Rev 22:1 Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb
Rev 22:2 through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.
It has been quite an experience preaching through the book of Revelation. And one of the things that has been interesting is the way commentators deal with chapters 21-22:6. Actually this composes one vision of the New Jerusalem and so there shouldn’t be a chapter division until perhaps 22:6. Even though twice John is told that the New Jerusalem is the Bride of Christ or the church, it seems ingrained in us to want to interpret this as a picture of Heaven. Some commentators keep insisting that there will be streets of gold even though the word street is always singular. We won’t be walking on streets of gold because Heaven isn’t a city we dwell in, this city describes the community of the saints who dwell with God; we in him and he in us. Some insist that Heaven will be full of parks of trees even though only one tree is ever mentioned; the Tree of Life.
One old favorite hymn, “Shall We Gather at the River” paints a picture of the river that flows by the throne of God even though it says it flows from of the throne. God is not part of eternity, he is eternity and eternal life comes from him. God is always on the throne and always at the center of our existence and life flows from him not by him.
In each case such descriptions cause us to think of this as a photo of Heaven rather than the glorified state of the church. In some of these cases such interpretations clearly do more harm than good. Let me focus on the vision of the Tree of Life that John sees interestingly enough on both sides of the river. He sees one street with one river running down the middle with one tree on both sides of the river. We can try to imagine this literally and just be confused or we can try to understand the spiritual types of the Bible being brought to fulfillment in eternity.
If I can briefly sum up this we might say that true life flows from God and Jesus is the only way through which this life comes. The tree is on both sides as it is accessible to all those who have been redeemed. But the way that John refers to the Tree of Life helps us see that he isn’t describing a beautiful park that we will stroll through in eternity but instead the tree is our access to the life we lost in Adam that has been restored in Christ Jesus.
When the NT refers to the cross as a tree the word it uses is one that literally means a wooden pole or piece of timber. It does not use a word that refers to a leafy tree like we might think of such as an oak tree or a maple tree. Some examples are found in the book of Acts. Act 5:30 The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree. Act 10:39 And we are witnesses of all that he did both in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree. And Gal 3:13 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"
In each case a literal translation would be that he was hanged on a wooden pole or piece of timber. John uses the same word here so that it could be translated the timber of life or the wooden torture pole of life. What he describes is a normal tree with healing leaves but he uses a word that can only mean the cross of Christ. And so he is referring in one sense to the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden but explaining that the tree in the Garden was only a type of the true Tree of Life which is the cross of Christ.
Adam and Eve were barred from eternal life, symbolized by the Tree of Life, when they sinned but in Christ we have access to eternal life by his work on the cross. And so in one sense John’s vision is a vision of the church enjoying Christ, who is true life, as they will in eternity. There is only one river of life (Joh 4:14 but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.") and one street or way of access and communion with God (Joh 14:6 Jesus said to him, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.) and one Tree of Life (Joh_5:40 yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life. Joh_11:25 Jesus said to her, "I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live. 1Jn_5:12 Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.) Well, you get the idea.
I personally doubt Heaven will look like a city with streets and houses because they suggest separation with walled enclosures. In the New Heavens and Earth we might well live in a literal Garden of Eden with trees and rivers and that will be fine by me. But John isn’t painting a picture of where we will dwell in eternity; he is telling us who we will be dwelling with, the Lord Jesus Christ. John, in the closing chapters of the Bible, is moving all the types of the Bible into their fulfillment.