The City of Our Birth
Where you are born often determines a lot about you.
Sometimes in an absolute sense: if you’re born in the West, more than likely you will be educated in a certain way, have a certain lifestyle; if you’re born in the East, there will be another education/lifestyle. And sometimes in a more subtle sense: people who are born, say, in a big, glamorous city often wear that as a badge of pride (even if they moved away when they were young). If you’re born in a certain place, you often feel a kind of kinship with that place, whether you want to or not.
Just as birth is an important theme in the Bible, so are cities. (You’ll see why I’m switching subjects in a minute.) When God creates the first man and woman, and they begin to multiply, the people begin to congregate in a city. They begin to build up their society and think much of themselves, and when they finally take it upon themselves to build a tower which will be a kind of symbol of all the amazing things they’re able to accomplish, God comes down and confuses their language and disperses them from the city.
When the first people instinctively congregate in a city, their sin congregates with them; so the dispersal away from urban life is a sign of God’s judgment upon their sin.
But there are multiple promises in the Bible that one day, God will renew the earth, and take away from it everything that makes it a place of suffering and pain and danger; and that when he renews the earth, he will gather his people to himself. How will he do it?
He will gather them into a city.
In the Bible, the new heavens and the new earth, where we’ll spend all eternity with Christ, is often called the “New Jerusalem.” It will be a world-wide city, where God’s people will live forever. It will be a place where all the good of the city is maintained and made perfect, and all the bad of the city is done away with.
The reason why I started talking about birth, then went over to talking about cities, is because they are both the subject of Psalm 87—or rather, they are brought together into one broader subject: birth in a city. And not just any city: the city, the city of God.
City of God (v. 1-3)
A Psalm of the Sons of Korah. A Song.
1 On the holy mount stands the city he founded; 2 the Lord loves the gates of Zion more than all the dwelling places of Jacob. 3 Glorious things of you are spoken, O city of God. Selah
If you ever see the word “Zion” in the Bible, you should know that Zion was another name for the city of David, Jerusalem. What makes this place important is that in 2 Samuel 6, right after taking the city, David brings the ark of the covenant there. The ark of the covenant was the center of worship for the Israelites—it’s where God manifested his presence to the people. So once the ark of the covenant was moved into David’s stronghold—and later, moved into the temple his son Solomon built—the name Zion began to refer to the place where God was active and present among his people; and even more, it became known as the place where people could come to God for help and for deliverance.
The city of Zion is God’s city because God founded it. He is the reason why it is a holy place; he didn’t come and take up residence there because it was a holy place already.
The city is holy because God has chosen to dwell there. God founded his city.
Secondly, the city is God’s city because God loves it. The Lord loves the gates of Zion more than all the dwelling places of Jacob. Why?
Verse 3 answers that question—Glorious things of you are spoken, O city of God. “God loves the city because glorious things happen there!” And the surprising thing is that the “glorious things that happen there” happen because God does them!
We see this in the verses which follow—what glorious things might we say about the city of God?
City of Immigrants (v. 4-6)
4 Among those who know me I mention Rahab and Babylon; behold, Philistia and Tyre, with Cush— “This one was born there,” they say. 5 And of Zion it shall be said, “This one and that one were born in her”; for the Most High himself will establish her. 6 The Lord records as he registers the peoples, “This one was born there.” Selah
There’s an episode in the New Testament that calls this psalm to mind. The apostle Paul is arrested in Jerusalem, and he is about to be flogged by the Romans guards, and Paul protests, saying that he is a Roman citizen. So they investigate. Acts 22.27:
27 So the tribune came and said to him, “Tell me, are you a Roman citizen?” And he said, “Yes.” 28 The tribune answered, “I bought this citizenship for a large sum.” Paul said, “But I am a citizen by birth.” 29 So those who were about to examine him withdrew from him immediately, and the tribune also was afraid, for he realized that Paul was a Roman citizen and that he had bound him.
You will feel this in any country which has strong nationalistic tendencies: no matter how legitimate your status as a citizen may be, in highly nationalistic societies, if you are a citizen by birth you are seen as a higher class of citizen than those who are citizens by naturalization.
That’s the weight we are supposed to feel in this psalm—the feeling that it shouldn’t work the way the psalmists say it works in this city.
There were provisions in the law that provided for the naturalization of a foreigner into Israelite society; they weren’t anti-immigrant. But there were limits to how far that naturalization went. If you were a naturalized foreigner, there were still certain prejudices that were leveled against you; there were still certain parts of the temple you couldn’t access. If you weren’t an Israelite by birth, you were still kept at relative arm’s length.
