The Gospel of John leads readers to the themes associated with the tree of life in profound and insightful ways. In its pages lie an abundance of images that hark back to the earliest scriptural story, the one found in the opening chapters of Genesis. These images draw their relevance from a living plant (the vine), from the product of living plants (bread from grain), or from that which sustains the lives of plants (water). With images such as these, the Fourth Gospel pulls readers both ancient and modern into the circle of eternal life—the real fruit of the tree of life—through Jesus of Nazareth.
The great amount of tree of life material in the Gospel of John may seem at first somewhat paradoxical, inasmuch as the tree of life is never explicitly mentioned in the Fourth Gospel. Nevertheless, by considering John's development of a few selected themes, it will become clear that the themes of Genesis 1–3 run throughout the Gospel of John, for a person's return to God's presence is possible only by partaking of the fruit of the tree in the garden from which Adam and Eve were driven as a result of their disobedience.
The Prologue and Opening of the Gospel of John
Any ancient person who knew the beginning of the Greek version of Genesis might well have thought for a moment that he was listening to Genesis as he encountered the opening words of John's Gospel. The opening two words (en archēi) are the same in both texts, and it is obvious from the following verses that John intended to connect his work to the Genesis story and other Old Testament themes.1 Just as Genesis celebrates the appearance of light and life in the world, John, after giving the briefest possible summary regarding the creation (1:3), 2 declares that whatever was begotten in or through the Word is life and that this life gives light to mankind (v. 4). Verse 9 is purposefully ambiguous, which is a common characteristic of John's writings. The verse can be understood in two ways: First, he was the true light that illuminates every man who comes into the world, and second, he was the true light that, because he came into the world, illuminates every man. In either translation, the Word brings light and life into the world.
Because it was understood that one cannot partake of the tree of life's fruit in a sinful condition (Genesis 3:22), it is natural that John would emphasize at several points throughout his Gospel the means by which sins can be removed. The testimony of John the Baptist (1:19–36) immediately follows the introduction to the Gospel (vv. 1–18), and twice in his testimony he refers to Jesus as the Lamb of God "who takes away the sin of the world" (vv. 29, 36). John often uses the timeless method of repetition when he wishes to emphasize an idea. In this instance the reader should remember that Adam and Eve, in their sinful condition, were forbidden to eat the tree of life's fruit, so it was necessary for Jesus to take away sin before giving life to God's children. Apart from the symbolic references to the Passover offering in John's testimony, one should also consider the image of innocence and meekness portrayed by the Lamb who will "take away the sin of the world."
Wedding at Cana
Two virtually ubiquitous symbols relating to life—marriage and wine—are brought together in the first of Jesus's seven signs, or miracles, recorded in the Gospel of John: the wedding at Cana. Marriage, instituted by God in Eden with Adam and Eve, brought the man and woman together to become one flesh and thus propagate human life on the earth. Every ancient society recognized and celebrated marriage for its promise that life would continue in the world. Wine, both because of its red color and its presumed ability to revive the body and quicken the mind, was therefore analogous to blood, the fluid of life in mortal bodies. The fermentation of grape juice made it appear as if the resulting wine had a divine life of its own, and many ancients (e.g., Hesiod, an early Greek poet) believed that drinking wine imbued them with the ability to speak heavenly words of wisdom. The wine literally inspired them by warming the body and loosing the tongue.
Jesus and his disciples were invited to the wedding at Cana, and Jesus's mother was also present. At such a large and momentous festival rejoicing in the promise of continuing life, it was with obvious concern that Mary went to Jesus to say, "They have run out of wine" (2:3). (Note by her words and Jesus's reply that, contrary to what many believe, this was not Jesus's wedding, and Mary was not responsible for the hospitality shown to the guests.) His answer, not well translated in the King James Version, was "Woman, of what concern is that to us?" (or, "Woman, is that any of our business?"). The second part of his response at first seems, in view of what follows, to be irrelevant—"My hour has not yet come" (2:4). If it referred simply to the beginning of his public ministry and the performance of miracles as bona fides of his identity and compassion toward people, the immediately ensuing miracle would make no sense. There is, however, much more to consider. Throughout John's Gospel one can discover many embedded layers of meaning, much as one constantly finds a new onion by peeling away the outer layers, but with one striking difference: When one peels away layers of an onion, each "new onion" is smaller than its predecessor. When one uncovers a new layer of meaning in John, it is often grander in scope and more profound in significance than the one preceding it. There are many such levels of meaning in the account of the Cana miracle. We will examine one that has direct relationship to the topic we are considering.
