The City of God on Earth, Part 2: Redemption in Time and Space

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Editor’s note: This series is created from a talk given by Wang Yi, a pastor and a leading voice in the house church in China. Wang Yi addressed a group of fellow pastors and church members, challenging them to view the gospel as the coming of the kingdom of God on earth, not just a means of individual salvation. This address was given at a 2014 conference in Hong Kong. Read last week’s post here and check back in the coming weeks for the rest of the series!

In recent decades in China, we have been asking questions; first, about time, and second, about space. Let us look again at Psalm 46.

A key word turns up over and over again in Psalm 46: “earth.” In eleven verses, “earth” appears five times. The Lord wants to be a refuge on earth for his people, to be with his people on earth, and to make his people at rest on earth. We see a dream that one day, God’s will will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

There is also faith about time and space. Verses 2 and 3 say, “Though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam.” Jerusalem is far from the sea, just like Chengdu, where I live. Chengdu is a solid city. No matter how heavy the tsunami, it will not be moved. Only an earthquake can move Chengdu.

Verse 4 says, “There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God.” Again, there are no rivers in Jerusalem. Not only does Jerusalem have no rivers, but also it is a city with no rivers that was built far away from the sea. This was very rare for that ancient culture. Jerusalem was a city in the wilderness.

If this psalm was written before the captivity of the Israelites, then in their memory there would be a big city named Nineveh, which had a great river running through it. If this psalm was written after the captivity, then the captive Israelites’ minds would recall another big city named Babylon, which also had a great river running through it. Before their captivity, the city the Israelites would think of when they read this psalm was not Jerusalem, where they lived; and as a captive people, the city they would think of was still not their hometown.

We know King Hezekiah brought the Kidron Brook from outside the city’s east door into Jerusalem through an underground water-channel. This became the Pool of Shelah, the only water supply from outside the city. What do the upheavals of nature and this “river whose streams make glad the city” point to?

Verse 6 talks about the upheavals of human society, not the upheavals of nature. It says, “The nations rage, the kingdoms totter.” Here the tsunamis and earthquakes of nature are a metaphor for the uproar of nations, referring to a world that has betrayed the Lord. Because there is a river running through it, many interpreters believe this psalm points to the New Jerusalem of heaven. This leads us to associate it with two things.

The first is a questionable point in Genesis: a river with streams like the grace of God. When preaching on the river running through Jerusalem in Psalm 46, commentator Matthew Henry said it is not a real river in Jerusalem, but a metaphor for the gracious covenant of God. The second is, in the beginning of Ezekiel 47, after the Israelites’ captivity, a river flowed from the holy temple of New Jerusalem, the holy city. We see this same picture in the last chapter of Revelation. In New Jerusalem, the holy city, there really is a river of life running out from the holy temple and overflowing into the whole city.

Dear brothers and sisters, the gospel is not only about individual salvation, but rather, it is even more concerned with heaven and earth. The gospel is about redemption in time and space. Modern cultures stress individual stories. To some extent, each person’s story deserves to be heard. But after listening to many of these personal, inner-heart stories, why do we still feel empty? Because the gospel is a story of God’s salvation and grace that occurs within time and space.

Dear brothers and sisters, the gospel is not only about individual salvation, but rather, it is even more concerned with heaven and earth. The gospel is about redemption in time and space.

We see many grand narratives in Chinese society, stories that seem likely to turn the “Chinese dream” into an even grander narrative. This story of the “Chinese dream” enters our dreams of time and space, conquers those dreams, and sweeps them away. The gospel (which is the only real grand narrative which has happened in human history) and God’s salvation are narrowed to a single story of the inner heart.

If we believe heaven and earth were created, then heaven and earth are like a building, or a landscape. Houses are built by human beings, but all things are created by God. The whole world is God’s building. The purpose of this building, just like the psalms say, is for God to live together on earth with his people, and to govern them by his grace and righteousness. With this view, heaven and earth as well as time and space are like a city, the city of God. Genesis showed us the initial stages of creation, when earth was a construction site and Adam the foreman. After Adam fell and was chased out, where can we find the final architectural rendering of this construction site?

There is a construction site next to the building where I live. The site has already been there for five years. Recently, they finally started to dig a big hole. But the exterior walls have no large blueprints or company slogans to show what they are building. I have passed by that site several times. Each time I ask the exiting workers, “What on earth are you building?” Each time they answer, “I don’t know.” You see, the entire human race lives in heaven and earth. Even many Christians—called, born again, and saved—live in this land and do not know the final rendering of God’s construction site.

It is recorded in the psalms of Zion, in the books of Revelation and of Ezekiel. It is the City of God, which will fill the earth. There are some terms—“to the ends of the earth,” or to “fill the earth”—which are used quite similarly in Psalm 46 and in the book of Genesis. There are similar terms in the Great Commission: “to the ends of the earth,” and “to the end of the age.” Psalm 46 tells us that from the time Abraham was called by God, the dreams and hopes of the Israelite nation and their relationship with God never rested on individual salvation. They dreamed of a city of God. In this city the Lord would live together on earth with his people, be with them, and bless them with peaceful rest. “Cease striving and know that I am God” is an announcement the Lord sends out to a turbulent world, a world that betrayed him. It is like Jesus Christ’s rebuke to the winds and the sea: “Be still, and know that I am God.”

In this city the Lord would live together on earth with his people, be with them, and bless them with peaceful rest.

Brothers and sisters, in Revelation 11:19, when the seventh angel sounds the trumpet, “God’s temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of his covenant was seen within his temple.” This is very interesting. After captivity in Babylon, the Israelite people returned to Jerusalem. They rebuilt the fallen tabernacle of David, the walls of the city, and even a second temple. But in this second temple, there was no ark of the covenant, no Urim and Thummim, no tent of the meeting used in the wilderness. The glory of the Lord, which appeared when Solomon dedicated the temple, did not appear. This was an empty temple, a holy city without the Ark of the Covenant. The glory of the Lord did not show itself among them—at least not until John 1:14, when the Word “became flesh and dwelt among us.”

“To dwell” means to pitch the tabernacle and the tent of meeting among us. We have already seen God’s glory in those places. When the Ark of the Covenant is revealed in heaven at the end of history, the whole world will become the holy temple of the Lord, the entire universe will become a city of God. The church should be this city of God.

The whole world will become the holy temple of the Lord, the entire universe will become a city of God.