The Bible begins and ends with a garden. In the biblical narrative, God’s story, the garden is a holistic, sacred space of communion and cultivation.
“In the beginning God created…” (Gen. 1:1). God speaks the world into existence. Everything is made out of nothing. First there is silence, stillness, nothing. Then the divine creative word is uttered, the curtain is opened, and a chorus of comets and quasars, seas and volcanoes, and oaks and toads comes forth. He makes a wonderfully diverse biological community. God is a community – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – and we, too, are communal by nature, built to live together in harmony. Eden is a community garden.
God calls creation “good” (Gen. 1:31). Material creation is affirmed. The Creator cares about our physical well-being, as well as our spiritual state. He is the God of soil and skin, as well as souls. The creation is characterized by shalom and justice, well-being and harmony; things are the way they are supposed to be. There is no scarcity, only abundance for everyone. With no lack, no conflict, and no pain, Eden is a peaceful garden.
In this garden, there is perfect communion between male and female, humans and other creatures, God and all his creation. God walks in the cool of the garden. He relocates from heaven to walk with his people and creation. But there is a unique communion between God and humanity. A relationship has begun, humanity is made in God’s image, demonstrated by God’s communication to the first pair: “Do not eat…” The garden models this communion between human and divine. Eden is a lover’s garden.
Since the Creator weaves human creatures in his own image, they, too, are designed for creative work. This is a garden, not a wilderness. God is the first gardener, cultivating it to make it blossom. Cultivate means “tillage; improvement; increase of fertility; the bestowing of labor and care upon a plant, so as to develop and improve its qualities.”1 God develops his creational community. God may be the first gardener, but then humanity is called to cultivate the earth and “to work the ground” (Gen. 2:5). Fruitful labor is part of God’s plan, welfare is not. Eden is a cultivated garden.
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth” (Rev. 21:1). In the new creation, God remains committed to his creation and garden. Fulfilling the eschatological vision of a “beloved community,” in the New Jerusalem (Rev. 21:2, 10-21), God will dwell with His zillions of people, as promised to Abram, in the heavenly Jerusalem, as promised to David. Heaven will be communal, not individualistic. Cities embody culture — town squares, gardens, music, and the arts. The new earth will be a community garden.
Inhabitants will corporately be the bride at the sumptuous wedding feast of the Lamb (21:2, 9), fulfilling the promise of communion with Immanuel (21:3). We will live in the intimate presence of our covenant God, and sweet, perfect communion is restored. We will be his people, and he will be our God. The new earth will be a lover’s garden.
For all those who have suffered much oppression and injustice, God will wipe away all their tears. There will be no more death, no more mourning, no more pain (21:4). No pettiness, no abuse, no more lies. No cemeteries or hospitals or psych wards. There will be no disease, no dementia. No more predatory lenders or shotgun houses. For the old order has passed away, the new has come. The new earth will be a peaceable garden.
Finally, we will return to the garden with its tree of life and where there is no more curse (Rev. 22:1-5). The cursed wildernesses of the sharecropper’s fields are gone. We will once again enjoy the sweet fragrance of the Edenic flowers and trees, taste of its succulent fruits, and lie down in its grassy meadows. The new earth will be a cultivated, restored garden.
The Bible begins and ends with a garden. But between two gardens lies a fallow field; it is a cursed garden, a cornfield full of pesticides, disputed land between immigrant neighbors, between family farm and corporate agribusiness. It is a sharecropper’s field, a plantation. Between Eden and the new earth, there is the cursed land of thorns, thistles, flooded fields, meth, racial tension, and produce prices and wages too low to live on, marked by the pain, toil and sweat of those afflicted with injustice. This is the ravaged garden we dwell in at present in our lands and towns.
But in between these two gardens lies a tree, the cross of Jesus Christ. Jesus connects the Garden of Eden with the Garden of Gethsemane and the garden tomb, and, finally, with the restored Garden of the New Earth. By his death and resurrection, reconciliation with God and people is possible, thus restored rural communities. By his death and resurrection, peace and love are possible, as reconciled and reconciling gardeners furrow the ground of their rural spaces and small towns.
This is Christian community development: cultivators between the two gardens who labor, pray, and bleed alongside those dwelling in the land, our rural and urban communities, know that by the grace of Christ we are cultivating and developing God’s garden. We know what the original plan was, and dare to believe the promise that the garden will flourish once again. We are not there yet. But we are called to cast a compelling vision of creation and new creation, by word and deed, for all God’s people to see. A vision for our churches and communities, and all the weak and vulnerable in our midst, that right now God is cultivating a new garden and new people, and that we can participate as his faithful gardeners.
Want to learn more about joining others in Christian Community Development? Come to Dordt College next week Thursday, October 27-Saturday, October 30 for the CONNECT: Christian Community Development Iowa Regional Conference. Hear plenary sessions by John Perkins, Mark Prosser, Kurt Rietema, and Joel Van Dyke or attend workshops on immigration, cross-cultural collaboration, missional hospitality and more. Learn more and register here.
Oxford English Dictionary ↩