Our True Citizenship

We are “citizens of heaven” but our home and work is here where the King ultimately dwells.

Philippians 3:17-4:1

This week we will celebrate the 241st anniversary of the Declaration of Independence—the day when the British colonies in America chose to throw off the yoke of monarchical colonialism and become their own nation (or, at least the day the paperwork was finished–the vote for independence actually took place on July 2). Rather than being citizens of Great Britain, we would (eventually) become citizens of the United States of America.

In many ways, the American Revolution signaled the beginning of the end of colonialism for all of the great powers of the 18th and 19th centuries. Britain and France would wind up surrendering their foreign territories over the next two centuries as the name “colonial” became synonymous with oppression of indigenous peoples. People generally want to be citizens of their own country, with all the rights and responsibilities thereof. We value that citizenship and see the country where we live as our true  “home” no matter where we might travel or live abroad.

It’s that particular lens that often colors our vision of the Scriptures. When we read Paul’s statement in Philippians 3:20 that “our citizenship is in heaven,” we immediately begin to associate heaven with our true “home.” It’s a vision that colors a lot of Christian theology and hymnody. When someone dies, for example, it’s pretty common to hear Christians say that “God called him home” or, like in the hymn How Great Thou Art we sing the third line: “When Christ shall come with shout of acclamation and take me home what joy shall fill my heart.” We assume that the entire goal of the Christian life is to one day “go home” to heaven and leave this earth behind.

But is that what Paul means by “our citizenship is in heaven?” In this series, we’re talking about how important context is in reading Scripture—that we have to adjust our lenses to read through the eyes of the people and the time where it was revealed and written. When we do so, we often get a very different view. As I have often said to my Bible study classes, “A text without a context is just a pretext for whatever you want it to say.” That’s especially true in the case of this often misquoted Scripture. Indeed, what Paul reveals and, in fact, what the whole Bible reveals, is that our true citizenship is lodged in heaven but designed for colonizing the earth with the kingdom of God. From beginning to end, the Scriptures are about God’s ultimate plan to dwell with his people—about God coming to us.

So, let’s dig into this text and see how historical context can make all the difference in interpretation. We begin with a bit of background of the letter to the Philippians.

Philippi was located in northern Greece and, in the ancient world, was considered to be the gateway between Europe and Asia. It was a strategic location and a city was founded there by Thasian colonists in about 360BC. When the colonists were threatened by the Thracians in 357, they looked to Philip II of Macedon for protection and he was quick to oblige due to the wealth of the local gold mines. Instead of simply helping out the colonists, Philip claimed the city and, in an act of royal narcissism, named it after himself. Philip thought himself a famous conqueror, but  he would not be as famous as one of his sons who would become Alexander the Great.

In the second century BC, the Romans defeated the Macedonians and made Philippi a province of the Roman Republic, but it’s real claim to fame would emerge in 42BC when a major battle took place near there. If you know your Roman history, Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC by the conspirators Brutus and Cassius. Marc Antony and Octavian, who were Caesar’s friend and nephew respectively, set out to get revenge on those who killed their patron. The Battle of Philippi involved some 200,000 troops and resulted in 40,000 casualties, but Brutus and Cassius were defeated.

After the battle, Marc Antony and Octavian knew that bringing close to 100,000 troops back to Rome was a dangerous proposition. Idle soldiers had historically resulted in more civil conflict, so they settled many of their veterans in Philippi, giving them Roman citizenship and making the city a Roman colony. It wasn’t long before Marc Antony and Octavian then went to war with each other and after the great battle of the next civil war, Octavian was the victor. He renamed himself “Augustus” and became the first Roman emperor. He also sent an influx of veterans to Philippi to settle as Roman colonists.

The point is that Philippi was a Roman colony, even though many of these veterans (and many of the local residents) had never been to Rome itself and probably would never go there. That made them no less Roman and the city took on all the trappings of Rome itself. There’s an old saying that says, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” Actually, in the ancient world it was more like, “When anywhere, do as the Romans do!” The point of a Roman colony was to extend the life of Rome to the frontier.

To be a citizen, then, meant that you were a representative of Rome. Citizenship came with certain rights and responsibilities, all designed to strengthen the empire. Roman citizenship could be obtained by birth, by purchase, or by service. Paul himself was a Roman citizen by birth, even though he never went to Rome until the end of his life.

When you understand that background, Paul’s letter takes on a very different meaning. In Philippians, Paul invites the church “imitate him.” That’s not a narcissistic claim, but rather a call to lay aside their former lives as he had done in order to gain Christ and the power of the resurrection. Rather than being “enemies of the cross” who are driven by base desires and whose minds are set on “earthly things,” Paul wants the Philippians to claim their colonial heritage and citizenship but in allegiance to a very different sort of kingdom.