There are two additional references in John to the fact that the hour of Jesus had not come (7:30; 8:20), and at the beginning of the long section dealing with the last supper (chaps. 13–17), John writes, "When Jesus knew that his hour had come, that he would pass over from this world to his Father . . ." (13:1). The connection between Jesus's earlier statement at Cana (and the accompanying miracle) and his knowledge that his hour had come on that fateful Passover eve now becomes clear. Changing water to wine without the normal ingredients of grape juice and fermentation agents and the passage of time was no trivial accomplishment, and through this miracle Jesus displayed his divine power and authority, as well as his compassion toward those whose acute embarrassment caused by running out of wine would have had significant social consequences. John records that Jesus produced six stone waterpots of wine, each having the capacity of some 20 to 30 gallons (Jesus ordered that they be filled with water to the brim), or between 120 and 180 gallons. That was after the original stock of wine had failed, giving some indication of the magnitude and likely social importance of the wedding party. Further, when the servants took some of the wine to the master of the feast, he told the bridegroom that it was the best wine served during the wedding festival (2:10). The miraculous wine was thus notable for its quantity and its vintage quality.
Remembering from John 1:4, 9 that the Word came into the world to give light and life to everyone, and looking forward to the meaning of "his hour had come" at the beginning of chapter 13 (in which "hour" Jesus would become the means of providing that life by offering his flesh and blood), we see that the first embedded layer of meaning to appear in this wedding miracle foreshadows Jesus's producing the divine wine of eternal life through the shedding of his blood on the cross, a tree of life. Even wedding feasts and wine cannot guarantee that life will not end—after all, the wine ran out, just as mortal life will end in death. Only Jesus through his atonement can offer the real promise of eternal life. The miracle at Cana illustrates the difference between the ephemeral and the eternal. The amount and quality of wine that Jesus produced, as well as the similarly great amount of food produced when he miraculously fed five thousand men, plus women and children (compare Matthew 14:21), portend the nature of the eternal life that Jesus can bestow. For example, in John 10:10, Jesus states: "I came that they might have life, and that they might have it in abundance." The miracle of the wine was real, but it was only for life in this world. The blood shed in Gethsemane and on the cross was also part of a real miracle, and it provides a rich life beyond the end of mortality, fulfilling with abundance the purposes for the creation of this earth.
Another pair of symbols—darkness and light—point to Genesis 1–3 and the tree of life. Darkness represents sin and death in the Gospel of John and also, by extension, in the world since all who live in the world have sinned and all will die (e.g., Romans 3:23; 1 Corinthians 15:22). It is natural, therefore, for John to write of Jesus bringing both light and life into the world since both together signify his taking away the sin of the world and overcoming death. Following the account of the miracle at Cana, John presents this concept through successive encounters—one with a Pharisee named Nicodemus in Jerusalem and another with a Samaritan woman at the well of Jacob.
Nicodemus was a ruler of the Jews, placing him at the apex of Jewish society, and his pharisaism denotes his religious training and interest. He was well-disposed toward Jesus, primarily because of the miracles that Jesus performed among the Jews. John records that Nicodemus approached Jesus at night and declared him to be a teacher sent from God, as evidenced by his miraculous deeds (3:2). One may well speculate why he came "after hours," so to speak, but without an answer to that question, I shall propose an alternative suggestion after considering some details of their meeting.
