Where is the Tree of Knowledge in New Jerusalem?

“Everyone serves the good wine first, and when people have drunk freely, then the poor wine. But you have kept the good wine until now.” The unknowing master of ceremonies didn’t know how right he was.  

We see this play out in John’s apocalypse. The end is like the beginning, but everything is bigger and better in New Jerusalem than it was in Old Eden. You can probably say it with me: “from garden to city.”

In the beginning, the Lord buried three treasures out in the hills of Havilah. Gold, onyx, and bdellium. But in the end, the New Jerusalem is adorned with 12 gemstones.  

In the beginning, a river flowed into Eden’s garden and from there split off into four rivers: the Pishon, the Gihon, the Tigris, and the Euphrates. In the end, the New Jerusalem once again has a single river. But if we follow Peter Leithart’s suggestion in his Revelation commentary, that one river doesn’t just divide into four, but flows out to all 12 of the pearly gates and on to the ends of the earth.  

In New Jerusalem the math works out nicely. Three treasures are multiplied by an earthly four. Four rivers are multiplied by a trinitarian three. Everything is bigger and better in the New Jerusalem by 3’s and 4’s.  

That is, until we come to the trees.  The beginning seems to have the greater variety.  We can keep count as we go.  On day three we mark three tallies, “Vegetation, plants yielding seed according to their own kind, and trees bearing fruit in which is their seed” (Gen. 1:11).  Later on we are told that the rain will fall and the man will be planted to work the ground and there will be even more variety, with “bushes of the field and small plants of the field” (Gen. 2:5).  Two more tally marks. To this we can add the two special trees within Eden’s garden: the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  3+2+2=7. Eden’s math is pretty good too.

Now, perhaps some will quibble with this counting. Are the bushes and small plants of the field totally new varieties? And aren’t the special trees of life and of the knowledge of good and evil just sub-species of the fruit-bearing trees we heard about back on day three in Genesis 1? Maybe there’s not seven. Maybe we have to subtract the two special trees from our sum of seven. And while we’re at it maybe we should take off the other two as well and be content with three. I’m hard pressed to choose between three or seven. Both are nice sums.

Regardless of the final count, in the New Jerusalem the counting gets simpler. There is only one kind of tree. “Tree of life.” All the others seem to have disappeared. Of course, this one kind of tree bears twelve kinds of fruit, a point which will wonderfully complicate matters when we return to it later.

But this seeming reduction in variety should give pause. And especially the mention of “tree of life,” though it curiously lacks the definite article. Why tree of life without its matching tree of knowledge? If everything is bigger and better in New Jerusalem where is the tree of knowledge?

Perhaps we wouldn’t expect it if we didn’t follow James Jordan’s suggestion that the prohibition on the tree of knowledge was temporary. But, supposing he’s right, we do expect to find not only the tree of life, but also the tree of knowledge. Where did it go?

We especially expect to find it if we follow Jordan’s reflections on the tree of knowledge and maturing in wise rule. After all, the inhabitants of the city aren’t just serving there as priests. They are reigning. Don’t kings need the knowledge of good and evil? Surely the Greater Solomon’s city would have it on offer?

By asking this, we aren’t just engaging in speculation about our resurrection diet. The New Jerusalem’s tree of life is seen in the second city vision (Rev. 21:9-22:5), not the first (Rev. 21:1-8). Applying Christ’s words that, “the last shall be first and the first shall be last,” to Revelation we know that the second city vision is temporally prior to the first city vision.  

Perhaps the river can guide us. Genesis 2 enumerated 4 rivers. Revelation 21 only has 1. Earlier we noted Leithart’s suggestion that the 1 river goes to all 12 gates. Maybe the same sort of thing can be found in the trees that this water feeds. If one river can contain twelve, perhaps one tree can contain more than one tree? Two textual clues I’ve noted lead in this direction. 

John says, “tree of life,” not “the tree of life.” The lack of the definite article may be a quiet suggestion that this “tree of life” variety in the New Jerusalem is not simply a transplant of the original “the tree of life” from Eden’s garden. It is certainly not less than the tree of life, but might it be more?

It’s the twelve kinds of fruit that provide the definitive answer. “By their fruits shall you know them,” after all. If we compare the fruit of the tree of life in Eden with trees of life in New Jerusalem we find that our expectations are not only met but surpassed. The fruit of the tree of life and the fruit of the tree of knowledge is not specified in Genesis. But the fruit of tree of life in Revelation is, and emphatically so (Rev. 22:2).  

New Jerusalem trees defy the rhetorical thrust of James’s question: “Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs?” (3:12). Apparently it can if it’s this tree of life variety. Tree of life is fig-olive-grapevine all in one.

What happened to the tree of knowledge? It has been grafted into the tree of life.  And we might even say more. Revelation’s “tree of life” contains in itself all the different trees of the Old Testament. The three varieties of day three. Eden’s two trees. Noah’s gopher wood. Abraham’s oaks. Moses’s burning bush. The tabernacle’s olive and acacia. The temple’s cedar. The restoration’s myrtle. Jesus’ fig tree. Paul’s olive tree in Romans. All are united in the New Jerusalem.

How can this be? It can be because these trees of life symbolize Christ himself and his nourishing gift of the Sacrament of the Altar. We find in Jesus both alpha food and omega food. In Him we have life and maturity. All we need for priestly service as well as kingly rule. Things are bigger and better than they were.

As it turns out there is a guide who saw these same things. I could have given him the first word, but I figured the last was better in this case:

“They’ve all woven together, run together, and become tree of life which has all these different fruit on it. One tree that bears all these different ones. One each month so that there’s variety… We’re always getting Jesus when we come to the Lord supper, but Jesus is infinite…Although it’s always bread and wine there’s a variety of different ways in which Jesus comes to us signified by these different fruit[s], that come at different times. Different people get different aspects of the kingdom according to their season of life and where they are” (transcribed from James Jordan’s Revelation lecture, “Garden Sabbath and Sin in the City”).

One final trail may be worth some consideration here. If all this is the case why not include mention of the tree of knowledge along with the tree of life? Put another way, if the trees have indeed merged it would be just as accurate to call it “tree of knowledge,” as to call it, “tree of life.” So why “life” rather than “knowledge”?  

I would suggest that by sticking with the label “tree of life,” we are meant to associate permission with this multifaceted tree rather than prohibition. Eden had both a permitted and a prohibited tree. But in the New Jerusalem the prohibition is gone. All the fruit is now permitted to be eaten. What could cause the prohibition to be lifted and the two trees to be merged? Adam’s obedience might have. The Last Adam’s obedience has. We are familiar with this line of thought from the Adam typology of 1 Corinthians 15: “Thus it is written, ‘the first Adam became a living being’; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit” (15:45). Entering into Christ’s city then we are not brought back to Adam’s Edenic position. Things are bigger and better. No longer are we set before two trees, with one permitted and one prohibited.  Now its just 1 tree. Now Eden’s promise is made good: “You shall have all of them for food” (Gen. 1:29).

David Appold is the pastor of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Paducah, KY.

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