Out of Zion, the Perfection of Beauty, God Shines Forth

The Mighty One, God the Lord, speaks and summons the earth from the rising of the sun to its setting. Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God shines forth. Our God comes, he does not keep silence, before him is a devouring fire, round about him a mighty tempest. He calls to the heavens above and to the earth, that he may judge his people: "Gather to me my faithful ones, who made a covenant with me by sacrifice!" The heavens declare his righteousness, for God himself is judge!

I have two purposes in this message this morning. One is to begin a three part series on this great psalm. The other purpose is to pick up on last week's text in Hebrews 13:14 which said, "Here we have no lasting city, but we seek a city that is to come." We talked about singing about "Zion city of our God" last week, but decided that Zion and the heavenly Jerusalem and the city to come are foreign ideas to most Christians today.

Seeing the Beauty of Zion in Scripture 

So we have decided to devote a message to this theme in Scripture, namely, the theme of Zion and the city of God and the New Jerusalem. We've sung the hymn

Glorious things of thee are spoken,
Zion city of our God;
He whose word cannot be broken
Formed thee for His own abode.
On the Rock of Ages founded,
What can shake Thy sure repose?
With salvation's walls surrounded,
Thou mayest smile at all Thy foes.

When I think about the man who wrote that hymn, I am encouraged that this biblical theme can become relevant and meaningful for the most secular, unchurched, modern person in America. It was written by John Newton, the same man who wrote "Amazing Grace." He was, by his own confession, a very corrupt young man. He ran from his father and ran from the law and sailed the high seas. He ran a slave trading vessel in the 1750s from the coasts of Africa. Later on, he called himself "the old African blasphemer." In other words, he is not the kind of person you would expect to use biblical words like "Zion"—or to make up a song like "Glorious things of thee are spoken, Zion, city of our God."

You'd think that ideas like "Zion" and the heavenly Jerusalem would be reserved for churchy types who spend all their time reading the Bible and don't know much about the world. But that's not true. It never has been true. It is not true today. The most irreligious, immoral person you know is probably more religious and more moral than John Newton was. Can you imagine that person falling in love with the language of Zion—unthinkable! Or is it?

John Newton died December 31, 1807. He wrote his own epitaph for his gravestone. It says, "John Newton, clerk, once an infidel and libertine, a servant of slaves in Africa, was, by the rich mercy of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, preserved, restored, pardoned, and appointed to preach the faith he had long labored to destroy."

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
that saved a wretch like me,
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind but now I see.

And one of the things this African blasphemer saw when God saved him and opened his eyes was the beauty Zion. And I want you to see it too, whoever you are this morning.

What Is Zion? 

Verse 2 of our text says, "Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God shines forth." We will talk more next week about the setting, the scene of judgment, and why God is calling the heavens and the earth to listen to his judgment over Israel. But today I want us just to focus on this term Zion. "Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God shines forth." What is Zion? And why is it such a rich and hope-filled word for Christians?

Let's begin back where the word is used for the first time in the Bible (2 Samuel 5:7). It says of David, "The king and his men went to Jerusalem against the Jebusites . . . [and] David took the stronghold of Zion, that is, the city of David." So from the time of David, Zion was synonymous with the city of David.

What begins to make this place so significant is that immediately (in 2 Samuel 6:12) David brings the ark of the covenant into to this stronghold of Zion. The ark of the covenant was the sacred seat of the holy of holies where God met his people in the tabernacle. So Zion becomes the center of worship and of God's presence. And when Solomon moves the arc of the covenant into the temple that he had built (1 Kings 8:1), the whole of Jerusalem came to be known as Zion.

So most of the time (in its 150+ uses in the Old Testament) "Zion" refers to the city of Jerusalem, not just as another name, but because it is the city of God's presence and the city of great hope for God's people.

The City of God's Presence and Salvation 

Let me illustrate this significance with some texts.