The miracle of the wine at Cana had real and obvious physical benefits for those attending the festival, but few at the time could have fathomed the spiritual nature or significance attached to that sign.3 Similarly, Nicodemus could see the physical aspects of Jesus's miracles, which piqued his curiosity, but he did not comprehend their spiritual meaning. In the dialogue that followed Nicodemus's declaration that Jesus was a teacher sent from God, Jesus twice invited him to be reborn spiritually and receive heavenly life and understanding. Nicodemus inexplicably demurred, attempting to keep the conversation on an earthly plane ("How can a man be born when he is old? Surely he is not able to enter the womb of his mother a second time and be born?" 3:4), and finally admitted that he did not understand what Jesus was saying (v. 9). Jesus asked him how he could be the teacher of Israel (the definite article may be significant here) and not know about spiritual matters, and then followed with the assertion that Nicodemus and his associates (the you is plural, including more than Nicodemus) would not receive the witness or testimony of Jesus and his disciples (vv. 11–12). After explaining that he came down from heaven to teach heavenly truths that would bestow eternal life on those who accepted them, Jesus summarized the critical issue facing Nicodemus and everyone else who hears the divine, life-giving message:
This is the judgment [or test], that the Light came into the world, yet men loved the darkness rather than the Light, because their deeds were evil. For everyone who does base [wicked] things hates the Light and does not come to the light, lest his acts be exposed [reproved]. But the one who performs the truth comes to the Light, so that his deeds [acts] might be made manifest that they have been accomplished in God. (3:19–21)
Thus as we uncover a deeper layer of meaning in the text, we see that Nicodemus came to Jesus not only in the physical darkness of night but also in spiritual darkness. His reasons for not accepting Jesus's invitation to be reborn into light and life are not known to us, for the accounting of one's life is a matter between that person and God and is not a matter for public scrutiny. Still, it must be said that Nicodemus came in the dark and unfortunately departed in the same condition despite his apparent religiosity and good reputation. When Jesus spoke of Moses lifting up the brazen serpent in the wilderness, he alluded to the cross upon which even the Son of Man must be raised (3:14). Being with Jesus is ultimately a matter of rising, ascending up to heaven and leaving behind one's sins and worldly concerns (3:13; 12:32). This idea points to a tree whereon Jesus was lifted up to die, only to move into greater light and life in the resurrection (3:14–15), and that tree of life is not accessible to those who choose to remain in the dark.
The Samaritan Woman at the Well
At some later time, Jesus and his disciples journeyed through Samaria on their way to the Galilee district. As he rested at the well of Jacob while the disciples went into the nearby town to buy food, a Samaritan woman arrived with a bucket to draw water from the deep well. When Jesus asked for a drink of water, she reacted with considerable surprise, for, as John informs us, Jews usually had nothing to do with Samaritans. But in this instance, Jesus offered to give the woman life through his living water (hydōr zōn).4 She did not understand at first, limiting her side of the conversation to her world of wells, buckets, and drawing water. Finally, acknowledging that his living water that would quench thirst forever might save her the labor of returning every day to the well, she asked him to give her the living water. At that point, Jesus asked her to bring her husband, and we learn from her response that she had previously lived with five men and that she was not married to the sixth, her current companion. As in the brightness of noonday sun, her sinful life was exposed to Jesus (it was exposure only for her since he already knew). She recognized Jesus as a prophet and began to ask questions about God and worship, concluding with a wistful statement: "I know that a Messiah is coming who is called Christ; when he comes, he will teach us all things" (4:25). One can imagine the thrill and joy she experienced when Jesus said, "I, the one speaking with you, am he" (v. 26).
The contrast between the reactions of Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman could not be clearer. He was educated, powerful, and religious, and he approached Jesus in darkness to discuss miracles and religion. She was none of those things. Whereas he was unwilling to be reborn into spiritual life, she accepted the invitation to receive eternal life in the brightness of the midday light, even though it meant the exposure and (assuredly, given the context) renunciation of her sins. These two examples provide great object lessons to anyone who reads the Gospel of John. Jesus offers life to all, but on his terms, not ours.
Feeding the Five Thousand
The miracle of the wine at Cana and John's account of Jesus miraculously feeding five thousand men 5 near Bethsaida have much in common. Whereas Mary made known the problem at Cana by stating that the hosts had run out of wine, Jesus introduced the problem of feeding the large crowd by asking Philip where they could buy food to feed the people. Since Philip was from Bethsaida, he might be expected to know where provisions could be purchased. Philip responded that not even with two-thirds of a year's wages for a skilled laborer could they buy enough food for everybody to have a bite.6 Andrew brought a boy to Jesus who had five small barley loaves (not to be confused with the large loaves of bread available today) and two small fish (the word for fish used in John is the diminutive form, emphasizing the small size) and asked how such a small amount of food would help feed so many people. All of this seems to show the magnitude of the problem, not to suggest a solution, for John states that Jesus "knew what he was about to do" (6:6). Just as at Cana, the need was great, and Jesus was willing and able to satisfy the need.