But that is not how God looks upon immigrants in his city. God “registers the peoples,” it says in v. 6, and as he writes their names down in his registry, he gives the official stamp: This one was BORN there. No matter where you’re from. Even if you’re a foreign immigrant. You not only have all the rights and privileges of a natural born citizen; you are so completely naturalized that the Lord of the city himself wipes the slate of your birth clean and writes you a new birth certificate, saying, “This one was born in Zion.”
And as if that weren’t incredible enough, it gets even better.
Look at the names that are listed in v. 4:
• Rahab (another name for Egypt)
All of these cities were enemies of the people of Israel.
The Israelites were slaves in Egypt for hundreds of years. They were exiled in Babylon. The giant Goliath, who mocked the Lord’s army, was a Philistine. Every city mentioned here was a bitter enemy of God’s people.
And yet, it’s repeated three times: “This one was born there… This one and that one were born in her… This one was born there.”
Do you see the picture?
3 Glorious things of you are spoken, O city of God.
What kinds of things?
People from all over flood through the gates of Zion, looking for safety and peace, looking for deliverance and salvation. Even God’s worst enemies have come to a point where they have realized they need salvation from his hand too, and have come, humbly asking for forgiveness and rescue.
And how does God respond? Does he respond in anger over the crimes of his enemies against his chosen people? Does he respond in retaliation, exercizing judgment against them (judgment which, by the way, would be perfectly normal and just)?
No—he welcomes them in, and records them in his roll, and does the job so completely that he declares of them, This one and that one were born in her.
This is simply astonishing, and the response is completely appropriate.
City of Joy (v. 7)
7 Singers and dancers alike say, “All my springs are in you.”
This psalm is nothing if not a wonder of understatement. Everyone in the city, before the outstanding grace of this good God, becomes a singer and a dancer.
And each singer, each dancer, as they contemplate this grace, proclaim the same thing: “All my springs are in you.”
A spring is what is lacking in the desert. A spring of water is what brings life to arid places.
This spring is described even more completely by the prophet Ezekiel, who recounts his vision of the river of God flowing out of the temple (Ezekiel 47.8-9, 12):
8 …“This water flows [out of the threshold of the temple], and enters the sea; when the water flows into the sea, the water will become fresh. 9 And wherever the river goes, every living creature that swarms will live, and there will be very many fish. For this water goes there, that the waters of the sea may become fresh; so everything will live where the river goes… 12 And on the banks, on both sides of the river, there will grow all kinds of trees for food. Their leaves will not wither, nor their fruit fail, but they will bear fresh fruit every month, because the water for them flows from the sanctuary. Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing.”
You get the picture. Springs of water are symbolic of life. Wherever the river of God flows, life is restored where there was no life before. When the river flows into the sea, the salt in the sea is neutralized and becomes fresh water. Whatever trees are fed by its waters will not only grow strong; their fruit will be nourishing, and their leaves will be healing.
And the inhabitants of Zion, celebrating with singing and dancing, proclaim that their city, and the God who rules it, is the source of all of this life; all of this health; all of their joy.
Singers and dancers alike say, “All my springs are in you.”
Zion is a city where God’s fiercest enemies are adopted as sons; where they receive new names and a new birthplace; and the result for the residents of the city is unending joy in their gracious Lord, to his glory and praise.
The (Future) City of God
Now I know that we’ve heard a lot of things today which can sound foreign to our ears: strange-sounding cities, celebrations of springs and rivers, holy mountains, etc. This is the kind of psalm where it is possible to read it, think for a minute, then say, “That’s interesting,” and continue on your way.
But we mustn’t just continue on our way, because this psalm isn’t just talking about Jerusalem; it’s talking about us.
We’ve seen all throughout these series that often when the psalmists speak about things happening in their own present time, they are prophetically echoing forward to another time when these things will be made true in a more complete way. When the Sons of Korah wrote this psalm, sin was prevalent among the people of God, even in Jerusalem itself. So for the prophets of the Old Testament, it was clear that Jerusalem—Zion, the city of David—was far from the ideal city.
John Piper writes, “[The prophets] began to see more clearly that this Zion pointed forward to a future Zion and upward to a heavenly Zion. Or to put it another way, if imperfect Zion is the place of God’s presence on the earth, then there must be a perfect Zion where God dwells in heaven (cf. Acts 7:48f.).”
In other words, this psalm is not just referring to the way a city once was; it’s referring to a city that is and which one day will be for God’s people. And that eschatological perspective is essential to our faith.
Christianity is so often reduced to “the way to get to heaven.” That’s not wrong, it’s just not complete—it’s essentially Do this to get what you want after you die.
