Chapter One: Beginnings
Looking forward to The City
“A journey of a thousand miles,” say the Chinese, “begins with the first step.” The beginning of any venture is vital; if there are mistakes in the foundation it will be very costly to rectify. This is especially true of spiritual buildings and journeys. How often God has to bring us back to a place where we ‘began wrong’ before He can take us onwards in His will. But the first step is not the whole journey, and to begin is no guarantee that we will arrive. How can that initial enthusiasm be sustained? Desire is the dynamic of progress. Ultimately desires determine direction and direction determines destiny. In elemental terms, we follow our hungers. We shall not understand Abraham’s perseverance unless, in our more modern phrase, we can discover what ‘made him tick’.
Abraham was torn out of his context with a command to get thee out and a promise that his destination would be the land that I will show thee. What gave him the courage to start and subsequently sustained him? Again we find the answer not in the Genesis narrative but in the Spirit inspired commentary;
he was looking for the city, having foundations, whose architect and builder is God. [Heb 11:10]
This is a fascinating phrase which has deep roots biblically. Even the tense is interesting. He was looking for; this is the imperfect, or continuing past tense. He was continually looking for the city. From the remainder of the verse we see that the statement covers his exodus and his perpetual sojourning; this was the abiding pattern of his life. From the moment of his leaving Ur of the Chaldees he was constantly looking for the city. I’ve restored the definite article too; this was not just any convenient city which he might stumble into, this was The City. The City would be distinguished from all other cities by the fact that its architect and builder was God Himself. What was Abraham looking for?
And where did he expect to find it? The word ‘looking for’ is not the word for ‘search’; Abraham was not ‘searching for The City’. The word is used elsewhere in the New Testament and earlier in the book of Hebrews;
But this man, after he had offered one sacrifice for sins for ever, sat down on the right hand of God; From henceforth expecting till his enemies be made his footstool. [Heb 10:12,13]
Here the same word ‘looking for’ is translated ‘expecting’. It has the sense of expectation, anticipation. It is not ‘looking for’ but ‘looking forward to’. Expectation/anticipation is a vital ingredient of faith. This was not some weary, dogged plod through hundreds of miles of sand. This was a man with an excitement and hunger which drew him on in every step. He was fully expecting to see The City.
a tale of two cities
In some ways the Bible is a tale of two cities. The first city was called Enoch and was built in direct defiance of God’s punishment. [Gen 4:12-17] Its architect and builder was Cain. He had murdered his brother and God’s sentence was that Cain would be a ‘fugitive and a wanderer’. Cain is fearful that man’s vengeance might be more summary than God’s and complains. God marks Cain as a man under God’s sentence not man’s. Cain leaves God’s presence and heads eastwards, but he refuses to remain under God’s sentence and defends himself against those he fears by building the first city. This is man refusing to submit to God and who is determined to ensure his own safety. The human race is obsessed with security. We feel vulnerable and exposed so we build our cities. (We need a 4000 year mind-set transplant here; in the 21st century everyone is heading for the country because of the dangers in the cities. In Abraham’s day people lived in cities to secure themselves against the dangers of the country.)
Biblically, the city becomes a symbol of arrogant security. Man is secure, against God Himself. The cities became vast enterprises fitted for every danger; they could sometimes withstand sieges for years. They come to represent absolute systematised independence. The city comes to symbolise ‘The World’, not ‘evil’ necessarily in its most obscene forms but, the ‘evil’ that is independence from God.
There is a wonderful cameo of the rich man captured in Proverbs 18:11
The rich man’s wealth is his strong city, and as an high wall in his own conceit.
The rich man needs nothing and no-one; his riches are his strong city; it’s a powerful picture. The rich man can buy, for the most part, protection, health, provisions. He is secure in his independence. The World is rich; its technology, strategy, science, education, religion, provide a powerful defence. Some years ago a member of the British Royal family addressed a meeting of farmers. He spoke of their industry, their skills, their machinery, and their miracle crops. He summed up the confidence of the industry with the phrase “we don’t need God now”. That is the spirit of the World, not essentially entertainment, philosophy or anti-religious, but independence from God. The ultimate among cities, in the development of its arrogant independence from God, is Babylon, with its tower;
And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth. [Gen 11:4]
Their project echoes the even older blasphemy of the power behind Babylon’s king; “I will ascend into heaven” [Isaiah 14:13-15]
Lest we are too quick to point the finger we should examine our own resources, our own riches. Many are rich in character, spiritual experience, bible knowledge, communication skills, musical ability, counselling expertise. If God didn’t turn up to the meeting on Sunday, how would we know? How far can we manage without Him? The answer to that question is the measure of our worldliness. Christ’s testimony was, “of myself I can do nothing”.
Abraham had seen cities. If he left Haran at 75 years of age that would put his birth pretty much in the middle of the dynasty of Ur-Nammu. Ur-Nammu himself reigned from BC 2112-2095 and his family reigned until the fall of Ur in BC 2004. Ur-Nammu was one of the great builders of the ancient world; the Great Ziggurat of Ur being his greatest remaining work. Abraham’s growing years were spent among the evidences of empire, as they came under attack. He saw Ur in its finest hour and watched as it began to be destroyed. The builders of the day built on solid foundations and tried to include spiritual foundations too. The British Museum has an Ur-Nammu Foundation Peg; a small bronze peg, perhaps pushed into the ground by Ur-Nammu himself, depicting him as a priest providing a foundation for the city. Abraham had seen its glory, and was watching its fall. He had seen, with the unerring sight of revelation, that on earth we have no continuing city.
In its place had grown a hunger for spiritual reality, not another city, but The City. A city which would be all that Ur could never be. A city with solid foundations like no other, a city that had God as its architect and builder. To Abraham this city was more ‘real’ than any earthly city. He hungered for a security which could be found in God alone. Henceforth he would put his confidence not in the works of the earth but in heavenly things. There is a worldly-wise saying that suggests that a man or woman can become so heavenly minded that they are no earthly use; the opposite is the more pressing danger. If we would become Friends of God we will need to become those who have discovered that heaven is more ‘real’ than earth, and live our lives on earth with the hourly expectation that heaven will break through.
The sacred record comes to its end with the book of Revelation and human destiny finds its consummation in a breathtaking vision. The translations hardly do full justice to John’s words;
and I John saw The City, the Holy One, New Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. [Rev 21:2]
A city, not prepared to withstand attack, but prepared as a bride adorned for her husband; she will find her consummation not in the defiant arrogance of self-sufficiency but in the submission of love.
I once heard it testified of a man that of all men he would find transition to heaven the least difficult. Surely, these are the men (and women) of whom God will say, “Welcome, My Friend”. Abraham looked forward to The City, for the whole of his pilgrimage. The hope and expectation sustained him, and the day came when a single next-step carried him through its open gates. As the New Year opens* may we walk its days with such consciousness of heaven’s nearness that we feel the very next step may see us home. Have a blessed 2004.
* originally written in January 2004