After having the disciples organize and seat the crowd on the large grassy area at hand, Jesus took the loaves and fish, gave thanks, and distributed the food. The text states that all ate as much as they wanted and were filled. Jesus then had the disciples collect the leftover food, and they gathered twelve basketfuls (one assumes one basket per apostle, although that is only a natural guess). There was much more food remaining after the meal than there was at the beginning. Again making a comparison to the miracle at Cana, we note that Jesus went beyond necessity to provide an overflowing abundance. The miracles bestowed physical benefits beyond measure upon recipients whose needs were real. The spiritual meaning underlying these miracles (keeping in mind that the giving of life suggested by the wine at Cana is repeated and even magnified in the feeding of the five thousand men and others) is clear: Jesus does not simply promise new life for all to whom death seems the inevitable end in this life, but his is a promise of a rich and abundant life. The new life is not merely a continuation but an enhancement of life as people know it on earth. Within this concept stands the view of the tree of life in the Fourth Gospel.
At least some people in the crowd recognized the miracle Jesus performed, for they proclaimed him to be the prophet who Moses prophesied would one day come as one like himself (Deuteronomy 18:15–18). When Jesus knew that the people were about to take him and declare him to be their king, he left them and went alone up a mountain.
On the following day, after walking on the sea to meet his disciples who were traveling to Capernaum by boat, Jesus was accosted by the crowd who had returned to Capernaum (not a very great distance from the area near Bethsaida). The people asked Jesus when he had arrived in Capernaum, a somewhat unexpected question since they knew he had not come by boat (they had observed that there were no boats save the one taken by the disciples on the previous evening). They might naturally have asked how he got there, but instead they asked, "When camest thou hither?" (6:25).
Rather than answer their question, Jesus responded that they were following him because he had fed them, and he exhorted them to work for food that would remain unto eternal life, which the Son of Man would give to them (6:27). Considering the miracle of the previous day, it seems strange that the people asked Jesus to show them a sign as a token that he was the one sent from God to give them the food of life (v. 30). It is ironic that, in their request for a sign, they made reference to the miracle of the manna in the time of Moses. The combination of dialogue and sermon in John 6 is known as the Bread of Life sermon, and it follows the pattern established in the meetings that Jesus had with Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman.
Jesus first clarified the ancient miracle by noting that it was not Moses who gave manna to the Israelites, but rather God who gives the true bread from heaven (6:32). As he earlier had attempted to raise Nicodemus's awareness of the heavenly origin of miracles (as opposed to a preoccupation with the physical miracles themselves), he now tried to elevate the thinking of the crowd to consider the true heavenly bread, which gives life to the world (v. 33). The people did at least express interest in receiving that bread every day (v. 34), just as the Samaritan woman finally requested Jesus to give her living water, even if neither they nor she initially comprehended the spiritual nature of that request.
Jesus earlier declared to Nicodemus that he had descended from heaven to give eternal life to all who would have faith in him (3:13–17), and he gave the same message in Capernaum, telling his audience that he is the Bread of Life, having been sent from heaven to give eternal sustenance to everyone who comes to him and has faith in him (6:35–38). His testimony that he is the Bread of Life and that he would give life to (literally raise up or resurrect) his faithful followers was not well received, and the Jewish audience began to argue what he meant by declaring himself to be bread from heaven (v. 41). Jesus answered their claim to know his earthly parentage by stating that only if they acknowledged God to be his Father could they come to him and have faith in him. Jesus reminded the people, who were determined to see everything in earthly terms (as Nicodemus earlier), that although their fathers had eaten the miraculous manna in the desert, they had all nevertheless died. He then assured them that the only way to overcome death and enjoy eternal life was to eat the Bread of Life, which he identified as his flesh (vv. 50–51).
