But when they stretched him out with thongs, Paul said to the centurion who was standing by, “Is it lawful for you to scourge a man who is a Roman and uncondemned?”
–Acts 22:25 (NASB)
When Paul is about to be flogged by the Roman centurion in Acts 22:25, he simply asks if it is lawful to treat an un-condemned citizen of Rome in such a manner. At first glance, I always wonder why Paul claims his Roman citizenship rather than his heavenly citizenship. Why doesn’t he say, “Is is lawful (or wise) for you to scourge an innocent apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ?” That question seems to carry a bit more eternal weight than what Paul actually says.
The problem with my thinking comes from the false presupposition that earthly citizenship and heavenly citizenship are in competition with each other . . . that ultimately the Christian has to decide which one he wants. Will he be a citizen of Rome or a citizen of heaven? Many countries today will allow a foreigner born within its borders to have dual citizenship (that of the country of his birth and that of his parents’ nationality) until he turns 18, at which point he must decide. Will he be a citizen of his parents’ country or of his birth country? The two are in competition with each other, and he must decide which one has more value to him.
However, we ought not think of our earthly and heavenly citizenship in the same way. Philippians 3:20 makes clear that the Christian has citizenship in heaven, but that does not negate his earthly citizenship and the rights and privileges that may come along with it. On the contrary, being a citizen of heaven enhances earthly citizenship in the same way that being a citizen of the United States enhances being a resident (citizen of a State) of Colorado. Being a resident carries certain rights and privileges; but residency is enhanced, or maybe I should say the experience of residency is enhanced, through the connection (citizenship) to the superior institution.
This is the way we ought to think of our earthly and heavenly citizenship. We have certain rights and privileges that are afforded us by our earthly citizenship; but our experience of those rights and privileges is enhanced when we recognize, through our heavenly citizenship, that all of the rights and privileges afforded us by the state are ultimately bestowed on us from God. The state is merely the conduit or instrument through which God grants those rights, whether the state acknowledges this fact or not. And just as a Colorado resident could appeal to his rights in the Colorado constitution without negating the superiority of the US constitution, so the Christian can appeal to his rights as an earthly citizen without negating the superiority of heaven over the state.
So, there is nothing odd about Paul’s appeal to his Roman citizenship because God is the one who has determined that it is unlawful for an un-condemned citizen of Rome to be scourged. In this sense, Paul’s appeal to his Roman citizenship is ultimately an appeal to God. The Christian’s two citizenships are designed to compliment one another, not to be in competition with one another.