Thoughts on Christian Theology and Pastoring

The Garden Temple

What are we to learn from the details of this primal paradise? In Genesis 2, we are struck with its beauty and bounty. In Genesis 3, we read that humans were banished from it. And in the New Testament we discover what brought about that breakthrough so we could find our true home again.

And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east,
and there he put the man whom he had formed.
And out of the ground the Lord God made to spring up
every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food.

Genesis 2:8-9

When Christopher Columbus came to the land of Venezuela, he felt he had neared the Garden of Eden. Some people surmised that Marco Polo had discovered the Garden of Eden during his travels to China. An American religious group believed, in the 19th century, that the Garden of Eden was in Jackson County, Missouri. While the Garden of Eden was a real place somewhere on earth—most likely in Mesopotamia—we can be sure that God did not give us a description of it so that we will go searching for it. So what are we to learn from the details of this primal paradise?

First, and most basically, we learn that this was humans’ original home. Twice we are told that God himself put Adam in this garden (Genesis 2:8, 15). This is God’s way of saying to humans: here is where you belong.

Second, we learn that this original abode was meant not just as a home for humans, but also as a home for God—the place where heaven and earth come together, a temple. We probably would not notice this at first glance. But when we compare the features of the Garden of Eden with the features of the tabernacle, the temple, and finally the new heavens and new earth in Revelation 21-22—all places where God and humans come together—we see some striking similarities.

Both the Garden of Eden and the temple/tabernacle were places where God “walked around,” and which people were to cultivate and guard. Both were set on a mountain and faced the east. Both had gardenlike features, including a tree near the middle. (In the garden of Eden, this tree was the Tree of Life. In the tabernacle, this tree was the menorah—a tree-like lampstand.) Both were adorned with gold and onyx. Both had rivers flowing from them. And both, as a consequence of humans’ sin, were bounded by cherubim, guardian angels that kept humans from entering God’s presence without a sacrifice. In Eden, these were real angelic beings. In the tabernacle and temple, these were pictures of angelic beings: cherubim embroidered into the curtain that divided the innermost room of God’s presence, the Holy of Holies.

It is clear, then, that when God wants to show us where we belong, he shows us his home, a temple. This is why God gave us this description of the Garden of Eden: not to send us searching for it, but to tell us that we belong with him.

So let us see what God intends to stir within us by showing us this Garden-Temple, our true home. In Genesis 2, we are struck with its beauty and bounty. In Genesis 3, we read that humans were banished from it. And in the New Testament we discover what brought about that breakthrough so we could find our true home again.

Let’s take each of these—the beauty, the bounty, the banishment, and the breakthrough—one at a time.

1. The Beauty of the Garden

When God shows us where we belong, he shows us a place that is beautiful, and this we find supremely attractive. “The Lord god made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight” (Genesis 2:9). On an aesthetic level, the Garden of Eden was a feast for the senses.

Beauty, we should acknowledge, wields enormous power over us. It has a way of slipping past our strongest defenses and influencing us, not by forcing us from the outside, but by awakening a desire from within. When I ask a man how he met his wife, he will almost inevitably say something about noticing a girl that he found extremely beautiful. He will say that he never felt he could be worthy of such a beauty, and then—to his astonishment—she saw something attractive in him too!

We find attractive power not only in visual beauty, but also in the beauty of music, art, and literature. Who isn’t moved by the piercing sweetness of “Gabriel’s Oboe,” or the thunderous triumphs of Beethoven’s symphonies? I have even heard of some people standing before a painting and weeping at the beauty of it.  

What makes something beautiful? Without getting overly technical, I think we can say at least that beauty emerges when two or more different things join in a way that is unexpected yet satisfying. Two lines, each pointing in a different direction, join at their ends; when they do, they form an angle, so that together they point a unified direction. A similar thing happens when two sounds vibrating at different frequencies are played together. The vibrations join, and when they do, we hear harmony. A third sound joins those two, and we have a chord. In these cases, it is the joining of two different things that strike us as beautiful.

Now in the case of the Garden of Eden, what joins in a way that is both unexpected yet satisfying? Granted, there is the symmetry and harmony of the trees with their shapes and colors; but on a deeper level, there is the meeting of two kinds of beings: God and humans. On the one hand, there is God: Creator, eternal, almighty. On the other hand, there are humans: creatures, finite, and frail. Between them is an infinite existential divide: then—O marvel!—they come together. God dwells with humans! There is beauty in this garden.

No wonder Scripture so often speaks of the beauty of worship in the temple. Worship is beautiful primarily because the object of worship is beautiful. God himself, in his Triune nature, is the very source of beauty. But the act of worship is also beautiful, as the creature delights in the Creator, and the Creator in the creature.

Note how the psalmists sing of this beauty:

One thing have I asked of the Lord,
    that will I seek after:
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord
    all the days of my life,
to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord
    and to inquirein his temple. (Psalm 27:4)

Worship the LORD in the splendor of holiness; tremble before him, all the earth! (Psalm 96:9)

Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God shines forth (Psalm 50:2).

