Our human history began in a real place on earth—a geographic space that we call the Garden of Eden. The Hebrew word that we translate garden means a “guarded” or “protected” place. The word referred to a place about which you cared enough to enclose or protect in some way.
I suppose we could just as easily translate the phrase into English as the “Orchard of Eden” since we know nothing about any flowers or crops grown there except for fruit trees. But we have grown used to calling it the Garden of Eden, not the Orchard of Eden, and so it will remain.
The enclosed garden or orchard was not itself named Eden. It is usually called “the garden of the Lord” in the Bible. Eden was actually the name of the entire region, and God planted the garden (or orchard) itself within Eden (on the eastern edge of that region.) Eden means “delight.”
We have no idea how large the Garden of Eden was, and we have no idea whether it consisted of 30 trees, 300 trees, or 30,000 trees. We don’t know those things because they are not important. When it comes right down to it, this is a tale of two trees.
Within this protected space, this orchard planted in the delightful region, are two trees that are central (quite literally) to our story. Those two trees had descriptive names rather than botanical names. God called them “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” and “the tree of life.”
There are several good reasons why we could call “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” by the nickname, the “law tree.” To Adam and Eve, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was the only thing in the entire world that required obedience. And God’s command not to eat from that tree was literally the only law in the world!
It wasn’t hard to remember the law. And it was virtually impossible to “accidentally” disobey that command. To disobey, they would have had to walk over to the forbidden tree, pick its fruit, put it to their mouth, bite into it, chew it up, and swallow it. They were in no danger of doing that accidentally, so they could live in complete security of mind.
Let’s pause to apply that thought for a moment. Sometimes people wonder if they are accidentally incurring God’s wrath by disobedience, despite their best efforts to obey Him. As one new Christian I was discipling said to me about the Bible, “That’s a big, thick book with an awful lot of small print! What if I think I’m saved, but I have missed something?”
But the Lord knows our hearts. He knows who among us sincerely desires to obey Him, and He is certainly not going to trick or trap us into breaking His laws. Because He loves us so much, He makes His commands plain. He has written what He requires of us on our hearts (Romans 2:15).
For Adam and Eve, the only law in the universe was, “Trust Me enough to obey My one and only command.” And it was about a tree. This was actually an obedience test, not a tree identification test. So God could just as easily have said, “You may drink from any stream, but do not drink from that particular stream or you will die!” Or, “You may climb any hill in the garden, but do not climb that particular hill, or you will surely die.” God had to choose something for them to obey, and so He chose to command them not to eat from a certain tree.
The tree was not special in any way. Just like all the other trees in the garden, it was beautiful in appearance. Just like all the other trees, the fruit was pleasing to the eye. Just like all the other trees, the fruit was good to eat. How do we know that? First, Genesis 2:9 tells us that “all” of the trees that God planted in the garden were “pleasing to the eye and good for food.” Second, Genesis 3:6 says that the woman (Eve) saw that the fruit of that particular tree was “good for food and pleasing to the eye….”
I suppose that God could have made the tree ugly to look at and the fruit repugnant in some way (perhaps terrible smelling), but then they would be obeying their eyes and noses rather than their Lord.
This tree was not only an obedience test; it was a trust test. It was as if God said, “Even though you can see no difference between this tree and all of the others, will you trust Me that it is not in your best interests to eat from it?”
The “law tree” that God placed in the middle of the garden had a companion tree near it that the Lord God had called “the tree of life.” The life tree could be considered the “grace tree,” and we will look at it more closely in a moment. Genesis 2:9 tells us that the two trees stood together, and apparently at a noticeable distance from all the other trees which were NOT in the middle of the garden.
I find it interesting that the Lord did not place those two trees at opposite ends of the garden. At first thought, it seems as if that might have been a more compassionate plan; but of course, God knows best. By placing the “law tree” right next to the “grace tree,” they always had a choice. If they happened to arrive at the middle of the garden right when their stomachs were growling, they could satisfy their hunger, embrace the life-giving kindness of God, and remain in good relationship with Him by simply eating from the tree of life rather than the “law tree.”
