In the later years of his life, Mr. Herbert Armstrong often referred to the opening chapters of Genesis, pointing us to lessons regarding the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. These trees represent two opposite ways of life. The tree of life represents obedience to God and adherence to His way of life. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil represents man’s reliance on himself to decide what is good and what is evil—a self-willed rejection of our Creator.
Mr. Armstrong spoke so frequently on the subject that some people tired of hearing about it. He often started by telling us that he was giving something new. Many, no doubt, chalked this up to an old man’s forgetfulness, but there would usually be some additional insight added to the overall picture. Some might counter that this is simply “spin,” an explanation to cover up a failing mind. But was his mind failing, or was he way ahead of us, consciously explaining a vital, life-saving lesson that passed over the heads of far too many?
What is remarkable about the history of Mr. Armstrong and the two trees is his perception that most people did not “get it”! Maybe that is why he said that he was telling us something new; it was certainly a revelation missed by the majority. He often told us, with emotion and power, “I don’t think 50 percent of you get it!” Many of us even remember him saying, “I think maybe only 10 percent of you get it!”
When Adam and Eve chose the wrong tree and were cut off from the tree of life, they set mankind on an evil and ultimately unsuccessful course. Ever since, our moral compass has been set by human reason, separated from God. We have chosen our own education, government, science and technology, industry and commerce, culture and religion.
Regarding religion, Mr. Armstrong specifically warned us against returning to Protestantism. Why? What did he see that caused him to give us this warning? We kept the Sabbath and Holy Days, rejected the idea of an immortal soul, paid our tithes, and avoided unclean meats. We were on solid ground—or so we thought.
History proved Mr. Armstrong correct. The overwhelming majority did not get it. Soon after his death, many turned away from the truth and returned to heathen rituals and lies. All it took was one man standing up and saying that it was okay. When Mr. Armstrong’s successor “permitted” eating unclean meats, some went out that very night to order lobster or pork.
Only Two Trees!
Mr. Armstrong saw the heart and core of the Garden account. He understood human nature, and he understood the lure of the forbidden way (Hebrews 11:24–26). He recognized that many in the Church were picking the wrong tree’s fruit and needed to wake up. Sadly, most did not. Mr. Armstrong understood that there is no middle ground: There are only two trees!
God told Israel, “I call heaven and earth as witnesses today against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that both you and your descendants may live” (Deuteronomy 30:19). Every day, our words and actions demonstrate which tree we are choosing. How easy it is to compromise, to profess love for the tree of life while choosing the tree that brings curses and death.
Our battle is spiritual (2 Corinthians 10:3–5). It is an illusion to think that we can eat from the wrong tree, just as Adam did, and not suffer terrible consequences. Some things seem right to us, but don’t work out so well, even leading to death (Proverbs 14:12; 16:25)! We must not love this world, lest we pass away with it (1 John 2:15–17). Far too many church members of all ages attempt to have it both ways—to be in the Church and the world at the same time. This cannot work, as we learned from the example of those who failed to heed Mr. Armstrong’s warning!
The prophet Malachi reveals that one coming in the spirit and power of Elijah will appear before the coming of the Messiah (Malachi 4:5). We understand that John the Baptist paved the way for the Messiah’s first coming (Matthew 11:12–14), but Malachi specifically refers to the end time, the second coming of Jesus Christ, when he adds, “before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord” (Malachi 4:5).
Who was Elijah? He came “out of nowhere,” his name never mentioned prior to 1 Kings 17:1. During a troubled time in Israel, and after three and a half years of severe drought, he appeared again before King Ahab. There was a short exchange before Elijah called for Ahab to meet him on Mount Carmel, and to bring with him 450 prophets of Baal and 400 prophets of Asherah.
Quite a crowd showed up. It was then that Elijah asked the pertinent question: “How long will you falter between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow Him; but if Baal, follow him” (1 Kings 18:21). He posed this question to a people who were trying to straddle a fork in the road—a strategy that will never work, as the gap widens with time and distance. Israel was, no doubt, much deeper into Baal worship than into the worship of the God of Abraham.
The New Testament refers to Elijah numerous times. He appeared in the transfiguration vision, talking with Jesus and Moses (Matthew 17:1–9). Some people thought that Jesus was Elijah (Matthew 16:14; Luke 9:7–9), while others thought that He called out to Elijah while hanging on the stake (Matthew 27:47, 49).
