This article is about the church. The author looks at the relation of the church to Zion and Jerusalem, and also discusses the river of Zion, Christ and the living waters, the work of the Holy Spirit in the church, and the New Jerusalem and new creation.

Source: Clarion, 1998. 8 pages.

Zion, the City of the Living God

Tonight is a night of celebration and rejoicing!! We have ample reason to do so! The living God of heaven and earth has had mercy on us. When the church of our forefathers, the Roman Church under the direction of the Pope, was becoming increasingly dark because the light of God’s grace was being smothered, God intervened and led His people out of the bondage of darkness into the freedom of the light of the gospel! Also in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the Lord our God intervened in the history of Reformed churches both in the Netherlands and on this continent. The Lord has worked reformation and led His people back to the Scriptures!

Images of the Grace of God🔗

As we tonight commemorate the 480th anniversary of what is commonly taken as the start of the Reformation, we do well to remember that one of the great gifts of God to the church in the sixteenth century was the rediscovery of the meaning of grace. God allowed Luther and Calvin and many others to see again something of the profound height and depth of the grace of God, the forgiveness of sins and life with God in Jesus Christ. Let us tonight celebrate by reflecting on the grace of God and so appreciate again how rich God has made us in Jesus Christ.

God taught His people the tremendous truth of His grace in many and various ways, including images. Tonight let us direct our thoughts to a particular image of God’s grace, the city of God as a picture of the church. This is, for example, the city of which Psalm 87 extols the glories. Indeed, according to the teaching of this Psalm, this Zion of God is the very city of which we as Christians may also be citizens of, for we too may know ourselves by God’s grace registered with His people! And so joining with the Philistines, Tyrians and Cushites of old are the Canadians and the Dutch, the Americans and many others of the twentieth century. “The LORD will write in the register of the peoples: ‘This one was born in Zion’” (Psalm 87:6).

Jerusalem in Canaan🔗

To understand the connotations and meaning of this image of Zion properly, let us first go back into time to stand as it were in the sandals of the ancient Israelites and consider some aspects of the city of Jerusalem or Zion from their vantage point.

Jerusalem is, as you know, in the promised land, Canaan. Now that choice of Canaan is already significant and indicative of God’s grace. Why did God choose Canaan as the land for His people to dwell in? One must remember that God the Lord is maker and ruler of all the earth. He could, for example, have given His people the rich fertile river lands of Mesopotamia or the rich Nile Valley in Egypt. But God gave His people Canaan, a largely mountainous and difficult land to farm when compared to Mesopotamia and Egypt.

Why this land? Although the Bible does not answer that question directly, it is consistent with what we know from Scripture to answer this question by saying: Because God loved His people! Now Canaan was a land flowing with milk and honey (Exodus 3:8, 17), but if there was a place where this abundance could not be taken for granted, it was surely Canaan! By giving Israel land which was so obviously dependent on His blessing, God wanted to keep His people close to Him in the full realization of their dependency on the one true God who alone could make the crops grow! In Canaan, unlike Egypt and Mesopotamia, the people had to rely completely on the rain for their crops. In Canaan, it was obvious that they needed God’s gifts of moisture and growth if they were to survive! They were dependent on God’s grace.

In Egypt and Mesopotamia, there was, humanly speaking, a more or less guaranteed water supply from the rivers. But, if God had brought His people to inherit the rich farmlands in their countries, the temptation would undoubtedly have been very great to regard the blessings of abundant harvest as coming from the land or the nearby river rather than from God. That is why, in accordance with His covenant law (e.g. Deuteronomy 11:13-17) the Lord God used drought periodically to punish Israel for the worship of the false gods to bring them back to the living God. So the land was a gift of God’s grace in a special way. Only by being obedient to God and walking in His ways would this be a land flowing with milk and honey (Deuteronomy 28:1-14).

