On Distinguishing The Jerusalem That Is Below From That Which Is Above

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.”

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  1. You’ve well said it all, Dr. Clark.
    The wholesale abandonment of the apostles’ doctrine regarding the earthly Jerusalem, described in Revelation as ‘Sodom and Egypt, where our Lord was crucified’, has infected many churches here, to the point where I attended an Arnold Fruchtenbaum lecture where he asserted that David, son of Jesse, was to be resurrected to be the millennial ruler of earthly Jerusalem. And looking around at the faces of the audience I saw only rapt attention and every indication of total acceptance! The audience being invited to provide written questions, not one questioned his assertion re David & Jerusalem, and mine, not directly against that point but another, where he blatantly misread Paul in Romans 9, he declined to answer. Dispensationalism is a full-blown heresy, and known by its fruits doctrinely.

  2. If that were all it was to it, there would be nowhere for the Heavenly City to come down out of heaven to (pardon the preposition). Predicted things are summed up in Christ, not imprisoned in Christ. Locality — city-ness — does not go away! For some reason, it’s not just Christ Himself, but a city prepared for us …. The place where we would have expected location, and travel, and direction, to fade as abstractions … appear more strongly! What Platonist doesn’t chafe a little bit, in hearing of distances in the Heavenly City, and its shape, and its movement! It’s not going to be just ourselves “studentlich,” but ourselves doing things (Jn 14:12).

  3. “This is the interpretation for which my dear friend Steve Baugh has been arguing since 2006”.

    Did anyone argue this interpretation before Dr. Baugh?

    • Well, not in the same words. The Geneva Bible (1559) might be suggesting a similar view. The 1st part of the verse in AV/KJV agrees with Baugh.

      I think there are other earlier interpreters who took this view but the readings/translations reflected in the ESV are fairly widespread.

  4. It makes one want to ask, what part of, “It is finished!” do you not understand? All of the prophesies, all the ceremonies, all the types and shadows, including Jerusalem as a type of the heavenly city were fulfilled by Christ’s finished work as our representative head. Like all of God’s people, since Adam we look for our homeland, the heavenly Jerusalem. We are only pilgrims here.

  5. Wilhelmus à Brakel in his The Christian’s Reasonable Service Vol 4, APPENDIX, The Administration of the Covenant of Grace in the Old and New Testaments, writes in Chap
    6, The New Testament Church from the Birth of Jesus Christ to the Revelation of John,

    the belief that pg 510 “Question: Will the Jewish nation always be a rejected nation, or
    will the entire nation yet come to repentance,believing and confessing that the Messiah
    has already come, and that Jesus is the Christ?
    Answer: When speaking of the conversion of the Jews,we understand this to refer to the
    entire nation,and not only to Judah and Benjamin who had returned from Babylon and
    lived in Canaan until the destruction of Jerusalem.Rather, it also refers to the ten tribes. These tribes neither remained together nor are they hidden in an unknown corner
    of the world, as the Jews fabricate. Instead, they partially intermingled with the eastern nations, forsaking the Jewish religion. Another part,having dispersed themselves among
    the nations of the earth,continued to adhere to their religion; whereas a very large
    multitude also returned to Canaan and intermingled with the other Jews.
    James wrote to the “twelve tribes which are scattered abroad”(James 1:1).”

    “After the destruction of Jerusalem, the entire Jewish nation was dispersed and no
    longer has a specific residence.We are speaking here of this nation without
    distinction, and we believe that it will acknowledge that Jesus is the Christ
    the Messiah who was promised in the Old Testament and anticipated by the fathers.
    This is the general sentiment of the theologians of all ages even Lutheran and papist theologians. There are, however, also those who doubt this, and some deny it”

    also pg 526 ” If, therefore, their dispersion and the treading down of Jerusalem will
    last until the times of the Gentiles will have been fulfilled, there will most certainly
    be a restoration of the nation, not only in a spiritual sense, but also in a physical sense.
    This we shall now consider.”

    in reference to Isaiah 61:1-4, Jeremiah 31:31-40, Hosea 3:4-5, pg 529-530
    “(3) Their restoration was to be after the coming of the Messiah.
    They would seek and turn to David their king the Messiah and would acknowledge
    Him to be the true, promised Messiah.
    (4) This would transpire in the latter days,which is an expression generally understood
    to refer to the New Testament (cf.Isa 2:2;Joel 2:28 in conjunction with Acts 2:17;
    Mic 4:1;Jer 23:20).Thus, this cannot be understood as referring to the restoration from Babylon. Rather, it proves that such a conversion is yet to be anticipated.
    He who wishes to have at his disposal more texts wherein this conversion is prophesied ought to consider the following texts which we will make note of in order to prove that
    not only will the Jews turn to the Messiah, but also that they will again dwell in Canaan.