  • Psalm 51:18, "Do good to Zion in thy good pleasure; rebuild the walls of Jerusalem." (Zion is Jerusalem.)
  • Psalm 9:11, "Sing praises to the Lord, who dwells in Zion! Tell among the peoples his deeds." (So Zion is the place on earth where God has chosen to makes his presence especially known. Psalm 78:67f.)
  • Psalm 74:2, "Remember mount Zion, where thou hast dwelt." (It is called a mount because David's stronghold and then the temple were on mountains or hills in Jerusalem.)

So Zion meant the place where God was present and near to his people. But that's not all. It follows that Zion became the place from which the people expected help. Zion became the source of deliverance and salvation. For example,

  • Psalm 20:2, "May the Lord send you help from the sanctuary, and give you support from Zion!"
  • Psalm 3:4, "I cry aloud to the Lord, and he answers me from his holy hill"—that is, Mount Zion.

So Zion was the place of God's special presence among his people and it was the place where they could get help and deliverance.

But because sin became rampant among the people and because divine judgment was inevitable, even on Zion (Lamentations 2:15), it became more and more obvious, especially to the prophets, that Zion, the city of David, the earthly Jerusalem, was not the ideal city. They 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.). And if imperfect Zion is the place of God's presence on the earth now, then all the promises of complete and perfect reign on the earth must mean that there will some day be a new and ideal Zion on the earth where God rules over all the nations. In other words the old Jerusalem points upward to a heavenly Zion, and forward to a future Zion.

Pointers to a Future Zion 

Let me show you this from some Scriptures. First some pointers to the future Zion.

  • Isaiah 24:23, "The moon will be confounded, and the sun ashamed; for the Lord of hosts will reign on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem." The Lord will reign on Mount Zion!
  • Micah 4:6f., "In that day, says the Lord, I will assemble the lame . . . and the Lord will reign over them in Mount Zion from this time forth and for evermore."
  • Isaiah 2:2f., "It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the highest of the mountains . . . and all the nations shall flow to it . . . For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between nations, and shall decide for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks."

So the Bible teaches that there is coming a day when the Lord will rule over the nations from his seat in Zion. And there will be peace and righteousness. I believe this is what the Bible means by the Millennium—a thousand year reign of God on the earth from Mount Zion. "I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill" (Psalm 2:6). So the old Jerusalem points forward to a glorious future Zion from which God will reign on earth.

Pointing to a Heavenly Zion 

But the Old Testament points not only to a future, glorious Zion where God will reign on earth, it also points to a heavenly Zion where God already reigns now. This is not so easy to see, but once we see, it becomes really precious to us who live far from the earthly Jerusalem and are not even Jews.

Psalm 87

There are a few key passages that show this. One is Psalm 87.

On the holy mount stands the city he founded; the Lord loves the gates of Zion more than all the dwelling places of Jacob. Glorious things are spoken of you, O city of God. [This is where John Newton got his song. Now the Lord himself speaks concerning the true citizens of Zion:] Among those who know me I mention Rahab [=Egypt] and Babylon; behold, Philistia and Tyre, with Ethiopia [So he foretells the day when these pagan nations will turn and know God. And then he describes them as natural born citizens of Zion]—"This one was born there," they say. And of Zion it shall be said, "This one and that one were born in her"; for the Most High himself will establish her. The Lord records as he registers the peoples, "This one was born there." 

This is an amazing psalm! If Zion is the place of God's presence, if Zion is the place of God's power and blessing and protection, if Zion is the hope of God's future rule over the earth, then what is the hope of us Gentiles? What about us who pay our taxes in Minneapolis and St. Paul and Roseville and Eagan and Bloomington and New Brighton, and have never even seen Jerusalem, let alone become a citizen of God's city? What about us whom Paul says are separated from the commonwealth of Israel and have no citizenship in Zion the city of God (Ephesians 2:12)?

