The Bible speaks volumes about God’s heart for the city. He made human beings to live in community, to build relationships with one another, and worship Him collectively through their lives and work. While it’s easy to believe cities are a modern concept, this is anything but the truth. Cities have obviously grown larger over the last 2,000 years, but God began teaching us about them in the Old Testament through prophets like Daniel, Jeremiah, and Isaiah. Though they didn’t have traffic or pollution, they deeply understood God’s good design for the city and the role He calls us to play within them.
Jeremiah 29:4-7 has uniquely driven the vision and mission of For The City since its inception. It is a reminder that God loves the city, is for the city, and has placed His people in them to bring about His peace and flourishing. In Jeremiah 29, the prophet is writing a letter to the people of God taken captive by Babylon. While in captivity, the Israelites separated themselves from the Babylonians and began forming Jewish enclaves within Babylonian cities. In this passage, Jeremiah corrects and instructs God’s people to move toward the city rather than remain removed from it.
This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give you daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in numbers there; do not decrease. Also, seek the 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 (Jeremiah 29:4-7 NIV).
Three points from this passage shape the way we think about mission and flourishing in cities:
1. We are missionaries to the city.
In Jer 29:4, God calls the Israelites “all those I carried into exile.” This is a radical statement by God. Some skeptical Israelites may have even thought, “This is revisionist history! We weren’t carried, we were captured!” What God is saying here is that He used the Babylonian kingdom to bring His people to a city to be His missionaries in a foreign land. In many ways, this foretells Jesus’ command to His disciples in Acts 1:8 (“...and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth”). The God of the Bible has always desired to see His name glorified across the earth, and cities offer unique opportunities for that to happen.
2. We should make the city our home.
In Jer 29:5-6, Isaiah tells the Israelites to, “build houses and settle down…Marry and have sons and daughters.” Israelites were living as captive refugees at the time Jeremiah wrote this letter. The land they were in was not their home, and as soon as they could leave they were ready to do so. However, God corrects His people. He tells them to unpack and settle down in Babylon – to make the city their home. They were not captives or tourists simply consuming from the city but expected to be contributors as exiles. Theologically, this passage serves as a great example to show how God expects Christians everywhere to live distinctly as exiles on earth.
3. We seek the peace and flourishing of the city.
In Jer 29:7, Jeremiah tells the Israelites to “seek the peace and prosperity of the city…Pray to the Lord for it.” This would have been scandalous to Jewish listeners. Literal jaws would have dropped at the reading of this verse. Israelites were taught to pray for the peace of Jerusalem (Psalm 122:6), not a foreign city. Furthermore, why on earth would Israel pray for the peace of a city that had conquered them, brought them into captivity, and tried to force them to assimilate? God was telling Israel that despite all that had happened to them, they should love the city sacrificially and without disdain. God even tied Israel’s flourishing to that of Babylon’s. In the same way, Christians should seek the holistic peace of our cities today. When all children are educated, our children are educated. When all forms of racial injustice are brought to justice, we receive justice. Flourishing is not a zero-sum game.
Most Christians don’t realize that the prophet Daniel was raised in the society Jeremiah was writing about. This is important! In the Book of Daniel, we learn how Daniel and his friends applied Jeremiah’s letter to their context. Three applications can be taken from Daniel’s life:
1. We are to embrace the city as our own.
From a young age, Daniel and his friends were enrolled in a rigorous Babylonian education program. When Babylonians conquered a foreign country, they brought that country’s elites and artisans to Babylon to assimilate them into Babylonian culture. By doing this, the Babylonians would pacify those they conquered, resulting in fewer revolts and more peace. This is likely what happened to Daniel and his friends.
Daniel earned a high position within the Babylonian government as a result of his extensive education and service to King Nebuchadnezzar. As a Jew, Daniel committed most of his life to seeking the flourishing of the Babylonian kingdom. Imagine that! Daniel teaches us that we can be for the city God has placed us in, regardless of its politics or institutions. The Bible shows us time and time again that God can use godly and ungodly men and women to achieve His purposes – we are simply called to be faithful where we are..
