For our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. Philippians 3:20 NASB
Citizenship - When you read this verse, doesn’t anything seem odd to you? It doesn’t matter if you read it in the NIV (“but our citizenship is in heaven.”) Both English translations say pretty much the same thing. What they say implies something that might not fit the orientation of a Hebrew thinker like Paul. The Greek word (politeuma) doesn’t quite mean what the English translations suggest, (we mentioned it here). We have to dig a bit to see why.
Politeuma is only used one time in the New Testament. It’s part of the polis family of words (our idea of politics). But rather than being about a citizen, politeuma is really about the state itself, the commonwealth or community administration that governs its members. The word politeuo means “citizen,” as we see in Acts 22:28, but the emphasis of politeuma is not on the individual who is a citizen but rather on the governing commonwealth.
Read this verse again. When we read it with the English translation “citizenship,” where does the emphasis lie? Doesn’t this translation imply that each of us is a citizen? Doesn’t the translation focus on our individual rights and calling as God’s children? Doesn’t it suggest that we should be carrying passports issued from heaven? But what would this verse suggest if the word politeuma were translated “commonwealth” or “community”? Suddenly the Greek individualism disappears. Now the verse suggests that we are all one within the commonwealth, that the most important thing is not you and me but rather the relationship we have to the governing administration of heaven. Now Paul sounds like a Hebrew rather than a Greek.
When you read this verse the first time, did this Greek emphasis on the individual citizenship bother you? Did it raise a tiny question in the back of your mind? Did you hear a little voice saying, “Wait a minute! That’s doesn’t sound very Hebraic to me. I wonder what the Greek word really means?” Probably you didn’t think like this. That’s OK. That’s why you read expositions like this one – so someone else will raise questions that often go right by us. But now your awareness has been tweaked. Now you will have to read with a sharper eye, sorting out the Greek philosophical perspective from the deeper layers of Hebrew thought.
If you step back a few verses, you will find that Paul is exhorting readers to walk according to the governing principles of the commonwealth of heaven. In other words, live as God expects. It’s fascinating to notice that there is only one commonwealth of heaven, only one heavenly administration. Everyone who belongs comes under the same legislation. One God. One Torah. One Messiah. One community of the saints.
Topical Index: politeuma, citizenship, commonwealth, polis, Philippians 3:20
telling about the conversion of the Gentiles and they caused great joy to all the brothers. Acts 15:3
Conversion – The word “conversion” is used only once in the New Testament. It is epistrophe. It comes from two Greek words that literally mean “to turn toward or return.” Anyone familiar with Hebrew immediately recognizes the connection with the verb shuv – to return, to turn back. While the verbal form in Greek occurs frequently, there is something about the idea of conversion that is not quite so obvious to us. It is never applied to Jews! That’s right. Conversion and converting is only applied to Gentiles, those who are outside the covenant with Abraham. If you were Jewish, you did not convert. How could you? You already believed in the One True God, YHWH. What a Jew needed was to accept that Yeshua is the promised Messiah, not that he had to convert to Christianity.
Paul did not convert to Christianity. Christianity did not exist when Paul was preaching. None of the disciples “converted” to Christianity. It’s unlikely that they ever used the term. The word “convert” in the NT is never used of a Jew who comes to believe that Yeshua is the Messiah. It is always used of a pagan who converts from false religion to the truth. Jews did not convert. They returned to the God they already knew.
This Greek word does apply to most of us because we are Gentiles. We had to give up our false and idolatrous religions and “convert” to the Way. We left behind our pagan roots and were grafted into the commonwealth of Israel. But most of the men and woman of the New Testament were not converts. They were Jewish believers who accepted Yeshua HaMashiach. There were thousands of them, but they were always considered a sect of Judaism until the Greek influence of the church fathers and the persecution of the Romans drove a wedge between “Christians” and Messianic Jews.
Today it’s very popular to talk about a conversion experience. That’s appropriate for all former pagans, but don’t think it is the common description of the New Testament. The New Testament is about Jews and that means its perspective is Jewish, Hebrew and founded on Torah. The big issue in the New Testament for those who believed that Yeshua is the Messiah was about the inclusion of Gentiles in the congregation of Israel, not about Israel leaving Judaism behind and joining a Gentile Christianity. When you read the New Testament, keep that in mind and see if it doesn’t start to make more sense.
What’s happened to us? Now we think we need to “convert” Jews for Jesus. We don’t understand or appreciate that Israel is still God’s people no matter what the bloodline. Do you suppose it’s time to make some effort toward rejoining the group that first loved us enough to die for us? Instead of praying that the Jews will find Jesus, maybe we ought to be praying that we will find our Jewish heritage. That would certainly make the conservation easier, wouldn’t it?
Topical Index: convert, Israel, commonwealth, epistrophe, Acts 15:3