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Transcendental Conversation

August 7, 2011
Basis for Moral Truth

The Text

20But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21who 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)

A Closer Look at the Text

Our politeuma is in heaven. The Greek word is translated “citizenship” in most modern translations, but you will also find it translated as “conversation” and “commonwealth” in some older translations. It’s the word from which we get the English word “politics.” Our politics are in heaven (Ephesians 2:19-21). The policies by which the Kingdom of Jesus Christ are governed, and by which our lives are governed, are in heaven. Any words, any conversation you and I have, with others, with God, and in our own minds, ought to be mapped to our King and His Kingdom, of which we are citizens. In fact when “citizenship” is used by Paul as the verb politeuomai in Philippians 1:27, it is not merely translated “let your life be citizen-like,” but instead, “let your life be worthy” or “conduct yourselves in a manner worthy.” Worthy of the gospel of Christ.

Being a citizen of heaven on earth is one of those “already-not yet” ideas that flow through the Bible. God’s people in the Old Testament were to find comfort in the Lord’s mercy in the present tense (Isaiah 40:1-2), while preparing the way for the Lord’s future arrival (Isaiah 40:3-5). Abraham understood that he was part of a story that involved building a future city whose designer and builder is God (Hebrews 11:8-10).  Like the prophets of old, we desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one, one prepared by God (Hebrews 11:14-16). Jesus spoke of His kingdom in the past tense (Luke 13:28), the present tense (Matthew 5:3; Matthew 5:10; Matthew 11:12; Matthew 12:28; Matthew 19:23; Luke 17:2), and the future tense (Matthew 6:10; Matthew 21:43; Matthew 25:31-34; Acts 1:6-8).

Being a citizen of heaven is also radically different than not being a citizen of heaven. The New Testament uses dramatic language to differentiate between citizens of heaven (i.e. followers of Christ who are rescued from this evil age, Galatians 1:3-4) from non-citizens (i.e., those who are alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart, Ephesians 4:17-18). The former have no hope (Ephesians 2:12); the latter do have hope, because even though they once were far off, have been brought near by the blood of Christ (Ephesians 2:13).

The transformation from non-citizen to citizen is a gift. We are delivered from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of God’s beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins (Colossians 1:13-14).  It is also involves a duty, an ongoing project, involving out minds and our our wills: we are obligated, as a duty of our citizenship, to continually seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God, and to set our minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth (Colossians 3:1-2). This change from non-citizen to citizen is literally from death (Romans 5:12-14) to life (John 14:19; 1 Corinthians 15:21-22; 2 Corinthians 5:17). It is actually more significant, more dramatic than the “transformation of our lowly body to be like his glorious body:” the word “transformation” as used at Philippians 3:21 (metaschēmatizō) actually emphasizes appearance more than substance (see 2 Corinthians 11:13-15, where the same word is translated as the verb “to disguise”).

Some Observations about the Text

This notion of citizenship might not seem so profound in today’s globalized culture(s). Especially in areas like North America and Europe, where citizens of one country (such as the U.S.) are able to travel to and throughout another nearby country (such as Canada) with relatively little encumbrance. It’s almost easy to forget that the differences between countries are hardly more than the differences between states within the U.S. or provinces within Canada. Still, when Americans travel overseas, their status as Americans is significant to people in other parts of the world. In some places and cultures (such as, in my experience, Dominican Republic and Costa Rica), Americans are still generally and genuinely welcomed; in other places and cultures, they are despised and resented. Either way, being an American means something; and either way, traveling Americans tend to become more self-conscious and more aware of their citizenship status.

In Paul’s time, Roman citizenship meant almost everything. A Roman citizen, traveling around the world, stood taller and more proudly because of his status. Paul’s own status as a citizen of Rome from birth gave him certain rights, which he readily claimed at the appropriate time (Acts 22:28).

What about the gap between the citizen of another place, and those who are home-bound to their place on the earth? There is a gap, after all, even if it is not widened by resentment or intimidation or other factors. For the world traveler, foreigner/resident gap can never be closed, but it can be narrowed significantly. Languages can be learned, cultural etiquette can be adopted, and respectfulness can be developed. For the “citizen of heaven” of Philippians 3:20, the problem is different. A follower of Christ is not simply a citizen of another place; he or she has an entirely different worldview than those who are not followers of Christ. In addition, non-believers’ worldviews can range from nihilists (those who have given up on the idea of moral truth), to materialists and naturalists, to humanists who believe all truth is relative to culture, to those who ascribe to a full range of metaphysical transcendental possibilities (pantheism, polytheism, deism, universalism, etc.). Even monotheists, such as those Jews, Muslims, Unitarians and others who accept the notion of one God, but who would deny the significance, if not the reality, of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (and therefore deny the primacy and exclusivity of the New Testament and its truth-claims) have a different worldview than Biblical Christianity.

Basis for Moral Truth

Gospel Apologetics

Citizens of heaven are not called to merely be casual travelers on this earth. We are not tourists whose security is strong and established. Our security is strong and established, to be sure, but we are not traveling for pleasure. We are ambassadors (2 Corinthians 5:20). We are not only called upon to close the gap, but do so with the good news of the Gospel. This requires that language be learned, cultural etiquette be adopted, and respectfulness be developed. And it requires more: when we have the opportunity to develop relationships with non-believers, we need to do a philosophical, religious, moral and spiritual work-up (analagous to a health care “work-up“). That is, we need to gain an understanding of where they are on the scale of moral truth. This helps us anticipate and eventually answer their concerns, questions, objections, and misunderstandings about what it means to be a follower of Christ. This also helps us empathize with them and thereby do a more careful and compassionate job of bringing the Gospel to them.

The better we understand their hopelessness, the more capable are to gently and respectfully give an answer or an explanation regarding the reason for the hope that is in us (1 Peter 3:13-17). As citizens of heaven, we empowered to do this (2 Corinthians 10:4-5). And yet, at the end of the day, message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God (1 Corinthians 1:18). Even though the conversation pertains to things transcendental, the conversation itself does not transcend; only the Holy Spirit does.

Audio MP3 Discussion of this post is available here.

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