Philippians 3:7 –
Millions of America citizens were neither born in the United States nor have at least one parent who is a United States citizen. They are Americans because they have chosen to become a citizen of the U.S. by naturalization. According to the Office of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (formerly Immigration and Naturalization Services or INS), naturalization is a process by which U.S. citizenship is conferred upon a foreign citizen or national after he or she fulfills the requirements established by Congress in the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA).1 Since 1907, there have been 22,459,966 petitions for naturalization filed. Of these, 19,773,642 persons gained citizenship. In 2003, 523,408 petitions were filed; 463,204 persons were naturalized. You may be thinking, what are the requirements for gaining citizenship by naturalization? There are six general requirements for administrative naturalization:
1. A period of continuous residence and physical presence in the United States;
2. An ability to read, write, and speak English;
3. Attachment to the principles of the U.S. Constitution;
4. Knowledge and understanding of U.S. history and government;
5. Good moral character; and,
6. Favorable disposition toward the United States.
The last four criteria bear a remarkable similarity to Paul’s own discussion of “citizenship” in Philippians 3:7–4:1 – a citizenship that is “of heaven” (3:20). In this sermon, I would like to look at Paul’s criteria for heavenly citizenship using these last four (slightly “revised”) criteria set out by the Office of Citizenship and Immigration. In looking at these four statements, we are presented with what could be called the essence of Christian citizenship – the basics. These are not traits of Mr. Incredible or Elastigirl from the hit movie The Incredibles or the requirements of “super-Christians,” such as Billy Graham or Mother Theresa. These are requirements of everyone who desires their commonwealth to be in Civitas Dei. The sermon is thus entitled “Christian Citizenship 101.”
Requirements for “Christian Naturalization”
The first requirement for Christian citizenship is an attachment to – not the U.S. Constitution – but Jesus as Savior and Lord.2 In today’s church, the words “Savior and Lord” roll off the tongue often without much thought. To us, they function as a hendiadys (to borrow a term from Greek grammar) – that is, “the use of two words . . . to express a single complex idea.”3 You might be surprised to learn that Paul uses these two words together only here in his thirteen epistles.4 The notion of Savior is downplayed in most of Paul’s letters to churches, but is especially important in his letters to individuals (especially Timothy and Titus). In 1 Timothy 4:10, Paul tells Timothy that “we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all men, especially those who believe.” Similarly, to Titus (2:13), Paul refers to Jesus as our “great God and Savior.” The emphasis in the Pastoral Epistles is on Christ’s godly status, a status that confers through Him salvation to all who believe.5 Jesus as Lord is a notion much more at home in Philippians and is seen as the exercise of authority or control over everything (see especially 2:5-11). In this passage, Paul not only embraces Jesus as universal deliverer (e.g., Savior) and sovereign ruler (e.g., Lord), he recognized that he was able to “take hold of [Christ] because I had been taken hold [by Him].”6 This language holds in perfect tension the great cry of the Protestant Reformation – salvation by grace through faith. Salvation is indeed by grace (because Christ “takes hold” of us) through faith (our “taking hold” of him). To gain citizenship in a new commonwealth, we must attach ourselves to Jesus by faith, claiming Him as the sole provider of deliverance (see 1:19) and obeying Him as the master of our lives (see 2:12).
Requirement number two to become a naturalized citizen of the U.S. is a knowledge and understanding of history and government. In the heavenly naturalization process, a knowledge and understanding of Christ himself is required. Paul says this in verse 10: “that I may know him (Christ).” As J. I. Packer has reminded us, there is a vast difference between knowing and knowing about.7 Knowing about something or someone is simply to know facts: your wife’s birthday; your child’s favorite color; the make and model of your boss’s car. The accumulation of the right facts does not cause one to really know someone.