It is worth asking why beauty has the power to slip past our defenses. Suppose someone has been hurt so deeply that he doesn’t want to feel such pain anymore. In fact, he doesn’t want to feel anything anymore. So he barricades himself within the high walls of a stoical mindset. “This is just the way life is,” he reasons, “and you can’t expect anything more.” It works for a while. There is only numbness, and he is able to go through the motions of living a productive life. Then one day he hears an old tune in a new way, or sees a blazing sunset, or smells the fragrance of a lilac, or even finds himself smiling, then laughing, at a joke. And quite unexpectedly he finds himself weeping because hope has been awakened and love seems real. How did beauty breach his strongest defenses? It did so because it had a secret ally within him. You may call it “conscience,” a sense of the divine, or “the light which lighteth every man.” Whatever it may be, it is God’s way of reminding us that our true home is with him, and even the simplest beauties still echo with that theme.

It is said that the great American conductor Leonard Bernstein admitted that when he was immersed in truly beautiful music, he could sense “heaven, an order behind things, something we can trust, that will never let us down.”

In a prayer to God, Augustine wrote, “Late have I loved you, beauty so old and new. . . . You called and cried out out and shattered my deafness. You were radiant and resplendent, you put to flight my blindness. You were fragrant, and I drew in my breath and now pant after you.”

When it comes to the beauty of the Garden of Eden, the lesson here is this: when God shows us where we belong, he attracts us by showing it to be a place of beauty.

2. The Bounty of the Garden

The trees in the garden were not only “pleasant to the sight,” but also “good for food” (Genesis 2:9). In fact, the garden had everything they possibly needed to satisfy them. The lesson is this: When God shows us where we belong, he shows us a place that is not only beautiful, but also bountiful—and this we find supremely satisfying.

The bounty of Eden is consistent with the way God woos us to his dwelling place throughout the Bible. When we ask the writers of Scripture “What does it mean to dwell with God?” they answer in terms of feasts, banquets, and dinners—not only where the people are bringing food to God, but where God is bringing food to the people. “You prepare a table before me,” David sings in the twenty-third psalm. “Come, all you who are thirsty,” the invitations rings loud and clear, “Come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost” (Isaiah 55:1). Even the call to be wise—which is another way of describing a life lived in God’s presence—is presented as an dinner invitation. “Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. Leave your simple ways  and live, and walk in the way of insight” (Proverbs 9:4-6). “On this mountain,”—and, remember, the mountain signifies the dwelling place of God—“the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food” (Isaiah 25:6). Jesus claimed to be the Bread of Life, the manna that comes down from heaven. He compared the kingdom of heaven to a wedding feast where the poor, lame, and outcast would be invited to sit down and dine with the king. The first miracle Jesus performed was at a wedding feast, in which he supplied something not strictly necessary for survival: wine. Space and time constraints forbid us from delving into the loaves of bread in the tabernacle, the feast the seventy Israelite elders enjoyed in the presence of God, Jesus’ last supper with his disciples, and the observance of the Lord’s Supper as an ongoing reminder of heart of Christianity. The message could not be clearer: he came that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly!

I spent most of my teen-age years in South Korea, where my parents served as missionaries. To get to church on Sunday mornings, my family and I would take an hour-long subway ride and then a ten-minute walk to our church building. Along the way, we would walk past a two-story, tall-windowed American restaurant. In the morning, it was closed, but by the time we were done with church—sometimes as late as mid-afternoon!—it was bustling with people. Maybe my memory of this is probably somewhat exaggerated, but it seemed that every Sunday a crowd of people from our own church would go to that restaurant after the service and sit near the windows on the second floor. Then, from their luxurious perch, they would wave goodbye to us through the clouds of steam which hovered over their mountains of mashed potatoes and lakes of gravy. One glorious Sunday, someone asked my dad if we would like to go to the restaurant for lunch after the service.

What a delight it was to be invited to dine there! And how winningly God suggests, through this picture of a banquet, what an incomparable delight it will be to dwell forever in his presence.

3. Banishment from the Garden

Which makes the banishment from the garden all the more horrifying. While Adam and Eve had all the beaty and bounty their hearts could desire, they looked to beauty and bounty in defiance of God. “The woman,” we are told, “saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes” (Genesis 3:6). In seeking beauty and bounty outside God, they banished God from their hearts, and found themselves banished from beauty and bounty—outside Eden. “He drove out the man, and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life” (Genesis 3:24).

Humans’ exile from the garden of Eden was both a literal event and a present reality. Not only does Scripture teach it, but also we continue to feel, in all sorts of ways, our alienation from God. Our natural impulse is to try to get back into the “garden” again, and there are two common ways of doing this. Some of us try to build our own Eden. This is the way of the prodigal son, who took his father’s money, went into a far country, and spent it on riotous living. For him, Eden was anywhere but under his father’s rule. This is also the way of the builders of the Tower of Babel, who tried to assert their own independence from God. It is the way that leads to emptiness, confusion, and despair.

