A citizen is a native-born or naturalized inhabitant of a city or state who is entitled to certain rights and privileges denied others, and who, in turn, assumes the responsibilities attached to such rights by the authorities granting the citizenship. In the Bible the terms “citizen” and “citizenship” occur only in the Christian Greek Scriptures.
In the Hebrew Scriptures, though the terms “citizen” and “citizenship” are not found, nevertheless, the concept of citizen and noncitizen is there in terms such as “native” and “alien resident.” (Lev. 24:22) Under the Mosaic Law arrangement the congregation was in reality the commonwealth into which aliens could, with certain restrictions, be admitted, there to enjoy many benefits common to the natural-born Israelites. Naturalization, it might be said, came when a male alien resident became circumcised, thus granting him the opportunity of fully entering into the greater privileges in Jehovah’s worship, even to the extent of participating in the annual Passover festival.—Ex. 12:43-49; Num. 9:14; see ALIEN RESIDENT; FOREIGNER.
Roman citizenship secured for a person special rights and immunities recognized and honored throughout the empire. For example, it was illegal to torture or scourge a Roman citizen for the purpose of extracting a confession from him, these forms of punishment being considered very servile and fit only for slaves. At Jerusalem, Roman soldiers rescued Paul from a Jewish mob. Paul did not at first identify himself as a Roman citizen, but when he was about to be scourged, he said to an army officer standing by: “Is it lawful for you men to scourge a man that is a Roman and uncondemned?” “Well,” the account continues, “when the army officer heard this, he went to the military commander and made report, saying: ‘What are you intending to do? Why, this man is a Roman.’” When the truth of the matter was learned, immediately “the men that were about to examine him with torture withdrew from him; and the military commander became afraid on ascertaining that he was a Roman and that he had bound him.”—Acts 21:27-39; 22:25-29; see also Acts 16:37-40.
Another advantage and privilege enjoyed under Roman citizenship was the right to appeal the decision of a provincial governor to the emperor of Rome in cases of capital offense. So it was, when arguing his case before Festus, that Paul declared: “I am standing before the judgment seat of Caesar, where I ought to be judged. . . . no man can hand me over to [the Jews] as a favor. I appeal to Caesar!” (Acts 25:10-12) Once the right of appeal to Rome was claimed and requested, it could not be withdrawn. So after reviewing Paul’s case, King Agrippa II said to Festus: “This man could have been released if he had not appealed to Caesar.”—Acts 26:32.
Roman citizenship could be obtained in a number of ways. Sometimes the emperors extended this special favor to whole cities or districts, or to individuals, for services rendered. It was also possible at times to purchase citizenship outright for a sum of money, this being the case with the military commander, Claudius Lysias, who told Paul: “I purchased these rights as a citizen for a large sum of money.” Many Jews possibly were granted Roman citizenship by Julius Caesar for their services rendered to the state during the Egyptian war. This may have been the way the Jewish father of ‘Saul of Tarsus’ (Paul) became a Roman citizen, an honor and distinction he passed on as a hereditary privilege to his son. For this reason Paul countered Claudius Lysias’ response of having purchased citizenship rights, saying, “But I was even born in them.”—Acts 13:7; 22:28; 23:26.
In his letters Paul also refers to spiritual citizenship. He describes uncircumcised Gentiles who became spiritual Israelites as those who were at one time without Christ, alienated from Israel and strangers to the covenants, without hope, without God, but who are “now in union with Christ Jesus.” “Certainly, therefore,” he continues in this vein of thought, “you are no longer strangers and alien residents, but you are fellow citizens of the holy ones.” (Eph. 2:12, 13, 19) It was especially significant when Paul wrote to the Christians at Philippi, one of those cities granted Roman citizenship, where ten years earlier his Roman citizenship had been trampled on: “As for us, our citizenship exists in the heavens.”—Phil. 3:20.