The Christmas Tree

 

Unless otherwise indicated, all scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version,
© 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved. All emphasis added.

Is there a Biblical connection between the “Christmas tree” and the history of salvation in Christ?

Genesis 2:8-9, 15-17; 3:22-24 (text); Galatians 3:13-14; Revelation 2:7; 22:2, 14, 19
November 18, 2012 (Pasig) • Download PDF sermon

The Fall of Man by Lucas Cranach, 1537 (click to enlarge)

The Fall of Man by Lucas Cranach (1537) under the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The Tree of Life on the left. (click to enlarge)

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?

We begin our Advent season in 2012 with the story of the Christmas tree and the real Christmas tree. 1

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 200 A.D. According to Clement of Alexandria (Egypt), there were several different days proposed by various Christian groups as Jesus’ birth date, but none mentioned December 25. Around 350 A.D., a Roman almanac noted on the December 25 date, “Christ was born in Bethlehem of Judea.”

So how did they come up with December 25? According to Andrew McGowan, 2 the possible connection is not to the pagan Saturnalia, but to the death of Christ. About 200 A.D., Tertullian wrote about how the ancient church arrived at the December 25 date. Jesus was crucified on March 25 (Passover on the 14th day of Nisan) and nine months after that date is December 25. March 25 of course was already marked as the day of the Annunciation of Christ’s birth. Thus, they believed that the date of Jesus’s conception and crucifixion were on the same days.

There you have it: the myth of the Christmas-pagan connection. 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. Legend also has it that Martin Luther originated the Christmas lights after he saw stars on a dark night’s frightening walk in a forest.

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 will answer this question as we start this Advent season with the theme, The Christmas Tree, under three headings: first, A Gift in Eden; second, A Curse at Calvary; and third, A Blessing in the Paradise of God.

A Gift in Eden
For Adam and Eve’s earthly pleasure, God planted a garden in Eden. God then “made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food” (Gen 2:8). In the middle of the garden, God planted two trees: the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and the tree of life. He was pleased to give them all of this beautiful, verdant garden to enjoy, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden.” But there is one exception to this gift: they may not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, God warning them, “for in the day you eat of it, you shall surely die” (Gen 2:15-17).

Were they prohibited from eating of the tree of life? The Bible seem to imply that there was no prohibition. This means that together with all the other trees, Adam and Eve were also given the fruits of the tree of life to enjoy.

The later Eden story gives us a hint. After our first parents fell into sin, God pronounced his judgment on them and on creation. Sin and death, hard toil, and sufferings will mar their earthly life. They also lost their true knowledge of and communion with their Creator. And God drove them out of the garden for their own protection. What was it that God was protecting them from?

The prohibition from eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was God’s first covenant with man, a covenant of works: disobey and you will die. The reverse is implied: obey and you will live. Every covenant has a sign and seal of its confirmation, for instance, circumcision was the sign of membership in God’s covenant with Abraham. In the garden of Eden, there were two ratifying signs: the two trees in the middle of the garden. Eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil will confirm the curse of death for disobedience, while eating of the tree of life will ratify the gift of eternal life for obedience.

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. In the Old Testament, the phrase, “tree of life,” is not found anywhere else except in Proverbs 3:18; 11:30; 13:12; 15:4. Here, it is equated with wisdom as the preeminent virtue of life, something that is to be desired. God would have bestowed on Adam and Eve godly wisdom and life to the fullest if they only partook of the tree of life.

There would be no more threat of the curse of sin and death because of disobedience. In fact, there is no possibility of disobedience because Adam would be perfectly holy and righteous. And since he is the covenant head, he would have passed this perfection onto all his descendants. God’s command to fill the earth and multiply (Gen 1:28) would have been completely fulfilled, because Adam’s perfect descendants would overflow out of the garden of Eden into all the world. The whole earth would then be filled with his glory, because it will be filled with his glorious people.

Not only will the whole earth be full of God’s glory; the whole earth, not only Eden, will be God’s garden-temple. The garden of Eden was the original temple of God on earth. God commanded Adam to “work” and “keep” Eden, two words that are used for the responsibilities of Levitical priests in the Tabernacle (“serve” Num 4:23; “keep” Num 18:7). The garden of Eden is also called “the garden of God” (Ezek 28:13). It is in Eden where God and Adam would fellowship together: where God would teach Adam his ways; where Adam would worship God.

In “keeping” the garden, he is responsible for making sure that everything in God’s sanctuary is according to God’s instructions. He is also to guard and protect it from all outsiders, from anything that is not according to God’s will, such as when the serpent entered the garden.

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. Not only did he not guard God’s garden-temple from the serpent’s intrusion; he even let himself be deceived by the devil’s lying words. 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? It is because he prevented them from eating of the tree of life and thereby living in a perpetual state of sin and condemnation without dying.

Adam and Eve Driven from Paradise by James Tissot, 1902 (click to enlarge)

Adam and Eve Driven from Paradise by James Tissot, 1902 (click to enlarge)

We read in Genesis 3:22-23, “Then the Lord God said … ‘Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever—’ therefore the Lord God sent him out from the garden of Eden … ” After he fell into sin, the perfect image of God in Adam was corrupted, and the only way for him to be saved from his condition is through the first gospel-promise in Genesis 3:15, which God made within the curse he pronounced on the serpent, in which the Seed of the woman will destroy the serpent after he is wounded by the serpent.

