The Heavenly-earthly Citizenship of the City of God

by Bishop Jovan (Puric)

Ladies and gentlemen,

We have been invited to make a presentation before this eminent gathering, in the briefest possible manner, a sort of introduction to the Christian understanding of the city and citizenship in Byzantium, within the framework of the topic we have chosen – “The Heavenly-Earthly Citizenship of the City of God.”

As is well known, the topic of city and citizenship is quite current in the civilization and the time we live in. I think that Christian witnessing can make a valuable contribution to this topic, in underlining the originally Christian and primarily theological aspects of this topic, which often remain outside the bounds of consideration in philosophical, anthropological, sociological and, in general, culturological approaches, or are, even, totally ignored.

From its very beginnings, Christianity has been a faith of the City or, to speak more freely, a city, urban faith. Beginning with Jerusalem, through apostolic preaching, Christianity, the first Church, initially expanded exclusively through the cities of the Roman Empire, all the way to Imperial Rome. This is perfectly understandable historically, for cities were well interconnected by road and waterway networks. As well, Mediterranean cities were the centers of the political, economic and cultural life of the antique world of that time.

Cities as administrative seats also became ecclesiastical centers – the centers of the first episcopal sees of the Apostles and their disciples-successors, the ordained bishops. Thus, conditionally speaking, the „administrative structure“ of the first and the early Church, following the administrative structure of the Roman Empire, was primarily urban. In the Roman Empire, Christianity appeared, before all, as an urban phenomenon and movement.

A large number of the first Christians were full citizens of Rome, like Holy Apostle Paul, who not only did not renounce his Roman citizenship but in fact invoked it, viewing it as a privelege: And as they bound him with thongs, Paul said to the centurion who stood by, “Is it lawful for you to scourge a man who is a Roman, and uncondemned?” When the centurion heard that, he went and told the commander, saying, “Take care what you do, for this man is a Roman.” Then the commander came and said to him, “Tell me, are you a Roman?” He said, “Yes.” The commander answered, “With a large sum I obtained this citizenship.”And Paul said, “But I was born a citizen” (Acts 22:25-28).


Fig. 1 Annunciation, detail, St. Nicholas (Sinjački) Monastery, Bela Palanka, 1618


Thus, from its very beginnings, Christianity has been inseparable from the historical city and its existence, naturally and organically growing and developing in its “tissue” – cultural, sociological and civilizational. That is the historical aspect of the Christian experience of the city, and it is quite important and unavoidable. Nevertheless, while necessary and factual, we think that it is not, in a deeper sense, primary.

There is a second aspect of the Christian experience of the city that is primary and predominant, which Christian theology would term as eschatological, i.e., referring to the metahistorical reality of the Kingdom of God and the eternity of the Living God. Moreover, the City as the City of the Living God (Heb 12:22) represents the very mystery of Christianity as the Church. Holy Apostle Paul directly identifies the Church with the City of the Living God and the Heavenly Jerusalem, and tells Christians: But you have come to Mount Zion and to the City of the Living God, the Heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, to the General Assembly and Church of the firstborn who are registered in Heaven, to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect, to Jesus the Mediator of the New Covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling (Heb 12:22-24).

It is, thus, here that we see the apostolic definition of the Christian City. That City is assembled around the Living God, and Jesus the Mediator of the New Covenant. That City is the general assembly and the Church of the firstborn around the Living God and, quite obviously, it is primarily heavenly, metahistorical, eschatological. It is a living City around the Living God, made up of an innumerable company of angels and the spirits of just men made perfect, i.e., of all the Saints from time immemorial.

It is extremely important that Holy Apostle Paul speaks of that City in the present tense, rather than in the future tense. For it means that, in the blessed experience of the Church, that City already exists, in the present, although not in the historical but in the metahistorical sense of existence. And not only can we, people, recognize it in history – we can become its citizens, already here on earth – of course, by the grace of God. by the gift of God. It is the real, gracefully already historically present metahistorical, eschatological City, not the utopian city of some foggy, unattainable, ideal future that will, in fact, never transpire.

