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Citizens of Heaven

On Sunday I concluded a two month class on Philippians with a discussion of Philippians 3:20 and what Paul might mean when he referred to the church as “citizens of heaven.” This is one of those passages that has been badly misunderstood at various points in the history of the church and which continues to be misunderstood today. More often than not, I think, this passage has been taken to mean something like “this earth/this body are a kind of necessary evil that I must endure until I get to my real home which is heaven.” Simply put, I think this is wrong.

One of the main voices that has convinced me thus is that is that of N.T. Wright. I am continuing to slowly make my way through The Resurrection of the Son of God (I had hoped to complete this by Easter time, but it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen—I’m only about halfway through). So far Wright has discussed views of resurrection in the ancient Greek world, in the Hebrew Bible, and in the second-temple Jewish period. Now, he is looking at the Pauline epistles, seeking to correct some misunderstandings of Paul’s eschatology and demonstrating the centrality of the hope of resurrection in Paul’s mission and theology.

This involves some thought-provoking readings of certain passages and themes in Paul’s writings. An example of this comes (serendipitously, for the purposes of my class) from the book of Philippians, which Wright describes as “something of a climax in Paul’s reference to, and use of, the resurrection.” Wright argues that in reminding the church in Philippi that their “citizenship is in heaven,” Paul is drawing a parallel with the nature of citizenship in the Roman empire. According to Wright, citizenship in Rome did not mean that Rome was the place you really belonged; rather, it had to do with what you sought to make a reality where you already were:

The point about citizenship is a point about status and allegiance, not about place of residence… Those who were granted Roman citizenship in non-colonial cities… would certainly not interpret that as a standing invitation to retire to Rome in due course. The logic of colonies and citizenship works the other way round… [The Roman citizen’s] task was to live in the colony by the rules of the mother city, not to yearn to go home again.

This has a rather obvious application to how Christians are to view their “citizenship in heaven.” Just as a Roman citizen in Philippi would be expected to spread the influence of Rome—its customs, language, currency, religion, etc— in the context of eastern Macedonia, so the citizen of heaven ought not to pine away for their heavenly “home,” but seek to bring the “culture of heaven” to their present home.

In a sense, we bear witness to this truth whenever we pray the Lord’s Prayer: “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Wright puts it like this:

Christians should live in the present as members, already, of the world that is yet to be. This new-age reality was inaugurated at Eater, and will be completed, through the powerful return of Jesus, in and through the final resurrection of all his people.

Christians have sometimes been accused of being too heavenly-minded to be any earthly good—probably due, in no small part, to misreading verses like Philippians 3:20. Wright’s interpretation of this passage is a compelling one that reminds us of an important truth. The earth is not by definition a prison that we must simply to endure on our way to heaven. This is not to say that some people’s experience of earth might not be like this. It would be hard to deny that life, for some, is so miserable that death comes as a welcome release. But this does not mean that heaven is what we were made for, and that our earthly existence is just an unfortunate detour along the way.

We are made for the earth. We are made for life. We are citizens of heaven. There is nothing contradictory about these propositions. For Wright, they simply reflect the fact that our home is not yet as it should be—that the “culture of heaven” has not yet sufficiently permeated it. The citizens are not doing their job. Nonetheless, the Emperor has a specific plan in mind—a plan of peace and goodness and security and healing that will one day be finally implemented.

Is this still a form of pie-in-the-sky by and by? Just another vague hope for a future utopic state? After all, it’s one thing to pray “thy kingdom come…” but this  seems like a fairly remote possibility from our vantage point. We certainly have difficulty imagining what “heaven on earth” would actually look like or how it could ever arrive. It certainly must be admitted that our conceptions of what is to come lack the precision and clarity we might like.  But I think we know enough about where our citizenship lies to genuinely desire its arrival, and to spread what little of its aroma we can wherever we are.

As I write these words I’m listening to U2’s new album, and I’ve got a line from “I’ll Go Crazy if I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight” ringing in my ear:

The sweetest melody is the one we haven’t heard.

As citizens of heaven, we need to keep this melody alive, even if we’re not sure we know exactly how the tune goes or how to play it properly. Because ultimately we believe that our world does indeed wait, groan, pray and long for a song of healing and hope that, while it may not yet have heard, it desperately needs.

12 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ken #

    About Phil 3:20 you wrote: “More often than not, I think, this passage has been taken to mean something like “this earth/this body are a kind of necessary evil that I must endure until I get to my real home which is heaven.”

