The tree of life is a very prominent concept both at the beginning and at the end of the Bible. Its presence sort of serves as bookends for the grand narrative of Scripture.
We first are introduced to the tree of life in Genesis 2, where it seems to serve as a supernatural source of physical life for the inhabitants of the Garden of Eden.
Genesis 2:8-9 (NASB)
“The Lord God planted a garden toward the east, in Eden; and there He placed the man whom He had formed. Out of the ground the Lord God caused to grow every tree that is pleasing to the sight and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.”
When God told Adam and Eve that they could eat of any tree of the garden except for the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen 2:16-17), the tree of life was included for them to eat from. However, when God banished them from the garden after the fall of man, they were cut off from the tree of life for a reason revealed to us in Genesis 3.
Genesis 3:22-23 (NASB)
“Then the Lord God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of Us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might stretch out his hand, and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever” – therefore the Lord God sent him out from the garden of Eden, to cultivate the ground from which he was taken.”
So, the tree of life is established as a symbol of the life that God gives, but mankind has been cut off from due to our rebellion. As we know, when you consider the grand narrative of the Bible, the main story is all about how mankind is striving to return to the state of the garden of Eden. After man begins to die physically and also dies spiritually being separated from God, the whole plot of the Bible is how mankind can get back to accessing the life which God gives.
In fact, the symbol of the tree of life continues throughout the rest of the Bible, just not as explicitly. In Numbers 21, the camp of the Israelites is overrun with fiery serpents who are biting the people, causing them to die. When Moses went to the Lord to intercede for the people, the Lord brought to them a symbol of the tree of life.
Numbers 21:8 (NASB)
“Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a standard; and it shall come about, that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, he will live.”
This serpent on a standard became the Israelite’s “tree of life” in that moment. It healed them and gave them the life that only God could give at that time.
The ultimate tree of life symbol in the Bible was Jesus on the cross. When Christ died for us on the tree, He made it possible for us to experience spiritual life once more through His love for us! Thus, He became a tree of life, restoring the spiritual life that we once had through the original tree of life.
However, He did not make the tree of life obsolete. He merely represented it and fulfilled its purpose in the spiritual sense. Yet one day, we are told that we are going to experience the original tree of life once again when God restores everything in the end times. Revelation shows our access to the tree of life restored in the New Jerusalem.
Revelation 22:1-2 (NASB)
“Then he showed me a river of the water of life, clear as crystal, coming from the throne of God and of the Lamb, in the middle of its street. On either side of the river was the tree of life, bearing twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit every month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.”
At the end of time, when God restores the heavens and the earth to their former glory, we will once again have access to this tree of life. We will once again be able to experience the everlasting spiritual and physical life that the tree represents and brings.
Ultimately, the tree of life represents God’s life and the life that can only come from Him. It is a symbol of His love for His creation and of His grace and mercy, that we will one day be able to eat of it again in His restored creation.