The Tree of Life and Living Water as Sacramental Symbols of Promise

The Tree of Life

The Tree of Life
used by permission: Greg Olsen Art

As we study the Old Testament and the story of the creation, we find ourselves intrigued by the juxtaposition of two trees in the Garden of Eden—one, the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and the other, the Tree of Life. Adam is permitted to partake of the first tree, but not the second. In fact, to prevent Adam and Eve from immediately taking of the fruit of the Tree of Life after their choice to eat of the forbidden tree, the Lord drives them from the Garden and places cherubim and a flaming sword on the path to the Tree of Life to protect it. (Genesis 3:24). The Lord’s purpose in this is to give Adam and Eve time to repent.

Thus begins their eternal quest to one day eat of the fruit of the precious tree.

The story of Eden and the Tree of Life was one undoubtedly well known by early prophets of The Book of Mormon. In this post we will discuss scriptural evidences for the reality of The Tree of Life, and latter-day prophecies concerning it.

The Tree of Life and Living Water as Sacramental Symbols of Promise

In both Lehi’s vision and Nephi’s vision of the Tree of Life, doctrinal emphasis is usually placed on the rod of iron, the great and spacious building, the mists of darkness, the filthy river of water, and of course, the tree of life. But there is a frequently overlooked symbol in Nephi’s vision that deserves serious consideration, not only for what it represents, but because it is frequently paired with the tree of life in various scriptural references.

The focal point of these two visions is the tree. Lehi described it as having fruit that “…was desirable to make one happy.” (1 Nephi 8:10)

Lehi continues: “And it came to pass that I did go forth and partake of the fruit thereof; and I beheld that it was most sweet, above all that I ever before tasted. Yea, and I beheld that the fruit thereof was white, to exceed all the whiteness that I had ever seen. And as I partook of the fruit thereof it filled my soul with exceedingly great joy; wherefore, I began to be desirous that my family should partake of it also; for I knew that it was desirable above all other fruit.” (1 Nephi 8:11-12)

When Nephi experienced the vision for himself, he was taken through the vision by the Holy Spirit and by an angel as guides. Early in the vision, the Spirit tells Nephi to look at the tree: “…And I looked and beheld a tree; and it was like unto the tree which my father had seen; and the beauty thereof was far beyond, yea, exceeding of all beauty; and the whiteness thereof did exceed the whiteness of the driven snow. And it came to pass after I had seen the tree, I said unto the Spirit: I behold thou hast shown unto me the tree which is precious above all.” (1 Nephi 11:8-9, emphasis added)

The Tree of Life, precious above all, is a symbol of the love of God. Nephi is also shown the ministry and miracles of the Savior, the crucifixion, and those who would gather themselves together to fight against the apostles of the Lamb. These important events where the Savior performs his great sacrifice for us are a stark contrast to several other parts of the vision that Nephi experienced: the great and spacious building, representing the pride of the world, the mists of darkness where people wander from the true path and become lost, and the filthy river of water which runs alongside the straight and narrow path, it too claiming many souls.

“And the angel spake unto me, saying: Behold the fountain of filthy water which thy father saw; yea, even the river of which he spake; and the depths thereof are the depths of hell.” (1 Nephi 12:16, emphasis added)

But this is not the first time water is mentioned in Nephi’s vision. Earlier, in chapter eleven we read:

“And it came to pass that I beheld that the rod of iron, which my father had seen, was the word of God, which led to the fountain of living waters, or to the tree of life; which waters are a representation of the love of God; and I also beheld that the tree of life was a representation of the love of God.” (1 Nephi 11:21, emphasis added)

This fountain is the symbol that is so often overlooked.

With this verse in mind, we now see that there are actually two fountains of water: one, a pure fountain of living waters at the tree of life, and a second, the filthy river that borders the straight and narrow path, capturing those who seek the great and spacious building.

A Pure Fountain and the Healing Tree

Nephi shares much of the glorious vision in his writings. But when Nephi is shown the end of the world, he is told by the angel who is guiding him that an apostle by the name of John would write the rest of the vision, and Nephi is forbidden to write more. (see 1 Nephi 14, verses 18-28)

In the Revelation of St. John we read that John too had a guide, and he is shown the rest of the vision that Nephi could not write:

“And he shewed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb. In the midst of the street of it, and on either side of the river, was there the tree of life, which bare twelve manner of fruits, and yielded her fruit every month: and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. And there shall be no more curse: but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it; and his servants shall serve him.” (Revelation 22:1-3, emphasis added)

What does it mean that the tree of life was in the midst of the street of the pure river? It means that after the river proceeds forth from the throne of God, it flows to, and then waters the tree of life. The fountain continues onward from there, a pure river of water that is available for thirsty souls along their journey home to God.

This very special tree, whose leaves heal the nations—specifically the nations of Israel, or the twelve tribes—and whose fruit is pure and white and most desirable above all other fruits, just as both Lehi and Nephi described, is being watered by the pure river of the water of life: Life which comes from God and the Lamb.

A Special Invitation to Partake and Drink

Who shall partake of the fruit? Who shall drink of the pure waters?

“Blessed are they that do his commandments, that they may have right to the tree of life, and may enter in through the gates into the city.” (Revelation 22:14)

“And the Spirit and the bride say, Come. And let him that heareth say, Come. And let him that is athirst come. And whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely.” (Revelation 22:17, emphasis added)

Who is the bride? It is the church. The church invites all to come and partake of the living waters.

Who can partake of the tree that heals and gives life?

