When people translate the New Testament from the original Greek language into modern English, they need to make decisions about how to best communicate the author’s intent. The translator doesn’t only ask “what words did he use?” but also “what did he mean to communicate to his readers?” In Philippians 1:27, most translators have made the decision to use the phrase “manner of life.” That’s a great decision that adds a lot of clarity to our understanding. But behind the phrase “manner of life” is very literally the Greek word for “citizen.” So Paul is literally saying: “let your citizenship be worthy of the gospel.” Why would he say that?
We can do just a little historical digging and find out. Paul was playing off something here that would have made a great deal of sense to those Christians in Philippi. Philippi was a city in Macedonia whose people were mostly Greek, but many years prior, Philippi had become a colony of the Roman Empire. So even though they lived outside of the heart of the Empire, they had been awarded the privilege of Roman citizenship and all the benefits that come with it. They were very proud to be Roman citizens as not every city or colony outside the Empire gained this privilege.
Paul knows that most of the residents of Philippi are Roman citizens and very proud of that fact. But when he tells them to let their citizenship be worthy of the gospel of Christ, he’s not actually talking about their Roman citizenship. Rather, he’s using that as a bridge to lead them to something else. He’s talking about their citizenship in another kingdom. We see this in Chapter 3, verse 20 where he says “our citizenship is in heaven”. He’s reminding them that “Yes, you are citizens of Rome, and that’s a great privilege. But remember that as Christians, you are ultimately citizens of heaven. Your leader is not ultimately Caesar, but Jesus Christ.”
These people had been taught well. They knew that God is doing something remarkable in this world. He is creating what is essentially a new people, a new nation. He is drawing people out of every culture, every people group, every nation, every race, every ethnicity, every generation, and binding them together as citizens of a new nation. When Jesus began his public ministry, he summarized his entire message this way: “The time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the gospel” (Mark 1:15). A new kingdom, a new nation, had been founded and he was now calling people to become citizens of it.
Passages like Revelation 7 show us a glimpse of this kingdom from a future perspective. “I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb…” This picture shows us citizens of this new nation standing before the throne where their ruler sits. God is drawing people from every possible group, every possible demographic, and essentially awarding them citizenship in this new nation. In this way the gospel is all about citizenship!
Even today, people all across the world are coming to faith in Jesus Christ, and as we do that, we join into this amazing new group, this amazing new nation that is bound together by our common faith. We remain citizens of Canada, citizens of America, of China, of India, of Russia, but all the while we’ve gained a greater and higher citizenship. You might wonder—and this is exactly what people were wondering in the days of Jesus—“If this is a new nation, where is its land?” That’s a great question. For now its land is in heaven, its territory is outside of this earth. But we are told that at the end of time, Jesus will return to this earth and establish his rule right here. Heaven will come to earth! This earth will be remade, refreshed, renewed; all other nations will cease and this whole world will be ruled over by him. It will be the dwelling place of the citizens of his nation—only the citizens of his nation.
So how do we become citizens of this new nation? We become citizens of our nations by being born there or by applying to immigrate and being awarded citizenship. But this other kingdom gives citizenship in a different way. We can’t be born into it and can’t earn it or apply for it. We receive it not through birth or application but through faith. We receive it by believing in Jesus Christ as our Savior. And in the moment we believe, we are granted all the rights of citizenship, forever. We become citizens of heaven.