Throughout the whole Bible we find two different covenants representing two different ways by which we can approach, and relate to, God. One is the Old Covenant, based on the law of Moses, which is about relating to God based on our own works and performance. The other is the New Covenant, based on the cross and the finished work of Jesus, which is about relating to God on the basis of His grace and unconditional love.
The Old Covenant was represented already in the garden of Eden, although it was instituted much later through Moses. The tree with knowledge of good and evil was a pre-mosaic picture of the law and the Old Covenant.
How can I make this claim? Before Adam and Eve ate from the forbidden fruit, they lacked knowledge of good and evil. They were innocently unaware of what was morally right or wrong. God’s original plan was that man would not even be aware of whether he had sinned or not. We were created to relate to God only based on His unconditional love, independent of our performance.
What became the effect of Adam and Eve eating from the forbidden fruit that God had commanded them not even to touch? They became aware of their own nakedness, which made them hide from God when He came to have fellowship with them. Note that God did not walk away from Adam and Eve; they walked away from God. They tried to hide their nakedness with fig leaves, which are a type and shadow of our own works and performance. The result of Adam and Eve eating from the fruit of the tree with knowledge of good and evil was that man started to relate to God based on his own performance, instead of based on God’s unconditional love. It also led to that we started comparing ourselves to one another: “I might not be perfect, but at least I am better than that sinner over there” (see Lk. 18:11).
The knowledge of good and evil led to that man became self-righteous and self-reliant. Because of this God gave the law to the Jewish people, so that the whole world – through the history and example of the Jewish people – would come to know that we are all sinners in need of a Savior: Jesus Christ.
Paul says in Romans:
19 Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. 20 Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin. (Rom. 3:19-20)
Since the knowledge of good and evil had made all humans self-righteous, God had to send a perfect standard – the law – to silence every mouth.
Ever since Adam and Eve ate from the forbidden fruit, man has had the ability to reason about morals and ethics, right and wrong, good and evil. However, what gives us the objective knowledge of what actually is good and evil according to God’s holy standard? The law of Moses. The law was an expression of the knowledge of good and evil on steroids.
7 What shall we say then? Is the law sin? Certainly not! On the contrary, I would not have known sin except through the law. For I would not have known covetousness unless the law had said, “You shall not covet.” 8 But sin, taking opportunity by the commandment, produced in me all manner of evil desire. For apart from the law sin was dead. 9 I was alive once without the law, but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died. 10 And the commandment, which was to bring life, I found to bring death. 11 For sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived me, and by it killed me. 12 Therefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy and just and good. 13 Has then what is good become death to me? Certainly not! But sin, that it might appear sin, was producing death in me through what is good, so that sin through the commandment might become exceedingly sinful. (Rom. 7:7-13)
According to Jewish tradition, the tree with knowledge of good and evil was a fig tree. Based on that information it is interesting to note that Jesus cursed a fig tree for not finding fruit on it, although it was not the right season for the tree to bear fruit (see Mark. 11:12-14). When Jesus cursed the fig tree by saying, “Let no one eat fruit from you ever again”, this was a symbolic act to show that the era of the law – based on the knowledge of good and evil – had come to an end and that a new era, the covenant of grace, was near.
4 Therefore, my brethren, you also have become dead to the law through the body of Christ, that you may be married to another—to Him who was raised from the dead, that we should bear fruit to God. (Rom. 7:4)
The only way we can bear fruit to God in the New Covenant is that we are dead to the knowledge of good and evil (the law), by only relating to God based on His unconditional love for us!
Jesus came to destroy the works of the devil (1 Jn. 3:8). It was the devil that enticed Adam and Eve to sin by eating from the forbidden fruit. Abandoning the relationship with God based on His unconditional love was thus the original sin, that has led to all other sins and problems in the world. But through His death on the cross Jesus put away sin and removed the consequences of their trespass. Because of the blood of Jesus, we can today – just like Adam and Eve before the fall – have a totally clean conscience before God independent of our performance!
13 For if the blood of bulls and goats and the ashes of a heifer, sprinkling the unclean, sanctifies for the purifying of the flesh, 14 how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God? (Heb. 9:13-14)
19 Therefore, brethren, having boldness to enter the Holiest by the blood of Jesus, 20 by a new and living way which He consecrated for us, through the veil, that is, His flesh, 21 and having a High Priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. (Hebr. 10:19-22)
The revelation that the tree of knowledge of good and evil is a picture of the law and our own performance is thereby essential for us to understand what sin in its essence is. Likewise, this revelation is necessary in order to understand what the message of the Gospel is really about: That we now, because of the blood of Jesus, can relate to God based on His grace and unconditional love – independent of the knowledge of how good or bad we have been.