Thursday, June 7, 2012

Citizens of Heaven

But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body (Philippians 3: 20-21).

What does it mean to be a citizen? This topic has been in the news and part of the American political debate for many years now. The question itself, however, is not a new one. Societies throughout history have struggled with defining what citizenship means, what rights and privileges are associated with it, to whom it is conferred, and how.

Citizenship in ancient Rome was a privileged political and legal status afforded to free-born individuals with respect to laws, property, and governance (Roman Citizenship, 2012). A male Roman citizen enjoyed a wide range of privileges and protections defined in detail by the Roman state. A citizen could, only under certain exceptional and extreme circumstances, be deprived of his citizenship.

Slaves, in contrast to citizens, were considered property and had only very limited rights. During the Roman Republic, a master could dispose of his slaves as he did any other property, and while excessive cruelty toward slaves was considered a sign of bad character, killing one's own slave was not a crime (Roman Citizenship, 2012). Most slaves were subjected to lives of extreme hardship. The life of a slave working in the fields, or as laborers in mines, could be brutish and short. A significant number of slaves, however, were highly skilled, and educated; these slaves were often treated as part of the extended family. These educated slaves were often given a degree of independence to work for themselves and could keep some of their own earnings, sometimes accumulating enough to buy their freedom. Until they did so, however, they were not Roman citizens, and enjoyed none of the rights of a citizen.

Some slaves were freed by their masters for services rendered, like indentured servants, or through a provision in their master’s will when he died. Once free, former slaves faced few barriers, beyond normal social snobbery, to participating in Roman society. The principle that a person could become a citizen by law rather than birth was important in Rome’s development as a society. These Freedmen, slaves who had gained their freedom, were granted a limited form of Roman citizenship (Roman Citizenship, 2012). Freedmen could later attain full Roman citizenship; their former status as a slave was not taken into account.

Roman citizenship was coveted by those barbarians living outside the empire, as well as those provincials who lived in territory controlled by Rome. Citizens had commercial (trade) rights, and were subject to the protections of the Roman legal system (Bible History Online). Roman citizenship was seen by these groups as the key to prosperity in a difficult world. In the most generic sense, Roman officials could legally punish noncitizens without proper legal proceedings as Roman law did not apply to noncitizens (Engelbrecht, et al., 2009). But, besides making one safe from the death penalty, a Roman citizen enjoyed, among other things, the right to vote, the right to make contracts, and the right to contract a legal marriage (Jahnige, 2002).

The Apostle Paul himself was a Roman citizen, as we read in the book of Acts. In one instance, after preaching to the crowd after his arrest at the temple, St. Paul is subdued by his Roman guards and stretched out in preparation to be “interrogated” by flogging[1]. As the soldiers are preparing to whip St. Paul he says to the centurion, “Is it lawful for you to flog a man who is a Roman citizen and uncondemned?” The centurion, knowing full well that it was not lawful to do such a thing under Roman law, becomes frightened:

So the tribune came and said to him, “Tell me, are you a Roman citizen?” And he said, “Yes.” The tribune answered, “I bought this citizenship for a large sum.” Paul said, “But I am a citizen by birth.” So those who were about to examine him withdrew from him immediately, and the tribune was also afraid, for he realized that Paul was a Roman citizen and that he had bound him (Acts 22:27-29).

Citizenship was a powerful and precious thing for a person in First Century Rome to have. In some cases citizenship could mean the difference between freedom or slavery, life or death, as it did for St. Paul in this instance.

On at least two occasions, which are recorded in Scripture, St. Paul invokes his Roman citizenship. St. Paul, in his letter to the Philippians however, emphasizes that our citizenship, as Christians, is in heaven. We are aliens in this world[2]. Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, has made us into a new creation – something completely different than we were before[3]. Although we live in this world and are fully involved in it, we are not “of” it. In his prayer before he is arrested and lead away to face death for our transgression, Jesus says this about his disciples:

“…but I [Jesus] say these things while I am still in the world, so that they may have the full measure of my joy within them. I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world” (John 17: 14-15).

The disciples, and all believers, are not “of” the world. Since we are a new creation we do not think according to the pattern of this world. This world is hostile to God.

For although they [mankind] knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles (Romans 1: 21-23).

Believers, however, have been born of the Spirit, and are now children of God. Our citizenship, like St. Paul’s Roman citizenship, came with a price, and it, to, rescues those who hold it from death. Our citizenship in heaven was purchased for us, not with gold or silver as Roman citizenship would have been purchased by a Roman slave, but with the holy, precious blood of Jesus, and with his innocent suffering and death (Luther, 1991).

Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God – children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God (John 1: 12-13).

Because Jesus came to earth, took on human nature, kept the law perfectly and died on the cross as a substitute for us, we can have the gift of eternal life and a restored relationship with Him. This gift is ours by faith in Jesus Christ, as St. Luke writes, “…believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved – you and your household” (Acts 16:31).

Multiple citizenship, sometimes referred to as “dual citizenship”, is when a person is regarded as a citizen under the laws of more than one country. This situation can exist because different countries have different citizenship laws. People generally refer to someone in this situation as a person who “holds” dual citizenship, but this can be misleading. Technically each nation of which the person is a citizen is making a claim that this person is its own citizen. For example, a person may have American citizenship and German citizenship. Each country sees the person as their own citizen fully, without any regard to that person’s status in any other country. There are some countries, however, that forbid holding multiple citizenships (Dual Citizenship). When you become a citizen of Country B, your citizenship in Country A is dissolved.

God’s country is like this. We are either citizens of heaven, or citizens of this world, and God is not willing to share us with the world[4]. It is through Baptism that the Holy Spirit works faith and creates in us new spiritual life with the power to overcome sin. This is the naturalization process by which we become citizens of heaven. When this happens, our citizenship in this world is dissolved and we are made citizens of heaven with Christ. The world is no longer our home, though we must live in it for a time. We must also stop living according to the customs of our “old” country, and begin acting like citizens of our new, heavenly country[5].

Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word…He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by His grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life. This is a trustworthy saying (Ephesians 5:26; Titus 3: 5-8).

We are no longer, as believers in Christ, under the dominion of evil, though sin surely affects us constantly. It is easy to lose sight of this comforting truth and become bogged down with the cares and trials of our life in this world. However, no matter what our circumstance, we are under the benevolent rule of God’s Son.

For he [God] has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins (Colossians 1: 13-14).

Travelers to a foreign country, when they need assistance, information, or are in danger, can seek out their own country’s embassy. Popular culture claims these embassies to be sovereign soil of the country they represent. While this isn’t true, an embassy can be looked at as part of the home country abroad. Even though a traveler may be on the other side of the world, their country’s embassy is a place where their interests, as well as the interests of their home country, are represented in a foreign land. Christians are aliens here on earth.  Our citizenship is in heaven, and we look forward to the day when Jesus will return visibly to judge the world and we will be with him forever.

For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. As so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage each other with these words (1 Thessalonians 4: 16-18).

Until that day comes, however, we can take comfort in the fact that we can visit the embassy of our home country – the church. While we are here in our earthly exile, we can still be connected with our spiritual home country. By gathering together with our fellow Christians, we can offer each other strength and encouragement in our exile. By participating in the liturgy, the roots of which can be traced back to the early church, we leave behind our secular worldly culture, and participate for a brief time in the “heavenly culture” of worship. And, when we hear the Word preached and receive the Sacraments, we participate in the body of Christ, and we are nourished by him who is our head.

In the Lord’s Prayer, we pray the petition “Thy Kingdom come.” In this petition, Jesus teaches us to pray for His Holy Spirit so that we believe his Word and lead godly lives in this world – and for the hastened coming of his kingdom of glory (Luther, 1991). By the power of God’s Holy Spirit, we say with St. John, “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.” In the mean time, we must remember to act like the citizens of heaven that we are.

Works Cited

Bible History Online. (n.d.). Retrieved June 7, 2012, from Roman Citizenship:

Dual Citizenship. (n.d.). Retrieved June 7, 2012, from

Engelbrecht, E. A., Deterding, P. E., Ehlke, R. C., Joersz, J. C., Love, M. W., Mueller, S. P., et al. (Eds.). (2009). The Lutheran Study Bible. Saint Louis, Missouri, USA: Concordia Publishing House.

Jahnige, J. (2002, May). Roman Law And Government: Roman Citizenship. Retrieved June 7, 2012, from Kentucky Educational Television Distance Learning (Latin I):

Luther, M. (1991). Kleine Katechismus, English. (C. P. House, Trans.) Saint Louis, Missouri, USA: Concordia Publishing House.

Roman Citizenship. (2012, June 6). Retrieved June 7, 2012, from Wikipedia:

End Notes

[1] Acts 22

[2] Hebrews 13:14

[3] 2 Corinthians 5:17

[4] Romans 12:2, Galatians 5:16-25

[5] Ephesians 4:17-24