source of eternal life.

Springing from the river (just like in Ezekiel’s vision) is the Tree of Life. It’s funny how it’s phrased, though: the tree is on both sides of the river. You have the tree on both sides of a river of blessings. What was present in “embryo” in the garden is now growing without limit all the banks of the river of God. You go from one tree to a whole grove of trees.

Again, just as was said in Ezekiel, we read that the tree bears a crop each month of the year, and that the leaves are for the healing of the nations.

So we have a real throne, and a real river and a real grove trees, but rivers and trees can’t do these things: they are symbols that go beyond themselves and point back to their source: the One on the throne. Right now you can eat fruit from a tree and be nourished. Well, the tree of life stands for receiving the blessings of God that nourish not only the body but the soul as well. The fruit we eat now can sustain us from a few hours or a few days at most; the fruit of the tree of life never runs out, never fails to sustain, and never disappoints.

In Revelation 22:3, we read,

No longer will there be any curse.

That also takes us right back to Eden. The curses that come with the arrival of sin are cancelled. They are done with. They’re in the dumpster.

So the last two weeks, we saw the road to get from Eden to Eternity. God doesn’t just flip a switch to end the curse of sin; there is a pathway and a plan. The pathway was the family tree of Jesus: from Adam to Noah to Abraham to David to Jesus. There was also a plan. God became man to take the full force of the curse on human sin; that’s the second Biblical Christmas tree: the cross. By His stripes we are healed.

From the cross to tree of life: that’s the time we are in right now. Just as there was a long time from Adam to Jesus, so there’s a long time—2,000 years so far—from Jesus’ first coming to His second.

There must have been plenty of times when old Israel longed to see Messiah’s coming and felt that God, maybe, had forgotten His promises. But God hadn’t forgotten.

Ever feel like sometimes that maybe God’s forgotten His promise? The last Christmas tree—the tree of life—is a reminder to us that He hasn’t forgotten any of His promises.

Jesus said He was preparing a place for us. He’s also planting trees for us! This is the hope we live by.

C.S. Lewis wrote,

Hope is one of the theological virtues. This means that a continual looking forward to the eternal world is not (as some modern people think) a form of escapism or wishful thinking, but one of the things a Christian is meant to do. It does not mean that we are to leave the present world as it is. If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this. Aim at heaven and you will get earth thrown in. Aim at earth, and you will get neither.

Hope forms us, and in very good ways. Hope keeps us moving forward. Without hope, we collapse. When you say a situation or a person is hopeless, you are slamming the door in the face of God. And there is one hope that towers over all others. In Titus 2:13, Paul calls the second coming of Jesus is called the “blessed hope.” Biblical hope isn’t wishful thinking; it’s confident expectation. Hope is a command as much as faith is a command. We have a sure hope in the return of Jesus. He shall come, the dead will rise, the nations will be judged, and there shall be a new world adorned by the tree of life.

On this Omega Sunday of the year, let’s think about the fact that Jesus is coming back. This is our sure hope.

Biblical prophecy provides some of the greatest encouragement and hope available to us today. Just as the Old Testament is filled with prophecies about Christ’s first coming, so both testaments are filled with references to the second coming of Jesus. One estimate is that there are 1,845 references to Christ’s second coming in the Old Testament, where 17 books give it prominence. In the 260 chapters of the New Testament, there are 318 references to the second coming of Christ—an amazing 1 out of every 30 verses. Twenty-three of the 27 New Testament books refer directly to the second coming. For every prophecy in the Bible concerning Christ’s first advent—Christmas and all that followed, there are 8 which look forward to His second!

The Christmas season is often called Advent. Christmas marks the advent, the coming, of the Messiah into the world. The Bible tells us again and again that a second advent is on the way; not that Jesus will be born again in a barn in Bethlehem, but that He will come in power to judge the world and to take His people to Himself, to build a new world in which all the promises of Eden will come true and will be far exceeded.

There is a wonderful word that you will only find one place in the Bible. It’s a word of great, confident hope. The word is maranatha, and you will only find it in 1 Corinthians 16:22, and then only in certain translations. The NIV translates it as “Come, O Lord”, but really it should be left untranslated. Let me explain why, and let me explain why this word is important, and why this one word deserves a place on this last Christmas tree.

You see, the New Testament was written in Greek, but there are a few places where it records Aramaic words. Aramaic was the language spoken in Israel in the time of the New Testament. It was similar to Hebrew, but not quite the same.

There are a total of 12 Aramaic words or phrases that get into the New Testament untranslated into Greek. For example, you read this in Mark 5:41:

He took her by the hand and said to her, "Talitha koum!" (which means, "Little girl, I say to you, get up!”).

Mark records what was surely a personal recollection (probably Peter’s) of the exact words Jesus said in Aramaic, and then translated it to Greek for His readers.

But some words take on a life of their own from one language to another. For example, we all know what aloha means, even though it’s a Hawaiian word. We’ve adopted it into English and we use it without thinking.

Maranatha seems to be a word like that. Even though it’s Aramaic, Greek-speaking Christians knew what it meant. In Aramaic, it’s a prayer: “Our Lord, come!”

Paul doesn’t have to explain the word to the Corinthians. They knew it already; it must have arrived along with the gospel itself. That meant that the earliest believers, the ones who spoke Aramaic, from the very beginning of the church, were longing for the return of the Lord Jesus: “Marana (our Lord), tha (come)!”

And now, we hope. We have a confident assurance that Jesus is coming back. We pray, not with desperation, but with a smile on our faces, “Maranatha!” The dead in Christ will rise, we shall be caught up to be with Him, and He shall reign. And the day will come when we gather to swap stories in the shade of the Tree of Life.

Abraham Davenport was the Speaker of the Connecticut House of Representatives. It was May 19th, 1780, and the sky above Hartford darkened ominously. Some of the representatives, glancing out the windows, saw a sky so fearful that they wondered if the end of the world was at hand. As some called for immediate adjournment, Davenport rose and said, "The Day of Judgment is either approaching or it is not. If it is not, there is no cause for adjournment. If it is, I choose to be found doing my duty. Therefore, I wish that candles be brought."

Have no fear, church. For now, on this Omega Day, be faithful. Keep seeking His kingdom and His righteousness. Simply obey in hope. Maranatha!



[1] Proverbs 11:30; 13:12

[2] John 17:7

[3] Ezekiel 47:12

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