Dr. Dan Hayden •
A Greek city-state was known as a polis. The original meaning was close to the idea of “town,” but eventually was used to describe the ruling political center of a district or territory. In fact polis became a rather complex word to encompass the whole idea of government, and was therefore a more extensive word than merely “town” or “city.” We get the word politics from this word—the art or science of governing a group of people.
A politician is a person engaged in running the affairs of the polis; a policy is a reflection of wisdom in governing the polis; and police are those who control and regulate the activities of the polis. As you can see, this Greek word is foundational to many of our English words related to governmental matters. In like fashion the Greek word polis was used by the Greeks as a basis for many other Greek words related to governmental functions. A politarches was a civil-magistrate (Acts 17:6,8); a polites was a citizen of the state (Acts 21:39); politeia was the word used for citizenship (Acts 22:28); and politeuomai was a word to describe how people were to conduct themselves as citizens of the state. Then there was the word we are considering here, politeuma—a word used to describe the state itself or a commonwealth. The NAS, NIV, and NKJV all translate this word with the English word “citizenship.” The King James used an early seventeenth-century concept and preferred the word “conversation”—how a person conducted himself and spoke as a member of the community.
In the context of Philippians 3:20, Paul is talking about how a Christian ought to live. He speaks of those “who set their minds on earthly things” (v. 19—NAS) as contrasted to the believer in Christ whose “citizenship” (politeuma) is in heaven” (v. 20). This is the only place this Greek word is used in the New Testament. Therefore it is a significant statement by Paul that Christians do not find their nature, thoughts, and interests in the world, but rather as a reflection of their “homeland” which is in heaven.
Nouns ending in “-ma” in the Greek language usually reflect the results of an action. In other words, how you act is an indication of where your loyalties are. So if you are all wrapped up in earthly affairs, we might assume that your politeuma is on the earth. On the other hand, if your thoughts and actions reflect a heavenly perspective, then it will be obvious that your politeuma is in heaven. The point is that what you do in your life should be consistent with your citizenship. Paul is saying that our citizenship is in heaven, and therefore how we live should reflect that world view.
So where is your allegiance? For a Christian, living on the earth is like traveling through a foreign country. You respect the government, but your heart is elsewhere and it’s pretty obvious that you are a foreigner. As people observe your lifestyle and see where you invest your energy and resources, they ought to be able to see that you are committed to the Kingdom of Christ. Paul put it this way in another text, “Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth” (Col. 3:2—NAS). ■
For further study, read: Don’t Americanize the Church – A Perspective on Politics