Nephi’s experience with the tree of life is interesting. He desired to see the things his father saw in vision. He pondered in his heart and was “caught away by the Spirit of the Lord…into an exceedingly high mountain, which [he] never had before seen, and upon which [he] never had before set…foot.” (1 Nephi 11:1)
Nephi was faithful, he desired, and he acted (pondered and prayed). Then he was taken to an elevated place. Mountains typically represent temples in the scriptures. In that place of holiness he conversed with the Spirit of the Lord.
Nephi wanted to see all that his father saw but the Spirit showed him the tree of life first (after asking a question about Nephi’s belief; asking about Nephi’s testimony) (1 Nephi 11:2-4,8). The Spirit told Nephi the schedule for his vision: after Nephi was to see the tree, he would also “behold a man descending out of heaven”. Nephi was charged with witnessing this man and then bearing record that he “is the Son of God” (1 Nephi 11:7).
Nephi was faithful, desirous, active (pondering), and in a temple. As a result he saw the tree of life and wanted to know the interpretation of its symbolism.
In response and without answering Nephi’s question, the Spirit showed Nephi another vision. In this vision he saw Mary and then Mary and the infant Christ (1 Nephi 11:13-20). After Nephi saw the Christ Child and Mary, the Spirit asked him if he knew the meaning of the tree. Nephi had received his own answer: “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.” (1 Nephi 11:22) The Spirit confirmed that response, adding additional insight: “Yea, and the most joyous to the soul.” (1 Nephi 11:23) Nephi, conversing with the Spirit of the Lord, was able to answer his own question about the meaning of the tree. The Spirit led him to the answer and provided additional information when needed but Nephi was able to receive his own answer.
It was only after seeing the tree and Jesus Christ that Nephi saw the rest of the symbols from Lehi’s vision. Before spending any time with those additional symbols, we need to understand what the love of God is. The love of God is manifest in Jesus Christ’s birth but there is more to it. It includes charity. What is charity? Charity is the chief virtue. It is the “pure love of Christ, [that] endureth forever; and whoso is found possessed of it at the last day, it shall be well with him.” (Moroni 7:47) Charity is without end, it endures forever. Charity is not helping others, it is not treating others well; charity is the pure love that comes from God. Charity is a gift from God. It is a pure fruit from an everlasting tree of beauty and purity with preciousness above all else. Charity is the love of God for all His children but this cannot be what the tree of life symbolizes because not everyone partakes of the fruit of the tree.
So what is the symbolism of the love of God expressed by the tree of life? Elder Nelson taught: “The Book of Mormon…describes how one is born of God and how one gains the power to love as He does. It identifies three core principles that bring the power of God’s love into our lives.” (Source) These three core principles are: 1) exercising faith in Christ and entering into a covenant with Him to keep His commandments; 2) the power to become more like Him comes through receiving the ordinances of the gospel; and 3) needing to “follow His example: ‘What manner of men ought ye to be?’ [Jesus] asks rhetorically. His answer: ‘Verily I say unto you, even as I am’ (3 Nephi 27:27). Truly, He wants us to become more like Him.” (Source)
Elder Neil L. Andersen taught: “What does this tree with its most precious fruit symbolize? It represents ‘the love of God’ and proclaims our Heavenly Father’s marvelous plan of redemption. ‘For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.’ This precious fruit symbolizes the wondrous blessings of the Savior’s incomparable Atonement. Not only will we live again following our mortality, but through our faith in Jesus Christ, our repentance, and our keeping the commandments, we can be forgiven of our sins and one day stand clean and pure before our Father and His Son. Partaking of the fruit of the tree also symbolizes that we embrace the ordinances and covenants of the restored gospel—being baptized, receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost, and entering the house of the Lord to be endowed with power from on high. Through the grace of Jesus Christ and by honoring our covenants, we receive the immeasurable promise of living with our righteous family throughout eternity.” (Source; emphasis added)
The tree of life represents the Savior and His Atonement. We unlock the power of the Atonement by making and keeping sacred covenants, receiving ordinances, and striving to be like the Savior. We do not partake of the fullness of God’s love without making certain qualifying steps.
Jesus taught this lesson:
“As the Father hath loved me, so have I loved you: continue ye in my love. If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love; even as I have kept my Father’s commandments, and abide in his love. These things have I spoken unto you, that my joy might remain in you, and that your joy might be full. This is my commandment, That ye love one another, as I have loved you. Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. Ye are my friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you.” (John 15:9-14)
The Savior taught His disciples. He expressed His love for them and encouraged them to continue in His love. He then clarified the condition required to continue in His love: “If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love.” Those who do this will have a fullness of joy. The Spirit taught this to Nephi during his vision when he said the tree — the love of God — is “most joyous to the soul.” (1 Nephi 11:23) The Savior then expressed His great love for His friends. Friends of the Savior are those who “do whatsoever [He] command[s]”. For these faithful friends, the Savior expressed great love by laying down His life.
Abiding in the love of God is thus conditional on obedience. God loves all His children but we have to do certain things to abide in His love. While conditional, this is not exclusionary. To understand this, let’s turn to Alma 13. There we read Alma’s teachings about the priesthood and high priests. While this chapter is focused on high priests and the Melchizedek priesthood, it applies to women and men and offers insight into how we abide in God’s love.
“And this is the manner after which they were ordained—being called and prepared from the foundation of the world according to the foreknowledge of God, on account of their exceeding faith and good works; in the first place being left to choose good or evil; therefore they having chosen good, and exercising exceedingly great faith, are called with a holy calling, yea, with that holy calling which was prepared with, and according to, a preparatory redemption for such. And thus they have been called to this holy calling on account of their faith, while others would reject the Spirit of God on account of the hardness of their hearts and blindness of their minds, while, if it had not been for this they might have had as great privilege as their brethren.” (Alma 13:3-4; emphasis added)
Blessings from heaven, covenants, priesthood authority and responsibilities/callings (which are offered to women and men), ordinances, and fruits of the Spirit are offered to all. Those who exercise faith and choose good obtain the privileges. They are those who abide in the love of God and partake of the fruit of the tree of life.