Now a similar observation can be made concerning Jerusalem as God’s city in this world. Someone who did not understand the dynamics of God’s grace could say: Well, of all places, why did God go out of His way to choose Jerusalem!? Indeed, it was a very conscious choice on God’s part. Think for example of Psalm 132:13 “For the Lord has chosen Zion, he has desired it as His dwelling!” But, why Jerusalem? Mind you, the city is defensible, there high in the hill country of Judah. That part is all right. But it was hardly a model city as far the grand cities of its day goes. It lacked something which virtually every other important city in antiquity had. It lacked a plentiful water supply. Great cities like Damascus (2 Kings 5:12), Ur, Susa, Nineveh (Nahum 2:6, 8), Babylon (Psalm 137:1) and the metropolises of Egypt (e.g. Thebes, Nahum 3:8) were all located on grand rivers, ensuring an abundant water supply in case of siege. Even if access to the river was blocked by an enemy, wells could usually be dug. There was always water. Jerusalem was a different story. She was high and dry in the hill country with a comparatively meager water supply. Her water source was the small Gihon spring located outside the city. So valuable was this spring that Hezekiah even had a tunnel cut through bed rock to secure it in case of siege (2 Kings 20:20).

With such a vulnerable and relatively small water supply, why did the LORD choose Jerusalem? The Lord who never makes a mistake picked this city to teach Israel that they had to rely, not on the physical water, but on the LORD for He and not the water would sustain the city! They would have to depend not on what they could do to secure water, but on the grace of God.

The River of Zion🔗

Believing Israel understood. When the sons of Korah thought of the Jerusalem water supply, they did not lament the smallness and sluggishness of the Gihon spring, but they sang in the words of Psalm 46: “There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God!” (Psalm 46:4). In faith, they praised God for His bountiful provision! How angry God was when His people in Isaiah’s time despised the humble spring of His provision (Isaiah 8:6; cf. Jeremiah 2:13-18). Then God had said in his judgment that He would give them the mighty waters of the Euphrates and the Assyrians would flow over Jerusalem like a flood (Isaiah 8:7-8). God wanted His people to know that it is not by their effort that Jerusalem will be secure and safe, but only by the salvation of the Lord, the living God, who comes to the aid of His people and city.

The blessings of God as indicated by the spring of water and later extolled by the sons of Korah as a “river whose streams make glad the city of God,” these blessings all point to the great blessing given to Zion. And what was that? It was that God decided to make this city His dwelling place. Israel may not have a great river running by her front door, but she has the living God in her midst! The God of life who will give life to His people. He nourishes and provides for His people! As Psalm 36:8, 9, praises God by saying

they feast on the abundance of your house;
you give them drink from your river of delights.
For with you is the fountain of life!

This point of the abundance of life with the living God is dramatically made in the vision Ezekiel saw of the new temple. Coming from under the threshold of the temple was water – water that eventually became a vast river of life which brought vitality even to the Dead Sea – a river on whose banks were fruit trees of all kinds and whose leaves were for healing (Ezekiel 47:1-12; cf. Zechariah 14:8). Jerusalem, the city of the living God. Here He has His dwelling place, His temple. Here is the centre of reconciliation, the forgiveness of sins and life ... with God! – what a gift of grace! Here man can be right with God. On this basis the Lord is pleased to give all His good gifts.

Obviously this is a city that people must go to! Indeed, God enjoined His people to go to this city. As the Psalmist articulates it:

I rejoiced when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the LORD.’ Our feet are standing in your gates O Jerusalem ... That is where the tribes go up, the tribes of the LORD, to praise the name of the LORD according to the statute given to Israel.Psalm 122:1, 4

The Roads to Zion🔗

The fact that the tribes had to go to Jerusalem, raises another geographical feature of Jerusalem’s location. Before coming permanently into the hands of Israel, Jerusalem was in a relatively inaccessible and desolate part of the country. After David conquered Zion (2 Samuel 5:6-8) and made it his capital and the site of the ark, this isolation disappeared. But, of itself, the place of Zion was originally not that well connected. Its growing importance was primarily due to God’s choosing it as His dwelling place. This choice put Jerusalem on the map so to speak and made it the centre of attention of all those who worshipped and loved God. The throngs went to Jerusalem in obedience to the law (cf. Deuteronomy 16). This meant that more roads and highways were built to get to this city than to any other city in Israel. Zion became the centre piece of God’s kingdom. Here was the temple, the official focal point for the distribution of His gifts of grace and love.

