Eight rose bushes lined the driveway of the first home my husband and I purchased. I immediately made it my mission to get my hands dirty caring for them. These roses, however, required more work than I expected.
When our first daughter was born, I chose caring for a clingy baby over tending to roses. My husband pruned them when he could, but by the time our second daughter was born, the roses were fending for themselves. By the time our third daughter was born, the roses were downright scraggly. Three kids in four years will do that to roses.
When my husband’s parents opted to move near their grandkids, we decided the best option was to join forces and purchase a piece of property with two living spaces. We also got more rose bushes out of the deal. One hundred and twenty rose bushes to be more precise. And 53 rhododendrons. And six fruit trees. And then, we welcomed another daughter, too.
Although many hands are said to make light work, we collectively agreed that the act of maintaining a sprawling garden of a property is both labor- and time-intensive. When my mother-in-law reduced the roses from 120 to 50, none of us mourned their loss.
My own vocational work has followed a similar trajectory. I began by getting my hands dirty with small responsibilities. It was both enthralling and invigorating, so I eagerly took on more. However, as my perception of needs increased, so did the burden of cultivating beauty. When my body began showing signs of burn-out, I had to ask, what is the purpose? Why am I doing this?
As I pondered these questions, I followed Jesus back to a garden.
God Started With a Goal
Jesus was well acquainted with the workings of gardens. His teachings about the Kingdom of God often included stories about vineyards, seeds, and plants. Not only were these illustrations practical, they were fitting.
God’s Kingdom-on-Earth started as a Garden, and all of Jesus’ students knew it. They were well acquainted with how God had invited humanity to live in a paradisal garden home and, after the fall, subsequently barred them from the premises for their own protection. As children, however, they learned a much richer understanding of this story than what we read in Bible storybooks.
They understood the Garden of Eden as more than a beautiful park. Rather, they recognized it as God’s first temple. That is, it wasn’t only humanity who lived there: It was God’s home, too. As God’s temple—his resting place—it was the one place on Earth where heaven materialized to intersect with Earth. (John Walton discusses this extensively in The Lost World of Genesis One [Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009].
The Kingdom of God is a space—a realm—in which God’s manifest rule results in beauty and right relationships. Realm and rule. That’s the most basic understanding of any kingdom. God’s Kingdom can also be described as God’s people in God’s place, under God’s rule. (Scot McKnight discusses this in The Kingdom Conspiracy [Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2014]).
The area outside the Garden was considered Wilderness. Even though it was in God’s realm, the beauty of his rule wasn’t yet prevailing there through his people. Compared to the ordered space of the Garden, the Wilderness was yet an unordered space.
God’s mission was to partner with humans to expand the Garden to cover all of Earth—to turn the Wilderness into an ordered space until all of Earth intersected with heaven. Not only was humanity to care for the Garden, but we were also to multiply and bring God’s rule to all creation.
Remember my struggle to care for eight rose bushes? Even though gardening was their full-time job, how much garden could two people care for? The Garden of Eden was likely quite small. However, families have the capacity to grow. What seemed comfortable—even spacious—for two people would seem crowded with ten.
As Adam and Eve had children, they would need a bigger Garden. I don’t picture their grown kids saddling up a horse, moving to grow their own garden elsewhere, and leaving the folks with the huge empty Garden to care for. Rather, they would have “built onto” the home, just as families in Jesus’ day did, thus continually expanding the Garden until it filled the Earth. (Yes, Genesis 2 speaks of men leaving their parents and joining their wives, but this doesn’t preclude newly married couples moving to their own space in the Garden.)
In addition to the presence of God and easy access to food, this Garden had one other critical thing no other plot of land had: the Life-Tree. Yes, God made humanity mortal. Why all the food? Humanity needed it to stay alive. But why the Life-Tree? Apparently, normal food couldn’t keep humanity alive forever. Other Bible passages indicate the Life-Tree also had healing properties. If they wanted to stay alive, they needed to stay close to the Life-Tree.
But the vision of this mission isn’t limited to the first two chapters of the Hebrew Scriptures. Jesus was familiar with many prophetic writings that spoke of God filling the entire Earth with his glory. We also have the advantage of Jesus’ revelation to John. The last book of the Bible paints a stunning picture of God’s glory—and an Eden-esque garden city—filling all of Earth. In Jesus’ teachings, humanity doesn’t spend eternity in heaven. Rather, he brings heaven to earth and brings our bodies back to life. Thus, heaven becomes an eternal reality on Earth. Scholars also assert that just as the new heaven-meets-Earth reality is described as a city of peace, the Garden of Eden indeed was destined to become a garden city that served as the hub of civilization.
Here’s the kicker. This was a long-term project. More than 7.5 billion people are currently alive on Earth. If all of Earth’s land mass was inhabitable, and we spread out evenly, our population density would be approximately 129 people per square mile. That’s more than 216,000 square feet per person.
