Ordinary Time Bible Study
Philippians: Friends in the Gospel
Study Fifteen: I’m a citizen of heaven, but heaven is not my home
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Philippians 3:17-4:1, The Kingdom NT
So, my dear family, I want you, all together, to watch what I do and copy me. You’ve got us as a pattern of behavior; pay careful attention to people who follow it. You see, there are several people who behave as enemies of the cross of the Messiah. I told you about them often enough, and now I’m weeping as I say it again. They are on the road to destruction; their stomach is their god, and they find glory in their own shame. All they ever think about is what’s on the earth.
We are citizens of heaven, you see, and we’re eagerly waiting for the savior, the Lord, King Jesus, who is going to come from there. Our present body is a shabby old thing, but he’s going to transform it so that it’s just like his glorious body. And he’s going to do this by the power which makes him able to bring everything into line under his authority.
Well then, my dear family— I miss you so much, you’re my joy and crown!— this is how you must stand firm in the Lord, my beloved people.
This is a key text for understanding the Christian hope — especially 3:17-21. It tells us we are not looking for someone to take us from this evil earth to “heaven.” It tells us that one day “heaven” will come to earth, and everything will be put right by King Jesus.
A key word in this text is the one often translated “citizen” or “citizenship” — our citizenship is in heaven. The word is “colony,” and it is used by Paul intentionally, because Philippi was an official “colony” of Rome. After a key battle in the Roman civil war, about 100 years before Paul arrived, the empire settled war veterans and their families in the area and put it under Roman administrative rule. The residents of Philippi were proud of their “colony” status and did their best to pattern their civic life after Roman ways.
Tom Wright comments on the significance of this:
“We are citizens of heaven,” Paul declares in verse 20. 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 in 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. (emphasis mine) 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 could 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’s the picture Paul has in mind in verses 20 and 21….
I’m a citizen of heaven, but heaven is not my home. My ultimate destiny is not to go to heaven, but to be resurrected to live right here, on a new earth in a new creation, made new by God’s rule coming and filling the heavens and earth.
Maybe we should rewrite the old gospel song:
This world is my true home
I’m not just passin’ through
Not lookin’ for a place somewhere beyond the blue
When Jesus comes to reign and all is then restored
Then we’ll be at home in this world evermore
Until then, we who are members of God’s family are colonies of God’s Empire in the communities where we live, called to pattern our lives after the ways of the heavenly city.
May your heavenly rule come, may your will be done on earth as in heaven.
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Ordinary Time Bible Study
Philippians – Friends in the Gospel