This is the first part of a series on citizenship as a theological theme in the New Testament that helps us understand our identity in Christ. For a brief introduction and overview of the series, please see this post.
On Australia Day last week, many people around the country became “new Australians” and began to enjoy the identity, privileges and sense of belonging that comes with citizenship. There was also widespread discussion in the media about what it means to be an “Aussie” in 2018 and even some contentious clashes over the cultural identity that should be shared by Australian citizens.
Australian citizens tend to take many privileges that they have for granted. There’s multiple entitlements relating to voting, health, education and employment that citizens enjoy. I’ve come to appreciate this more as I’ve spent time with people without Australian citizenship and realised some of the challenges they can face while living here without such a status. When we think of those who literally risk life and limb to come to this country as asylum seekers, it makes the privilege of belonging to this commonwealth by birth or naturalisation all the more stark.
In New Testament times also, citizenship affected life, privileges and status. You were a citizen of your city, rather than your country. A citizen of Rome or of Athens or maybe Tarsus. That was where you belonged. If you were a citizen you were in a privileged position. You had rights and responsibilities in your city. And you participated in the life of that city. It was the centre of your social, cultural and political life.
And so when the New Testament talks about Christians as citizens, it’s using a powerful metaphor. It wants us to think about belonging, about who we are, and about our status and relationship to God and others.
In Philippians 3:20 – as the church in Philippi experienced trouble with people who had destructive beliefs and lifestyles – Paul tells Christians what their primary identity as citizens should be.
For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19 Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. 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. (Phil 3:18-21, ESV)
In contrast to those who live like the world around them and worship the things the world values – Christians are citizens of heaven who live in worship of their coming King. People who reject the claims of heaven upon their lives and love the things of the world will perish along with such things when Christ returns to usher in His Kingdom in full power and glory.
Citizens of the Great and Everlasting City
Christians are called citizens of heaven because God calls Heaven a “city.” In Hebrews we hear of “the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God…” “Mount Zion…the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem,” “a kingdom that cannot be shaken.”
And of course, Revelation concludes with a fantastic description of what eternity will be like for the people of God, using the image of a city.
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. (Rev 21:1-3, ESV)
And he carried me away in the Spirit to a great, high mountain, and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God…having the glory of God, its radiance like a most rare jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal. (Rev 21:10-11, ESV)
And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb. By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it, and its gates will never be shut by day–and there will be no night there. They will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. but nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or false, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life. (Rev 21:22-27, ESV).
Our cities and countries can seem like home to us and we often look to them for part of our identity and sense of belonging. But the New Testament is very clear that we should anchor our identity to the city that never ends.
Loyalty and Allegiance to a faraway city
It seems to me that the very reason the Bible employs the language of citizenship is because God knows how powerful patriotism can be in placing demands on our identity and allegiances.
If you’re Australian or Singaporean or American, you naturally tend to see your own country in favourable – perhaps even superior – terms in relation to other countries and many would fight (physically or verbally) to defend the integrity of their nation. The New Testament is calling each of us to place our heavenly identity above our earthly citizenship. We are the people of heaven before we are patriots of any earthly domain.
Philippi was a Roman colony and many of its residents were Roman citizens. Their loyalty was to a far away city – to the most prestigious place in the world. It’s a bit like how things would have been in Australia, Canada or Hong Kong when they were British colonies. You have people living in the local community, whose allegiance is connected to a faraway city: London, the greatest city in the Empire, where all the power and prestige lay. Because Paul is writing to people in this situation, it’s likely he has this sort of thing in mind when he teaches that Christians have their citizenship in heaven.
We might live in a particular earthly city and operate as someone who has the legal and social benefits of belonging as a local. But our ultimate allegiance in life is not to the city we reside in now – but to our true home – the Eternal City.
There’s a constant tension in Christian life when it comes to the question of whether we’ll succumb to pressure to show our loyalty to community, city, state, nation, people, or race over and above our primary allegiance to heaven. While we can make legitimate use of the culture we find ourselves in and even enjoy the things that are good about our earthly communities, we must never forget that we are waiting for our Saviour and King to rescue us from this corrupted, evil age that characterises so much of our world.
It is clear from Philippians, Hebrews and Revelation that our focus needs to be on the city that we already belong to, which is soon to appear and dominate heaven and earth. Our primary identity should come from belonging to that society and not from whatever earthly city or country we’ve been born or received into. If you get more pride and joy from celebrating your national day (e.g. Australia Day) than you do celebrating Jesus on 52 Sundays – you might be suffering from a spiritual identity crisis.
Citizens of heaven must have greater camaraderie with others who serve Christ as king than they do with the citizens of their birthplaces or adopted nations (more on this in part 2!). Because our cities and countries – however noble, rich or powerful – are passing away. But we will share in an eternal society centered around King Jesus with other Christians forever and ever.
 Naddsy “Girls at Rugby World cup” flickr. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)