“Our citizenship is in heaven,” says Paul, but like those Roman colonists in Philippi, their real mission wasn’t to go back “home” to Rome (a place most had never been) anymore than our true origin and birthplace is in “heaven.” Instead, the mission was to extend the life of heaven to the place where they lived. The church is to be a colony of God’s kingdom—when anywhere, do as Christ does!

The next phrase reinforces the point. “Our citizenship is in heaven,” says Paul, “and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” Roman colonists could expect that if they got into trouble out there on the frontier, they could send to Rome and the emperor would send legions of troops to come and save them. Indeed, the emperor’s official titles included “Savior” and “Lord.” Paul picks up this imagery and applies it to Jesus. Notice, it’s not about these citizens going to be where Christ is, but rather him coming to save them—the eschatological kind of saving when he comes to set all things right and dwell with his people.

And how will he save them? Not by taking their disembodied spirits off to a spiritual heaven, but by resurrection from the dead. Look at verse 21 (I’m using the NRSV here): “He will transform the body of our humiliation  that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.” In other words, the resurrection of Jesus is the prototype of what God will do for us—give us new bodies not subject to death and decay but bodies that conform to the glory of the body of the resurrected Christ. It is by the power of his death and resurrection that Christ has become king, and this is the hope on which we stand.

The rest of the Bible confirms this hope. Throughout the Scriptures, God dwells with his people in a garden, a tabernacle, and a temple. He dwells with us in person in Christ who is “Emmanuel, God with us.” The last scene in Revelation is of the new Jerusalem coming down from heaven, bringing heaven and earth together once and for all—the promise we pray for in the Lord’s Prayer is made a reality. Our home is where God is, and God chooses to come and make his home with us forever. Our true citizenship is in his coming kingdom, and our mission is to extend the life of that kingdom on earth until the king arrives to take over.

This is a major lens shift for most Christians who have read the Bible through a spiritualized and Platonized lens. Christianity is an embodied faith, not merely a spiritual one. It’s not about heavenly bliss but about the renewal of all creation. And if that’s the case, it means that our whole orientation is different. We don’t treat the earth as a throwaway, temporary reality, but as God’s temple and the place where he chooses to dwell. We don’t treat our bodies as temporary husks for the spirit, but as the grounded reality of our creation in the image of God. We don’t treat death as a kind of escape from the physical realm, but we look for the resurrection of the body and the renewal of our whole selves. This was the thing that Paul was really after. As he says a few verses earlier, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain resurrection from the dead” (v. 11).

It’s especially poignant that Paul says this in a letter from prison, where Paul believes that his life is about to end. Scholars debate on whether Paul wrote from Rome or from Ephesus, but his situation is dire—so dire that Paul says that he is “hard pressed” between his desire to “depart and be with Christ” which is “far better” or to remain in the flesh and continue his fruitful work (1: 21-26). Most poignantly he says, “For me to live is Christ and to die is gain” (1:21). That would seem to indicate that Paul was really simply wanting to go to heaven. But if that’s true, for Paul that would have only been a temporary thing. To be “with Christ” is to anticipate what Christ will do in the end—he will return, he will herald the resurrection of the dead, and dwell with his people. Talking about “going to heaven” isn’t bad theology, it’s just only half the story. Ultimately, the hope of the Christian is resurrection of the body and a new heaven and earth joined together.

In other words, it’s about God’s kingdom coming and we are citizens of that kingdom—colonists who are to live the reality of that kingdom in the present while we anticipate the Savior’s coming. 

Citizens of the United States carry with them a passport that is officially stamped to tell others about our citizenship. Baptism is that stamp that citizens of the kingdom carry to demonstrate our true citizenship in the kingdom of God. As passport is stamped by all the places we might visit; the true citizen of God’s kingdom, on the other hand, leaves a mark on the world everywhere he or she goes, extending the life of the kingdom to every place and to every one they meet.

Our citizenship is in heaven. Our home and our work is here on earth. From heaven we are expecting a Savior who will transform us and the world. He is coming to dwell with us and make all things new.

To be a citizen of God’s kingdom means that all our other claims are subservient. Paul writes to a church that is a mixture of Roman citizens and plebes—people of official status and people of not status—and tells them in effect that those distinctions don’t matter. What matters is your true citizenship, a designation offered to any and all who will give their allegiance to Christ as Savior and Lord. I may be a citizen of the US, of Britain, or France, or Kenya, or Korea, but if I am in Christ my first and primary passport marks me as a citizen of Christ’s coming kingdom. It’s a citizenship that transcends borders, transcends race and culture, and transcends politics and preferences.

A few questions for reflection as we consider this word:

  • What marks you as a citizen of God’s kingdom? Would your neighbors, your family, even strangers be able to tell that Christ is Savior and Lord?
  • What stamp are you leaving on the world as a citizen of God’s kingdom? How are you extending God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven?
  • What other commitments get in the way of your citizenship in God’s Kingdom? How might you lay those aside, as Paul did, for the sake of your colonizing mission?

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