November 11, 2007

The tree of life . . . and death . . . and life forever

As an artist and quilt maker, I’m drawn to the beauty of trees. I know others who use this motif exclusively in their art. There is no end to the various ways trees can be depicted. I’ve even a couple of books whose only topics are how to draw trees. Today I learn a bit of why they are so attractive.

In Recalling the Hope of Glory, author Allen P. Ross points out that the ‘tree of life’ in the garden of Eden was designed to be a source of life. After Adam and Eve sinned, God prevented them from eating from this tree lest they live forever as sinners.

Ross then describes how the religions of the ancient Near East and other areas picked up the idea that a ‘tree of life’ existed somewhere with great healing powers. They used images or representations of a tree as part of their idolatrous worship. The Asherah pole is one of these idols, forbidden to the people of God, yet they fell into worship of Asherah and this object anyway and were judged for it.

Yet the tree of life was also part of Israel’s sanctuary, not as an idol but a reminder and symbolized by a lampstand with branches and almond blossoms made of pure gold. This object was also a source of light, another necessity for life. We call this lampstand today a Menorah.

Trees still signify life in arid places. Wherever a clump of trees there is water, and in the desert, water is life. We also marvel at how trees can grow in the rocks on the upper sides of mountains, or sprout from cracks in city cement. Trees have a tenacious power to live.

In the age to come, John’s vision in Revelation includes a Tree of Life with “leaves for the healing of the nations.” He describes it with words that compel readers and stir a desire to be there. In that time, the people of God will again have access to all that the tree represents. Revelation 2:7 says, “To him who overcomes I will give to eat from the tree of life, which is in the midst of the Paradise of God.

In older Bible versions, verses about Jesus dying on the cross translate the word ‘cross’ in what seems an odd way. I’ve wondered why they did it as the word puts an odd image in my mind. After reading about the tree of life and its significance both in the Bible and in pagan worship, I am seeing a small glimpse of something that is both startling and awe-inspiring.

In Acts 5:29-30 Peter is speaking to those who put him and the other apostles in prison for teaching in the name of Jesus. He says, “We ought to obey God rather than men. The God of our fathers raised up Jesus whom you murdered by hanging on a tree.

This term “tree” instead of “cross” is repeated in several places. My Bible always cross-references it to Deuteronomy 21:22-23: “If a man has committed a sin deserving of death, and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain overnight on the tree, but you shall surely bury him that day, so that you do not defile the land which the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance; for he who is hanged is accursed of God.

Galatians 3:13 says, “Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us, for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.’”

That which was a symbol of life, even everlasting life, and became an object of pagan worship and then the place where the Author and Giver of Life died for our sins. Jesus was not guilty. He had committed no sin, never mind a sin that deserved death, but He willing became “accursed of God” for our sakes and allowed Himself to be hung on a tree.

People wear little crosses as jewelry, often thoughtlessly regarding its symbolism. Others recognize and remember that their cross on a chain represents the death (and if it is empty, the resurrection) of Jesus Christ. Some even come close to worshiping this symbol.

I’ve never seen anyone wear a tree on a chain, as much as most of us like trees. Now I am wondering if a tree is a stronger symbol than a cross. It points to that which was lost in the garden, regained at Golgotha, and is forever mine because the Son of God willingly did what He had to do to give me—and all people—access once again to eternal life.

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