The specific question is, "What does it mean that the tree of life bears twelve kinds of fruit in Revelation 22?"
The final chapters of the Bible describe what is known as the “new heaven and earth” (Rev 21:1). This is the final epoch of heaven. It occurs after the Millennium, and is therefore separate from it. Some believe Peter’s description of “the heavens passing away” and “the elements burning and dissolving” occur in between the Millennium and the new heaven and earth (2 Pt 3:10). This would make sense since there is a “new heaven and earth,” which is distinct from the current heaven and earth. Peter writes,
… of that day, the heavens will be dissolved with fire and the elements will melt with heat. But based on his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness dwells (2 Pt 3:12-13).
John offers several fascinating descriptions of this new creation, which include: no more sea (21:1), a New Jerusalem (21:2, 9-27), God dwelling with humanity (21:3), no more tears or crying (21:4), and no more death, grief, or pain (21:4). This is because all of those things were burned up in the presumed fire, and have thus “passed away” (Rev 21:4). More importantly, the fire is a result of God’s victory over the Fall and its effects, and so it is God who purges creation to bring about these results. This much is observed in the following verses, in which God declares that he is the one “making everything new” (Rev 21:5). He describes himself as the “Alpha and the Omega,” the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, and says “it is done!”
This is all to say that we have God to thank for abolishing tears and pain and grief and death.
The rest of Revelation 21 intricately describes the walls, foundation, and measurements of the new heaven. This is the structure of what John calls the “New Jerusalem.” It’s truly a beauty to behold, and John’s description removes our ability to ever say we can “only imagine” what heaven will be like, because it’s described in intimate detail.
It’s at this point that John begins to describe what it looks like inside the New Jerusalem. This begins in Revelation 22, where he depicts a “river of the water of life, clear as crystal” and a “tree of life on each side of the river, bearing twelve kinds of fruit” (Rev 22:1-2). “Water and food, two basic necessities of life, are presented in abundance as river and orchard” (Peterson 1988:181).
This article is specifically concerned with the tree of life. More specifically, what it means that it “bears twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit every month” (Rev 22:2). In order to answer this, the description will be broken down into parts, and then summarized as a whole.
The Significance of Twelve
The number “twelve” is a common number in Scripture. It’s most popular uses include the twelve sons of Jacob and the twelve apostles, showing its significance in both the formation of the nation of Israel and the Church. As an aside, Jesus was twelve years old when he first appears in public and utters his first public words, which is no coincidence (Lk 2:42).
Bullinger (1992:253) describes the number twelve as “perfect,” and maintains it is the product of the multiplication of “three,” the perfectly divine number, and “four,” the earthly number for what is material and organic. This means that twelve is the perfection of the uniting of heaven and earth, which is precisely what Revelation 21-22 describes, when heaven and earth are reimagined into a “new heaven and earth.”
Therefore, that the tree of life bears “twelve kinds of fruit” is significant in that it symbolizes the perfect union of God and creation, which includes man. This is something that hasn’t occurred since the days of the Garden of Eden.
The Significance of Fruit
The Dictionary of Biblical Imagery states the word “fruit” appears more than two hundred times in English translations (1998:310). Much of the references include “fruit trees” and the edible product of said trees. Jesus’ statement in the Sermon on the Mount offers a general idea about fruit that sheds light on its meaning in Revelation 22:2: “Every good tree produces good fruit, but a bad tree produces bad fruit. A good tree can’t produce bad fruit; neither can a bad tree produce good fruit” (Mt 7:17-18).
Jesus’ statement is in reference to false prophets, but there are also hints of the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The Dictionary of Biblical Imagery (1998:310) relates the following description:
While satisfying the human appetite through eating of the fruit of the garden is good in itself, the fruit of the forbidden tree is invested with the potential to bring death. The primal sin consists of Eve’s eating the fruit of the forbidden tree and giving some to her husband, who also eats … Here, surely is the archetypal bad fruit of human experience … If the forbidden fruit has overtones of the supernatural, so does the fruit that appears in the celestial paradise at the end of the Bible.