And therefore the nations were also enjoined to go to Zion, the city of the living God. The idols are dead and nothing. Go to the Lord and worship Him in holiness and reverence! He and His city is the focal point of world history! The prophets are full of prophecies of the nations coming to Jerusalem (Isaiah 2:2-3; Micah 4:1-3; Zechariah 14:16). As Psalm 87 makes clear, even the former enemies, Philistines and Babylonians will come there. Jerusalem will be the centre of the earth (cf. Ezekiel 38:12).

It is interesting in this regard to note how Judaism at about the time of Christ and also early Christian thinking, pictured Jerusalem as being physically in the very centre of the world. Ancient maps have survived which also reflect this understanding. Zion the city of God – the centre point of creation! This is of course very true in a theological sense. But also in a geographical sense it should be noted that in a real way, the LORD had chosen His dwelling place in the middle of the world which was known to His chosen nation. Canaan and Jerusalem was at the crossroads for travel and trade between the major civilizations of Egypt, Asia Minor and Mesopotamia. At that strategic place God chose to dwell, for Israel had to have significance for the entire world (cf., e.g., Psalms 9:12, 67, 96). The LORD, He is God of all creation!

From Old to New Testament🔗

Let us pause for a moment and take stock of the picture of Zion we have from the Old Testament before we go to the New Testament. Zion, the city of the living God! The gods and idols of the nations were as nothing before Him. He alone is God and He came to dwell with His people. The land He chose for His dwelling place was Canaan, with all its shortcomings from a human point of view, but a land well-suited in God’s wisdom and grace for His purposes and for the spiritual wellbeing of His people. This was the land where He gathered the people together into His kingdom. It was a land which also lay at the crossroads of the world, most fitting ultimately for God’s plan for the salvation of nations!

The city God chose was Zion. Again, it was His choice with a view to dispensing His grace. To Zion His people came regularly for worship. Zion the city of God. How imposing the city looked in its glory. O Israel could boast of the towers and fortresses of the city. What a grand city it was! Just imagine it! It was once an isolated location. But, now with many roads and highways going to her, that city set on a hill in the Judean uplands was quite a sight! Her towers and crenelles rise up. Her ramparts and fortresses are strong! What a beautiful city! Israel rejoiced. But believing Israel knew that the importance and strength of Zion lay solely in God, of grace alone. As Psalm 48 (vv. 3, 8, 12-14) jubilates:

God is in her citadels; He has shown himself to be her fortress...

As we have heard, so have we seen in the city of the LORD almighty, in the city of our God: God makes her secure forever!...

Walk about Zion, go around her, count her towers, consider well her ramparts, view her citadels, that you may tell of them to the next generation. For this God is our God for ever and ever; He will be our guide even to the end!

This city of Zion, with all the beautiful connotations it had for God’s people, is used in Scripture as a picture of the church (e.g., Psalm 87; Isaiah 65:19). And it is a very apt picture. This image stresses the decisive role of the electing love and grace of God who has made God’s people what they are. Not what we are or what we have done is decisive, but what God has done. And He has moved into our lives! After all, the church is the Zion and temple of the living God (cf. 1 Corinthians 3:16-17; 6:19). And because this is the case, we also know in faith that the church is the focal point of all God’s concerns about this world. Yes, in faith we know that world history gravitates around the church, the temple of the living God!!

While extreme modesty is befitting us who live only by the grace of God, yet it is clear that the people of God should also not to think too small of the church which is indeed the work of the Almighty and has ultimately worldwide repercussions! The Lord our God wants us to know, also today, about the glory of His Zion.

