Cities are pivot points of history, current events and prophecies. History is sketchy and somewhat abstract until cities began to take root along the river valleys of Egypt and Mesopotamia. Such ancient sites as Ur, Memphis or Nineveh give us place markers to measure the spread of human development. Today, our reference points might be New York, London, Berlin or Tokyo.
God also uses cities as reference points in His Word: historically, metaphorically and prophetically. Yes, the names of cities are designed to be a place marker of memory and foresight for humans to gauge our existence.
Each of the great cities of antiquity has ultimately crumbled and been buried by sand, volcanic ash or the layered rebuilding of its current inhabitants upon the faded ruins of the old. Today's "great" cities will no doubt fade as well.
A city that transcends two worlds!
But there is one city that does not fade away with the sweeping tides of time. It's a city given birth by idea, anchored in antiquity, manifested in the present, which will fully crystallize in a world yet to come.
Imagine a city that transcends two worlds! How could this be? Well, its creator and designer is God. It's named a city on a hill. You won't find it on a map, but you'll find it in your Bible. Those who embrace its charter are destined to change the course of history and be touched by the providence of God. Those who internalize its values stand on the threshold of eternity.
Two thousand years ago, Jesus granted privileged access to this city when He proclaimed to His followers, "You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden" (Matthew 5:14). Such an incredible statement toward mortal man! Jesus had declared, "As long as I am in the world I am the light of the world" (John 9:5).
Now, with this statement, He was notably expectant, actually demanding, that His followers be no less than like Him. They were to be points of reckoning to be seen by others and guiding instruments in dark paths.
Jesus was sketching a word picture of the world in which He had grown up—the hills of Galilee where cities perched on hilltops. In the dark of night, light from a single oil lamp placed on a window's ledge could pierce a hole in the blackness and be seen a great distance away by the sojourner.
Imagine then, a whole city aglow! The wanderer's approach was made sure by the beckoning rays coming from on high. Likewise, the people touched by God's goodness were instructed by Christ to offer those around them similar beacons of hope.
Look up, not around
But this declaration of opportunity and responsibility had its roots 2,000 years before.
It started with a man named Abraham, whom God told to "go to the land of Moriah, and offer him [Isaac] there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you" (Genesis 22:2). This patriarch of the faithful would oblige and would lift up his eyes and see the place, the marker, afar off (Genesis 22:3).
It's noteworthy that God always guides man to look up, not around. He beckons humanity to seek His help instead of looking to itself. Tradition has it that this "hill" to which Abraham looked would come to be known as Mt. Zion. Yes, right within the city of Jerusalem today. He lit a bright guiding light for all humanity to emulate by his example in trusting and following God. The concept of looking to a hill, making a sacrifice and setting a light-filled example began.
Because of Abraham's obedience here and elsewhere, God declared, "I will make you a great nation; I will bless you and make your name great; and you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed" (Genesis 12:2-3). This was fulfilled in the greatest way by Christ, but it was also to apply to the physical descendants of Abraham who were to be a blessing to the nations around them, reflecting God's blessings that shined on them.
God would place those descendants, known as the children of Israel, by the "Way of the Sea," the ancient thoroughfare of civilizations, to be a city on a hill. The Lord, the One who would later become Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 10:4), again required of His chosen a standard above that of their heathen neighbors, so as to show them the way of His Kingdom.
"Your understanding in the sight of the people"
God admonished the Israelites, in regards to the land they were to possess, "Therefore be careful to observe [His statutes and judgments]; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples who will hear all these statutes, and say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.' For what great nation is there that has God so near to it, as the Lord our God is to us, for whatever reason we may call upon Him?...
"Only take heed to yourself, and diligently keep yourself, lest you forget the things your eyes have seen, and lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life" (Deuteronomy 4:5-9).
Yes, Israel, formerly a conglomeration of enslaved tribes, now touched by divine favor, was to be an example of God's way among the heathen—a city on a hill.
Israel (and its sister nation, Judah) failed its God, but the ideal and the charter of a city on a hill would not be buried along with the bones of the disobedient—for it is a city that does not fade away!
The instruction of the Lord through Moses and the teaching of Jesus were coupled together by the words of John Winthrop's famous sermon given in 1630, entitled, "A Model of Christian Charity": "For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken...we shall be made a story and a byword throughout the world."
The early settlers of America felt that they were entering another promised land. They claimed the mantle of responsibility of a covenant people found both in the Old and New Testaments. They sensed an emerging destiny to be a light to the nations.
They did not know how right they were, for they were beginning to fulfill the prophetic blessing bestowed upon the descendants of Joseph (the great-grandson of Abraham and heir to God's favors because of his forefather's faithfulness) in Genesis 49:22: "Joseph is a fruitful bough [branch], a fruitful bough by a well; his branches run over the wall."
Yes, America and the British peoples were destined to be used of God to reach beyond their borders and touch other nations and peoples with goodness, just as the patriarch Joseph had done in times of worldwide disaster. God caused America to come into existence as part of His design (for the full details of this part of the story, see our booklet The United States and Britain in Bible Prophecy. )
While America in no way is synonymous with the Kingdom of God, it has been unique among the nations of the earth acquainted with God's Word to build itself upon the principles and laws of the Scriptures. As the 19th-century French observer of America, Alexis de Tocqueville, noted in Democracy in America: "Religion was the cradle, not the grave of American democracy."
Even so, Winthrop's early concerns were justified. America has not always upheld its destiny of being a city on a hill. At times, it has lost its way, and at other times has just forgotten. And then, it is brought back to remembrance of a unique calling.
The shining city
Three and a half centuries after Winthrop's pronouncement, President Ronald Reagan reiterated and embraced the vision of a city on a hill. In his second inaugural address, he offered these elegant words:
"I've spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don't know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace, a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity, and if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That's how I saw it and still see it."
Increasingly and tragically, the nation that could be a city on a hill is rapidly distancing itself from the ultimate Author of its blessings and prosperity.
"In God we trust" continues to be minted on America's coins, but less and less stamped on the hearts and minds of her people. Like all nations here below, America will rise and fall. But the ultimate reality of God's plan is yet to emerge.
Prophetic words to light a candle
That reality is given voice in the words of the prophet Isaiah. Through this man, God shares what He envisioned from the beginning and what He still sees. And He gives us these prophetic words through Isaiah that we might gain a glimpse and to light a candle within us.
"Now it shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the Lord 's house shall be established on the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow to it. Many people shall come and say, ‘Come, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord. to the house of the God of Jacob; He will teach us His ways, and we shall walk in His paths. For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem'" (Isaiah 2:2-3).
The prophet further defines this reality by proclaiming: "Arise, shine; for your light has come! And the glory of the Lord is risen upon you. For behold, the darkness shall cover the earth, and deep darkness the people; but the Lord will arise over you, and His glory will be seen upon you. The Gentiles shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising" (Isaiah 60:1-3). This is why Jerusalem is the bull's-eye of biblical prophecy.
While nations, personalities and cities will come and go, there is one city that simply shall not fade away—the city on a hill, the city that will shine forth in light, the city that will be inhabited by those who take Jesus at His word to be the "light of the world."
Until that time, God gives us a voice from not so long ago to remind us of "this is the way, walk in it" (Isaiah 30:21). They are the living words of the late American president in how he summed up the invitation to a city on a hill:
"And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here."