Honor, Citizenship, and Philippians

It is remarkable that the issue of Paul’s citizenship first arises in Philippi in Acts 16.  Citizenship was not common in the first century, not everyone was guaranteed the privilege of being a citizen of the Empire.  In 28 B.C. there were approximately 4.9 million citizens, by the time of Claudius there were 5.9 million. Most of these lived in Italy or were serving in the army. That Paul was a Roman citizen was significant, but even more so in the city of Philippi.

The city of Philippi was a re-founded as a Roman colony in 42 B.C. after supporting Octavian in the Roman civil wars. Rome settled a number of retired soldiers there in 42 B. C. and again after the battle of Actium in 31 B.C.  As Polhill observes, the city was an impressive Roman city when Paul visited it (P&HL, 161).

One of the most striking features of the city of Philippi was civic pride.  Joe Hellerman summarizes this “the Romanness of Philippi,” citing the catalog of inscriptions now available to scholars. He comments that compared to other cities in the Greek world, Philippi had a “preoccupation with honorific titles and offices which characterized the social priorities of both elite and non-elite persons in the colony.”  Titles mattered to this colony of retired soldiers, since titles were a sign of social significance.  To be a citizen of Rome was to have a higher social standing than the non-citizen.

Paul’s use of citizenship terminology in the letter suggests “that Paul sought intentionally to mimic the honor inscriptions that confronted his readers on a daily basis throughout the colony” (Hellerman, 783).  In fact, Paul uses citizenship as a metaphor only in Philippians.  In 3:20 he describes the believer as a “citizen of heaven” (πολίτευμα).  In 1:27 Paul states that one’s “way of life” ought to be worth of the Gospel.  The word translated “way of life” is πολιτεύομαι, to “be a citizen” (BDAG).

Paul’s point in using this language in Philippians is to show his readers that being “in Christ” is far superior to being “in Rome.”  You may be a citizen of Rome, but that does not matter at all if you are a “citizen of Heaven.”  I imagine that someone in Philippi might have judged a person who was merely a “citizen of Philippi” as socially inferior.  The members of the church, according to Acts 16, included a business woman (Lydia), a retired soldier (the jailer) and perhaps a slave girl (formerly possessed).  That “mix” of social strata is radical in the world of first century Philippi, yet Paul describes them as all citizens of a kingdom far superior to Rome.

If this reading of the citizenship metaphor is correct, then it will change the way we read Paul’s boasting in chapter 3, but also how we read the “Christ Hymn” in 2:5-11.

Bibliography:  Joseph H. Hellerman, “Μορφη Θεου As A Signifier Of Social Status In Philippians 2:6,” JETS 52 (2009), 778-797. This article draws out the implications in the Christ Hymn in detail.

18 thoughts on “Honor, Citizenship, and Philippians

  1. Paul’s boasting in Philippians 3 is to prove a point. If we were to boast about outward things such as practice of the Law (circumcision, Pharisaic duties, and or citizenship) Paul would win (v5-6). He was faultless and yet he considered all of these things to be rubbish compared to the greatness of knowing and serving Christ (v7-8). Righteousness found in the Law is nothing. Having honors, rights, and privileges among those of the Law was no longer valuable to Paul. Being a member of the society of the Law (Judiazers and God fearers) missed something about God and the gospel Paul proclaims.

    “He really had lost a great deal by normal human standards when he embraced Christ” (Polhill 174). His citizenship along with its duties, honors, rights, and privileges completely transformed. Paul wanted to make it clear though that citizenship was still a big deal to him. He wanted God’s holy people of Philippi to embrace citizenship in a new light (the light that had transformed him completely Acts 9:3). For many of us citizenship in this country was part of our birthright for Paul citizenship in Heaven was found through Christ and being born again. Paul urged the Philippians to see that a far more glorious citizenship awaited them in Christ. This citizenship was more grand than the honoring titles and offices that citizenship within the colonies affirmed them. This citizenship was more beneficial than the present social standing these titles and offices offered those of Philippi. I wonder if they really caught that vision?

