I once saw a bumper sticker with Adam and Eve hanging out in the bushes that said, “God’s original plan was to hang out in a garden with some naked vegetarians.” I laughed, but also found myself wondering, “Is God really bummed that we’re not all chilling out, eating fruit, and tilling the land? If sin never entered the world, would we all be naked gardeners? Is that God’s deepest hope for humanity?”
To understand the deeper lesson of Eden, we should note that Adam and Eve are essentially presented as priests—as stewards—of Eden. God calls them to “work [the garden] and take care of it” (Gen. 2:15 NIV). The Hebrew words used here for “work” (abad) and “take care of ” (shamar) are paired together in only one other place of the Bible: to describe the role of the priests in the temple. (See Num. 3:7-8; Num. 8:22-26; Num. 18:5-6.)
This connection is made apparent in other passages of Scripture. For instance, we’re told God walked “in the garden in the cool of the day” (Gen. 3:8). This word for His “walking” (mit halek) also describes His presence in both the tabernacle and temple. (See Lev. 26:12; Deut. 23:14; 2 Sam. 7:6-7.) And “the cool of the day” was the time when Israel’s morning and evening sacrifices were done, as the people came before the presence of the Lord (Ex. 29:38-43). Israel’s worship practices were built upon the foundation of Eden’s beautiful story.
Why is this significant? In the beginning, God planted a special garden at the center of creation—a sacred space where He dwelled intimately with His people. And the temple was understood to be the center of creation in the Old Testament, the site where heaven and earth intersected and where God took up residence and made His home with Israel.
God desires not only to dwell with His people, but also to extend His flourishing through them out into the world. God called Adam and Eve to tend the first garden, to care for it and also to “fill the earth, and subdue it” (Gen. 1:28). Like them, we too are called to carry God’s invigorating, renovating power into the wilds and wastelands of the world. Our heavenly Father’s end game is not simply to create mounds of fresh produce for the Saturday market (as wonderful as that is) but to bring creation under the kingdom reign of God.
God desires not only to dwell with His people, but also to extend His flourishing through them out into the world.
Tending the church
God still plants gardens today. His Spirit arrives at our doorstep, bringing the floral, resuscitating breath of Eden into the arid wildernesses of our lives, planting fresh patches of restoration in the places where sin has left its devastating mark. God delights in tilling the soil of our souls, watering and cleansing us to bring forth fresh growth, and making His home with us.
God also makes us a priestly people, but we don’t have a building of gold and stone to care for today. We have something even better, Jesus—the new temple—the place where God’s presence most intimately dwells. Jesus has been exalted as the center of creation, the entrance from which God’s heavenly power comes pouring into the earth, and when we are joined to Jesus, we become part of His temple. Ephesians tells us that in Him we “also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit” (Eph. 2:22).
Part of our calling is caring for the health of the church, building up believers as the body of Christ. Jesus abides with us, filling the earth with His presence through us, and His Spirit brings new life. In the Old Testament, Israel’s temple was filled with garden imagery: flowers, fruit trees, and crawling vines. Why? Because God’s presence brings vitality to His people. And He still does today—Jesus plants churches in the power of His Spirit, like pockets of Eden amid the destruction of the world. He transforms us and commands us to steward His life-giving presence in our midst so we might shine as a “light to the nations” and carry the love of God to others as a “kingdom of priests.” (See Isa. 51:4 and Ex. 19:6 NIV.)
Like Adam and Eve and the Levite priests who came before us, we are called to be ministers of a sacred space, to “work” and “care for” the garden of His people, to build communities of new life in the power of His Spirit as we anticipate together that coming day when the earth will be full of the glory of God as the waters cover the sea.