A rare thing for me—let’s talk politics. I live in Alberta, one of Canada’s western provinces. Policies of the federal Liberal government have left many in these resource-rich provinces with empty purses. They made their feelings known in our October 21 federal election, which saw “the enemy,” Justin Trudeau and his Liberals, re-elected, albeit this time not with a majority government but with a minority, because the western provinces voted Conservative en masse. Now in Alberta a movement to part ways with eastern Canada is gaining angry momentum. Wexit, they’re dubbing it—West Exit—after the fashion of Brexit, Britain’s movement to leave the European Union. That’s not the whole picture; in Quebec the separatist Bloc Quebecois, roundly defeated in 2011 and considered history, lo and behold is up and running again. My country is deeply divided, I should say tri-vided.
I love Canada; I love Alberta, and it grieves my heart to see things come to this. I’ve been listening in to what’s being said, and dwelling on it a lot. Too much. Which is why I want to talk politics.
Heaven’s politics. A verse from Philippians has been coming to mind: “For our conversation is in heaven…” That’s the old King James Version, which uses “conversation” for “conduct, behaviour.” The New King James Version has this:
For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ… (Phil. 3:20 NKJV)
Why the word citizenship? As I thought on that, something I’d read many years ago kept resurfacing: “We are a colony of heaven.” I couldn’t recall where I’d read it. Google found it for me in the 2017 Passion Translation:
But we are a colony of heaven on earth as we cling tightly to our life-giver, the Lord Jesus Christ…
But that couldn’t be what I was looking for; I’d read it long before the publication of that translation (it’s to the far left of a paraphrase, actually). Eventually I found it in James Moffatt’s translation which was first published in 1922:
But we are a colony of heaven, and we wait for the Saviour who comes from heaven, the Lord Jesus Christ… (James Moffatt, A New Translation,1922)
“Our citizenship is in heaven” is the more accurate translation but Paul was writing to the church in Philippi, and he knew his readers would “get” what he was saying. Philippi was a Roman colony, which meant its residents were actually citizens of Rome.
And from thence [we sailed] to Philippi, which is the chief city of that part of Macedonia, and a colony… (Acts 16:12).
I remember when I was a boy my dad saying that Victoria, British Columbia, was “a little bit of England.” To be in Victoria (named after a great 19th century queen of the British Empire) was to be as it were in England. In that sense it was a “colony of England.” In fact the daily newspaper (of which my dad’s brother Seth Halton was for many years editor) was called the Victoria Daily Colonist. One could go to the Empress Hotel in Victoria and have “high tea,” as close as you could get without the actual presence of our present Queen Elizabeth. (Google tells me you can still do that.)
Philippi was one of several colonies in the Roman Empire. Colonies were originally Roman outposts established to secure conquered territories. “Eventually, however, the term came to denote the highest status of a Roman city” (Wikipedia). “The idea of a colony was, that it was another Rome transferred to the soil of another country” (Vincent’s Word Studies). Inhabitants had the privilege of Roman citizenship, which meant “exemption from scourging, freedom from arrest, except in extreme cases, and, in all cases, the right of appeal from the magistrate to the emperor” (Vincent). The inhabitants spoke Latin and were subject to Roman law. The coinage had Latin inscriptions.
Philippi, then, was a miniature Rome. Its citizens, although in distant Macedonia, were citizens of Rome.
The word translated “citizenship” or “colony” is the Greek politeuma, a noun. It’s interesting that earlier in his epistle Paul used the verb form politeuomai when he urged the saints in Philippi, “Only let your conversation [interaction, conduct, citizenship] be as becometh the gospel of Christ: that whether I come and see you, or else be absent, I may hear of your affairs, that ye stand fast in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel…” (Phil. 1:27). In fact Robertson’s Word Pictures suggests that the better translation here would be, “only do ye live as citizens…” Politeuomai is found in only one other place in the New Testament, Acts 23:1, where it is translated “lived.” The more common word for “conversation, conduct” is anastrophe, which is used 13 times in the New Testament. So, in selecting politeuomai here, it’s very suggestive that Paul has in mind that, whereas the saints in Philippi were in distant earth, they were citizens of heaven.
Although of Hebrew lineage, Paul himself was a Roman, but not because his hometown Tarsus was a Roman colony. Someone in an earlier generation (his grandfather or great grandfather?) had become a Roman citizen. This is why when Paul was about to be stretched out for a scourging, he said to the centurion, “Is it lawful for you to scourge a man that is a Roman, and uncondemned?” (Acts 22:25). The centurion in charge of the scourging immediately reported this to his commander. “Take heed what thou doest, for this man is a Roman.” The commander instantly came and queried Paul personally. “Art thou a Roman?” Paul confirmed that he was. The commander responded, “With a great sum obtained I this freedom.” The word he used is politeia, citizenship. “And Paul said, But I was free born.” Upon this they backed away from him as though he had the plague—or should I say as though he were the Roman emperor himself.
So Paul reminds the Philippians, “our citizenship—our politeuma—is in heaven.” I think I see the root there from which we get our word politics, although I doubt that “our politics is in heaven” would qualify as good exegesis. But if our citizenship is there, our politics is certainly there also. In any case, when we read that verse in context we discover that Paul is brokenhearted because of those whose walk made them “enemies of the cross of Christ.” How so? How were they enemies of the cross of Christ? They “mind earthly things.” It is upon this that Paul says, “For, our citizenship is in heaven…”
That’s quite something, isn’t it. Just as the residents of Philippi were citizens of Rome, the saints there were citizens of heaven.
The psalmist foresaw this long ago. He spoke of Rahab and Babylon, Philistia, Tyre, Ethiopia… cities and regions of the Gentiles, and then with those in mind he said, speaking now of the glorious city of God, “This man was born there” (Ps. 87:3). They lived in Babylon, or Tyre, or wherever. But they were on the census rolls of the heavenly register as citizens there, having been born there:
And of Zion it shall be said, This and that man was born in her, and the Highest Himself shall establish her.
The LORD shall count, when He writeth up the peoples, that this man was born there.
What is this but the wondrous Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has made born-again—that is, born-from-above—disciples of Christ from all nations citizens of the heavenly Jerusalem!
Yes, of course I seek to be a good citizen of Canada. True disciples of Jesus in whatever country they are sojourning have always sought to be good citizens, obeying the laws of that country—except when those laws violate the law of their heavenly country. That must always be first and foremost.
So I want to lay to heart what Paul is saying. I don’t want to be minding earthly things, but heavenly things; I want to be a good citizen of heaven my home and native land, obeying its law, enjoying its liberty from sin and death, the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus, loving Him and those around me, speaking always with grace the salt-seasoned language of heaven, drinking always from its springs, feeding ever on its bread, bearing its arms against evil, shining forth its light in the darkness of this world, a citizen of heaven devoted to the Lord of heaven, with single-eyed allegiance waiting, waiting, waiting expectantly and confidently for Him… and as I wait, always rendering unto Him the living coinage of His own image and superscription, in all things conducting myself here on earth in the little colony of heaven of which I am a part—a local church—in such a way that “a little bit of heaven” is brought nigh right here where I live in Canada.
This is my way, O Canada, of standing on guard for thee.