Word of the Week
July 10, 2021
Politeuma: The Other Citizenship
For our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.
Our friend had moved from Africa to the United States a number of years ago, and it a day of celebration when he took the oath and became an American citizen! Flags were waving at the reception that marked the occasion, and he shared his pride in his new citizenship with anyone who would listen.
The Fourth of July is an appropriate time for American citizens to express their gratitude for the freedoms we share and the blessings God has bestowed on our country. Whenever you cross international borders, your American passport provides the security of knowing that the U.S. government stands behind you.
Christians in the first century also understood the importance of citizenship. They lived in a world where Roman citizenship was a central feature of life, and the apostle Paul reminded them that they were also citizens of an invisible kingdom.
The New Testament uses a cluster of Greek words to illuminate the implications of this dual citizenship.
In ancient Greece, the center of life was the polis, a city and the area which it ruled. A free citizen was expected to give his total allegiance to the city, participating in civic life and obeying its laws.
- Politeia meant “citizenship” with its rights and responsibilities, or the “community” to which you belonged.
- Politeuma meant “commonwealth, community, citizenship.”
- Politeuomai meant “to behave as a citizen, conduct oneself.”
The New Testament sheds light on citizenship from several different angles:
- Roman citizenship was a prized possession.
A person might be a citizen of Ephesus or Laodicea, but being a citizen of Rome gave you a much more privileged status. If you were a Roman citizen, the government could not arrest you arbitrarily or torture you to get a confession. Your case could be heard by a Roman official, ultimately by the emperor himself!
When Roman troops seized Paul and dragged him out of a riot, the commander countermanded the order to beat him when he learned he was a citizen. Acts 22:28 recounts the conversation: the commander answered, “I acquired this citizenship [politeia] with a large sum of money.” And Paul replied that he had been born a citizen, a fact that he used more than once to receive fair treatment from the authorities.
- Citizenship in the nation of Israel was a privilege.
According to Paul, one of the biggest handicaps suffered by the Gentile world was the fact that they were “excluded from the commonwealth [politeia] of Israel” (Ephesians 2:12). Being a member of the Jewish people meant that you were included in God’s covenants, enjoying the benefits of His laws and the worship system that He Himself had prescribed. Jews did not have the same prestige enjoyed by Rome, but being a citizen of Israel had spiritual advantages that outweighed the perks of Roman status.
- Being a citizen of heaven is the most valuable citizenship of all.
The church in Philippi appreciated the value of citizenship more than most because Philippi was a “colony” of Rome, a city with special status granted by the emperor because of a battle that had been won nearby (Acts 16:12). Anyone who was a citizen of Philippi was automatically a citizen of Rome, almost as if they actually lived in Rome. They were exempt from many taxes and other burdens that most cities had to endure.
So Paul was choosing his words carefully when he said “our citizenship [politeuma] is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Philippians 3:20).
Like Philippi, the Christian church gave their loyalty to a city located elsewhere. Their status and security came from their true homeland.
- Citizens live according to the standards of their home country.
Citizens are bound to follow the laws of their own land, even when they reside elsewhere. That’s why Paul stood before the Sanhedrin and claimed, “Brethren, I have lived [politeuomai] my life with a perfectly good conscience before God up to this day” (Acts 23:1). He had been raised as a loyal Jew, and had scrupulously followed the requirements of Jewish law, fanatically promoting the interests of his nation.
It is no surprise that he exhorts the Philippians to do the same: “Only conduct yourselves [politeuomai] in a manner worthy of the gospel (Philippians 1:27). As fellow-citizens of heaven, we should reflect that unity and love that you would expect from God’s people.
When my family traveled to Austria in 1983, we tried hard not to be the “Ugly Americans” that some Europeans expected. We aimed to give Americans a good reputation. And that’s our task today. As citizens of heaven, we represent God’s Kingdom. Let’s act in a way that reflects well on our homeland!
To sum up:
Remember your heavenly citizenship!
Revel in your heavenly citizenship!
Represent your heavenly citizenship well!
This week we studied a cluster of words rather than a single word. Words in the same family are called cognates, and comparing them can be very interesting. In this case, all the words can describe a person’s country or their status as citizens. We have chosen the shade of meaning that seemed most appropriate in context in our explanations here.
The root word polis occurs very frequently, and I hope we can come back some day and learn more about the differences between the ancient polis and the modern city.
You will probably receive a few extra emails in the next few weeks announcing two new opportunities:
- Word Study Webinars – Live Zoom sessions on the basics of Greek word study. This free Webinar will happen July 26 and August 2.
- Online Course Launch – the revised online course on Greek Word Study will be open for registration at a reduced price August 2-11.
Keep your eyes open for more details!
Sometimes we are blindsided by a temptation. Other times we set ourselves up for failure long ahead of the event. Next week we will look at the Greek word which describes that process.
©Ezra Project 2021