COLONIES OF HEAVEN
Dr. W. A. Criswell
5-3-92 10:50 a. m.
This is the senior pastor, W. A. Criswell, bringing the message entitled Colonies of Heaven. It is a textual sermon, and the subject refers to the congregations of the Lord here in earth and, of course, our congregation, a colony of heaven. The text is in Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi, Philippians 3:20,
For our politeuma is in heaven, from whence we eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to [His] glorious body, according to the working by which He is able even to subdue all things to Himself.
“For our politeuma is in heaven.” The Greek word for a “citizen” is politeia. Our word “politics” comes from it. The Greek word for “to be a citizen” is politeuō, “to be a member of a commonwealth.” And then, this word, politeuma, is the word for the commonwealth, the state, the nation to which we belong. And he says, “Our politeuma, our home, our country, our native land, our nation, our citizenship is in heaven” [Philippians 3:20]. And that overly and emphatically implies that we down here are colonies of that politeuma, that citizenship, that home in heaven. And that is the way some of the translations write this verse, “For our citizenship in heaven [Philippians 3:20], and they translate it, “For our home here, in our churches, we are Colonies of Heaven” [Philippians 3:20].
And of course, the figure that lies back of this writing the letter to Philippi; Philippi, the city, was a colony of the Roman Empire. It was a gift to the Roman soldiers who had retired. They had their own government. There were free from taxes. And they lived a life just in honor of the government who had given them so beautiful a place and home in which to live, a colony of Rome. Then he says, “We are colonies of heaven” [Philippians 3:20].
The remarkable beauty and glory of that is easily seen in a contrast to the politeuma, the country, the nation, in which their lives were cast, the Roman Empire. I suppose it would be almost indescribable to try to recount the brutality of the Roman Empire. Idolatry was universal, and it had in it a deleterious and tragic effect upon the people. The gods were more violent and immoral than the people themselves. There was the god Bacchus and the Bacchanalia. There was the god Saturn and the Saturnalia, there was the god Libra and the Libranalia. And the excesses in those worshipful moments were indescribable. And that idolatry was universal.
The only exception was a little tiny imperial state called Judea, with its city of Jerusalem. And when Caligula, Gaius Caligula, was emperor, from 37 to 41 AD, at which time he was assassinated, Caligula sent an army, the tenth legion, six thousand men and the adjuncts that accompanied it, he sent over ten thousand men under the general Petronius to Judea to erect his statue in the temple at Jerusalem where he was to be worshiped.
The end of that story, of course, is that when Petronius came there with his ten thousand legionnaires, the Jews, by the uncounted multitudes and thousands, laid down in front of his army and lifted their throats that they would die rather than have that statue of Caligula placed in their holy temple to be worshiped by the people.
Well, Petronius, if I can continue with the story, Petronius, seeing those uncounted thousands of Jews there laying down their lives rather than allow such a travesty in the temple, he sent word to Caligula, saying, “I just cannot find it in my heart to slay that vast number of people who object to that atrocity, that violation of the temple.” And Caligula wrote him back saying for Petronius to commit suicide, and he would have another general who would erect his statue.
And in one of those providences of life, before Caligula’s letter arrived to command the assassination of Petronius, another letter came on a faster ship describing the assassination of Caligula. So Petronius did not take his own life. And looking at that vast throng willing to die before the temple could be desecrated he never carried out the order. But idolatry was universal in those days of the Roman Empire.
Again, slavery was universal in the days of the Roman Empire. I have read in history these multitudinous figures. There were a hundred million people who lived in the Roman Empire. And of that hundred million people some historians will say that forty million of them were slaves. Some will say sixty million of them were slaves. And time and again have I read, had you walked down the street of a great city in the Roman Empire, three men out of five that you would have met were chattel property, they were slaves. And oh, dear, I haven’t time to recount how they were treated like animals. Slavery was universal.
And in the amazement of my reading, religion was immoral. That’s the hardest thing for me to realize. That word oxymoron, oxymoron, you use it once in a while, smart boy. Oxymoron, oxymoron refers to some things that are confrontational, opposites, like a thunderous silence, that’s an oxymoron, or a bittersweet.”
Here’s another one, religious immorality. To us today, religion implies, its overtones as well as its actual fact, a holy worship of a holy God, righteousness, morality. But in that day, they worshiped god in immoral postures. Had you been a worshiper, for example, in that day, and had gone up to the temple in Corinth to bow down and to worship the god, the idol there, you would have done it by lying down and having sexual intercourse with a prostitute. Can you believe that? That was religion in the days of the Roman Empire.
Again, the exposing of children, I cannot think of such a thing. In my Greek classes I read letters in Greek where fathers had written to his wife, the mother of his children. He was away when his child was born, and the father, in the Roman Empire, had the right and the privilege to what you would call, what they called, exposing the child. If he did not want it they would take the child out to some place and set it down for a wild animal to eat it up, or a dog to devour it, or more terrible, for someone to come by and pick it up the little thing and break its bones and disfigure its face and set it in a public place to beg. That was the Roman Empire, the exposing of children.
