For, as I have often told you before and now tell you again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Saviour 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 3:18-21
What does it mean to be a citizen of heaven? Does it mean we get a nice passport with the pearly gates on the front? Does it mean our national citizenship is revoked? It can be a confusing phrase but it’s an important one to understand what it means.
First a quick history lesson on Philippi. Philippi was a town built on the site of the Thracian city of Krinides in 356BC by Philip ll of Macedon. In 168-167 BC the Romans defeated the Macedonians and took control of Philippi. Following the assassination of Julius Caesar, his heirs Mark Antony and Octavian defeated his assassins Brutus and Longinus at the Battle of Philippi in 42BC. In the aftermath of the battle the victors colonised the city with military veterans and renamed it Colonia Victrix Philippensium. In 30BC Octavian defeated Antony in a civil war, became emperor, bolstered the colony of Philippi with more settlers, and bestowed the honour of ius italicum upon the colony. The ius italicum, the highest honour a Roman colony could receive, meant that Philippi was subject to Roman law, was exempt from certain taxes, and its citizens gained Roman citizenship. Roman citizens were granted many additional rights such as property ownership, voting powers, the right to a trial, and immunity to torture, whipping, and the death penalty.
By all accounts the citizens of Philippi were immensely proud of their Roman citizenship and the Roman laws and customs they had inherited. Paul plays off of this pride in Philippians 3:20 (and in some versions 1:27) by telling his readers that they are citizens of heaven. But Paul is not saying this world is not my home, I’m just passing through as the hymn states. Nor is it meant to be a comfort for the afterlife. No it is a challenge to the church in Philippi, and in order to understand this we need to understand how citizenship worked in ancient Rome.
What we don’t often pick up in our English Bibles is that although citizen is a noun in English, the word Paul uses in the 1:27 occurrence is a verb πολιτεύεσθε (politeuomai). This word literally means “to live as a citizen” or in the context of the passage “to conduct oneself”. We have to remember that Philippi was a Roman colony and the purpose of Roman colonies was to Romanize the Greek areas they were in. These citizens may never set foot in Rome but they understood that they were to bring Rome and its culture to their setting. And in the same way Paul is telling the church in Philippi that they are colonists for the Kingdom of God and are called to spread the culture of this kingdom in the area by living a life worthy of the Gospel they have received (1:27). This is why Paul compares them to those who have their minds set on earthly things. In a culture they celebrated sexual depravity, gluttony, and emperor worship, the believers were called to be a witness for the Gospel and live by different values. Paul is by no means commanding them to renounce their Roman citizenship but to be prepared to be different and to suffer from it.
In the same way Christians are called to spread the Gospel in their own cultures to transform the world. We are called to be radically different in the way we conduct ourselves. We are called to live in an upside-down kingdom where the king sacrificed Himself for his subjects and people strive to put others ahead of them. This is what it means to be a citizen of heaven, not an escapist fantasy, but a challenge to live differently.