Citizens in Colonies of Heaven

This is a re-post of a previous article with minor edits. I actually still agree with most of what I wrote 4 years ago, which is weird.

“But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.” Philippians 3:20,21

This passage seems short and simple, but is pregnant with underlying meaning and first century cultural undertones. With our twenty-first century eyes, we typically read this as meaning that our true home is in heaven, and that we should always be longing to return to our true home. Christianity is simply the road-map to get us to the correct destination. All other guides lead to Hell.

But Paul was not a westerner living in the United States, nor were his readers. Nor did they live after the Enlightenment, which loves to force every concept into some sort of dualism. So what meaning could the word “citizenship” have in the time period?

What was the most popular and well-known form of citizenship during the first century, of which Paul himself had attained?

In the Gentile world to which Paul directed his preaching, the power of Rome overshadowed all walks of life, especially in Phillipi, so it is not unreasonable to think that the context here is Roman citizenship. Add the fact that Phillipi was a Roman colony founded by Augustus, planted permanently with Roman military veterans, and was referred to as a “miniature Rome,” and the case stacks up that Paul wrote to a Romanized city filled with Roman citizens.

So what did this citizenship mean? In the rich diversity of the Empire, with it’s sprawling colonies, certainly it did not mean that a Roman citizen longed to return once and for all to the mother city, Rome, and that the ultimate goal of their lives, was to reach that glorious place. A proposal like that sounds silly.

What it did mean, however, was that a citizen could call on the power of Caesar to intervene, as Paul did when he was on trial. It also meant that if there were ever any problems in a colony, or that Caesar’s authority was questioned, that he (or a representative) would come down from Rome (usually at the head of a legion or two) to reestablish Roman rule and authority. Likewise, Roman citizens were to exude Roman values, to essentially carry Rome wherever they went. Leaven for the land.

Here we have a more plausible meaning for the passage. Jesus, the true lord and king of the world, coming to complete the work the church has undertaken since his resurrection, and finally, once and for all, reestablishing the authority of the Father over all of creation. But in the process, the creation itself will be renewed into a “new heavens and new earth”, of which the Spirit was a down payment.

After all, simply “going to heaven when you die”, seeking to escape the good creation of the one true God, would really be no different than the Platonic view of the world, which most pagans held anyway. There’s nothing inherently controversial about that view. But the message that Jesus is Messiah, the lord of all the earth, and to him every knee should bow, including that of Caesar, would turn a few heads, I imagine.

So why do we want to escape an earth that Jesus has in subjection, and will renew (along with our bodies) when he comes again?

The early Christians were not persecuted because they wanted to escape their bodies and leave the world. Who cares if they did that? Good riddance, some would say. They were persecuted because they were odd, peculiar, and stood in direct defiance to Caesar’s authority, claiming another king.

In the same way, our loyalty should not be to any governments of man, nor their agendas of power and death. We tolerate them, and respect their God-given authority, but only as the parodies and shadows they are of the true King. They need to be reminded that they eventually have to report to upper management.

Begin telling people that your allegiance is to another King. That you have a citizenship that trumps your obligations as a citizen of any government on earth. That you reject their claim that there is no authority above them.

You are a citizen of heaven. Act like one.

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