In contrast, there are eight members of my family living on a plot a little over half that size. Most of it is bare, and we can’t even care for 120 roses. Can we fathom how many billions of people God intended to involve in this garden-expansion mission? Can we estimate how many thousands of years it would have taken if we hadn’t gotten off track? God intended the entirety of Earth to be a flourishing garden marked by beauty, righteousness, and his manifest presence. Human fingerprints would be all over its landscaping, and yes, it’s government. (For more research on this, see T. Desmond Alexander, The City of God and the Goal of Creation [Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018.)
Reliving the First Story
Jesus’ students were also familiar with this story on a very personal level. They understood the land they were on as the new Garden. Their sacred writings were full of garden imagery in the description of this “Promised Land.” Not only that, but God had made his home with them there. Remember the cloud in the Tabernacle, and later the Temple? That was God telling them, “I’m here. I’m making my home with you. I’m resting with you.”
Then, something happened. God’s people stopped following God’s rule, and like that first human pair, God exiled them from the Garden. When they came back, God’s presence wasn’t there. They were still exiled from God, and thus, still exiled from the Kingdom of God. They were trying to follow God’s rules, but God’s presence hadn’t come back to his Temple. Who was ruling instead? The Romans.
When Jesus said, “The Kingdom of God is at hand,” his disciples understood this to mean that God was getting ready to come back to live among them. God would use his power to kick out the Romans and turn that land into the Garden again. But unlike Jesus, they had lost the vision of spreading God’s rule over the entire world through blessing the other nations. Unless, perhaps, blessing meant suppressing and dominating. Because at that moment, they saw no further than getting the Romans off their backs and flipping the script.
Jesus, however, had come to get humanity back on track with the original project. And his physical body was the new patch of creation where heaven intersected with Earth.
Why Your Work Matters
This has huge implications for why we get our hands dirty with work. We often associate work with “the curse,” but the Bible is clear that work existed before humanity had to leave the Garden. Subsisting off cursed soil outside the Garden was the back-breaking work.
Humanity’s original work, however, was to expand the Garden—to grow the Kingdom of God. It was relaxed work. It was meaningful work. It was enjoyable work. And as they did this work toward God’s purpose, they partnered with him in his mission to bring heaven to all of Earth. To bring God’s glory to all of Earth. Jesus came to restore us to our original work, to rejoin us as partners in God’s original mission.
Do we think we have the power to stop God? That humanity succeeded in our coup to take over the Garden? If we only pay attention to individual verses that refer to God judging the Earth, we miss the context of his work of renewing Earth and making things right. This is often referred to as New Creation, or a New Heavens and New Earth.
Jesus came to invite us into a new Garden (his Body). From the hub of his Body, we partner with him in the work of making Earth a flourishing place of beauty and justice. Jesus’ kingship is not only focused on meeting physical needs; he also desires that Earth would become a flourishing world filled with beauty. As it did in the beginning, this means getting our hands dirty.
We Get to Bless the World
Because the wilderness of Earth has gone from unordered to disordered, humanity’s work is cut out for us now more than ever. But part of the good news of Jesus is that this work isn’t all on us.
Even though he intends for us to take this work seriously, it’s not his desire that we wear ourselves out with work. Do your work with all your heart, as working for the Lord, yes (Colossians 3:23); but Jesus isn’t a hard-hearted boss.
“Pick up my yoke and put it on,” he told them (Matthew 11:28-30). A yoke is a work tool. It is a gardening tool. It was also a way of talking about the corpus of a Rabbi’s teaching. Jesus was saying, “I have a relaxed way of teaching you to work with God.” As God did in the beginning, Jesus intends for humanity to bless the world through our work. The world doesn’t only refer to other humans. It refers to all creation. (When we read in John 3:16 that “God so loved the world,” our culture has conditioned us to interpret “world” as “humanity,” but the word used here is kosmos—a term that encompasses not only humanity but all of creation.)
This includes paid work and unpaid work. It includes maintenance and expansion. He never intended for our work to be a struggle. He never wanted it to weigh us down. Instead, Jesus says, “Come work with me. I’ll make sure you get the rest you need.”
Is work making you weary? Does it ever seem meaningless? Take another look at it through Jesus’ lens. Does it establish or maintain order? Does it bring forth or maintain beauty? Does it promote righteousness and justice?
When it comes to the work of the Garden, bigger isn’t always better. Beauty, after all, is cultivated through care, and care, like mulch, can often spread too thin. A few years ago, my mother in-law culled our roses again. She moved two of them to a bed outside my dining room window. Around the same time, my own work was culled and replanted closer to home and my heart planted closer to the Life-Tree of Jesus.
From this place, my hands are getting dirty again. But they’re learning to work from a place of rest.
This article is an edited excerpt from Start With Rest, which is available as a free e-book when you subscribe to Amber’s newsletter via her website.