The letter to the church of Ephesus ends with the words: “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” (Revelation 2:7).
The ‘he who has an ear’ part of the statement often appears in the Gospels after Jesus has told a parable and constitutes an enigmatic ‘mystery’ formula. We can understand it at a superficial level as simply meaning “unless you are deaf you had better listen to what I say”, or something like that. However, Jesus’ explanation in Matthew 13:10-17 reals that there is a deeper level to His use of “he who has ears, let him hear” in Matthew 13:43 and other places including Revelation. So, a different way of understanding the saying would be something like, “If you have been enlightened to the truth then you will understand what I am saying.” I am currently writing an article about Mystery in the Bible so I will not attempt to develop this idea any further for now but I will post it to this site when it is published.
Jesus’ use of the word translated in our English bibles as ‘overcomes’ also has the potential of being understood in different ways, but within the context of the book of Revelation it is probably best understood as: ‘To him that gains the victory, or is a conqueror over sins, temptation, and error’. In other words, the benefits and blessings which Jesus describes accrue at the end of the Christian life journey of living true to our calling and destiny.
The part of the statement I want to focus on in this post is, ‘I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.’ There is a clear reference here to the Garden of Eden of Genesis chapter two and I want to explore this a little.
The trees in Eden are often the target of cynical critics of biblical literalism. How can we take seriously the account that a tree could impart eternal life to those who ate its fruit, and how can another tree be the source of the knowledge of all things? Give me a break! Christian fundamentalists vociferously defend a literal/materialist interpretation of Genesis in the fear that any concessions here would reflect on the truthfulness of scripture. I understand the problem as one of the many examples of the either/or thinking that blights our understanding of the Bible. To me it is obvious that the Tree of Life of Genesis Two and Three stands as a symbol of something far more profound than a magical fruit of immortality. Yet, I also believe that two special fruit trees actually existed in the Garden of Eden that God used as appropriate and tangible symbols. All that was required of Adam and Eve was that they should trust and obey God. They should obey what He said and trust that what He said was true and in their best interests. If they did this then He would sustain their life in intimate relationship with himself. By continuing to eat from the trees God had sanctioned they would be confirming that they were obeying and trusting God. Surely trees are very appropriate physical ‘tests’ within the context of a simple agrarian life-style?
The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil stood for disobedience and rebellious independence and self-sufficiency. An alternate translation, which I prefer, is ‘the tree of the knowledge of all things’. Here is how the New Living Translation phrases the conversation between the serpent and Eve concerning this tree:
‘Now the serpent was the shrewdest of all the creatures the LORD God had made. “Really?” he asked the woman. “Did God really say you must not eat any of the fruit in the garden?” “Of course we may eat it,” the woman told him. “It’s only the fruit from the tree at the center of the garden that we are not allowed to eat. God says we must not eat it or even touch it, or we will die.” “You won’t die!” the serpent hissed. “God knows that your eyes will be opened when you eat it. You will become just like God, knowing everything, both good and evil.” (Genesis 3:1-5)
Our primordial forefathers decided to trust Satan rather than God. They believed the lie that God was suppressing them and that they deserved independence and self-sufficiency. What a tragic and prideful mistake!
Satan made this outrageous error of judgment long before he attempted to convince Eve. The prophet Isaiah wrote concerning him: ‘You said in your heart, “I will ascend to heaven; I will raise my throne above the stars of God; I will sit enthroned on the mount of assembly, on the utmost heights of the sacred mountain. I will ascend above the tops of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High.”’
Humanity, that us, has repeated this devastating rebellion against God over and over again. It crops up as the ‘self-actualisation’ pinnacle of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, as the goal of esoteric New Age religion, and even in the lyrics of one of the most popular songs of all time, ‘My Way’ written by Paul Anka and popularized by Frank Sinatra. ‘My way, not God’s way’ is the unspoken mantra of countless lost generations from time immemorial.
But Almighty God has made a way for us to repent of our rebellion and to come back into life-giving relationship with himself. A tree stood in the Garden of Eden that was instrumental in bringing separation and death to the human race. But a tree stood on Golgotha of Jerusalem that is instrumental in bringing Life and eternal relationship to all who will trust and obey. The tree on Golgotha was the cross on which God the Son, the Lord Jesus Christ died so that all who believe in Him may live eternally. Read again how Peter expressed this profound truth:
The God of our fathers raised Jesus from the dead — whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Savior that he might give repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel. We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him” (Acts 5:30-32).
So, Jesus’ words to the church in ancient Ephesus, and to us today, is that in Him the Tree of Life is again available to humanity.