That was more than the crowd could stand, and they erupted into a full-scale riot (6:52). Misunderstanding Jesus's meaning, they evidently thought he was advocating a kind of cannibalism, which was specifically forbidden in the law of Moses. Jesus then added that they must drink his blood as well as eat his flesh in order to be resurrected in the last day and have eternal life (vv. 53–54). He repeated the contrast between the Israelites who ate manna and died and those who would eat the true Bread from heaven and have eternal life (v. 58).
Although the phrase "tree of life" is not mentioned in the Bread of Life sermon, it is clear that partaking of Jesus's flesh and drinking his blood to obtain eternal life is functionally equivalent to partaking of the fruit of the tree of life in the Garden of Eden. Jesus's miracles of producing wine at Cana and bread near Bethsaida clearly foreshadow the sacrifice of his own flesh and blood to give eternal life to all who will partake of them in faith. One must leave behind the disputes and doubts of those in Capernaum and proceed to Gethsemane to find that fruit.
One cannot but feel some sympathy for those who found this sermon difficult to understand and accept. Even on a spiritual plane there is a natural reluctance to think of feasting on one who is beloved and whose blameless body should be honored rather than devoured. It is no small matter that even Jesus's disciples shrank from his request that they eat and drink of his essence. The sacrament of the Lord's Supper cannot be received without an awesome reverence—for by it he is in us, and we become one with him. Thus he prayed with those who supped with him prior to Gethsemane and the cross (John 17).
As the miracles of the wine at Cana and the bread near Bethsaida foreshadowed Jesus's giving his blood and body to give life to the world, the raising of Lazarus from the grave at Bethany gave proof of his power over death itself. If the initial depletion of the wine at Cana symbolized the inevitability of death in the world, the restoring of life at Bethany betokened the ultimate rolling back of the finality of death that resulted from the fall within the Garden of Eden. John makes clear that Jesus's power to give life is greater than the power of darkness to destroy it.
At first it was a matter of Lazarus's illness. On numerous occasions Jesus had healed people suffering various maladies and diseases. The sisters of Lazarus, Mary and Martha, sent word to Jesus that Lazarus was ill, no doubt hoping that Jesus would bless his friend, described in the sisters' message as beloved of the Savior. When Jesus received their petition, he told his disciples that Lazarus's illness would not have death as its final result (this passage in Greek does not say that Lazarus would not die, only that the end result would not be death), but would redound to the glory of the Son of God. Jesus did not immediately go to Bethany but remained where he was for two days (11:6), after which he requested that the disciples go with him to Judea (v. 7). The disciples' fear that Jesus faced death by going to Judea shows that they did not yet understand that his authority and power concerning life and death were greater than that of his enemy and those in his enemy's service.
Jesus told his disciples that their friend Lazarus had fallen asleep and that he was going to awaken him (11:11). Having heard earlier that Lazarus's illness would not finally result in death, they naturally misunderstood the euphemism of speaking of death as a sleep. Knowing that sleep is normally an indication of healing rest, they responded that he must be on the mend, no doubt hoping that such an assurance would deter them from the dangerous journey to Bethany in Judea. Then, dispensing with veiled language, Jesus told them plainly that Lazarus had died (v. 14). The disciples must have wondered at Jesus's following statement: "I rejoice for your sake that I was not there, that you might have faith" (v. 15). They did not know that a greater miracle than healing an illness was about to occur. As a tribute to Thomas, usually identified with the epithet "the doubter," John records him saying in loyalty and boldness, "Let us also go, that we may die with him" (v. 16). John thus lets his audience know that in more than one sense this was to be a journey into the realm of death.
When the small group arrived at Bethany, Lazarus had already been entombed for four days (11:17). Significantly, an ancient Jewish belief held that the spirit of a deceased individual might hover about the body for three days, but it irrevocably departed after that. Throughout the ancient world (Egypt being a notable exception), the spirits of the dead were portrayed as leading a shadowy existence in a kind of half-life, neither really alive nor completely dead. So far as the body is concerned, however, death was final, with only decomposition and a return to the elements of the earth in its future. The reader begins to understand why Jesus delayed so long to make his way to Bethany: there was to be no question about simply reviving one whose death was so recent that recovery might theoretically be possible. When Martha met Jesus, she expressed her faith that had Jesus been present earlier, Lazarus would not have died (v. 21). When Mary arrived, she repeated Martha's declaration (v. 32). When they arrived at the tomb and Jesus commanded that the covering stone be removed, Martha said, "Lord, the odor is already terrible, for he has been dead four days" (v. 39).
