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.
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.