It is striking that in the New Testament, whenever Jerusalem or Zion is specifically spelled out as an image of the church, then such an image functions very positively as a picture of something in heaven or as a representation for the future. What could be the reason for that? In a general sort of way, one could say that for us frail human beings such a use of the image of Zion gives perspective! After all, we are so easily short sighted and can readily be discouraged by the sin and limitations of our present situation. But, when we think of the glorious city that will come down, we are encouraged! As Abraham was inspired by seeing from afar in faith the city of God (Hebrews 11:10), so we can be likewise strengthened! Our lives need the larger framework of knowing that one day, the new Zion and Jerusalem will come down from above (cf. Revelation 21).

There are especially three areas of the Zion in the future which can be noted here and which tie in with what we saw from the Old Testament.

Christ is our Living Water🔗

The first thing to note about the future Zion, that ties in with the OT data, is that also today and in the future, Zion has and will have a stream of living water. To start with the present. The church of God may sometimes seem to be disadvantaged and not have an adequate supply of water, life-giving energy in the desert conditions of this world. But God assures us in His Word that we have more than we need. For, our stream of living water is none other than Christ himself and His Spirit. Did He not say in Jerusalem with a loud voice:

If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.John 7:37-39By this He meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in Him were later to receive.

We cannot go into all the interesting details here, but with these words Christ drew a clear line from the waters of the Gihon spring and the prophecy of the waters emanating from the temple to himself. He is the fulfilment of the temple and He is the source of the living water. By His Spirit, the people of God have everything they need to go on and to be Zion of the living God! It may sometimes seem as if the church does not have enough energy and stamina to defend herself against the enemy or to continue on as holy city of God. But we may remember, God himself is our source of strength and energy! In faith we know this to be true. He gives us of grace all we need. He gives of himself, His Spirit. Indeed, as the words of Christ make clear, we can even be God’s instruments to impart the living waters to others. These waters are a gift of Christ (John 4:4) but can be channelled through the believers to others.

So, the church is the Spirit-filled people of God who draw on “the spring of living water,” the Lord God himself (Jeremiah 2:13; 17:13). He calls us of grace to participate in His gifts. No one need to go parched for water! To quote the words of the LORD as recorded in Isaiah 55:1, 3a

Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters;
and you who have no money, come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost...
Give ear and come to me; hear me that your soul may live.

This means that as people of God who heed this call, we too can rejoice with the Psalmist:

(we) feast on the abundance of your house;
you give ... (us) drink from your river of delights.
For with you is the fountain of life!Psalm 36:8, 9

The implication of all of this is staggering for the church. The life of the Spirit is nothing less than being placed in communion with the living God himself. With this our God we may have personal fellowship and receive the life that savours the glory of His presence (cf. Romans 8:1-17; Galatians 5:22-25).

Sometimes we may think that we have only a small Gihon spring of water, but in faith we see that there is a river which makes glad the city of God! – a river of blessings of life with God in Christ! And, ... what we enjoy in our life with God now is only a foretaste of what is to come (cf. 1 Corinthians 2:9-16)! When the apostle John was on Patmos he was shown the Zion of the future. Then he saw

the river of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb, down the middle of the great street of the city. Revelation 22:1-2

John also tells us that there will no longer be any curse and that the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city and His servants will see His face (Revelation 22:3-4). Life with God in fullness!

We are given this picture of the future in part to encourage us now in our present situation so we can celebrate the life with God at all times, yes so we can be thankful also when it seems that our springs and wells seem to be too meager or drying up. Yet we know in faith and may God’s Zion today experience it: “There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God!” (Psalm 46:4), a river which will be fulfilled in the paradisal river of life.

The Mother of Us All🔗

This brings us to a second area. Since the Lord provides the stream of life and because with our God is the fountain of our life (Psalm 36:9), there is a certain basic unity of life in the church of God. The life of Zion has a single source. One way in which Scripture expresses that unity of life is to picture Zion as the Mother City. We find this characterization in Galatians 4. The apostle Paul makes a contrast between the bondage of those who live under Judaism and who are children of the present city of Jerusalem and the freedom of those who live from the grace of God and who are citizens of the Jerusalem above that is free. Then he says, this Jerusalem above “She is our mother!” (Galatians 4:26). As members of the people of God we are children of the heavenly Zion for we are citizens of this city (cf. also Philippians 3:20). We belong to the Zion above! She is our Mother!

