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Of Christmas Trees and the Tree of Life

 

Genesis 2:8-9, 15-17; 3:22-24 (text); Galatians 3:13-14; Revelation 2:7; 22:2, 14, 19

December 7, 2014 • KSYC 103.9FM (Yreka, CA) • Download this devotional (PDF)

Click image to enlarge (from internetmonk.com)

Click image to enlarge (from internetmonk.com)

Every Christmas season, we never stop hearing naysayers that Christmas is a pagan holiday, or at least originated as a pagan festival. They argue that December 25 as the birthdate of Jesus was an adaptation of the pagan celebration of the winter solstice called Saturnalia or the Sol Invictus festival to encourage pagans to convert to Christianity. But is this historically true?

Many scholars have debunked this so-called pagan origin of Christmas as a myth. It is well-documented that Jesus’ birth was celebrated by the church as early as 150 A.D. Even the December 25 date was celebrated as early as 200 A.D.

So the Christmas-pagan connection popular these days is itself a big myth. What about the Christmas tree-pagan connection? Is our precious Christmas tree also to be junked as pagan? On dark winter nights, ancient Romans and other pagans decked their homes with trees to symbolize life in the midst of darkness and death. Some connect the Christmas tree to the living trees which ancient pagan Germans brought into their homes during the dark midwinter days of the Yule season.

But the conclusion from history is that there is no connection between these pagan practices and the Christmas tree. We will continue with the rest of the Christmas tree story later.

Is there a Biblical connection between the “Christmas tree” and the history of salvation in Christ? We begin our Advent season in 2014 with the story of the Christmas tree and the “real” Christmas tree.

A Gift in Eden

For Adam and Eve’s earthly pleasure, God planted a beautiful, luscious garden in Eden. In the middle of the garden, God planted two trees: the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and the tree of life. And he was pleased to give them all of this garden to enjoy with their sight and taste, except for one: the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. God warned them about disobeying this command, “in the day you eat of it, you shall surely die” (Gen 2:15-17).

If Adam successfully passed his probation in the garden, he would have been confirmed in the state of perfect holiness, righteousness, and life with God in both body and soul for eternity. And since he is the covenant head of all mankind, he would have passed this perfection onto all his descendants. The tree of life symbolized God’s gift of eternal life to Adam and all his children if he was able to pass the test of obedience.

A Curse at Calvary

But as the Bible tells us, Adam did not pass God’s probation. Because of their sin, Adam and Eve were driven by God out of the garden for their own sake. Why was getting driven out of the garden a merciful act of God towards them who violated his covenant law?

If Adam had eaten of the tree of life, he would have “lived forever” (Gen 3:22-23). This means he would have had eternal life, but eternal life as a sinful human being. What could be a more dreadful and miserable existence than living forever without any hope of being delivered from sin and suffering?

And so the tree of life, the sign of blessings that God would give him for obedience, became the tree of cursing for his disobedience. Both Old and New Testaments refer to a tree as a symbol of cursing. Although the Old Testament never uses the word for “cross,” there are many texts that imply the death penalty by hanging or impaling on a tree. Pharaoh hanged his chief baker on a tree, just as Joseph had prophesied (Gen 40:18-22). In the Law, the death penalty is executed by hanging on a tree, because “a hanged man is cursed by God” (Deut 21:22-23).

Although New Testament writers say that Jesus died on a “cross,” Peter and Paul used the word “tree” five times instead of “cross.” In Peter’s two sermons, he accused the Jews of killing Jesus by “hanging him on a tree” (Acts 5:30; 10:39). Again, in his first epistle, Peter says that Jesus “bore our sins in his body on the tree” (1 Pet 2:24). In one of his sermons, Paul also mentioned that after Jesus died, “they took him down from the tree and laid him in a tomb” (Acts 13:29).

But the most obvious connection between cursing and hanging on a tree was made by Paul in Galatians 3:13, as he quotes Deuteronomy 21:23, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree’.” It is Christ himself hanging on a tree that bore the curse of sin and death on Adam and all his descendants. Without his vicarious atonement on our behalf, God would have instead figuratively “hung us on a tree,” which is in reality, driving us to eternal hell because all mankind bear the curse and judgment of sin and death.

Like Adam and Eve, Christ our Tree of Life was also figuratively driven out from heaven. He came down from heaven to save his people from sin. He who had the glory of God in heaven was born of a woman as a lowly human being. He wandered in deserts, mountains, little villages and big cities, preaching the gospel of salvation from the curse of sin and death brought in by our first parents’ sin. But unlike our first parents who were barred from the garden by the cherubim with fiery swords, Christ passed through the fiery judgment of “hell” on the tree to return once again to his own garden-temple, heaven itself.

A Blessing in the Paradise of God

After being absent since the day that Christ was hanged on a tree, the Tree of Life at last reappears in the new heaven and new earth.

The Tree of Life is once again seen in “the paradise of God” (Rev. 2:7). Christ is pictured as the conqueror, the Lion of Judah who conquered as a slain Lamb (Rev 5:5). Believers who persevere through persecution are also pictured as conquerors. Christ promises “to those who overcome” and are truly victorious by faith in Christ, the right “to eat from the tree of life” (Rev 22:14, 19). Now, those who are faithful to Christ till the end will partake of the tree which was forbidden of Adam and Eve in the garden. This tree is also pictured as a tree “yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations” (Rev 22:2). All the nations will be healed by its leaves, healed from sin and death (Rev 20:14; see also Ezek. 47:12).

So the medieval church understood this connection between the Christmas Tree and the Tree of Life in paradise. Beginning in the eleventh century, the church presented plays that featured a Paradise Tree and the light of Christmas. Germans then started decking their homes with their own Paradise Tree on December 24, the feast day of Adam and Eve. The Paradise Tree became a symbol for the Tree of Life and the cross, which they decorated with apples at first (recalling the forbidden fruit), then later with wafers, candies and sweets. Candles were lit inside pyramids were then added to symbolize Jesus as the light of the world. More and more decorations would be added through the centuries, to the frivolous extent that we see today.

Thus, it is convincing that the first Christmas trees that adorned homes in Germany in the early sixteenth century originated from the medieval plays that featured the Paradise Tree decorated with lighted pyramids.

Remember the three most important trees in the Biblical history of salvation: the garden of Eden’s Tree of Life, the Tree on which Jesus was crucified, and the Tree of Life in the Paradise of God in the new heaven and earth. Let this Christmas be your opportunity to teach your children, as your whole family decorate your Christmas tree and place your presents under it. That these three trees symbolize the tree great milestones in God’s great plan of redemption.

Our Christmas tree is a picture of the Tree of Life by which we remember Jesus who was born to save us from sin and death. And when he restores the old creation into a new heaven and new earth, the Tree of Life in the garden of Eden will have come full circle, because he will restore his people back to the Paradise of God to finally partake of the Tree of Life there.

LET US PRAY: Almighty God, thank you for your great mercy upon your people, who have sinned against you. In the fullness of time, you sent your Beloved Son Jesus to be born in this world and assume human flesh and blood. He is our Tree of Life who gives eternal life, so that those who believe in him will be saved from their sin. Help us remember that Christmas is not merely gift-giving and merrymaking, but a remembrance of Christ’s coming down from heaven to save his people from the curse of sin and death. Through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

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