Desmond Alexander on a Biblical Theology of the City of God

Desmond Alexander on a Biblical Theology of the City of God

Nancy Guthrie interviews T. Desmond Alexander

Transcript

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Desmond Alexander: It’s striking that the author of Hebrews isn’t interested so much in the faith that Abraham has in God, but his faith is actually focused on the city that will be built by God. So the thing that Abraham hopes for is actually the city that will be built by God, God being the architect and builder of it.

Nancy Guthrie: Welcome to “Help Me Teach the Bible.” I’m Nancy Guthrie. “Help Me Teach the Bible” is a production of The Gospel Coalition sponsored by Crossway, a not-for-profit publisher of the ESV Bible, Christian books, and tracks. Learn more at crossway.org. It is my joy today to be sitting at Queen’s University in Belfast, Ireland. I’m at the Union Theological College and I’m sitting across from Dr. Desmond Alexander, Senior Lecturer in biblical studies. Dr. Alexander, I’m so grateful you made time to talk to me today and to the listeners of “Help Me Teach the Bible.”

Alexander: My pleasure to meet with you and to have this opportunity.

Guthrie: You may be familiar with some of Dr. Alexander’s works, maybe, “From Eden to the New Jerusalem” or “From Paradise to the Promised Land,” which is an introduction to the Pentateuch, a recent book, he wrote for Crossway is called “Discovering Jesus: Why Four Gospels to Portray One Person?” But I’m here today, wanting in particular to talk with him about his recent contribution to Crossway’s short studies and biblical theology series on “The City of God and The Goal of Creation.” Dr. Alexander, that’s a great place to start probably just talking about the title and why you chose that. That’s fascinating to me that you are suggesting from the very outset that the goal of creation has something to do with the City of God. Why that title? And what are you suggesting from the very beginning of the Bible in relationship to the City of God?

Alexander: Okay, there’s a little bit of a story to this in that a number of years ago, I was involved in working on a book that had to do with the temple and thinking about how the temple as a concept connects the whole of Scripture together, beginning with the Garden of Eden and then the tabernacle and then the Jerusalem temple, and then thinking through to the church as the present day temple of God, and then thinking ahead to the New Jerusalem. And it struck me that while the concept of Temple is a wonderful concept for exploring the presence of God and how God interacts with people, the one thing that was missing from that particular concept was the idea of God actually relating to people.

When you bring into consideration the idea of the city, especially the city where God dwells, the temple city, there’s a sense in which I think that’s a richer concept than just the concept of temple. Temple in some ways, focuses only on God, it doesn’t quite bring into play or into consideration human beings and their relationship with God. So when I thought about this and especially when you come then to the final chapters of Revelation and you see that the consummation of all that’s in scripture is about a city where there is no temple, again, it was striking that that should be the case. And so with that in mind, looking back, it struck me that when you begin to explore the theme of city, city actually takes on some considerable importance in the biblical narrative.

And I felt that it wasn’t always sufficiently appreciated, because unfortunately, some people perhaps quite naturally have a somewhat negative view of the concept of a city. And as a country boy myself, there’s a sense which my heart probably yearns more to be in the country than to be in a city. But nevertheless, scripture draws attention to this amazing city that I think of as a garden city. I think of it as the perfect city. There’s a sense which human beings seem to orient it towards cities and cities seem to play an important role within our present day society. But it struck me that even in God’s purposes the city is central. So whether you go back to the Psalms and think about the importance of Jerusalem, Mount Zion and all that’s there.

Guthrie: Well, let’s start further back than that, all right? Because I really would like to hear you talk about…you’re saying that His goal has always been to have a city. You know, so many of the themes that run through the whole of Scripture begin right there in Genesis 1, 2, and 3. And I’m thinking that in some ways, you could say the city doesn’t start until Genesis Chapter 4. And so this idea that you talk about the goal of creation being a city, I’m thinking about the commands in Genesis 1 and 2 to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. Then we get to Chapter 4, and we’ll talk about this first city that was established in Genesis Chapter 4. But then we get to the big city chapter city building in Genesis Chapter 11 with Babel, it seems to have been an evil thing that they’re building a city. They’re not spreading, they are settling. So I guess that’s what I’m getting at that I find it so curious that you call it the goal of creation because it sounds to me as you’re saying that His goal all along has been to have a city.

