Building the City of God

By Justin Dean    |    June 26, 2023


Jesus said, “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 5:14).

When Jesus says, “You are the light of the world,” the you is plural. It is more like y’all. Jesus is speaking of the church as a whole; he isn’t just telling us that every single Christian is an individual light. He is saying that as you are a part of the body of Christ and gather with your brothers and sisters in Christ, you collectively are a city within the city. Together you are a city of light that is meant to do good works (Titus 1:14) and glorify God amid the darkness so that others can see that light and give glory to God.

I have been captured by this idea of being a city within a city for a while now. It’s one of the reasons we named our church Sacred City Church when we planted it over thirteen years ago. We believe God is calling us to be a city devoted to him—a city within our city, a city of light amid the darkness, a city of truth amid foolishness, a city of goodness amid evil, and a city of beauty amid ugliness.

Augustine on the Two Cities

Last summer, while on sabbatical, one of the books I read was Augustine’s The City of God. Augustine wrote this book after the Goths sacked Rome in AD 410. Surprisingly, Christianity had become the dominant religion in Rome, overtaking Paganism. People began saying Rome had been destroyed because they had abandoned the old Roman gods and goddesses. Augustine wrote the book as an apologetic to dispel these myths.

This is the main point I pulled from Augustine’s work: two cities have been formed by two loves: the earthly by the love of self, even to the contempt of God; the heavenly by the love of God, even to the contempt of self. The former city glories in itself, the latter city in the Lord. Augustine’s thesis is that there are and always have been two types of people: those who love God more than they love themselves and those that love themselves more than they love God. These two types of people are the citizenry of Augustine’s two cities—the city of God and the city of man, a sacred city or a selfish city, those who live on this earth as citizens of heaven and those who live as usurpers to King Jesus.

As you read the Bible, you begin to see that these two cities are constantly at war with one another. Not just physically at war but also waging war spiritually, philosophically, and culturally. The war is always raging, and who is winning is not always evident. Scripture also tells us how this war is going to end. Jesus will return to set up his heavenly Kingdom on this earth, and all his faithful followers will reign with him as all his enemies cower under his feet. At Christ’s return, every “knee with bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord” (Rom. 14:11). But in the meantime, before the imminent return of Christ, the city of God expands and contracts. We win some ground and lose some ground. God is far more patient than we are, and His Kingdom comes very slowly (from our perspective). In our culture, it seems that we are rapidly losing ground. It looked that way for Augustine too. But, in future events that likely would have surprised Augustine, Christianity went on to expand and Christianize all of Europe and into the United States of America. The future expansions and contractions of the city of God are difficult to predict.

As our culture tries to deconstruct everything founded in Christianity, what are we to do? In one sense, that is what the books of Ezra and Nehemiah are all about. Too many Christians have never read these books. Instead, today’s Christians often have their theology formed by popular Christian fiction, which leads them to believe they are just supposed to wait around and watch the world get darker and darker before Jesus raptures them off this planet. For them, we win by losing. So, should we sit around and welcome the darkness that seems to be pervading our culture because it’s a sign that Jesus’s return is imminent? No, we are to put our hope in King Jesus, “who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Tim. 1:10). We are to make disciples, plant churches, and renew our cities. We are to build cities within our cities. If deconstruction is the view that tries to tear down everything that has its foundations in Christianity, you could say that we are all called to be constructionists. We are called to rebuild what has been lost and to build new things for the city of God. One of the interesting features of the books of Ezra and Nehemiah is that their cultural contexts were similar to our own and to Augustine’s. Ezra and Nehemiah were written in a time and place where it seemed like the city of God was flickering out. It was a time in Israel’s history when the city of man seemed to confidently take more ground on top of the cultural ruins of their faith.

Ezra and Nehemiah on Building

For that reason, Ezra and Nehemiah are crucial books to study in our cultural moment. If you remember, Ezra was all about doing first things first. If you want to build the city of God, you start with the right worship of God and the correct teaching of the Scriptures. Worship is the foundation for every society, even a secular society. A nation’s culture, laws, norms, and art flow from its religion. So, if you want a city that is truthful, honest, industrious, just, and good, that city must first worship the God of heaven. This is why the first task for the returned exiles recorded in Ezra is to build the temple.

We’re building a city within our city, a city of light amid the darkness, a city of truth amid foolishness, a city of goodness amid evil, and a city of beauty amid ugliness.”

—Justin Dean

The same is true for us; if we want to change the world, we must build the church. Worship is always upstream from politics and culture. Before Nehemiah was sent to rebuild the walls and rightly order the city and civil magistrates in Jerusalem, Ezra was sent by God to rebuild the temple and restore the right worship of God. For Ezra, there was no “church” back in Jerusalem. The temple had been leveled. There was no altar. No worshipping community. There were no comfortable jobs to be had. Nobody was applying for a transfer to the Jerusalem office then. All that remained of Jerusalem was ruins and a whole lot of work to be done. And yet, God was calling faith-filled pioneers to return to Jerusalem and build the city of God. These would be men who weren’t afraid of a fair bit of uncertainty and a whole lot of hard work. These would be men who were willing to trust God, obey his word, and rebuild in the ruins.

The Task Before Us as Pioneers

I believe we are in a similar situation today. The Christian worldview significantly influenced our country’s founding. Our modern concepts of government, law, freedom, and liberty have only grown in Western societies that were first predominately Christian. Most of our society has forgotten that heritage, and we no longer share the same moral compasses. Our foundations are in ruins.

What are we to do? The answer is not to put our hope in the government or a new politician. The change we want to see requires that people once again turn back to Jesus and accept the Scriptures as authoritative over all of life. That cannot be legislated without the will of the people who are eager to restore our civic morality and integrity. What we need now is for God’s people to once again foster the ideals of godly pioneers. We must fear him, trust his Word, and obey it in all of life. When the pioneers struck west on the Oregon trail, nothing was settled. They had no jobs to look forward to, just a whole lot of work. They had to build homes, livelihoods, communities, churches, and cities. If they didn’t like what they saw, they weren’t expecting anyone else to fix it. It was their responsibility. They had to get to work.

Much of our cities lie in ruin, and God calls us to renew them. This isn’t something that will happen in a couple of years; it’s a long-term vision. Many scholars believe the events of Ezra and Nehemiah took place over 100 years. That kind of work requires a multi-generational vision that will need our kids and grandkids to join us in the task to which God has called us. But the need is real, the call is clear, and the work is before us. And King Jesus is on the throne.

Justin Dean

Justin Dean is lead pastor of Sacred City Church in Davenport, Ia.

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