A citizenship in heaven: Reading Philippians 3.20-4.1 with N.T. Wright

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May 2, 2013 by jmar198013

Our citizenship is in heaven. We look forward to a savior that comes from there—the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform our humble bodies so that they are like his glorious body, by the power that also makes him able to subject all things to himself. Therefore, my brothers and sisters whom I love and miss, who are my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord. (Phil. 3.20-4.1 CEB)

In an essay of a few years ago, N.T. Wright asked, “What happens when we line up Paul’s gospel with Caesar’s empire?” One of the sources to which he turns is Philippians 3.20ff. Of this he writes:

These [savior, Lord] are Caesar-titles. The whole verse says: Jesus is Lord, and Caesar isn’t. Caesar’s empire, of which Philippi is a colonial outpost, is the parody; Jesus’ empire, of which the Philippian church is a colonial outpost, is the reality. And the point of having ‘citizenship in heaven’ is not that one can eventually retire and go home to the mother city … The point was that, if things were getting really difficult in one’s colonial setting, the emperor would come from the mother city to rescue and liberate his loyal subjects, transforming their situation from one of danger to safety … Jesus was the reality, Caesar the parody.

The point of the church is not that we have a comfortable place to bask in God’s grace until we go home to our “mansion just over the hilltop.” Rather, as an outpost of heaven, the church is supposed to embody the virtues and values, the norms of life, of God’s reign. This is why we pray, “Thy kingdom come, they will be done as in heaven, so on earth.” We are asking God for grace to live out the truth of his reign in whatever earthly empire we happen to inhabit. Certainly, we are not supposed to embody the virtues and values of whatever Caesar and empire we happen to find ourselves in. Jesus is Lord, and Caesar is not. Being the church means being agents of God’s truthful grace in this world, an alternative to the violence and forgetfulness of the world. Not to bask in grace until we retire to the heavenly motherland.

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