I stood, as many of you have, in the Coliseum in Rome. That’s the largest and most impressive relic of the ancient world. It was built by the emperors Vespasian and Titus and was dedicated in AD 80. They, though they say today that they are exaggerating, back there, they said that it would hold eighty thousand people seated and twenty thousand standing, one hundred thousand people. And the floor of the arena, of that great Coliseum, was filled with sand in order that the blood and the gore could be easily scraped away.
I stood there in the Coliseum and looked at that vast ruin and thought of the brutality of the ancient empire. And right in the middle of the Coliseum someone had erected a vast cross made out of heavy timbers. It was the Romans who invented the cross. Any doctor’s book will tell you that that is the most terrible and tragic of all of the means of suffering and execution ever invented by man.
When Jesus came to Calvary, they hanged Him on a tree,
They drove great nails through His hands and feet, and made a Calvary; They crowned Him with a crown of thorns, red were His wounds and deep,
For those were crude and cruel days, and human flesh was cheap.
[“When Jesus Came to Birmingham,” G. A. Studdert-Kennedy]
That was the Roman Empire when Paul wrote this text, “We are,” he says, “colonies of heaven” [Philippians 3:20]. And around the civilized world these little groups of God’s people began to grow and to multiply. They started in Judea, then in Syria, then through the coast of Asia Minor, then across to Macedonia and to Achaia and to Corinth and to Rome, these little colonies of heaven [Philippians 3:20].
They were so wonderfully different. They were filled with love and grace. And they worshiped a God who was, of all things, precious and dear. In His life, dear Lord God, worshiped in these little colonies of heaven. In His life He went about doing good, blessing and healing and helping and encouraging [Acts 10:38]. And in His death He was a Savior, “This is My blood of the new covenant, shed for the remission of sins” [Matthew 26:28]. And in His resurrection He was a living presence, “Where two or three are gathered together. . .there am I in the midst” [Matthew 18:20]. And if I had my eyes that God will give me in resurrection glory, I could see Him here. He is here.
And in those little colonies of heaven, Jesus met with His saints and with His people. How precious were those little communions, those little congregations, those little gathering together of the saints of Jesus. They were cleansed from sin [1 John 1:7, 9].
He has announced he is going to preach thirty-two sermons on 1 John. I will love the thought. That little book, the little epistle of 1 John begins,
The blood of Jesus Christ…cleanseth us from all sin.
And if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.
But he that confesses his sins, God will forgive him and cleanse him from all unrighteousness.
[1 John 1:7-9]
And the little group of saints, the colonies of heaven [Philippians 3:20], they were washed clean in the blood of the Lamb [1 John 1:7; Revelation 1:5]. And that love for Jesus in those little colonies of heaven extended to all those around them. Children, so looked upon as whether they were to be exposed or allowed to live, to these little colonies of heaven [Philippians 3:20], children were a gift of God. They were called “the heritage of the Lord” [Psalm 127:3], and they were instructed to “bring them up in the love and nurture of Christ” [Ephesians 6:4].
And their attitude toward the slave was unbelievable. That cross was invented for the nailing and the suffering and execution of slaves. These little colonies of heaven, Paul wrote to one of them, and in church in that little colony in Colosse was a well to do wealthy man called Philemon. He had a slave named Onesimus. And Onesimus had robbed from his master and fled away!
Paul happened to meet him and won him to Jesus [Philemon 10]. And Paul put a letter in his hand and sent him back to Philemon [Philemon 12]. And in that letter, Paul says, “I send him back to you—how?—as a brother, beloved” [Philemon 16]. Think of that, in the culture of the Roman Empire, “a brother beloved,” this slave who was supposed to be crucified for robbery and escape. He is my brother, beloved [Philemon 16]. “Receive him, says Paul, as you would me. And if he has taken anything from you, I will repay it” [Philemon 17-19]. Can you believe such a reversal? These colonies of heaven [Philippians 3:20], a slave is a brother, beloved [Philemon 16].
And in those little colonies of heaven, how they were taught to love one another and to prefer one another. When there was a discussion and an argument about who would be the greatest [Luke 22:24], and who would be seated in the most affluent place [Mark 10:35-37], Jesus ungirded Himself, He took off His garments, and He clothed Himself with a towel and washed their feet [John 13:4-5]. And our Lord said, “If I, your Master, have washed your feet; you ought to wash one another’s feet. . .for I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done for you” [John 13:14-15], humble, preferring one another, washing each other’s feet, bowing down, washing his feet, bowing down washing his feet.
These colonies of heaven, there the most ecstasies of communion and love and grace. How beautiful. And their solicitude and prayers for the whole world. “God was in Christ, reconciling the world, the whole world unto Himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and has given to us that glorious ministry of reconciliation…” [2 Corinthians 5:19]. O God, what a preciousness these little colonies of heaven—so, the impact they made upon the world, and upon the Roman Empire, and upon civilization, and upon history.
