The glorious city of God is my theme in this work.
—Augustine of Hippo
There’s A New Sheik In Town
“So you have met the new sheik?”
“Yes. He seems a wise and honorable man. He comes from the Land Between the Rivers. From Ur originally, I think.”
“What is his name?”
“He is called Exalted Father.”
“A name of good omen. He must have many sons.”
“No. None at all.”
“Indeed? Still daughters may be a great treasure…at least for the young men who marry into such a wealthy family.”
“But he has no daughters either. No children at all.”
“He says he has a promise—and from no one less than El, the Creator. He will have a son and be the father of a great nation.”
“And how old is this sheik?”
“Humph. And his wife…?”
“He calls her My Princess—a very beautiful woman, in fact. She is sixty-five. I, uh, made inquiries.”
“And they still hope for a son?”
“They have a promise.”
“So you said. From El. I think other gods would be more helpful.”
“There is something else, something I did not understand.”
“He spoke of a city, a city made by El Himself. I think he is looking for it.”
“There are no cities in the grasslands…let alone in the wilderness beyond.”
“And yet he looks, and waits, and hopes.”
“He may be disappointed.”
A Stranger and A Pilgrim
Exalted Father. Abram. We know him better as Abraham, the father of all who believe. The book of Hebrews says that he “looked for a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God.” (Heb 11:10) Abraham was looking for the City of God, the New Jerusalem. That is not to say that he expected to find it over the next rise or around the next mountain. God’s City lay in the future. Abraham understood this. He lived by faith, and he waited for Christmas in hope.
Abraham is one of the most important men in the history of the world. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all look to him as a patriarch and prophet. Arabs and Israelis alike come from his loins, and Christians reckon him their spiritual father (Gal. 3:29). Given all of this, it is remarkable how short his resume is by human standards.
Abram’s story begins in Ur of the Chaldees, a city dedicated to the moon god Nanna (or Sin). There God appeared to Abram and made him some promises. God promised to give him a son, to make of him a great nation, and to bless all the families of the earth in him (Gen. 12:1-3). He called Abram to migrate to an unnamed land in the West. Eventually, Abram discovered the land was called Canaan. Today we call it Palestine.
Abram sojourned in and about that land for the next hundred years. During that time he never owned a piece of property, except for a small lot and cave he purchased for a family crypt. He never owned a house with a real foundation and solid walls. He basically lived in tents his whole life. On one occasion he fought and won a war, but he refused to take any of the winnings (Gen. 14). Most of his years were spent raising cattle and sheep, supervising a large sheikdom, and conducting public worship. Wherever he went, he raised altars to El Shaddai, God Almighty, and proclaimed the name of the Lord. Yet this man’s faith changed the world.
Abraham’s Home-Born Strike Force
Slavery was a given in the ancient world, but Hebrew culture had laws that governed the institution, that protected the slave and his family, and that provided ways for the slave to gain his freedom (see, for example, Ex. 21:1-11). One of the oddest features of the master-slave relationship in Hebrew culture was the position of “home-born slave.” If a slave had earned his freedom, but actually preferred to stay with his master and his household, he might ask to be adopted into his master’s family. If the master was agreeable and the local magistrates approved (there was to be no coercion on the master’s part), the ex-slave would go to the door of the master’s house or tent. He would place his ear against the door or post, and the master would drive an awl through his ear lobe. His ear was then said to be “circumcised.” He would wear a golden earring as a sign that his ear was open to (chained to) his master’s voice. Such a “slave” would officially become a part of the family as well as an integral part of the household. He could serve as a foreman or steward and might even become his master’s heir. In the New Testament Jesus is spoken of as His Father’s home-born slave (Heb. 10:5-7 with Ps. 40:6; Phil. 2:14:1).
We are told that Abram had 318 “trained servants, born in his own house,” specifically 318 home-born slaves (Gen. 14:14). Obviously, Abram was a just, wise, and generous employer. 318 of his men had asked to be adopted into his household. And Abram had received each of them. He even trained them all in the use of arms and turned them into an effective and fast moving strike force. These men were ready to die to support Abram in his mission of faith.
Now men normally have wives and children. 318 adult males might easily represent an overall population of some three thousand people or more. But Scripture also speaks of the “souls that they had gotten” before Abram and his wife came into Canaan (Gen. 12:5). These were not slaves, but other followers who listened to Abram and came to share his vision. They were converts. In reality, Abram ruled a very large and powerful sheikdom. Its distinguishing characteristic was faith in Abram’s vision, faith in the promise of God.
