N. T. Wright and “I’m just a passin’ through”

(I warned you that the present implications of a future physical resurrection might become a theme on this blog.)

N. T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope has been a stimulating read for me through the first 100 pages. I’m still waiting for him to build a bridge from point A (the physical is inherently good both because of God’s creation and God’s coming recreation) to point B (let’s all adopt some liberal political causes). Truly, I would like help understanding whether or not the goodness of God’s good creation and the greater goodness of God’s recreation have implications for Christian engagement in culture.

However, on page 100 he managed to strike a serious blow against one of my nearly visceral objections to his overall drift. See if you follow:

Phillipi was a Roman colony. Augustus had settled his veterans there after the battles of Philippi (42 B.C.) and Actium (31 B.C.). Not all residents of Philippi were Roman citizens, but all knew what citizenship meant. The point of creating colonies was twofold. First, it was aimed at extending Roman influence around the Mediterranean world, creating cells and networks of people loyal to Caesar in the wider culture. Second, it was one way of avoiding the problems of overcrowding in the capital itself….

So when Paul says, “We are citizens of heaven,” he doesn’t at all mean that when we’re done with this life we’ll be going off to live in heaven. What he means is that the savior, the Lord, Jesus the King—all of those were of course imperial titles—will come from heaven to earth, to change the present situation and state of his people.

I’m not ready to buy this yet, however, because I still wonder what to do with 1 Peter 1:1; 2:11; and Hebrews 11:13:

  • “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who are elect exiles of the dispersion (ἐκλεκτοῖς παρεπιδήμοις διασπορᾶς) in Pontus, Galatia…”
  • “I urge you as sojourners (παροίκους) and exiles (παρεπιδήμους) to abstain from the passions of the flesh.”
  • “These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers (ξένοι) and exiles (παρεπίδημοί) on the earth.”

I’m willing to listen. I want to understand and then obey God’s word.

Author: Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

2 thoughts on “N. T. Wright and “I’m just a passin’ through””

  1. I’m not sure I follow. Your question is: “whether or not the goodness of God’s good creation and the greater goodness of God’s recreation have implications for Christian engagement in culture”?

    I don’t see why Wright’s quote is inconsistent with the sojourner passages. Right now we are citizens of heaven sojourning in a hostile world. One day the the King will return to earth to change the present situation and the state of his people.

    I also don’t see how this quote overcomes your visceral objections. Wright is just saying again that heaven will be on the recreated earth, which is good. Christians today are citizens of that coming kingdom, and they are cells of people loyal to Christ in the wider culture, thus extending his influence.

    Both Alva McClain and Dwight Pentecost taught years before Wright that God’s people, Jew and Gentile, will spend eternity on the recreated earth. And they’re the kind of dispensationalists that get accused of refusing to polish sinking brass!

    What Wright is arguing is not new, even if it hasn’t even now penetrated to the popular level.

    In other words, Wright still needs to connect a few dots to make his point that a new earth necessitates current cultural involvement. (He may do this; I’ve not read the book and am only commenting on the specific quote in the post.)

  2. Though I agree with Wright’s basic point that we look forward to living with Christ on a renewed earth for eternity, I think his emphasis on Philippi’s colonial status is incorrect on the exegetical level.

    Several different translations have been suggested for πολίτευμα. The most common one among the translations is “citizenship,” but O’Brien notes “this is one of the least-attested meanings in NT times” (Philippians, 460). Another suggestion that is interpretively attractive is “colony” in the sense that we are “a colony of heaven on earth” (ibid.). Against this, Paul’s wording indicates the “πολίτευμα is in heaven, not on earth” (Fee, 379, n. 17).

    The best option is “commonwealth” (the choice of the RSV, though changed by both the NRSV and the ESV to “citizenship”) in the sense “of a political entity (‘state’) as a whole with that of the active participation of the individuals who belong to it” (Bockmuehl, 233; see also O’Brien, 460; Fee, 379, n. 17; Silva, 184).

    Thus in this passage, Paul is focused on the “not yet” whereas Wright is interpreting it as if it is focused on the “already.”

    In other words, although the kingdom of Christ has been inaugurated, Christians still await its full arrival to earth. Our commonwealth is currently in heaven. Thus we shouldn’t have our minds set on earthly things. People with their minds set on earthly things idolize their appetites (3:19). Christians on the other hand, are looking forward to Christ’s return from heaven to transform our bodies and subject the world to his rule. Thus their desires are heavenly not earthly. (Though this distinction should not be read as dualism.)

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