There is much consternation and joy about the announcement that the United States intends to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Some evangelicals and fundamentalists, perhaps inspired by a Dispensational understanding of redemptive history and their pre-millennial hermeneutic, are overjoyed with the move. They see this as the U. S. aligning itself with God’s plan in history, which they identify with national Israel and ethnic Jews, and perhaps a step toward the future re-institution of the sacrificial system. Some to the left of center theologically are dismayed by this move which they see as unduly provocative, Zionist, and tending toward the marginalization of the Palestinian cause, which they tend to see through the lens of their anti-colonial reading of history. Still others, e.g., those aligned with the Greek and Middle Eastern Orthodox traditions see this as a rejection of what they regard as their historic claim to Israel. Of course, Muslims of various sects are outraged at this move, which they regard as a betrayal of the “peace process” and an assault on their claim to Israel.
In response I address those Christians who are overjoyed and those who are dismayed. Both the Dispensational-inspired joy and the historically-informed despair are misplaced. However different the two views may seem outwardly, they both share an undue affection for an earthly city, however historically and religiously important that city has been. Note the verb tense. For Christians the earthly city of Jerusalem has no religious significance. Scripture is fairly straightforward about this. Writing to Jewish Christians, who were tempted to go back to the Old Covenant, back to a temporary, typological system that had fulfilled its purpose, the pastor reminded them of a fundamental Christian truth: “For there we have no abiding city, but we seek the city that is to come” (Heb 13:14). He was calling upon a truth that he had already established in chapter 11. Verse 1 says,”Now faith is the reality of what is hoped for, the proof of what is not seen” (HCSB). This is the interpretation for which my dear friend Steve Baugh has been arguing since 2006. See S. M. Baugh, “The Cloud of Witnesses,” Westminster Theological Journal (2006): 113–32. The Geneva Bible (c. 1559) had a similar interpretation. Faith apprehended future realities and it itself proof or evidence of that reality. The pastor to the Hebrews added,
By faith Abraham, when he was called, obeyed and went out to a place he was going to receive as an inheritance. He went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed as a foreigner in the land of promise, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, coheirs of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God (Heb 11:8–10; HCSB).
Abraham’s hope was not for an earthly city, i.e., for the earthly Jerusalem. Had that been his hope he would have acted differently than he did. In case this point is not quite clear to his readers, who were tempted to put their affections on an earthly city, the pastor added:
Now those who say such things make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they were thinking about where they came from, they would have had an opportunity to return. But they now desire a better place—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them (Heb 11:14–16; HCSB).
Again, the behavior of believers under the period of types and shadows is proof of where they had placed their hope, where their city was, where there interest was. It was not in an earthly Jerusalem. It was in the heavenly Jerusalem.
One imagines that there are those, particularly those who have been influenced by Dispensationalism, who are tempted to react to this way of thinking by complaining about “spiritualizing.” I respond by noting that this is not a figurative interpretation of Hebrews. This is the literal, grammatical, historical interpretation of Hebrews. Is Hebrews treating Jerusalem as a figure? Perhaps but even that is not entirely clear. Heaven is a real place. It is neither a figure nor a metaphor. It is a reality. For Hebrews it is the most real or most ultimate reality.
We may confirm this way of thinking and speaking about an earthly Jerusalem, which was a temporary type of the heavenly city, by looking at the way Paul speaks about Jerusalem and our citizenship. Writing to Christians in Philippi, a city populated, in part, with retired Roman civil servants, Paul reminds them that however impressive the Roman empire was, for Christians, the most fundamental, the only eternal city is the heavenly city. Thus he reminded them (against the Judaizers, who wanted to draw their eyes to Jerusalem and to the types and shadows) “but our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” (HCSB; Phil 3:20). Being a citizen of Rome was about as c0veted in the 1st century as American citizenship is today. Paul employed his status as a Roman citizen in order to gain a hearing for the gospel, when he cried, “I appeal to Caesar” (Acts 25:11). Once he invoked his rights as a Roman citizen all punishment stopped and he was treated with the respect due to a citizen. For Paul, however, our citizenship is first and foremost in heaven. When we gather for public worship, we do not gather as Americans or Britons or Mexicans but as Christians. We may come from different places. We may speak different birth languages and we may have different cultural heritages in this world, but we were all baptized in the triune name of God. At the Lord’s Table there is no Briton, no American, no Guatemalan. There are only Christians.
When we distinguish or even contrast two cities, we are only following Paul’s lead in Galatians 4, where he contrasted two cities, the earthly and the heavenly: “Now is Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother” (Gal 4:25–26; HCSB). Paul wrote after the crucifixion of Christ. From the moment Christ died, the Christian religious interest in the earthly city of Jerusalem died with it. The job of the city was to point us to the reality. In Christ the reality entered history. We have obtained the reality by faith. To have a religious interest in Jerusalem is to miss a very important point, that the whole function of the types and shadows (of which Jerusalem was always one) was to direct believers to Christ. Abraham worked for Jesus. Moses worked for Jesus (see Hebrews 2). David worked for Jesus. Their hope was never ultimately in the earthly city of Jerusalem. It was always in the heavenly city. The earthly city of Jerusalem is still in slavery. The Jerusalem above is free. She is not under the types and shadows. The heavenly city is a motherland.
Through the course of the medieval church we lost track of this truth. In reaction Muslim kidnapping of Christian pilgrims and the Muslim sacking of Jerusalem, Christians set out on a series of mostly unsuccessful crusades (literally, marching under the banner of the cross) to “take back (the earthly) Jerusalem for Christ.” Christians came to regard Jerusalem as not just one historically important city or even one of the major seats of a bishop but as “the holy city.” Today people well-meaning Christians speak of the earthly Jerusalem as “the holy city.” They also speak of the rooms where we worship as “sanctuaries” when the true “sanctuary” or holy place is in heaven. We have entrance into the Holy of Holies through the blood of Christ (Heb 9:12; 13:11). The heavenly Jerusalem is the only holy city we know (see the Revelation). Our religious battle is not with swords but with spiritual weapons, the preaching of the gospel, prayer, church discipline, and sacraments.
Do Christians have a civil or political interest in Jerusalem? Surely but we are just as sure to disagree about what that is. Some of us think that, for historical, geo-political reasons, that Jerusalem should be recognized as the capital of modern the state of Israel. Others disagree. That is all well and good but Christians should not be speaking about the earthly city of Jerusalem as if it were heaven nor of the essence of the faith nor as if it is the place where Christ intends to rebuild the temple and re-institute the sacrifices. That is nigh unto blasphemy. Christ died “once for all (Heb 7:27; 9:12; 10:10) to pay for the sins of his people. He is not being figuratively sacrificed now by Roman priests nor will he be memorially sacrificed by Levitical priests in a re-built temple. Christ is the temple (John 2:19). He is the priesthood (see Heb 7–10). He is the lamb (John 1:29). “It is finished.”