May 2, 2016

​A Tale of Two Cities?

What we’re really talking about when we cite Babylon and Jerusalem.

Gerald A. Klingbeil

Bible and city somehow don’t seem to mesh.

Just think about the beginnings. Before sin entered this world, Adam and Eve enjoyed the beauty of a spectacular garden environment. “Very good” was synonymous with both Eden and Creation. Lush, colorful, profuse, tranquil, vibrant—these are the qualities that come to mind when we think about the garden described in the first chapters of Genesis. Following the Fall, Genesis seems to suggest that cities are places for murderers (Cain in Genesis 4:17), for rebels (the tower builders of Genesis 11:1-9), or for people of depraved morals (Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19), while God’s covenant family live a nomadic lifestyle in a pastoral setting.

Later, Israel leaves the cities of Egypt and, following their wanderings in the wilderness, conquer Canaan’s cities (remember Jericho, Ai, and Hazor in Joshua?). Cities and urban spaces would not have received many Facebook likes from Israel’s prophets either. Both Jerusalem and Samaria, the capitals of Judah and Israel, respectively, are bluntly indicted for their social injustice and violence (cf. Isa. 5:1-7; Jer. 34; 35; Eze. 16; Amos 4).

Yet the evidence is not clear-cut. While indicted, Jerusalem is still considered God’s dwelling place (cf. Ps. 48:1, 8; 132:13, 14), and the location of God’s Temple, where the drama of salvation is illustrated daily in every sacrifice ultimately pointing to the true Lamb of God. Jerusalem becomes the focal point of salvation history when, finally, after hundreds and hundreds of years, the Messiah comes. But He is not what everyone had expected Him to be.

Another City

Babylon first comes to the attention of any Bible reader because of the Tower of Babel story in Genesis 11. It is often associated with human pride and human self-sufficiency in Scripture. In fact, Isaiah’s memorable depiction of Lucifer’s fall from heaven and the origin of sin in Isaiah 14 uses the cipher of “king of Babylon” to point to the satanic power standing behind every attempt at installing self as the center of the universe. Babylon surely is the biblical prototype of rebellion and sin.

I had noticed him sitting in the back of the church right from the beginning. His clothing was stained and full of holes.

The same motif reappears in the last book of the New Testament. Babylon figures as Jerusalem’s opposite. “Babylon is fallen, is fallen, that great city,” introduces the second angel’s cry for judgment (Rev. 14:8),* and echoes a similar call already found in Isaiah 21:9. Babylon’s fall, while in the future, is assured because of her sharing her intoxicating mix of self-righteousness, idolatry, and pride. Centuries earlier, the prophet Jeremiah used a similar metaphor: “Flee from the midst of Babylon, and every one save his life! Do not be cut off in her iniquity, for this is the time of the Lord’s vengeance; He shall recompense her. Babylon was a golden cup in the Lord’s hand that made all the earth drunk. The nations drank her wine; therefore the nations are deranged” (Jer. 51:6, 7).

Did you catch it? Babylon was once a “golden cup in the Lord’s hand”—an instrument of divine judgment in a moment ripe for judgment. That’s why God “gave” Jerusalem and her people into the hand of Nebuchadnezzar (Dan. 1:2), who brought tribute and hostages to Babylon. Daniel, a young teenager who suddenly found himself in the metropolis of Babylon in Mesopotamia, was one of them. Just imagine the impact a move from Collegedale, Tennessee, to New York City would have on any individual. Daniel and his friends make it big in Babylon and become agents of change, so much so that decades later Nebuchadnezzar exclaims: “For His [God’s] dominion is an everlasting dominion, and His kingdom is from generation to generation. All the inhabitants of the earth are reputed as nothing; He does according to His will in the army of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth. No one can restrain His hand or say to Him, ‘What have You done?’ ” (Dan. 4:34, 35). God’s love for lost sinners had finally reached the heart of King Nebuchadnezzar—right in the center of Babylon.

Jeremiah adds another intriguing complication to this tale of two cities. “Seek the peace of the city where I have caused you to be carried away captive, and pray to the Lord for it; for in its peace you will have peace” (Jer. 29:7). Pray for Babylon? Pray for Nineveh? Pray for Susa? Pray for Rome—or New York?

No Tale

It seems, after all, that this is no tale of two cities. Jerusalem can be as wicked as Babylon. Babylon can become the nerve center of God’s plan to bless the world. The imperial city of Rome can be God’s agent to get the soon-to-be-born Messiah into the right geographical location.

We can see this when we venture a closer look. Jerusalem’s leaders—nearly all of them, it seems—were plotting the death of Jesus on a Sabbath day (Mark 3:6). Their blind confidence in a conditional promise caused them to lose sight of what really counts in Jerusalem—and Babylon, Berlin, Bangkok, or Beijing.

Wherever we live, God’s passionate love wants to reach and transform us—whether in a megacity, the countryside, or the one-horse town where we all know each other.

I met Luis in the center of Lima in Peru on a foggy Sabbath morning. Luis was a drug addict who lived on the rough streets of downtown Lima. He had been abandoned as a child and, so far, had survived the streets. Somewhere along the way he had started to sniff glue—with devastating effects on his health.

The Sabbath I met Luis marked the end of a large evangelistic series that had found Adventists and their friends in a huge sports stadium in town. As an ordained pastor, like all my colleagues at the Adventist university located in good Adventist fashion outside of Lima, I had been assigned to a church to preach the final sermon and baptize the candidates who had been prepared for baptism by the local congregation. As I drove through the foggy, congested, and dangerous streets of downtown Lima, I prayed for a special angel guard that would watch over my wife and my young daughter who were sitting with me in the car.

One of the elders of the small church greeted me cheerfully outside the building. “Pastor, I will watch the car the entire morning,” he said with a smile. “You don’t need to worry about your car.” Now I was worried.

The small congregation had prepared five candidates for baptism. We met before the church service and spoke about the meaning and significance of baptism, and of becoming a family member in the Adventist Church. At the end of my sermon I made a call to follow Jesus through baptism. My five candidates came forward—and there was Luis.

I had noticed him sitting in the back of the church right from the beginning. His clothing was stained and full of holes. He hadn’t seen a shower or bath for a long time. But when I made the call, Luis got up. An elder and one of my theology students, who had spent the past six months serving in this church, came toward him and softly spoke with him as they watched the baptismal ceremony. After the baptism, when everyone had filed out of church, I finally met Luis. His speech was halting; the effects of his drug habit were quite apparent. Yet he wanted to be part of this family. I marveled at the local elder and my caring student as they talked to him patiently. That evening Luis slept in a real bed. Over the next months my student spent hours opening God’s Word with him. Five months later he himself went down into the watery grave, and a new Luis emerged from the baptismal font.

There really is no tale of two cities. Whether we live in Jerusalem or Babylon, whether in the countryside or in downtown Manhattan, we are at the center of God’s love. Once we realize this, God invites us t
o share His grace and salvation with those living around us. We become members of God’s mission team. We become His hands, His feet, and His arms to touch people living in a lost and dying world. It doesn’t really matter where we live.

* Bible texts in this article are from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Gerald A. Klingbeil is an associate editor of the Adventist Review who wants to love people more—wherever they are living.