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.