Alexander: I think it was His goal all along to have a city. And the thing that strikes me about the early chapters of Genesis is that human beings have been created by God to have an innate desire to be city builders. So city building is something that we do naturally because God has made us to be city builders. Unfortunately, as the early chapters of Genesis reveal, as a consequence of Adam and Eve’s betrayal of God and their expulsion from the Garden of Eden, human beings oriented their skills to do things that are in opposition to God. So the city building that you see is something that is implanted in human beings by God but then it’s misdirected when they build cities and the cities…

Guthrie: Like so many other things, isn’t it, right?

Alexander: Like so many other things, yes.

Guthrie: As the impact of the fall and you and I are talking about what happens in Genesis Chapter 4 where we see this first city built by Cain.

Alexander: Yes. And the thing that’s interesting about it is that rather than building a city that in some way will glorify God and be directed towards God, it’s actually directed towards Cain and his family. So he names it after his son. You see this, I think, then repeated when you come to the Tower of Babel story where human beings want to do things which in many ways are appropriate. They want to create community, they want to use their gifts together to do things, but they want to make a name for themselves, and they have no desire to bring God into the city to make Him part of it. He has to be excluded. So the irony of this is that God who has created human beings to build His city, end up building a city but they want to not only exclude God from it, but they actually want to use it as a launching pad in order to even take over heaven if they possibly could.

Guthrie: Yes. And grab some of God’s glory for themselves.

Alexander: Exactly. To become gods, which takes you back also to the Garden of Eden because, in a sense, that’s what Satan promised that they will become like God, knowing good from evil.

Guthrie: The story of the city, according to the Bible really gets going, I suppose, in Genesis Chapter 11 with this first city, Babel. And so I remember when I was first teaching Genesis Chapter 11, and I remember especially when I was teaching it to a group of unbelievers, it felt like such a challenge to me to explain why what they were doing was wrong. So help us as Bible teachers, when we get to Genesis Chapter 11, and they’re there and they are building a city and this tower, what’s wrong?

Alexander: I suppose what strikes me as being particularly wrong is that they have excluded God from all of this. He has got no place within the city. And that is the great sin of their actions. That in a sense, they are using God given gifts, but they’re not using them to fulfill God’s purposes. God wanted them to be city builders, but it was to be a city where he would dwell and that they would do this under His authority, and for His glory, and all of that is missing. And that, I think, is the great crime. And in a sense, it’s no different today because I think even today, people will look for security and meaning and well-being in the city.

And they’re quite happy to then exclude God from their thinking. So Babel, in a sense, isn’t anything…isn’t just an ancient story, in that sense. It’s still a reflection I think of how many people live today. They find some kind of sense of meaning and worth being part of a city, being part of a community, using their gifts alongside other people’s gifts, feeling fulfilled in that sense, but they do it without any recourse to what God might want.

Guthrie: I appreciated just one sentence in your book where you stated very clearly, because people have asked me this question before. I loved it. And you stated clearly the connection between Babel and Babylon. Can you state that for our listeners?

Alexander: Sure. Yes.

Guthrie: What’s the connection there?

Alexander: The connection is a very simple one. It’s one of these, I suppose, unfortunate events when it comes to Bible translations, in that we have grown up with a tradition whereby we think of this as the Tower of Babel, the Hebrew word Babel is used elsewhere in the Old Testament of…it’s the name for Babylon. So a more appropriate translation would be to refer to as the Tower of Babylon. And that’s normally how Babel would be translated elsewhere in the Old Testament.

