The Flaming Sword East of Eden
He placed cherubim at the east of the garden of Eden, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to guard the way to the tree of life. Genesis 3:24, NKJV.
After Adam and Eve had sinned and had been driven out of the Garden of Eden, God placed cherubim — special angelic, spiritual creatures (a description of them is found in Ezekiel 1:4-28; 10:1, 15) — and a flaming sword to bar man from re-entry into the garden. This was to prevent access by man to the “tree of life,” to take its fruit, eat it, and live forever (Genesis 3:22).
Why did God bar man from eating the fruit of that tree? After all, doesn’t God want man to have everlasting life — to live forever?
Not everlasting life in sin
Indeed, it is God’s desire that all men have everlasting life. God says, “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked… ” (Ezekiel 33:11). But, as supreme Creator and Ruler, God has set certain conditions before He will grant men everlasting life. As John 3:16 famously declares: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son [Jesus Christ], that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”
A thorough study of both the Old Testament and the New will show that the God or LORD of the Old Testament became the human Jesus Christ, who thus (as a perfect mortal man) offered His life as a ransom for the sin of the whole world (Mark 10:45; 1 Timothy 2;5-6). It was this divine Being, before His human birth, who created all things — including Adam and Eve. [See: The True Christ, Peter Knew "The Holy One," and The Ransomed of the LORD.]
It was this same divine Being — the LORD God — who banished Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. Why? Because they did not believe in Him! They cast aside His command to them not to eat the fruit of the tree He forbade them to — the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” [See: "Your Eyes Will Be Opened!"] Instead, they believed in Satan (in the guise of a serpent, Revelation 12:9) — they obeyed his word. [See: Where Did the Devil Come From?] So, how could God give Adam and Eve (created from the dust of the earth — mortal and perishable) everlasting life when they did not believe in Him?
That is why Adam and Eve had to die, as God promised they would if they disobeyed His Word (Genesis 2:17). And Adam thus “introduced” sin or disobedience to God, to the succeeding generations of men — and all of mankind has been dying since. The apostle Paul said: “…by man [Adam] came death…in Adam all die” (1 Corinthians 15:21, 22). Paul also wrote: “…through one man [Adam] sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned” (Romans 5:12).
No more other Satan and demons
God, clearly, does not want sinful man to remain in sin and, as such, live forever. God does not want another batch of ever-living thugs in His divine company! He’s had enough with Satan and his minions — his demons — who are spirit (Psalm 104:4) and therefore immortal! Why add more trouble in Paradise? [See: Two Goats Together, especially the section on "When will Satan be bound?"]
That is perhaps why God created man mortal, perishable. God must have figured out beforehand the possibility of mortal man becoming immortal although a sinner, and so He removed sinful man from access to the “tree of life” lest man live forever in sin.
We might liken man’s mortality to a fuse which a manufacturer installs with some expensive appliance, in order to protect the whole appliance from being destroyed fully should the appliance, for example, be plugged into the wrong voltage power source or be otherwise suddenly subjected to a power surge. So also, man’s life could be snuffed out when man goes haywire (as when man sins — hooks on to the power source of evil, Satan), and thus man is kept from ruining the whole plan of God. [On the question of whether man has an "immortal soul" or not, see: What Happens to Man After Death?]
Why a flaming sword at Eden’s gate
As Genesis 3: 24 declares, the flaming sword at Eden’s gate was “to guard the way to the tree of life.” Sinful and lawless men who want to re-enter Eden without a change of heart will only be cut by that sword and burned to a sizzle! Hebrews 12:29, quoting Deuteronomy 4:24, declares that “…our God is a consuming fire.”
That is why, when He returns to earth in glory, Jesus will be such a consuming fire: “…the day is coming, burning like an oven, and all the proud, yes, all who do wickedly will be stubble, and the day which is coming shall burn them up…that will leave them neither root nor branch” (Malachi 4:1). Matthew 13:41-42 affirms this end-time scenario: “The Son of Man [Jesus] will send out His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all things that offend and those who practice lawlessness, and will cast them into a furnace of fire.“ In another parable (Verses 49-50) Jesus says: “The angels will come forth, separate the wicked from among the just, and cast them into the furnace of fire...”
