Text: Philippians 3:15-4:1
What do you think of when you hear the word citizenship? Is it voting rights, the ability to participate in civic and political activity, or perhaps loyalty in times of war? Perhaps you think of it more along the lines of values and ideals: the American way. In the ancient world there were various understandings of citizenship and different demonstrations and festivals to impart a sense of admiration of one’s city or state. There were those who viewed their citizenship as a mark of honor, virtue, or civilization. They were Roman or Greek rather than a barbarian. Aristotle even thought that the Northern tribes were incapable of civilization. Anyone with red or blond hair, and especially someone with freckles, was thought to be outside the bounds of reason and domestication altogether. You can’t work with those people. Other views of citizenship were more philosophical but they all shared the concept of uniting different people together as one. Citizens were all on the same team, so to speak.
Paul, understanding the importance of this theme, picks up on the idea of citizenship in Philippians, and he applies it to the church. The church, he says, is the gathering place of the citizens of heaven. Heaven was the true homeland, and wherever the Christians might currently find themselves was a sort of outpost or colony. This gave the church a new kind of citizenship ideal. They were to think of themselves as a community of friends with specific concepts of justice and mutual support. In a certain sense they were exactly backwards from the ways of the world, then and now, in that they were people who did not “stand up for their rights” but rather voluntarily relinquished those rights for the good of those around them. This is, again, what Paul calls the mind of Christ, and we can’t understand heavenly citizenship without first understanding the shared mindset that heaven’s citizens must have.
The Mind of Christ Again
Though we are in danger of becoming a broken record, we must again mention that this section of Philippians is still bound up in that foundational teaching of the mind of Christ. The “mind” that Paul continually refers to is that mind, the mind of humility and putting others ahead of themselves. And Paul wants those advanced in the faith to set the example:
Therefore let us, as many as are mature, have this mind; and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal even this to you. Nevertheless, to the degree that we have already attained, let us walk by the same rule, let us be of the same mind. Brethren, join in following my example, and note those who so walk, as you have us for a pattern. (Philippians 3:15-17)
We see here a subversion of values in that the “mature” or “complete” members of Christ are not so much expected to enjoy seniority and receive the highest honors, but instead are supposed to lead the way in humility. Now, of course, I do think those with seniority in the faith ought to be greatly honored and respected, but their interests and motivations should be selfless. They aren’t anxious to defend their image and authority. Instead they are humbling themselves for others. They are exhibiting the mind of Christ to those who are less mature and learning from them.
The opposite ideal is explained as being self-seeking and earthly:
For many walk, of whom I have told you often, and now tell you even weeping, that they are the enemies of the cross of Christ: whose end is destruction, whose god is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame—who set their mind on earthly things. (3:18-19)
The mature Christians ought to walk opposite the way of the world. They should not set their mind on earthly things, by which Paul means that their chief motivation ought not to be food, riches, or glory, but instead they should be heavenly minded, thinking of the things of Christ and the way which He left them to follow. To put it simply, you cannot be a friend of the cross of Christ if you are selfish and self-centered. If your first priority is always yourself, then you are an enemy of the cross. Stop worshiping your belly and follow after the opposite example, the mature walk of a Christian.
For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to His glorious body, according to the working by which He is able even to subdue all things to Himself. Therefore, my beloved and longed-for brethren, my joy and crown, so stand fast in the Lord, beloved. (3:20-4:1)
In this transition we can see that the reason, the rationale, for us to seek after maturity is that our citizenship is in heaven. We ought to live and act differently because we are members of another city, another kingdom. The term used here by Paul is πολιτευμα a term typically used for literal civic participation. It was also applied to schools and other bonds of friendship, and it was understood to mean a tight brotherhood or organized group which lived together and behaved in a united way.
In fact, politeuma was a technical concept in the ancient Greek and Roman world which had a rich literary and philosophical history. Plato contributed to it by grounding friendship itself in civilization, “Injustice causes civil war, hatred, and fighting, while justice brings friendship and a sense of common purpose” (Republic Bk. 1). Hence citizenship was, for him, an established and protected friendship with a stated common purpose. This notion of citizenship as friendship became quite popular. The early church historian Eusebius wrote about another group who promoted a similar view, “The school of Epicurus resembles a true commonwealth, altogether free of factionalism, sharing one mind and disposition, of which there were and are and, it appears, will be willing followers” (Eusebius of Caesarea, Preparation for the Gospel 14.5). The ideal Greek philosopher-king was thus not merely a conqueror or bureaucrat but someone in charge of promoting a shared vision of virtue and love.
For their part, the Romans attached this notion of citizenship to empire, namely their own rule over others. A Roman city was a miniature Rome, separated by space but united in spirit. Their cities were the empire by virtue of their colonial status, and their job was to represent and even spread that empire to new areas. The city of Philippi was known for taking priding in its status as a Roman politeuma. It had all the imperial artwork and imagery, and the citizens of Philippi dressed like Romans, spoke like Romans, and even got their hair cut like Romans. Their Roman identity was a big deal.
And so it is interesting to see here in Philippians 3:20 Paul saying that our politeuma is in heaven. He takes this concept which was so valuable to Philippians and applies it to a different capital city, heaven itself, where our Lord is seated on His throne. This is thus then further example that worldly “gains” are to be renounced, but it also shows a positive application as well. You see, a variation of this same word, politeuma, appeared earlier in Philippians 1: “let your conduct be worthy of the gospel of Christ” (1:27). That phrase “let your conduct be worthy” is literally, “live like a citizen.” So Paul is not only saying that Christians should stop taking pride in their earthly cities, but also that they should start living like citizens of the gospel.
