All the words in use connected with this subject are derived from polis, "city."
These words, with the meanings which they have in the Bible, are the nouns, polites, "citizen"; politeia, "citizenship"; politeuma, "commonwealth"; sumpolites, "fellow-citizen"; and the verb, politeuo, "to behave as a citizen." Each will be considered more fully in its proper place.
(1) The word for citizen is sometimes used to indicate little if anything more than the inhabitant of a city or country. "The citizens of that country" (Luke 15:15); "His citizens hated him" (Luke 19:14). Also the quotation from the Septuagint, "They shall not teach every man his fellow-citizen" (Hebrews 8:11; compare Jeremiah 31:34). So also in the Apocrypha (2 Macc 4:50; 5:6; 9:19).
(2) Roman citizenship.--This is of especial interest to the Bible student because of the apostle Paul's relation to it. It was one of his qualifications as the apostle to the Gentiles. Luke shows him in Ac as a Roman citizen, who, though a Jew and Christian receives, for the most part, justice and courtesy from the Roman officials, and more than once successfully claims its privileges. He himself declares that he was a citizen of Tarsus (Acts 21:39). He was not only born in that city but had a citizen's rights in it.
But this citizenship in Tarsus did not of itself confer upon Paul the higher dignity of Roman citizenship. Had it done so, Claudius Lysias would not have ordered him to be scourged, as he did, after having learned that he was a citizen of Tarsus (Acts 21:39; compare Acts 22:25). So, over and above this Tarsian citizenship, was the Roman one, which availed for him not in one city only, but throughout the Roman world and secured for him everywhere certain great immunities and rights. Precisely what all of these were we are not certain, but we know that, by the Valerian and Porcian laws, exemption from shameful punishments, such as scourging with rods or whips, and especially crucifixion, was secured to every Roman citizen; also the right of appeal to the emperor with certain limitations. This sanctity of person had become almost a part of their religion, so that any violation was esteemed a sacrilege. Cicero's oration against Verres indicates the almost fanatical extreme to which this feeling had been carried. Yet Paul had been thrice beaten with rods, and five times received from the Jews forty stripes save one (2 Corinthians 11:24,25). Perhaps it was as at Philippi before he made known his citizenship (Acts 16:22,23), or the Jews had the right to whip those who came before their own tribunals. Roman citizenship included also the right of appeal to the emperor in all cases, after sentence had been passed, and no needless impediment must be interposed against a trial. Furthermore, the citizen had the right to be sent to Rome for trial before the emperor himself, when charged with capital offenses (Acts 16:37; 22:25-29; 25:11).
How then had Paul, a Jew, acquired this valued dignity? He himself tells us. In contrast to the parvenu citizenship of the chief captain, who seems to have thought that Paul also must have purchased it, though apparently too poor, Paul quietly, says, "But I was free born" (King James Versions; "a Roman born" the Revised Version (British and American), Acts 22:28). Thus either Paul's father or some other ancestor had acquired the right and had transmitted it to the son.
3. Metaphorical and Spiritual:
What more natural than that Paul should sometimes use this civic privilege to illustrate spiritual truths? He does so a number of times. Before the Sanhedrin he says, in the words of our English Versions, "I have lived before God in all good conscience" (Acts 23:1). But this translation does not bring out the sense. Paul uses a noticeable word, politeuo, "to live as a citizen." He adds, "to God" (to Theo). That is to say, he had lived conscientiously as God's citizen, as a member of God's commonwealth. The day before, by appealing to his Roman citizenship, he had saved himself from ignominious whipping, and now what more natural than that he should declare that he had been true to his citizenship in a higher state? What was this higher commonwealth in which he has enjoyed the rights and performed the duties of a citizen? What but theocracy of his fathers, the ancient church, of which the Sanhedrin was still the ostensible representative, but which was really continued in the kingdom of Christ without the national restrictions of the older one? Thus Paul does not mean to say simply, "I have lived conscientiously before God," but "I have lived as a citizen to God, of the body of which He is the immediate Sovereign." He had lived theocratically as a faithful member of the Jewish church, from which his enemies claimed he was an apostate. Thus Paul's conception was a kind of blending of two ideas or feelings, one of which came from the old theocracy, and the other from his Roman citizenship.
Later, writing from Rome itself to the Philippians, who were proud of their own citizenship as members of a colonia, a reproduction on a small scale of the parent commonwealth, where he had once successfully maintained his own Roman rights, Paul forcibly brings out the idea that Christians are citizens of a heavenly commonwealth, urging them to live worthy of such honor (Philippians 1:27 margin).
A similar thought is brought out when he says, "For our commonwealth (politeuma) is in heaven" (Philippians 3:20 margin). The state to which we belong is heaven. Though absent in body from the heavenly commonwealth, as was Paul from Rome when he asserted his rights, believers still enjoy its civic privileges and protections; sojourners upon earth, citizens of heaven. The Old Testament conception, as in Isa 60-62, would easily lend itself to this idea, which appears in Hebrews 11:10,16; 12:22-24; 13:14; Galatians 4:26, and possibly in Revelation 21.
See also \ROME\.
G. H. Trever
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