    I would equate this much with the struggle people find today in wanting to make a name for themselves and living into these status’ we build up for ourselves. It is tempting. Paul does not deny that but he urges the Philippians to catch a vision for something far greater than these temporal pleasures and privileges. Isn’t it freeing that our citizenship is found Christ rather than what we do or don’t do? If citizenship is equated with identity I want an identity bound to Christ no matter the temporal “cost.”

  2. For it is stated very clearly in Matthew 6:19-24, that all of our earthly possessions will fall away and be gone. And that when if comes to money; we cannot serve both God and money at the same time. Which leads to Philippians 3; and Paul’s rant? Paul is arguing that we should not claim earthly citizenship to governments and rulers. Rather that we should place our citizenship in Jesus Christ our Lord and savior.

    I love the point Anna makes, “That if citizenship is linked to our identity; I want my identity to be with Christ.” When you commit to our lives to Jesus Christ; we are called to go into the world a do humble service. It is not for our own personally glory that “we” do work; but rather it is for the glory of God that “we” work.

  3. When reading Phil 1:27, I had never connected that Paul used the metaphor of the citizenship of Christ when he was talking about living in a worthy manner. Here he uses a metaphor that the Philippians would have understood. Polhill says, “It is not likely that many of the Philippians held the coveted Roman citizenship” (171). But they still would know about the Roman citizens who had such high status in their society. They understood that citizenship was very important, and maybe they even felt inferior to Roman citizens. That is why this metaphor would have been so useful to them. They must have been amazed at how being a citizen of Heaven is more than being a citizen of Rome.

    Being a citizen of Heaven is an important part of our faith. It has many implications for us as believers. As Jeremy said, all the earthly things we have stored up will be gone. Colossians 3:1-2 says, “Since, then you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.” If our citizenship is in Heaven, then we are to act like citizens in Heaven. We set our hearts and minds not on earthly things which will rot away, but on Christ. Colossians 3 goes on to talk about putting to death what belongs to our sinful nature. Later on it talks about acting like God’s chosen people, having compassion, humility, etc. If we claim to be a citizen of Heaven, we must act like one. For example, a citizen of one country shouldn’t fly another opposing countries’ flag. Why then do Christians do things that support our opposition, which we do through living a sinful lifestyle? We are God’s children, so be one.

  4. The way Paul uses all of his former “accomplishments” and boastings to show that none of those things mattered, and that being “in Christ” was the only thing that mattered, was a powerful contrast for the believers in Philippi. Society hasn’t changed much in the sense that a person can be judged by where they hold their citizenship. I find the diversity within the church in Philippi so beautiful. The fact that it was such a radical situation in the “world of the first century Philippi” (Plong), makes it even more awesome. They clearly understood that being a citizen in heaven (Phil 3:20) was more important than their earthly status. I wonder how different our churches would look if we embodied this sort of humble perspective. Polhill reflected on Paul’s writing Philippians 3: “He insisted that Gentile Christians like the Philippians were the “true circumcision,” those whose hearts were circumcised, those who worshiped in Spirit and boasted in Christ rather than in the flesh.” (168). May we also “consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 3:8).

  5. I really liked this insight into the statements Paul makes about citizenship. I guess I always just looked at it as him showing his social status but how that really didn’t matter compared to his citizenship in heaven. I wasn’t aware of how much the social standings mattered in Paul’s time. It’s often easy to get caught into the idealistic view that all Chritians were equally living in community with each other, serving, sharing all of their possessions, and living in a sort of utopia marred only by the persecutions of Rome and the Jewish leaders.