3 Interpretations of Heavenly Citizenship
What exactly does it mean to live like a citizen of heaven? There have been several competing interpretations throughout the history of the church. The first understanding is that Christians ought to live radically separate lives, apart from the world. You see this in various degrees over the years, from the early-church monks who went out to live in the wilderness to the later Anabaptists who formed their own communes and established self-sufficient “cities” of a sort. The Amish still do this today. They actually have no moral objection to electricity per se, but they refuse it because it would require them to be dependent on the outside world. They essentially renounce their citizenship in earthly cities and seek to live in their own city.
There are a number of problems with this interpretation, namely that it seems to suggest that instead of working in the world, evangelizing it, and baptizing it into the name of the Trinity, Christians are instead fleeing the world. It seems to flatly contradict what Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 5, “I wrote to you in my epistle not to keep company with sexually immoral people. Yet I certainly did not mean with the sexually immoral people of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world” (vs. 9-10). Paul says that the church should be pure but that it should live in and amidst the world. The New Testaments everywhere teaches us that while we are not to be “of” the world, we are certainly to be “in” it, testifying of Jesus Christ its savior and lord.
A second and equally problematic view is the sort of ecclesiastical supremacy we see in Roman Catholicism and smaller sects of various sorts. These groups identify heavenly citizenship with church membership itself, and they attribute otherwise civic characteristics to the church. In these cases the visible church ends up having to have all sorts of agencies, administrative bodies, and even police and military forces. The leadership of the Roman Catholic church calls itself a “magisterium,” and the pope bears ancient imperial symbols and titles. In the Middle Ages, the papacy literally had an army, and to this day it still has armed guards at the Vatican. A more modern example of this same conception is Mormonism. Throughout the 19th and most of the 20th century, the Mormon church possessed political and civic authority as well as ministerial authority. Church elders effectively ran the cities of smaller towns, and the political power of the LDS church remains substantial.
The problem here is that it essentially turns the church into the state. It makes for a rather worldly “heavenly citizenship,” and it also produces all kinds of pastoral problems and occasions for spiritual abuse. If the person who has jurisdiction over your soul also has political jurisdiction, then you pretty much have to do what he says, vote for who he says to vote for, and obey the laws of his rulings. It is the perfect recipe for legalism. And of course, it isn’t what Paul says in Philippians at all. He does not say that our citizenship is in the church. He says that it is in heaven. And he does not say that the church should take over the world, but rather that we should “eagerly wait for the Savior” to come from heaven to us (Philippians 3:30).
The third option, which we believe to be the correct and truly biblical one, is the one represented first by Augustine and then later by the Protestant Reformers. It says that the heavenly kingdom is heaven itself and that it now exists spiritually, through the Holy Spirit Himself operating in the lives of believers, and that this spiritual kingdom equally affects all Christians through their renewed hearts, minds, and obedience to Christ in all of life, in every calling. All Christians bring the kingdom with them, wherever they go, and they live like citizens of heaven all the while also remaining citizens of earth. We can see that this is indeed what Paul means by a careful reading of the expression as it appears in Philippians.
“Our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” There is an important sense in which the “heaven” in which our citizenship resides is still not fully present. We “wait” for Jesus to come to us from heaven. When this Jesus comes, He “will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to His glorious body, according to the working by which He is able even to subdue all things to Himself.” Jesus Himself does the transformation, and He transforms our body into His own through His power.
None of this means that we don’t live out our heavenly citizenship on earth. After all, this is not the language of us escaping earth and going to heaven. It is actually predicting that heaven will itself come to earth, just as Revelation illustrates. Earth is, in Roman terms, a colony of its mother-city, the heavenly Zion. We preach the message of a new king, King Jesus, and we proclaim His gospel to this world. Yet we do not take up arms and bring it about by force. We proclaim that Jesus is already Lord and that He is coming to set things right Himself. In the meanwhile, you’d be well-served to listen to His messengers.
Paul’s own conclusion here, his “therefore,” is this: “Therefore, my beloved and longed-for brethren, my joy and crown, so stand fast in the Lord, beloved” (4:1). “Stand fast” means to “persevere.” He’s telling us to keep going with the gospel message and not be distracted or distraught by what happens on this earth along the way. So live you life on this earth in faith. See the invisible kingdom at work, knowing that it is God who does the transforming, conforming, and subduing in His time. You are not walking by sight, but are always immovable in the assurance that Jesus is Lord and that He will hear the cries of His people. He will transform our lowly bodies. We can stand fast now, having the confidence to live a life of humility knowing that Jesus Himself is acting through our faith and obedience. Stand fast in the Lord by continuing to have the mind of Christ and live like citizens of heaven in this life, no matter what comes.
Heavenly citizenship is a sort of citizenship that does not displace nor compete with worldly citizenship per se. While our heavenly citizenship does subvert one sort of civic identity and social ethic, it does not declare a new political empire with the visible church at its vanguard. No, instead this heavenly citizenship is a citizenship which can exist within preexisting civil societies, in the same space and time, transforming them internally through the power of the gospel. Our vision is one of leaven leavening a lump from within, through the power of the gospel.
Indeed, the kingdom of heaven can exist in multiple states and kingdoms at the same time, in the hearts of all believers. And wherever this commonwealth goes, it teaches a new ethic and spiritual disposition. Its citizens behave differently. And they continually point to the future, when their Lord will return from heaven to transform our lowly bodies into His glorious body. We begin living this heavenly citizenship now, even while we anticipate a future coming of the kingdom in a visible and external way, and this heavenly citizenship knits us together as new people with a shared message and an unstoppable mission.