Guthrie: So we could connect those and say we’re talking about in a sense the same city that Babel becomes Babylon, right?

Alexander: It is. It is. It is the same city.

Guthrie: I mean, they’re both on the plains of Shinar, right?

Alexander: Yes, yes, it is the same city. It’s just that we’ve ended up using two different names for the one place.

Guthrie: And I suppose maybe this is a good place in our conversation about the city for you to help us with talking about the city throughout the Bible. Sometimes it’s a very physical city, sometimes it’s more of a spiritual city, sometimes both. Just talk to us about the city in terms of its nature of being physical and spiritual.

Alexander: I suppose I think of city in this context as community. It’s where people come together and where they bring together their different gifts. And they seek to use those gifts to enrich their lives. So they interact with other people. They will use this for scientific endeavors, for construction endeavors, for cultural endeavors, for music, all kinds of things feed into what a city is that separates it or sets it apart from what an individual might be. So city life will be very, very different to what one would experience if you lived by yourself in the country. And so there’s a sense which it enriches the experience of the individual when things work as they should work. Cities can also be terrible places to be, and we’re well aware of that that they can be places of danger. But the biblical expectation is the City of God will be somewhere where people will flourish and enjoy life to the full.

Guthrie: So if we see the city of man, shall we call it, begin there in Genesis 4, and really begin to develop in Genesis 11.

Alexander: Yes.

Guthrie: Where in the Bible do we begin to see this City of God?

Alexander: I think we begin to see it as we follow the story from immediately after Babel because the biblical story then picks up on the call of Abraham who comes from the very region where Babel existed or Babylon existed. And it’s quite striking that when you turn to Hebrews Chapter 11, and you think about how the author of Hebrews draws attention to the faith that Abraham has, it’s striking that the author of Hebrews isn’t interested so much in the faith that Abraham has in God, but his faith is actually focused on the city that will be built by God. So it’s striking that the author of Hebrews isn’t interested so much in the faith that the Abraham has in God, but his faith is actually focused on the city that will be built by God.

So the thing that Abraham hopes for is actually the city that will be built by God, God being the architect and builder of it. But the thing that Abraham hopes for is actually the city that will be built by God, God being the architect and builder of it. So that sense of looking forward, anticipating the creation of the City of God, I think begins back with Abraham. I think it’s tied in then to the whole story of Israel in the Old Testament. And there’s a sense in which the movement of that story takes you through the Exodus from Egypt, to the people moving into the Promised Land, to eventually coming to Jerusalem.

So, one of the things that jumps out when you begin to think about the story of the Israelites settling in the Promised Land is that the last Canaanite city to be captured is Jerusalem. The Jebusites dwelt there and they’re the last group of people to be dispossessed. And then Jerusalem becomes the place where David brings the Ark of the Covenant, the footstool of the Divine throne where the temple is then constructed, and Jerusalem Mount Zion becomes the location where God dwells. And so you have this sense of a story that is moving towards the creation of the City of God. And so the Psalms can pick up and celebrate the importance of Jerusalem as the City of God. But the story then, in a remarkable way, goes into reverse because you then read on about how Jerusalem becomes more and more corrupt.

Guthrie: Like Babylon.

Alexander: Like Babylon. And eventually it’s going to be the Babylonians who will come and destroy Jerusalem in 586. And with that you’ve the destruction of the temple. And it seems as if the human city has overcome the divine city. The City of God has been destroyed by Babel, Babylon.

Guthrie: This is why we need the prophets.

Alexander: Exactly. This is why we need the prophets.

Guthrie: To keep speaking hope to us.

Alexander: Because the prophets do something really interesting at this point, because they begin to speak about another Jerusalem. They look forward with anticipation to a New Jerusalem. So particularly in the book of Isaiah, you get this movement from a very corrupt Jerusalem that will eventually be transformed into a New Jerusalem, and it’s a New Jerusalem that seems to be associated with the Ashton. It’s not a Jerusalem that’s going to be created immediately after the exile; it’s not going to be a Jerusalem that will be created you might say in our lifetime. It’s a Jerusalem that is placed still in the future, the expectation.

