Part 6: The Quest for the Tree
In Ancient Greece, “the victors of the Olympic games were crowned with branches and leaves from an olive tree growing near sacred altars at Olympia. The games represented the ritual process of obtaining the tree of life, a process described in many ancient cultures” (C. Wilfred Griggs, “The Tree of Life in Ancient Cultures,” Ensign, June 1988). A central motif of the vision of Lehi and Nephi was the difficult journey to the Tree of Life. Those who made it and partook of the fruit were filled with joy and received blessings. This motif is one that is actually common in the ancient world—from the Olympics in Greece to Egyptian legends of the Ished to legends of Gilgamesh in Mesopotamia.
It is not surprising then, that throughout the scriptures that the quest for the tree is used as a comparison for the quest for salvation and eternal life. In connection with this, there are other connotations. For example, “throughout the ancient history of Greek art, the tree of life is a common mythological symbol of religious ritual” (ibid). “Another plant the Egyptians considered sacred was the Ished tree…. Ancient Egyptians believed the Ished—a persea tree—grew in the temples at Heliopolis and Abydos” (ibid).
This connection with temples and rituals is what I would like to explore today.
President Joseph Fielding Smith (10th president of the Church, lived 1876-1972) declared: “You cannot receive an exaltation until you have made covenants in the house of the Lord and received the keys and authorities that are there bestowed and which cannot be given in any other place on the earth today” (Doctrines of Salvation 2:253). What is it that makes temple ordinances and covenants so necessary and what is their relation to the Tree of Life? As it is sacred, there are limits on what can be shared (and those who have been through the temples already will understand it best), but I will share some things I have learned.
From an outsider’s view it would seem that Joseph Smith was obsessed with connecting to the past. He also had an obsession with bringing his followers into the presence of God. He taught: “This is why Adam blessed his posterity; he wanted to bring them into the presence of God. They looked for a city, etc., [‘whose builder and maker is God’—Heb. 11:10]. Moses sought to bring the children of Israel into the presence of God, through the power of the Priesthood, but he could not. In the first ages of the world they tried to establish the same thing; and there were Eliases raised up who tried to restore these very glories, but did not obtain them; but they prophesied of a day when this glory would be revealed” (Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith , p. 105).
Called by a visitation from God the Father and the Son in a grove of trees, Joseph worked to build up the kingdom of God in our time. One of the great things Joseph achieved in order to bring dispensations together and prepare people to see the face of God was the restoration of temple knowledge. When the saints gathered to Kirtland, Joseph received a revalation directing them to build a temple. It was hoped that this temple would be where a promised endowment of power would take place and that the people would be brought into the presence of God. In connecting to ancient Israel, the ordnance of washing and anointing with oil was restored in 1836. Those who experienced this ordinance were blessed greatly and had some marvelous visions (D&C 137 is an excerpt from this experience). When the temple was completed there were marvelous outpourings of the Spirit and heavenly manifestations. It was, however, a preparatory temple.
In Nauvoo several years later, Joseph set in place another ordinance—the endowment. The endowment “consists of a series of instructions and includes covenants we make to live righteously and comply with the requirements of the gospel. The endowment helps us focus on the Savior, His role in our Heavenly Father’s plan, and our commitment to follow Him” (True to the Faith , p. 171). What instructions are given in this inspired setting? “Through lecture and video presentation, we learn that life on earth is part of an eternal journey that began long before we were born, when we lived with God as his spirit sons and daughters” (Nauvoo temple pamphlet, p. 3) “This course of instruction includes a recital of the most prominent events of the creative period, the condition of our first parents in the Garden of Eden, their disobedience and consequent expulsion from that blissful abode, their condition in the lone and dreary world when doomed to live by labor and sweat, the plan of redemption by which the great transgression may be atoned, the period of the great apostasy, the restoration of the Gospel with all its ancient powers and privileges, the absolute and indispensable condition of personal purity and devotion to the right in present life, and a strict compliance with Gospel requirements.” (James E. Talmage, The House of the Lord [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1962], pages 99–100.) “At the end, the participants enter… symbolically into the presence of God” (Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, p. 450).Thus, the endowment experience is a symbolic journey through the plan of salvation wherein one is placed on the path to eternal life. In a sense, it could be compared to the Olympics as a ritualized process of obtaining the Tree of Life.