It’s the same for us. God’s resources are always available to us if we turn to His gifts rather than the forbidden avenues of satisfying our appetites. God in His kindness makes sure that we never have to choose sin. Grace is always available.
There is another deeply symbolic lesson in the simple fact that the “law tree” was not alone in the center of the garden. This shows us graphically that the law was not capable of giving life. If it were, then there would have only been one tree at the center of the garden; but Genesis 2:9 tells us that there were two.
This reminds us that even to this day obeying the law is not capable of giving us eternal life either. Some people think that we gain the right to have an eternity with God by obeying His rules well enough, but the truth is that laws can’t make us holy people who are worthy of eternal life any more than duct-taping apples onto a maple tree can make it an apple tree.
Imagine the foolishness of a gardener who tried that and then, when it didn’t work, simply concluded that he hadn’t taped enough apples to the maple tree branches and just needed a lot more apples taped to the branches of the maple tree in order to do the trick. The problem, of course, is that this is not how apple trees are made.
In the same sense, some groups are tempted to think that following rules is the way to make people holy and fit for heaven; and when that doesn’t make people holy, they just add more and more rules. The problem, of course, is that this is not how holy people are made.
It is time for us to consider the other tree. If we nickname the tree of the knowledge of good and evil the “law tree,” then the tree of life must be the “grace tree.“
The “grace tree” symbolized the relationship Adam and Eve had with God who gave them life. As long as they were in a trusting relationship with God, the gracious gift of unending life was free. From what we can tell, the tree of life held the aging process or the wear and tear of life at bay. While they ate of it, they would never die. Of course, Adam and Eve ruined all that when they chose to break their trust relationship with God by eating from the “law tree.”
Have you ever noticed this strange fact? When Adam and Eve ate from the “law tree” and became lawbreakers, they weren’t exiled from that tree; they were exiled from the other one!
If we were reading this history for the first time ever, we might have guessed that God’s next act would be to keep them away from the “law tree” (the tree of the knowledge of good and evil). But the reality is, it was too late for that! That ship had sailed and would not be coming back.
So Genesis 3 says (verse 22), “And the Lord God said, ‘The man … must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.’ 23 So the Lord God banished him from the Garden of Eden … 24 After he drove the man out, he placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life.”
God knew that when humans fell into sin, the worst possible combination for them would be to live on and on here on earth forever without dying, after being marked and damaged by sinning against God. In choosing to sin, Adam and Eve indeed got what the “law tree” had to offer. But they forfeited the relationship that made the “grace tree” so powerful in their lives.
Christian leaders, we still grapple with these two trees. The law of God is meant to protect us, to reveal our trust of Him as our Creator and loving God, and to demonstrate our obedience to Him. But obeying God’s laws has no power to save us! And if that is true, then it is even more true that the rules we layer upon God’s laws will neither save us or keep us safe. It is only in maintaining that loving personal relationship with Jesus that we are enabled to eat freely from the grace He has to offer us in every aspect of our lives.
And, if I may be permitted to close with a sober reminder this month, there is still a tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the life of every Christian. Jesus said to His own disciples in Matthew’s Gospel, “If you don’t forgive others, your own sins will NOT be forgiven.” We are now His disciples!
Relationships are so important to God that, having forgiven our sins, He expects us to forgive everyone who has sinned against us. Jesus Himself plants this tree right in the middle of the protected spiritual life that He has given us as an act of grace.
Nothing could be more serious than dying and facing Jesus only to find that God kept His Word (just like He did in the garden of Eden); and, because you refused to forgive, your sins are not forgiven! There are no unforgiven people in heaven. Unforgiven people go to hell. Whatever you do in this world, do not dare to eat the fruit of the “unforgiveness tree,” or you will go to hell. And don’t listen to that evil voice which says to you (as he said to Eve), “Did God really say that? You won’t surely die!” God always means what He says!