Urban theology

“And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?” - Jonah 4:11

God is concerned for cities first and foremost because so many people and animals live in cities. Nineveh was the capital of Israel’s enemy, the Assyrian Empire. Yet God sent the prophet Jonah against his will to warn the city of imminent destruction. They repented, God relented, but Jonah was angry that God had compassion for them.

Sometimes Christians can have similar attitudes to that of Jonah. Why would God bless the city? Why should the church be involved in urban issues? Why spend Kingdom resources on worldly matters? Why invest money and time without seeing a direct benefit to the church?

The answer is simple: God loves cities because God loves people and His creation. From the beginning of time, cities have always been part of God’s plan for humanity. In fact, God is a city architect and builder (Hebrews 11:10). The story of the Bible starts in a garden but ends in a city.

God has a definite vision for what makes a good city and how the city should benefit all people. In the Old Testament, many stories demonstrate how not to run cities (corruption, injustice, oppression, idolatry). Especially Jerusalem, the capital of Israel which failed miserably. Visions of the New Jerusalem paint a picture of what God’s ideal city looks like. For example:

This is what the Lord Almighty says: “Once again men and women of ripe old age will sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each of them with cane in hand because of their age. The city streets will be filled with boys and girls playing there.” This is what the Lord Almighty says: “It may seem marvelous to the remnant of this people at that time, but will it seem marvelous to me?” declares the Lord Almighty. - Zechariah 8:4-6

Today, it would seem marvelous to us that children could play outside on the streets. Hanoi is lacking playgrounds and open spaces where the elderly can peacefully watch children safely at play. To God this is not marvelous, it should be normal. Imagine all that would need to change to create such spaces in Hanoi. It will take work to align our city with God’s vision.

In Isaiah 65:17-25 there is a vivid description of the New Jerusalem: there will be public celebrations and happiness (v17-25), public health for children and the aged (v20), housing and food for all (v21-22), family support systems (v23), and absence of violence (v25). This is the peaceful city.

The Hebrew word for peace is shalom, which encompasses all of life. Jerusalem means “the foundation of shalom”. Yet Jesus weeps over Jerusalem as he entered the city before his crucifixion. He said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes.” - Luke 19:42

Twice God’s people missed the mark of God’s heart and design for the city. Through the Apostle John, God revealed once again his vision for cities: "I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God's dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” - Revelation 21:2-4

Jesus taught us to pray, “Your Kingdom come and Your will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.” Loving our cities tangibly demonstrates God’s love for its people (John 3:16). The call of every Christian and the mandate of every church is to pray for and seek the shalom of the city and their communities. Because as the city prospers, so will God’s people (Jeremiah 29:7).

To learn more about a theology that is as big as the city, please read the book by Ray Bakke, available at the Love Hanoi Festival office or at HIF. You can also ask for the video link of the “Love Your City” seminar.

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