The rise of urbanization has reached an astronomical rate. The city is now an unavoidable force in the world, one which must be studied and understood. As we unpack and develop a practical theology of the city to understand the urban environment, it is imperative that we first set forth a biblical theology of the city. It is here that we will discover God’s heart for the city.
Many scholars believe cities begin at creation. Indeed, the cultural mandate given to Adam and Eve to “fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen. 1:28) is “an urban mandate:” “Just like God, as image bearers of God, humans are commissioned to bring order out of chaos, to take the raw ingredients of the garden and to develop them into something that causes life to flourish and God to be glorified” (Um and Buzzard, Why Cities Matter to God, 59). That something is the city. As Keller affirms, “City building is a crucial part of fulfilling the [cultural] mandate.” (Tim Keller, Center Church, 151). Whether or not this is the first instance of a city in the Bible, the word “city” is first used shortly thereafter.
After murdering his brother, Cain settled east of Eden in the land of Nod (Gen. 4:16). There, “Cain made love to his wife, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Enoch. Cain was then building a city, and he named it after his son Enoch” (Gen. 4:17). This establishment was not a punishment on Cain but a sign of God’s provision for him. As Keller argues, “The founding of the city comes as the result of Cain’s search for security in the world and of God’s granting his request” (Center Church, 138). This theme (and reality) of the “city-as-refuge” permeates the Old Testament (e.g., Num. 35:25-27; Josh. 20:2).
Keller links the founding of this city (Gen. 4:17) with the creation of culture: “We see the first development of the arts in musicianship of Jubal (v. 21) and of technology in the tool making of Tubal-Cain (v. 22). Architecture, agriculture, art, and technology all begin when cities begin. Cities are places of human productivity” (Center Church, 138). These two characteristics—security and productivity—are still two defining characteristics of cities today (but more on that later).
The remainder of Genesis paints a bleak picture of the city. The story of the tower of Babel highlights the reality that cities tend to magnify humanity’s attempt at self-glorification and self-salvation (Center Church, 140). As the productive and creative power of the city of Shinar played out through the making of brick and tar, its citizens sought to build a tower that would “reach to the heavens” (self-salvation) in order to “make a name” for themselves (self-glorification). God reigned down judgment, casting confusion upon the city and dispersing its inhabitants around the world. Additionally, Sodom is represented as a city that stood in opposition to God.
These negative portrayals should not deter us from seeing cities as good in the eyes of the Lord. Abraham was called from his home in one of the greatest cities of his day, Ur, only to sojourn towards a city to come: “By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. . . . For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (Heb. 11:8, 10).
After more than 400 years of nomadic living, God’s people traded in their tents for a permanent city, established by king David for his people (2 Sam. 5:9): “Jerusalem is appointed to be an urban culture that is a witness to the nations and a symbol of the future City of God” (Center Church, 140; see 2 Samuel 7). In the establishment of this city of God, God’s heart for the city is put on display. But Jerusalem was not the only city for which God cared, as he sent Jonah to the pagan city of Ninevah to call it to repentance. Importantly, God rebuked his reluctant prophet: “And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?” (Jonah 4:11). “In calling Nineveh to repentance and reordering their worship, God shows that he loved Nineveh just as he had loved Jerusalem” (Why Cities Matter, 65).
During the Israelite exile in Babylon, we further see God’s desire for the city to flourish. He told the exiles to build homes, settle down, farm, marry, and have children, adding: “Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper” (Jer. 29:7) God calls his people to seek the well-being of Babylon, the city often portrayed as the antithesis of Jerusalem, because God’s heart is for the city.
As the people of Jerusalem continued to long for the city for which Abraham hoped, the Messiah came as an embodied, emplaced human being. The life of Jesus has a city-ward trajectory in the Gospels. Indeed, the goal of Jesus’ ministry—“that by which it is gravitationally pulled—is a city” (Why Cities Matter, 68): “Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51), the city in which he would fulfill his Father’s will.
The fledgling Christian faith took root and exploded almost entirely in urban settings. For example, most of Paul’s travels and epistles were aimed at urban churches: “Paul was an urban dweller whose life, ministry, writing, and death took place in cities. . . . Paul’s life and writings are the hands-on application of what is seen to be happening in cities throughout the book of Acts.” (Why Cities Matter, 77). The New Testament ends with this “city-leaning” perspective, as it envisions the consummation of all things: “And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven like a bride beautifully dressed for her husband” (Rev. 21:2).
Throughout the Bible, the city is a vessel for both good and bad. In spite of this depravity, God chose to use the city to do mighty things. The same is true today. The creation began with a city, and it will end with a city—a city full of God’s glory. Undoubtedly, God’s heart is for the city.