Others of us try to persuade God that he really ought to let us back in, that he owes it to us because we have proven ourselves worthy. This is the way of the self-righteous older brother in the parable of the prodigal son. He fumed outside the banquet held in honor of his younger prodigal brother. His own good behavior, he thought, should have earned him a seat of honor above his brother. Because he could not understand mercy and forgiveness, he could not enjoy the lavish bounty of his father.

The unmistakable message of the Bible is that, if humans will re-enter God’s presence, it will not come as a result of their own effort, for “salvation is of the Lord.” No one can claw past the fiery cherubim.

Only God can break through.

4. Breakthrough to the Garden.

And this is exactly what Jesus of Nazareth did.

When Jesus came to earth, he made an astonishing claim: I am the temple, the place where God and humans meet. In the person of Jesus—fully God and fully man—heaven and earth came together. In the gospel of John we read that “the Word,” that is, God the Son, “became flesh and made his dwelling,”—literally, “tabernacled”—among us (John 1:14).

But instead of experiencing the beauty and bounty of Eden, something quite different happened to him. He was bereft of all beauty and bounty. Even from a physical perspective, “he had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him” (Isaiah 53:1). His every step led him closer and closer to the cross. And nearing his end, it was in a garden—not Eden, but Gethsemane—that he began to be deprived of everything he had. There he was arrested and robbed of justice. There his friends forsook him. Then, through the night and into the next morning everything was stripped from him until he hung literally naked and impoverished on the cross.

If Jesus is the true temple—the place where God and humans meet—why did this happen to him? Something that happened the moment Jesus died tells us why. Recall the two angelic sentries embroidered into the temple curtain, reminding us of the angels that barred humans from God’s presence. When Jesus died, that dividing curtain tore from top to bottom. The way into God’s presence was now open, and Jesus had opened it. Jesus was stripped of his beauty to beautify us. He was deprived of his bounty to enrich us. He was banished to bring us home, was cursed to bring us a blessing.

My friend, do you believe this? This is the gospel, the message of God’s grace—the grace by which the blind can see and the lost can be found. Do you feel your own heart explained by that “banishment” from your true home? If so, can’t you see how Christ’s work can bring you home, satisfying your truest need: a relationship with God?

I remember as a child hearing a story about a homeless boy in early 20th century Chicago who sat shivering on a street corner one cold winter’s night. Hungry, dirty, and lonely, he got up, found a police officer, and asked for help. The officer told him, “If you go down the street and take a right, you’ll see a house with the words ‘John 3:16’ over the door. Knock on that door, and they will tell you what to do.” The boy did as he was told. As he approached the house, he could see warm yellow light spilling from the windows. Peering through the window, he could a group of boys seated around a table eating a warm dinner. He knocked on the door, and a kind-faced lady opened it and invited him in. He joined the other boys for dinner, all the while thinking to himself, “I don’t know what ‘John 3:16’ means, but it sure makes a hungry boy full!” The lady led him to a place where he could take a bath, gave him a new set of clothes and showed him a warm, dry bed. As he lay in bed, the last thoughts he had before drifting off to sleep were: “I don’t know what John 3:16 means, but it sure makes a tired boy rest!” The next morning, he asked the lady in charge of the house what John 3:16 meant. “For God so loved the world,” she replied, “that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” At that moment, the boy bowed his head in prayer and put his trust in Christ to be his Savior. “Now I know what John 3:16 means,” he told the lady, “and it makes a lost boy found!”

If you have not believed this, then believe and live! When you believe the gospel, then Christ—the giver of all bounty and beauty, the one who brings you home—is in you! This is the message that the apostles proclaimed in the 1st century and that we continue to preach today: “Christ in you the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27).

See how this gives shape to your faith, love, and hope. First, you must have faith that this is true. Bear constantly in mind that God sees you not as a banished rebel, but as a son or daughter. He sees you, not in the ugliness of your sin, but in the beautiful robes of Christ’s good deeds.

Second, see how this informs your love for others. If you did not know that you were loved—without limit or qualification—you could not bear to give away what little love you need for yourself. But knowing that “Christ is in you,” you know that you are the object of God’s ceaseless love. You swim in an ocean of love whose bottom you can never feel, nor boundary you will ever reach. It is from this bounty of love that you can love others. “Freely you have received; freely give” (Matthew 10:8).

Third, see how this motivates your hope for the future: “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” The fact that Christ’s death has torn the temple curtain, opening the way for you to have a relationship with God, does not lead us back to the Garden of Eden; better than that, it leads us forward to a world of which Eden was merely a preview. In the book of Revelation, John tells us of “a new heaven and a new earth,” where “the dwelling place of God is with man” (Revelation 21:3). In that glorious state, “he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more.” In that place those who have trusted Christ will be given such authority and dignity that we will “reign with him” (2 Timothy 2:12). This hope is not held out to make us pine away listlessly for golden days to come; instead, it gives us vigor, endurance, and purpose to our actions now. Nothing done for Christ will ultimately perish. Every deed we do in this life can be a seed which, in that eternal state, will sprout into something we can now hardly imagine. That is why the Apostle Paul exhorts Christians: “Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58).

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