The Gospel for the City in Genesis 35

In chapter 35, the Lord instructs Jacob to return to the place where Abraham had built and altar and where he had made a vow to the Lord after he had been assured by the Lord that the promise to Abraham belonged to him and his descendants.  Jacob returns with a serious commitment to shun idolatry and to worship the Lord. He is keeping the vow he made at Bethel that if the Lord brought him back in peace, then the Lord would be his God and he would honor Him as Lord by giving one tenth of all he possesses.

Once again, the Lord reaffirms the Abrahamic covenant with Jacob, blesses him, and changes his name to Israel – the prince of God. Jacob consecrates a memorial at Bethel to mark this occasion.

He moves on as the bearer of the covenant promise. Yet he does so in the midst of the vicissitudes of life. One of Rachel’s nurses dies. His beloved wife also Rachel dies while giving birth to Benjamin. He experiences the joy of being reunited with his father and brother, but soon experiences sorrow in the death of his father, Isaac.

God is faithful to his promise to Abraham that He would bless his offspring and bring them to the land of promises. Yet, the story reminds us that every bearer of the promise eventually dies. We are left looking for One who will bear the promise and never die. Surprising when he finally comes, he does die, but in a grand reversal, He rises from the dead so that the promise to Abraham will live on forever.

New communities of covenant believers in urban centers often become Bethel-like experiences to many who have been running from God, chasing the wind, seeking to satisfy the idols of their hearts. Here you find many young people from Christian backgrounds who, like Jacob, seek to make their own way in life with only a marginal recognition of God. They come to cities lured by the hope that the emptiness of their souls can be filled by the many promises of urban life.

Often there is an initial encounter with the call of Christ, interrupted by the difficult challenges of life, and then followed by a renewed call to return to a place of renewed allegiance, forsaking idolatry and worshipping Christ alone. 

For many who have struggled on their spiritual journey through broken relationships, disappointments, and betrayals, these gospel-centered city churches become their ‘Bethel,’ the place where they grasp the gospel, meet the Lord, and choose to worship and serve Him. Though they continue to struggle through the vicissitudes of life, they do so as those who now are recipients of God’s gracious promise in Christ.

The Gospel for the City in Genesis 34

Genesis 34 is one of those sad chapters in the history of redemption.  Jacob’s daughter, Dinah, is raped, humiliated, and then treated like a commodity to be traded for mutual benefits. Jacob appears ready to make the exchange of his daughter for the benefit of prospering in the land – the land already promised to him by the Lord.

When Dinah’s brothers hear of the atrocity they first object because the Hivite’s do not bear the covenant sign of circumcision. It appears already that the covenant itself has become less significant than the sign of the covenant.  For them pride of identity supersedes the blessing of covenant relationship with the Lord.

The brothers create a ruse in which the Hivite men agree to circumcision and, while recovering from the surgery, they are slaughtered by Jacob’s sons. The brothers then plunder the city and take captive the women and children.

Jacob fears both disgrace and potential revenge from the other inhabitants of the land. Rightfully so, because they have failed to be the covenant family that reflects the grace of God.

Though Jacob and his family are recipients of the covenant promise and though the sons bear the covenant sign of circumcision, it appears that cutting away flesh does not cut away the evil of their hearts. Jacob sons are worse than the pagans whom they destroy. They deceive; they take revenge; they murder; they steal; they are justified in their own eyes.  Instead of blessing the nations as the offspring of Abraham, they are morally bankrupt, destroying rather than delivering the nations of the world.

We leave this chapter longing for that offspring of Abraham who truly will bless the nations and create a new community of covenant believers that will include the nations of the world

Tragically, this story reflects the history of Christianity in the city. Christians who wear the new covenant sign of baptism often do so without having experienced the power of the gospel that transforms a sinner’s heart. They are religious, upholding the signs of Christianity, but bankrupt morally. They often are angry, bitter, unkind, and unmerciful.

The city of Philadelphia is peppered with religious edifices that stand as a sign of Christianity’s once magnificent presence in the city. However, the signs and symbols eventually became the substance, replacing the gospel of God’s grace in Jesus Christ with formalism. The signs and symbols lacked the power to overcome racism, injustice, and disregard for the poor and disenfranchised. The signs and symbols had no power to restore broken relationships or to deliver from life consuming sins. Without the gospel, these religious edifices soon succumbed to 12-step programs, conscience-soothing acts of mercy, and self-help seminars.

The city needs a resurgence of new communities of covenant believers who not only uphold the signs and symbols of Christianity, but who bear evidence of a life being transformed by the gospel of God’s grace – a life of indiscriminate forgiveness, mercy, generosity, and bountiful love.