After every single human being will have been given their day in God’s judgment court [see: This Is Not the Only Day of Salvation and Predestination], those who prove to be incorrigibly wicked will be thrown into “the lake which burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death” (Revelation 21:8).
This will keep them from ever partaking of the “tree of life” (Revelation 22:1-2, 14-15). Obviously, God will restore that tree [this time the original, heavenly tree] when the “holy city” — the New Jerusalem — comes down to this renewed earth. Only “those who do His [God's] commandments” — the righteous — will “have the right to the tree of life” and will “enter through the gates into the city” (Revelation 22:14). Those who persist in disobeying God and doing abominable things will be excluded from that city; they will have no hope of ever having life again, not being among “those who are written in the Lamb’s Book of Life” and thus suffering the “second death” (Revelation 22:15; 21:27-28). [See: The Book of Life and God's "Book of Remembrance".]
The way back into the Garden of Eden is to not do the kind of thing Adam and Eve did which caused them to be banished from the garden in the first place. That means that one must not disobey what God commands or says. Instead, one must turn away from one’s disobedient attitude and conduct in life. As Ezekiel 33:11 continues, God says that He desires “…that the wicked turn from his way and live.”
Going through a fiery entrance
Since the way back to the Garden of Eden [symbolic of God's "dwelling place" where His throne is (Ezekiel 28:13-14, 16; Revelation 21:2-3)] is securely guarded by the “flaming sword,” how will righteous people enter in? Will God simply remove that sword — or will He let them go through the fiery entrance?
Many well-meaning evangelists and evangelicals make it appear that the way into God’s kingdom is some “easy street.” They promote the idea that one merely has to say some “magic words” of affirmation and — voila! – one is immediately shot up into Paradise!
How do we square this with the words of our very Savior Himself? Jesus said: “Enter by the narrow gate: for wide is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it” (Matthew 7:13-14).
God’s Word affirms the idea that one has to go through a difficult path into God’s kingdom. One has to experience something like going through some fiery entrance back into God’s Paradise!
Through the “sword”
It is more than a mere coincidence that God has placed a flaming sword to guard the entrance back into the Garden of Eden and thus access to the “tree of life.” The Bible has ample references to God’s Word being like a sword — even a “double-edged” sword.
- Hebrews 4: 12 — “For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.”
If we allow it to, God’s Word is able to penetrate our innermost selves and help us to understand our thoughts and intents. God knows us better than we can ever know ourselves! God’s Word is like an MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) test that exposes what we cannot normally see inside of us! Because, as carnal human beings, we naturally would rather “flatter” ourselves (Psalm 36:2) than accept the ugly truth about our sinful selves, we tend to think more highly of ourselves than we ought (Romans 12:3).
Although a painful exercise, we need to do as Israel’s great King David did. David meditated on God’s law so often that it found a home in his heart (Psalm 40:8). By doing so, David saw the magnitude of his iniquities; he described them as being “more than the hairs of my head” (Verse 12). Although this disheartened him, David trusted in God to deliver, help and save him. His genuinely repentant heart is immortalized in Psalm 51.
We all stand spiritually “naked” before God! He sees all that we are — inside-out! David realized this awesome power of God (Psalm 139; compare with 1 Corinthians 14:24-25) and asked Him to show him any wicked way in him and to lead him in God’s everlasting way (Verses 23-24). That is the way back to the Garden of Eden! May we all become like David — men and women “after God’s own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14; 24:20; Acts 13:22)! David has a secure place — and a highly distinguished one at that — in God’s kingdom (Ezekiel 34:23-24; 37:24-25; 44:3).
- Ephesians 6:17 — “And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”
Speaking of the Messiah, Isaiah 49:2 has Him saying, “And He [God] has made My mouth like a sharp sword…“ Also speaking of Jesus Christ, the apostle John wrote: “He had in His right hand seven stars, out of His mouth went a sharp two-edged sword, and His countenance was like the sun shining in its strength” (Revelation 1:16; see also Revelation 2:12 and 19:15).