    I assume that is what you have found in the churches and people you have known. It is quite different from what I have been around – no belief in resurrection, no belief in heaven, this world and life is all we have and we better make the best of it.

    I have not yet read as far as you have in Wright’s book, but I have read enough to understand the overall structure of his argument about resurrection and I have read the part he wrote about Phil 3:20 so that I could follow what you have written here. I have a different concern and interest in his writing – basically, I am reading to find out if his argument is convincing.

    As I understand his argument, one of his important points is that the understanding of the resurrection in the Biblical writings is exceptional within its context. That point is part of his argument that historical analysis supports a conclusion that Jesus actually rose bodily from the dead.

    I think he made the argument about Phil 3:2o as part of his claim that the resurrection idea is exceptional. I do not have the impression that he has concluded that Paul did not expect Jesus to return very soon. I think he only meant to say that Paul describes the sense in which the new life had already begun. Is that your sense too?

    I think that if he were to push too hard against the idea that the next world mattered more to Paul than this one, I think it would make his argument less convincing. Thinking rhetorically, he needs to work as closely as possible with the common interpretations or his argument would be too eccentric to be convincing. I think he has done that, but I am not far enough into the book to know for sure.

    March 31, 2009
  2. Ken #

    I forgot to ask you if you are finding his argument persuasive – the argument that Jesus really did rise from the dead and that historical analysis supports that belief. Do you find it convincing so far?

    March 31, 2009
  3. To answer your last question first, yes, I do find Wright’s argument persuasive. There are a lot of historical phenomena that are difficult to explain without an actual resurrection, including the rise of the early church itself. I don’t see how a group of disappointed, confused, and frightened followers of Jesus could suddenly be transformed into the bold missionary dynamos they became unless they were convinced that Jesus really had rose from the dead and conquered evil, and that this really was good news. It’s not an airtight argument, of course, but for Wright it is highly suggestive and I’m inclined to agree.

    As I understand his argument, one of his important points is that the understanding of the resurrection in the Biblical writings is exceptional within its context. That point is part of his argument that historical analysis supports a conclusion that Jesus actually rose bodily from the dead.

    You’re right, he does spend a lot of time showing how resurrection was not on the radar of the overwhelming majority of people in the ancient world. In that sense, it is exceptional, although I think he does argue that it was a hope that grew from within the Jewish tradition. It definitely evolved as a concept, but by the time of Jesus there was an identifiable strain within Judaism which identified bodily resurrection as a legitimate hope. So it is exceptional, but not unheard of. It didn’t come out of nowhere, even if the claim that it happened to one man (and Israel’s Messiah, no less!), was utterly unexpected.

    I do not have the impression that he has concluded that Paul did not expect Jesus to return very soon. I think he only meant to say that Paul describes the sense in which the new life had already begun. Is that your sense too?

    I’m not totally sure what Wright thinks about Paul’s understanding of the parousia. From what I’ve read elsewhere, I think he would be quite willing to grant that Paul’s views of the timing of Jesus’ return changed over the course of his career, but, again, I’m not certain. I do think that Paul always conceived of the new life made possible by Christ’s resurrection as already begun. The classic “now/not yet” conception of the kingdom of God fits Wright’s view of Paul, I think. The resurrection of Jesus inaugurates the kingdom, and it will one day be consummated by the final resurrection.

    Incidentally, if you want to read a bit more about Wright’s views, there’s a good little book called The Meaning of Jesus that I read a while back where he and Marcus Borg go back and forth about various topics having to do with the historical Jesus. It’s a more accessible presentation of where he fits in comparison with other historical Jesus guys—I found it helpful.

    March 31, 2009
  4. Great thoughts Ryan! I can tell Wright has influenced my own thinking similarly to yours. Working from Wright towards defining citizenship, I made the following statement in my own sermon on the same verse: “Paul is referring to the radically political nature of Christianity and how allegiance to Christ is a very public action taken by individuals and made visible by the church.”

    The challenge is actually making this ecclesiology work…

    April 1, 2009
    • Thanks Dave. Funny, I ended the class on a very similar note—the idea of Philippians as a “political document” which fundamentally had to do with the nature of our allegiance. Unfortunately, as you allude to, the church isn’t always very good at making their allegiance to Christ visible in the right kinds of ways.

