The City of God and the Goal of Creation: An Introduction to the Biblical Theology of the City of God

T. Desmond Alexander (2018)

Overview

This book examines the theme of the city of God as it is expressed in the Bible. It begins with God’s original plan: Adam and Eve were to expand the boundaries of the garden to eventually create a garden-metropolis. It ends with this goal realized through New Jerusalem, the great garden-city where God fully and finally dwells with his people. In between these two bookends, the Bible tells a wonderful story of redemption, and we can trace this story through the development of cities. Every great plot has an antagonist; in this story we see Babylon rise up as a self-acclaimed rival to God’s city. Yet even when it appears as if Babylon has won, God’s saving work shines through in promises of redemption and power from on high. This book aims to help Christians find their place in the grand story of redemption through a study of the city of God.

Introduction

John’s vision of New Jerusalem in Revelation 21:18–20 is breathtaking. It is a city like no other. But not only is it filled with beautiful objects, New Jerusalem also represents a fitting climax of the story of redemption. “The origins of New Jerusalem are to be found in the early chapters of Genesis. As we shall discover, the garden of Eden is located at the center of a green field site where God intends to construct a holy city upon the earth” (16). The tree of life is located in both Eden and New Jerusalem. Additionally, both places represent a special location where God is present with his people.

At first glance, besides the connections given above, Eden and New Jerusalem may seem quite different. After all, Eden is a garden paradise, and the New Jerusalem is a massive city. However, the narrative supplies more similarities. First, many scholars have recognized the similarities between Eden and the tabernacle and temple in Israel. Second, God gave Adam and Eve the command to “be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it…” (Gen 1:28). “Eden has the potential to become a great metropolis” (20). When Adam and Eve fall into sin, it may seem as if God’s plans have been thwarted. But as the theme of the city of God develops throughout the Scriptures, we will see that God’s grace is stronger than man’s sin.

Chapter 1: The Godless City

Almost immediately after the fall of Adam and Eve, we see the development of cities. After Cain has been exiled from Eden, he builds a city and names it after his son, Enoch. “By doing so he glorifies his own offspring rather than the One who has equipped him to be a city builder” (24). This development comes to a climax at Babel. We all remember the building of the tower of Babel, but we sometimes forget that the construction project included a city and a tower (Gen 11:4). The city-builders, like Cain before them, want to make a name for themselves. “Constructed by people for people alone, Babel is a mockery of what God intended when he created humans and commanded them to fill the earth” (26).

In many ways, Babel is the prototypical godless city: First, the Hebrew word for “Babel” is the same word as “Babylon.” The events of Genesis 11 begin the long history of Babylon, the great enemy of the people of God. Second, Babel’s founder Nimrod represents a man who acts antagonistically towards God. This link between Nimrod and Babel begins another conflict in the Bible, namely, man’s kingdom versus God’s kingdom. “Due to the rebellion of Adam and Eve, God’s desire to establish his kingdom on the earth through the construction of a city is thwarted. Instead of ruling as his vice-regents, humans oppose God and establish alternative kingdoms” (28).

Chapter 2: The Temple City

After God’s judgment at Babel, the future looks bleak. Yet God calls a man named Abram to leave his home in Ur (close to Babylon) and to sojourn to a new land. From a canonical perspective, we know that Abram (later called Abraham) was looking for the “city of the living God” or the “heavenly Jerusalem” (Heb 12:22). God leads him to the Promised Land and miraculously multiplies his descendants. As the narrative progresses, we see that God’s interactions with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob all express the common theme reminiscent to Eden: “First, God comes and makes himself known, addressing each patriarch with words that recall the creation mandate in Genesis 1:28 for humans to be fruitful and fill the earth. Second, these theophanies are associated with altars that are often located on mountains” (34).

As the plot progresses, God continues to reveal himself as the God who dwells with his people, sinful as they are. God instructs Israel to build a tabernacle so that he can dwell with sinful Israel. Solomon’s more permanent temple is similar: “Like the portable sanctuary, the temple constructed by Solomon has features that associate it with the garden of Eden. The temple is decorated with arboreal imagery, including carvings of lilies and pomegranates on the tops of pillars” (37). This trajectory of increased permanence shows God’s intended plan from the beginning: Eden was meant to grow into a city. Therefore ancient Jerusalem becomes a faint picture of this hope that God will one day dwell fully and finally with his people. But even this faint picture is soon destroyed as Jerusalem is destroyed by the Babylonians, a “noteworthy ‘coincidence’ in light of Genesis 11:1–9” (42).

