Ancient Rome and Citizenship in Heaven

I love the Romans.

Last year, I took a class about the Roman Republic and absolutely fell in love with them.  I could read or talk about them for hours.  They fascinate me.  I even wrote a sonnet from the point of view of a foot soldier during the First Punic War.  For my senior thesis on the Dead Sea Scrolls, I managed to find a topic that let me write half the paper about the Romans.

You get the point.  I love the Romans.

Now, every once in a while when reading the Bible, something will suddenly make sense in a different way because of what I know about the Romans.  One huge thing was Jesus’ triumphal entry, which I hope to write about soon.

Another thing was the idea of citizenship in heaven.

Growing up in the church, I’m very familiar with the idea of citizenship in heaven.  I recognize all of the “Not Of This World” bumper stickers.  I can sing Switchfoot’s “I don’t belong here” and “It won’t be long, I’ll belong somewhere past the setting sun” by heart.  Over and over, youth camps reminded me that I am just passing through this world, that my real home is in heaven where Jesus went to prepare a place for me.

All of that is very good, but I always felt like something was missing.  Yes, I belong with God, but what happened to praying for God’s kingdom to come here, on this earth?  The Lord’s prayer doesn’t sound like it’s asking for the apocalypse, but for something more basic, a transformation of earth rather than an overturning of it.  Revelation ends, “Come, Lord Jesus, come,” not, “Take me home, Lord Jesus, take me away.”

For a long time, I wrestled with this.  Half of me held the truth that my citizenship is in heaven, half of me held the truth that Jesus came to redeem and restore this earth, but I could not reconcile the two.  How can I be called to partake in God establishing His kingdom here when I was called to leave here behind and “fly away to a land on God’s celestial shore?”

Then, after something N.T. Wright said in Surprised by Hope, my historian training clicked in.  The New Testament audience lived in a Roman world.  How did they view citizenship?

Rome began as a tiny city by modern standards, yet by Jesus’ time, the Roman empire was huge, as was the number of Roman citizens.  Historians debate the reasons Rome rose to such power when other ancient societies were struggling, and though many factors were at play, an important one was Roman citizenship.  In the ancient world, defeated people groups could almost universally expect to be enslaved and have all their descendants cast into the lowest place in society.  When Rome defeated you, that might also happen, but you could also be given the opportunity to become a Roman citizen, with full rights and privileges (as my Roman Republic prof. would say, the Romans were just as brutal as everyone else, but they were nicer about it).

Roman citizens might live their entire lives without seeing Rome.  That wasn’t the point.  The point was for them to bring Roman authority, society, and culture to the places they already were.

If that’s the context in which Paul writes, “But our citizenship is in heaven” (Phil. 3:20), then how different is this verse’s meaning!  It wouldn’t mean that we’re just waiting in an airport terminal for the flight that will take us to our native country.  It means we have the rights and power of citizens of heaven–to appeal to the highest authority (God), etc.  It means that it is our responsibility to bring the rule, society, and customs of heaven to this earth.

As citizens of heaven, God invites us to be part of His work of returning the earth to its created intent.  We’re tasked with bringing heaven to earth.

How exciting is that?!!

And that, friends, is why I love the Romans.

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