Mind you, not just we, but all God’s children! They all have the heavenly Zion as their mother! This is a profound truth that already found expression in the Old Testament (cf. Isaiah 49:14-18; 66:5-13). Let us pause now for a moment especially at Psalm 87 and note a couple of points.

In the first place, the fact that we all have the same mother, the Zion above, stresses the grace of God in our lives. After all, a child cannot choose his mother. It is purely due to the grace of God that we belong to the same Zion of the living God! Psalm 87 stresses that God records, he writes down, the names of all kinds of peoples, even former enemies of Israel, as citizens of Zion as born in her because they now acknowledge Him as Lord. These are those whom God has caused to be born by the Spirit and the Word. They are children of the Most High! One can only be a citizen of Zion when one acknowledges the Lord of Zion. This is only possible by the electing grace of God.

In the second place, just as a member of a family here on earth cannot choose his siblings, his brothers and sisters, so too we as citizens of Zion cannot determine or decide who we would like to have as our brothers and sisters. God does that for us. All those born of God are our brothers and sisters, fellow citizens of the Mother of us all, the Zion of the living God. That means that there is the unity of Zion in our midst tonight. Although the heavenly Zion will only later be revealed in its full glory when it comes down from heaven, yet it is present and is real. We are citizens of it! This speaks of a unity from God which we also recognize by praising God and celebrating together tonight in prayer and thanksgiving.

This unity does not mean uniformity. Indeed, Psalm 87 which celebrates the glory of the city of God also details the diversity of its citizens. They are from all over, even from Israel’s historical enemies! Rahab which is Egypt and Babylon! Philistia and Tyre. In all this diversity, there is unity for these are all recorded as born in Zion, children of the Most High! We can say, this speaks of the worldwide church of God, European, Mexican, Chinese, Korean and African. There is here however also a more subtle diversity, found within the nation of Israel that we do well to note. Israel was a nation of rather different tribes. One must remember that this was in the day before mass media, long distance telephone and computer networking could put a common cultural mould on a nation. So the tribes could live in relative isolation from each other and develop idiosyncrasies and even their own dialects (cf. Judges 12:5-6). Yet, in all the diversity there was the unity, unity that became visible as the tribes went up to Jerusalem. How they encouraged each other to holy worship and rejoiced as they went up. Think of Psalm 122:1-2, 4.

I rejoiced with those who said to me, “Let us go up to the house of the LORD.” Our feet are standing in your gates O Jerusalem ... That is where the tribes go up, The tribes of the LORD to praise the name of the LORD according to the statute given to Israel.

But how could those tribes go up? By means of the roads that were built to Zion! The geography of the holy city was difficult. The nature of the terrain made it difficult for the tribes to collectively express their unity as a nation. But the necessary roads were built. Yes they were built expressly with a view to the multitude of worshippers going to Zion. And all those different and diverse tribes went up, together! They worshipped together and rejoiced in their unity in the LORD of the covenant.

When reflecting on this, one cannot but think of our present situation. We tonight as we celebrate God’s goodness and grace cannot deny the wonderful unity that the Lord has given us. We also cannot deny the diversity of the tribes of the Reformed faith. We come from different parts of the ecclesiastical map, although most of our history is common to us all. But, there is a present diversity. The one church is said to stress this aspect, another that. Yet we all love the LORD and His church and collectively rejoice in His work of reformation! We all have the same baptism and no one denies the truth or validity of whatever element of doctrine or practice the other may want to stress. Yet, there is a fragmentation of Zion in the ecclesiastical scene and in our regular Sunday worship.

One of the mottos of the Reformation was that the church should always be reforming, always testing, fine-tuning their performance to God’s demands and seeking fuller obedience. Resting in the status quo does not always do justice to the ongoing work of the Living God who continues to gather His people. God’s work is a great enterprise. His church is worldwide! We cannot oversee it. Praised be His name! The tremendously wide terrain that the Zion of God occupies today is difficult from our perspective. The worldwide church is divided in many ways – by language, geography and nationalities – to mention some factors. Yet God gathers them together and prepares them for that great day.

