Nephi famously stated that we should liken the scriptures unto ourselves (1 Nephi 19:23). To that end, I find it helpful to consider partaking of the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper as a type and shadow of partaking of the Tree of Life, particularly when reading Lehi’s account of his vision (1 Nephi 8). There is, I believe, support for this approach or interpretation found in both Nephi’s vision of the Tree of Life and in the Savior’s own teachings, particularly as found in the Gospel of John.
Lehi’s account (at least, as far as Nephi records it) is focused on his own concern for his family, in particular his sons Laman and Lemuel (1 Nephi 8:35: “And Laman and Lemuel partook not of the fruit, said my father.”). Nephi, by contrast, is focused on what the various elements of the vision mean. In his vision, Nephi is asked by the Spirit of God: “Knowest thou the condescension [lit. ‘to descend with’] of God?” When Nephi confesses his uncertainty, the Spirit shows him in vision the birth of Christ in the flesh. And having seen that, Nephi gets the rest of his question answered:
And the angel said unto me: Behold the Lamb of God, yea, even the Son of the Eternal Father! Knowest thou the meaning of the tree which thy father saw? And I answered him, saying: Yea, it is the love of God, which sheddeth itself abroad in the hearts of the children of men; wherefore, it is the most desirable above all things. And he spake unto me, saying: Yea, and the most joyous to the soul. And after he had said these words, he said unto me: Look! And I looked, and I beheld the Son of God going forth among the children of men; and I saw many fall down at his feet and worship him. And it came to pass that I beheld that the rod of iron, which my father had seen, was the word of God, which led to the fountain of living waters, or to the tree of life; which waters are a representation of the love of God; and I also beheld that the tree of life was a representation of the love of God. (1 Nephi 11:21-25)
Nephi then goes on to view “the condescension of God”, namely the ministry of Christ, including His sacrifice “for the sins of the world”, all following directly from the love of God, which in turn is tied to two symbols: the fountain of living waters and the Tree of Life.
While Lehi spoke only of partaking of the Tree of Life, the Savior (as recorded in John) made it clear that we are to partake of the fountain of living waters as well, for He is the fountain of living waters:
Jesus answered and said unto her, If thou knewest the gift of God, and who it is that saith to thee, Give me to drink; thou wouldest have asked of him, and he would have given thee living water. The woman saith unto him, Sir, thou hast nothing to draw with, and the well is deep: from whence then hast thou that living water? Art thou greater than our father Jacob, which gave us the well, and drank thereof himself, and his children, and his cattle? Jesus answered and said unto her, Whosoever drinketh of this water shall thirst again: but whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life. (John 4:10-14)
In the last day, that great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried, saying, If any man thirst, let him come unto me, and drink. He that believeth on me, as the scripture hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water. (John 7:37-38)
In John, the Savior also makes clear — to the point of offending some of his followers — the need to partake of His flesh and blood for eternal life:
I am that bread of life. Your fathers did eat manna in the wilderness, and are dead. This is the bread which cometh down from heaven, that a man may eat thereof, and not die. I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever: and the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world. The Jews therefore strove among themselves, saying, How can this man give us his flesh to eat? Then Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you. Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day. (John 6:48-54; emphasis added)
Finally, the Savior at the last supper states to His disciples that
I am the true vine, and my Father is the husbandman. Every branch in me that beareth not fruit he taketh away: and every branch that beareth fruit, he purgeth it, that it may bring forth more fruit. (John 15:1-2)
Note that in Jewish and Christian sources, there is often a conflation among vines/vineyards, trees (particularly olive trees), and the Tree of Life. For example, John Tvedtnes notes
Joseph Smith identified the tree of life with the olive tree when he designated D&C 88 (see its preface) as an “olive leaf…plucked from the Tree of Paradise, the Lord’s message of peace to us.” In early Jewish and Christian tradition, the tree of life is sometimes considered to be an olive tree, around which is entwined the vine, often believe to be the tree of knowledge. Nibley has pointed out that, in the artwork of the third-century A.D. Dura-Europos synagogue, the tree of life is depicted as both a tree and a vine. (Thus the olive tree is not out of place in the vineyard.)1
In short, when we partake of the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, we can think of ourselves — as in Lehi’s vision — of approaching and partaking of the Tree of Life and the fountain of living waters. It also lends a new and more immediate interpretation of the various groups of people that Lehi describes — in each place where Lehi talks of ‘partaking of the fruit’, think ‘partaking of the Sacrament’:
And it came to pass after I had prayed unto the Lord I beheld a large and spacious field. And it came to pass that I beheld a tree, whose fruit was desirable to make one happy. And it came to pass that I did go forth and partake of the fruit thereof; and I beheld that it was most sweet, above all that I ever before tasted. Yea, and I beheld that the fruit thereof was white, to exceed all the whiteness that I had ever seen. And as I partook of the fruit thereof it filled my soul with exceedingly great joy; wherefore, I began to be desirous that my family should partake of it also; for I knew that it was desirable above all other fruit.