“He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God.” (Revelation 2:7, emphasis added)

Alma is even more descriptive of the Lord’s invitation, and mentions both the fruit (described as bread), and the waters, together:

“Behold, he sendeth an invitation unto all men, for the arms of mercy are extended towards them, and he saith: Repent, and I will receive you. Yea, he saith: Come unto me and ye shall partake of the fruit of the tree of life; yea, ye shall eat and drink of the bread and the waters of life freely;” (Alma 5:33, emphasis added)

In the book of John, Jesus himself mentions bread and water as the multitudes come to him the day after he miraculously fed the five thousand:

“And Jesus said unto them, I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst. (John 6:35, emphasis added)”

Stressing the importance of this bread, and tying the symbol of the bread of life to the sacrament, Jesus explains to the Jews present that eating and drinking would give them eternal life:

“Then Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you. Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him. As the living Father hath sent me, and I live by the Father: so he that eateth me, even he shall live by me. This is that bread which came down from heaven: not as your fathers did eat manna, and are dead: he that eateth of this bread shall live for ever.” (John 6:53-58, emphasis added)

Later in his ministry, Jesus gave a profound sermon on living water, the other sacramental symbol:

“Jesus answered and said unto her, If thou knewest the gift of God, and who it is that saith to thee, Give me to drink; thou wouldest have asked of him, and he would have given thee living water. The woman saith unto him, Sir, thou hast nothing to draw with, and the well is deep: from whence then hast thou that living water? Art thou greater than our father Jacob, which gave us the well, and drank thereof himself, and his children, and his cattle? Jesus answered and said unto her, Whosoever drinketh of this water shall thirst again: But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life. The woman saith unto him, Sir, give me this water, that I thirst not, neither come hither to draw.” (John 14:10-15)

But now we must ask the question: Did Jesus Christ, the master teacher, who skillfully used these symbols of bread and water to teach important principles about his atoning sacrifice, speak only figuratively, or was there a very real and tangible basis for the symbols, apart from his own body?

The Tree of Life and the Living Water in the Last Days

There is ample evidence of the Tree of Life as a real, tangible tree in the scriptures, dating all the way back to the Garden of Eden:

“And the Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden; and there he put the man whom he had formed. And out of the ground made the Lord God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil. And a river went out of Eden to water the garden…” (Genesis 2:8-10, emphasis added)

In The Book of Mormon, the prophet Alma is confronted by a corrupt ruler named Antionah who is trying to catch him in his words, and Alma explains why the Tree of Life was protected:

“What does the scripture mean, which saith that God placed cherubim and a flaming sword on the east of the garden of Eden, lest our first parents should enter and partake of the fruit of the tree of life, and live forever? And thus we see that there was no possible chance that they should live forever. Now Alma said unto him: This is the thing which I was about to explain. Now we see that Adam did fall by the partaking of the forbidden fruit, according to the word of God; and thus we see, that by his fall, all mankind became a lost and fallen people. And now behold, I say unto you that if it had been possible for Adam to have partaken of the fruit of the tree of life at that time, there would have been no death, and the word would have been void, making God a liar, for he said: If thou eat thou shalt surely die. And we see that death comes upon mankind, yea, the death which has been spoken of by Amulek, which is the temporal death; nevertheless there was a space granted unto man in which he might repent; therefore this life became a probationary state; a time to prepare to meet God; a time to prepare for that endless state which has been spoken of by us, which is after the resurrection of the dead. Now, if it had not been for the plan of redemption, which was laid from the foundation of the world, there could have been no resurrection of the dead; but there was a plan of redemption laid, which shall bring to pass the resurrection of the dead, of which has been spoken. And now behold, if it were possible that our first parents could have gone forth and partaken of the tree of life they would have been forever miserable, having no preparatory state; and thus the plan of redemption would have been frustrated, and the word of God would have been void, taking none effect. But behold, it was not so; but it was appointed unto men that they must die; and after death, they must come to judgment, even that same judgment of which we have spoken, which is the end. (Alma 12:21, emphasis added)

But was the tree real? Besides the references in the book of Revelation, the book of Genesis, and the references in The Book of Mormon, is there any reason to believe the Tree of Life will be shared with mankind again?

The promises in Revelation about the tree and the water are not the only prophecies. Here are a few which tell of a pure river of water flowing from the temple in the last days:

“Afterward he brought me again unto the door of the house; and, behold, waters issued out from under the threshold of the house eastward: for the forefront of the house stood toward the east, and the waters came down from under from the right side of the house, at the south side of the altar.” (Ezekiel 47:1, emphasis added)

“And it shall come to pass in that day, that the mountains shall drop down new wine, and the hills shall flow with milk, and all the rivers of Judah shall flow with waters, and a fountain shall come forth of the house of the Lord, and shall water the valley of Shittim.” (Joel 3:18, emphasis added)

“And it shall be in that day, that living waters shall go out from Jerusalem; half of them toward the former sea, and half of them toward the hinder sea: in summer and in winter shall it be.” (Zechariah 14:8, emphasis added)

If a river of water will truly spring forth from under the foundation of the latter day temple in Jerusalem, then won’t the Tree of Life be planted there too? And if the Tree of Life will be a real, living tree, then I personally hope to have the privilege of eating of its fruits, just as the promises were given:

“He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God.” (Revelation 2:7, emphasis added)

“Come, my brethren, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters; and he that hath no money, come buy and eat; yea, come buy wine and milk without money and without price.” (2 Nephi 9:50)

That is my wish. May we all have the great blessing of drinking of that living water, and eating of that precious fruit, together.

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I love the painting by Greg Olsen. This is one of the first times I have seen an artist capture both the filthy river AND the pure fountain by the tree. Well done!

One more reason why I think the Tree of Life is a real tree: If the Tree of Life is merely symbolic, then the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil was also only a symbol. You cannot have one be real, and the other be figurative. The scriptures are replete with evidence that Adam and Eve truly did eat of the fruit of a tree that had been forbidden. So, if one fruit is real . . .

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