Guthrie: When you read its measurements, for example, in Ezekiel and other places, its measurements are on a whole other scale than a physical temple made of limestone in the Middle East.

Alexander: Exactly. The expectations of Isaiah and Ezekiel are very much in line with what you see in Revelation 21 and 22 with John’s vision of the New Jerusalem. And you get this sense that there is yet a city to come that is going to be made by God and that’s what our hope, that’s what our expectation is. That will be our resurrection experience that we will become citizens of that city. And if I can take you back then to Hebrews 11, it’s quite striking that the author of Hebrews 11, when he gets to the end of the chapter, he draws attention to the fact that Abraham never inherited, he never experienced the city that he looked forward to. For his lifetime, it was something that he hoped for. And the author of Hebrews then makes the point that Abraham will experience, he will become a citizen of this city along with the readers of Hebrews, along with the author of Hebrews when they are made perfect.

Guthrie: Yes, he was waiting for something better that when with him we would make up this city.

Alexander: And it becomes a resurrection hope. It’s a city that is then associated not with this era, but with the time to come. And so I think scripture points towards the fulfillment of these things. Isaiah, the prophet Isaiah will talk about God creating a new earth and a new heavens and He will create Jerusalem. So the prophet Isaiah anticipates a recreation of the earth that will bring into existence this amazing city where God will dwell with His people.

Guthrie: You mentioned earlier when you were talking about Jerusalem, about it being this mountain city, Mount Zion. And I really appreciated that section in your book on the City of God, because I don’t think that’s not something I’ve read a lot about in other places. Ezekiel, he talks about Eden in terms of being a mountain, which is very subtle in Genesis, just as rivers flow out of it. So we might think it’s a mountain and then Ezekiel, he calls it Eden, the mountain of God, when we come upon references especially in the Psalms to Mount Zion which seems to be speaking of Jerusalem but yet speaking of something more than just Jerusalem. So when we come upon that in a passage, what should we be thinking and communicating?

Alexander: Okay, I think there’s a theology of elevation, if I can call it that, that there’s a sense which we think of heaven being above and you move up, you go towards God, when you go upwards. And when you go downwards, you go away from God. So interestingly, in the story of Jonah in his flight from God’s presence to get away from God, he keeps taking steps that are always going downwards. So he goes down from Jerusalem to Joppa. He goes down into the ship. And then he goes down to the roots of the mountains when he goes into the sea. And this downward journey is always away from God, whereas the Psalmist will talk about, you know, who can ascend the hill of the Lord? Who can grow up His holy mountain?

And interestingly, whenever God brings the Israelites out of Egypt, when they’re celebrating their deliverance from the Egyptian army, having come through the Red Sea, or perhaps better the Lake of Reeds. But when they’ve done that, at the end of the song that they sing, they talk in terms of how God is going to bring them in and plant them on his holy mountain where he dwells. So there is this expectation that the exodus journey is going to end on a mountain where God dwells with his people. Interestingly, God brings them to another mountain before they come to Mount Zion, he brings them to Mount Sinai. And at Mount Sinai, the people enter into a covenant relationship with God. And they are also consecrated that they are made holy so that they can ascend the mountain.

You recall that at Mount Sinai, initially, there’s a barrier put around the mountain, and the people are prohibited from going up into God’s presence. And the Exodus story draws attention to the importance of being consecrated or made holy, in order to be in the presence of God. So when the people come to Mount Sinai, they learn something of what it is to become a holy people, because without being a holy people, they cannot dwell on God’s holy mountain. And so the Psalmist will pick up on this and say that, you know, “Who can ascend the hill of the Lord whose hands are clean, whose heart is pure.” There’s a sense which you’ve got to be holy, in order to come into the presence of God. And so scripture is full of the idea that the mountain will be somewhere holy. It will be a holy location. Interestingly, at the end of Revelation, when John comes to see the City of God, the Holy Spirit takes him to the top of a high mountain. And I used to think that was so that he could look down on the city and sort of have a panoramic view of it. But I think, in actual fact, the city was located on the mountain. The symbolism there is, I think, significant because it’s picking up on this idea that God’s mountain, the mountain of God, in a sense, is elevated above every other mountain. There’s a sense in which God…it’s a kind of a theological idea that because God is present there, this mountain is superior to every other mountain.