Week 1: Proverbs 11:10-11
The righteous and wicked in the city
Cities are filled with righteous and wicked people. Christians should not avoid contact with the wicked, nor should they become like the wicked. Rather, Christians should engage with the people in their city for God’s glory, the Great Commission, and the good of the city.
Why is there a tension between righteous and wicked in the city? Because the world and the city were made good (Gen 1:26-31), but sin has broken this world and thus cities (Gen 4:14-17).
- Where do you see our city prospering because of Christian engagement?
- Where do you see the tension between good design and sin-brokenness in our city?
- What could it look like for the brokenness of our city to be redeemed by God?
- Where have you insulated yourself unnecessarily from people who need Jesus and your help?
- How could you step in to those places of tension?
- How could we as a community group be a blessing to the city for restoration?
Pray for big changes that only God can do and for strength to make the steps you can take.
Week 2: Jeremiah 29:1-7
A mission for the city
God has us in our neighborhood for a reason: to seek the shalom of our city.
What is shalom (translated welfare, peace, good, or peace and prosperity)? Shalom “means complete well-being, universal flourishing, wholeness, delight, and blessing. It is 'a rich state of affairs in which natural needs are satisfied and natural gifts fruitfully employed, a state of affairs that inspires joyful wonder as its Creator and Savior opens doors and welcomes the creatures in whom he delights.' It is a description of multidimensional wholeness and flourishing that is not just spiritual, but also material, physical, psychological, and economic.” (Um and Buzzard, Why Cities Matter, 88).
- Where are the Israelites in this text? Why is Jeremiah writing this letter? Exiled in Babylon; God is assuring his people through Jeremiah that he has not forgotten them and he has a present and future plan for them.
- What does God instruct his people to do?
- God warns the people not to listen to the lie of the false prophets. What do you think that lie is? The false prophet is Hananiah, and the lie is that the people are going to return in two years (28:2-4), rather than seventy (29:10).
- Before this letter, the Israelites believed they had two options in relating to Babylon: complete assimilation or complete separation. Complete assimilation meant loss of distinct spiritual identity and culture, while complete separation meant not sharing the peace of God with others. God gave them a third way: seek the welfare (shalom) of the city while maintaining their distinct spiritual identity as the people of God. How does this third way look today for Christians in our city? John 17:15-18; the example of Jesus.
- Based on the above definition, how are you working for shalom in your unique places (location, vocation, recreation, restoration, multiplication) in the city?
Pray for wisdom from God to engage your city as salt and light, being in but not of the world.
Week 3: Acts 17:1-4, 22-31
Thessalonica & Athens: contextualization for the City
The gospel contains nonnegotiable truths that we must skillfully proclaim in our cultural context.
What is contextualization? "Contextualization is not—as is often argued—'giving people what they want to hear.' Rather, it is giving people the Bible’s answers, which they may not at all want to hear, to questions about life that people in their particular time and place are asking, in language and forms they can comprehend, and through appeals and arguments with force they can feel, even if they reject them" (Tim Keller, Center Church, 89).
- In the two passages in Acts, what nonnegotiable truths does Paul proclaim?
- How does Paul contextualize these nonnegotiable truths? To the Thessalonica Jews he went to the Synagogue, reasoned from Scriptures, and showed how Jesus was their awaited Messiah. To the Athenian Pluralists he utilized their unknown god altar, showed God to be superior to their manmade idols, and quoted two secular writers.
- If you were proclaiming the gospel to someone who grew up in church but was not a Christian, how would you contextualize? To someone who is extremely wealthy and doesn’t see his/her need for Jesus? To someone who worships sex over God? To someone who doesn’t know what a good father is because he/she grew up in a broken home?
- Think of one non-Christian friend. How can you contextualize the gospel for them?
- How has your upbringing and/or church life blinded you from the gospel’s power (overcontextualization)?
- What parts of the gospel seem veiled to you (undercontextualization)?
Pray for strong conviction, wise contextualization, Spirit-empowered boldness, and receptive hearts.
Week 4: Hebrews 11:9-10; 13:14
Living in the city with hope for another
Christians live and minister in a temporary, earthly city, but we hope in the future eternal city and point people to it.
What is the future, eternal city like? Revelation 21:9-14
- Revisit the calling of Abraham in Genesis 12:1-3. What was Abraham promised? Why was it an act of faith?
- How does our life on this earth resemble Abraham’s in terms of future promise but unknown present?
- What are the differences between the city here and “the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God?”
- In what ways do you sinfully seek “no lasting city” and fail to “seek the city that is to come?”
- What conventional or cultural wisdom must we examine in light of “seeking no lasting city?”
- How do we strike the balance of living as sojourners moving toward a heavenly city and as stable citizens of an earthly city?
- What are some practical ways that you can seek the city that is to come? How would it change your actions and reactions here and now?
- Whom can you invite to the future city?
Pray for a heart that seeks the city to come and invites others to join you.