In recent months I’ve been confronted by the themes of the kingdom of God and a Christian’s first loyalties of citizenship. A few different sources have moved this idea along, some intentionally, some serendipitously, and the stark reality of the “upside-down” kingdom that Jesus taught about and preached is weighing quite heavy on my soul. Today’s post is more of this journey for me as I attempt to process, really, what the words of Jesus mean for us as His followers.
The Philippians lived in a city that had a rich history, and uniquely, honorable distinction in the Roman Empire. Philippi got its name from Alexander the Great’s father, Philip, who captured the city from the Thracians about 350 years before Christ. Later, it received great Roman distinction as it had stood loyal with Octavian and Mark Antony in the fight against Pompey’s disciples Brutus and Cassius (whose most famous act was assassinating Julius Caesar). Because of that loyalty Philippi was not just a city that was under Roman rule, but it was given the title of ‘colony’. Alec Motyer offers a bit of insight here:
As a colony Philippi was in fact ‘Rome in miniature’…Augustus gave Philippi a privilege ‘by which the whole legal position of the colonists in respect of ownership, transfer of land, payment of taxes, local administration and law, became the same as if they were on Italian soil’.
– Alec Motyer
Aside from being an interesting bit of history this has a point for us. In Paul’s letter to the Philippians there is a line that gets translated in a way that offers both more and less understanding of Paul’s instruction.
Only let your manner of life by worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel
That verse begins with words that have been often repeated from pulpits and quoted in books down through the centuries. “Let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ” Paul says. Do what the gospel demands of you. Be who it is that God has created you to be. By implication: don’t allow yourself to live a life that is less than the glory and majesty of the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. In these ways of understanding the verse I applaud the translators, and to their credit (at least in the ESV) there is a marker that calls the readers eyes to the bottom of the page and offers the literal translation for this opening phrase, and it is that translation that would have made this verse far more scandalous than it first seems.
In my Bible the translators say this at the bottom of the page: “Greek Only behave as citizens worthy“. Instead of “let your manner of life be worthy” the actual Greek means “behave as citizens worthy”. This would have jumped off the page in a cutting and convicting way to the ears of the first century Philippian Christians. Philippi was, for all legal intents and purposes, Rome. The record books with the names of the citizens that lived in Philippi was kept in Rome. They had been granted that kind of glorious status. This was, in the ancient world, a big deal. There was a great sense of patriotism generated from this status. Philippians were proud to be Romans, because they were actually Romans, and not just another Roman conquest. (For the sake of comparison, if you look at Israel during Roman occupation and you get a picture of what it was like to not be a citizen but still be under the umbrella of Rome).
So Paul, in his inimitable bluntness, digs at the core of one of the Philippians greatest points of pride and tells them, by not-so-subtle implication: “you are not Romans first…you are first citizens of heaven”.
I could go on and on with the scathing implications of our own American idealism in general, and the church’s whole-hearted adoption of the “American dream” in particular, but there was something else that had caused all of these things to come back to my mind. You see I hadn’t really meditated on, or even casually thought about, the citizenship of Philippi in a few years (contrary to what some might think I don’t typically spend my days rehashing old commentary information that I’ve read). But yesterday afternoon something happened that offered a slightly different view of this “first citizenship”.
My daughter loves to paint. I’m not so sure that she’s ever going to paint anything that anyone outside of our house is going to look at and be impressed by, but that is sort of the point here. It’s the fact that she isn’t a great painter that this story is worth sharing. We, like many parents and families, have used the colorings, paintings, and drawings of our children to wallpaper our refrigerator. There are old pictures, new pictures, and some pictures of which I have no recollection. But the point is this: we love her, we think everything she does is art, we love nothing more than to pass by our refrigerator and see the evidence of our daughter’s time and creativity. We’ve done this for a long time, as long as she can remember. And so it shouldn’t have been a shock last night as she finished her painting and then announced: “I’m going to go hang this on the fridge.”
I blithely answered, “ok”, and continued doing what I was doing (re-staining the grout on our kitchen floor). But a moment after I acknowledged her, I was struck with the utter boldness and assurance that her statement contained. My daughter, in this place, our home, is no longer worried that we will not display her works of art. She is not concerned that maybe this painting didn’t attain to the baseline requirements of the “refrigerator scale”. Here, in the place that has formed her identity first, there is no fear of rejection, unneccessary critique, or even a sifting of the most basic level. In her house every piece of art is a work of art.
I thought about Philippi because Paul’s statement is loaded with more than just political implications. You see there is difference in Christianity that is almost embarrassing to talk about in our day and age of excellence and “first things first”. Paul was telling the church in this city that before they should puff their chests about being a part of the glory of Rome, they should remember that before that they are not citizens of a country as much as members of a household (Eph 2:19-22). The household of the saints is a far deeper and more important idea for the Christian than citizenship of a country. And while there isn’t room here, that passage in Ephesians states that there is a deeper connection than even the household (Eph 2:22).
In the household of God, our first “citizenship”, there are benefits that the republic cannot match. The comparison of the Father to the Caesar is seen in the levels of authority and power, but the difference is also seen just as profoundly in the most unlikely of places: the refrigerator. In God’s family everything we do doesn’t have to be the best if it is done with purity of heart. Our attempts at greatness are judged by the intention more than the performance in the Father’s house. In this house we define excellence in a much different way than in Caesar’s courts. This is what Jesus’ lauding of the widow’s offering of two coins tells us. If you’ve ever wondered why a church would let an elderly woman with a crooked back and a dry voice take a microphone and scratch out a painful rendition of “Just As I Am” then the answer is here. She isn’t trying to get something on the radio, she’s more concerned with the refrigerator.
At some point Paul wanted the Philippians to understand, as well as us, that there are greater glories than governments and rulers and power and position. It’s not easy to see all the time because we tend to spend more energy on pondering our own earthly kingdom than the kingdom of God, but the reality is still there brimming, popping and cracking as it comes to a boil. These greater glories are those of sacrifice, love, and grace. These greater glories are full of assurance that in the Father’s house we are accepted. These greater glories really don’t know the difference between the magnificent strokes of Rembrandt, the unfathomable vision of Escher, and the blunted and unremarkable paintings of Karsten Kilgore. You see, all of the art in God’s house goes up on the refrigerator. Yours and mine. No matter what.
So it would be wise today to take a step back and consider where you live first. Are you an American, born to Americans, living in America? Or are you first a daughter or son of the King of the universe? Do you live on a half-acre lot in Anywhere, USA? Or do you have an upstairs bedroom in the house of the Sovereign Creator? How you answer these questions will reveal much about you. In Caesar’s kingdom there may be fortune, glory, pleasure, and acclaim; but in the Father’s house there is peace, faith, hope, and love.
You have to decide which is more important to you, but friends, I’ll choose the King’s refrigerator over Caesar’s court any day.