Like the theme of temple, the city of God shapes the Bible. The beginning and end of the biblical narrative clearly portray a creation theme (Genesis: creation; Revelation: new creation), but within this creation theme lies the theme of the city of God. From the outset to the end, we see the plans and final product of God’s city. Therefore, there is not only continuity (similarity) between beginning and end, but there is also discontinuity (difference). The major difference is this: Whereas Genesis opens the narrative with the Garden and two human habitants in the presence of God, Revelation pictures a world-size, golden city populated with all of God’s people. The Bible has real progression, and since progression implies continuity and connection, what ends in Revelation was intended from the beginning. Hence, the city in Revelation 21 is the completion of God’s plan from the get go.
The following article will trace the theme of the city of God from Genesis to Revelation to see its progression throughout the Bible and therefore the history of redemption. This theme can easily be traced in every section of the Old and New Testaments, but for the sake of space, we’ll hit some of the high points.
Genesis: Blueprint, Plan, and Project
Though it may not at first be clear (it wasn’t for me the first time I heard this!), “Genesis begins by anticipating the formation of a city that will be inhabited by both God and people.” We can see this by looking to the God-given mandate and location of the man: (1) God put man in the Garden to work and keep it (Gen 2:15); (2) God dwelt there (3:8); (3) and God charged man, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion” (1:28).
Alexander says, “Behind these commands [be fruitful, multiple, fill the earth and subdue it] lies the expectation that the ever-growing human population will live in community in or around” a place with God’s dwelling presence. In other words, the God-given mandate to fill the earth implies that man should spread the living place, which was God’s dwelling place—the Garden of Eden—throughout the world. This clearly means that the place of man and God would cover the whole earth.
On this John Walton comments:
If people were to fill the earth, we must conclude that they were not intended to stay in the garden in a static situation. Yet moving out of the garden would appear a hardship since the land outside the garden was not as hospitable as that inside the garden (otherwise the garden would not be distinguishable). Perhaps, then, we should surmise that people were gradually supposed to extend the garden as the food supply as well as extend the sacred space (since that is what the garden represented).
So, God grants authority to man rule and have dominion over the earth as vicegerent (ruling over creation is, in part, intrinsic to bearing God’s image after all [1:26–28]). They were to rule and spread their dominion throughout the entire world. They only had one “No”: do not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (2:17). However, an opponent slithered in.
Fall: Elevating to Be Like God
In Genesis 3, a creature, the serpent, which should be under man’s delegated authority, usurps the man through a temptation of elevation: “You will be like God” (3:5). Man ate the forbidden fruit, and so, God cast them out of this paradise, this living place wherein God’s presence dwelt. Nevertheless, God promised life in the seed of the woman (3:15), and so there was hope.
The Tower of Babel: An Epitome of Evil
Hope for man was not lost. The blueprint laid in the creation account was still evident and man could await the future realization of God’s city. However, like Adam, man wanted elevation, so many gathered and said, “let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth” (11:4). In sum, they wanted to (1) not be spread throughout the earth (going against God’s vision and plan for the world, (2) make a name for themselves (pride), and (3) have a man-made city (again pride). So they built the city and tower of Babel (also known as, Babylon). God would then come down and confuse man to humble and disperse him. Nevertheless, Babel (Babylon) casts a shadow of evil throughout the whole Bible.
Looking Towards a City
After Babel, the great man of faith, Abraham, enters the scene. God commanded and promised Abraham this:
Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed. (12:1–3)
God promises Abraham a land—a place to live. And further, God promised to Abraham’s son, Isaac, “Sojourn in this land, and I will be with you and will bless you, for to you and to your offspring I will give all these lands, and I will establish the oath that I swore to Abraham your father” (26:3). “Lands” suggest worldwide expansion.
The Patriarchs’ Anticipation
In the great chapter of faith, the author of Hebrews tells of Abraham’s anticipation of a unique, holy city built by God: “he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God … God … has prepared for them a city” (Heb 11:10, 16). This city was “the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem” (12:22).
David’s Jerusalem: Is This It?
The climax of the Bible may appear in the book of Samuel and/or Kings, for the great King David captures Jerusalem, the new capital of Israel, and he would bring the ark of the covenant, God’s footstool in this city (2 Sam 5:6–10; 6). This city only seems stronger when David’s son, Solomon, builds the temple and God fills the temple with his glory (1 Kgs 8:10). Israel has an established city, and God dwells in a specific location in this city. Certainly, history reaches its climax, right?
Babylon … Again
Despite being in the midst of a holy God, Israel became immoral, and so God left the temple (Ezek 10) and, for punishment, he sent Babylon to destroy Jerusalem. Babylon sacked Jerusalem, tearing down its walls and decimating the temple to stones and ashes. Babylon is proud in her victory, and Jerusalem, God’s city, was destroyed. But there was still hope.