God also gathers us. At the moment road building for Zion is going on in discussions with consistories of different Reformed churches here in BC and elsewhere. As people of God we rejoice in that. It reflects something of the ongoing dynamics of the work of the living God who continues to work for the unity of His people. Let us continue to work on those roads that lead to a united worship in Zion. We as North American Reformed people are only a very small part of God’s worldwide church. May it be possible by God’s grace that this small sector of His church (the faithful Reformed churches in North America) may experience more and more ecclesiastical unity as the years go on. That the roads of understanding and unity may be built through the terrain that is by nature difficult – roads that lead to a united Zion.

After all, God writes in the register of nations: “this one was born in Zion!” (Psalm 87:6). There is only one Zion! Let us remember to our comfort and encouragement the larger picture as we build the roads; that is, the Jerusalem above she is our mother and we are her children!

There is a final third area. It speaks of the future of Zion, a future which God allows us to see a glimpse of for our encouragement. This is the picture of the Zion given in the book of Revelation – the new creation, the city of God to which all the nations will enter.

The New Creation🔗

Within the context of this evening, let us very briefly consider the following. The coming of the Zion from above is solely the work of God. It is all of grace. When the apostle John sees in a vision the new heaven and the new earth, he sees

the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.Revelation 21:2, cf. 10

As the description progresses, we are told that

the nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendour into it.Revelation 21:24

This is the city of which we now already are citizens. This is the city that will come down from heaven in all its glory and perfection. Let us not think too small of our God! This is where world history is going! Yes, world history! For at the centre of history, at the centre of God’s dealings with the world today, is Zion, the city of the Living God!! To this city, kings and rulers will come to pay homage. To this city, the Lord will gather His people and bring together an innumerable multitude from all the tribes and nations (cf. Revelation 5:9; 7:9; 15:4; 22:2). Here is found the river of life with trees of life whose leaves are for the healing of the nations. Yes here is God in glory with His people! From His throne the waters of life proceed (Revelation 22:1-2). He gathers the nations to himself.

In view of all of this, it hardly needs to be said how important the mission task of the church is. Churches of the Reformation are mission churches because it is only by the proclamation of the gospel of grace that the Lord gathers together that innumerable multitude (cf. Revelation 14:6).

The time hastens. We live in the last age, the age of the Holy Spirit, otherwise called the last days (Acts 2:17). The full glory of the city to which we belong will not be attainable in this fallen creation. But God has shown it to us in His Word! There is a new world coming! Yes, for the Zion coming down from heaven speaks of a new creation to which all the children of promise belong.

Sometimes the citizens of Zion can feel out of place in this world. But this world is the world that will be renewed when the heavenly Zion descends! This is the world that ultimately belongs to those whose citizenship is with the Zion above. We are on the last stretch. As Abraham looked ahead to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God (Hebrews 11:10) so we may look ahead and know that God has also prepared this city for us (Hebrews 11:16). Here we do not have a lasting city, but we are to look with expectation for the city that is to come (Hebrews 13:14). It is, so to speak, in view. Indeed, God’s Word says in Hebrews 12:22 that we have come “to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God!” – the God who is for real and who is faithful to His promises! Think about it. We have come close to Mount Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God! It is in our view. It is the next point for fulfilment on God’s holy agenda.

O, the grace of God that we too may be part of His Zion work – a work which endures! Cities rise and fall. Metropolises such as Nineveh and Babylon are only ruins today – a fact inconceivable when these centres were at the height of their power. They had no lasting foundation. There is only one city that is guaranteed to last. That is Zion. Not the Jerusalem, the earthly city in the land of Israel but the city of God where are found the living waters! It is eternal and of that city we may be citizens! May God continue to have mercy on us and bless us. We’re in the last stretch! The gates of hell will not prevail against the Zion of the living God! Let us rejoice and celebrate His victory in Christ. Praise God from whom all blessings flow!

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