    The obvious application of this is in the various social standings that occur currently outside of the church, and also inside of it. Those who give much are rewarded, have plaques with their names written on them, have wings of a church named after them, and are glorified by church leaders (often many of the big time givers). The commands of Christ to love our neighbors as ourselves seems to be forgotten here. We do well at loving ourselves and those who are exactly like us, but disregard those who we don’t see as equals, unless, of course, they become exactly like us and the wonderful church model that is set up. Paul addresses similar issues with the Judaizers in Philippians. “They were “mutilators.” He used the Greek word katatome (lit. “cutting down”) as a pun on the word peritome (“cutting around” = circumcision).” (Polhill, 167) Instead of building up the church in any way, the Judaizers were tearing the church down by creating social standing within the church and society. This same concept happens currently. Christians should be unified in fighting against these social differences, rather than supporting and encouraging them.

  6. I would like to see the evidence that Polhill has for his statement “it is not likely that many of the Philippians held the coveted Roman citizenship” (Polhill 171). If Philippi was in fact a re-purposed Roman colony to house retired soldiers, it is very likely that most of the Philippians would have had this citizenship or at the very least, many of them. If citizenship was such a big deal to the Philippians, it would either have to have been an either or scenario for them and because a lot of the population was retired soldiers, it is more likely that citizenship was plentiful. This issue is really not predominant in any other letter or city as far as we know and the way Paul presents the truth of scripture to the Philippians is true to his nature. He has taken an important issue in the culture of the city and has turned it into a metaphor for Christ. We can feel free to take a lot of liberty in interpreting the passage if we want to but we need to realize that what Paul is doing is not really that incredibly profound and we should take care to avoid reading too much into his words. That being said, Paul’s opening words in chapter 3 are weapons to disarm any boasts that could be made for status, effectively squelching any elitist mentality that the Philippians might be tempted to display.

  7. In Philippians 3 Paul is using his Jewish pedigree to promote the Gospel by relating to his Roman audience as well as his fellow Jews. Because of the large number of retired soldiers and Roman officials living in the city of Philippi, personal heritage and national pride were large parts of life. Because citizenship and lineage greatly defined a Philippian’s status in society, the apostle Paul thought it would be most effective to appeal to that.

    By citing his many qualifications for “confidence in the flesh” in verses 3:4-6 Paul explains why he has every reason to consider himself of the highest pedigree. He goes on to tell the reader that all of his qualifications and lineage mean nothing because they are of this world. Paul is condemning the Philippians for having this pride in worldly attributes calling them the “shame in which they glory” (Polhill 168). Instead of glorying in the things of this world, whatever they may be, Paul is calling the church to be unified in their common citizenship of heaven. The latter citizenship is to be held higher than all else because its ramifications far outweigh anything that Rome or the OT Law could provide.

  8. Philippians 3 is a very interesting chapter, It is so full of insight and many different topics. I think that when Paul is boasting of his citizenship, he is doing it not in the way that was implied at the end of P.Longs post, but in a way that is showing that he was trying to be Christ like, he was trying in every way to become a true follower of God. And to Paul being a citizen of Rome or being Jewish was in honor of the Lord, and he will use that to any advantage that he has for completing the work Christ set out for him. He says in Philippians 3:14 that he is pressing on to become Christ Like, and through that he is using any ability he is given, whether by man or God he is using it according to how he thinks is right and pleasing to God.
    Philippians 3:20 “for our citizenship is in heaven…” I think that line is the most important line in the chapter, it is showing that we must not look at earthly things, including our citizenship or whom we belong too.