The stone was removed, Jesus called Lazarus to come out, and he emerged (11:41–44)—undoubtedly with difficulty, for he was still shrouded with burial wrappings at his feet and hands and about his head (to keep the jaw in place). Having uncovered ancient burials in Egypt for more than a quarter of a century, I have some idea of and appreciation for the shocked—stunned—reaction of those present when witnessing that event. I wonder whether I would be rooted to the spot or would set a running record should a buried corpse at my excavation site stir and rise of its own accord. Jesus broke the frozen response of those present by telling them to remove the wrappings so Lazarus could walk about freely (v. 44).
The cosmic nature of the conflict between the light and life of Jesus and the world of darkness and death is exemplified by the counsel of the chief priests to kill Lazarus (12:10), as if his life or death would signify the victor in the battle between God and Satan. They had already decided that Jesus must be killed (11:50–53), claiming that it was for the good of the nation. John adds for his Christian audience that Jesus's death would not only benefit the Jewish people but would also be a blessing for all the children of God (v. 52). The Jewish leaders saw Christ's death as a temporal advantage for themselves; the testimony of John is that the death of Jesus brought about eternal blessings for all people. Out of his death would emerge life—life richer and more abundant than that temporarily interrupted by death.
Jesus's hour had come. It was time for him to return to his Father. Of course, the journey back would be by way of Gethsemane and the cross, where he would offer himself a perfect and willing sacrifice on behalf of the world. All who would accept his atonement through faith and repentance could then partake of his flesh and blood, the fruit of the tree of life that gives eternal light and life. Before his departure, Jesus taught his disciples how to prepare for their own journey back into the presence of their Father and his Son, their glorified Master. As he would go back to his Father through suffering and death, all can return to the Father only through Jesus. That instruction was given as Jesus celebrated his final earthly Passover with his disciples.
The importance John attaches to Jesus's teachings at the last supper can hardly be overstated. He devotes nearly a fourth of his Gospel to that occasion. It might seem strange to some that the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) all present the introduction of the Eucharist, or sacrament, in their brief account of the last supper (Matthew 26:20–30; Mark 14:17–26; Luke 22:14–39), whereas John, whose last supper narrative covers five chapters, makes no mention of it. I offer a couple of reasons for this apparent omission. The synoptic Gospels were missionary tracts to different audiences, and it would be natural to introduce potential converts to principles and practices of the church through those writings. The earliest ancient commentators on John understood the Fourth Gospel to be written to people who were already church members as a guide into the sacred doctrines of their faith, making it less necessary to include items covered in the other Gospels. Indeed, as was seen in the account of Jesus restoring Lazarus to life from the grave, John presumed his readers' familiarity with the story by referring to Mary as the one who anointed and dried Christ's feet (11:2), although he did not relate the event until a chapter later. Church members would likewise have been familiar with the institution of the Eucharist, and its absence in an account focusing on other matters would not have occasioned surprise or concern. What one cannot say is that the symbols of bread and wine and their relationship to one's partaking of Jesus's body and blood are unimportant or lacking throughout this most sacramental of Gospels.
Before giving the sacred information that would prepare the disciples to return to the presence of God, Jesus washed their feet to cleanse them from the filth of the world. One properly associates baptism with becoming cleansed from sin, but if after bathing one went to a distant home for dinner, that person would pick up dust or dirt on the feet during the journey. Washing of a guest's feet by a slave usually took place before the meal, and it was therefore highly unusual for Jesus himself to wash feet and to do so during the meal. As Jesus moved from person to person, washing and drying their feet, all must have wondered why he was doing such a thing. When he came to Peter, that apostle surely voiced what others were thinking when he asked why Jesus was washing their feet. Jesus explained that it was necessary if they were to have a place with him (13:8). Typical of Peter's personality, he then extended his head and hands and said to give him a full wash (v. 9). Jesus responded that one who had already bathed (been baptized) had no further need except that his feet be washed in order to be completely clean (v. 10). He then stated that they were cleansed, but not all of them, for even though he had washed the feet of Judas Iscariot, that apostle would betray his Lord and thus was not cleansed spiritually. The others were now prepared to receive sacred teachings, and Judas was dismissed by Jesus before those things were given (vv. 27–30).
