Ending in a City - July Issue
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Ending in a City
Have you ever heard the saying, “the Bible begins in a garden but it ends in a city?” Since I wrote on gardens in the May issue, it makes sense to explore cities next. The interesting thing is that while I’m a city girl myself, I have a lot of friends who dislike cities. Many long for the quiet peace of the countryside, with space for themselves where they can do their own thing. What does it mean to these people, to say the Bible ends in a city? Does it mean we will all ultimately agree cities are best after all? As much as I'd enjoy that, that is not the point. But this shows we can explore what is beautiful in the good kind of cities.
What Cities Symbolize
Cities are obviously places where people live together, so the first and clearest image that a city gives us is the image of people living together
In the beginning, when there was just Adam and Eve, living as two in the context of a garden makes sense—but we know Adam and Eve were told to “fill the earth.” So we know humans were meant to live together and depend on each other (“woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up!”), and two progressing to many is part of the movement of the biblical story. In this way, it makes sense that the Bible would begin the garden and end in the city. It shows that the plan from the beginning is moving to fulfillment.
Of course, we know all too well that living in community in a sinful world brings challenges and harms, which is why so many of us would like to avoid it. In contrast with the cruelties of humanity, the wilds of nature can feel peaceful and freeing. Even in the God-established community of the church, we struggle to live in harmony. So this is not to say we should all strive to love cities more—but rather what an ideal city represents: living well in community.
But there’s more to the city at the end of Revelation than just “community.” Community is the most obvious difference between a garden and a city, but Genesis and Revelation bookend the story of the Bible in more ways.
Progress to the Garden City
Progression is also illustrated by this city, flowing from its garden beginnings. As Matthew Henry describes, “In the first paradise there were only two persons to behold the beauty and taste the pleasures of it, but in this second paradise whole cities and nations shall find abundant delight and satisfaction.” And progression is more than just the number of people—Revelation shows the potential of Genesis in full flower.
The city at the end of Revelation is a garden city. The parallels with the first chapter of Genesis jump out at us: a river flows through it, a tree of life grows in it, and gold and precious stones are found there. “A paradise in a city, or a whole city in a paradise!” as Matthew Henry describes it. And as beauty was an inescapable part of the garden of Eden, beauty is still an unescapable part of the garden city – even after the progression of the whole biblical story, beauty has not been discarded as an unnecessary extra, but also brought to its fulfillment here in the end. The potential of the gold and onyx, described in Genesis as near the garden of Eden, has now been brought into the city itself. The streets are paved with gold. The foundations are made with precious the stones. The very gates are pearls.
C.S. Lewis was rather unimpressed by the idea of jewellery and streets of gold, calling them small and chilling, but I have to disagree—as a child reading these chapters I was utterly fascinated by the description of the shine and colours. Just like cities don't connect with everyone, the idea of jewels doesn't either, and that's fine—but I think the excitement I felt over the beauty of a such a place hints at the message the chapter is trying to bring across. Human ideas of very beautiful things, like crystal and topaz, are needed to get across the full idea of perfect beauty. These very beautiful gifts were created by God, and we can take them from where they were placed in creation and make other things with them, and display what is unique and fascinating about these creations to an even greater extent.
This also shows that in paradise, beauty is not a frivolous extra, but part of the whole. Both natural and constructed beauty are hinted at: not just trees and river but also streets and walls and gates. By bringing out the potential of the land, nature has not been smothered—it is a place for humans to live and work and build with nature and not against it. And not just two or three people either: “the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it.” As one commentator explains, those who come into the city will bring their glory—their talents and virtues—to the life of the city. The beauty of the city will also come from the glory of what the peoples bring into it.
Cities represent places humans live together and build things together. Here humans are not represented as living isolated from each other, completely independent, and utterly separate. Paradise is us finding a way to live together and fulfill our purpose together, building things that astound us with their beauty through the gifts God gives us.
A City of God
Of course cities aren’t idealized in the Bible—cities like Babylon are used to represent evil, and even Jerusalem is constantly used as an example of abandoning the way God wants humans to live with him and together. But the garden isn’t idealized either. In the gospels, the garden is the place of the betrayal of Jesus, an inverse of the story of Genesis. Jesus, in contrast to Adam, does not hide from the wrath of God by hiding from those coming to find and kill him, and rather than being punished with death he dies to bring life to all men (see Thoughts on Scripture for more on this topic).
But it is through this dark middle part of the story that God’s story moves on to its ending. Neither evil cities or gardens of betrayal will remain. In the celestial city, there will be trees for the “healing of the nations,” and “every tear will be wiped away.” Humans will live in community with each other, but most importantly, they will live in community with God. “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them...”
In the idealized city at the end of revelation, humans live and build in perfect harmony with God—God is their sun, and their river of life, and there is no need of a temple since God is there.
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