The Church, as the universal Body of God-Man Christ, is that living City, because, according to the God-knowing experience of the Church, Christ is the Land of the Living. That is why we describe the Church as being both Heavenly and earthly, i.e., Heavenly-earthly, because, as the Body of God-Man Christ, it encompasses both Heaven and earth, both the eschaton and history, both time and eternity. In becoming a member of the Church, man also becomes a citizen of that heavenly-earthly City of the historical-eschatological Body of Christ. And the citizenship that results from belonging to that heavenly-earthly City is also heavenly-earthly. Thus, Christians live heavenly-earthly: by Heaven on earth, offering and elevating all that is earthly to Heaven.

Accordingly, as a member of the Church, as a personal limb of the universal Body of Christ, the Christian is concurrently a citizen of Heaven and of earth. His citizenship is not limited to this world only, it is not just historical: rather, it primarily ensues from his membership in the Body of Christ, which is a universal heavenly-earthly City and is, thus, eschatological. In Christian anthropology, precisely because of this dual identity – being created from dust, but in the image and likeness of the Living God (Gen 1:26) – man can never be reduced only to this world and its categories. Neither can man’s citizenship be reduced only to a worldly city, for the Christian is always, at the same time, also a fellow citizen with the Saints (Eph 2:19), i.e., of Heaven, the Kingdom of God, the City of God.

These fundamental anthropological premises also have essential implications for the Christian understanding and experience of society, i.e., of social life in history. The heavenly-earthly, historical-eschatological anthropology of Christianity provides a naturally heavenly-earthly, historical-eschatological sociology. If the godlike man’s living goal is transformation, theosis and salvation through graceful-ascetic life in the Church – the Body of Christ, than that must also be the goal of a human society composed of godlike people-personalities – for, in his deepest godlike identity, man is a being of community. Therefore, in the Christian experience of history, human society, all people and all nations are called upon to become members and limbs of the cosmic-eschatological Body of Christ.

That is the meaning of the commandment regarding the ecclesiation of the world, which Our Lord Jesus Christ gave to the Apostles before His Ascension: Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Mt 28:19), so that all nations and people that comprise them would become fellow citizens of the City of the Living God, the Heavenly Jerusalem. It was for the sake of this that the creation of the world and of man was conceived at the pre-eternal Council, it was for the sake of this that the Holy Trinity created the world: so that the world would become the Church of God, Home of the Father, the City of the Living God.

Thus, the Church as the City of the Living God, her liturgical Cult – the Divine Eucharist, is the source of Christianity as a historical culture and civilization, i.e., of the Christian transformation of the historical earthly city into an icon of the Heavenly City, to the extent that this is possible in history (due to the limitations of creaturehood and fallenness), while soberly guarding against falling into a chiliastic-utopian temptation of a merely superficial, merely historical construction of an “earthly City of God.”

 Just as the Divine Liturgy – the Eucharist, as the Mystery of the Church herself, is the “center” of Church life, her culture and her historical creativity, so is the Divine temple in which the Divine Eucharist is served – the center of the Christian city. The Christian city in history has been built, developed and expanded around the Divine temple, arising with its urban culture and civilization essentially from the Church’s liturgical cult, from the Divine Eucharist as the Mystery of the Church and the Kingdom of God, the Mystery of the heavenly-earthly City of the Living God.

The best demonstration of this logosian concept of architecture in Christianity and its civilization is the architectural structure of the Christian monastery, from the first coenobitic monasteries in the Egyptian desert of the 4th and 5th century, to medieval Mount Athos or the modern era Optina Pustyn in imperial Russia of the 18th and 19th century.

The Divine temple is located in the center of the monastery, the monastery complex, with the monastery buildings with the quarters and auxiliary buildings being erected, developed and multiplied around it, bounded by outside walls. The coenobitic monastery is a microcosm, an icon of the Heavenly City on earth: the monastic “city” iconizes and prefigures the eschatological New Jerusalem.