2. We should intimately understand the culture and its values.
Aware that Daniel had been educated on Babylonian divinations, magic, and enchantments, King Nebuchadnezzar asked Daniel to interpret his dream in Daniel 2. This means Daniel had mastered pagan culture and religion! Because of this, he intimately understood and influenced the political life of Babylon. The Book of Daniel tells us that Nebuchadnezzar is driven mad for seven years (Dan 4:32), which means his government officials (including Daniel) ran the kingdom. “No matter how you look at it,” author Ray Bakke explains in A Theology As Big As The City, “Daniel’s commitment to making the Babylonian government more just for all the people may have prolonged the empire.” Because Daniel mastered the culture, religion, and politics of Babylon while holding onto his faith, he was better able to serve and care for the city.
3. We should be completely for the city while holding fast to our identity in Christ.
Although Daniel learned the religious practices of Babylon, he always remained distinctly Jewish. How was he able to do this? The answer lies in Jeremiah’s letter. He knew God had taken power away from Israel by leading them into captivity for their own good. God was then, as He is now, working through secular institutions for the good of his people and the glory of His name. Daniel also knew he needed the city as much as the city needed him. He understood that within this pagan Babylonian city was another city – the City of God. Daniel knew God had put him in Babylon to seek the good of the city, and he served as a representative of God’s city to those that did not yet worship Him.
“Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.” – Isaiah 58:12 (NIV)
The prophet Isaiah speaks positively of cities over 60 times, and his book is often referred to as “The Book of The City.” As far as theologians and bible scholars know, Isaiah’s entire ministry took place in cities. In light of this, we know Isaiah was very much an urban prophet. The Book of Isaiah can be broken into two sections. Isaiah 1-39 provides a theology of cities while Isaiah 40-66 provides a theology for cities. Isaiah saw the history of the world as a tale of two cities: the City of Man and the City of God.
Isaiah 25:4-5 describes the ruthless people living in the City of Man. “For the breath of the ruthless is like a storm driving against a wall. You silence the uproar of foreigners,” Isaiah declares, “and heat is reduced by the shadow of a cloud, so the song of the ruthless is stilled.” The prophet compares leaders of the city to a massive storm that crushes everything unable to stand against its might. Isaiah observes that residents are not only merciless toward the most vulnerable but celebrate their ruthlessness through song. From this text, we can see that the City of Man is characterized by vices such as pride, power, self-salvation, exhaustion, and oppression.
In contrast, passages like Isaiah 65:17-25 identify markers of the City of God. They include public celebrations and joy, public health for infants and the elderly, housing for all, an abundance of food, restored families, supportive communities, and the absence of violence. Commenting on this passage, Ray Bakke writes how the scoreboard for urban Christians must change from simply measuring success through growth.
Put simply, if this is what God says a city ought to look like, and if God’s Spirit lives in me, this is what I want Chicago to look like. For me, it’s not enough to measure growing churches in the city. This text forces me to look also at the social side effects of churches filled with urban disciples of Jesus.
Isaiah looked at the City of Man with clear eyes and understood its brokenness and oppressive structures. With his observations and insights, God’s people can become better ambassadors for the City of God to the City of Man.
Ancient Theology in a Modern Age
Though a host of technological advancements have made life easier for those living in the Information Age, sin persists. Social and economic problems like racism, xenophobia, pride, greed, and poverty continue to plague our cities. Vulnerable members of our communities continue to experience pain, suffering, and hardship. While it is easy to believe in the inevitability of human progress and improvement, sin does not simply go away with time. In a February 1961 speech titled “The Future of Integration,” Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., shrewdly observes how true flourishing is realized. “Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable,” he writes. “...Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”
Christians are particularly qualified to meet this task. The Holy Spirit Himself lives inside every single believer today, and He empowers them to perform radical acts of love and service. The Lord alone gives us the power to reject sin, cling to the truths of the gospel, and holistically meet the needs of the hurting and broken around us. The Old Testament prophets understood just how desperately they needed the Lord to change their hearts and cities, and we must as well. It is only when we trust the Lord with our lives that we can truly bring Him glory and care for others well.
Human cities can be scary, dark places, but we will one day live in a perfect, eternal city with God (Revelation 21:9-27). Just like the prophets of old, we have the incredible privilege of working alongside the Lord to promote human flourishing for all and bring cities into greater alignment with the heavenly city that is to come.