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At the outset, the Bible does not have great things to say about cities. They are often founded by murderers, run by corrupt kings, full of arrogance and violence, and walled off from outsiders. The garden of Eden stands in contrast to the city. The garden ideal is a refuge without walls where there is abundance, life, and access to God. So it would seem that God’s plan for humanity would be a restoration to the garden. But the surprise in the biblical story is that God wants to reclaim cities and merge the garden of Eden with the life of the city.

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The City

Key Scripture Passages About Cities

  • Genesis 4
  • Genesis 11:1-9
  • 2 Samuel 6
  • Ezekiel 47:1-12
  • Matthew 5:14-16
  • Revelation 21-22

The First City

Near the beginning of the Bible’s story, a man named Cain is jealous of his brother for receiving God’s favor. God tells Cain, “Be careful with your anger because sin is a monster that wants to consume you. But you can rule it.” But Cain gives into the monster and murders his brother. As a result, God sends Cain into the wilderness where he builds the first city in the story of the Bible.

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But we shouldn't think of Cain’s city as a modern city. In the ancient world, a city was a group of homes surrounded by a wall. It was a place for protection. Cain is afraid someone might find him and kill him, so he walls himself into this first city. 

The city of Cain goes on to breed a culture of revenge and violence. Later, one of the city’s warriors, who’s like a corrupt king, boasts in a song, “If you threaten, slap me, or wound my honor, I’ll kill you.” This is the mindset at work in Cain’s city. The monster that Cain allowed to rule him now rules over all the people living in this city. 

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At this point in the biblical story, the city seems to be bad news—but it doesn’t have to be. The city of Cain is also where music was invented, along with metal-working and animal domestication. Cities can be a place where humans create abundance for everyone. But eventually, the monster will take over.

What Babylon Represents

The next city in the Bible is founded by a giant warrior-king, who constructs a tower that reaches up into the heavens to make their name great. This city is called Babylon (or Babel), and it will go on to spread violence and conquer surrounding nations.

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Babylon is the biblical image of a monstrous and violent human city. It represents the ways that the city has become the opposite of the safe garden God created for humans.

Ancient cities have imposing walls for self-protection keeping its resources inside. But the garden is protected by God and has a spring at its center that flows out into rivers to share its goodness with all. Babylon has a tower in the center, reaching up into the heavens. But the garden has the tree of life at its center, God’s heavenly throne and presence touching down on the land.

The biblical image of the city is all about self-preservation and peace enforced by the threat of death. But the image of the garden is a place where there’s always enough for everyone and peace is found through generosity.

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God’s Garden-City Gone Wrong

As we continue tracing the theme of the city in the Bible, let’s look at King David. Appointed by God to lead Israel, David chose Jerusalem to be the capital city, and it became known as The City of David and Mount Zion. When David brought the throne of God’s presence to the capital, Jerusalem became an image of God’s garden-city. 

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This begins the tragic story of Jerusalem’s corruption during the reign of kings from David’s line. While a few kings try to stop the monster, most of them give in. And the garden-city becomes a den of robbers, full of greed, violence, and oppression. And eventually Babylon, an even bigger monster, takes them out. Maybe the garden-city isn’t realistic after all.

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However, Israel’s prophets maintained hope that God would one day create his heavenly city here on Earth, with streams going out and all the nations streaming in. This would be a city full of gardens and feasts, peace, and no more death. This sounds like more than just a new city—it sounds like the dawn of a new creation.

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There was abundance and peace for everyone, until, tragically, David followed in Cain’s footsteps. David gives into the inner monster, murdering one of his soldiers so he can take his wife.

The City on a Hill

It is this prophetic hope that brings us to the story of Jesus. In Jesus’ day, Jerusalem was ruled by the violent King Herod. And when Jesus began announcing that God’s heavenly kingdom was arriving here on Earth, he didn’t go to Jerusalem or its leaders. Instead, he went into the hills and towns of Galilee, sharing good news with the poor and those deemed unimportant by society.

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Then Jesus took his followers up onto a hill and said to them, “You all are the city on the hill that will shine its light to the nations.” He taught his followers the ethics of God’s city, which is the opposite of Cain’s city and Babylon. Instead of protecting life and keeping peace with the threat of violence, Jesus taught his followers to create peace by sharing generously, even with your enemies, and to preserve life through love and forgiveness, even if it costs you. This is what it looks like when the heavenly city comes to Earth.

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The King of God’s Heavenly City

While the prophets expected God’s new city to be Jerusalem, Jesus said that the Jerusalem of his day was corrupt and headed for destruction. This bold statement angered the city’s leaders. And to keep peace with Rome amidst Jesus’ claims, they used the threat of death to get rid of Jesus. Jerusalem’s leaders had adopted the mindset of Cain’s city. And as Jesus stood trial and faced his impending execution, he said he was to be enthroned as King of God’s heavenly city.

In Cain's city, you don’t become king by letting your enemies kill you. But Jesus was stronger than death. He overcame the fear of death by trusting in God’s life-power to raise him from death.

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The City of God

This is the same power that streams out from Jesus into the world today. And it is why the earliest followers of Jesus called each other to seek the well-being of their cities, while at the time same trusting that their true citizenship was established in the new creation that God has in store. When followers of Jesus gather and share together, they begin to taste the life and love of that heavenly reality, now, in the present.

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The story of the Bible doesn’t end with humans building their city up to heaven, but rather with God bringing his garden-city down to the land. This is the heavenly Jerusalem, full of abundance for all the nations, with the river of life flowing through its streets. At its center is the crucified and risen Jesus on the throne. And the city walls will be decommissioned, because the gates of this city will never be closed.

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