In short, fruit can be either bad or good, depending on the tree from which it comes. The tree described in Revelation 22:2 is indisputably good. Moreover, John’s description shows it is not merely a single tree, like the one described in Eden, but a tree “on each side of the river,” which could mean several trees on either side of the river, or a large tree that extends to both sides of the river. Regardless, it seems the tree is especially bountiful and especially good. Its leaves are for "healing the nations” (Rev 22:2).
The Significance of New Fruit each Month
Scholars differ on the meaning of John’s statement, “kinds of fruit … every month” (Rev 22:2), but one general compromise indicates it means both abundance and freshness (Kistemaker 2001: 581; Smalley 2005:563). Osborne (2002:772) particularly references the verse’s relationship with Ezekiel 47:12, where fruit trees bear fruit every month, but not “twelve different kinds.” For Osborne, this alludes to the four seasons of our twelve-month calendar, and shows how the tree and its fruits are not susceptible to our changing climate, perhaps because the climate has been completely altered in this “new heaven and earth.”
(The question of how John’s mention of “months” might impact the idea of “time” in eternity is another question for another time.)
The Overall Significance of the Tree of Life
The first time a “tree” is mentioned in Scripture is in Genesis 1:11. It was part of the vegetation God created on the third day. Genesis 1:12 says the trees bore fruit, and Genesis 1:29 says God gave the fruit of the trees as food for man, a command echoed in Genesis 2:16. The following verse, however, states there was one tree that was forbidden—the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. “From [this tree],” God said, “you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die” (Gen 2:17). A few verses later the serpent is shown tempting the woman. The text says she “saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable to make one wise, [so] she took from its fruit and ate” (Gen 3:6). This is known as “The Fall,” an act that ushered in the physical and spiritual death of mankind.
Mankind lost access to the tree of life after disobeying God’s command to not eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. In fact, God went to lengths to guard Adam and Eve from ever getting near the tree again (Gen 3:22-24). The beauty of Revelation 22:2 is that it shows that what was forfeited to them will be freely available to heaven’s residents.
Therefore, while the first mention of a tree in Scripture shows how it was used by Satan to devastate man’s eternality, as well as his personal relationship with God, the last mention of a tree in Scripture describes a “Tree of Life” that will bear twelve kinds of fruit, symbolizing man’s eternal life and redeemed relationship with God. The leaves of this tree heal the nations, and “there will no longer be any curse.” The image that was used to curse the world will now sit in the middle of the new heaven and earth as a symbol of eternal life and blessing.
This is all possible because of another tree mentioned in the Bible, the cross, an object often described as a “tree” (Acts 5:30, 10:39, 13:29). Paul uses “tree” in Galatians 3:13 to describe how Christ became a curse for us, because “everyone who is hung on a tree is cursed” (Deut 21:23). Peter says Jesus bore our sins while “on the tree” (1 Pt 2:24).
Because of Jesus’ work on the tree, mankind will have access to a tree of life in the new, eternal heaven that echoes a return “to the original glories and privileges of God’s presence with man, before sin raised a barrier that prevented that direct contact” (Thomas 1995:484).
Bullinger, EW. Number in Scripture. Grand Rapids, Mi: Kregel Publications, 1992.
Peterson, Eugene H. Reversed thunder : the Revelation of John and the praying imagination. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988.
Ryken, Leland, et al. Dictionary of Biblical Imagery. Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 1998.
Smalley, Stephen S. The Revelation to John: A Commentary on the Greek Text of the Apocalypse. Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 2005.
Thomas, Robert L. Revelation 18-22: An Exegetical Commentary. Chicago, Ill: Moody Publishers, 1995.
All Scripture quotes taken from the Christian Standard Bible.