      April 1, 2009
  5. Ken #

    Last night I read what Wright wrote about the ascension – about why Jesus is not around now in his new body. I think his treatment of that needs more work. His historical arguments about the empty tomb and the resurrection seem stronger than those of his historian opponents. And yet, I am not sure they are convincing. It seems like it is important to deal with the ascension more thoroughly and with questions about the second coming. It seems like all of these things go together – they work together, not separately, together they work or they fail. Even if the historical analysis of his historian opponents is weak, and I think it is, it is hard to not see all of these things as myth. How do you feel about this? Did the body of Jesus dematerialize? Is he ever returning? What hope do we have of resurrection, or life after death of any kind, when that hope, if Paul is right, rests on the resurrection accounts of a group of people so many centuries ago? If they are myth, do we yet have hope?

    April 7, 2009
  6. I haven’t made it that far yet, but intuitively I would say that I agree with your assessment: the resurrection, ascension, second coming—they all go together. For me, the ascension and second coming are no more difficult to believe in than the resurrection—they’re all completely foreign to our experience. Is it hard not to see all these things as myth? Sometimes. I definitely go through periods where it all seems laughably implausible. But there are also other times where my hope is strong and clear.

    For me, the only way hope is possible is if something has happened within our world to somehow point to/represent news from the outside (e.g., Walker Percy’s The Message in a Bottle)—news that says that we are not marooned without hope on an island of despair, that rescue will come and that this rescue has already been hinted at and set in motion. This is, in part, how I see the events of Easter.

    Do the ideas of dead people coming to life, assuming “trans-physical” bodies, disappearing, and promising to reappear one day seem unlikely from a modern vantage point? Absolutely (although, as Wright shows, it’s not as though people in Jesus’ day didn’t also see these events as highly unusual). But unlikely things can happen. Indeed, I think that if there is any hope for us as human beings unlikely things will have to happen. I don’t see hope—at least not of the ultimate kind I think we were created to long for—coming from anywhere else. Like Peter in John 6, I often find myself saying something like: “To whom else shall I go? You have the words of eternal life.”

    April 8, 2009
  7. Ken #

    As always, your expression is persuasive and reassuring.

    I too am skeptical and critical of the claims of modernity. The modern skepticism towards the theological and historical claims of our ancestors is arrogant. I don’t want to take my stand with the moderns.

    I do wonder if myth is yet a basis for hope, as much basis as historical fact. I think it is, although I don’t think it is something one can prove. Reading Wright’s book, I realize that myth matters to me more than history, even while I appreciate the great value of his work.

    I admire Wright’s work. Compared with Wright, those historians he leans against seem childish and closed-minded. And if his conclusions are sound, it is only wonderful that it is so.

    April 8, 2009
  8. Ken #

    I thought of something else I want to add.

    Whether one regards the resurrection and ascension as historical or mystical, they are extraordinary either way. I think Wright’s work supports the conclusion that the resurrection is not purely mystical. It happened in a way that history can observe. And yet, it is not purely historical in the sense that it remains to some extent incomprehensible and is, at least to that extent, also mystical. I think Wright acknowledges this. The ascension testifies to this incomprehensibility.

    April 8, 2009
  9. Thanks Ken, I appreciate the kind words.

    I’m curious to hear more about this statement:

    I do wonder if myth is yet a basis for hope, as much basis as historical fact… I realize that myth matters to me more than history.

    As one who has at times, perhaps, leaned too heavily on the rationalistic, historical side of things, I’m eager to gain insight from another perspective. What led to the realization that myth matters more than history? How does this give you hope?

    (I think your summary of mystical vs historical nature of the resurrection/ascension is well put and helpful).

    April 8, 2009
  10. Ken #

    You have asked me a hard question. I will have to think about it for a while. I do know, for example, that I am content to suspend my disbelief when I read the Bible. It seems to leave me with something historical evidence can neither provide nor controvert. But what lead me to that? I have to think. It is something old, taken for granted, something that must have recalled in a remote kind of way while reading Wright. I suspect it is wrapped up in my love of literature and words. I have long had an inner conviction that literature matters more than science, for example.

    April 9, 2009
  11. Hello there,

    This same thought has been playing on my mind.

    As a Christian, I believe that this passage is overlooked about the importance of it at the time that Paul wrote it (it basically undermined Socrates position on being a ‘citizen of the world’).

    I wrote a blog post about this at and would love to hear your thoughts a little further on this in the comments there.

    July 25, 2010

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