Life as the Enjoyment of the Covenant Communion Bond: The Tree of Life

True life is the enjoyment of the covenant communion bond in face-to-face fellowship with God in his holy kingdom. This is no invention on man’s part, but the God-given reality from the very beginning (Gen. 1–3). In a previous post we drew this out by considering the garden of God. From this bird’s-eye view we now zoom in to the central feature in the midst of the garden: the tree of life (Gen. 2:9).

We’ll first consider the eschatological import of the tree (as it pointed to an escalated future reality) and then demonstrate how it reveals true life to consist in having God himself as your eschatological reward and kingdom inheritance (Rom. 8:17).

While man possessed life since the beginning when God breathed the breath of life into him and placed him in his garden-kingdom for life-giving fellowship, the tree of life was a symbol or token of a higher form of life that was offered to him.[1] As we noted in our previous post, life was not a fixed or static concept for Adam, but a redemptive-historical one that was to organically progress from its protological beginnings to an eschatological consummation of union and communion with God in perfect fullness and permanency. As Vos puts it, “The universe, as created, was only a beginning, the meaning of which was not perpetuation, but attainment.”[2]

In order to attain this eschatological blessing of escalated life and glory Adam was required to render unto the Lord perfect and personal obedience to his command, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Gen. 2:16–17; WCF 7.2). The protological life of original communion with God in the garden-kingdom was not incorruptible, but corruptible; it was not irrevocable, but susceptible to removal in death. Herman Bavinck captures well the character of this probationary stage that Adam found himself tested in:

Adam … stood at the beginning of his ‘career,’ not at the end. His condition was provisional and temporary and could not remain as it was. It either had to pass on to higher glory or to sin and death. The penalty of transgressing the command was death; the reward for keeping it, by contrast, was life, eternal life. Our common conscience already testifies that in keeping God’s commands there is great reward, and that the violation of these commands brings punishment, and Holy Scripture also expresses this truth over and over. It sums up all the blessedness associated with the doing of God’s commandments in the word “life,” eternal life. Both in the covenant of works and that of grace, Scripture knows but one ideal for a human being, and that is eternal life (Lev. 18:5; Ezek. 20:11; Ps. 9:13; Matt. 19:17; Luke 10:28; Gal. 3:12). Hence, Adam still stood at the beginning. As yet he did not have this reward of eternal life but still had to acquire it; he could still err, sin, fall, and die. His relation to God was such that he could gradually increase in fellowship with God but could also still fall from it.[3]

The possibility of eschatological life (the consummation of the covenant communion bond with God) and death (separation from God) was symbolized in the two trees: (1) the tree of life and (2) the tree of the knowledge of good and evil to which certain death was appended (Gen. 2:17). Here we are first introduced to the polar forces of life and death as the two possible destinies of humanity. This life-death antithesis from here onward will run throughout redemptive-history and the apostle Paul will pick it up with full eschatological might (see Rom. 4:1–25; Rom. 5:1–11).

Life, as the enjoyment of the covenant communion bond, was not to continue in perpetuation, but would either be corrupted in death on account of disobedience or advance to a higher state of life beyond probation on account of obedience.[4] Vos affirms the “disclosure of the principles of a process of probation by which man was to be raised to a state of religion and goodness, higher, by reason of its unchangeableness, than what he already possessed.”[5] The higher state of life consisted of an unchangeable rectitude, being confirmed in holiness forever, and rising beyond the possibility of death in eternal life—all of this was to serve the communion bond with God.

As we have been saying, the tree of life was a sacrament through which God would convey eschatological life that was permanent and forever (Gen. 3:22). It is absolutely crucial to recognize that this promised reward of eternal life is not to be understood at any point apart from God himself, who is the comprehensive source of all life. The tree symbolized his life-giving presence.[6] More pointedly, the reward offered in the tree of life was nothing less than God conferring himself in a consummated communion bond in face-to-face fellowship with a holy people in his holy kingdom. True life, therefore, does not only have its source in God, but also its goal. As Vos puts it, “As it is strongly bound to God in its production, so it has a telic character directing it to God as its solitary goal.”[7] God himself is the eschatological reward of his people (see Gen. 15:1; Ps. 16:5; 119:57; 142:5; Rom. 8:17).

