From the Greek New Testament words: city (polis); citizen (polites); citizenship (politeusthe); and ‘behaviour worthy of a citizen’ (politeuma) derive many English terms for social order: politics and policy; even polite and polished; and, of course, police!
- The city (polis) – a corporate identity
In Bible times a village was an unwalled conglomeration of dwelling places, and a walled village or town, however small, was known as a city. And because the Greek word polis came from the root polus (many), when it was reported that ‘all the city came out to meet Jesus’ it naturally referred to the throng, a crowd and not the walled structure (Matthew 8:34; compare Matthew 21:10; Mark 1:33; Acts 13:44).
God has founded a heavenly city ‘the new Jerusalem’ which John saw ‘coming down out of heaven from God’ (Revelation 21:2). John was then told that ‘the glory of God gives it light’, and ‘by its light will the nations walk’ (Revelation 21:23-24), reminding us of what Jesus had taught in his Seminar on the Mount about the corporate life of his people when they interact harmoniously and purposefully together as a true community of heaven: just as ‘people light a lamp and put it … on a stand’ and not ‘under a basket’, so he wants his church to be ‘a city set on a hill [that] cannot be hidden’ as ‘the light of the world’ (see Matthew 5:14-16). So the challenging questions we must face are these:
How are we working at our life together as Jesus’ people in our locality? And How well are we positioned to enlighten society where we live and work?
- A citizen (polites) – a resident individual
A citizen is a member of a city or district or country (Luke 15:15). Interestingly, Paul was proud to be a citizen of his native Tarsus (Acts 21:39), and equally proud of being a spiritual citizen of the heavenly Jerusalem (see Ephesians 2:19-21; Philippians 3:20).
- Citizenship (politeia) – a legal status
This relation of a person to a provincial city of the empire conferred on him privileges as a Roman citizen. It shielded him from degrading punishments such as flogging; it gave him the right to appeal for his case to be heard by the emperor in Rome; and therefore ensured a fair trial. Hence Paul’s ‘I appeal to Caesar’ in Acts 25:9-12, based on his citizenship in Tarsus (Acts 22:25-29).
The word occurs in Ephesians 2:12, consistently translated into English as ‘the commonwealth of Israel’, used in its original sense in Old English as ‘the common weal’ (the communal wellbeing). He shared the common history and future hope of God’s chosen people; he was not a refugee without passport , whose name was missing from the electoral roll. On obtaining British nationality, the Frenchman said, ‘Yesterday Waterloo was a crushing defeat; today it is a glorious victory!’
- Good civil practice (politeuma) – a responsible lifestyle
In Philippians 1:27 (margin) Paul admonished his readers: ‘Only behave as citizens worthy of the gospel of Christ’. They must consider Christ as their role model of behaviour, not Caesar. (See also Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-17.)