A two-edged sword cuts both ways — up and down, left and right. The flaming sword which God placed at the gate to the Garden of Eden “turned every way.” We are to leave nothing in our heart that we don’t submit to the scrutiny of God’s Word. We cannot be playing “cafeteria-style” with God’s Word — applying to ourselves only Scripture verses that seem “savory” to our ego or to our liking! This is what leads to the problem of using Bible verses as “proof texts” to support one’s narrow view of a Bible doctrine instead of taking “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27) in His Word. [See: Spiritual Dyslexia and The Whole Counsel of God.]
One can also use God’s two-edged sword, one-directionally, to “smite” people one thinks should get God’s word of rebuke. In the process, one can fail to bring the other edge of that sword to cut at one’s own spiritual failings! As the saying goes, “Criticizing another’s garden doesn’t keep the weeds out of your own.”
Jesus Christ especially rebuked this kind of blindness and hypocrisy. “Judge not, that you be not judged. For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you. And why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me remove the speck from your own eye’; and look, a plank is in your own eye? Hypocrite! First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye” (Matthew 7:1-5).
The apostle Paul gave a sage advice: “For if we would judge ourselves, we would not be judged” (1 Corinthians 11:31). If we allow God’s Word to judge us for our sins, repent of them, ask for and receive God’s forgiveness through Christ, we won’t have to be judged or condemned by God’s Word (John 12:48; Romans 8:1, 33-34).
Through the “fire”
John the Baptist (or the Baptizer, as he should be more properly named) said of Jesus Christ to the Jews: “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Matthew 3:11). In context, John was referring here to the destruction of the wicked (symbolized by chaff) by fire at the return of Jesus Christ, who will “come with fire” to consume sinners (Isaiah 66:15-17). It is with that same fire that Jesus will destroy those who will attempt to overthrow His kingdom which He will have established on earth after His return (Revelation 20:7-9).
Besides being a “consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:29), however, Jesus is also a “refiner’s fire” (Malachi 3:2-3). As “a refiner and a purifier of silver,” Jesus will come to “purify the sons of Levi, and purge them as gold and silver, that they may offer to the LORD an offering in righteousness” (Malachi 3:2-3). Isaiah 4:2-4 prophesies of a time when Jesus Christ (the “Branch of the LORD”) will come to the holy remnant of the children of Israel at His return. Then He will wash away their spiritual filth and purge the blood [spilled by violence in their midst]. How? “…by the spirit of judgment and by the spirit of burning.”
Who has not heard about “baptism by fire” as a means to initiate, through a lot of hardships and trials, a person into a more experienced, more mature status? The Bible speaks amply about purging a person’s faith and character through the fiery crucible of trials, tests and suffering (Isaiah 48:10).
- 1 Peter 1:6-9 – “In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while, if need be, you have been grieved by various trials, that the genuineness of your faith, being much more precious than gold that perishes, though it is tested by fire, may be found to praise, honor, and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ, whom having not seen you love. Though now you do not see Him, yet believing, you rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory, receiving the end of your faith — the salvation of your souls.”
- Acts 14:22 – “We must through many tribulations enter the kingdom of God.”
The patriarch Job was sorely tested by God. Yet he remained patient and has become a proverb for patience (James 4:10-11). Job said of God: “But He knows the way that I take; when He has tested me, I shall come forth as gold” (Job 23:10). The horrendous trials which Job experienced helped him to resolve further to obey God. “My foot has held fast to His steps; I have kept His way and not turned aside. I have not departed from the commandments of His lips; I have treasured the words of His mouth more than my necessary food” (Verses 11-12).
Here we come to the other aspect of the “fire” we need to go through: the “fire” of God’s Word. As God asks in Jeremiah 23:29, “Is not My word like a fire?”
To the prophet Jeremiah, the word of the LORD “was in my heart like a burning fire shut up in my bones” (Jeremiah 20:9). One who takes God’s word seriously will find it also to be like some kind of “fire” in one’s heart, as the two disciples of Jesus did while the resurrected Jesus walked with them incognito on the Road to Emmaus and opened the Scriptures to them (Luke 24:32). This encounter helped them to understand God’s Word more clearly and dispelled any doubts or discouragement they had.