"This One Was Born in Zion"

The answer is that there is a Zion whose citizenship is not earthly. Psalm 87:5 says the Most High himself is establishing this Zion by declaring with sovereign freedom and with saving effect: "This one was born there." This one in Minneapolis was born in Zion. This one in Moscow was born in Zion. This one in Jakarta was born in Zion. This one in Kankan was born in Zion. God is populating Zion with foreigners of every people and tribe and tongue and nation.

But how can this be? What does it mean? It means that there is a true Zion in heaven, there is a heavenly Jerusalem. And the true people of God, whether Jew or Gentile, are citizens there. To belong to the people of God your birth certificate has to say, "This one was born in Zion."

In New Testament Terms

But what does this mean in New Testament terms? Galatians 4:26 says something amazingly similar: "The Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother." We have been conceived and born in the heavenly Jerusalem. In other words we have all been born once in some earthly city. And that birth has simply made us flesh and blood and given us a citizenship in some country here on earth. But if we want to know God and be with God in his city, if we want to be a part of that future kingdom of peace and joy and love and righteousness where God rules from Zion, then we have to be born from above. We have to have a second, spiritual birth. We have to have our citizenship in heaven (Philippians 3:20) and in the Jerusalem above. Our second birth certificate has to say, "This one was born in Zion." "Truly, truly I say to you, unless a person is born from above he cannot see the kingdom of God" (John 3:3).

Hebrews 12:22 says to Christians, to those who trust Christ, "You have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering and to the assembly of the first born, who are enrolled in heaven."

Notice the verse says, "You have come to Mount Zion . . . " Not: you will come. But you HAVE COME. One of the great things about being a Christian is that when you are born again, you don't have to wonder anymore if you are going to be a part of the city of God. Those who are born from above have ALREADY COME to Mount Zion; they are ALREADY enrolled in the heavenly Jerusalem; they are ALREADY citizens of the city of God. Paul said to those who had surrendered to Jesus, "You have died and your life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you will appear with him in glory" (Colossians 3:3).

So it is with the Zion, the city of God. If you trust Christ, you are already a permanent citizen of the heavenly Jerusalem. And when this new Jerusalem appears, you will be there too in glory.

A Closing Invitation 

I want to close this message the way the Bible closes, with an invitation to any who have never come to Mount Zion, the city of God, the new Jerusalem—perhaps a John Newton in our midst. The last two chapters of the Bible describe the New Jerusalem, coming down from heaven at the end of the age.

  • It is adorned like a bride for her husband.
  • In it every tear is wiped away, there is no more death, or crying or pain.
  • Its radiance is like a rare jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal.
  • There is no temple in the city because the temple is the Lord God the Almighty and Jesus Christ the Lamb.
  • There is no sun or moon to shine, because the glory of God himself is its light and the lamp is the Lamb.
  • At the center of the city is the throne of God and flowing out from the throne is a river of the water of life.
  • And on either side of the river is the tree of life that bears fruit forever.
  • And behold the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them and they shall be his people and he will be their God and their light and their joy, and they shall reign forever and ever.

"The Spirit and the Bride say, 'Come.' And let him who hears say, 'Come.' And let him who is thirsty come, let him who desires take the water of life without price" (Revelation 22:17). "To the thirsty I will give from the fountain of the water of life without payment." (21:6). COME!

Further Notes

  • More on the idea of being born in Zion and the reach of Zion to all the nations: Isaiah 66:8; Zechariah 2:11f.
  • More on the heavenly Zion in the Old Testament: Psalm 48:2; compare the phrase "far north" (not in NIV!) to the same phrase in Isaiah 14:13f. Zion seems to be pictured here as in the very distant north, namely, in the heavenly realm.
  • For the great future rejoicing in Zion see Isaiah 35:10; 51:3, 11.
  • The hope of the city with foundations is a strong incentive to suffer and love here: Hebrews 13:13f.; 10:10, 16; Revelation 3:12.

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