The City on the Hill
The Great Commission is not great when it is utilitarian. It is reduced to what Dr. Bob Moffitt has called the Greek Commission, to save souls for heaven. It is the Great Commission when it has a kingdom focus. Jesus taught his disciples to pray “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” He has commissioned his people to disciple nations.
When the Puritans came to America they were enlivened by a proleptic vision to build a nation that was a manifestation of the coming kingdom. Did they do it perfectly? No! Was there sin? Yes! But the vision was a Godly vision of the kingdom of God coming to earth.
In Matthew 5:14-16, Jesus created a most electrifying image. He said: “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven” (emphasis added).
The Apostle Paul continues this theme when he wrote in Philippians 2:5: “so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe” (emphasis added). The Great Commission is about being a light on the hill.
This vision was to consciously shape the American experiment. In 1630, not long before landing in the New World, from the deck of the Puritans flagship the Arabella, John Winthrop, the Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, preached a sermon titled “A Modell of Christian Charity” (sic). His image was taken directly from Christ’s beatific vision. He told the community that they would be “a city upon a hill” that would be watched by the whole world:
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 by-word throughout the world. We shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God. . . We shall shame the faces of many of God’s worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into curses upon us til we be consumed out of the good land whither we are a-going.[i]
Here is faith substantiating things hoped for, providing evidence of things not seen. This light on a hill has drawn the poor and humble masses from all over the world. This vision of freedom, this humble proleptic attempt of a people to work towards the kingdom of God, has manifest in the building of a nation.
Speaking from a memory, perhaps rather than a personal Puritan-like faith, President-elect John Kennedy delivered a speech on January 9, 1961 to the General Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in which he refers to Winthrop’s sermon:
That we shall be as a city upon a hill – the eyes of all people are upon us. . . Today the eyes of all people are truly upon us – our government, in every branch, at every level, national, state, and local, must be a city upon a hill – constructed and inhabited by men aware of their great trust and their great responsibilities.[ii]
Likewise, President Ronald Reagan used the phrase in his farewell speech to the nation on January 11, 1989:
The past few days when I’ve been at that window upstairs, I’ve thought a bit of the “shining city upon a hill.” The phrase comes from John Winthrop, who wrote it to describe the America he imagined.
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 see it still.[iii]
While Kennedy and Reagan were likely speaking out of historic memory, Christians today are to live out of biblical conviction.
The dualistic paradigm has caused the Church to separate work from worship and wealth from the building of communities and nations. We need to return to the richness of the biblical paradigm and leave behind the anemic vision of Great Commission Utilitarianism for the GREAT COMMISSION of giving substance to things hoped for. Let us shine like stars in the universe, let us build cities on the hill.
-Darrow L. Miller
[i] Wikipedia, s.v. “City upon a Hill”