In Christianity and its iconic view of the world and history, each earthly city, built around a Divine temple, around the Eucharist and the Church, is an icon of the Heavenly City – Heavenly Jerusalem, the City of the Living God, beginning of course with the city of Constantine – Constantinople, as the “city of the emperor and the Senate,” the capital of the Romaion (Byzantine) Empire, equivalent to the Christian ecumene. And each earthly city, by way of its local Church, is founded in the mystery of the Heavenly City and is called upon to historically grow toward it and its eschatological heights. This New Jerusalemite, heavenly-earthly verticality is formative for the Christian idea and experience of the City in history. Everything that is visibly built in history is built into the invisible City of God of the Eschaton. The Christian city is a living testament of God’s transformational grace in history.

Who are, then, in the experience of the Church, the true citizens of the City of God, of Heavenly Jerusalem? The saints are the denizens and citizens of Heaven, the Kingdom of God, the City of the Living God, not only after their repose, but also in the course of their earthly life, for their life and their being is permeated with Divine uncreated energies. In that sense, sainthood is the only true and exemplary heavenly-earthly citizenship worthy of man: saintly citizenship, and not the secular citizenship of the post-Christian civility that fundamentally bases its identity on the negation of Christian revelation and the experientially confirmed truth about man as a heavenly-earthly citizen of the City of God.

As true citizens of the Kingdom of God, already in the here and now, in history, saints serve as living testimony of the inseparable link between asceticism, mysticism (i.e., graceful seeing and knowledge of God) and true citizenship of the City of God, which is the same as graceful theosis and salvation in Christ. Christians are called upon to become, in the Church, citizens of Heaven, which has descended toward us and taken residence among us in the Logos incarnate; to live in a heavenly way even here and now, in the Holy Liturgy and the holy virtues of the Church. A change in the way of being (tropos hyparxeos), from the biological to the ecclesiological and eschatological is the very essence of the transformation and theosis of the created by the uncreated, i.e., the Divine energies, which, according to the Church Fathers, is salvation itself.

That is, thus, that affirmative, cataphatic aspect of the Christian idea of the historical City, based on the Heavenly City and on growth toward the Heavenly City. But, in Christianity, there is another aspect to the relationship toward the historical city, which we may refer to as ascetic or, even, apophatic. That is the experience of the irreducibility of man, precisely because of the above mentioned historical-eschatological duality of his identity, to the historical city only, to a city of this world that is passing away (1 Cor 7:31). Holy Apostle Paul theologizes about this in an emphatic way: For here we have no continuing city, but we seek the one to come (Heb 13:14). Thus, due to his mortality, man’s residence on this earth is temporary and ephemeral, just as everything in this world is, by itself and in itself, temporary and ephemeral. That is also true for the historical city of this world, and everything that belongs to it. Man cannot and must not be reduced to this world, cannot and must not be reduced to the worldly city, cannot and must not be reduced to the products of his hands, whether we are talking about science, philosophy, art, culture, economy, technology – regardless of the intrinsic value of this multitude of blessed human creativity, regardless of their cumulative worth.

The Apostle clearly says: here we have no continuing city, but we await, move towards, ascetically strive for the only continuing City – the City of the Living God, the Kingdom of God, awaiting Christ’s Second Coming and the fulfillment of the meaning of history, of which speaks the Revelation of Saint John and his graceful witnessing of the Eternal City of the Living God, the New Jerusalem, which comes down out of Heaven from God (Rev 3:12).

Not to speak of the fact that it may happen, as has happened many times in human history, that a human city, regardless of how advanced and wealthy in its historical appearance, due to the sins and unrepentance of its denizens, becomes a place of passions, vices and all kinds of uncleanliness, a place of the abomination of desolation, as Biblical history relates regarding the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. And that it is then subjected to final destruction, disappearing without a trace in history.

The terrible Biblical histories of the downfall and destruction of the Tower of Babel, by which people tried to reach Heaven with their own handiwork, as well as of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah warn us that the earthly city, its culture and civilization, have no intrinsic value and, even more importantly, must not become an idol to which people bow or offer sacrifices in the name of more progress, enrichment or power – as is the case with today’s powerful earthly city of the civilization that calls itself “globalist,” “the only universal one,” or the civilization “with no alternative.”