  9. All the writers in the New Testament seemed to know their audience and I believe that was why they were successful. Paul is no exception. P. Long blogged about how in Philippians 3, Paul boasts about his heritage. However, Paul considers it all rubbish compared to knowing Jesus Christ (Philippians 3:8). I like how through viewing the text through this way we can see how Paul says that citizenship in Heaven is so much greater than being a citizen of Rome. P. Long also said, “I imagine that someone in Philippi might have judged a person who was merely a “citizen of Philippi” as socially inferior.” I agree in that there definitely would have been people who thought they were better than others. Even today, like David said it is visible in the Christian community with the big donators getting their names on the buildings. In Philippians 2:6-7 it says, “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.” Polhill says, “verse 6 would mean that Jesus had his equality with God fully at his disposal, but he did not take advantage of it. Instead he made himself nothing” (173).
    In the Christ-Hymn although I don’t think it is making a point about citizenship it does make a point on equality. Jesus was fully God but died for us in a gruesome way. He was humble and he made himself go as far down as he could on the social scale. I think this is unique because he knew that in heaven none of this would matter. All people are equal in heaven. In Acts 16, you can see that your social status doesn’t matter. According to Polhill, “Lydia was undoubtedly a woman of means” (162). Then to see a formerly possessed slave is also a part of the kingdom seems to show that class doesn’t matter. Paul’s has such great news for the world, whether you are a rich citizen of Rome or a poor non-citizen, a Hebrew of Hebrews or a Gentile, it does not matter. Belonging to an even greater kingdom is what counts!

  10. Like Kimmy, I found chapter 3 to be interesting. When Paul talks about “citizenship in heaven” he says that after he talks about the rest of people having their “…end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things (Philippians 3:19).” While they are focused on being Roman citizens and being secure in that, Paul is urging those who are listening to him to understand that Heaven is their true home and that is where our citizenship awaits. Polhill says, “It is not likely that many of the Philippians held the coveted Roman citizenship. But as a Roman colony the city was governed by its nucleus of voting Roman citizens, and the Philippians knew the importance of citizenship” (171). I believe Paul was trying to convey to them that their citizenship in Heaven was far more important than anything Rome could offer. He knew that they understood citizenship and so he was honest and upfront with them. I think he boasted about it because he was excited about it. He understood his surroundings and those he was speaking to.

  11. I’ve never heard the thought that Paul’s talk of being a “citizen of Heaven” was a contrast to being a citizen of Rome. That’s really curious. I know being a Roman citizen was a big deal, getting Paul out of some serious beatings. So to say that being in Christ and thus a heavenly citizen was better is crazy. It seems to go right along with Paul’s talk of Jews and Gentiles and men and women and everyone else being equal in Christ. Like P. Long said in this post, if we’re all citizens of Heaven, then no matter what status we have on this earth, really we have a superior citizenship that we ought to be proud of and boast in, boasting in Christ instead of our earthly position.

  12. It is very interesting to see how Paul used this citizenship language in this letter. I think Paul is our best New Testament model of being a Christian, or more specifically, a Christian missionary. We are all called to serve Christ and present him to others and through this example we can see how that looks. Paul was amazing when it came to taking the social and cultural context of an area and presenting the gospel of Jesus Christ in a way that would resonate with the people. Notice that Paul preached the same gospel everywhere and to everybody. It never changed. But, the way in which he presents it changes so that he can truly do justice to gospel.

    Paul is also being a very radical Jew and completely stirs the waters when he claims that “a business woman (Lydia), a retired soldier (the jailer) and perhaps a slave girl (formerly possessed)” (Long) are all equal now. Citizenship does not matter for those in Christ. Only Christ matters. There is no issue of greater or lesser people. God is the great equalizer.

    We see many examples of Paul going from being an excellent Jew to abandoning beliefs and strongly help convictions because Christ had a different purpose and message for him to give then he planned on giving. Here, we see Paul going from being a good Roman citizen to denouncing some very typical Roman ways of thinking and showing people that God’s kingdom is far greater than Ceaser’s.

  13. Paul said that his citizenship in heaven was more important than his citizenship in the Roman Empire. Fo someone to say that would definetly draw a lot of attention. This could be why Paul chose to use this as an illustration of how important the Kingdom of God is. It was more important than the kingdom that was the greatest this world has ever seen before. He would have people wanting to listen left and right about this glorious citizenship that was more important than his Roman one. For the people that had no citizenship this would be a great opportunity for them to feel apart of something great.

    Polhill states “Paul concluded…with an exhortation to the Phillipians to realize their full potential as citizens of a heavenly dominion (Polhill 175)”. Paul is playing off this to encourage the Phillipians to take hold of what they are apart of and to tell everyone about it.

