The city is neither St. Louis nor Sodom. It doesn’t belong to the ancient world buried beneath sand dunes nor to the modern world clouded by the haze of pollution. It isn’t marked by human genius nor scarred by human depravity. It’s splendor owes nothing to man; it is the city of God.
Humans, wherever they have gone, have organized into communities. Their skills in social structures have come to a peak in the building of cities. Babylon, San Francisco, Toronto, London, Atlanta, and these highly developed communities have witnessed across history to the genius of their creators. Yet cities have fallen one-by-one, sacked by enemies, corrupted by inhabitants, or emptied by the vagaries of history.
The Bible has a dual attitude toward cities. Jesus loved Jerusalem and wept over it in great tenderness, then pronounced destruction upon it. It was his city, the place of the patriarchs and prophets, and it had known great moments. But it distinguished itself for its stoning of the prophets. Then the city God had uniquely honored had swelled with pride and rejected his Son.
Yet the Bible begins its story of man in a garden and ends it in a city, “the New Jerusalem coming down our of heaven from God” (Rev. 21:2). The vision of this city, given to John on Patmos, is rapturous, and the Book of Revelation records it with splendor.
This last book of the Bible speaks throughout in what some have called cartoon language. It has been pointed out that a cartoonist today wanting to show tensions between Russia and China, for example, simply pictures a bear being eyed menacingly by a red dragon. We would get the message. The Revelation is filled with verbal pictures – four-headed beasts, angels with vials, and cities like the New Jerusalem – from all of which we are intended to get a message too.
The message is that in his time, God will provide the perfect community for those who belong to him. Paul calls it “the Jerusalem which is above” (Gal. 4:26), and “our commonwealth . . . in heaven” (Php. 3:20) RSV). It is the city toward which Abraham was headed, “the city with firm foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (Heb. 11:10 NEB), the eternal dwelling place of God and His people.
Today, many of the cities of man are under a cloud, if not a cloud heavy with sulphur dioxide, a threatening cloud from a dirty bomb. It’s a place of physical decay and human despair to many forgotten people, a seeming hell without flames. Yet, their leaders keep a proud silence about God and grope only on the horizontal plane for solutions to their troubles.
Even so, Christ wept over a city ruled by such attitudes, and he healed people in its dirty streets. Can God’s people do less? In every sector there are needs which compassionate Christians can meet, despair they can work to relieve, boredom they can help to replace with meaning. In many decaying cities, small corps of Christians join to help relive such problems.
But, here’s the paradox. We can serve with compassion in the city of man only if we are convinced at every level of our beings that our true destination is the New Jerusalem, the eternal city of God.