The Knowledge of Good and Evil

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The Lord Jesus was born in this world in order to reestablish mankind. The first mankind in Adam had failed at the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and so Jesus was born into this world in order to rebuild the ruin we had created here.

Our celebrations at this time of year are dedicated to a remembrance of what He came in order to do. And as we remember, and understand it more fully, that work which He has accomplished is actually being advanced in our midst. Most of you have not yet taken down the Christmas tree in your living room, so remember that in Scripture a tree can be a place of great folly or of great wisdom. Adam disobeyed at a tree, and Jesus obeyed on one.

The Text

“But the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die” (Gen. 2:17).

“But strong meat belongeth to them that are of full age, even those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil” (Heb. 5:14).

Background to the Texts

We all know that there was one prohibited tree in the Garden of Eden, the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Note that the tree of life was not prohibited (Gen. 2:16), but once sin had entered the world it then went off limits—lest we should eat from it in a rebellious condition and live forever that way, unredeemable (Gen. 3:22,24). So God in His mercy barred the way to the tree of life, until it was opened up again in and through the gospel (Rev. 2:7).

But what about that tree of the knowledge of good and evil? What was that all about?
So we need to take a moment to consider what that phrase means, and what it does not mean. The two basic alternatives are that it was bad for us to have any knowledge of the difference between good and evil, period, or that the prohibition was temporary, and the sin of our first parents was in grasping for something prematurely.

We should be able to see that it was the latter by how God responds to the situation when our first parents disobeyed. We see that it cannot mean experience of sin. The Lord said, “Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil” (Gen. 3:22). The serpent earlier had promised that this knowledge would make them “as God” (or gods), “knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:5). Millennia later, the author of Hebrews does not identify this ability to distinguish sin from righteousness as sinful in itself, but rather with maturity, with the capacity to handle “strong meat.”

Too many Christians assume that a pre-fall lack of the knowledge of good and evil was a total blank innocence, with no ethical categories at all. But if this were the case then how would Adam have been able to fall into sin? How would he have known it was evil to eat from the prohibited tree? No, the knowledge of good and evil here has to mean something more than a simple knowledge of the difference between right and wrong.

Preparation for Rule

God had created mankind to rule over creation and all the creatures (Gen. 1:27-30). In learning how to judge and rule the created order, man really would become like God (Ecc. 12:14). Entering into that rule would have been a transition from immaturity to maturity, and not a transition from moral cluelessness into an ability to tell right from wrong. Kings make judgments. They have to be able to discern right and wrong in the situation that is before them.

Now it is quite true that the Bible often speaks of “good” and “evil” in simple moral categories of individuals learning to love good and hate evil. But when we talk about discernment, we are talking about the ability to tell good from almost good, to discern the difference between white and off-white. Because God created us for rule, He created us for this. And when our first parents ate the forbidden fruit, they were grabbing for that rule prematurely, before God gave it to them as a gift.

What Children Don’t Do, What Kings Do

Consider the language of Scripture.

“Moreover your little ones, which ye said should be a prey, and your children, which in that day had no knowledge between good and evil, they shall go in thither . . .”

Dt. 1:39; cf. Jer. 4:22 (KJV)

This was true of a type of the Messiah, the child born in fulfillment of the promise to Isaiah.

“Behold a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel . . . for before the child shall know to refuse the evil, and choose the good, the land that thou abhorrest shall be forsaken of both her kings”

Is. 7:14-16 (KJV)

Extreme old age prevents a man from being able to serve as a judge between good and evil, as Barzillai observed:

“I am this day four score years old: and can I discern between good and evil . . .?”

2 Sam. 19:35 (KJV)

And how did Solomon please the Lord when a vision was given to him at Gibeon? Even though he sacrificed in the high places, he did love the Lord (1 Kings 3:3). When the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream and told him to ask for whatever he would have, Solomon’s answer pleased the Lord (1 Kings 3:10). So what did Solomon ask for? He said first that he was “but a little child” (1 Kings 3:7), and so what deficiency did he think needed to be corrected?

“Give therefore thy servant an understanding heart to judge thy people, that I may discern between good and bad: for who is able to judge this thy so great a people?”

1 Kings 3:10 (KJV)

Growing Up in Jesus

We are called to understand the world so that we might grow up into a maturity that is capable of ruling the world. The verb to speak a proverb is a word that also means to rule. The wisdom of Scripture is wisdom that is geared for dominion. The author of Hebrews knows and understands the creation mandate. He quotes Ps. 8, and says that we do not yet see everything subject to mankind—but we do see Jesus (Heb, 2:9). The world to come is not subject to angels, but to mankind (Heb. 2:5ff). Mankind in Christ is therefore being fitted for godly rule (Heb. 5:14). Because we grabbed the forbidden fruit out of order, we have needed to be retro-fitted for it, but this is what is happening.

So in the child Jesus, given to us at Christmas, our response should be the same as that of the wise men. We look at a little child and we see a king. And all around you, you should see princes.

Originally preached in December 2010.

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Chet Cartwright
Chet Cartwright
2 years ago

One perspective is the, tree of knowledge is cell phones. Everyone says the apple with the bite out of it.. And if you think about it uncensored content is both good and evil. But man kind has the knowledge to know right from wrong. What they should filter and monitor. What people should feed there kids to be healthy or good immune systems. However it saddenes me. Most don’t use the knowledge they have, or can get right at there finger tips, to fix there problems. It just mutiplys them. Everyone is quick to give medication to a child rather… Read more »

Ben Greenfield
2 years ago

There are many theories about *what* the tree of knowledge was. I write about some of them here, and perhaps one of the more interesting theories is that it was some kind of “entheogen” that allowed one to peer into some kind of hidden spirit world, somewhat like, say, magic mushrooms.

What do you think about those kind of theories Doug, or anyone else reading these comments?

2 years ago
Reply to  Ben Greenfield

I think it is a form of mystical experienc(gnosticism) and replaces grace of God for a spirit of demons….deliberately enhancing the means of grace with drugs is not the means of grace at all. It is dangerous.