What city is like unto this great city?! [Rev. 18:18b, KJV]
Human history begins and ends in beauty, moving from beautiful garden to beautiful city. The garden teems with a delightful, exuberant profusion of life, a symbiotic web of life-giving relationships. Trees provide fruit and seed of every kind, and humans are stewards of it all [Genesis 1 & 2]. Similarly, the city is crowned in radiant beauty. She is adorned with jewels, as the bride of the Lamb [Rev. 21:9-11]. The kings of the earth bring their glory and treasure in tribute to the Lord [Rev. 21:24]. This garden and this city are the biblical symbols of the beginning and the consummation of human history.
Meanwhile, as we await the heavenly city [2 Peter 3:10], we live in earthly cities, amalgams of both beauty and distress. Our cities teem with aspiration and disappointment, success and failure, wealth and want; they are leavened by courage, hope, and the dream of justice for all. In other words, we live in the “messy middle”—messy because we can taste and see the coming glory of the heavenly city even as our lives are still marred by the brokenness of sin.
The Bible is especially realistic in its portrayal of business as a place caught in the “messy middle,” and most people easily see that the messy part is very real. The power of Mammon is hard to resist. But the Bible also calls out business as a source of beauty and glory. In Revelation's closing scene, a lament goes up over the loss of the great city’s splendor: merchandise, trade, craftsmanship, and economic productivity [Rev. 18:10-24]. The city’s collapse results from her sin and corruption [Rev. 18:5], which bring condemnation; but her beauty and splendor are seen in the fruits of her business and artistic accomplishments.
This theme is reiterated in the portrayal of the final heavenly city, the new Jerusalem, representing the telos of human history [Rev. 21:10]. Once again we see the city crowned in beauty: the kings of the earth bring their treasures into it. This is not a description of business per se as an activity in the heavenly city, but it does show continuity between the wealth of today and the timeless glory of the new heaven and new earth [Rev. 21:1-2].
Business is caught in the messy middle, it’s true. But we do well to note that righteous business glitters like a jewel in the crown of our earthly cities as well as the one to come.