In what sense are the leaves of the tree of life, mentioned in Revelation 22:2, used for the healing of the nations?
Since the verse you refer to describes life in the New Jerusalem, I assume that you are concerned about the need for healing in the new earth. Good. Now the truth: the biblical text does not directly answer your question. So in looking for an answer, if there is one, we’ll have to examine other texts and draw some conclusions. But first let’s look at “leaves” in the Bible.
1. Leaves and More Leaves: Leaves in the Bible have both negative and positive connotations. A tree with green leaves is an expression of beauty and fertility; a tree whose leaves are withering signals death or the absence of fertility. The withering of leaves represents the damage of sin on the flora, as well as on God’s people (Isa. 1:30; Jer. 8:13). Green leaves are a symbol of prosperity and renewal of life (Prov. 11:28; Ps. 1:3); even of hope (Gen. 8:11). The beauty of a tree with abundant foliage was a symbol of fertility and played an important role in Canaanite religion (1 Kings 14:23; Eze. 6:14). Sin damaged trees, yet they were still useful. In some cases leaves could be medicinal—e.g., the leaves of a sycamore tree were used to dress wounds.
2.Other Biblical Passages: In Revelation the New Jerusalem is described as a garden with abundant water and beautiful flora (Rev. 22:1-3). The image of a garden has the purpose of alerting the reader concerning its connection with the narrative of the Garden of Eden. In both cases you have abundant water and the tree of life (Rev. 22:1, 2; Gen. 2:9-11). In the case of Eden, the tree of life is clearly associated with the perpetuity of human life (Gen. 3:22). After sin humans were barred from access to this tree. The tree of life was not a symbol of healing. The connection between trees, leaves, and healing is found in Ezekiel 47:1-12. The prophet saw a small stream of water flowing from under the threshold of the temple toward the east, then to the south. The stream became a deep river whose waters reached the Dead Sea, bringing life to it (verses 8, 9). On the banks of the river were many trees: “Their leaves will not dry up. . . . Every month they will bear fruit. . . . And their leaves will be used for healing” (verse 12, NIrV).1 In both Ezekiel and Revelation the river flows from God’s temple and the leaves of the trees bring healing. In Ezekiel there are many trees—but no tree of life; in Revelation there appears to be only one tree located on both banks of the river. In both cases we are taken back to the original condition of the earth. Ezekiel does not explicitly state the nature of the healing produced by the leaves of the tree.
3.Healing and the New Jerusalem: The information we have gathered is helpful but does not clearly answer your question. We can affirm that in the New Jerusalem nature is restored to its original beauty and fruitfulness; leaves will never wither again. With respect to the tree of life, now God’s people have access to it (Rev. 2:7; 22:14), and its leaves are for the “healing of the nations” (Rev. 22:2). This healing may be associated with what is mentioned in the next verse: “There will no longer be any curse” (verse 3, NIrV). This is the ultimate healing more specifically described in Revelation 21:4: There will be no crying, death, mourning, or pain. The curse of sin will be gone! The true tree of life, Jesus Christ, will heal humans and nature.
If that is true, we could suggest that once “restored to the tree of life in the long-lost Eden, the redeemed will ‘grow up’ (Malachi 4:2) to the full stature of the race in its primeval glory. The last lingering traces of the curse of sin will be removed” (The Great Controversy, p. 645).
Furthermore, eating of the leaves of the tree of life throughout eternity could also function—I am speculating here—as an act of worship memorializing that our healing was possible through Jesus. Could we call this preventive medicine?
1 Bible texts credited to NIrV are from the Holy Bible, New International Reader’s Version. Copyright © 1985, 1996, 1998 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved.
Now retired, Angel Manuel Rodríguez has served the church for several decades, most recently as director of the Biblical Research Institute of the General Conference.