“Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations” (Revelation 22:1-2 ESV).
Our Bibles are “bookended” with references to the Tree of Life. Near the beginning, Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden of Eden “lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever” (Genesis 3:22). Then at the end of the final book Heaven is depicted as the environment where the tree of life continually bears fruit. Earlier in that same book Jesus promised, “To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God” (Revelation 2:7).
Eating special food is elsewhere associated with eternal life. Jesus taught, “I am the bread of life. … If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever” (John 6:48, 51). In the same context he speaks of eating his flesh and drinking his blood (verses 53-54). Though Catholics and some others interpret that phrase literally in the doctrine of transubstantiation, most Protestants view it as figurative and not limited to or even primarily referring to the Lord’s Supper. Eating his flesh and blood is seen as partaking of spiritual communion or fellowship with Jesus, “abiding in him” (Verse 56).
Nowhere in Scripture is the Cross identified as “the tree of life,” nor is Jesus called its fruit. Yet, is it unreasonable for modern Christians to make that connection? Jesus body hung upon (or was borne by) the cross. His blood was shed from it. Whether one takes “eating” those things literally or figuratively, the cross is fundamental to their availability to believers. And however one takes those items, they are sources of eternal life, just as is the fruit of the tree of life. Without the tree of life, there is no life-giving fruit. Without the cross there is also no life-giving flesh or blood (i.e., food or drink).
The difference between the cross and the tree, with their fruits, is availability to living Christians while still on earth. Before sin, humans could eat the fruit of the tree and live forever. After Jesus’ return the righteous believer will again be able to do the same. But during this existence that tree is remote and unattainable. We can only hope in anticipation of eventually going to where it exists.
That hope is made real and tangible by the cross. When Jesus died for our sins he provided food that grants eternal life. If we respond with obedient faith to his great gift, we can partake of that food through fellowship and spiritual communion with him. When we do that we are promised eternal life with him when he returns to bring us to judgment after the resurrection of the dead.
When Christians gather together to commemorate Jesus’ death through the Lord’s Supper we are reminded that the sacrifice which he made for us (and only that sacrifice) provides forgiveness for sin (Hebrews 9:14; 10:12-14). Since sin is universal (Romans 3:23) and is the cause of both physical and spiritual death (Romans 5:12, 17-21), that which provides remission of sin is the source of life. This leads us back to our former identification of the cross as a type of the tree of life.
The tree of the Garden of Eden is lost in history and unattainable. The tree in the “Paradise of God” will be realized only after this creation is destroyed. But we have access to the Cross of Jesus Christ, on which he died, and from which his sacrifice is given to us. We have hope of eternal life, through faith in him and obedience to his will (Romans 6:17). Therefore even in suffering and trials we have hope to sustain us in which we can rejoice (Romans 5:2).