Abram also won friends among the local sheiks. These desert chieftains no doubt admired his character and his business acumen. Abram was a skilled cattleman and shepherd, an honest, but tough businessman, as well as brilliant military leader. But these other sheiks became more than friends to Abram—they became his sworn allies. And that means that on some level, they too were converts to Abraham’s God as only men who worshipped the same God could honestly swear and covenant together.
What we are seeing is that Abram not only looked forward to the City of God… even in the years of his pilgrimage, he was actually organizing one of its earliest suburbs. For Abram, the City of God was not just about future.
The City of God
When Augustine of Hippo wrote The City of God in 410 A.D., he was defending a biblical philosophy of history against the slanders of the Roman humanists. For Augustine, the City of God was a trans-temporal thing. He describes it as spread across the ages, sojourning in this world by faith, and yet lying ultimately in the future, in eternity. The City of Man would come and go and Rome was merely its most recent incarnation. But the City of God was forever.
Now the word “city” implies a number of things. To begin with, a city is a human community. And, as the whole ancient and mediaeval world knew, that implied a common religious faith. The life of a city is the externalization of its shared faith and vision. This means a city is more than a collection of individuals. It’s a society, a civilization, and a culture. It is bound together, not only by a government and laws, but also by shared concerns and hopes, by common values and ideals, by ethical agreement, and by a common history and tradition. At its best, a city is a covenantal organism. Its community is not an accident of geography, but a necessary consequence of religious commitment.
Just such a society is the New Jerusalem. The apostle John saw this City in vision, which he calls the Bride of Christ and the Tabernacle of God with Men (Rev. 21). The writer of Hebrews recognizes this heavenly City as both a present and future reality (Heb. 12:22-24; 13:14). In other words, this City of God is the Church of Jesus Christ. It is trans-temporal and eternal. It is now and not yet. It is truly “catholic” in the proper sense of the word as it cuts across barriers of gender, age, language, social class, nationality, ethnic descent, and economic status. It embraces all these differences and unites them in service to God. This community is more than a religious organization or an organization of religionists; it is itself the tabernacle or temple of the living God and the life that governs it is that of the Spirit of God. Its charter is the word of God and its laws are the laws of God.
This City has a divine mission and goal: God intends it to bring light and healing to the nations of the earth, not by politics or force, but by grace and truth. In John’s vision the New Jerusalem is the Garden at the center of the world, the channel through which the water of life flows to the ends of the earth (Rev. 22). He writes, “And the nations of them which are saved shall walk in the light of it: and the kings of the earth do bring their glory and honor into it.” (Rev. 21:24) This is an eschatology of liberation, hope, and peace.
But for now the New Jerusalem lives by grace, walks by faith, and witnesses to truth through human imperfection. It is veiled and clearly visible only to the eyes of faith. Its perfection and fullness lie in eternity, beyond the end of redemptive history. And so, like Abram, God’s people have here “no continuing city, but we seek one to come” (Heb. 13:14).
The Blessing Of Abraham
God promised Abram that all the families of the earth would be blessed though him. Abram understood that true blessing meant a right relationship with God Almighty. It meant justification by faith and God’s gift of the indwelling Holy Spirit (see Gal. 3). He understood that this blessing was something God meant for the whole world. Abram believed that all families and nations would one day share his faith and would be, in that sense, his children (Rom. 4:13). But he also understood that the foundations of that believing community lay in God, in His sovereign grace and covenant mercy and particularly in the work of the coming Messiah, the promised Seed. Abram looked for a new world precisely because he looked for a divine Savior, who was yet to come.
America’s True Hope at Christmas
So Abram waited in hope for Christmas. Meanwhile, he was busy with work and worship. He loved and cherished his wife. He instructed his children in the word of God. He kept his commitments. He ran his business. He took care of his employees. He bore public witness to God’s plan for the world. He won souls to the promise. And so he became one of God’s chief instruments for blessing and changing the world.
Christians today have so much more “evidence” than Abraham. We have the actual historic birth of Jesus Christ in time and space. We have the promised incarnation.
Jesus Christ is truly King of kings and we are his ambassadors. We are called to act in hope in all that we do. So part of Christmas is acting like one of his ambassadors.
Christmas celebrates the decided victory over a pretty messed-up world. Christians call it the “good news” and here it is: This Jesus, born in a manger delivers a head-crushing victory over the forces of the dark side. He wins, allowing us to win. And so, from Abraham’s day to our day, this has always been the central meaning of Christmas. Unless we act in terms of this great victory in every area of our lives, we labor in vain to rebuild America.
For further reading:
Augustine of Hippo, The City of God.
James Jordan, Primeval Saints, Studies in the Patriarchs of Genesis (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2001).