In the world vs. not of the world. Pilgrims here vs. citizens there. Living in the US vs. our home is heaven. Sojourning in the city of man; looking to the city of God.
In the 5th c., Augustine of Hippo penned his greatest work, The City of God. Some have even termed it as one of the most monumental and influential works within the entire Christian corpus of literature. Rome, the greatest empire the world had seen up to the 5th century, was falling. The Goths had just sacked the mother city, and unmanageable social and economic issues were prevailing over the once-mighty empire. In an empire that had become saturated with the Christian religion, Roman Christians needed guidance. They needed wise counsel—how were they to suffer the loss of this city of man while yet living as citizens of the city of God?
We live in an age that often causes us to wonder how long our city of man will last. The West faces issues uncannily similar to the moral, social, economic, and geopolitical challenges Rome faced in the 5th century. As such, we may be helped by retrieving the mind of Augustine for the sake of informing our 21st-century moment. We will look at three things that will hopefully help us understand our place in the world so that we can be encouraged even when the world does things we don’t want it to do.
We will look, first, at the city of man. Second, we will look at the city of God. And third, we will consider what it means to live in both at the same time as we no doubt do.
The City of Man
The city of man is characterized by three things: sin, suffering, and impermanence.
The origin of the city of man is the first — and thus fallen — creation. In the beginning, God created Adam and Eve, and He commanded them to “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it…” (Gen. 1:28) This is where God sanctioned the human community. And this human community was to fill the earth while worshiping and glorifying the Creator. This would have resulted not only in families, not only tribes but also in cities and nations. These cities and nations were to have God as their God with Adam as their intermediate or representational king.
But it didn’t go this way.
Adam sinned, and all his descendants sinned in him, “Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned…” (Rom. 5:12) At the point of sin, however, this first creation didn’t disappear. The natural order didn’t just go away. It all remained intact through the mercy of God, though sin was now part of the picture. And this means that men would go on to form communities—families, villages, cities, etc. But all of these institutions would be infected with sin.
One of the first examples we might think of when we consider whole communities affected by sin is the Tower of Babel. There, we see a city full of sinful people in rebellion against God. So, we know humanity went forth after the fall and, in principle, tried to continue the dominion mandate—albeit in a fallen way. Humanity went forth from the fall onward trying to take dominion, trying to fill the earth, trying to subdue the earth—but never able to consummately succeed on account of sin.
If we take this whole situation—fallen man, effects of sin, suffering, impermanence, lack of success, etc.—and we summarize it in one term, it would be “the city of man.” This is how Augustine referred to it. He calls “the city of man,” “the earthly city, which, though it be mistress of the nations, is itself ruled by its lust of rule.” (Emphasis added) The Bible refers to the city of man as impermanent. It doesn’t last. So, the writer of Hebrews says, “For here we have no continuing city, but we seek the one to come.” (Heb. 13:14)
The city of man is characterized by rebellion against God, suffering the effects of sin, and impermanence—it doesn’t last. And everything in this city of man will one day fade. Look how the apostle Paul characterizes the temporary nature of suffering in this city of man, “For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory…” (2 Cor. 4:17)
The Christian is in a unique position because, at present, the Christian lives in both cities — the city of man and the city of God. The Christian experiences sin, suffering, and impermanence. But the Christian also experiences grace, joy, peace, and righteousness in the Holy Spirit — things that will never pass away, things that characterize the city of God. Things that only God can give. The city of man is the present moral order of man generally. It began at the first creation but was plunged into sin by the first Adam. It is comprised of unbelief, active rebellion against God, suffering, and temporary things that will not last. That’s the city of man. It’s bleak. But the Bible tells us of something better — a city of God, whose builder and maker is God.
The City of God
If the city of man is characterized by sin, suffering, and impermanence, then the city of God is characterized by righteousness, happiness, and eternity.
Scripture speaks of the city of God in several places. In the book of Revelation, it’s called the New Jerusalem. In the book of Hebrews, it’s called the city “whose builder and maker is God.” In Revelation 3:12, we read, “He who overcomes, I will make him a pillar in the temple of My God, and he shall go out no more. I will write on him the name of My God and the name of the city of My God, the New Jerusalem, which comes down out of heaven from My God. And I will write on him My new name.” And, at the end of Revelation, in ch. 21, we read, “Then I, John, saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” So, here the city of God bookends the whole book of Revelation because John is encouraging his audience — the seven churches — with an eternal destiny, life in the city of God.
In Hebrews, the project is similar. There, the author is encouraging his audience to remain faithful to the end because, after all, there is no lasting city here — we look to another.
In Hebrews 11, we see that the Old Testament saints were likewise looking for this city of God, “for [Abraham] waited for the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God.” (v. 10) In Hebrews 12:22, it’s called the “heavenly Jerusalem,” “But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem…” In Hebrews 13:14, it is written, “For here we have no continuing city, but we seek the one to come.” And this is our encouragement to follow Christ outside the camp, bearing His reproach. (v. 12)
In Galatians 4, Paul speaks of the city of God, or the heavenly Jerusalem, “the Jerusalem above.” Contrasting the earthly city and the heavenly city, Paul writes:
For these (Hagar & Sarah) are the two covenants: the one from Mount Sinai which gives birth to bondage, which is Hagar—for this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia, and corresponds to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children—but the Jerusalem above is free, which is the mother of us all. (Gal. 4:24-26)
Notice the difference between the two cities. It corresponds to what we’ve said about the city of man and the city of God. The city of man is characterized by sin and suffering, i.e. bondage. But the city of God is characterized by liberty in Christ, joy, and glory, i.e. it is free.