One interesting possibility is that the prophet Elijah typifies one of the two witnesses, Moses typifying the other. Evidence for this idea is threefold. As we have already noted, there is one to come in the spirit and power of Elijah, “before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord.” Moses and Elijah appeared in the transfiguration vision with Christ. The two witnesses will work miracles, including the prevention of rain for a period of three and a half years, reminiscent of the drought worked through Elijah during the reign of Ahab.
John the Baptist clearly fulfilled the role of Elijah, preparing the way for Jesus’ first coming. He was not the resurrected Elijah, but one who came in the spirit and power of Elijah. We should not think that it will be any different when a similar man appears at the end of the age; He will not be Elijah resurrected, as is proclaimed by some who do not understand the Scriptures.
Some believe that Mr. Herbert Armstrong was the Elijah to come, but the more time passes since his death in 1986 (33 years ago), the less likely that is. He certainly did an Elijah-like work, but did he fulfill the prophecy of Malachi 4? Time will reveal the truth.
The point is that the Elijah of old dealt with a compromising people. They had not thoroughly rejected the God of Israel, but they had one foot in the worship of the heathen gods of the nations that surrounded and infiltrated them. Will it be different at the end? Will not the end-time Elijah, regardless of who he may be, play a similar role, calling for people to repent and symbolically choose one tree or the other?
Is the church of Laodicea not told to “get off the fence”? Is compromise not the dominant attitude within the Church at the end of the age? “I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. I could wish you were cold or hot. So then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of My mouth” (Revelation 3:15–16). Such willingness to compromise suggests a lack of conviction!
James gives a command and a warning: “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man observing his natural face in a mirror; for he observes himself, goes away, and immediately forgets what kind of man he was. But he who looks into the perfect law of liberty and continues in it, and is not a forgetful hearer but a doer of the work, this one will be blessed in what he does” (James 1:22–25).
We often hear the word conversion used in the Church. A parent may ask a daughter considering marriage, “Is he converted?” You may wonder, “Am I converted?” But what does this mean? Often converted is thought of as meaning exactly the same as baptized, but we must understand that it means so much more. Conversion, in our context, means truly changing—being transformed to a different way of life.
A sort of initial conversion takes place when someone changes his eating habits, changes the day on which he worships and rests, and changes how he uses his money. There is a very evident transformation of those who come into the Church from elsewhere. For those who grow up in the Church, there must also be a conversion process, but it may not be as obvious, and this is where the proverbial rubber meets the road. Whether we grow up in the Church or come to it later in life, the real conversion process is not as simple as going to the Feast of Tabernacles and not keeping Christmas. Real conversion is inward, affecting both heart and mind (Hebrews 8:10). It involves a different kind of circumcision: “Therefore circumcise the foreskin of your heart, and be stiff-necked no longer” (Deuteronomy 10:16). Conversion is an ongoing process that begins at baptism (Colossians 2:11–12; 3:1–5), and ongoing is the operative word. Putting to death one’s old ways must take place daily (1 Corinthians 15:31).
Become as Little Children
Jesus’ disciples were competitive, and some were afflicted with “who is greatest” syndrome. On one occasion, they asked Him, “Who then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” To answer them, He set a child in their midst, and said, “Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:1–3). They needed to convert from one way of thinking to another, and the fruits of their lives clearly showed that they did, with the exception of Judas (John 17:12).
Children are teachable—they soak up knowledge and understanding. They want to learn, and so must we. One beatitude instructs us, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled” (Matthew 5:6). Notice that He does not speak of those who gain more technical knowledge (not that such knowledge is wrong to have), but those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. We must learn right from wrong and apply what we learn. That means recognizing the difference between the two trees and converting to the right one. Remember that Adam and Eve knew which tree was which, but the wrong one looked better in their minds. Let us not make such a mistake!
How easy it is to go through the motions but be unaffected by the journey. One can pray and study regularly, but to what end? Yes, pray we must, and study we must, but are we changing?
Are we converting from the ways of this evil world, or absorbing what it offers? Are we growing in our discernment between two very different ways of life? “For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the first principles of the oracles of God; and you have come to need milk and not solid food” (Hebrews 5:12).
Some take pride in feeding on what they consider “solid food,” thinking that this scripture refers to “new understanding” of prophecy. This is not correct! Note verse 14: “But solid food belongs to those who are of full age [mature], that is, those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil.”
If there is one lesson to remember in life, it is that when the world is excited and promoting an agenda, we should recognize this as a red flag. Consider carefully the images and ideas that come to you through the Internet, television, movies, social media, and advertising. Increasingly, the world around us is little more than an infomercial for Satan’s way. If you want to live forever, you must reject the tree he is promoting and choose the tree of life!