A Christian's Citizenship

In the world of the New Testament, Roman citizenship was a highly prized asset. While some were born with citizenship, others obtained it, "with a large sum" (Acts 22:28). Roman citizenship afforded rights to which non-Romans simply had no access. The magistrates of Philippi thought nothing of ordering Paul and Silas "to be beaten with rods" and giving them "many stripes... openly, uncondemned" (Acts 16:22, 23, 37). However, when they heard that Paul and Silas "were Romans," the text says, "they were afraid" (v. 38). To be Roman was to be both free and protected.

Though Paul and Silas were citizens, this status was not common amongst Jewish people. Judea was merely one of many nations under the control of Rome. However, they were a nation with a storied history that captivated the attention of many Romans. Josephus, the late first century Jewish historian, might have been at least in part writing propaganda as he recorded the (slightly exaggerated) history of his people on the Imperial dime in order to make the Jews' defeat at the hands of Rome more glorious, but his history was still read, respected, and disseminated throughout the empire. Jews also had a religion which stretched back into antiquity (which the Romans appreciated and allowed even if they did not agree with it) and occupied a region which formed an important buffer state between Rome's other territories and one of her most dreaded opponents, the Parthians. Corinth notwithstanding (cf. Acts 18:12-17), prior to the mid-60’s A.D., in most regions where Jews lived, they not only worshipped freely but also had the ear and support of Roman leaders.

First century Christians waged a war therefore on no less than three fronts. To the Romans, whose amalgamated religion was a tool of unity and a symbol of solidarity, Christians were disloyal participants in a religio novo, a new and therefore illegal religion. To the Jews, Christians were members of the heretical “sect of the Nazarenes,” a misguided, sinful offshoot of Judaism (Acts 24:5). To Jews, Gentiles who became Christians should have been adopting Jewish culture and customs, and Jews who did so were turning their back on their people and their faith by accepting someone Jewish leaders believed to be a false Messiah. To the Greek speaking, non-Roman gentiles of other nations, Christians were people who had evidently severed family and national ties for foolishness (1 Corinthians 1:23). They could not condemn Christians as “robbers of temples [or] blasphemers,” (Acts 19:37), but they did find their behavior “strange” (1 Peter 4:4) and viewed them as social outcasts.

It was in this atmosphere that Peter told Christians, “But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people” (1 Peter 2:9). His words would not have created legal status for Christians as they lived amongst the Romans. They would not have defended their ranks against the cultural or physical attacks of the Jews. They would not have created acceptance and understanding amongst the Greeks.

His words would however have reminded Christians that they were not simply participants in one of the illegal religious mystery cults common throughout the empire. Nor were they social outcasts from their own peoples and nations who had merely sought solace with each other. In spite of their diverse ethnic backgrounds, they were a singular, elect race, having been fashioned into one and chosen by the anointed Son of God. Their connection to the King of kings granted them a priestly service with royal authority. They formed a sanctified nation, set apart from the world and possessed by God.

Peter’s words would not have given Christians legal ammunition against the Romans or produced immediate understanding amongst the Jews or Greeks. Perhaps, they would have given them a way to put their behavior in context for any Romans, Jews, or Greeks who had open hearts and open minds. In any event, they would have strengthened Christians’ resolve and helped them to put out of their “mind that country from which they had come out” and embrace what was and is “a better, that is, a heavenly country” (Hebrews 11:15-16).

As Paul said elsewhere, the citizenship of first century Christians was and is "in heaven” (Philippians 3:20). Where is yours?
-Patrick Swayne  






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