Citizenship in Heaven: The Radical Nature of Power in Paul’s Letter to the Philippians

What does it mean when the ultimate power of the universe slips into human skin and submits to death on a cross?

It’s election season, which means our hearts and minds are caught up in debates about power—who deserves it, what should be done with it, how to control it.

So I thought now might be a good time to explore what the God revealed in Jesus Christ might teach us about power. Paul’s letter to the Philippians is a particularly useful place to start.

Philippians is a tender and hopeful letter, in which Paul reflects on his own circumstances of imprisonment and suffering in light of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the reality of a crucified Messiah. But it’s also a radical letter, for the claim of Jesus’ lordship dramatically reorders conventional notions of power and draws believers into a new way of living to be realized in the here and now, not just in an anticipated Parousia.

In Philippians 3:17-21, Paul drives this point home by declaring that Christ followers claim a “citizenship in heaven,” and expounds on some of the implications of heavenly citizenship—particularly, that in the cross of Christ, former categories of defeat and triumph are reversed. God has transformed humiliation to glory, ushering in a new way of being that believers can imitate and a new reality in which believers can participate.

It is fitting that Paul uses language of citizenship in his correspondence with the believers gathered in Philippi, because Philippi was “a designated Roman colony, populated and actively managed by people with close ties to the Roman military and political apparatus.”[1] By way of modern analogy, one might imagine Paul writing to congregations of Christ-followers living on a U.S. military base. Their daily lives and occupations are consumed with their duty to the state, so Paul’s insistence that their true citizenship, and thus loyalty, should not lie with the empire, but God’s heavenly government, is radical and jarring—perhaps even dangerous.

But for Paul, this is non-negotiable. It is the heart of the gospel as he understands it. The gospel is the cosmic defeat of the powers of sin and death by Jesus Christ. This defeat does not come through military might, through powerful armies or weapons of mass destruction, but the humility and debasement of the cross. In chapter 2, Paul quotes the Christ hymn to poetically express the shocking reversal of the gospel: that Jesus,

though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross (verses 6-8).

Here, the ultimate power of the universe—Jesus in the form of God—slips into human skin and manifests power most profoundly by emptying himself of it. Perhaps more outrageous is the claim that this refusal of worldly power, this humility and submission to the point of death, is precisely the cause of Jesus’ exaltation. The hymn continues, “Therefore (i.e. because of Christ’s death on the cross) God also highly exalted him” (2:9). The result is that all will eventually acknowledge God’s power, and “at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (2:10-11). In a world in which every knee was expected to bend to the emperor (or in our context, in which we are expected to bend a knee to consumer capitalism and patriotism enforced through militarized borders), the confession that “Jesus Christ is lord” declares not just the victory of one powerful ruler over another, but challenges our understanding of what true power even is.

For if true power takes the shape of an enslaved and executed king, as the Christ hymn suggests, we are presented with a radically different picture of power from imperial efforts at self-perpetuation. Conventional power seeks to avoid death through might, and in so doing casts a trail of devastation and death in its wake; while the power of God in Christ enters into death willingly—and in the process transforms death to life. Further, over and against worldly structures that guard their power jealously, all are invited to participate in God’s power.

But just as Jesus reveals that God’s power is manifest through suffering, believers who know that Christ is lord can expect suffering. It’s part of the deal. Indeed, Paul says, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death” (Phil. 3:10). While the pastoral applications of this notion are complex (I wouldn’t say to a grieving parishioner, “Chin up! You’re sharing in the sufferings of Christ!”), there is a sense in which God’s power in Christ emboldens believers to walk through death, not for their own sake, but for the sake of their neighbors; “to look not to [their] own interests, but to the interests of others” (2:4). Of course, unlike the power of the world, this power is not something Christ-followers can attain for themselves. Rather, “it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (2:13).

Most notably, God’s work in believers is manifested tangibly, in the gritty reality of the human body. It’s important for Paul that Jesus was born into a human body and experienced a bodily resurrection. Too often Christians imagine a disembodied paradise with angels playing harps on clouds as the picture of the future God has planned for humanity. But Paul’s claim is more tangible than that: Jesus’ body was raised from the dead, and thus resurrection is enacted in our very bodies. As Paul proclaims, “He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory” (3:21).

This is the reason that Paul can find joy in his imprisonment and hope in his impending death. By the power of God in Christ, reality has been altered in such a fundamental way that he is freed from death. What’s more, this new reality lives, quite literally, in him: “Christ will be exalted now as always in my body, whether by life or death” (1:20, emphasis added). Indeed, Paul locates himself on the edge of old and new, trusting in what Christ has accomplished and the promise of the renewal of the whole cosmos. He calls all believers to live in the same space of hope and expectation—a space that enables believers to proclaim along with Paul that “living is Christ and dying is gain” (1:21).

Thus, when Paul declares that “our citizenship is in heaven” to the believers at Philippi, he is declaring something subversive and radical. He is claiming that what passes as power for far too many is not power at all; and, in fact, leads to death. “For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ,” he says. “Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthy things” (3:18-19). Instead, the power that enables Jesus “to make all things subject to himself” (3:21) is the suffering and death of the cross, from which he was raised in triumph over the powers and principalities of the world. This is a power that is so counterintuitive it can only be understood by the grace of God, and the kind of world to which it points is one of rejoicing, hope, and justice. It is a world in which suffering is transformed to joy and death transformed to life—not by a cosmic act of sidestepping their painful realities, but by the power of a God who is willing to enter them fully. When we “expect a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” (3:20), we expect a reordered world, a new society in which citizens live in true power after the manner of the crucified and risen Messiah.

[1] Matt Skinner, A Companion to the New Testament: Paul and the Pauline Letters, 194

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