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Citizen Paul (1)

W Stevely, Ayr

"Citizenship" is a popular topic. Schools are encouraged to promote good citizenship. Immigrants wishing to become citizens are expected to learn what that means in our culture, and to adopt our norms as they assimilate. When asked about our citizenship as Christians the answer sometimes given is that we are "citizens of heaven", using Philippians 3.20 for our authority. However, according to the New Testament the Apostle Paul could lay claim to having four citizenships.

First, in Acts 21.39 he notes that he is a citizen of Tarsus, "no mean city".

Second, on more than one occasion he states that he has Roman citizenship. In Acts 22.25 that claim saved him from being scourged.

Third, in Ephesians 2.12 he notes that Gentiles were aliens from the "commonwealth" of Israel. He, as a Jew, was a member of that commonwealth. The word he uses for "commonwealth" is related to that used for citizenship. The apostle is "of the stock of Israel" (Phil 3.5) and so has citizenship in the nation. He was not based in Jerusalem, but wherever he was he could lay claim to his Jewish roots.

Fourth and last, but by no means least, he enjoyed citizenship of heaven.

Having multiple citizenships is possible today though some countries demand that one chooses whether to retain its passport or to relinquish it for another which one has gained the right to hold. While there was a period in Roman history when it would not have been allowed for him to retain the rights of citizenship for both Tarsus and Rome, it was not an issue by the time of the Acts.

It might have been thought that, as a Christian he would have renounced all claims to citizenship save that of heaven. But not so. While, like other apparent advantages, he was happy to count them "loss for Christ" (Phil 3.7), nonetheless they were used by him. These citizenships were helpful to him as he pressed forward in the spread of the gospel.

There is no doubt at all that the one that mattered most was his "citizenship in heaven" to which he refers in Philippians 3.20. However it is worth having a look at the others also.

But before doing so, what does "citizenship" mean? Vine notes that a citizen is "a member of a city or state, or the inhabitant of a country or district". There are rights and responsibilities that attach to that status. In this regard the often-used semi-transliteration that our "politics" are in heaven is misleading. It brings to mind a set of ideas that may not be particularly helpful. It is usually set in opposition to having our "politics" here. Paul had no intention of drawing any such distinction. He rather wished us to appreciate that if citizenship, say of Rome, brought privileges then heaven more so. If earthly citizenship brought responsibilities then heavenly citizenship brought more.

What then of the four that Paul claimed?


When challenged on his rescue from the Temple mob by the Roman soldiers Paul speaks of the place. It is not undistinguished or obscure. Quite the contrary - it was "no mean" city (Acts 21.39). It was made the capital of the province of Cilicia by Pompey, it was a centre of scholarship and learning, and it enjoyed a privileged position under both Anthony and Augustus. The chief captain had been surprised that Paul spoke Greek. Initially he had thought him to be an Egyptian rebel. He would not have allowed such a person to address the crowd below and they, some of whom were nearby and listening, would not have given ear to a non-Jew. The riot had begun because of suspicion that Gentiles had entered the Temple precinct. The Romans would have no wish to stir things up further. As Paul explained his own Jewish origin and also his citizenship of Tarsus he was allowed to speak and immediately referred to the city, to his Jewish nationality, and to his having studied in Jerusalem at the feet of Gamaliel. At that there was "a great silence". While the crowd eventually howled him down it was an opportunity for the apostle to make his first defence against the charge against him and, more importantly, it also enabled him to tell of his encounter with Christ on the Damascus road. Here, therefore, two of his citizenships have come into play. He is a Jew and he is a citizen of Tarsus.

There is more to say on Paul as a Jew, but if we stay with Tarsus for a moment it seems clear that Paul not only used his status to gain a hearing but also had some sense of pride in his native, "no mean" city. That he was a citizen of Tarsus, while it brought no legal benefits outside the city, had given him a foundation of learning that was used to good effect in his preaching and teaching. It also gave him some credibility as he encountered new groups of his fellow Jews. Tarsus was also a well-known centre for tent making and a tentmaker from the city would not have found it difficult to get employment and sales from his craft. These things from Tarsus came Paul's way before he was saved and were then used thereafter. His learning gave him the tools he needed to be able to debate with those he met as he went from synagogue to synagogue seeking to convince them from the Scriptures that Jesus is the Christ. This is not to underestimate the work of the Holy Spirit in enabling him as a preacher and teacher, but the knowledge gained in earlier years was also part of God's preparation. God had set him apart from his mother's womb (Gal 1.15).

His tentmaking skills enabled him to be an itinerant preacher when there was little support available by way of gifts from fellow Christians. No doubt the Lord's overseeing of his early circumstances is evident here too.

Making the most of what God has brought into our experience is wise where it can aid in spreading the Word and maintaining a good testimony before men. Paul did not discard his link as a citizen of that "no mean city", and the benefits he had gained as one of its citizens he used for the Lord.


As noted above, Paul was not only a citizen of Tarsus but also belonged to the "commonwealth of Israel". It hardly needs saying that he used this frequently to gain a hearing amongst his own people. Again and again we read of him entering a synagogue and taking the initiative to declare that Jesus is the Christ. In making his defence, whether before a hostile mob in Jerusalem, to the leaders of the people when they came to Cæsarea, or before Agrippa he uses his "citizenship" as a Jew to open a door for the gospel. This use of his nationhood was not a cynical move designed simply to sway his audience in favour of listening to him. It was the case that his "heart's desire and prayer to God for Israel" was "that they might be saved" (Rom 10.1). He could wish himself "accursed from Christ for my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh" (Rom 9.3). This latter especially is a strong statement of his love and concern for his fellow Jews. They had been blessed as God had spoken to their fathers yet had "zeal without knowledge" and desperately needed to be saved.

Good for us to have a desire to see the gospel preached to the four corners of the globe and to give support to that cause, but perhaps we do not always have the same urgent care for those nearest to us, that they should be saved. We deplore the rejection of the Word of God and the casual immorality of our own day but should not and must not forget our responsibility to those whose citizenship we share. Paul was never disparaging or dismissive of his kinsmen.

To be continued.


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