Guthrie: Something else you mentioned earlier, you talked about how Abraham is called out of Ur, essentially, he’s in Babylon territory and he’s called out to go to God’s land. We’re going to see that again later, of course, when people go into exile in Babylon. And then after 70 years, God calls them out to come back to Jerusalem. And then when we get to the end of the Bible, there’s this, especially, Revelation 17:18, there’s this call, “Come out of Babylon.” So is that a part of this story of the city? If we think of the Bible as the story of two cities maybe?

Alexander: Yes.

Guthrie: Jerusalem, Babylon, the City of God, the city of man. And it would seem to me that repeated aspects of that story is God constantly calling us out of the city of man to make our home in the City of God.

Alexander: Yes, that is a very important idea that we are to see ourselves as citizens of the City of God but we dwell as exiles.

Guthrie: This is where it gets very real for people when we’re teaching them, doesn’t it? Because that’s the crux of the tension, how do we live as citizens of the City of God in the city of Babylon, in the world?

Alexander: And I think it’s very important to appreciate that we’re not actually necessarily expected by God to abandon and not live in Babylon. The book of Jeremiah is really interesting in this regard, in that Jeremiah is well aware that God is going to come and punish the people in Jerusalem because of their wrongdoing, and the Babylonians are going to be responsible for punishing them. And the people who live in Jerusalem think of Jeremiah as a traitor, he seems to be siding with Babylon rather than with Jerusalem. And Jeremiah wants to make the point, and God wants to make the point through Jeremiah, that in actual fact the safe place to be is actually Babylon not Jerusalem because God’s wrath has got to come upon Jerusalem and those who are there will perish.

I find it striking, for example, if you compare Lamentations, which draws attention to the horrendous experience that the people had in Jerusalem with the book of Daniel. And you think about how God protects Daniel and his friends even when they’re thrown into the fiery furnace in Babylon. Scripture wants to make the point that God will be with us when we live in Babylon but we’ve got to live as citizens of the New Jerusalem. And that’s a…

Guthrie: So what do you do with that little section there in Jeremiah, when Jeremiah tells them, you know, “Plant vineyards and get married and pray for the people where you’re living.”

Alexander: Yes. I think that’s a reflection of the fact that God expects that we will be citizens…that we will have to live in Babylon. If you go back to Revelation, it’s striking that when it speaks about Babylon, it sees Babylon as the city that’s here and now. When it speaks about the New Jerusalem, it’s speaking about a city that is yet to come. So we can avoid, presently, living in Babylon but we don’t have to be citizens of Babylon in terms of our identity. And we look to be salt and light. We look to have some kind of transforming effect, some kind of good influence on the Babylon which we live but we cannot. We ought not as Christians to, I think, expect that the cities we live in today will here and now become the City of God. That’s not what Scripture teaches. It teaches that we’ve got to…we live as citizens of the New Jerusalem, but we’ve got to do so in environments that in a sense, we’re being somewhat hostile to God.

Guthrie: All right. So we began in Genesis, and we’ve looked at this development of the City of God through some of the history and touching the Psalms and in the prophets. So let’s get to the Gospels. If we’re developing the story of the City of God, it’s quite interesting that when God comes and He is born into flesh, He’s not born into Jerusalem. And in fact, so much of Jesus’ ministry was not in Jerusalem. Jerusalem, it seems like in the gospels is represents a city that’s in many ways hostile to God’s King. So talk to us about this development of the story of the city that we find in the Gospels.

