As one year ends and a new year begins, consider a few questions with me. In the next year…
- Where will laws be made and amended?
- Where will the greatest works of art be presented?
- Where will the next financial scandal occur?
- Where will future-shaping research be conducted?
- Where will the latest technological innovation be presented?
- Where will the next terror plot probably unfold?
- Where does the church have the greatest potential for displaying the glory of God to our modern Western culture?
The answer to all these questions is the same: Cities.
Cities matter to many people, but do they matter to us? As pastors, business leaders and influencers, we must be sure we know what we think about cities. At the outset of this new year, I want to challenge you to consider what you think about cities by considering what God thinks about cities.
What do you think about cities?
Intersect helps you think carefully about the crossroads of faith, culture, economics, and politics. Where do these disciplines cross paths with the Christian faith most often? In cities. In fact, cities have more of these crossroads than anywhere else in the world.
Cities also have more people than anywhere else in the world. For the first time in the history of the world, more people live in cities than in rural areas. The urbanization of the world means that the church has a great responsibility. The church’s response to this important shift depends on the leading of the Spirit of God — along with the thinking and teaching of her pastors and leaders.
So, let’s ask the question again: What do you think about cities?
- Do you think of cities as fun places where you eat, shop, and leave? Are they playgrounds to be enjoyed and then deserted?
- Do you think of cities as dirty places that are full of crime and injustice? Are they sin-stricken sores that must be avoided?
- Or, do you think of cities as places of good and evil, blessings and curses? Are they important, but complicated?
As worshippers of God, we want our thinking and living to be led by the Spirit Jesus has given us. Simply, we want the story of Scripture to help us understand the story of our own lives and how we ought to live for God.
And the Scriptures clearly teach that God has a heart for cities. These places are full of people who are made in his image, and they play a part in God’s plan of redemption.
What does God think about cities?
The biblical authors didn’t see cities as playgrounds or sin-sicken sores. They saw them as important and complex — places of intense perversion and violence as well as havens for refuge and peace.
Notice, though, that the Bible is a story that begins in a garden and ends in a city. Just as the end of every story shapes the narrative throughout, the Bible’s final goal of an urban kingdom is woven into the tapestry of Scripture from Eden to the Promised Land, Jerusalem to Rome, all pointing to the great eternal City of God.
Thus cities play an important role all throughout the biblical narrative:
God desires for his people to build cities.
God’s first word to his people was a command to cultivate the good creation and fill the earth with worshippers. Simply, Adam and Eve were to make stuff out of God’s creation and have babies who would grow up to be worshipers of God. In other words, God’s plan is for his people to develop his world into a city.
This is why the end of the biblical narrative does not have God’s people living in a garden, but in a city. The cultural mandate (Genesis 1:28) is an urban mandate. God’s desire for his people, all throughout the narrative of the Bible, is to worship him through making stuff out of his good creation and making worshippers of him.
Sin misdirects our focus from “God’s glory” to “self glory.”
Cities are part of God’s good design for creation — not a result of the Fall. Yet God’s plan for humans to cultivate the earth’s resources for his glory was twisted by sin.
As a result, we use cities to express human independence and “make a name for ourselves.” Babel is literally and figuratively the apex of sin in Genesis 1-11. At Babel, the city planners said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city with a tower that touches heaven so that we may make a name for ourselves” (Genesis 11:14).
Sin has distorted God’s plan for cities, and God desires to redeem the organization of cities for the glory of his name.
God’s plan of redemption involves focusing people on the city that’s to come.
God responds to this apex of sin in Genesis 11 by graciously calling a man named Abram in Genesis 12, through whom God would bless all nations. Contrary to the rebellious city of Babel, Hebrews 11:10 says Abraham “was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God.”
To redeem the cities of the world, God calls his people to live within cities in a dramatically different way. The church is God’s contrast community (or city) within all the cities of the world.
The geographic focus of the Bible is on one central city.
The geographical center of God’s activity on earth in the Old and New Testaments was not a just a region or a country, it was a city — Jerusalem. The Holy City would be the shadow of the great city to come, where Jesus would reign eternally on David’s throne.
Jesus had a heart for cities.
Jesus was born in a small village, but the expansion of His ministry clearly moved in an urban direction, ultimately journeying to the great city of Jerusalem. Jesus taught His followers to be an “alternate city” within their actual cities (Matthew 5).
Followers of Jesus obey this command by living as a city on a hill — showing the world good deeds that inspire them to marvel and wonder at God. This is how you seek the welfare of the city. Jesus says the city of God is not necessarily coming in the future or geographic in location. Jesus says the city of God is the alternate city in every city.
The church grew by focusing on cities.
The church grew because it focused on the influential cities of the world and influenced the world from there. Paul’s missionary journeys, and his ensuing letters, were focused almost exclusively on the major influential cities of Asia Minor. Even at the end of Acts, we read of Paul’s great desire to journey to the most influential city of the day, Rome.
God’s plan of redemption will culminate in his people living in a city.
Revelation 21 describes and depicts the apex of God’s redemption as a city; at the end of time, God’s people will worship God in God’s city. Cities have a central role throughout the narrative.
Conclusion: Jonah and Jesus
Cities contain more crossroads for faith and culture than anywhere else in the world. If we’re looking for the best place to put our Christian faith on display, then we need to look no further than the nearest city.
Our understanding of cities must be shaped by the commission that Jesus gave us (Matthew 28:19-20; Acts 1:6-8). To influence the world for Jesus we must necessarily influence the most influential parts of the world — cities. This task can’t be the work of a zealous few. Influencing the great cities of the world must be the consistent and wholehearted commitment of God’s people.
Memorably, two men in the Bible had the most unique hearts for the city.
Jonah hated the city of Nineveh because he had a selfish heart. Against God’s leading in his life, Jonah moved out from the city in hope that God would judge them for their sin and destroy them and their city. God accused Jonah of having more concern for his own life than the lives of those who lived in “that great city.”
In contrast, Jesus loved the city and all city-dwellers because he had a selfless heart. Jesus is the prophet of God who loved the city so much that he went outside the city to save it. He was dragged outside the city while weeping for its inhabitants. He was exiled to Golgotha and executed there. Through his atoning death and victorious resurrection, hearts can be changed. Jesus can enable city dwellers to live for the welfare of the city, and not themselves.
So, as a new year begins, take some time to think about where we focus our ministry, influence and resources. Let’s consider the important role that cities play within the biblical narrative. Let’s embrace the Spirit of Jesus that our God has put inside of us. And let’s boldly go to our Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth with the good news of Jesus.