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For our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ; (Philippians 3:20)

Paul now moves from the incorrect thought of being worldly-minded – focused on this world – to that of our Heavenly citizenship. The Greek word (πολίτευμα politeuma) directly means the condition, or life, of a citizen.[1] Roman citizenship was rare and prized, and the Philippians were justifiably proud of their Roman citizenship. The town of Philippi was a colony of Rome with all its rights and privileges. It was an appropriate image for the Philippian believers on two counts. First, they held the prized Roman citizenship by being a colony of Rome. And secondly, Paul had used his Roman citizenship when he was at Philippi. – See Acts 16:37-39.

“Citizenship” in heaven reminded the church of the existence of a greater society and culture.[2]

Military images continue with the Savior from heaven. Roman citizens called the emperor “savior,” and looked with great expectation for a visit from the Emperor. We, as Christians, expect our deliverer, our Savior from heaven. This King is the Lord Jesus Christ. Paul uses all three names (titles) associated with Jesus for emphasis – Jesus is the Lord (kurios) or master of our lives, and he is the Christ (Christos) of fully Anointed One.

Paul eagerly awaited the return of Jesus to earth to take full command and rule. As his “colonists,” we should eagerly look forward to his coming to us.

More in-depth Insights

Keener writes, “Citizens of Philippi, a Roman *colony, were automatically citizens of Rome, sharing all the rights and privileges of Roman citizens even though most of them had never been there. (Not everyone who lived in Philippi was a full citizen of Philippi, but the citizenship held by some of the church, especially owners of many or most of the homes in which it met, would raise the status of the whole movement there.) Paul’s readers in Philippi therefore understand quite well what it means to be citizens of the supreme city while not yet living there. Philosophers sometimes declared themselves citizens of the world rather than any mere city-state. Citizenship in heaven was more important than descent from a tribe in Israel (3:5). (‘Citizenship’ is not ‘conversation,’ as in the KJV.) Many deities in Philippi were called “*saviors,” as was the emperor; although this title for Jesus derives from *Old Testament language for God (e.g., Is 45:21), it provides a stark contrast with the paganism Christians outside greater Judea had to confront daily. – (Keener, 1993, pp. 564-5)

PAUL AND LUKE ON TRIAL

Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary observes, “The word translated “citizenship” (politeuma) was sometimes used generally to speak of the political rights of a particular group. The third-century Macedonian King Philip V, for example, commented that the Romans, when they freed their slaves, welcomed them ‘into citizenship.’ The same word could also refer to a distinct ethnic group that lived away from its homeland and was governed by its own constitution—“a city within a city.”55 An inscription from the town of Bernike in Cyrenaica, for example, speaks of “the community of Jews in Bernike” (13 B.C.), and the third-century b.c. Letter of Aristeas can speak of a group of Jews in Egypt as “some from the Jewish community.”56 Here Paul reminds the Philippians that although they have been marginalized by the society in which they live, they are not people without a country. They form a distinct group with its own loyalties, its own homeland (see also comments on 1:27), and, as we see below, its own “Savior.”[3]

The Christians in the Philippian church were to take part as “citizens” in proclaiming the gospel. As we see from the above Bible background commentaries, Roman citizens usually were actively involved in the matters of the State. Roman citizenship was highly valued because they received many rights, privileges, and protections, which is especially true of Philippi, whose citizens had been given citizenship by Rome. Here, Paul tells Christians that they need to be active in Christian interests and not observe rather than take part, being out of the action.

This heavenly hope began when Jesus Christ ascended to heaven. On Pentecost 33 C.E., he poured out the Holy Spirit on those believers who had a heavenly hope with him in his kingdom. Thus, at that moment, Jesus began ruling as king. The apostle Paul said, “For he rescued us from the authority of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son.” (Col. 1:13) God has chosen Christians to be heirs with his Son in the kingdom of God. The apostle John tells us, “And you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign over the earth.” (Rev. 5:10) These Christians gave their loyalty to the kingdom of God but were to continue living under earthly governments as respectful and law-abiding citizens. Paul said, “Let every soul be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except by God, and those that exist have been placed[106] by God. Therefore the one setting himself against authority has taken a stand against the ordinance of God; and those who have taken a stand against it will receive judgment against themselves.” (Rom. 13:1-2) However, if a government asks a Christian to go against God’s Word or stop doing what God had commanded them to do, “We must obey God rather than men.” (Acts 5:29) Again, these Christians have shifted their commitment from earthly governments to the heavenly King, Jesus Christ.

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[1] W. E. Vine, Merrill F. Unger and William White, Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1996). Page 103.

[2] Holman Bible Editorial Staff, ed., HCSB Study Bible (Kindle Locations 147153-147159), ed. Holman Bible Editorial Staff (B&H Publishing Group Kindle Edition, 2010).

55 E. Mary Smallwood, The Jews under Roman Rule from Pompey to Diocletian: A Study in Political Relations (Leiden: Brill, 1981), 225.

56 MM, 525–26. See also Smallwood, Jews under Roman Rule, 225–30.

[3] Clinton E. Arnold, Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary: Romans to Philemon., vol. 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002), 362.

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