March 2, 2004

“Our Citizenship in Heaven”

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I’ve been working on Philippians 3:17-21 for a sermon this Sunday. Here are N. T. Wright’s thoughts on a common misunderstanding of what Paul means when he says “our citizenship is in heaven”:

Many have thought that if our citizenship is in heaven that means that heaven is our real home, the place to which we will eventually go. But that is not how the language of citizenship functions. The point of being a citizen of a mother city is not that when life gets really tough, or when you retire, you can go back home to the mother city. The people to whom Paul was writing in Philippi were Roman citizens, but they had no intention of going back to Rome. They were the means through which Roman civilization was being brought to the world of Northern Greece. If and when the going got tough there, the emperor would come from Rome to deliver them from their enemies in Philippi, and establish them as a true Roman presence right there. So, Paul says, “from heaven we await a saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will change our lowly body to be like his glorious body.” This is, I suggest, much more integrated with a theology of new heavens and new earth than with a theology of going from the present space-time world to a non-spatio-temporal one. It ties in with other passages such as Gal 4.21-31, which speaks of the Jerusalem “which is above.” The purpose is not to escape to that Jerusalem, any more than the muddled Galatians thought they had to go and live in terrestrial Jerusalem in order to be proper Christians. No: they were under the dangerous influence of the terrestrial Jerusalem, and Paul is saying, in effect, “you must be under the influence of, and act as the agents of, the heavenly Jerusalem.” Philippians 3 and Galatians 4 both speak of the dimension of the present reality which is to be informed by the mother city, not of a sense of escaping from present reality to that mother city (New Heavens, New Earth 8).

In his Paul for Everyone volume on Philippians, Wright expands on this exegesis:

At once many modern Christians misunderstand what he means. We naturally suppose he means “and so we’re waiting until we can go and live I heaven where we belong.” But that’s not what he says, and it’s certainly not what he means. If someone in Philippi said, “We are citizens of Rome,” they certainly wouldn’t mean “so we’re looking forward to going to live there.” Being a colony works the other way round. The last thing the emperors wanted was a whole lot of colonists coming back to Rome. The capital was already overcrowded and underemployed. No: the task of the Roman citizen in a place like Philippi was to bring Roman culture and rule to northern Greece, to expand Roman influence there.

But supposing things got difficult for the Roman colonists in Philippi. Supposing there was a local rebellion, or an attack by the ‘barbarian’ tribes to the north. How would they cope? Their best hope would be that the emperor himself, who after all was called “saviour,” “rescuer,” would come from Rome to Philippi to change their present somewhat defenceless situation, defeat their enemies, and establish them as firmly and gloriously as Rome itself. The emperor, of course, was the ruler of the whole world, so he had the power to make all this happen under his authority.

That is the picture Paul has in mind in verses 20 and 21. The church is at present a colony of heaven, with the responsibility (as we say in the Lord’s Prayer) for bringing the life and rule of heaven to bear on earth. We are not, of course, very good at doing this; we often find ourselves weak and helpless, and our physical bodies themselves are growing old and tired, decaying and ready to die. But our hope is that the true saviour, the true Lord, King Jesus himself will come from heaven and change all that. He is going to transform the entire world so that it is full of his glory, full of the life and power of heaven. And, as part of that, he is going to transform our bodies so that they are like his glorious body, the body which was itself transformed after his cruel death so that it became wonderfully alive again with a life that death and decay could never touch again.

Knowing this will enable Christians to “stand firm in the Lord” (4:1); and now we can see more clearly what that means. It doesn’t just mean remaining constant in faith. It means giving allegiance to Jesus, rather than to Caesar, as the true Lord. Paul has described the church, and its Lord, in such a way that the Philippians could hardly miss the allusion to Rome and Caesar. This is the greatest challenge of the letter: that the Christians in Philippi, whether or not they were themselves Roman citizens (some probably were, many probably weren’t), would think out what it means to give their primary allegiance not to Rome but to heaven, not to Caesar but to Jesus — and to trust that Jesus would in due time bring the life and rule of heaven to bear on the whole world, themselves included (pp. 126-127).

I think Wright’s approach is correct. Paul isn’t preaching escapism here. Rather, he is making a statement about how they are to live on earth — indeed, a political statement.

Paul sees the church as a colony of heaven with the task of living out that heavenly citizenship. In fact, “live out your citizenship” is a decent paraphrase of the word in 1:27 which is often translated “conduct yourselves,” since this word is a verbal form of the noun translated “citizenship” or “commonwealth” in 3:20. The word is related to the noun polis meaning “city,” from which we get our English word “politics.”

And politics is indeed on Paul’s mind here. He wants the church to “live out her citizenship” in a way that is “worthy of the gospel.” And what is the gospel? Here in Philippians, it is the announcement that Jesus is Lord.

Just as the Roman citizens in Philippi were imitating the Roman pattern, the Christians are to imitate the heavenly pattern. Just as the Roman citizens were making Rome’s authority visible and advancing that authority in their environs, so the Christians are to advance the gospel (which is what “striving together for the faith of the gospel” in 1:27 means). And they are to keep doing that, no matter what opposition they may face until God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven, because Jesus, not Caesar, is the Lord and Saviour and, though they may be oppressed now, he will bring them to share in his exaltation and glory.

That’s Paul’s point here: not “you get to go to heaven when you die or when Christ returns” but “you have a calling here on earth and you can trust that, no matter what opposition you may face, the King is going to come from heaven to vindicate you and exalt you to share in his glory.”

A related question: Why do so many hymns focus on heaven as if the Christian’s ultimate goal is to go to heaven when he dies or as if, when Christ returns, we’ll spend eternity in heaven with him? Even apart from the corny language with which this expectation is often expressed, what has become of the doctrine of the resurrection and of the new heavens and new earth on which, the Bible tells us, we will live in the age to come?

I recall an older OPC pastor once telling me that he didn’t think many Christians believed in the resurrection. I recall, too, struggling to teach catechism students about the resurrection — struggling, because the students just didn’t seem to think the resurrection was all that important or even all that plausible. Has our hymnody and our popular piety shaped our thinking so that we have lost sight of our true future hope?

One elderly man in my former congregation lost his wife, for whom he had cared through a long, long illness. I was told that someone had assured him that her spirit was with the Lord now. He responded, “But I loved her body, too.”

I’m afraid that some Christians might think his response indicated some deficiency on his part, but I think he got it exactly right. While it is true that this woman is still living with the Lord, that isn’t the final goal. The good news is that the Lord hasn’t abandoned her body and will one day raise it in glory. But the heavy emphasis on “going to heaven when you die” and the corresponding downplaying of the resurrection robs people of that full comfort which is ours in Christ.

Another related question: Would hyper-preterism (which teaches that the final resurrection has happened and that all we have to look forward to when we die is disembodied life in heaven with no future resurrection of our bodies) be as attractive to people if the church had properly emphasized the goodness of physicality and the centrality of the resurrection instead of just “going to heaven when you die” ?If we truly delighted in physicality, in having bodies (and in our loved ones’ having bodies), would we be attracted to a view that denies the bodily resurrection? If the church didn’t believe — or act (or sing) as if she believed — that “going to heaven” is all that matters, perhaps she could have shut the door to the Gnostic heresy of hyper-preterism.

Posted by John Barach @ 4:45 pm | Discuss (0)

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