The problem there is that it’s all you, you, you. The way Christians often share the gospel has the unintended consequence of turning Jesus into the way we get what we want.
But that’s not what biblical Christianity is. The Bible says that since before the creation of the world, God had a plan to make his glory known, to make himself known, in all of his glorious attributes, to all the peoples of the world.
So to fulfill his plan, God chose one particular people from whom his Son, the Saviour Jesus Christ, would come; and through his Son God paid for the sin and rebellion of all of his people, scattered throughout the world. God placed the sin of his people on his Son and condemned his Son to death for their sin; and in exchange, he gave his people the perfect life his Son had lived.
Thanks to this exchange, God looked at his people—all of whom were his enemies before—and declared them righteous.
Thanks to this exchange, he no longer calls them enemies, but he calls them saints. Sons and daughters.
And one day he will finish his plan: he will renew the earth which has been corrupted by our sin, and take away from it everything that makes it a place of suffering and pain and danger; and when he renews the earth, he will gather his people to himself.
The important question is, How will he do it?
And the answer is, He will gather them into a city.
It’s no accident that in the Bible, the new heavens and the new earth, where we’ll spend all eternity with Christ, is often called the “New Jerusalem.” This is the city of God, Zion, which will cover the whole earth, freed from everything that makes cities hard to live in, and where singers and dancers alike will say, “All my springs are in you!”
You see, in reality the gospel isn’t even about us. The gospel is about v. 7—when God’s children will all proclaim his praises. The gospel is about him, and his saving us is the means by which he makes himself known.
To receive the glory due his name, he completes us by showing us his glory—and he does this by changing us from enemies to sons.
From Enemies to Sons
But many Christians today don’t actually live like this is the case. There’s a reason why so many Christians live in a kind of perpetual frustration, a kind of nagging feeling of dissatisfaction that gives the impression we should be doing better than this, but aren’t quite measuring up.
Very often, this dissatisfaction stems from the fact that Christians don’t fully realize what has happened to them.
When I was a kid I’d often stay at my best friend Jeff’s house. Jeff’s mom Sharon had a perfect way of getting us out of bed. She’d fill up the reservoir of a Super Soaker water gun, stick it in the fridge overnight, then yank the covers off our feet and shoot us in the bare feet with ice-cold water.
The language of this psalm should do that to us—it should shock us awake; it should make us realize our salvation is far more extensive and inclusive and complete than we ever dreamed.
You were God’s enemies, in rebellion against him and hating his reign; and through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, God records as he registers his people, and he says, “YOU were born in Zion. YOU were born in the new heavens and the new earth.”
Well that’s not true, is it? After all, I was born in Minot, North Dakota, in 1981.
Depends on which birth you’re talking about. How does the Bible talk about conversion, about what it means to know Christ and have faith in him? It calls this process being “born again.” Peter says in 1 Peter 1.3:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.
Through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit causes us to be born again—to awaken to new life, to receive new hearts in place of our old ones. In 2002, when I was living in Lakeland, Florida, the Holy Spirit caused me to be born again. But my new birth did not truly happen in Lakeland, Florida; it happened in Zion.
God saves his people so completely that to describe what happens at that moment, he says that we are born in his holy city.
Your salvation is so much more complete than you may realize. You being a Christian is so much bigger than “getting to go to heaven.” You were not just saved to secure for yourself a different destination after death; you were saved to secure for God a son or a daughter who lives life in the joy of beholding his glory, today, and tomorrow, and every day after, for the rest of eternity.
Life in the City of Our Birth
So the question we need to ask when faced with these incredible truths is, Do we live like this is true? What would that even look like?
The first way we live this is by realizing who we are now.
I know a kid named Josh; he was abandoned by his parents when he was a baby, and he went from foster home to foster home as a result of how that abandonment had formed and shaped him. And the older he got, the more unlikely it seemed that anyone would actually take him in and be his family (parents generally don’t want to take in kids who are older; they want to take them in when they’re babies and raise them).
But then, when he was fifteen, he got placed with a young family, and they didn’t mind that he was fifteen and screwed up (nor that his skin was a different color than theirs). They loved him unconditionally, and he experienced that love—of parents to their child—for the first time. He was with them for several years, and in that time he was changed by the way this family acted toward each other, the way they acted towards their other kids, and the way they acted toward him.
Then he turned eighteen. Legally, he was an adult. He could go out to live on his own now. But on his eighteenth birthday, his foster parents sat him down, and explained that they had received approval, and had begun the paperwork, to legally adopt him. They had no obligation to do it, and being an adult, he didn’t really need them to; but they did it anyway. From that point on, he was not just a young man they loved; he was their son. He took their last name. He belonged to this family, and they wanted to give him all the rights and privileges and love they gave to their own children, because now he was their own.
