A Biblical Theology Of The Trees Of The Garden

Like baptism and the Lord’s Supper, the two trees were sacramental

“The tree of Life was also sacramental–symbolizing something of the eternal life that man could have entered into if he had obeyed with regard to the testing of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Adam, the son of God (Luke 3:38), forfeited our right to the Tree of Life by taking the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.”


At the outset of the biblical record, two trees stood at the center of God’s covenantal dealing with man–the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and the Tree of Life. Far from being mythological concepts, these trees were–in a very real sense–just like any other trees in the Garden. God did not invest these trees with magical power to confer something out of their own resources, ex opere operato,  to our first father; rather He set them apart to represent a reality beyond themselves and to stand in the place of that for which they had become symbols. Like baptism and the Lord’s Supper the two trees were sacramental. They pointed to a reality beyond themselves. Though they had no power within themselves to confer anything, nevertheless, God had so invested them with spiritual meaning so that the covenantal arrangement into which He entered with Adam was signified and sealed with these trees. Their significance cannot be underestimated. They can only now be explained in light of a third tree–the cross on which our Lord Jesus died. The cross is both the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and the Tree of Life. Jesus restores what Adam lost both with regard to moral uprightness and with regard to life. Consider the following biblical-theological aspects of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and the Tree of Life:

The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil

Cornelius Van Til helpfully explained the nature of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil when he wrote:

God chose one tree from among many and “arbitrarily” told man not to eat of it…If the tree of the knowledge of good and evil had been naturally different from other trees it could not have served its unique purpose. That the commandment might appear as purely “arbitrary” the specially chosen tree had to be naturally like other trees. For the supernatural to appear as supernatural the natural had to appear as really natural. The supernatural could not be recognized for what it was unless the natural were also recognized for what it was. There had to be regularity if there was to be a genuine exception.1

This tree was a symbolic representation of what man could attain to, either by obedience or disobedience; it was a probation. Geerhardus Vos explained:

1. By this tree it would be made known and brought to light whether man would fall into the state of evil or would be confirmed in the state of immutable goodness.

2. By this tree man, who for the present knew evil only as an idea, could be led to the practical knowledge of evil. Or also because he, remaining unfallen, would still, by means of temptation overcome, gain clearer insight into the essence of evil as transgression of God’s law and disregard of His sovereign power, and likewise would attain the highest knowledge of immutable moral goodness.2

Vos explained elsewhere how Satan sought to pervert the meaning of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil when he wrote:

From the true conception of the purpose of the tree we must distinguish the interpretation placed upon it by the tempter according to Gen. 3.5. This carries a twofold implication: first that the tree has in itself, magically, the power of conferring knowledge of good and evil. This lowers the plane of the whole transaction from the religious and moral to the pagan-magical sphere. And secondly, Satan explains the prohibition from the motive of envy. … Again, the divine statement in Gen. 3.22 alludes to this deceitful representation of the tempter. It is ironical.2

Adam did indeed attain to the knowledge of good and evil, but, as Vos noted, he attained it from the standpoint of becoming evil and remembering the good in contrast to the evil he performed. He gained the experiential knowledge of good and evil from the evil side. If we make Genesis 1-3 our starting point, and then consider all the occasions in which man is called to make judgments (i.e. to decided between good and evil in each and every situation) we soon discover that he is always prone to choose the evil over the good in his natural state. When the LORD comes to assess Israel’s actions through the prophet Jeremiah this is what He concludes: ” For My people are foolish, they have not known Me. They are silly children, and they have no understanding. They are wise to do evil, But to do good they have no knowledge (Jeremiah 4:22). A little later on the Lord says of Israel, “‘they proceed from evil to evil, And they do not know Me,’ says the LORD.” It was knowledge of the LORD that was the knowledge of good that men lack. There are many similar verses in the prophets, in which the LORD brings the charge that men, including His people Israel, had not learned how to do good. Of course, we know that this is because even within the visible church of the Old Covenant most did not have regenerate hearts. We see the culmination of their evil ways as we approach the second tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil, namely, the cross on which our Lord Jesus died in our place.

On the night when our Lord was betrayed and brought before earthly judges, He was struck by one of the soldiers after He explained that He always taught publically–thus vindicating His uprightness. To the soldier that struck Him Jesus replied, “If I have spoken evil, bear witness of the evil; but if good, why do you strike Me (John 18:23)?” Jesus was showing that the knowledge of good and evil is always active and that it is evident that men will irrationally choose evil every time they make a decision in relation to the good. He is the source of all true experiential knowledge of good and evil. He rejected the evil and chose the good. He did what the first Adam failed to do. Now it should be evident in our minds that Jesus is the Good, just as He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Everything that involves Jesus involves the Good and the True. But this is precisely what causes the evil in man’s heart to surface so radically. There is no greater example of this than at the cross.

The cross becomes the “tree” (1 Peter 2:24) of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. At Calvary the Jews and Romans (representative of all men) make the ultimate decision for evil. In the face of their crying, “Crucify Him, crucify Him,” the Divine judge shows to a world blinded by evil, His verdict on that evil. But it is there that the One who did no evil was made sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. The words of Joseph never rang so loudly, “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good” (Gen. 50:20).

The One who hung on the tree restores the knowledge of the Good–to all those who trust in Him–that Adam lost by choosing the evil. God has chosen to reverse, in His image bearers, all that Adam lost by means of the One who hung on this tree, even our Lord Jesus Christ. There is no other tree that so fully manifests the knowledge of good and evil. This is the final probation. What we do with God’s command concerning this tree is the only thing that matters now.

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