Our analysis thus far confirms the above point. Creaturely life has its archetype, source, and goal in the absolutely personal life of God, so that life can never be conceived of apart from him.[8] It is further confirmed when through a wider canonical lens the location of the tree of life is considered. The Genesis account informs us that it took root “in the midst of the Garden” (Gen. 2:9). In Revelation 2:7, the original tree reemerges in the paradise of God, that is, the restored and consummated kingdom of glory.[9] Then in Revelation 22:1–2 the tree of life is brought into the closest proximity with the throne of God and of the Lamb. It is from the throne that eschatological life is decreed in its consummate fullness, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God” (21:3).

In the same way the tree of life stood in close relationship to God, so the river that flowed out of Eden and divided into four rivers to water the garden (Gen. 2:10–14) will come to be referred to as the streams or waters of life. The waters are said to flow from God’s mountain dwelling place and also from the throne of God in the New Jerusalem with the tree of life on both sides (Rev. 22:1–2). In light of this, Vos’s comment is apt:

It will be observed that here the two symbolisms of the tree of life and the waters of life are interwoven. … The truth is thus clearly set forth that life comes from God, that for man it consists in nearness to God, that is the central concern of God’s fellowship with man to impart this.[10]

Both the tree of life and the waters of life point to the One who is the source and goal of life. The eschatological reward of life promised to Adam was nothing less than God promising to confer himself in a consummate communion bond of face-to-face fellowship to his holy people in his glorious kingdom. This conception of life is inherent to the Genesis account itself and enhanced with the clarifying light of later biblical revelation. So Vos can rightly state about the apostle Paul,

The tree of life and the other tree and the primeval paradise and the fall and death and the expulsion from the garden on account of the sin committed, all these are present in the scriptural narrative, and a single glance at Rom. v is sufficient to convince of the fact, that in the most fundamental manner they support (qua history) the entire eschatology of Paul. And the Apostles’ eyes were centrally focused on life and death in their forever interacting force.[11]

[1] On the nature of symbols and tokens see Vos, Biblical Theology, 27: “It is largely symbolical, that is, not expressed in words so much as in tokens; and these tokens partake of the general character of Biblical symbolism in that, besides being means of instruction, they are also typical, that is, sacramental, prefigurations conveying assurance concerning the future realization of the things symbolized. The symbolism, however, does not lie in the account as a literary form, which would involve denial of the historical reality of the transactions. It is a real symbolism embodied in the actual things.” On the tree of life as a sacrament see Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, trans. George Musgrave Giger, ed. James T. Dennison, Jr. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1992), 1:580–82; Wilhelmus à Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service, vol. 1: God, Man, and Christ, trans. Bartel Elshout, ed. Joel R. Beeke (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2011), 1:259, 362–63.

[2] Geerhardus Vos, The Eschatology of the Old Testament, ed. James T. Dennison, Jr. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2001), 73.

[3] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 2:564–65.

[4] Meredith Kline speaks of the tree of life as a symbolic “reproduction of the theophanic Glory-Spirit” and the “sacramental seal of man’s participation in the glory of immortality” (Kingdom Prologue, 93).

[5] Vos, Biblical Theology, 27. See Vos, Eschatology of the Old Testament, 73; Collins, Genesis 1–4, 115.

[6] This point is especially clear with the reemergence of the tree of life in Rev. 2:9 and 22:1–4. See G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation, NIGTC (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999), 235.

[7] Vos, Pauline Eschatology, 309. Vos notes an organic consistency in biblical revelation on the concept of life: “What lends confirmation to thus joining the earlier and later is the emphasis placed upon the divine favor as an indispensable concomitant of the eschatological life. The concept of life would never have obtained in the Old Testament its comprehensive and pregnant significance, had it not from the outset been wedded to the profoundly-religious thought of prospering in the favor of God” (307).

[8] Death also can never be conceived of apart from God as it is nothing less than separation from God.

[9] See Kline, Kingdom Prologue, 94.

[10] Vos, Biblical Theology, 28.

[11] Vos, Pauline Eschatology, 304.

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