In the introduction to his Gospel, John said that the light shines in the darkness, yet the darkness did not seize or overtake it (1:5). Ever since Eden the conflict in this world has been between light and darkness, life and death. When Adam and Eve transgressed, they became subject to death and darkness, shut out from the sacred garden and its tree of life. When Jesus came to bring light and life into the world, it was inevitable that the deciding battle should take place between him and his enemy. As Judas left the dinner, it was to ensure that the cosmic duel would take place that night. Operating as the agent of Satan, Judas represented the power of darkness. There may be no more dramatic statement in literature than the one accompanying his departure: a three-word Greek sentence, ēn de nux, "and it was night" (13:30).
As if Judas took the darkness out with him, or more correctly, as soon as Jesus banished the darkness from his presence, the next two verses contain the word glorify five times, all in connection with God and Christ (13:31–32). The relationship between light and glory is obvious, and the light was shining more brightly once the darkness was dispelled. From John's perspective, Jesus had won the battle; and indeed, he will quote Jesus three chapters later saying, "But take courage, I have conquered [overcome] the world" (16:33). It was time to prepare the disciples to have life with God.
With the evil one dismissed, and sitting in the light without darkness, Jesus imparted instructions and preparations for the journey back to God in a classical manner of teaching—a dialogue. Some disciples are specifically named as participants, including Peter (13:36), Thomas (14:5), Philip (v. 8), and Judas—not Iscariot (v. 22). Elsewhere the disciples are mentioned together as asking or commenting during the course of the presentation (16:17, 29). It was a moment designed for all of them to enjoy learning in pure light.
Pertinent to our topic is Jesus's statement "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life" (14:6). Amplifying this concept, Jesus compared himself to a vine and his disciples to branches (15:1–5). Remembering the miracle of the wine at Cana and the observations made concerning that miracle, one can see this comparison to a vine as specifically giving the promise of life. Jesus further explained that the branches could not bear fruit unless they were connected to and deriving life from the vine (v. 4). Clearly the vine of life is here equivalent to the tree of life, and without Jesus there is no fruit of the vine or tree. If the disciples remained in Jesus, they would bear much fruit and have such a fullness of life that every desire and request would be fulfilled for them (vv. 5–8).
John not only emphasizes the need for the disciples to be clean and pure before being prepared for the journey home to God, but he also records another necessary ingredient. Before the last supper narrative, John had written the noun and verb for love eight times (once for the noun and seven times for the verb), but in the meeting in the upper room he repeated them thirty times. Thus, in the presence of God, life and love are inseparable, and without love one cannot experience godly life. Partaking of the fruit of eternal life must be done in love. Even though Jesus is going to Gethsemane and Calvary, John records Jesus speaking the word for joy seven times in the last supper discourse, compared with only two times earlier in the Gospel (3:29). But love and joy are to be the distinguishing characteristics of those who approach and eat from the tree of life.
Gardens and Crucifixion
The synoptic Gospels all name Gethsemane as the place where Jesus went with the disciples after leaving the upper room, but only John specifically states that it was a garden (18:1, 20). He further states that the new and previously unused tomb in the place where Jesus was crucified was in a garden (19:41). When Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene, she at first thought he was the gardener (20:15). The allusions to Genesis at the beginning of John's Gospel, coupled with the theme of the tree of life developed throughout it, make it natural to associate the two gardens of Jesus's suffering and crucifixion on a tree with the Garden of Eden and its tree of life. His suffering in the first garden made it possible for disciples to partake of the fruit of eternal life that was on the cross in the second garden. Thus, as Eden was the garden where Adam and Eve first lived and where death came into existence and deprived them of eternal life, so in these gardens in John the process was reversed, with death being first and eternal life coming into existence out of that death. Entry into the heavenly Eden has become possible through Jesus Christ.