I have never seen in my life a more impressive picture, painting, than that of that great Coliseum with its tier upon tier upon tier of thousands and thousands of people. And there, in the center of the arena, on that sand floor, a little colony of heaven, a little church, and they’re kneeling, children and parents and families, they are kneeling around an aged pastor who is lifting his hands to heaven in prayer. And on that side, and on that side of that Coliseum the iron gates are being raised, and out of those darkened tunnels are coming hungry and starved and ferocious lions to devour, before those thousands and thousands of Romans, the little congregation of the Lord.
I say, it is no wonder that within the passing years that Coliseum became a vintage, a trophy, an empty ruin. They won the civilized world. I think of that quotation of a philosopher who sat there in one of those tiers and looked upon that scene, and he said, “What is needed is a religion that could make it impossible to look upon such a scene of bloodshed, and the future would belong to the religion that would create such a sympathy, just an understanding.” And that is the church. That’s our church, a little colony of heaven [Philippians 3:20].
I have to close. A colony of heaven, God’s church, our church loving Him. “I’m So Happy in Him,”
My soul with delight
He fills day and night
I am happy in Him.
[“I Am Happy in Him,” by Edwin O. Excell, 1902]
Our little church, our little colony of heaven, loving Jesus; our little colony of heaven, loving one another, loving the dear church:
I love Thy kingdom, Lord,
The house of Thine abode,
The church our blessed Redeemer saved
With His own precious blood.
I love Thy church, O God.
Her walls before Thee stand,
Dear is the apple of Thine eye,
And graven on Thy hand.
For her my tears shall fall
For her my prayers ascend,
To her my toil and cares be given
Till toil and cares shall end.
[“I Love Thy Kingdom, Lord,” by Timothy Dwight]
I love God’s church, this colony of heaven [Philippians 3:20], and in the confession of the love of our Lord, our love for the whole vast world, beginning here in our city of Dallas.
I was reminded this week of something that happened in my life over forty-five years ago. I hadn’t thought of it for years and years. I never go to the church in the morning. My study is at the parsonage. And I’m there, with my open Bible, praying, studying, preparing every morning. But this morning forty-five years ago, for some reason that I have forgotten, I came down here to the church. And as I walked on old Patterson Street there, I saw a crowd at our front door there at Ervay and Patterson, right there.
And I hastily walked to the crowd and wormed my way through it, and there, on the front steps of our church, lay a man, evidently a working man, poor man, loose shirt, open collar, overalls, lying there with his arms and his hands stretched out toward our front door. I knelt down there by his side and looked into his face, and when I did he breathed his last and died there on our front doorstep with his hand reaching out toward our church.
The crowd disbursed and quickly forgot it. Not I. “Lord, why did You send me down to the church that morning? And why, Lord, that poor man, lying there that moment on our church doorstep, and his hands and arms reaching out toward our front door? Lord, why?” And I read it, God’s word to me, to remember God’s poor and God’s homeless and God’s hungry in the city of Dallas. And I immediately organized the Good Shepherd Department in our church. And through the years and the years we have increasingly ministered to the poor and the homeless and the ethnic in our city of Dallas. We have thirty-one of those ministering chapels. And the last one, the most precious of all, our Dallas Life Foundation. That’s God, moving in the midst of this sweet colony of heaven [Philippians 3:20].
I’m so glad to be a part of the family of God. I’m so happy to be numbered among those that call upon the name of the Lord.
– “to be a citizen”
– “a citizen”
C. Politeuma –
sometimes translated “citizenship”, sometimes “commonwealth”, or paraphrased “a
was a Roman colony
II. The Roman world
gods more violent than the people themselves
Only exception was Judea
Out of population of 100 million, at least 40 million were slaves
for human life
The exposure of children
The crippling of children to be used for beggars
Brutalized sensibilities of the people
symbols that speak of the blood thirst of those ancient people
i. Poem, “When Jesus
Came to Our Town”
III. The Christian colony, community,
great Teacher and Master they worshiped as Lord and God
His life was an unspeakable blessing(Acts 10:38)
In His death was an atonement for sins(Matthew
In His resurrection we have a living presence (Matthew
gospel they preached(Philippians 1:21, 2 Timothy
from sin (1 John 1:7, 9)
reverence they had for human life
Childrena heritage from the Lord, and to be reared in love and nurture of the
Lord(Psalm 127:3, Ephesians 6:4)
The slave a brother beloved(Philemon 12-16)
Christian love and fellowship – the koinonia(John
13:14, 34-35, Ephesians 4:32)
solicitude for the world(2 Corinthians 5:19-21)
of Christians being fed to lions in coliseum
IV. Our colonies of heaven today
Loving our Lord – joy in our Savior
O. Excell’s, “My Soul is so Happy in Jesus”
our church and one another
Timothy Dwight’s, “I Love Thy Kingdom, Lord”
Loving the lost world
Here in Dallas
Man who died on our front steps