With its emphasis on entering into the presence of God and eternal life as well as its relation of the events of the Fall, it is not surprising that the endowment can be connected to the Tree of Life. The underlying theme is coming to Jesus Christ, which was the theme of Nephi’s vision of the Tree of Life—“a messianic message, a poignant prophesy of him toward whom all men press forward on that strait and narrow path that leads to life eternal” (Robert L. Millet, The Power of the Word: Saving Doctrines from the Book of Mormon [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1994], 15).
Since we are taught that: “blessed are they that do his [Christ’s] commandments, that they may have the right to the tree of life, and may enter in through the gates into the city” (Revelation 22:14) we know that obedience to commandments is necessary to partake of the tree of life. In the temple why we must keep the commandments and enter into covenants (binding promises) such as: “to observe the law of strict virtue and chastity, to be charitable, benevolent, tolerant and pure; to devote both talent and material means to the spread of truth and the uplifting of the race; to maintain devotion to the cause of truth; and to seek in every way to contribute to the great preparation that the earth may be made ready to receive her King,—the Lord Jesus Christ. With the taking of each covenant and the assuming of each obligation a promised blessing is pronounced, contingent upon the faithful observance of the conditions.” (The House of the Lord, page 100.)
The power of the endowment comes from these covenants and the knowledge we gain. Hyrum (Joseph’s brother and assistant) taught: “Great things are to grow out of that house; there is a great and mighty power to grow out of it; there is an endowment; knowledge is power, we want knowledge.” (Hyrum Smith—Times and Seasons, vol. 5, no. 14, 1 August 1944, 596.) Since John the Revelator taught: “To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God” (Rev 2:7), we might not be surprised to read that Joseph taught missionaries that: “you need an endowment, brethren, in order that you may be prepared and able to overcome all things” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, comp. Joseph Fielding Smith [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1976], 91).
Since we are shown through the events of the Fall and are to be led to symbolically partake of the tree by entering into eternal life (the Celestial Room), one of those things we need to overcome, in a sense, would be the cherubim (some sort of angelic beings—cherub in singular) that guard the way of the tree of life. In this vein, we turn to Brigham Young’s famous statement on the endowment, that: “Your endowment is, to receive all those ordinances in the House of the Lord, which are necessary for you, after you have departed this life, to enable you to walk back to the presence of the Father, passing the angels who stand as sentinels, being able to give them the key words, the signs and tokens, pertaining to the holy Priesthood, and gain your eternal exaltation in spite of earth and hell.” (Discourses of Brigham Young, comp. John A. Widtsoe [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1971], page 416.) This also mirrors the sealing ordinance which binds families together forever, allowing husband and wife to “pass by the angels, and the gods, which are set there, to their exaltation and glory in all things, as hath been sealed upon their heads, which glory shall be a fullness and a continuation of their seed forever and ever” (D&C 132:19).
The temple ordinances are a great blessing and are full of the Spirit of the Lord. Now, most of the saving ordinances—from baptism to the sacrament to the temple—can be compared to partaking of the Tree of Life. That’s okay—they all root us in Christ and lead us to salvation, which is the symbolism of the Tree. They all bring the Spirit into our lives, which is “a foretaste of eternal joy and a promise of eternal life” (Preach My Gospel , 65) and which brings the presence of the Lord into our life. In this sense, it could be said that the presence of the Spirit is an indicator that we are partaking of the fruit of the Tree of Life. As we do partake of the Spirit, we will come to feel as Joseph Smith Senior felt in his vision of the Tree of Life: “I drew near and began to eat of it, and I found it was delicious beyond description…. The more we ate, the more we seemed to desire, until we even got down upon our knees and scooped it up, eating it by double handfuls.” (Lucy Mack Smith, History of Joseph Smith by His Mother, chapter 13.) The more you feast upon the fruit the more you will come to want it in your life.
This is the conclusion of my series of posts on the Tree of Life. I hope it has been of some interest and help to those who read it.
Chad L. Nielsen