Augustine, commenting on Paul’s words here, says:
This interpretation of the passage, handed down to us with apostolic authority, shows how we ought to understand the Scriptures of the two covenants — the old and the new. One portion of the earthly city became an image of the heavenly city, not having a significance of its own, but signifying another city, and therefore serving, or “being in bondage.”
The old Jerusalem, the one we know on earth, the earthly city, prefigures the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of God. The earthly city, fallen in sin, subject to suffering, and various forms of heartache, was a type that looked forward to the other and greater heavenly city, the heavenly Jerusalem — whose builder and maker is God.
Augustine is writing to Christians who were converted out of the Roman Empire. And the occasion is the sacking of the city of Rome by the Goths. Rome is falling. Augustine takes this two-city image and uses it to essentially say, “As a Christian, your meaning, your significance, your identity was never tied up entirely with Rome. You belong to a greater city. You look to a greater city.”
We know from Hebrews 11 that Old Testament saints looked to this heavenly city. We see glimpses of that in places like Psalm 48, where the Psalmist writes, “Beautiful in elevation, The joy of the whole earth, Is Mount Zion on the sides of the north, The city of the great King.” (v. 2) And in v. 8, “As we have heard, So we have seen In the city of the LORD of hosts, In the city of our God: God will establish it forever.”
The city of God is the new world to which God has saved His people through Jesus Christ. And this means that the church — Christ’s people — represents this city in the here and now. Christ’s people live in both the city of man and the city of God at present.
Living in Both Cities
City of man. City of God. As Christians, we have one foot in each.
In His high priestly prayer to the Father, Jesus says, “Now I am no longer in the world, but these are in the world, and I come to You.” (Jn. 17:11) Jesus was once in the world, and His people remain in the world. But then, in v. 16, He says, “They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world.” Christ’s people are in the world (in the city of man), but they are not of the world (not of the city of man).
While the church lives here, it is not ultimately from here. Remember, though we were naturally born into this world, into the city of man, we have been born again as Christians. And in this new birth, we are born into the city of God and are thus from the city of God, as Paul says — “but the Jerusalem above is free, which is the mother of us all.” (Gal. 4:26) Though we live in the city of man, following the new birth, we are no longer of (or from) the city of man. We have been born of the city of God. We have been made a new creature in the new creation, whose capital city is the city of the living, triune God.
What does all of this mean?
Christians have been through a lot over the last 2,000 years. The first time Christians had to struggle with the tension between living in the city of man on the one hand and living in the city of God on the other is, perhaps, the looming destruction of Jerusalem between the years 66 – 70 AD. At this time, if they hadn’t known it before, the Jewish converts to Christ learned that their home was not earthly Jerusalem — they were to look for something more sure, lasting, and stable. As they left earthly Jerusalem for Pella, they illustrated their true hope in real-time. They had to come to terms with the fact that their “home” wasn’t ultimately their home.
But the second major instance in which Christians had to wrestle with living in the city of man and the city of God was during the fall of Rome. It’s the 5th c., Rome has just been attacked by the Goths (pagans), and everything they had known on this earth up to that point was falling apart. Some other times when Christians were forced to deal with this tension would be the Holocaust, when Jewish Christians were persecuted by the Nazis, forced from homes, loved ones, etc.; or the Armenian genocide when the Ottoman Empire murdered probably over a million Armenian Christians in the early 1900s.
The question in the minds of Christians should always be, “How do I live in the city of God even when the city of man is falling apart?” Even in times of prosperity, we should consider this question. How is Hebrews 13:14 real for us? “For here we have no continuing city, but we seek the one to come.”
Here’s how: We trust Christ. We grow in our love for Him. And we labor to know what both of those things mean. Hebrews 13:14a admonishes us, “let us go forth to Him, outside the camp, bearing His reproach.” Do we trust Him to follow Him away from the city of man as it’s destroyed by sin, death, and the devil?
Or, like Lot’s wife, will we be so attached to the comforts and pleasantries of the city of man that we look back?
As a church, who are we? Are we an outpost of the city of God in this world? Or are we just another organization in and of the city of man? Could we continue our worship if the city of man went away tomorrow? If everything we knew faded into history, could we still be a church—constant, remaining, set upon the Rock, identified by that heavenly, unshaking city of God?
 Augustine, Saint. The Complete Works of Saint Augustine: The Confessions, On Grace and Free Will, The City of God, On Christian Doctrine, Expositions on the Book Of Psalms, … (50 Books With Active Table of Contents) (p. 58). Kindle Edition.
 Augustine, The City of God … (50 Books With Active Table of Contents) (p. 615). Kindle Edition.