Part 3: Christ and the Tree
Last week we talked about the Tree of Life and the Fall of Adam and Eve. As promised, this week the focus will be on the Tree’s symbolism of Christ.
Going back to Nephi’s recounting of the Tree of Life Vision, he asked the angel who was his tour-guide what the tree meant. In response, the angel showed him the birth of our Lord and Savior by a virgin in Judea and said: “Behold the Lamb of God, yea, even the Son of the Eternal Father! Knowest thou the meaning of the tree which thy father saw?” (1 Nephi 11:21.) In response to his question, Nephi answered: “Yea, it is the love of God, which sheddeth itself abroad in the hearts of the children of men; wherefore, it is the most desirable above all things.” (1 Nephi 11:22.) At first it might seem that they are going on different tracks—the angel is showing him Christ, and Nephi starts talking about a general concept of God’s care and concern for His children. When we step back, however, the two merge together. As John recorded: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16.) Christ and the Atonement are the ultimate expressions of God’s love.
Moving on in the vision, Nephi was shown next the “Son of God going forth among the children of men; and [he] saw many fall down at his feet and worship him.” (1 Nephi 11:24.) When shown the vision of the tree again, he noted that the tree was “the fountain of living waters” (v. 25). What is the fountain of living waters? Christ taught us the answer in his mortal ministry: “if any man thirst, let him come unto me, and drink” (John 7:37): “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.” (John 4:14.) Christ himself is that fountain. As if to confirm this, the angel showed Nephi Christ being baptized, ministering to the people, calling twelve apostles, healing all manner of infirmities, and ultimately, his trial and crucifixion (see 1 Nephi 11:26-33). Elder Jeffrey R. Holland stated: “The Spirit made explicit that the Tree of Life and its precious fruit are symbols of Christ’s redemption” (Christ and the New Covenant: The Messianic Message of the Book of Mormon , 160).
In this strain, during Alma the Younger’s discourse to the people of Zarahemla, he stated: “[the Lord] 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 waters of life freely” (Alma 5:34). Thus, the process of coming to partake of the tree, waters, and bread of life are the same process Moroni invites us to be a part of when he said: “Yea, come unto Christ, and be perfected in him, and deny yourselves of all ungodliness, and love God with all your might, mind, and strength, then is his grace sufficient for you, that by his grace ye may be perfect in Christ” (Moroni 10:32).
Moving to Alma’s discourse on faith and the symbolism of the Tree, Elder Holland also wrote: “In [the] brilliant discourse [of Alma 32], Alma moves the reader from a general commentary on faith in the seedlike word of God to a focused discourse on faith in Christ as the Word of God, grown to a fruit-bearing tree, a tree whose fruit is exactly that of Lehi’s earlier perception of Christ’s love…. Christ is the bread of life, the living water, the true vine. Christ is the seed, the tree, and the fruit of eternal life.
“But the profound and central Tree of Life imagery in this discourse is lost, or at least greatly diminished, if the reader does not follow it on into the next two chapters of the Book of Mormon” (Christ and the New Covenant: The Messianic Message of the Book of Mormon , 169).
What is contained in those chapters? The next chapter is of Alma answering the people’s question of how “they might obtain this fruit of which he had spoken, or how they should plant the seed, or the word of which he had spoken” (Alma 33:1). He began by teaching them that they can pray and worship all week long, not just on Sunday (God wants full custody, not just weekend visits) and began quoting past Israeli prophets about the fact that it is the Son of God that allows redemption to be possible. He then stated: “cast about your eyes and begin to believe in the Son of God, that he will come to redeem his people, and that he shall suffer and die to atone for their sins; and that he shall rise again from the dead, which shall bring to pass the resurrection, that all men shall stand before him, to be judged at the last and judgment day, according to their works. And now, my brethren, I desire that ye shall plant this word in your hearts, and as it beginneth to swell even so nourish it by your faith. And behold, it will become a tree, springing up in you unto everlasting life.” (vv. 22-23, emphasis added.) Amulek—his companion—rose and expounded further in the next chapter, teaching such things as: “I do know that Christ shall come among the children of men, to take upon him the transgressions of his people, and that he shall atone for the sins of the world; for the Lord God hath spoken it. For it is expedient that an atonement should be made; for according to the great plan of the Eternal God there must be an atonement made, or else all mankind must unavoidably perish… And thus he shall bring salvation to all those who shall believe on his name” (Alma 34:8-9, 15).
Now, looking at the Bible, some of the earliest promises of Christ were given in the Garden of Eden. To Satan, God declared: “And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise [better rendered as crush or grind] thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.” (Genesis 3:15.) Indeed, Christ—the only human on this earth to have been born the seed of mortal woman, but no mortal man—“met and overcame all the horrors that Satan, ‘the prince of this world’ could inflict” (James E. Talmage, Jesus the Christ , p. 613), suffering “even more than man can suffer, except it be unto death” (Mosiah 3:7) on the Mount of Olives, and willingly gave his life for us on the cross. In this sense, his heel was bruised, but he rose again and because of this, we will all as well. In the end, Satan will be foiled, cast out and utterly defeated, thus his head will be bruised.
It was through the suffering in Gethsemane and His death on the cross that Christ accomplished His atonement so we can have immortality and eternal life. When He came to the Nephites, Christ taught that: “my Father sent me that I might be lifted up upon the cross; and after that I had been lifted up upon the cross, that I might draw all men unto me” (3 Nephi 27:14). In the context of this discussion, is interesting to note that the apostle Peter described the cross as a tree: “For even hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for us… who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed” (1 Peter 2:21, 24; see also Acts 5:29-30). “Some have noticed that the Greek word used in these passages is the same as that used for the tree of life in the Septuagint, different from the usual New Testament word for tree. According to a number of sources, some early Christians thought of the cross as a tree of life. Later sources likewise relate the cross to the tree of life, as in some hymns attributed to St. Ephraem the Syrian:
“‘The tree of life is the cross which gave a radiant life to our race. On the top of Golgotha Christ distributed life to men. And henceforth he further promised us the pledge of eternal life.
“‘Our Savior typified his body in the tree, the one from which Adam did not taste because he sinned.’” (C. Wilfred Griggs, “The Tree of Life in Ancient Cultures,” Ensign, June 1988.)
Now, whether there is an actual tree of life that exists and whether it’s an ash tree, peach tree, almond tree, palm tree, or a literal cross doesn’t matter as much as the symbolism behind it. There is, however, one type of tree that has particularly good symbolism attached with it that suites our purposes here very well—the olive tree. Next week I will focus on the symbolism that can be drawn from olives relating to Christ and the Tree of Life.