Now Hagar stands for Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present city of Jerusalem, because she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother. (Galatians 4:25-26, NIV)
Jerusalem has been in the news this week, with a tragic outcome. It is timely to ask the question: what significance does this great city have in the Bible? Should it be a special concern of ours?
Of the significance of Jerusalem in Scripture we can be in no doubt. The city’s very name comes over 800 times. For Jerusalem was the God-given capital of His historic people, and most importantly, it was the earthly dwelling place of the Lord Himself. There the great Temple stood, with its holy of holies, where God Himself was specially present. What could be a greater privilege for a people than having the living God among them? That is why it was so devastating, and theologically disturbing, when the city was sacked in 687BC, and so important that it should be rebuilt when the exile was over.
Jerusalem was also the place of atonement. It was at the Jerusalem Temple that sacrifices for sin were offered. And it is no coincidence in God’s plan that Jerusalem was also the place of the one atonement to which all the Old Testament sacrifices point: the death of our Saviour, Jesus Christ.
There is, therefore, no city in the history of the world of greater significance to us than Jerusalem. It is a fascinating experience to visit and to look out on the city where Jesus was tried, crucified and raised.
More the surprise, then, that when we come to the book of Acts and the New Testament letters, we find no unique concern for the future of the city or its Temple. In Acts, the narrative starts in Jerusalem but soon fans out to the rest of the world. The urgent task of God’s people is to bring the gospel to the world. This includes, of course, a special focus on God’s Old Testament people, the Jews, but this is expressed not by a focus on Jerusalem but by evangelists going to synagogues all over the world.
The explanation? The dwelling of God on earth is no longer at a physical building in Jerusalem, but was fulfilled when He dwelt among us in Jesus (John 1:14). Amazingly, He does today among His people, who corporately are His temple (Ephesians 2:22). Moreover, the Lord Jesus has by His sufficient death removed the need for an earthly place of atonement. The old Jerusalem is fascinating - but in terms of its special God-given functions, obsolete.
What, then, of Old Testament prophecies about Jerusalem’s future, such as those at the end of Zechariah? This is not an easy subject, because it isn’t always easy to tell what events prophecy looks forward to. But the Apostle Paul gives a vital steer, in the verse quoted above. Present-day Jerusalem was to him a city in slavery, rejecting its own Messiah. Yet God has established a heavenly Jerusalem! The Bible ends, of course, with a vision of this heavenly city coming down from heaven to earth (Revelation 21:2).
So what should our attitude to Jerusalem be? We should, of course, pray for peace and justice in the Middle East. We should be deeply concerned for its inhabitants. But we do not attribute any further theological significance to the modern city of Jerusalem, other than to be thankful for the great events that once happened there.
Meanwhile, we await the new Jerusalem, from heaven. And to know the “temple” experience of God’s presence, we meet together with God’s people.
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