Pauline Metaphors – Part 1: Citizenship

‘For our conversation [citizenship] is in heaven’, Phil. 3. 20; ‘Only let your conversation [walk as citizens] be as it becometh the gospel of Christ’, Phil. 1. 27.

Are you a good citizen? In the UK, the National Curriculum states, ‘A high-quality citizenship education helps to provide pupils with knowledge, skills and understanding to prepare them to play a full and active part in society’.1 If earthly governments consider it important to teach their young people how to be fully fledged members of society, how importantly do we view our ‘citizenship [which] is in heaven’ ESV?

In Roman times, citizenship was highly prized and brought special privileges.2 Received primarily through birth or appointment, it afforded rights to the protection of the law, voting, holding public office, and serving in the military. They were deemed as those who could responsibly partake in society and represent and defend the empire.3 An article on modern citizenship4 says, ‘The usual responsibilities of citizenship are allegiance, taxation, and military service’. Citizenship determines where our loyalties should be, whom we represent, where we use our resources, and whose battles we fight.

In writing to the church at Philippi, Paul had a ready audience for this kind of imagery. As a colony of Rome, they understood the fact that, no matter how far from home, a citizen could be identified through his lifestyle.

Priorities of the citizen

Before speaking of their citizenship, v. 20, Paul had encouraged his readers to use himself, and others who walk like him, as an example of how to live the Christian life, v. 17. The intervening verses describe those who live so completely contrary to what should be expected that Paul stops to warn the saints, as he had done ‘often’, v. 18. This affords a powerful understanding, by way of contrast, as to the things that the citizen should prioritize.

The cross - those in verses 18 and 19 are described as ‘enemies of the cross of Christ’, and ‘whose glory is in their shame’. What a contrast to the Apostle Paul, who could say to the Galatian believers, ‘But God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ’, 6. 14. Throughout Paul’s writings, we understand that the citizen of heaven glories in the cross, for it is essential to our:

  • Salvation, 1 Cor. 1. 18;
  • Reconciliation, Eph. 2. 16;
  • Forgiveness, Col. 2. 13, 14.

For the heavenly company in Revelation chapter 5, the cross is central to their theme of eternal praise. The Lamb appears ‘as it had been slain’, v. 6, and the multitude sing, ‘Thou art worthy … for thou wast slain, and hast redeemed us to God by thy blood’, v. 9.

The Christ - in contrast to those of verse 19, ‘whose God is their belly’, and who ‘seek their own, not the things which are Jesus Christ’s’, 2. 21, the Apostle makes clear whom he desired to get the praise from his life and death. In chapter 1, he rejoices that, ‘Christ is preached’, v. 18. Verse 20 expresses his hope that ‘Christ shall be magnified in my body, whether it be by life, or by death’, because ‘to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain’, v. 21. Through his ministry, he desired that the rejoicing of the people of God ‘may be more abundant in Jesus Christ’, v. 26. He counted ‘all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord’, 3. 8. Paul made clear his allegiance; is ours as obvious?

The coming - there is no minding ‘earthly things’, 3. 19, for Paul. As a citizen of heaven, he looked for the coming of ‘the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ’, v. 20, and the glorious future that this event will bring: the change of body, v. 21; the crown for faithful service, v. 14; the completion of God’s work in His people, 1. 6. This coming is to impact the choices we make, I. 10, and our attitude towards others, 4. 5. Truly our affections should be ‘on things above, not on things on the earth’, Col. 3. 2.

Perspective of the citizen

The perspective of the citizen is also rooted in the prospect of the Lord’s coming. This principle is found in the lives of the faithful in Hebrews chapter II. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were prepared to live in tents, because they were looking for a city ‘whose builder and maker is God’, v. 10. They desired a ‘better country’ and were therefore not tempted to return ‘from whence they came out’, vv. 15, 16. The greater our appreciation of the heavenly, the more our ambitions and actions will be shaped on earth.

In the well-loved section of Philippians chapter 2 verses 1 to 11, Paul encourages the assembly towards unity. The problem was those seeking to promote self. The answer is found in the principle of Christ’s humbling Himself, and God glorifying Him. Hebrews chapter 12 verse 2 makes the point clearly: Christ endured the cross because of the glory that was to follow. The heavenly citizen understands that position and glory is God’s to bestow, not ours to grasp after.

In Philippians chapter 4, Paul writes of things that should characterize the perspective of the saints.