Psalm 119:9 asks God: “How can a young man cleanse his way?” The answer: “By taking heed according to Your word. With my whole heart I have sought You; oh, let me not wander from Your commandments! Your word I have hidden in my heart, that I might not sin against You. Blessed are You, O LORD! Teach me Your statutes; with my lips I have declared all the judgments of Your mouth, I have rejoiced in the way of Your testimonies, as much as in all riches. I will meditate on Your precepts, and contemplate Your ways. I will delight myself in Your statutes; I will not forget Your word” (Verses 9-16).
Jesus told His disciples: “You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you” (John 15:3). The apostle Peter echoed this when he wrote: “…you have purified your souls in obeying the truth through the Spirit” (1 Peter 1:22). In His prayer to the Father, Jesus said: “Sanctify them by Your truth. Your word is truth” (John 17:17).
God revealed through Daniel that in this our “time of the end,” “Many shall be purified, made white, and refined, but the wicked shall do wickedly; and none of the wicked shall understand, but the wise shall understand” (Daniel 11:9-10). If we were truly wise, we would allow ourselves to be purified, made white and refined by heeding God’s Word — having a healthy fear of distorting it, having respect and love for God so as to obey His Word (Isaiah 66:2; John 14:21, 23-24).
Revelation 3:18 cautions us that, unless we wise up to our need of being purified by God’s Word — allowing it to cleanse us of all error in knowledge and understanding and all unrighteousness — we will end up being purified (if at all!) in the fire of the Great Tribulation (Matthew 24:21-22; Revelation 7:14) [see: "The Next Chapter of History" and Laodicean Christians].
But why squeeze through tribulation and escape only “as through fire” (1 Corinthians 3:15) when we can avoid it? In Verses 9-14 Paul counsels us to build our “spiritual” house — our physical body (our present life) as the house or temple of God’s Spirit, or as a part of that collective house or temple of God’s Spirit, the Church of God (1 Corinthians 3:16; 6:19) — upon our one and only foundation [Jesus Christ] with spiritual things that endure the test of fire, now — not later!
As God’s people preparing to be kings and priests in God’s kingdom (Revelation 5:9-10; 1 Peter 2:9-10), why be like the high priest Joshua, who dirtied his spiritual garments with sin so much that he had to be saved like “a brand plucked from the fire” (Zechariah 3:1-5) — when we can now, while we have the time, be right with God and come clean before Him? And that by asking God to cleanse us through the sacrifice of Christ and the “fire” of His Word — and through His Spirit, which is also symbolized by fire (Acts 2:3-4). [See: God's Spirit and Obedience.]
A call to endurance
During these end-times, just before Christ returns to establish God’s kingdom here on earth, we are seeing the fulfillment of prophecies showing that lawlessness will increase or abound (Matthew 24:12), wicked men will become worse and worse (2 Timothy 3:13). The apostle Paul lists several wicked traits and acts people in these last days will exhibit (2 Timothy 3:11-19).
In order to survive the spiritual challenges of our time, we need to be in a battle-ready attitude — to fight against the forces of evil that want to draw us away from God and His perfect way. As Paul admonished the evangelist Timothy: “You therefore must endure hardship as a good soldier of Jesus Christ. No one engaged in warfare entangles himself with the affairs of this life, that he may please him who enlisted him as a soldier” (2 Timothy 2:3-4). [See: Breaking Down our "Walls of Jericho."]
Jesus said that, in the midst of increasing lawlessness today, “…he who endures to the end will be saved” (Matthew 24:12-13). That’s a tall order – and a humanly impossible one to fulfill in our own human strength. Jesus said, “…without Me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).
