Friday, December 14, 2018

Living as Citizens of Heaven

In my most recent sermon, I came to Philippians 1:27-30, which begins with the exhortation: "Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ..."

There is only one Greek word underlying the English translation “let your manner of life be,” which is πολιτεύεσθε. You see in the first part of the word “πολι” ("poli") its connection to the Greek word for city (πόλις), where we get the word “politics.” A more literal translation of πολιτεύεσθε would be “behave as citizens.” One would say in those days, “behave as citizens worthy of Rome.” Each nation has its manner of life which is in some way distinctive. And there is a duty to live in a way that gives honor to your country, rather than disgracing it by your actions. Paul uses this idea to exhort the Philippians saints to act in a way that befits their identity with the gospel and their allegiance to Jesus whom the gospel proclaims to be the Lord. Paul picks up this idea again in Philippians 3:20, where he says “our citizenship is in heaven.”

This analogy was especially appropriate for a letter to Christians in Philippi. Philippi was a Roman colony in what is now northern Greece (Acts 16:12). It contained a much larger proportion of Roman citizens than other cities. It was a place for Roman soldiers to retire. When Paul was in Philippi, the people identified as loyal Romans (Acts 16:21), and Paul privately called attention to his Roman citizenship (Acts 16:37), which embarrassed the Philippian authorities who had beaten him publicly without a orderly trial.

The Philippians knew what it meant for citizens to go to a foreign land as an colony, bringing their customs with them. They knew what it meant to live distinctly among the native people. They knew what it meant to have a lord who would protect and rule them from the capitol city. Paul uses this concept to communicate what it is to live as a Christian.

The point is not that “this world is not my home/I'm just a-passing through.” Rather it is about your identity, your king, and your way of life. Romans who lived at Philippi did not plan on returning to Rome. Rather, they were bringing Rome and its ways to Philippi. So as citizens of heaven, we take our pattern of living from heaven, our "capitol city" is heaven, we obey and trust in our King who is in heaven, we pray that His kingdom come and will be obeyed on earth just as it is in heaven. In the end, Jesus comes back to earth from heaven and raises up our bodies from the grave (Phil. 3:20), and the new Jerusalem comes down from heaven to the new earth and God dwells with us here (Rev. 21:1-3). The church in this present age is a colony of heaven on earth.

Now the kingdom of heaven does not advance like Rome did. It does not conquer by the power of the sword, but by the power of the Spirit and Scripture. Its power does not come from man, but from heaven (John 18:33-38).

The kingdom of heaven also overlaps with the various cultures of this world. You do not loose your national identity when you become a Christian. And these two identities are not unrelated: your American identity now becomes reformed and qualified by your identity as a citizen of the gospel, just as your Christian identity can be expressed in uniquely American ways (for example, in American language).

But what Philippians 1:27 emphasizes is that our citizenship in the kingdom of heaven produces a unique manner of life, something that is shared by all the saints across the world, and that this manner of life is defined by the gospel. This manner of life is driven by different priorities, different motives, and a different basis. In some ways it will run contrary to the priorities and practices of the people around us. But this manner of life will be based on faith in Jesus Christ for salvation, on the example of Jesus Christ, and on the authority of Lord Jesus who gives us His commands in Scripture. In the next chapter (Phil. 2:1-11), Paul will expand on this point by exhorting the Philippian saints to reflect the love and humility of Jesus which was manifested so clearly in the gospel account. May the church seek closer conformity to its Lord and Savior so that it may live up to its distinct identity as "the light of the world...a city set on a hill" (Matt. 5:14-16), a colony of heaven built upon the gospel of Christ.

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