  • Towards others: humble and gentle, vv. 1-3, 5. Paul speaks directly to two in the assembly regarding their need of unity and encourages others to support them. The two verses are saturated with references to working together and are grounded in the common bond of having our names ‘in the book of life’. The imminent return of the Lord and the subsequent Judgement Seat of Christ should ensure gentleness towards others.
  • Towards circumstances: joyful, v. 4. To rejoice always might seem impossible. The instruction, however, is to ‘Rejoice in the Lord alway’. Joy is rooted in relationship, not circumstance, as Paul demonstrates in this letter, 1. 18; 2. 16-18; 4. 10.
  • Towards life and its needs:
    • Prayerful and thankful, v. 6. The heavenly citizen understands who is in control, and, when anxiety comes, they go to God. The throne of most earthly kingdoms is not freely open to all its citizens, but for us it is, Heb. 4. 16. Thanksgiving is vital to this exercise in ensuring we understand what God has done.
    • Peaceful, v. 7. Citizens in a colony could expect the protection of their leaders. As we engage in prayer and thanksgiving, the God of peace promises a garrison of peace around our ‘hearts and minds through Christ Jesus’.
    • Trustful, vv. 10-20. Notice the apostle’s contentment, v. 11, his strength, v. 13, and confidence, v. 19. He knew the God of the country to which he belonged was able to give just what he needed, when he needed it.

Partaking in the community of citizens

As the Romans moved out into different places, they left their mark. The local people would be in no doubt as to what the colonists’ home was like, and that they thought it was superior!

Paul challenged the Philippians to ‘let your conversation be as it becometh the gospel of Christ’, 1. 27. They were to ‘behave as a citizen’.5 Their beliefs and something of the character of God should have been evident to those they lived among.

Paul was encouraged by his remembrance of them in chapter 1 verse 5, ‘For your fellowship in the gospel from the first day until now’. They had participated in ‘the defence and confirmation of the gospel’, v. 7. As citizens living in a foreign - and enemy - country, we are called to be ‘ambassadors for Christ’, 2 Cor. 5. 20. Is our enthusiasm for the laws, language, culture, and king of our homeland evident to all?

The way citizens of a country treat each other will do much to recommend it - or not. As we come together as a community in the local church, what are we communicating to the world? Paul wanted them to be ‘citizens worthy of the gospel’.6 That gospel is a message of reconciliation, is for ‘the whosoever’, and brings all who believe into an equal relationship with God, Gal. 3. 28. No wonder Paul was concerned over the lack of unity at Philippi. A divided church does not represent on earth the heavenly vision of John, where will be gathered a united multitude ‘out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation’, Rev. 5. 9. What opportunity has the church missed to transfer something of the atmosphere of heaven to a warring, fractured world?

This fellowship will be:

  • In suffering - united in our desire to please Christ, we will be prepared to suffer for Him, for one another, and with one another, 1. 29, 30
  • In service - note the mentions of ‘fellow’ throughout the letter: 1. 5; 2. 25; 4. 3.
  • In supplication for one another - Paul leads by example, 1. 3-11. Praying for one another will lead to unity.
  • In sacrifice - it is no coincidence that the foundation upon which Paul pleads for unity is the willingness of the Son of God to give up what was rightfully His, on behalf of others, 2. 5-11. He follows this up with other examples:
    • Paul was prepared to be ‘offered upon the sacrifice and service of your faith’, v. 17.
    • Epaphroditus who, ‘for the work of Christ … was nigh unto death, not regarding his life’, v. 30.
    • The Philippians’ sacrifice for Paul, ‘But I have all, and abound: I am full, having received of Epaphroditus the things which were sent from you, an odour of a sweet smell, a sacrifice acceptable, well pleasing to God’, 4. 18.

The Lord Jesus told His disciples, ‘By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another’, John 13. 35. Is this attitude characteristic of our assemblies?

Heavenly citizens

Revelation chapters 21 and 22 give us a glimpse of the heavenly city.

There we see God dwelling with His people, 21. 3; a people unashamedly linked with Him, 22. 4; a people engaged in worshipful service, v. 3; a people reigning with Him, v. 5. May something of the delight and dignity of that place mark us as citizens now.



See Here.


E.g., Paul’s warning to the Roman soldier about to scourge him, Acts 22. 24-29.


See Here. It should be noted that there were some limitations, generally based on wealth and land ownership.


See Here


J. Thayer, Thayer’s Greek Definition , E-sword Resource.


M. R. Vincent, Vincent’s Word Studies, E-Sword Resource.


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