‘But our citizenship is in heaven’, Paul writes in Philippians 3:20. There are days, aren’t there, when you feel that as a Christian you really don’t belong in this present world? Our attitudes, our values, our standards of conduct, our entire outlook, seem more and more out of tune with the society we are living in. To many around us we are well-nigh incomprehensible. In the public arena Christians often seem to be fighting a rearguard action for the preservation of such expressions of Christian standards as remain in national laws and institutions. Occasional victories are offset by the sense that the tide is running strongly against us. So far only a few voices suggest that Christianity is actually dangerous and that to teach it to children is abusive, but respect for Christianity, especially when it is depicted as ‘fundamentalist’, is fast ebbing away.
We can sympathise with the Philippians. They did not even have the remnants of a Christian consensus in society to offer some support. They were set down in the midst of a thoroughly pagan city where even the Jewish community was so small that it could not muster enough men to establish a synagogue. All in the congregation were first-generation believers, with no Christian background or experience to provide guidance for godly living in an ungodly world.
They were in effect a colony of heaven, established on earth. To Philippians that was an easy concept to grasp: Philippi had been re-founded in 42AD as a Roman colony for the settlement of discharged veterans from the army that had defeated Julius Caesar’s assassins. Citizens had the same rights as those in Roman cities in Italy. They were a colony of Rome situated in Macedonia.
The Christian colony was in effect a piece of heaven on earth – not in the sense that it was a perfect community with no problems, but in the sense that its citizens derived their life from a heavenly source and owed supreme allegiance to a heavenly King. At times they might be regarded with suspicion by the Roman authorities who were usually paranoid about sedition. Had the city authorities not, a few years earlier, thrown the Christian evangelists Paul and Silas into prison, in the days when the congregation was being established?
Christians then and now serve another King, one whom they know will return to judge the world and complete the salvation of his people. As Paul refers to heaven, that thought of the returning Lord, and the hope which Christians have in him, comes to the forefront of the apostle’s mind. As he says, from heaven ‘we await a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly bodies to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself’ (Philippians 3:20-21). To be a citizen of heaven is to have a sure hope of glory and victory when Christ returns.
Heavenly citizenship, however, could also be misunderstood to suggest despair regarding the present world, passivity and withdrawal from engagement with society, things of which Christians have often, and sometimes justifiably, been accused. Paul will have none of that. The colony of heaven is placed by the Lord on earth, in a particular geographical, historical and cultural context. The saints Paul addresses are ‘in Christ Jesus … at Philippi’ (1:1). They are not evacuated to heaven. Even the great apostle must stay for the present (1:24-26). So must we. There is work to be done. The Lord leaves his people on earth for a purpose. Although they live ‘in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation’ (2:15), they are to ‘shine as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life’ (2:15-16). The Lord himself spoke of his disciples as ‘the light of the world’ (Matthew 5:14), with the responsibility to let the light shine. We must live in a manner which brings glory to the King whom we serve and the country to which we belong, faithful in proclaiming by life and word the message of salvation and hope which our perishing society desperately needs. Citizens of heaven cannot seek a quiet corner where they can live out their days in as much ease as possible. The Lord has commissioned his Church to make disciples (Matthew 28:19-20). The light must shine and the Lord’s redeemed will be brought into the Kingdom in preparation for the King’s return.