Cities are intensifiers, both for good and for evil.
Reflecting on how Scripture characterizes cities reveals this reality. Early in Genesis, Cain and Lamech concentrate evil in cities, yet when Israel enters the Promised Land, God commands them to build “cities of refuge” (Numbers 35:11). Later in Genesis, God weighs the evil of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah and rains down judgment. Yet God also sends Jonah to preach repentance to Nineveh to show compassion on “the great city of more than 120,000 persons” (Jonah 4:10), marking perhaps the greatest numerical revival recorded in the Old Testament. Behind all these cities, however, Scripture presents two archetypal cities: Babylon and Jerusalem. From the Tower of Babel—the proto-Babylon—to the earthly Jerusalem—the symbol of the heavenly City of God—Scripture tells a “tale of two cities.”
Augustine developed the theme of these two cities in his book The City of God, illustrating how the love that shapes these contrasting cities produces intensified evil and intensified good. “In the one city, love of God has been given pride of place, and, in the other, love of self.” Human pride and self-reliance form the core of all those seeking to build and to place their hope in the City of Man. And this self-love will ultimately prove self-destructive. Love of God distinguishes those seeking to build and to place their hope in the City of God. “This is why humility is most highly praised in the City of God…[because] it is especially exemplified in the City’s King” (City of God, 14.13). Christ humbled himself by coming to the City of Man to rescue a people to join him in the City of God forevermore. Yet this City of God is not a physical location on earth; it exists in the fellowship of men and angels who love its King.
What, then, are the people of God who place their hope in the City of God to do when they find themselves in a City of Man? The prophet Jeremiah gives a crystal-clear call to believers: seek the good of your city (Jeremiah 29:7). This call feels especially poignant after a summer where the world saw Minneapolis grieving and burning. And while the media attention has moved on, Bethlehem remains here in Minneapolis for good.
How, then, should an institution like Bethlehem College & Seminary and its students, staff, and faculty seek their city’s good? Before suggesting four practical actions all of us can realistically take, let me commend two principles to guide investing in our city as Christians. Both of these are long-time values of Bethlehem Baptist Church articulated by John Piper back in the 1980s. First, Christians, move toward need, not comfort. Like Christ who “suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people” (Hebrews 13:11), so Christians prioritize meeting physical and spiritual needs over their own material comfort. Yet given the sheer number and intensity of the needs, we must add a second principle to complement the first. And the second is that proximity implies accountability. No individual or school or church can meet all the city’s needs, let alone the world’s. So we begin with the proximate. And for Bethlehem College & Seminary, housed at Bethlehem’s Downtown Campus, the proximate is the immediate surrounding neighborhoods, where many students, staff, and faculty already live.
With these principles as guides, let me suggest four ways (among many more!) that all of us might seek the good of our city, and especially the neighbors in need of gospel mercy and gospel witness:
Study. Be a student of where you live. Yes, that means getting to know those who live around you and, since cities intensify, that may include quite a number of people. But it also means learning to love your city. Ask what people love about the neighborhood. Find out the most beautiful spots and visit them. Enjoy your city and share that joy with others.
Serve. As you study your city and your neighbors, you will discover great needs and also many ministries already at work to meet those needs, both physical and spiritual. Bethlehem has spawned many ministries, some long-standing like Jericho Road and some recent like Support the Cities. Seeing and meeting physical needs will reveal the deeper spiritual needs, which will take words to meet, through prayer and proclamation.
Speak. As you come to know and serve this city, you will have opportunities to “proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9). It may be with your neighbor as you help bring in her groceries, or with police and first responders in response to a crisis, or even with city officials as they seek input on solving problems. Your study and service should lead to speaking the truth in love and praying for redemption. For no human effort can save anyone; only God saves souls, so we plead with him to work through us.
Stay. In a moment when the safety and security of cities feel especially precarious, the presence and constancy of Christians is needed all the more. Even as Bethlehem has emphasized spreading a passion for God’s supremacy by sending missionaries, planting churches, and filling ministries and churches with its graduates, there is also a need for some to stay. Those who stay, stay in order to study, serve, and speak to this city for its good.
As we study, serve, speak, and stay in our city, we proclaim with our actions and words the good news that there is an everlasting “city of the great King” which is now and will forever be “the joy of all the earth” (Psalm 48:2).
Zach Howard, M.Div.
Director of College Programs & Assistant Professor of Theology and Humanities
- Pray that we would study, serve, speak, and stay in our city for God’s glory and the joy of his people.
- Pray for our new students as they acclimate to new situations, friends, and study.
- Pray for our returning students, faculty, and staff as they begin a new school year on Monday.
- Pray for the health of our community and the healing of our city.