Chapter 3: The Holy Mountain City

Careful readers will notice that the Bible often links the city of God and the mountain of God. Most basically, Jerusalem is often called Mount Zion. Additionally, many texts look to this mountain-city as the way God will accomplish his plan of redemption. Isaiah 2:2–3 envisions a time when “the mountain of the house of the LORD” will become “the highest of the mountains,” which “underlines that God himself will be exalted in majesty as he exercises supreme authority over the whole earth” (45). Similarly, Daniel 2:31–35 tells of God’s cosmic mountain that not only defeats all the other world powers but also expands to fill the whole earth. In short, this mountain-city represents God’s sovereign reign that will one day be exercised fully in all the earth.

The mountain of God at Sinai provides a different yet complimentary picture. Exodus 19:12–24 reveals that there are three sections of graded holiness at Mount Sinai, much like the tabernacle. Holiness is not easily attained; the Levitical priests had to undergo extensive rituals in order to go into the holy places of God’s sanctuary. The tabernacle was meant to resemble “a sort of movable Sinai.” As God’s people get ready to enter the Promised Land, they are given the ability to take Mount Sinai with them. “This best explains why Mount Sinai never becomes a sacred location and a place of pilgrimage” (52).

Chapter 4: The Royal City

Chapter 3 showed how Jerusalem, or Mount Zion, is a mountain city, the place where God meets with man. This chapter adds to that theme by showing that Jerusalem is also a royal city; it is the place where God’s kingdom reign is most fully expressed on earth. When we think of the origins of royalty in the Bible, we often think of Samuel’s warnings against instituting a monarchy in Israel. We conclude that kingship is a negative development for Israel. But we must remember that God promised Abraham that kings would be among their descendants (Gen 17:6, 16). Additionally, we often see the Davidic kingship celebrated in the Psalms (e.g., Ps 78:67–72; 99:1–9). Israel’s desire for a king was only wrong because of their motivation: they wanted a king to be like their pagan neighbors.

B.C. Ollenburger puts it well: “Among the variety of ways in which Yahweh is represented as present upon Mount Zion the most prominent is as king” (67). The establishment of Jerusalem as the royal city is seen most clearly in the interchange between God and David in 2 Samuel 7. David recognizes that he lives in a house of cedar while God dwells in a tent. David tells Nathan the prophet of his desire to build a temple for God. As a sign of God’s sovereignty, God shifts the timing and plan of David’s request. When Solomon finally dedicates the completed temple, God’s glory fills the sanctuary in a way that strongly echoes God’s filling of the tabernacle (1 Kgs 8:10–11; Ex 40:34–35). “The Jerusalem temple supersedes the portable sanctuary, marking the end of the Israelites’ journey to the Promised Land and confirming the location of God’s holy mountain” (77–8).

Chapter 5: Envisaging a Transformed Jerusalem

The previous chapter celebrated the establishing of God’s dwelling place in greater permanence through the Jerusalem temple. Jerusalem was God’s royal city, the cosmic mountain, the gateway between heaven and earth. But what we see in Israel’s later history is the tragic reversal of these developments. “Everything that the Lord enabled David and Solomon to achieve in establishing Jerusalem as the holy city of God is dramatically undone” (86). The first chapter in Isaiah contains many descriptions of this fact. God’s holy mountain has been profaned. Much of the prophetic message of Isaiah contains descriptions of what Israel should have been.

But Isaiah does not leave God’s people without hope. He gives an incredible picture of redemption through his vision of New Jerusalem. Isaiah 65:18 declares that Yahweh will “create [bara’] Jerusalem to be a joy, / and her people to be a gladness.” This creation language indicates a connection between New Jerusalem and the new heavens and the new earth. “Everything points towards the restoration of the comprehensive harmony that existed in the garden of Eden prior to Adam and Eve’s rebellion against God. But Eden will no longer be simply a garden; it will become a majestic, cosmopolitan city” (98). The New Jerusalem motif provides a remarkable unity to the book of Isaiah and shows that even though God will judge his people for their sins, he will also redeem them and be faithful to his promises.

