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What comes to mind when I mention the word “heaven”? Streets of gold? Angelic choirs in adoration of the Lamb? The vindication of truth and justice? Yes, this and much more awaits the people of God. But the glory of heaven is primarily the presence of God. Heaven will be heavenly because God is there! All its beauty is a reflection of his glory, all blessings serve to enhance our enjoyment of him.


This is certainly true of the tree of life, mentioned here in Revelation 2:7 as a promise of Jesus to those who overcome: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God” (2:7; the “tree of life” is mentioned in three other texts as one of the features of the New Heavens and New Earth (see Revelation 22:2,14,19).


We must remember that the tree of life isn’t an end in itself. We don’t “conquer” or “overcome” (Rev. 2:7) simply to gain access to its fruit. The tree of life is a means to a higher and more exalted end, for it is good only so far as it sustains us to see and savor God. Its purpose is to nourish and support our eternal existence so that we might glorify God by enjoying him forever.


The appeal of the tree of life and what its preserving power brings us is cited by Jesus as an incentive to “conquer” or “overcome.” Like the conclusion to each of the seven letters, this is an exhortation to heed what has been said. The exhortation assumes a mixed audience, not all of whom will respond positively (cf. Mt. 13:9-17; Mark 4:9,23; Lk. 8:8). When confronted with temptation or the pressure to abandon the faith, Jesus says loudly and clearly: “Bring to mind the tree of life! Meditate on its provision! For the one who conquers will eat of its blessed fruit forever!”


But surely something more is in mind than merely plucking fruit from an ordinary tree. There appear to be echoes here of the Garden of Eden, reminding us that paradise future is the redemptive consummation of paradise past. Let me explain.


David Aune believes, and rightly so in my opinion, that the language of Revelation 2:7 points to “a restoration of God’s original intention for humankind that was frustrated by sin, for Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden to prevent them from eating of the tree of life (Gen. 3:24)” (1:152). Thus in paradise the verdict of Eden is reversed (“no longer will there be anything accursed,” Rev. 22:3). The original condition of Adam in his unfallen state will be restored (and, no doubt, enhanced as our righteousness will be eternal and irreversible). But Aune then goes on to suggest that “the tree of life is not simply a symbol for eternal life alone, but also represents the cosmic center of reality where eternal life is present and available, and where God dwells” (1:152).


There is something truly profound in the imagery found in v. 7 that may not be evident at first reading. This is where a knowledge of the cultural setting of the biblical text proves so rewarding. In his book, The Letters to the Seven Churches of Asia in Their Local Setting, Colin Hemer contends that there was something analogous to the tree of life in the cult of Diana and the Temple in Ephesus dedicated to her that makes this promise especially relevant.


In the first place, the reference to the “tree” (zulon) of life may actually be an allusion to the cross of Christ. In the book of Acts (5:30; 10:39; 13:29) explicit reference is made to the “tree” (zulon) on which Jesus was crucified (likewise in Gal. 3:13 and 1 Peter 2:24). [By the way, the Greek word for “cross” (stauros) never occurs in Revelation.]


Hemer also points to the fact that two passages in ancient literature describe the foundation of the Temple of Diana as a tree shrine! Inscriptions on coins from that era indicate that the tree, together with the bee and the stag, were distinctively associated with Diana of Ephesus. In addition, the Temple was famous as a place of refuge or asylum for fleeing criminals. What makes this significant is that the word used to describe their experience is the same term used throughout the New Testament for our “salvation” (soteria)!


The contrasts are both stunning and encouraging. For the Ephesian believers, “the cross [the tree of life] was the place of refuge for the repentant sinner in contrast with the tree [in Diana’s temple] which marked the asylum for the unrepentant criminal” (55). Diana’s so-called “tree” of refuge gave the criminal immunity and license to continue his life of rebellion and crime. Christ’s “tree” of refuge, on the other hand, grants the repentant sinner eternal forgiveness and the power of the Spirit to pursue holiness.

The so-called “salvation” of the fleeing criminal actually corrupted the city of Ephesus by granting freedom to the wicked to continue in their perverse behavior. When the Ephesian Christians heard Jesus speak this promise to them in Revelation 2:7, they were able to appreciate in a way we can’t the concept of an eternal city pervaded and governed by the glory of God. For of that city, the New Jerusalem, not this-worldly Ephesus or any other city, it is said that “nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or false, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life” (Revelation 21:27).


Oh, blessed cross, the only tree that truly brings life!


Looking forward to the feast,