Alexander: Yes, I think it’s so important to appreciate that, especially, when you come to a gospel like Matthew’s Gospel that Matthew wants to associate Jesus more with Galilee, which he associates with the nations. So he will quote from the Prophet Isaiah and in terms of the light dawning in Galilee. And it strikes me as very interesting that at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, Matthew draws attention to the emphasis that’s given to the disciples returning to a mountain in Galilee where they will encounter Jesus again. And I think it’s probably the same mountain where Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount. Because at that mountain when he commissions them, he tells them to teach the nations, to go and make disciples and to teach them what Jesus has taught them.

And I think quite deliberately, Jesus may well have taken the disciples back to where he first taught them. And also the focus now is not on Jerusalem as such but is on the nations. Now, something quite important happens I think at this stage when we think about the larger biblical story because there’s a movement away from God dwelling in the Jerusalem Temple to God dwelling in the church in believers. And so Jerusalem by the time you get to AD 70 when the Romans come and destroy the city, Jerusalem can make no claim then to be a Temple City. There’s no temple in Jerusalem, God is not present there. So the present day Jerusalem ought not to be associated or thought of in the same way as the Jerusalem even in the time of Jesus, and certainly, the Jerusalem of the Old Testament when God was dwelling there in the temple. It’s a different Jerusalem.

Guthrie: Doesn’t Jesus himself make that clear when he weeps over Jerusalem and yet he indicts them basically saying, you know, “I came to you, God’s King, God’s son came to you and you have rejected him and you’re about to kill him.” So in a sense, that’s an indictment on the city of Jerusalem. It loses its place with that. Would you use those words, “Loses its place?”

Alexander: I think that’s probably the way to approach it. The earthly Jerusalem becomes associated with the Old Covenant, whereas Jesus comes to bring about a New Covenant. So interestingly, Paul in Galatians Chapter 4 will draw a distinction between the present Jerusalem and the Jerusalem above, the heavenly Jerusalem. And Paul thinks in terms of his citizenship, being in the Heavenly Jerusalem, whereas the Jerusalem below is in slavery. That’s not where you will find salvation, you’ve got to be a citizen of the Heavenly Jerusalem.

And so his opponents were still, you might say, clinging on to the Old Jerusalem as being the place where God’s purposes would be fulfilled and salvation would come, not having appreciated that with the coming of Jesus, there’s a much more wonderful, very different New Jerusalem being created. I think there’s a sense which as people become disciples of Jesus, they become citizens of that city. They are then becoming part of it. Ultimately, it will be through the resurrection experience that they will enter into that city and know the blessings of it.

Guthrie: Dr. Alexander, when we’re teaching, a lot of times, we know that we will have people in our audience who have been thoroughly saturated with some ideas about Jerusalem that have to do with expectations in the future for this earthly city of Jerusalem. For example, I don’t know if it was this way in Ireland, but in the United States there was some excitement among evangelical believers when the United States Embassy was moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. And it wasn’t necessarily…some of it was probably purely politically based.

But for many people, their excitement over that had to do with the way that they read the Bible and what they understand in terms of a future role for the earthly city of Jerusalem. So I just wonder if you would give us some advice as teachers when we are teaching and Jerusalem comes up and, you know, maybe someone puts their hands up and talks about how the temple is going to be rebuilt there, that that’s what we’re anticipating in this future for Jerusalem. How would you respond if someone in a class you were teaching brought up those kind of ideas?

Alexander: I suppose I would want to take them to the book of Hebrews, because the author of Hebrews wants to draw attention to the fact that there was in the past the tabernacle which was then followed by the Jerusalem temple, which was associated with the Old Covenant or the First Covenant. And the author of Hebrews wants to make the point that something far, far better now exists because there is now a new high priest, Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior who is serving in the Heavenly Temple. And we need to appreciate that in the past, God used the tabernacle and He used Jerusalem to be models or to give us an understanding of what will be the future realities or the realities that actually, in a sense, exists today.

