Graeco-Roman Antiquities & the New Testament
John’s teachings about the tree of life clearly play an important role in his prophecies. The main reason for its importance stems from its association with the New Heaven and New Earth in chapters 21-22. There it is portrayed as part of the eternal blessing for those found faithful in their following of the lamb. As is often true with blessing promised by God to the elect, egregious sin can lead to the forfeiture of those blessings; in this blessing of the tree of life, the same is true. The reader of Revelation is told that those who overcome have “a right to the tree of life” and entrance into the eternal city (Rev. 22:14). In the same chapter, however, John recognizes that there is the possibility that “God will take away” a believer’s “share in the tree of life” for denial of the faith (Rev. 22).
|Ancient Near East Tree of Life|
This vibrant imagery of the tree of life is found in the Jewish Scriptures on which so many of John’s messages stand. Of course the story of Eden with its two named trees is the ultimate sources of this imagery in Scripture, “the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (Gen. 2:9). The profoundly special nature of the tree of life is reflected in the following words toward the end of the Garden of Eden narrative when God said, “The Man has become like one of us, capable of knowing everything, ranging from good to evil. What if he now should reach out and take fruit from the Tree-of-Life and eat, and live forever? Never—this cannot happen!” So God expelled them from the Garden of Eden and sent them to work the ground, the same dirt out of which they’d been made. He threw them out of the garden and stationed angel-cherubim and a revolving sword of fire east of it, guarding the path to the Tree-of-Life (Gen. 3:22-24, The Message).
|Ancient Near East Tree of Life|
|Ancient Near East Tree of Life|
Much like earlier Jewish theology (Ezek. 47) John remembers the association of the tree of life (and the water of life) with being in the presence of God. Ezekiel already knew that the magical quality of the water and the trees that he describes have their origin in the presence of God, “because their water flows from the sanctuary” (Ezek. 47:12b). And even though the imagery given in Revelation 22 has been altered and expanded in some ways, there is little doubt that Revelation relies upon both Gen. 2-3 and Ezekiel 47 for its theology of the tree of life.
|Divine being taking care
of the tree of life
|Tree of life in Ancient Near East|
Given the historical setting of Ezekiel in a foreign land and the fact that the long period before that was characterized by syncretism among both Israelites and Judeans, it is not unnatural to ask about the historical setting in which the exilic prophet Ezekiel wrote. What one discovers is that nations of the Ancient Near East also had traditions about sacred trees, trees of life. This clearly suggests that Israel’s theology about the tree of life took place in a context where other cultures also depicted sacred trees. This reality does not “prove” that Israel’s understanding of the tree of life was borrowed from anyone else, but it does suggest at the least that the belief in the sacred tree was part of the religious lingua franca of both Israel and the Ancient Near East. It is suggested by archaeologist and historians that these photos represent sacred trees/trees of life from ancient Assyria. Examples of these “trees of life” can be seen today in the museums of Turkey, the USA, Russia, and Germany.
I suppose that this question has more than one answer. It is clear that John the prophet embraces the conviction that the Messiah Jesus is worthy. One of the best known and favorite perspectives on this topic is given in Revelation 5:12 where John relates Jesus’ worthiness to the fact that he was slain to redeem humankind: “Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” (Rev. 5:12). Believers are probably attracted to this perspective because it reminds them of Christ’s sacrificial death and bloodshed on their behalf.
In our enthusiasm for this popular interpretation of Christ’s worthiness there is a related idea given by John that has sometimes been overlooked. In Rev. 5:9 John writes, “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.” There are really two points in this verse; there is the traditional understanding focused upon Jesus’ vicarious death and secondly Jesus’ worthiness because of the global consequences of his death for the Christian mission. In making this second point John tries to move the readers beyond two typical misunderstandings. The first of these tendencies is one that hides and secludes salvation from others because of feelings of nationalism or ethnocentrism. The second misconception that John’s teaching combats is the idea that converts to Christianity are there to bolster the agenda, needs, programs, and budget of the church. John’s emphasis is upon the fact that Christ’s role in the first instance is to purchase man and women “for God.” The church never owns Christian converts; their only rightful owner is God.
It has been easy for a complacent church at times to laud, magnify, and praise Christ for his redemptive work on the cross, but manifest less enthusiastic about a commitment to the style of globalism in missions contained in the words “from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev. 5:9b). One does not need to have advanced theological training, or even know Greek and Hebrew, to realize the necessary connection in the heart of God between a believer’s embracing the personal benefits of salvation and then showing a commitment to the globalization of those benefits.
