The City doesn’t get a lot of positive press. It never has. With characteristic sarcasm, the Roman writer Juvenal wrote “What can I do in Rome? I have never learnt to lie” [in Harvie M. Conn, The American City and the Evangelical Church: A Historical Overview, Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994, p. 9]. Thomas Jefferson viewed cities “as pestilential to the morals, the health, and the liberties of men” [in Conn, p. 31]. The American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson moved out of the city, because he found that “whilst we want cities as the centers where the best things are to be found, cities degrade us by magnifying trifles” [in Conn, p. 16].
Since the days of Juvenal, Jefferson, and Emerson, things have gotten worse. By the end of the 19th century, critics were warning that cities were “becoming plague-spots of moral and political leprosy, the hotbeds of lawlessness and crime” [A.J. Frost in George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture, New York: Oxford UP, 1980, p. 66]. About the same time the activist Josiah Strong observed that “the first city was built by the first murderer, and crime and vice and wretchedness have festered in it ever since” [in Conn, pp. 55-56].
When Strong spoke of the first city and the first murderer, he was talking about Cain, of course, who killed his brother Abel and moved east of Eden to build a city [Gen. 4:17]. But Cain was not the last urban sinner in the Bible. We usually think of Babel as a tower, but the men who built it said to themselves, Genesis 11:4: “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens.” The builders of Babel were prevented from attaining the full height of evil, but some of their descendants took up the challenge of building cities on the foundation of godlessness. We know them as the Sodomites and the Gomorrahlists who wallowed in the cesspool of moral squalor in the days of Lot [Gen. 19], or as the oppressive and carnal Babylonians in the days of Jeremiah [e.g. Jer. 25].
Perhaps these images of the evil city explain why virtually the first question I was asked by the Pastoral Seeking Committee of this church was how Lisa and I would feel about living and working in the city. Perhaps they also explain why so many of you have asked what it is like for us to live in the city. These are important questions. Back in the 1830s, the American pastor John Todd warned: “Let no man who values his soul, or his body, ever go into a great city to become a pastor… ” [in Conn, p. 38]. Todd was a pastor in the great city of… Philadelphia, of course.
We are the first Rykens to live in the city. My great-grandfather lived overseas, working as a servant on a country estate in the Netherlands. My grandfather lived in the country, laboring in the corn fields of central Iowa. My father lives in the suburbs of Chicago, teaching at Wheaton College. And now here I am, apparently valuing neither body nor soul, an urban pastor.
By coming to the city, I am going against the flow of my evangelical heritage. Harvie Conn, who is a professor of practical theology at Westminster Theological Seminary, has recently written a helpful history of urban Christianity in America entitled The American City and the Evangelical Church. Part of what Conn documents is the retreat of the evangelical church from the city to the suburbs. This retreat was described already in 1961 as The Suburban Captivity of the Church [Gibson Winter, Garden City, NY: Doubleday]. A recent survey indicates that whereas evangelical Christians represent nearly 50 percent of the population in rural communities, they comprise less than 10 percent of the population in major cities [James Davison Hunter, American Evangelicalism: Conservative Religion and the Quandary of Modernity, New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1983, p. 52]. It does sometimes feel as if we are alone in the city.
It is just for this reason that we need to know what God has to say in his Word about the city. Does God have a heart for the city? Does God have a purpose for the city? And if he does, is there a part for the church to play in the redemption of the city?
In recent weeks I have consulted a book written by Wayne Meeks of Yale University entitled The First Urban Christians [New Haven: Yale UP, 1983]. It’s a book about the Christians that Paul knew in the early days of the Christian church, Christians in cities like Antioch, where believers were first called Christians, and Rome, and Ephesus, and even our own beloved Philippi. This is a provocative idea, isn’t it, that the Christians we read about in the letters of the New Testament were the first urban Christians?
Now it occurs to me that we are among the last urban Christians. I don’t mean that there won’t be urban Christians after us. It may be that several generations will pass before the Lord Jesus returns in glory, so that our children, and their children after them, will also be urban Christians.
But we are among the last urban Christians because our final destination is the eternal city of God, the New Jerusalem, the “city whose builder and maker is God” [Heb. 11:10]. In some ways I feel that by moving to the city I have made a head start on my journey towards that city. Human history began in a garden, but it is moving towards a city. The New Jerusalem is the climax of redemption, the fulfillment of what Eden was intended to become.
Can you imagine a city with all of the cultural and social advantages of urban life, and yet without any of the pollution, immorality, fear, violence, noise, and ugliness of the modern city? This is what Scripture teaches about the eternal garden-city of God:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away… I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God… And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God”… And he carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. It shone with the glory of God, and its brilliance was like that of a very precious jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal. It had a great, high wall with twelve gates… The angel who talked with me had a measuring rod of gold to measure the city, its gates and its walls. The city was laid out like a square, as long as it was wide… I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp… On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there. The glory and honor of the nations will be brought into it. Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life. Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month… Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life and may go through the gates into the city [from Rev. 21 & 22].
Will you be one of the last urban Christians, washed clean by Christ, with a right to go through the gates into that great city?
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