Let us heed God’s admonition in Hebrews 12:1-8 –
Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. For consider Him who endured such hostility from sinners against Himself, lest you become weary and discouraged in your souls. You have not resisted to bloodshed, striving against sin. And you have forgotten the exhortation which speaks to you as to sons:
“My son, do not despise the chastening of the LORD, nor be discouraged when you are rebuked by Him; for whom the LORD loves He chastens, and scourges every son whom He receives.” [quoted from Proverbs 3:11-12]
If you endure chastening, God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom a father does not chasten? But if you are without chastening, of which all have become partakers, then you are illegitimate and not sons.
Jesus tells His followers: “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross, and follow Me” (Matthew 16:24). We can come to Christ assured that He will help us carry our cross or whatever burdens we have: “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for our souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).
Did the “thief on the cross” have it easy getting into God’s kingdom?
Many have taken the case of the “thief on the cross” (recorded in Luke 23:32-43) to prove that it merely takes faith in Christ for one to be saved. Faith, that is, which simply affirms Christ as Lord and Savior. Indeed, as Ephesians 2:8-9 declares, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.” [See: Law Added to Law Transgressed, God's Spirit and Obedience and The Law of Christ.]
Luke’s gospel account tells of two thieves crucified with Jesus. Both at first reviled Jesus (Matthew 27:44). But later one of them had a change of heart. While his companion blasphemed Jesus by saying, “If You are the Christ, save Yourself and us” (Luke 23:39), this thief “rebuked him, saying ‘Do you not even fear God, seeing you are under the same condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds; but this Man has done nothing wrong’” (Verses 40-41).
Then, turning to Jesus, this thief told Him, “Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom” (Verse 42).
Jesus’ reply to this thief has intrigued many Bible students all these many centuries since the New Testament was written. “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise” (Verse 43).
Did Jesus mean that this thief would, that very same day, be with Jesus in Paradise? But where was Jesus that day and the following three days? After Jesus died, his body was taken by Joseph of Arimathea and laid in a new tomb (Luke 23:50-53). [John 19:38-42 supplies other details.] As Jesus said, the only sign He was giving to the incredulous Jews as to His being their awaited Messiah was that, as the prophet “Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish [story in the Book of Jonah] so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matthew 12:40; see also Luke 11:29-30).
Jesus’ body remained in the grave three days and three nights, without undergoing decomposition until His resurrection (Acts 2:25-32). As He was about to expire, Jesus said to His Father in heaven: “Father, into your hands I commit My spirit” (Luke 23:46). Like all mortals at death, Jesus’ spirit returned to God in heaven (Ecclesiastes 12:7), as did the spirit of that thief. [For a fuller explanation on this matter, see: What Happens to Man After Death?]
Some have explained, and I believe rightly so, that in the Greek language there are no commas. Thus it makes a big difference in meaning, when translating, where we place the comma in Jesus’ reply to the contrite thief: “Assuredly, I say to you today, you will be with Me in Paradise.” As explained earlier, it could not have been that Jesus was in Paradise bodily, and the thief with Him, on that very day!
And when does Christ come into His kingdom, as the thief referred to? Why, not until He returns to earth to destroy all of God’s enemies and set up God’s righteous rule on earth. [See "The Next Chapter of History."]
Whether the thief will be in the resurrection at Christ’s return, only God can judge. Indeed this thief had literally carried his own cross, and his humble, contrite attitude was evident to Jesus. But whenever this thief’s day of salvation will come [see: Predestination] Jesus assured the thief that he will be with Him in Paradise. And that Paradise comes to this renewed earth as God the Father comes down here — and not until then — with the New Jerusalem (Revelation 21-22), where the thief can enjoy the fruits of the Tree of Life forever together with all of God’s spiritual children.
That Paradise, like God’s heavenly temple, is the eternal reality, of which the earthly Paradise (the Garden of Eden) and the temple at Jerusalem were merely the copies (Hebrews 9:23).
Let us learn from Jesus Christ by allowing His Word — His flaming sword — to cleanse, purify, and refine us! Then, as righteous people of God, we will have the assurance that we will be able to re-enter that long lost “Paradise” (this time the heavenly Paradise) — and live forever with God in His Holy City, and partake of the Tree of Life (Revelation 22:1-5, 14)!
Pedro R. Meléndez, Jr.