Living in an empire such as Rome’s, a believer would clearer and frequently see the signs of Roman colonialism in Roman artwork recorded on coins, in statues, and on major monuments. Christians knew they lived in an Empire that controlled the lands and seas between the rivers Thames and Tigris. When Rome thought of “tribes and languages and peoples and nations” they imagined more areas to conquer, to dominate, and to exploit for their resources, both human and material resources. It was difficult in antiquity to surpass Rome’s activity in human trafficking. John the prophet, in contradistinction to the prevailing regime, saw “every tribe and language and people and nation” as parts of God’s alienated, but beloved, creation, longing for a partial redemption in the present, and a complete restoration and redemption in the New Heaven and New Earth (Rev. 21-22).
Graeco-Roman Antiquities & the New Testament
There were a lot of attributes of primitive Christianity that produced consternation and dismay among its onlookers. This includes the early church’s insistence upon kindness, gentleness, and tenderheartedness. Those early followers of Christ recognized that these virtues were incontrovertibly part of the message of God’s kingdom, to a degree that has been forgotten in the modern western church. We modern western Christians, at our very best, would be uncertain if and why they should choose tenderheart over Braveheart. In our workaday existence we would often prefer the excitement and adventures of a brutal, concupiscent, and deceitful gigolo rather than a tale that promotes kindness or tenderheartedness.
American popular culture has one foot firmly planted in the church of North America, and it has desensitized followers of Christ to gratuitous violence and the harsh mistreatment of others. There are perhaps still some plots and scenes in TV or movies that would cause believers to flinch or blanch, but typically violence and cruelty produce kudos and applause. Biblically conservative Christians in America are often known for their participation in the “culture wars.” It is sin of incalculable significance that these modern “culture warriors” have neglected the weightier matters of Christian virtues, such as kindness, gentleness, and tenderheartedness (e.g., Hos. 2:14; 11:8; Eph. 4:31-32; 5:29; 1 Pet. 3:8; Matt. 11:29; Gal. 5:23; Eph. 4:2, 31-32; Phil. 4:5; 1 Tim. 3:3; 2 Tim. 2:25; 1 Pet. 3:4, 8, 15-16; NRSV).
|Flavian Colosseum in Rome, with moon.
Wikimedia, Creative Commons.
When we 21st century Christians in the democratic West muse and ruminate about the contrast between the Christian virtues of kindness and tenderheartedness and the rule of brute force in Rome, it would be a mistake to imagine that brute force was only on display in the capital of Rome or in places like the famous Flavian Colosseum in Rome.
A few decades ago an important Latin inscription was discovered in a town in southern Italy. For our purposes the importance of this 1st century AD inscription is the casual way in which it described extreme violence and execution. It talked about the prerogatives of slave owners to summarily crucify their male or female slaves, what supplies the provider of crucifixions had to bring to the event, and the details of dragging the bloody corpse through the city to the place of disposal. This Roman inscription was not found at the Colosseum in Rome, or in the graveyard of ancient gladiators, or the dumpsite for bodies of nefarious criminals. In prosaic words this stone revealed some of the most brutal and inhumane treatment of another human being imaginable; this display could occur in a normal day’s activities. In what many have regarded as an advanced civilization, the men and women and boys and girls of Rome were sated and jaded with scenes of brutality, bloody flesh, and excoriated corpses.
Both believers and non-believers recognized that the Pax Romana was neither established nor held together by ideals such as tenderheartedness and kindness. These early Christians knew, nevertheless, that such ideals and virtues had been spoken and lived out by Jesus, the ruler of God’s kingdom. Such teaching flowed from the pens of Apostles, and from the lips of early Christian prophets, teachers, and martyrs. Most importantly, the followers of the Lamb in John’s congregations knew that Jesus himself had been slain, without retaliation or resistance, and that the followers of the Lamb should not resist either: “If anyone is to go into captivity, into captivity he will go. If anyone is to be killed with the sword, with the sword he will be killed. This calls for patient endurance and faithfulness on the part of the saints” (Rev. 13:10, NIV).
Take a survey of your own life and values and those in the culture surrounding you. When given the opportunity [and it will be given to you daily] , do you take your stand with the kingdom values of kindness, gentleness, and tenderheartedness or do you prefer their antonyms?
The next post on this blog will return to the book of Revelation and the blog’s regular format. I wanted to pause at this point to acknowledge my appreciation to all those who have viewed this blog regularly and have found it helpful. With this long list of nationalities below from which the readers of this blog come, it should be clear that the readership is more than family, friends, and former students. I do participate in distance education where I teach [Harding School of Theology], but even that would not have enabled me to have taught so many students in distant nations. As the number of page views approaches 9,000 [since September 2011], I hope that the ideas and themes found on this blog have been true to Scripture as well as relevant to God’s people throughout the world. If you have found this blog to be helpful, I hope you will share its URL with others.