Guthrie: They were shadows.

Alexander: They were shadows. So the Old Testament, yes, has a great deal to say about Earthly Jerusalem and is significant in the working out of God’s purposes in the Old Testament. But we need to see that there has been an escalation that things have been transformed with the coming of Jesus. And the Christian’s hope is not to be focused on the transformation of the Jerusalem that exists today on Earth. But we are to focus rather on the New Jerusalem that will descend from heaven and be an entirely different city because God will dwell in it. And the present day Jerusalem just fades into insignificance and ought to be why we want to, in some ways, respect something of the history of the past. We ought not to think that the fulfillment of God’s purposes center on this Jerusalem but on the Jerusalem that is above.

Guthrie: Perhaps we can spend a few minutes before we close just on the beautiful picture of this city to come that John presents to us in Revelation 22. Of course, anyone who’s studied much Revelation knows there’s lots of imagery used here. And I wonder if there just might be a handful of things that you would draw out from the imagery of Revelation 21 and 22 that would set our hearts aflame with anticipation for our life in this greater city to come. I’m thinking in particular about some of this imagery about its walls and gates.

Alexander: Okay, that’s probably the harder part, I think.

Guthrie: Oh, it is?

Alexander: Yes.

Guthrie: Oh, I’m giving you the hard… Well, excellent, because we need an expert when we’re teaching the hard parts. So why do you say it’s the hard part?

Alexander: Because I think there’s probably a symbolism there in terms of the dimensions of the city.

Guthrie: Okay. Yes.

Alexander: It talks about it being 120 stadia. And it talks about the walls being 144 cubits wide. And that’s…you know, and you get the number 12 being used. And you get this idea of there being three gates on each side. And so there’s symmetry to it. And also this idea that it’s a golden cube in terms of structure. And that recalls the Holy of Holies in the Old Testament, because the Holy of Holies in Solomon’s temple was a golden cube. And so the symbolism points to the idea that the city, the entire city, is an expanded Holy of Holies. And the fact that we can live in it means that we’ve actually…we’re actually being given a privilege that even the Old Testament High Priest did not have, because he could only go into the Holy of Holies one day in the year and then with great caution, whereas Revelation speaks of people dwelling in the city and there being no barrier between us and God and the lamb.

So the symbolism, I think, has to be understood as symbolic rather than providing us with actual dimensions of the city. The city is described as being something like 1,200 stadia. It’s not what it says about it, which in terms of miles, is well over 1,000 miles in length. Well, certainly by the standards in Ireland, we can get to the north of Ireland, to the south of Ireland and only have traveled about 300 miles. So here’s a city that is being presented as ginormous in terms of its dimensions. Again, I think it’s meant to be understood not literally but symbolically that this is the largest city that someone in the ancient world could possibly have imagined.

Guthrie: So many contrasts, I think, could actually be made between the New Jerusalem and the Old Jerusalem, just the simple statement that nothing unclean will ever enter it. And whenever I read that line, it makes me think more about Eden than even the Old Jerusalem. As you think about this original dwelling place of God, this holy realm in which God wanted to dwell with His people. And this unclean thing entered it. And so to me, it’s a beautiful contrast of the insecurity both of life in this world as well as the insecurity of Eden, the way things started. But as we look into the future, there’s this security that our hearts long for.

Alexander: Yes. And you get the sense of the tree of life being there. And just as Adam and Eve were excluded when they were driven out from the Garden of Eden, they were banned, prohibited from going back into the Garden of Eden. They weren’t to get near the tree of life. Revelation wants to make the point that the tree of life is there flowering. It’s there for the healing of the nations. You get this picture of people enjoying health, no pain, no suffering, no death. All of the things that detract from us enjoying life here and now will not be present there. It’s almost unimaginable, I think, to think what would life be like in a city where no one suffers, where there’s no harm, where there’s no pain, where there’s no theft, where there’s no brutality. All of these things, I think, it’s an experience that we can only begin to partially imagine.