So if Adam had eaten of the tree of life, he would have “lived forever.” This means he would have had eternal life, and what could be wrong about eternal life? Is not “eternal life” what all humankind long for? In Greek mythology, the gods coveted ambrosia, called the “food of the gods,” to give them immortality or eternal life. The ancient world tells of stories about the search for the “fountain of youth,” with its special kind of water that restores youth, and perhaps even confers immortality, to anyone who drinks from it. These are but corrupted tales of the Bible’s creation account.

The problem with sinful Adam living forever is that he will have lived forever 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? This existence would not be far from suffering eternal torment in hell.

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. From that day forward, Adam and all his descendants were barred from entering the garden. To prevent anyone from entering, cherubim with a flaming sword were assigned by God to dwell at the gate of Eden in the east (Gen 3:24), just as cherubim were embroidered on the curtain at the entrance to the Holy of Holies in the wilderness tabernacle (Exod 26:31; 39:34; 40:21). As if to show Adam how he failed as the garden-temple’s gatekeeper, God now placed his own cherubim to guard his garden-temple’s entrance from unauthorized intruders. Even the mercy seat which covered the ark of the covenant, representing God’s presence in the tabernacle, was overshadowed by two golden cherubim (Exod 25:18; Heb 9:5).

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’s hanged his chief baker on a tree, just as Joseph had prophesied (Gen. 40:18-22). In the covenant renewal before Israel entered the Promised Land, the death penalty is executed by hanging on a tree, because “a hanged man is cursed by God” (Deut 21:22-23). And during the conquest of Canaan, Joshua hanged the kings of conquered nations on trees (Josh 8:29; 10:26). During the time of Queen Esther, Haman the enemy of Jews, was hanged on a tree by the king for his murderous plot (Est 7:10; 9:13).

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, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness” (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 metaphorically “hang us on a tree,” which is in reality, driving us to eternal hell because all mankind bear the curse of sin and death.

So for the New Testament writers, the tree of life in Eden became the tree of cursing, the cross on which Jesus was hung for our salvation. It is not merely a coincidence that sin first came at the foot of a tree, and sin was conquered later at the foot of another tree, the cross of Calvary.

Like Adam and Eve, Christ our Tree of Life was also driven out from God’s garden-temple. He came down from heaven on a commission from his Father 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, under the law. He wandered in the deserts, mountains, little villages and big cities, preaching the gospel of salvation from the curse of sin and death brought about by our first parents’ sin in the garden of Eden. But unlike our first parents who were barred from returning to the blessed 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, at last, the Tree of Life reappears in the new heaven and new earth.

Tree of Life, stained glass design by Henry Lee Willet, at Spring Grove cemetery, Cincinnati, Ohio

Tree of Life, stained glass design by Henry Lee Willet, at Spring Grove cemetery, Cincinnati, Ohio

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.” 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.

In the holy city, it is seen not as a stark cross of death and condemnation, but as a luscious tree “on either side of the river … with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations” (Rev 22:2). The Tree of Life, amazingly bearing fruit all throughout the year, will satisfy the city’s residents continuously, signifying eternal life. All the nations will be healed by its leaves, not only physically, but also from sin and death (Rev 20:14; see also Ezek. 47:12).

Those who are blessed because they have “washed their robes” with the blood of the Lamb shed on the cross (Rev 7:14) will have “the right to the tree of life” (Rev 22:14). Because they are now cleansed of sin and forgiven by God, they also “enter the city by the gates.” The angels guarding the twelve gates of the city (Rev 21:12) will actually usher them into the blessed heavenly city. Outside the gates are those who have not washed their robes because they have rejected the One who was hanged on the tree of cursing.

Those who believe the Word of God and Christ have “a share in the tree of life and in the holy city” (Rev. 22:19). They will never lose their share, because they have eaten of the Tree of Life that gives them godly wisdom from the Word for eternity.

So the medieval church understood this connection between the Christmas Tree and the Tree of Life in paradise. 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 seems 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.

That when Jesus was hanged on a tree, the great curtain embroidered with the cherubim guarding the Holy of Holies was torn apart in two (Matt 27:51).

That just as God gave Adam and Eve access to paradise in Eden, God opened the Most Holy Place to all believers.

This is a picture of heaven itself being opened for God’s people to enter in. No flaming sword will bar you anymore from entering our heavenly rest (Heb 4:1). Instead of preventing you from entering the new heaven and new earth with its great, high walls, the angels posted at each of the twelve entry gates will welcome and usher you into your heavenly eternal rest.

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.

 


Notes:

  1. Most of this historical data was taken from “O Christmas Tree: The Origin and Meaning of the Christmas Tree” by Dr. Richard P. Bucher, Our Redeemer Lutheran Church, http://www.orlutheran.com/html/chrtree.html.
  2. Dr. Andrew McGowan is Warden and President of Trinity College at the University of Melbourne, Australia. He writes in “How December 25 Became Christmas” in Biblical Archaeology Review, http://www.bib-arch.org/e-features/christmas.asp.
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