Standing Firm 4: Living as Citizens of God’s Kingdom

As citizens of heaven live in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Philippians 1:27 TNIV

[This is part 4 of the series Standing Firm on Philippians 1:21-30]

The city that became the Roman colony of Philippi – Colonia Augusta Iulia Philippensis – had seen many civilizations come and go over the centuries. King Philip II of Macedon established the city of Philippi in 365 BC on the site of the Thasian colony of Crenedes.

Philippi came under Roman control with the rest of Macedonia in 167 BC. A small city, with perhaps under two thousand inhabitants at the time, Philippi came to prominence only during the civil war that followed the assassination of Julius Caesar.

In the Battle of Philippi in 42 BC, monarchists Mark Antony and Octavian (later known as Augustus) defeated the republican forces of Brutus and Cassius, the mastermind’s of Julius’ murder. The victors rewarded some of their troops with the right to establish a Roman colony at Philippi. Additional veterans settled there some time later.

Emperors sometimes rewarded soldiers with gifts of land, and a number of cities throughout the empire were populated with large numbers of military retirees. Arles, for example, was another Roman city established by and for military veterans. A one-time stipend – and, for the fortunate, a bequest of land – was all that veterans received after 25 years of service.

Philippi grew in significance during its years as a veterans colony; Luke calls it the “first city” of the district. As a Roman colony (Acts 16:12), Philippi was more than just a Greek city under Roman control; it was Rome away from Rome. The citizens of Philippi were also citizens of Rome – a status that not all residents of the empire enjoyed. Its people considered themselves Romans – not Greeks or Macedonians – with Roman customs and Roman values (Acts 16:21). Rome’s history was their story. Rome’s glory was their pride. The Acts of the Apostles makes Philippi’s Roman self-understanding very clear.

Paul uses the Philippians’ Roman citizenship to make a point.

Twice in Philippians Paul uses the political word “citizenship.” You can’t see it in most English translations of Philippians 1:27. Here’s how the TNIV puts it:

As citizens of heaven live (politeuomai) in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.

The TNIV supplies the word “heaven”; it’s not in the original text. It is the only major translation, however, that captures the essence of the word politeuomai. A strict form-equivalent translation of Philippians 1:27 would go something like this:

Only in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ conduct yourself as citizens, so that whether coming and seeing you or going away, I might hear things concerning you that you are standing firm in one spirit, as one living being striving together for the faith of the gospel.

The second passage that uses the “citizen” metaphor is Philippians 3:18-21

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 (politeuma) is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior 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.

As Romans living in Greece, the Philippians were a little colony of their homeland – not only in the Roman legal sense of “colonia” but also in the informal sense of “a body of people who settle far from home but maintain ties with their homeland” or “a place where a group of people with the same interest or occupation are concentrated.”

I am an American who has lived outside of the United States on several occasions and under a number of widely different circumstances. I traveled alone in Europe as a student, camped in Iraq as part of an invading force and lived on and off-post in military assignments in Germany and Korea. There are times that you just hunger for a taste of home. Especially when life become difficult, the presence of “home folks” means so much.

For Christians, the church is a colony of our homeland. It’s not a homeland that you will find on any map, and none of us have ever been there. But we’ve heard the stories of the one who established it, and promises to bring us there. Hebrews 11:9-16 makes a similar point.

By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God. (Hebrews 11:9-10)

In Christ and his church we have a taste of the homeland we’ve never seen. We know something of what it will be like because of our knowledge of Christ and our experience with God’s people. We get a taste of home in the story of God’s saving and reconciling power that transformed the world wherever Jesus went. We get a taste of home in both the word of grace and in the demands of the law, both of which give us a picture of the righteous age to come. We get a tasted of home in the experience of love among our brothers and sisters, in God’s word proclaimed and in the sacraments of adoption and participation.

Our life in this colony of heaven gives us strength and comfort, but Paul uses the metaphor the Christian’s citizenship in heaven to make a stronger point. We should live out our “citizenship” in a way worth of the gospel of Christ. Our heavenly homeland in Christ is the source of our identity, our values, our ideals and our sense of what is good and honorable. And, as citizens of heaven, we should be willing to stand firm – even at great cost – for the well-being and honor of our homeland. Those familiar with the demands of citizenship would hear a call to courage, strength and honor in Paul’s words.

For Christians, heavenly citizenship is is even more significant than Roman citizenship or American citizenship or any other kind of political identity. It’s more important than what the neighbors think of us or what the government says or even what religious institutions demand. As citizens of the kingdom of heaven, we share that identity with people from every nation, race and tongue who confess Jesus as Lord. When there is a conflict between the demands of the heavenly city and our eartly polis, it is our heavenly lord and king that we must obey.