    pg 530-531 “We believe that these events will transpire. We deny, however, that the
    temple will be rebuilt, and that therein the previous mode of worship will be observed,
    which prior to Christ’s coming was of a typifying nature and would then be of a
    reflective nature.We also deny that Israel will then have dominion over the entire world
    and other such things which the Jews imagine and some Christians dream about.
    Rather, they will be an independent republic, governed by a very wise, good
    natured, and superb government. Furthermore, Canaan will be extraordinarily fruitful,
    the inhabitants will be eminently godly, and they will constitute a segment of the
    glorious state of the church during the thousand years prophesied in Rev 20. We prove
    this from the two passages we have dealt with: Isa 61:1-9 and (Jer 31:31-40).
    We have refuted those evasive arguments against these texts, for they state expressly
    that the Jews will again return to their land, and that both their ruined places and
    Jerusalem will be rebuilt”

    so holding to a future conversion of National Israel ( the natural branches not the
    ingrafted ones ), a second Reformation viewpoint, as he does and also their Future
    ( from his time ) restoration to the Land, though it may not necessarily occur in the
    order that he maintains, so why should it be a cause of alarm for Reformed Christians
    if Jerusalem were to be its Capitol, if we hold it in a sober manner and not in the way
    of the Dispensational dreamers, as just the Political Capitol of a Jewish Republic, and
    not a restoration of Israel in an Old Testament or Mosaic manner (as if that were even possible) as they hold (dispys). Now this last paragraph is just arguing from the logical
    consequence of a Brakel’s viewpoint, it would not endanger the Reformed theological
    system if were held simply as he does, his view has got the sequence wrong in regards
    to a national conversion first followed by restoration to the land, it may be open to
    abuses, the publisher state that his view on the book of Revelation is controversial so
    it has been omitted from the work, so I don’t know if he held to a premillennial position
    (doubtful) or a postmillennial one on Rev 20, postmill being an acceptable Reformed
    doctinal position, I’m A-mill myself, also his insistence in his exegesis from pg 511 on
    when he looks at texts relating to The Future Conversion of the Jews and such, seem to
    strongly hold to a literal rendering of the term Israel, much like the Dispensationalists,
    were Paul does tell us the true Israel is the spiritual one, whilst still using the term for
    Israel after the flesh in Romans.

    • Robert,

      Thanks for this. Yes, the future conversion of the Jews was (and remains) an important Reformed position. I am not entirely convinced that’s the best reading of Romans 9–11. I doubt that Paul, having rejected the distinction, in Christ, between Jew and Gentile, restores it to teach a future ingathering of Jews per se. I understand him to teach there that the elect are the true Israel of God and that all the elect, both Jew and Gentile shall be saved. Nevertheless, Brakel’s position is a historic view and it’s good for people to know that the Reformed have long prayed for and expected an ingathering of ethic Jews. Further, historic premillennialism (chiliasm), substantially distinct from Dispensational premilennialism, was widely held during the 16th and 17th centuries. As I’ve indicated, I take the amillennial view, on the basis that the NT shows no interest whatever in the earthly Jerusalem, except as a historic site and as a location for evangelism. The eschatology of the NT (and its interpretation of the OT) lead us away from looking for an earthly city of any kind.

      On the identity of Israel see http://rscottclark.org/2003/09/the-israel-of-god/

  6. If we earnestly continue in the apostles’ doctrine as we ought, we will fully accept James’ Acts 15 revelation upon Amos 9, and see that the ingathering of the gentiles into the household of God at that day was the beginning of the completing of the prophetically promised restoration of the true and abiding, one and only, Israel of God, ie., the Church, for whom alone, Christ gave Himself. All else, is of this passing-away world. The OT was about Himself, Jesus said, and the pan-ethnic Church is His Body, His spouse, the fullness of Him who fills all in all. The apostles know of no other nation with promises in Him.

  7. Dr Clark,
    You state above:” –The NT shows no interest whatever in an earthly Jerusalem, except as a historical site and as a location for evangelism”. Presumably then our Lord Jesus Christ was misguided when he wept over the city? Moreover, if there is no connection between the earthly and the heavenly then presumably there is no real correlation between our own earthly existence and our resurrection manifestation? The NT witness would, as you are well aware, refute this. So then, why does Scripture deem it necessary to refer to a “new” if there is no organic relationship to the old?

    • Colin,

      Our Lord’s concern was most decidedly not for Jerusalem as a “holy city” nor for it as an object of veneration nor as the site of pilgrimages nor as the location of a future re-built temple. When our Lord wept, he did so out of genuine anguish for rebellious, lost sinners. Here is the context:

      Matthew 23:29-39
      “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous, saying, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ Thus you witness against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers. You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell? Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, so that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. Truly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation.

      “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again, until you say, Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

      The city as a geo-political entity killed no prophets. The people did. Jerusalem = rebellious sinners here.

      Of course the city was very important in the history of redemption. Thus, it served as a type, and illustration of the heavenly reality. According to the New Testament, however, after the death of Jesus our interest is in the heavenly Jerusalem, which is above, not in the earthly Jerusalem — except insofar as it is the object of continuing evangelism.

      The earthly Jerusalem has no particular religious significance for the Christian now.

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