How does an orphan respond to adoption by foster parents he adores?
The joy and gratitude and overwhelming sense of grace he would feel at that moment is a mere shadow of what we are meant to feel—for our adoption is infinitely more complete. We don’t receive paperwork saying we have been brought into this family; we receive a new birth certificate from the King, saying we were born in his city.
So starting now, heaven is not only the place I’m going; it’s where I’m from.
Starting now, we know that every good thing that is ours—every joy, every grace, every moment of happiness—comes from him, and that there is an eternity of more such moments waiting for us.
Singers and dancers alike say, “All my springs are in you.”
The only appropriate response to such a reality is unending joy and praise to our God, no matter what circumstances we’ll need to live through before we finally reach our birthplace.
Which leads us to the second way we live this: we live this by imitating life in the city of our birth. This joy and praise to our God should infiltrate every area of our lives, including the way we see the world around us.
Here’s just one example among many: think for a second of how God treats the foreign immigrants of his city, even those who come from enemy territory. He welcomes them in as equal to the natural born citizens.
If this is how God treats foreign immigrants in his city, how should that make us want to treat foreign immigrants in ours?
It’s easy to become jaded to the difficulty and the fear of immigration if we’re French, or if who have immigrated from the West. It’s a different story for all those families (for example) coming in from Syria. How often do we see them as annoyances rather than people? How often does the church as a whole ignore the situation, rather than seeing it as an opportunity to show love to those who are, at least for now, held off at the margins?
The city of God, the new heavens and the new earth, will be a place of the most remarkable diversity and inclusivity ever assembled: people from all nations, all tribes, all tongues, living together in the city as absolute equals, because, God says, “They were all born here.”
Why do we feel we need to wait to welcome the foreigner? Why don’t we realize that among these people seen as a “crisis” may well be our brothers and sisters (whether they know it yet or not)? Knowing where we are headed should and must fill us with a desire to see our present city look like that.
And that brings us to the third way we live this: remember you will soon return home.
You're going to die soon.
It's no secret our church is a young church, filled mostly with young people; that vitality is one of the blessings of our church. But there's a downside to that as well: young people are generally so focused on the moment, on the now, that you forget you're going to be old one day. You're going to have a hard time walking; you're going to have a hard time digesting; you're going to have a hard time hearing and seeing; every physical faculty you take for granted today will become a challenge for you. And that's for those of you who live that long; statistically, a good number of you will die before you get that far.
Why would I end this sermon on such a depressing note? Because for the Christian it's not depressing. One of the many things an elderly Christian has that a young Christian doesn't is the perspective of approaching death, and that perspective is a gift, because for the Christian death means being with Jesus, being one step closer to returning home, to the city of our birth. Strangely, if you meet an elderly Christian with a vibrant faith, most of the time the idea that most thrills and excites them is the idea that they will get to see Jesus soon; they'll be in his presence soon; they'll get to hear his voice and see his face and enjoy his glory, soon.
A Christian who is close to death is a Christian who is close to going home, and that notion fills him with joy.
It should fill us all with joy, because we are all close to going home. Ten million years after Christ returns, and renews the earth, and consummates his kingdom forever in the new Jerusalem, all of the present things that so preoccupied us in our lives will seem like an instant, a dream which was there for a moment and then replaced with our real lives. And yet so many of us spend all our times investing in the dream, rather than the reality.
Remembering we will die, and that we will awaken to new life, helps us remember that this is not our home, and that our real lives, the lives in which we'll spend the vast majority of our years, hasn't even started yet. So invest in that life which is promised to you. Remember you will die, and pour yourself into the life to come, and invite others to come with you.
If we have faith in Christ, we were born in God’s holy city, though we come from among his enemies. And the only appropriate response is a life of joy and unending praise in light of that reality. So let’s live it.
And if you don’t know Jesus today, and all of this seems good, but out of your reach, remember that our “birth” in the city of God is not determined by anything in our past. An eternity before we were born, God decided to save his own; and in his own time, he makes good on his decision, and causes his people to be born again in him. So if you want this to be you, if you believe that Jesus Christ did this for his people, and you want to be one of those people, all you have to do is come to him.
He invites his enemies to come to him. He says of his enemies, “This one and that one were born here.”
No matter who you are, what you have done, or what you understand (or don’t understand) about how it all works, Jesus invites all who would to believe in him, to come to him in faith, and to belong to him.
You are invited: come to Christ in faith, repent of your sins and believe in him, and hear him say of you too, This one was born in my city.