Next, we need to consider some teachings of the Bible that we tend to ignore. You won’t find many sermon outlines based on these passages in Church of Christ sermon books — or in evangelical literature generally.
We begin with —
(Phil. 3:20-21 ESV) 20 But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.
To grasp Paul’s meaning, we need to know a little history. Rome planted Roman colonies across the Empire. This was usually part of the pension given to a retired Roman soldier. A soldier might not be from Rome at all, but if he survived to retire, he’d be granted Roman citizenship and a plot of land in a Roman colony. Philippi was just such a colony.
If the colony was well placed, with good farmland and on a trade route or two, the town would prosper and people from all over the Empire might move there. But the oldest families would be retired Roman soldiers who receive their pensions and their land from Rome. And if there ever was an insurrection, the soldiers still had their swords and could be called into active duty, much like our Army Reserve. And the Romans knew how to train soldiers to kill. This was an Empire based on the ruthless assertion of governmental violence against all dissent.
Therefore, for Paul to declare Christians “citizens of heaven” is to declare their loyalty, their king, and their duties. N. T. Wright explains,
‘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. 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 would 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 is the picture Paul has in mind in verses 20 and 21. The church is at present a colony of heaven, with the responsibility (as we say in the Lord’s Prayer) for bringing the life and rule of heaven to bear on earth. We are not, of course, very good at doing this; we often find ourselves weak and helpless, and our physical bodies themselves are growing old and tired, decaying and ready to die. But our hope is that the true saviour, the true Lord, King Jesus himself will come from heaven and change all that. He is going to transform the entire world so that it is full of his glory, full of the life and power of heaven. And, as part of that, he is going to transform our bodies so that they are like his glorious body, the body which was itself transformed after his cruel death so that it became wonderfully alive again with a life that death and decay could never touch again.
Knowing this will enable Christians to ‘stand firm in the Lord’ (4:1); and now we can see more clearly what that means. It doesn’t just mean remaining constant in faith. It means giving allegiance to Jesus, rather than to Caesar, as the true Lord. Paul has described the church, and its Lord, in such a way that the Philippians could hardly miss the allusion to Rome and Caesar. This is the greatest challenge of the letter: that the Christians in Philippi, whether or not they were themselves Roman citizens (some probably were, many probably weren’t), would think out what it means to give their primary allegiance not to Rome but to heaven, not to Caesar but to Jesus—and to trust that Jesus would in due time bring the life and rule of heaven to bear on the whole world, themselves included.
Tom Wright, Paul for Everyone: The Prison Letters: Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon, (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2004), 126–127.
American Christians are under the delusion that our savior is the government. Why would I say such a thing? Because we things go badly, we want to fix it via the government. We want to elect the right representatives and president. We want the right court decisions issued. And if we could just get a filibuster-proof Senate and our preferred presidential candidate, our problems would be solved. And this is pagan, godless thinking.
Citizens of heaven recognize the Messiah as King, and they look to their King for salvation. And when things go wrong, it’s not a government problem but a failure of God’s citizens to be loyal soldiers.
But the benefit of thinking like pagans is that we get to blame others for the decadence of our society. If we admit that we were charged by God himself to help God heal the brokenness of the world by bringing the lost the Jesus and by serving those in need, well, we’d have some very guilty feelings to deal with. Far better to blame the Democrats. Or Republicans. Or people who didn’t vote. Or the Supreme Court. Anybody but us.