In a related vein, there are a number of references to trees in the New Testament, but though there are two Greek words that mean "tree," one appears nearly half a dozen times in the New Testament for the cross (Greek xylon). That word is the same as the one written in the Septuagint for the tree of life (LXX Genesis 2:9). John employed the same word in the letter to the Ephesians in the book of Revelation: "To the one who overcomes I will give to eat from the Tree of Life, which is in the paradise of God" (Revelation 2:7).
John's narrative of the crucifixion contains yet another event that depicts Jesus as the fruit of the tree of life. After Jesus stated, "It is finished [has been completed or accomplished]," 7 he bowed his head and released his spirit from the body (19:30). While the body was still affixed to the cross, the soldiers attending the crucifixion pierced Jesus's side or chest 8 with a spear 9 to make certain Jesus was dead. John then states that "immediately blood and water poured out of the chest" (v. 34). The connections between water, blood, wine, and life have already been discussed, and I note here that Jesus also had referred more than once to "living water" in the Fourth Gospel (4:10–15; 7:38—"out of his abdomen will flow rivers of living water"). With the clear identification, therefore, between blood, water, and life, John bears eloquent testimony that through Jesus's suffering and death, life flows out from him into the world. The cross, usually recognized as a horrendous instrument of torture and death, in this one instance is miraculously transformed into a "tree of life," and Jesus becomes the fruit of that tree from whom the blood and water of life flow. As the Lamb of God has taken away the sin of the world (1:29), the fruit and life from the tree of life, inaccessible to God's children since the fall of Adam, has become available to all who have faith in Jesus Christ. The fruit of the tree, represented in the emblems of the sacrament, or Eucharist, bestow spiritual life now, with the promise of eternal life to come.
Threaded into John's Gospel is a tapestry of light and dark,
of life and death, of thirst-quenching water and drying sin. All these images
point more or less directly back to the tree of life planted in the Garden of
Eden. What Adam and Eve started Jesus will complete; what they introduced he
will perfect; what they closed he will open; what they were prevented from
doing he will offer access to. His acts and words promise an abundance of life
and derive their deepest meaning when we see him as the true representative of
the tree of life.
Wilfred Griggs, professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University, studied history and Greek literature at BYU and received his PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, in ancient history and Mediterranean archaeology. He is field director for the BYU Egypt Excavation Project. His publications include Early Egyptian Christianity: From Its Origins to 451 C.E. (2000) and numerous articles on the New Testament and early Christianity. Griggs's previous work on the tree of life has appeared in the Ensign (June 1988), Book of Mormon Authorship: New Light on Ancient Origins (1982), and Book of Mormon Reference Companion (2003).
1. See generally G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson, eds., Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2007), 421–23.
2. Abbreviated scriptural references are to the Gospel of John unless otherwise indicated.
3. John uses a term throughout his Gospel that is usually translated as "sign," rather than the word used in the other three Gospels that is usually translated as "miracle." For this reason, many commentators refer to the Fourth Gospel as the "Gospel of Signs."
4. This perhaps alludes to the river of water that came out of Eden to water the garden in which the tree of life was found in Genesis 2:10, and also to the waters issuing forth from the temple in Ezekiel 47:1.
5. Matthew 14:21 explicitly states that there were women and children in addition to the five thousand men.
6. The typical wage for a common laborer was one denarius per day, and so two hundred denarii would be about eight months' wages, assuming a six-day workweek. See John W. Betlyon, "Coinage," in Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed. David N. Freeman (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 1:1086.
7. Tetelestai, the same root word as used in Genesis 2:1 to note the completion of the creation of heaven and earth. See Mary Coloe, "The Dwelling of God among Us: The Symbolic Function of the Temple in the Fourth Gospel" (master's thesis, Melbourne College of Divinity, Australia, 1998), 278; cited in Alan R. Kerr, The Temple of Jesus' Body: The Temple Theme in the Gospel of John (Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 2002), 243.
8. Pleuran, the same word as in Genesis 2:21–22, where God takes one of Adam's ribs in order to form Eve.
9. Romphaia, the same word that appears in Genesis 3:25 to describe the sword that guards the tree of life.