The Three Gardens

Richard E. Cornell

Gardens are beautiful and useful things. A flower garden inspires us. A humble backyard garden provides food. Gardens exude life. The image of a garden is a powerful one in Christian thought. The gospel is the story of three gardens: Eden, Gethsemane, and the garden-city of the New Jerusalem. God’s story begins in a garden, finds its climactic middle point in a garden, and reaches its final consummation in a garden.

The story of God begins with him “planting” a garden and placing humanity within it (Gen 2:8, ESV). The Garden of Eden is a place of beauty and bounty. The trees are “pleasant to sight and good for food” (2:9). Here is a place that both God and humanity can delight in, a paradise. As Gen 1 declares, all of creation is “good,” indeed “very good” (1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31). Humanity, made in the image of God, not only enjoys the garden but is graciously allowed by God to play significant roles in it. They are to “work” and “keep” it (2:9). Humanity has God-given dominion over the garden, as is evidenced by Adam’s naming of the animals (2:19-20). The Garden of Eden is a picture of harmony and shalom. Man and women are made for and enjoy relationship with one another, with creation, and with their creator and Lord.

Yet, humanity is also made fearfully free. In a garden replete with blessings, one thing is forbidden. They are not to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The serpent tempts Adam and Eve by first raising doubt about God’s command and then directly challenging God’s word and character. The final move is to tempt Adam and Eve, in effect, to be God. Surrounded by the beauty of the garden, humanity’s first parents wonder if the grass is greener on the other side. By succumbing to the serpent’s temptation, Adam and Eve commit the primordial sin, but it is also a paradigmatic picture of all sin. In the face of God’s gracious provision and protective restrictions, we humans choose to doubt and disobey God, all in an attempt to make ourselves God. The consequences of this initial sin are catastrophic. Shame and fear consume the first couple and they attempt to hide from God. They are estranged from their creator, from each other, and from creation itself. They immediately begin throwing each other under the bus, playing the first ever game of “pass the buck” (3:12-13). The blessings of the garden now turn into curses. The cost of sin is expulsion from the garden. Death – physical, relational and spiritual – besets humanity.

Yet even in judgment, God’s mercy and redemptive purpose are on display. God clothes the newly ashamed humans (3:21). Even the expulsion from the Garden is merciful as the humans are banned from the garden to prevent them from taking from the Tree of Life and living forever in their fallen condition. In the curse on Eve, Christians hear a foreshadowing of the demise of the evil one through the triumph of Eve’s greatest descendent (3:15). The garden is lost but hope is not.

If God and humanity were estranged in the first garden, the God-human took the critical steps toward healing the breach in the second garden. In the Garden of Gethsemane we see some of the most poignant moments of the Savior’s life (Matt 26:36-46; Mark 14:32-42; Luke 22:39-46). Betrayed by one of his own, failed by those closest to him, and soon to die at the hands of those he came to save, the burden of his “cup” is overwhelming. In fact, the cup of suffering was filled in Eden’s garden. In a bracingly honest prayer to the Father he asks if there might be another way. Yet, in the end, he steels his will and prays the greatest prayer ever prayed: “not my will, but thy will be done.” It is not too much to say that the fate of the world hung in the balance in that second garden. Gethsemane was the tipping point, the middle of the story, where everything was at stake. Though Christians are right to focus on the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus as the salvific moments of our faith, it was in the Garden of Gethsemane that the battle was won. Whereas the first Adam faced temptation and chose disbelief and disobedience, the second Adam faced an even greater temptation and chose trust and obedience. The results of the acts in the first garden brought shame, death, and alienation. In the second garden, the Son of Man embraced the shame of the cross and tasted death in order to reconcile God and Man. The curse earned by the first humans was taken up by the best human. Those given life in Eden selfishly threw it away while the One who is life willingly laid his life down into order to give it back. If the Garden of Eden provides the paradigmatic negative example for humanity, here in the depth and despair of Gethsemane we find our ultimate exemplar.

Christ’s actions in the second garden looked back to the first garden and forward to the third and final garden. The renewal begun in Gethsemane reaches its conclusion in the New Jerusalem of Rev 21:1-22:5. In his helpful book A New Heaven and a New Earth, Richard Middleton calls the New Jerusalem a “Garden-City” ([Baker Academic, 2014], 172). Here is Eden renewed. Just as Eden was watered by a river, so too the New Jerusalem has a life-giving river (22:1-2). The Tree of Life, once blocked off by mercy, is now present and given for the eternal sustenance of God’s people (22:2, 14). But the New Jerusalem is more than Eden. This is a Garden-City (a combination envisioned in Isa 51:3). The city imagery suggests community, civilization, and culture itself, all of which God has redeemed and renewed. The end of God’s story envisions not a flight from the created world to an otherworldly existence “up there,” but a coming down of God to earth (Rev 21:2-3). God does not abandon his created world, both human and non-human, but remakes it as the glorious words of the Father attest: “Behold I make all things new!” (21:5). The closed gate of Eden (Gen 3:24) is now replaced with the eternally open gates of the New Jerusalem (Rev 21:25). The curse, pronounced in Eden (Gen 3:14-19) and embraced in Gethsemane, is now removed (Rev 22:3). Death, which entered through the first garden and was courageously faced in the second, is eradicated in the third (21:4). The rule and reign of humanity gone awry in the first garden is restored forever in the final garden, where God’s people will reign forever and ever (22:5). The light of the heavenly bodies of the first garden gives way to the light of God and the Lamb and all because the Son of Man faced the darkness of Gethsemane. Though Adam and Eve enjoyed God’s presence in Eden, in the New Jerusalem God and the Lamb have made their permanent dwelling place with humanity on earth (21:3), enabling humanity to see their Savior’s face (22:4).

What was lost in Eden was won back in Gethsemane and fulfilled in the New Jerusalem. In gardens we find the beginning, middle, and end of God’s story.

Posted Sep 12, 2016

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