Redemption and the city
Beginning with the Old Testament prophets, God’s future redeemed world is depicted as a city. And in Revelation 21-22, when God’s creational and redemptive intentions are fully realized, we see that the result is indeed a city with walls and gates and streets. In some ways, this city is unlike our current cities, more of a “garden-city” that perfectly balances the glorious benefits of human destiny and diversity with the beauty and peace of nature. The city of God’s old enemy, Babylon, is finally overthrown and God’s people thrive in peace and productivity (Revelation 18).
What is most striking about this holy city is that it has not been built from scratch. In its midst flows a crystal river, and on each side of the river is the “tree of life” that bears fruit and leaves to heal the nations of all the effects of the divine covenant curse (Revelation 22:1-3). This city is, in fact, the same garden we see in the Genesis account, which is also marked by a central river and the presence of the tree of life (Genensis 2:8-10), but it has been expanded and remade into the garden-city of God. It is the garden of Eden, yet faithfully cultivated — the fulfillment of the purposes of the Eden of God. Indeed, the very word used for “garden” in Genesis 2 denotes not a wilderness but a “park,” a well-tended plot of land one would find in a city or near a royal palace.
A gardener neither leaves the ground as is, nor does he destroy it.
Why is this important? God’s directive that Adam and Eve “rule over” the earth (Genesis 1:28) is often called “the cultural mandate.” This is a call for them to “image God’s work for the world by taking up our work in the world” (Spykman, 1992). It is a call to develop a culture and build a civilization that honors God. Gardening (the original human vocation) is a paradigm for cultural development. A gardener neither leaves the ground as is, nor does he destroy it. Instead, he rearranges it to produce food and plants for human life. He cultivates it. (The words culture and cultivate come from the same root.) Every vocation is in some way a response to, and an extension of, the primal Edenic act of cultivation. Artists, for example, take the raw material of the five senses and human experience to produce music and visual media; literature and painting; dance and architecture and theater. In a similar way, technologists and builders take the raw material of the physical world and creatively rearrange it to enhance human productivity and flourishing. Because we are called to create culture in this way, and because cities are the places of greatest cultural production, I believe that city building is a crucial part of fulfilling the mandate. As we have already pointed out, the first evidence for this connection between the city, the culture and the flourishing of human beings is found in Genesis 4, where Cain is “building a city” (v. 17). Immediately after the city is built, we see the first development of the arts, agriculture and technology — the beginnings of human cultural creativity that God had called for. Even though Cain’s purpose in building the city was rebellious, its power was good. The tension of the city was present from its very start.
God’s intention for human endeavor is that it raise up civilizations — cities — that glorify him and steward the endless wonders and riches that God put into the created world.
The cultural mandate, our failure to fulfill it in accord with God’s design, its connection to city building, and the progressive importance of the city of man to the city of God — all these plotlines resolve at the end of the book of Revelation. Though the first Adam failed to faithfully heed God’s call, the second Adam — Jesus Christ — will fulfill the mandate of the first Adam. He will save a people, subdue the earth, and bring in a civilization that honors the Father (1 Corinthians 15:22-25). Since the Bible reveals to us that a city is the final result of the work of the second Adam on our behalf, it seems fair to assume this was what God had intended when he gave the cultural mandate to the first Adam. In other words, God called Adam and Eve to expand the borders of the garden, and when God’s will is finally done and Jesus fulfills the cultural mandate on our behalf, the garden of Eden becomes a garden city. Many Christians assume that the final goal of Christ’s redemption is to return us to a rural, Edenic world. Based on this assumption, the work of Christians is exclusively to evangelize and disciple. But Revelation shows us this is not the case. God’s intention for human endeavor is that it raise up civilizations — cities — that glorify him and steward the endless wonders and riches that God put into the created world. This insight has led Harvie Conn to write that the cultural mandate “could just as easily be called an urban mandate.”
… The city is an intrinsically positive social form with a checkered past and a beautiful future. As redemptive history progresses, we see that God’s people begin as wanderers and nomads outside of cities, and as city rebels (Babel). Then God directs them to be city builders and rebuilders (Jerusalem) and city-loving exiles (Babylon). In New Testament times, the people of God become city missionaries (indeed, New Testament writings contain few glimpses of nonurban Christianity). Finally, when God’s future arrives in the form of a city, his people can finally be fully at home. The fallen nature of the city — the warping of its potential due to the power of sin — is finally overcome and resolved; the cultural mandate is complete; the capacities of city life are freed in the end to serve God. All of God’s people serve him in his holy city.
Excerpt from Center Church (ch. 12)