The Symbolic Nature of Biblical Cities

By: Dr. David Busic

Jerusalem became the biblical archetype of God’s hope for a city and the possibilities of urban redemption. It was called “the joy of the whole earth” (Psalm 48:2). It radiated divine presence and power: “From Zion, perfect in beauty, God shines forth” (Psalm 50:2). Jerusalem was even declared to be the desired dwelling place of God: “this is my resting place for ever and ever; here I will sit enthroned, for I have desired it. I will bless her with abundant provisions; her poor I will satisfy with food. I will clothe her priests with salvation, and her faithful people will ever sing for joy” (Psalm 132:14-16). This history importantly details that the city of Jerusalem functioned with a centripetal (directed toward the center) flow of mission. Like a missional magnet, the centripetal force of Jerusalem and her temple drew people to its center for the glory and worship of God. The nations were invited to come to Jerusalem and discover the beauty of monotheism and the corporate life of a holy nation created to glorify and worship the one true God.

Nineveh was another symbolically important biblical city that changed the trajectory of urban mission. As the capital city of the Assyrian Empire, Nineveh was considered the largest city in the world. The book of Jonah describes it as an expansive city that took a full three days to walk across (3:3), and with a population of more than 120,000 people (4:11). But Nineveh was also known for its exceedingly pagan practices. It was a wicked city that deserved God’s righteous judgment. It was filled with spiritually blind people “who cannot tell their right hand from their left” (v.11). They were not seeking God, and they did not care about Jerusalem. So out of merciful compassion, God sent Jonah to them, to go to where they were and preach to them.

Here is a major shift in urban missions that foreshadows the words of Jesus in the Great Commission. The people of God are sent out to be missionaries to the cities of the world. Whereas the previous flow of urban mission had been centripetal, it now became what Timothy Keller has referred to as the centrifugal flow of mission.[i] It became an outward focus with an emphasis on going. It became a movement directed outward from the center. For those unwilling or unable to come and survey the glory of God in Jerusalem, the good news would now be brought to their local neighborhood.[ii] The flow of mission had reversed course.

This centrifugal emphasis became even more pronounced when the people of God were taken into Babylonian exile. What was the missional message to God’s exiled people in a dangerous and oppressive environment? “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease” (Jeremiah 29:5-6). The exiles were to maintain their identity in a strange land, raise their families, and strive to flourish. They were to increase, not decrease. But they were to do more than increase their own well-being. “Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you in exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper” (v. 7).

These words from the prophet Jeremiah were a profoundly significant invitation. The exiles were being asked to do more than seek personal prosperity; they were called to pursue the welfare of the city in which they found themselves. They were to bring the ethic and ethos of Zion to a very great – but very pagan – place. They were to be, as a way of speaking, “resident aliens.”[iii] They were a missional people who knew they were not yet home but who were called to be committed to living as if they were.

This centrifugal urban movement continued in the early church. All the great cities of the known world became missional targets of vast importance. The political center of the first-century Greco-Roman world was Rome. The commercial center was Corinth. The intellectual center was Athens. The case could even be made that the religious center – with its many temples to pagan gods and imperial worship – was Ephesus. These cities and others like them (Thessalonica, Damascus, Iconium, Philippi, Lystra, Antioch, Caesarea, Galatia, Pergamum, and more) became missional targets for the centrifugal flow of the urban Christian movement.

The missionary journeys of the apostle Paul are well documented. These cities became his singular focus for frontline missionary activity. It was not because Paul had disregard for rural areas. He simply recognized that, if the gospel were to penetrate society’s great cultural centers, it would ultimately spread to the farthest reaches of the empire. Paul spent more than two years in the highly influential city of Ephesus. The kingdom impact was significant. According to Luke’s record in Acts, “All the Jews and Greeks who lived in the province of Asia heard the word of the Lord” (19:10). The Christian work in Ephesus flowed with centrifugal force into the surrounding areas. The rest of the New Testament documents read very much the same.

Cities have a prominent place in the history of Christian mission and hold imminent promise for the importance of the great cities of the world today. This is far more than a vision for urban ministry in North America. The masses of people gathered in cities await the gospel on every continent. There is no one-size-fits-all formula for planting urban churches in diverse cultural contexts, but the tools of Wesleyan-Holiness theology and ecclesiology are adaptable and transferable. As long as the methods do not compromise the message and the mission, we must give permission for flexibility. That “the advent of the New Jerusalem described in Revelation is an urban, rather than pastoral, paradise” continues to speak volumes about the present and coming kingdom of God.[iv] And so we pray, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

David A. Busic

            Advent 2019

[i] Timothy Keller, Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), 147.

[ii] Tim Keller, “What is God’s Global Urban Mission?” Lausanne Movement, 2010. I am indebted to Tim Keller for his insights on the centripetal and centrifugal aspects of mission.

[iii] “Resident aliens” is a term coined by Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon in their book of the same title, Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony: A Provocative Christian Assessment of Culture and Ministry for People Who Know That Something is Wrong (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1989).

[iv] Abram Lueders, “Evangelicals and the New Urbanism,” Marginalia: Los Angeles Review of Books, April 22, 2017,

*This article was originally published as the Afterword of Dr. Busic’s book: The City: Urban Churches in the Wesleyan-Holiness Tradition. It can be purchased at The Foundry Publishing or wherever books are sold.

Link to The Foundry:

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