Monday, September 25, 2006

Heaven: not the end of the world VI

Citizens of heaven
This series has been investigating the common assumption that at the heart of Christian hope is a future spent in heaven with God, whether this is immediately upon death or is the longer term destination of the faithful. For many people, belief in a heavenly destination is found in Philippians 3.20-21:

But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.
A common way of reading the phrase 'citizens of heaven' is that Christians are in exile from our homeland, waiting to go home. I will deal with the theme of exile and being aliens in a future post, but for the moment let's take a closer look at these verses.

What is the logic of Paul's little narrative found in these two verses? The idea of being a citizen of Rome would have been very familiar to his readers in Philippi, which was a town settled in order to house veterans from the Roman army, heroes of the empire, who have served for twenty-five years and were then rewarded with land and houses. However, rather than returning to Rome (or going there for the first time - many legionaries were from conquered lands, and military service was a way of long-term social climbing), the empire would simultaneously reward its servants and avoid congestion in the already over-crowded captial by sending its citizens to specially designated colonial outposts, such as Philippi. These were cities with a special status, since their citizens were citizens of Rome and so enjoyed all the benefits that brought. Not only was there not room for more population growth in Rome, but this policy had the positive effect of expanding the empire through having loyal citizens scattered throughout its length and breadth.

The outcome of being citizens of Rome was not ultimately to return there at the end of one's days. Instead, on the one hand, citizens were to be part of the grand project of civilisating (so it was thought) the world under the benefits of Roman rule ("What did the Romans ever do for us?..."). On the other hand, if the city were under threat, their special status guaranteed a swift response from Rome in protection of its citizens. Philippians therefore could have proudly boasted that they were citizens of Rome and it was from there they expected a saviour, Caesar the Lord, if trouble ever appeared.

Paul's message takes this Philippian pride in Roman citizenship and subverts it with a new citizenship, a new source of hope. Again, this is not the hope of returning (or going) to heaven in the end, but the confidence that comes from knowing that a mighty Lord will arrive to bring vindication and final security to his subjects. We are citizens of heaven, an outpost of heaven's own colonial project - not the expansion of an aggressive empire of exploitation, but the liberation of an earth for too long held by enemy occupying forces of sin and death. Just as Philippi was meant to bring a little of Rome to Greece, the church is to bring a little of the life of God, a heavenly life, into our local area. We are citizens of heaven, and it is from there that we await a Saviour.

Indeed, to follow this passage to its end, the final goal is not going to heaven, but the consummation of heaven's rule on earth ("Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven..."), where the last enemy, death, is overthrown in resurrection life.

Resurrection, not going to heaven, is the Christian hope. The return of Christ is not to take us off somewhere else, but to make his home here, and where he is at home, so are we. It is to this we will turn next.
Series: I; II; IIa; III; IV; V; VI; VII; VIII; IX; X; XI; XII; XIII; XIV; XV; XVI. Ten points for the town in this pic.
PS Ancient historians, please correct any details re Roman citizenship.

27 comments:

stevie t said...

Byron this series is great! Thanks! I'm really starting to feel a much stronger connection between my salvation hope and life lived here and now. That the new thing is the transformation of the old rather than its cessation is so dignifying (for want of a better term). I grew up thinking that as Jesus saved me (read soul) from my sin holy living in this life was a response of thankfulness to the one to whom I am so greatly indebted but had little inherent value. But I've always found my feeling of thankfulness a weak motivator (rightly or wrongly?!). While I owe him my life/soul/all, continuity between this life and the next through resurrection gives me renewed motivation. Especially given the eternal significance of this life: not just in the getting-saved sense but in the submitting-every-moment-to-the-lordship-of-Jesus sense.

byron said...

Yeah, sounds like a similar path to my own. For me, Resurrection AnCon in '98 was the start of so many thoughts that I've continued chasing ever since.

I haven't written much yet about how this relates to our life of obedience, but if you haven't already seen it, you might enjoy this quote from Oliver O'Donovan.

byron said...

Sorry to have to do this again, but thought I'd mention once more that comments that consist of nothing more than a link to an unrelated site will be deleted. I choose not to have ads on my site (unless I'm doing the advertising...).

jess smith said...

We are citizens of heaven, an outpost of heaven's own colonial project - not the expansion of an agressive empire of exploitation, but the liberation of an earth for too long held by enemy occupying forces of sin and death.

Nice.

It made me think of this - "no one can enter a strong man's house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered." (Mk 3:27)

Phil 3:20-21 assumes the Lordship of Christ, that the tying up has been done. So we are both a new colony of the burglar, living in opposition to the old forces, and are simultaneously looking forward to the good full liberation by our suffering plunderer.

Anthony said...

Oxford. The closest you can get to being a citizen of heaven if you're Byron is residing there...

byron said...

Are you saying that it is not possible that I become a citizen of heaven?

No, not Oxford.

Anthony said...

cough...cough...I meant Lord Byron, of course...

Anthony said...

I get it - the Roman connection - it's Bath, isn't it?

byron said...

You credit me with more thought than I put into the selection of this picture. Not Bath.

Peter said...

stratford apon avon?

byron said...

Sorry - though all the guesses so far have been in the right country.

Michael Canaris said...

Wigan?

byron said...

Nope, sorry.

Anthony said...

In honour of the key to the web's success....Lincoln?

byron said...

Huh? You lost me there.
Incorrect, in any case.

Anthony said...

...as in, linkin'

Obscure am I...

byron said...

Ah...

I see.

Anthony said...

Such terrible puns make me laugh...York york york...

byron said...

Nope.

Moffitt the Prophet said...

Derby?

byron smith said...

Nope. One of the guesses so far has been close...

Moffitt the Prophet said...

Bath?

byron smith said...

Not Bath.

Anthony Douglas said...

Warwick is close to Stratford. And as a name, underappreciated, so here's one more Google hit for it.

byron smith said...

Warwick Warwick Warwick.
Underappreciated, but no sympathy points when it's wrong.

Duncan Lin said...

Cambridge

byron smith said...

Yes! Have ten points. Hope you are enjoying the series.