And as I cast my eyes round about, that perhaps I might discover my family also, I beheld a river of water; and it ran along, and it was near the tree of which I was partaking the fruit. And I looked to behold from whence it came; and I saw the head thereof a little way off; and at the head thereof I beheld your mother Sariah, and Sam, and Nephi; and they stood as if they knew not whither they should go. And it came to pass that I beckoned unto them; and I also did say unto them with a loud voice that they should come unto me, and partake of the fruit, which was desirable above all other fruit. And it came to pass that they did come unto me and partake of the fruit also.
And it came to pass that I was desirous that Laman and Lemuel should come and partake of the fruit also; wherefore, I cast mine eyes towards the head of the river, that perhaps I might see them. And it came to pass that I saw them, but they would anot come unto me and partake of the fruit.
And I beheld a rod of iron, and it extended along the bank of the river, and led to the tree by which I stood. And I also beheld a strait and narrow path, which came along by the rod of iron, even to the tree by which I stood; and it also led by the head of the fountain, unto a large and spacious field, as if it had been a world.
And I saw numberless concourses of people, many of whom were pressing forward, that they might obtain the path which led unto the tree by which I stood. And it came to pass that they did come forth, and commence in the path which led to the tree. And it came to pass that there arose a mist of darkness; yea, even an exceedingly great mist of darkness, insomuch that they who had commenced in the path did lose their way, that they wandered off and were lost.
And it came to pass that I beheld others pressing forward, and they came forth and caught hold of the end of the rod of iron; and they did press forward through the mist of darkness, clinging to the rod of iron, even until they did come forth and partake of the fruit of the tree. And after they had partaken of the fruit of the tree they did cast their eyes about as if they were ashamed. And I also cast my eyes round about, and beheld, on the other side of the river of water, a great and spacious building; and it stood as it were in the air, high above the earth. And it was filled with people, both old and young, both male and female; and their manner of dress was exceedingly fine; and they were in the attitude of mocking and pointing their fingers towards those who had come at and were partaking of the fruit. And after they had tasted of the fruit they were ashamed, because of those that were scoffing at them; and they fell away into forbidden paths and were lost.
And now I, Nephi, do not speak all the words of my father. And, to be short in writing, behold, he saw other multitudes pressing forward; and they came and caught hold of the end of the rod of iron; and they did press their way forward, continually holding fast to the rod of iron, until they came forth and fell down and partook of the fruit of the tree.
And he also saw other multitudes feeling their way towards that great and spacious building. And it came to pass that many were drowned in the depths of the fountain; and many were lost from his view, wandering in strange roads. And great was the multitude that did enter into that strange building. And after they did enter into that building they did point the finger of scorn at me and those that were partaking of the fruit also; but we heeded them not. (1 Nephi 8:8-33)
The questions for ourselves are: how do we approach the Sacrament? Do we recognize it as the love of God made tangible? Do we recognized the condescension of God that made it both possible and efficacious? And how much do we heed the scorn and mocking of the world? As Nephi notes: “These are the words of my father: For as many as heeded them, had fallen away.” (1 Nephi 8:34). ..bruce..
1 “Borrowing from the parable of Zenos”, John Tvedtnes, The Allegory of the Olive Tree, edited by Stephen D. Ricks and John W. Welch (Deseret Book/FARMS, 1994), p. 378; see also pp. 382-84 of the same article. Also see Since Cumorah, Hugh Nibley (Deseret Book/FARMS, 1988), pp. 188-192; this is the Nibley citation to which Tvedtnes refers.