  14. I would like to quote one of the greatest Bible professors of all times to emphasize the importance of citizenship in Philippi at the time of Paul’s visit, “Titles mattered to this colony of retired soldiers, since titles were a sign of social significance. To be a citizen of Rome was to have a higher social standing than the non-citizen.”
    Paul is using a methodology to reach out to the people in this time of this region to be able to successfully get the gospel across to them. They were very much aware of their citizenship and how important it was, and for Paul to state that everything is a loss to him when he knows he has the knowledge of Jesus Christ, was a slap in the face to the people in Philippi at this time. The hymn in Philippians 2:5-11 takes on a whole new meaning when you factor in the dedication these people had to their heritage and citizenship. To do all these things was such a radical difference to their regular lives; but to me that is the most exciting part about taking up our crosses and following Christ!

  15. I think it is sweet that Paul is able to use his different citizenship’s as a metaphor for how we are citizens of Heaven. He is able to reach out to the people saying, as I am a citizen of Rome ect. I am also a citizen of heaven. This is a good missionary tattic when you are trying to paint a picture for people who may need to see a mental picture of what you are talking about. also, he able to do it in an exciting way. Which is also good in (that times) Roman sociaty. They loved their citizenship, so for Paul to be excited about his in heaven was good for them to see. (in my opinion.)

  16. I like what Emily said about Paul’s boasting. That the things accumulated in life mean nothing, but being “in Christ” is what matters. It also reminds me of Ecclesiastes and everything being “meaningless”. Paul uses this language of being a “citizen” and using it in the meaning of the kingdom and I believe it to be a powerful illustration in his preaching. As P. Long described, citizenship was something that Phillipians’ took pride in. Because they had this thinking, it’s not difficult to see why Paul took this route in describing heaven. If the Phillipians took so much pride in this citizenship, and Paul started using this word in describing heaven, he would have their attention, and they must have thought what he was speaking of was important. Our worldview helps us to better understand Scripture and messages, and when illustrations go hand in hand with our worldview and experiences, things seem to click.

  17. I really enjoyed where you, P Long, said “Paul’s point in using this language in Philippians is to show his readers that being ‘in Christ’ is far superior to being ‘in Rome.’” That to me, being an American, speaks volumes. First off I would never have read the book of Philippians and thought that Paul was making that comparison, and that just makes the whole passage that much more deep. Second, being an American in society today, people either are really proud to be an American, or they could not really care less. For me reading this passage and thinking “In Christ is better than in America,” that is something I had never thought of before. You could really replace America or Rome with whatever you wanted to… Christ is better than all. He is above all.
    Something else that you pointed out that I really enjoyed is where you said “The members of the church, included a business woman (Lydia), a retired soldier (the jailer) and perhaps a slave girl (formerly possessed)” (Long). This was another thing that had never occurred to me before. This church here in Philippi really had a wide variety of people! Maybe this was why Euodia and Syntyche were disagreeing in chapter four! Sometimes it is harder to agree with someone you have nothing in common with, and if the Philippian church really had a diverse group, then maybe the only thing the people had in common was Christ and being in Him.

  18. Paul uses his former life to make a point. He is telling his readers that in society’s standards, he is a great man due too his background. Yet, all f this is meaningless compaired to what we have in Christ. Just as a Roman citizenship or any of their accomplishments for Rome. All f it means nothing. Paul says: “But whatver things were counted gain to me, those thngs I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ.” (3:7)
    The same message that Paul was preaching back then could be taught today. We get s caught up worldly treasures that we forget about storing uo treasures in heaven. Paul came from a background equivalent to that of some of our owen prominent families and considered it all rubbish compared to what could be found in Christ. I know most of us do not ven come from that kind of a background but we all get caught up in this that or the othe and Christ gets left out of the equation. We should take notes from Paul’s lifestyle and apply them to our owen.

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