This came home to me several years ago when our son was about two years old and was attending preschool two mornings a week. I frequently had the assignment to take him to school on these days. During the first two or three weeks of school, I would have the hardest time getting him to actually enter his room at school. I tried everything to get him to go in. But he would remain fixed to my leg. Then one day (in a rare stroke of parental brilliance), I had an idea: maybe he does not like walking into a roomful of people. So, the next morning we arrived at his school much earlier than normal – before any other child had arrived. He went right in and hardly seemed to care when I said goodbye. As it turned out, he was intimidated by the gathered group. I had seen this unusual shyness once or twice, but I am sure glad the Spirit led me to the solution.
I would never have been able to figure out our son’s “situational shyness” if I knew only his birth date or what his favorite toy was or whether he liked mustard or mayonnaise on his sandwich. I needed to know our son and what makes him tick, not just factual information about him. Of course, I speak of a relational knowledge that comes with spending time with a person and with spending emotional energy getting to know the essence of a person. What is true for our interpersonal relationships is also true for our heavenly relationship. It is that kind of relational knowledge with Jesus that Paul speaks of when he speaks of knowing “the power of his resurrection” and “the fellowship of his sufferings” (3:10).
The third requirement for Christian citizenship is not good moral character, but good cruciform character. We see this in verse 10 again – “becoming like him in his death.” What does Paul mean by this statement? A partial answer may be found in verses 18-19. Here, Paul bemoans the fact that many people live as enemies of the cross. To be an enemy of the cross means that one’s mind is on “earthly things” causing them to “glory in their shame.” The result of such a situation is eventual destruction. The opposite of being an enemy of the cross is to be its friend. Being a friend of the cross means that one’s mind is not set on earthly things, but on heavenly things – seeking to please the one who will one day have all things subjected to him. What I speak of is a cruciform spirituality – seeking to put to death everything related to self so that Christ might be exalted in our life (see Galatians 2:20; Romans 12:1-2). Paul’s own testimony confirms this type of cruciform character – “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ” (3:7).
The fourth and final requirement related to Christian citizenship is a favorable disposition to our eternal home – heaven – not simply our earthly home. This favorable disposition takes on three characteristics. First, Paul states that our commonwealth is in heaven and from it we await a Savior. A favorable disposition to heaven involves the patient anticipation of the day when our Lord Jesus will come and “change our lowly body to be like his glorious body” (3:21). Second, this waiting is not simply a test of endurance, but of confident expectation of Jesus’ return and of our eventual resurrection from the dead (3:11).
Finally, as we wait and hope, we are to “stand firm” in the Lord (4:1). Standing firm in the Lord means we do not rely on self or others to meet needs or provide encouragement. Rather standing firm in the Lord is a military term that implies that we lock arms with him (like soldiers used to do) and lean on him for everything – including the hope and expectation that we shall be reunited with him one day. Perhaps it is this notion of “standing firm” that permitted Paul to speak so confidentially that “my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus” (4:19).
The basic principles of Christian citizenship parallel those requirements for citizenship in the United States. There is to be an attachment, but to Jesus as Savior and Lord, not to the U.S. Constitution. One should possess a knowledge and understanding of Jesus Christ himself, not simply the facts and figures about him like a student of U.S. history might know about government. Third, all Christians (not just the super-Christians) should strive for good cruciform character, not simply good moral character as is required for U.S. citizenship. And finally, a Christian citizen must be favorably disposed to an eternal home, from which we wait and hope for a Savior and upon whom we stand firm.
Gregg S. Morrison is adjunct professor of Greek and New Testament at Samford University’s Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Alabama.
1. http://uscis.gov/graphics/services/natz/index.htm, accessed on 01 July 2005.
2. The language of 3:20 is: “a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” All quotes are from the RSV, unless otherwise noted.
3. Herbert W. Smyth, Greek Grammar (rev. by Gordon M. Messing; Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1920), 678.
4. The phrase “Savior and Lord” is more common in the Petrine literature (2 Peter 1:11; 2:20; 3:2, 18). In Luke 2:11, the shepherds are told that “today a Savior is born, who is Christ the Lord.” Jude (v. 25) calls God Savior and Jesus “the Lord.”
5. On this point, see Frank J. Matera, New Testament Christology (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1999), 254.
7. James I. Packer, Knowing God (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1973), 20-28, especially 21-22.