Chapter 6: Hope for Jerusalem beyond Divine Judgment

We have seen a wonderful message of hope from Isaiah. But what about some of the other prophets—what about Ezekiel who experienced personal exile? Did those who experienced the destruction of the temple have any words of hope? Indeed, the message of Habakkuk is filled with this kind of hope. Though God raises up the Chaldeans to punish the wicked (Hab 1:6–11), the righteous will live by faith (Hab 2:4), and God’s glory will one day cover the earth as the waters cover the seas (Hab 2:14). Those who have faith in God will be able to see beyond the destruction of Jerusalem. “Their faith in God will give them confidence that God’s glory will ultimately fill the whole earth and that those who trust in him will be protected” (118).

Many readers are familiar with the story of Daniel, but it is worth thinking through the details of the book with our biblical-theological lenses on. For example, a major theme throughout the book of Daniel is the expectation that God will one day renew Jerusalem. But Daniel is not just praying for the restoration of his homeland; he is praying that God would lead his people back to the cosmic mountain, back to the royal city where man could dwell with God in his presence once again. The book of Ezekiel contains a similar theme. When Ezekiel is thirty years old (the age for temple service), he sees a vision of the glory of God departing Jerusalem and moving east—towards Babylon. “Exile from Jerusalem did not mean abandonment by God” (130). Ezekiel 40–48 envisions a glorious temple with an exponentially-growing river flowing out of it. The majesty of this vision shows that it is “not a blueprint for the postexilic reconstruction of Jerusalem. It envisions so much more, for the fulfillment goes beyond what might be achieved by human efforts alone” (135). Though God’s people go through dark times of exile, the message of these prophets is that God will surely bring his people back to his city, back to his presence.

Chapter 7: Seeking the City That Is to Come

So far we have journeyed through the Old Testament, tracing God’s promises throughout the ups and downs of redemption history. This chapter looks to the New Testament witness of the fulfillment of those Old Testament promises, the promise of New Jerusalem. As we move into the New Testament, we see that the followers of Jesus become the new temple, “the new earthly dwelling place for God” (143). There is a significant shift here: “In the Old Testament God lived among his people; in the New Testament he lives within them” (143). Both Peter and Paul testify to this point (1 Peter 2:4–8; Eph 2:19–22). Additionally, this transition was inaugurated by the Spirit’s work at Pentecost. God’s Spirit had come down and filled the tabernacle (Ex 40:34–35) and the temple (1 Kgs 8:10–11); now God’s Spirit has come down and filled God’s people (Acts 2:4). This experience in Jerusalem is then repeated to Samaritans (Acts 8:14–17) and to Gentiles (Acts 10:44–47).

This shift in the New Testament is reinforced by the negative portrayal of physical Jerusalem in the Gospels. Matthew’s Gospel is widely recognized as the most Jewish of the canonical Gospels, yet “Jerusalem is portrayed as the center of power for those who oppose Jesus. Jesus is not born in Jerusalem, but King Herod lives there” (147). If the physical Jerusalem has become corrupt, where is our hope of the city of God? The New Testament responds with a chorus of hope: Hebrews tells of the “city that is to come” (13:14), “the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem” (12:22). Paul speaks of a “Jerusalem from above,” a spiritual city that gives freedom to all her citizens (Gal 4:26). Finally, Revelation depicts New Jerusalem as “the Bride, the wife of the Lamb” (Rev 21:9) and contrasts this city with Babylon, the “great prostitute” (Rev 17:1–5). Shaped as a cube and with streets of gold, New Jerusalem resembles the Holy of Holies. There is no need for a temple there because the whole city is the new garden-temple: it is the place where God dwells with his people, a garden with a tree of life and a river. New Jerusalem is Eden redeemed and restored; it is the place where God’s resurrected saints will dwell with him forever.

Chapter 8: Anticipating New Jerusalem

In this tour across the Bible, we have seen that people are “innately city builders, and so they arrogantly proceed to build cities for themselves, without acknowledging any dependence upon their Creator” (163). Yet we also know that as Christians, we are headed toward glorious New Jerusalem and we will dwell with God; we will enjoy resurrected bodies in this city forever. So what do we do now? The Bible testifies that Christians will live in some significant tension during this life. We are not called to ask God to take us to heaven faster; we are called to pray “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt 6:10). We are to consider ourselves “exiles and pilgrims in ‘Babylon,’ holding lightly to this life but living in this absurd and evil world in confident anticipation of all that God will yet do” (165).