His foundation is in the holy mountains.
The LORD loveth the gates of Zion more than all the dwellings of Jacob.
Glorious things are spoken of thee, O city of God. Selah.
(Psalm 87:1-3, KJV)
In this Psalm, we see the doctrine of the Spirituality of the Church displayed by the Psalmist.
What do I mean by the Spirituality of the Church? This is a doctrine that has been discussed (either explicitly or implicitly) by many of our Reformed theologians. Let’s first see how, exegetically, the Spirituality of the Church plays out in this psalm.
Zion here refers to Jerusalem, the city chosen by God to be the place where He tabernacled with his people in the Old Covenant. Amongst all the dwellings of Jacob, all of the places amongst the nation of Israel, Zion is more loved than them all. God has set that city as His foundation, it is where He resides in all holiness and glory.
The contrast between the city of Zion and the dwellings of Jacob infers a contrast between civil affairs and ecclesiastical affairs. We can take the dwellings of Jacob for the kingdom of earthly affairs; while the people of God reside in these places, they are not the place where God’s glory specially dwells. We see this in Ephesians 2:19-22, which tells us that it is the church where God has chosen to dwell:
Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God; And are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone; In whom all the building fitly framed together groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord: In whom ye also are builded together for an habitation of God through the Spirit.
God’s glory dwelt in Zion, the city God has specially chosen above all the dwelling places of Jacob. In the New Covenant, God’s glory dwells with His people by the Spirit in the church.
The church is the City of God. The dwelling places of Jacob are the City of Man. While the church certainly has something to say about the righteousness of a nation, its leaders, and its people, the church’s essential purpose is not in civil affairs. The Church’s purpose is in Word and Sacrament. The Church and its officers are called to preach the Word, administer the sacraments, exercise discipline amongst believers, develop the fellowship of the saints, and teach and instruct in the faith. These matters are ecclesiastical in nature.
The church is not called to have authority over civil matters. This would be to take the glory of the city of Zion and to place it in the dwelling places of Jacob, where God has not chosen to dwell. It is to remove the glory of God from the church. Christ, as mediatorial head, has given his church a mission of Word and Sacrament; therefore, the church’s authority does not lie in matters civil but in matters ecclesiastical. This is aptly explained in Westminster 31.4: “Synods and councils are to handle, or conclude nothing, but that which is ecclesiastical: and are not to intermeddle with civil affairs which concern the commonwealth.”
Does Christ rule as Mediator over the civil government as well? I believe he does. Indeed, I believe Christ is the Mediator of the whole cosmos, uniting and sustaining all things as Mediator unto himself. However, the nature of his rule as Mediator over civil affairs differs from his rule over the church. He has not called the civil authority to rule over matters of Word and Sacrament. He has called them to be a terror to evildoers and to promote the good (Romans 13). This serves the role of protecting and preserving the church, as a nursing father (Isaiah 49:23). It is the church’s unique role in “ordering the public worship of God, and the government of the church” (Westminster 31:3) that Christ has called us.
Part of the reason for this is that the Church has an eschatological dwelling in glory which the civil government does not. We see the gates of Zion – mentioned here as a synecdoche for Jerusalem – re-appear in the book of Revelation, when John is given a vision of the heavenly Jerusalem, the Heavenly Zion. In Revelation 21:12, they are twelve gates with the names of the twelve tribes inscribed on them, three gates each facing the four cardinal directions. Augustine, in his homily on this Psalm, rightly notes that the 12 gates represent the twelve tribes on the one hand; and yet, they represent one gate: the gate of Christ, who is the true Israel of God. Where in the Old Covenant, the glory of God resided with the temple in Zion typologically amongst the called out nation of Israel made of twelve tribes, it now resides in the one Church of Christ. We see that this glory comes to its fullness in the eschatological kingdom at the end of the ages. Therefore, we can find a distinction between the visible church throughout the ages and the invisible church which is revealed at the last day. Christ has established a visible church through which He calls all men to repentance and by which He is glorified. This is a purpose of eternal and lasting consequence. The role of the civil government is in things temporal, earthly, and not eternal in nature.
Thus, these two kingdoms – the City of God and the City of Man – must be distinguished. To mix them is to remove God’s glory from Zion and to place it in the dwellings places of Jacob, where He has not chosen to dwell.
We find that the church is often decreased in times of persecution, when the civil government has neglected its particular role in establishing and defending the church. John Calvin, commenting on this Psalm, has words of comfort for the persecuted church. Reflecting on these words, we see once again why the two kingdoms view is necessary. If we were to judge the progress of all things by a metric of one kingdom, we would miss the mission that God has for His church and the unique care and protection he has given to it. Calvin writes:
What we are taught in this psalm may be summed up in this, That the Church of God far excels all the kingdoms and politics of the world, inasmuch as she is watched over, and protected by Him in all her interests, and placed under his government; that, in the first place, amidst the violent commotions and dreadful storms with which the whole world is often shaken, she may continue safe; and, in the second place, and principally, that being wonderfully preserved by the protection of the same God, she may at length, after the toil and struggle of a protracted warfare, be crowned with the triumphant laurels of her high calling. It is in truth a singular benefit of God, and at the same time, a signal miracle, that, amidst the great and various revolutions of the kingdoms of this world, he enlarges her continually from age to age, and preserves her from destruction; so that in the whole world there is nothing enduring but the Church. As, however, it often happens, that whilst the wicked abound in riches, and have lavished upon them worldly possessions and authority, the afflicted Church is tossed amidst many dangers, or rather, is so overwhelmed with impetuous floods as to seem to be entirely shipwrecked, her happiness must be considered as consisting principally in this, that she has reserved for her an everlasting state in heaven.