Jerusalem wasn’t the city Abraham hoped for, it just typified (anticipated and pointed to) the real thing. As Isaiah shows, the city of Jerusalem would be replaced with a greater city in the future, the city of God where all nations would come in God’s presence (Isa 2:2–5; cf. Ezek 20:40–44; Zeph 3:14–20; Zech 1:14–17).
After Babylon sacked Jerusalem, hope seemed nil. “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son” (Gal 4:4). The Son became flesh and dwelt (tabernacled) among us, and he, Jesus, showed us the Father (John 1:14–18). “In him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Col 2:9). And so, God dwelt with his people again in the person of Jesus, the Son of God. However, in his time on earth, many enemies—the offspring of the serpent (John 8:44)— the Jewish leaders out of envy (they hated that he was elevated above them) had him sent to death (Mark 15:10).
Nevertheless, God the Trinity raised this Jesus up (Gal 1:1; John 10:17; Rom 8:11). He would ascend to heaven back to the Father. At this point, we would do well to look at John 14:1–6:
“Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. And you know the way to where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
Jesus would go to prepare a place for us—those who believe in him—and he is the only way to this place of God’s presence.
The Spirit and the Church
In the meantime, Jesus, along with his Father, would send the Holy Spirit—his very own Spirit, the Spirit of Christ (Rom 8:9)—to indwell the believers. These indwelt believers, the church, would now be the temple of God, God’s dwelling place (1 Cor 3:17; 6:19). We should also remember what Jesus said before his death and resurrection: “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden” (Matt 5:14).
Revelation: The New Jerusalem
In the final book of the Bible, Babylon is again shown to be wicked, but here, she falls (Rev 17–18).
In the end of Revelation, John writes:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. (Rev 21:1–3)
Here, John equates the new heaven and new earth with a holy city, the New Jerusalem. This city is God’s dwelling place with man! The Garden of Eden has found its intended completion! This holy city, equated with the new heaven and new earth, fills the entire earth. The city is pure gold (21:18) and its dimensions are in the shape of a cube (21:16). This is strikingly similar to the holy of holies where God dwelled (cf. 1 Kgs 6:20). The similarity goes even further when John heard a voice saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God” (Rev 21:3). Just as God dwelled in a golden cube in the tabernacle and temple, God will dwell in a golden cube-city. However, there is a major progression.
While God’s presence was in a small cube where only the high priest could go in once a year, the New Jerusalem is an expanded holy of holies, which fills the entire earth. Rather than the restricted presence of God with his people earlier in the Bible, God will dwell with his people (21:3), they will see his face (22:3), and they will reign with him forever (22:4).
There are also two more noteworthy elements in this city: the river of the water of life (22:1) and the tree of life (22:2). This brings recollection of the beginning of the biblical meta-story, the Garden of Eden. The tree of life was in Eden and here God’s dwelling place was with man. “Yet, while endzeit resembles urzeit, there is progression.” The beginning of Genesis portrays God and man together in Eden, and the end of Revelation portrays God and all his people—all the nations—together in peace in the new heavens and new earth: the New Jerusalem, the city of God.
THINK: EXTRA FOOD FOR THOUGHT
I cannot go into detail here, but I’ll leave some food for thought. It’s extremely interesting what the angel shows John. The angel says, “Come, I will show you the Bride, the wife of the Lamb” (21:9). So, to pause, the angel says John will see the Bride, the wife of the Lamb—the church, God’s people. And John goes on to write, “And he carried me away in the Spirit to a great, high mountain, and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God, having the glory of God” (21:10–11). It seems that this holy city is the people of God (similar to the reality that we are God’s temple). This idea could fit well with Matthew 5:14.
From beginning to end, the goal of creation is enjoying God’s glorious presence throughout the world. The biblical theme, the city of God, clearly helps us see that the goal of history and redemption matches the covenantal refrain “I will be your God and you will be my people”: God and man dwell together in peace and harmony.
So What Now?
You may ask, “What do I do now? You gave me all this information, now what?” The piece of practical application I can give you is this: Have faith looking forward to a better home. Truly, “our citizenship is in heaven” (Phil 3:20). We would do well to look forward to it, trusting in God’s promises, as “sojourners and strangers” (1 Pet 2:11). In the author of Hebrews’ own words: “here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come” (Heb 13:14). Seek that city by setting your minds on things above, where Christ is (Col 3:1–2), for only he is the way to life with God in eternal joy.
* In debt to T.D. Alexander, “The City of God,” in NIV Zondervan Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015), 2666, without his work, I would not have clearly seen this biblical theme.
 T.D. Alexander, “The City of God,” in NIV Zondervan Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015), 2666.
 Ibid., 2666.
 John H. Walton, Genesis, NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), 186.
 List of references provided by Alexander, “The City of God,” 2667.
 T. Desmond Alexander, From Eden to the New Jerusalem: An Introduction to Biblical Theology (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2009), 14.