Guthrie: Yeah. I mean, I’m thrilled to come to Belfast today. And in a few days, I’m going to go to London, you know, some of these great cities of the world. I live in Nashville, which is a fabulous city. It is a great place to live. But no city in the world could ever compare with the excellent seas of this city to come. This is the city we all want to be citizens of. The city we want to live in forever. The city whose architect and builder is God.

Alexander: Yes. And it will be somewhere where we will be able to flourish as people and I believe use the gifts that we have to the full. But it won’t simply be a city where we sit around with nothing to do. But I think that God will have something for us to do.

Guthrie: Yeah, the very nature that the future is a city, it tells us that this is not the end of the story, doesn’t it?

Alexander: Yes. Yeah.

Guthrie: It’s not a city that comes to an end. The very fact that He is setting before us a future that is a city, speaks to activity and life and future.

Alexander: Yes. And the things that we perhaps find fulfilling today, I think we will continue to find fulfilling. Because we will live on a renewed Earth and there will be so much to explore and pursue in that wonderful place.

Guthrie: So you have written about this a lot, including this most recent book, “The City of God and the Goal of Creation.” In working on this and thinking about this as much as you have, is there a certain aspect that to you personally as you meditate on it or as you communicate it that it has been a deep source of encouragement or warmed your heart toward the things to come?

Alexander: I think just that’s the sense that all of scripture in a very remarkable way comes together to give a richer sense of this future hope. I talk to a lot of people who have a very vague sense of what the world to come will be like. They think simply about going to heaven, but heaven is somewhere very vague, it’s somewhere perhaps very ephemeral. They don’t really have any grasp of what it might be like. And while for some, it might seem like a disappointment to say that, well, what God began when He created this earth is going to be very much how the earth to come, the world to come will be, while for some that might seem like a disappointment.

It seems to me that in actual fact, it makes a lot of sense to think that the world to come will be the new earth, will in many ways be similar to this earth. It makes sense of what Paul and others have to say about a bodily resurrection that we will be resurrected and have real bodies in the life to come. And to see that then being associated with a remarkable city where we will be in community with other people, we will enjoy God’s presence, where everything will work as it should work, and where there will be no longer any sin, any wrong, any evil. That is a remarkable hope to have. In some ways, it’s the concreteness of it, it’s the realness of it that, I think, nourishes me and helps me in my Christian faith.

Guthrie: Me too.

Alexander: Okay.

Guthrie: Thank you for being willing to have this conversation with me and to help us teach the Bible especially in this important theme that runs from Genesis to Revelation, the City of God.

Alexander: Well, it’s been my pleasure to chat with you.

Guthrie: You’ve been listening to “Help Me Teach the Bible” with Nancy Guthrie, a production of the gospel coalition sponsored by Crossway. Crossway is a not-for-profit publisher of the ESV Bible, Christian books, and tracks. Learn more about Crossway’s gospel centered resources at crossway.org.

Desmond AlexanderIn his new book, The City of God and the Goal of Creation, T. Desmond Alexander—senior lecturer in Biblical Studies at Union Theological College in Belfast, Ireland—writes that “Genesis 1–2 introduces a story that anticipates the creation of an extraordinary city where God will dwell in harmony with humanity.” Of course just a couple of chapters later, Cain is building a city with no reference to God. We could say that the Bible is the story of two cities, the city of man and the city of God.

In this conversation, for which I traveled from Nashville to Belfast, Alexander traces the story of God working out his plan to bring his people into this city. Along the way in our discussion, we talked about how Babel relates to Babylon, how we don’t anticipate a rebuilding of the early Jerusalem but rather the coming of the new Jerusalem, and the ways our understanding of the city of God address our sometimes vague sense of the heavenly life in the eternal city to come.

Listen to this episode of Help Me Teach the Bible.

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