I’m a citizen of the State of Michigan. I live here. I’m a citizen of the United States of America. I live here. But Paul claimed, “But our citizenship is in heaven…” (Philippians 3:20, ESV).
I obviously don’t live in heaven at the moment, although I want to be headed there. What does it mean for me to be a citizen of the New Jerusalem? Paul used this language in a section of ethical instruction – “join in imitating me…” (Philippians 3:17, ESV). This occurred in a context where for some “their god is their belly.” The context is dealing with ethical living. So why did Paul bring up the subject of “our citizenship is in heaven.”
It helps to understand something about the Roman world. Paul was writing to Philippi, a Roman colony. How would they have understood citizenship? What insights do we gain? C.B. Caird explained the background.
Paul was by birth a Roman citizen, and Philippi was a Roman colony, i.e., a city situated in one of the provinces, but with the full rights of Roman citizenship… Citizenship of Rome had first been extended to the whole of Italy, and then under the Empire, had been granted to cities in the provinces where veterans from the army were settled, and occasionally to individuals distinguished in public service. The purpose of this policy was that the colonies should be centres of Roman culture, law and influence through which eventually the provinces would become thoroughly Roman; and so successful was it that even in the course of the first century A.D. many of the most distinguished figures in Roman life were of provincial extraction. With this model in mind Paul depicts Christians as holders of the citizenship of heaven, established in the provinces of God’s empire as the means by which the whole might be brought within the influence of his reign.*
While we are on our way to that heavenly city, we are to spread the culture and influence of Jerusalem that is above. We are to live in this world like citizens of heaven. Our moral life should be showing what God and Christ are really like. We should be influencing people to join us in our journey to heaven, so that we are helping extend the borders of the kingdom. Christians are outposts of heaven.
*G.B. Caird, The Language and Imagery of the Bible, pp. 179-180