…Our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, 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 – Philippians 3:20-21 ESV
The ancient Greek City of Philippi had become a full Roman colony by the time Paul wrote to the congregation there. In fact the Greek word for citizenship that Paul used had that colonial connotation. Many Philippians enjoyed the full rights of Roman citizenship.
Most Africans, however, do not like the word colonization. It brings up horrible memories of oppression by Europeans yet our people have been indelibly marked by it, for better or for worse. My country began to be colonised by the British in the 19th century. We gained independence almost sixty years ago but the influence of the United Kingdom is still felt. Even though there are literally scores of indigenous languages in the country, English is our official language. We even participate in the Commonwealth Games.
My grandparents’ generation remember what it is like to live as a colony of a foreign power. With colonisation one country tries to reproduce its culture, society and ideals in another part of the world. In Ghana the idea of a proper gentleman conjures up images of British Oxbridge educated aristocrat drinking copious amounts of tea. During the Gold Coast colonial era the people of what was to be known as Ghana looked to the UK for governance. A colony does not manage its own affairs but is overseen by the foreign state. When Paul said there citizenship was of heaven he drew he used their socio-political context to communicate an amazing truth.
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth – Genesis 1:1 ESV
Genesis one contains the various binaries of creation that is, night and day, sea and dry land, sun and moon, male and female. The heaven (heavens as the Hebrews thought of it) and the earth are the two great counterparts of God’s created reality. The ancients did not have the concept of a material universe. The heavens for them was not vast outer space, beyond which you might find God unimaginable light years away. In their perspective the heavens and earth functioned as two intersecting dimensions of reality. The Bible is filled with stories and descriptions of heaven actively interacting with earth. Even though by the time of Paul Hellenistic thinking had become more materialistic, the ancient world still thought of heaven and earth as distinct but not unrelated. Paul speaking of heavenly citizenship meant he believed that the relationship between the heavens and the earth, God and man, had been radically redefined because of Jesus. As Philippi was Rome in another part of the world, Paul thought of the Church as a colony of heaven on earth. Commenting on Philippians 3:20 N.T. Wright writes,
Jesus’s resurrection is the beginning of God’s new project not to snatch people away from earth to heaven but to colonize earth with the life of heaven. That, after all, is what the Lord’s Prayer is about.
– N.T. Wright, Surprised By Hope
Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. – Matthew 6:10 ESV
The Kingdom of God is not about us leaving earth but about heaven coming down. This idea is clearly not new to Paul or to the New Testament since it is embedded in the very prayer Jesus taught his disciples. The Church is the inaugural heavenly community on earth where God dwells among us by his Spirit (Ephesians 2:19-22.) The traditional view of a pilgrimage to heaven has suddenly been inverted with a heaven that is urgently invading earth.
…The hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. – John 4:23 ESV
Jesus spoke of worship not as man’s search for God but as God’s search for man, a divine pilgrimage for true worshippers. In Revelation we find that worship is the preoccupation of heaven. There is no inventor or innovator in the world who is celebrated for making something that doesn’t work. The praise of any creator is the creation functioning as was intended. Revelation and the rest of Holy Scripture give us that understanding of worship. Now if worship is the quintessential expression of heaven, worshipping him here on earth, that is, living according to his will and purpose is how we bring heaven on earth. The apostle Peter writes,
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. – 1 Peter 2:9 ESV
As wonderful as private revelatory experiences are the best evidence of heaven we can offer is truly transformed lives by Jesus Christ. We need to bring down the culture of heaven to the citizens of the earth. Colonization is not only about establishing a new political territory but reproducing the culture of the home nation. We should live as examples of the will of God being done or earth as it is in heaven. God seeks to establish heaven on earth, merging these two dimensions of reality in a spectacular new creation.
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. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” – Revelation 21:1-5 ESV