When you think about creation and God’s original intent for mankind, what do you envision? Does your mind immediately fill with images of wide open spaces filled with beautiful creatures living in perfect harmony and free from the busyness, noise, and clutter that comes with urban living?
BY TOMMY LEE
It is easy to think of the Garden of Eden as the ideal dwelling place, but it is just as easy to forget that God’s original mandate to man was to “be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.” In fact, as we look at Scripture, the Bible gives a very positive view of urban areas and even gives us a glimpse of the eternal future of all believers: the Holy City, the new Jerusalem.
Cities have a dual nature: the capacity for great good if they are God-exalting, or the capacity for tremendous evil if they are man-exalting. A God-exalting culture brings glory to God’s name and is a means of serving God and neighbor, but a man-exalting culture results when something is done with the motivation of self-recognition. As we look back over mankind’s history as it unfolds through Scripture’s narrative, we see how this dual nature has played out in cities like Babel, Nineveh, Babylon, and the Roman Empire. Interestingly, the city is also a glimpse into God’s redemptive story and one which should give us encouragement to love our city and to be excited about its tremendous potential as a mission field.
The city of Babel is an excellent example of what can happen when the potential good of a city is perverted. The inhabitants—who the Bible describes as resourceful, ambitious, driven, and hardworking…all good things—set out to build a city and a tower. But instead of using their talents to bring glory to God, the people sought to make a name for themselves and to avoid being scattered over the face of the earth. Their actions were in direct opposition to God’s command to Noah and his sons that they “be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth.” Their hearts were filled with pride, and their actions brought about God’s judgment. As we read the Bible’s account of the city of Babel, we are reminded that God will not let evil go unpunished; but we can also be encouraged that there is hope for our cities. When we recognize how the potential for good in our city has been perverted, we have the opportunity to step in and bring God’s light to very dark places.
Nineveh, like Babel, was a city filled with people with evil intentions. In fact, Nineveh had built up quite a bad reputation among its neighbors. As we read the Bible’s account, we are even told that Nineveh’s evil had come up before God. But instead of intervening the way He did at Babel, or bringing swift destruction as He did with Sodom and Gomorrah, God gave the Ninevites a forty-day warning. It can be easy to look at the evil that is being done in our cities and wonder why God does not step in and act, but we forget that “our Lord’s patience means salvation.” The people of Nineveh believed God’s message through the prophet Jonah and repented. They turned from their wicked ways, and God showed the city mercy. Throughout Israel’s history, prophets had been raised up and sent to preach to God’s people to call them to repentance, but Jonah was the first prophet sent to a pagan city. Jonah and Nineveh are a new phase in the unfolding story of God’s redemptive mission. No matter how evil a city is, God wants everyone to have the opportunity to repent, which is why he is so patient with us.
As believers, we know that this place is not our home. I 1 Peter 2:11 Peter writes that “we are like aliens in a foreign land, eagerly awaiting our return to our heavenly dwelling.” But just as God told the Israelites through the prophet Jeremiah that they were to settle down and invest in the good of Babylon during their time as exiles, we too are to be contributors, not just consumers, in our places of residence. Hananiah, the false prophet, dishonestly prophesied that God would bring the Jewish nation back to Jerusalem within two years of being exiled in Babylon. Instead, the exile lasted seventy years. If the people had believed Hananiah, they would have remained disengaged in their new city, waiting day after day for God’s imminent deliverance. But through Jeremiah, God reminded the people that He was the one who had placed them in Babylon, that this was His plan, and that He wanted them to pray for the city and seek its peace and prosperity, promising that if the city prospered, the Israelites too would prosper (Jeremiah 29:7). In the same way, we as believers may long for heaven, but we should not put our lives on hold simply because we prefer to be somewhere else. Instead, we must recognize that God has placed us in our city for a reason; it is His plan, and we are to make the most of our time here.
Have you ever considered why the early church grew so quickly and the gospel message spread so rapidly throughout the province of Asia? The believers’ strategy was to evangelize the cities. Acts 17, 18, and 19 tell us that Paul made it a point to travel to Athens, the intellectual center of the Greco-Roman world, Corinth, the commercial center of the empire, and Ephesus, Rome’s religious center. At the end of the book of Acts, Paul makes it to the empire’s capital, Rome, the military and political center. Major cities are the unavoidable crossroads of societies and the place from which culture is influenced and ideas flow. As we consider our evangelism strategy, it should give us great encouragement as we think about the potential our cities have to reach entire nations!
From the time of David onward, the prophets spoke of a perfect urban society that was yet to come. We are told that the city of God, the new Jerusalem, will be “the joy of the whole earth.” The Bible’s narrative recounts the great spiritual conflict throughout history of the struggle between a society that is created for self-salvation, self-service, and self-glorification versus a society that is devoted to God’s glory. This future city will be the culmination of that history. The new Jerusalem is the reason for our hope and why we strive to share the Good News with people. Our cities are temporary; God’s city is eternal.
The final goal of Christ’s redemptive work is not to return believers to a rural, Edenic world. From God’s command in Genesis that man “be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it,” to the new Jerusalem as described in Revelation, it is clear that God’s intention for mankind is that we raise up cities that glorify him and be good stewards of the resources He has entrusted to us. Our work in our cities is vitally important, and we can take great comfort, just as the Israelites in exile did, that God, himself, has placed us here and that He has a plan.
It is a good thing for us to love our cities and it is a good thing for us to seek the wellbeing of our cities. God’s heart longs for their repentance and redemption. Shouldn’t ours?
Tommy Lee is the President of Resource Global and CreatePossible, and Managing Director of Barnabas Chicago. Lee played a key role in the Together LA 2015 conference, facilitating and hosting an amazing list of speakers and organizations.