Let us, for a moment, revisit the Christian apophatic experience of the impermanence of the earthly city. Soon after it became the official religion of the Eastern Roman, Romaion Empire, the New Rome, during the reign of the first Christian emperor, Constantine I the Great, Christianity was faced with a new challenge, connected with the cessation of the persecution of the Church and the massive inflow of pagans and heathen from all over the empire into the Church. It was the challenge of the internal secularization of Christianity itself, whose centers were, once again, the empire’s cities, as a result of the tendency of the aristocracy and the wealthier urban populace to receive Christianity in a superficial and nominal, formalistic way, without an internal transformation of their entire way of thinking and living.

Already in the second half of the 4th century, the universal consciousness of the Church became aware of the problem of the spiritual desolation of the cities, even if they were now cities of a Christian civilization. An “eschatological resistance movement,” as Fr. Georges Florovsky referred to it, arose within the Church, embodied in the monkhood, which rejected the spiritual desert of secularized urban Christianity in favor of the true geographic desert, in which, once again, monastic cities as icons and prefigurements of the Heavenly Jerusalem were built around the Divine temple and the Eucharist. Monastic cities became the spiritual motor of the Christian empire and its cities. The cities, i.e., city Christians, began to come to the monastic desert cities, seeking spiritual counsel, aid and guidance from the desert dwelling citizens of Heaven, the monks-ascetics of the Church. On the other hand, the monastic cities – the coenobitic monasteries of the desert came to the urban centers themselves, even to the capital City of Constantinople, in the form of the illustrious Studion Monastery, enriching history with a great number of devotees and Saints, such as St. Theodore the Studite, an urban Saint par excellence.

Monkhood and the monastic desert city represent an apophatic, zealous renunciation of this world and its earthly city, not because this world and its city are something that should be destroyed, but for the sake of the spiritual healing, renewal and salvation of the world and the city. For, according to Holy Apostle John the Divine, God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son for the life of the world (Jn 3:16; 6:51) and its city. This monastic eschatological counter to the fallen world, for a world renewed and saved in Christ, has become the very essence of a true Christian view of the world and history, the very ethos of the Christian universal Orthodox faith, not only for monks but for all true Orthodox Christians.

This cataphatic-apophatic dynamic of the City and the desert, empire and monkhood, renunciation of the fallen world and affirmation of a world renewed and saved in God-Man Christ was essential for the development of the Christian civilization, both in the East and, in its own way, in the West, where, nevertheless, on the basis of St. Augustine’s theological theory on “The City of God” (De Civitate Dei, c. 420), a specific ecclesiastical-political concept would develop after the Schism of 1054, in the form of the “Roman idea,” departing from the Romaion-Byzantine idea of the city and citizenship, yeasted with the Biblical-desert Tradition, that is, from the Eastern-Christian experience of symphony of Church and state that was practiced, through various peaks and valleys, successes and failures, during the eleven century history of the Romaion Empire. The Roman idea of the City, i.e., “God’s state” on earth, would, after humanism and the Renaissance, in the diversity of its dechristianized forms, come to offer a variety of humanistic-secularistic utopias to the modern Western Christian civilization, all the way up to the communism of the 20th century and globalism of the 21st.

Due to this dynamic tension between creative living in the impermanent earthly city and the ascetic awaiting of the permanent Heavenly City, Christianity is in a constant state of seeking, in a constant creative and critical reevaluation of everything of this world, in constant motion and growth toward Heaven, toward the Kingdom of God, toward Christ of the Parousia, for, in the words of Holy Apostle Paul, we live by Christ in history, but our true living, our true community, is the true City in Heaven (Phil 3:20).

The Christian experience of the city is, thus, based on a historical and eschatological understanding and experience, theory and practice of the unity of the Heavenly City and the earthly City. However, not on the dualism of the historical and the eschatological, which would be overcome in a merely symbolic way, but on a dynamic synthesis of the historical and the eschatological, the earthly and the heavenly. For, neither can the earthly exist without the heavenly as its firm eschatological basis, nor does the heavenly have its foundation for man without the earth, as it would then be disincarnate, unreal, without its historical “body.” In the Orthodox understanding of the City, as distinct from the Western Christian one, there is no dichotomy between the sacral and the profane: the city historically grows out of the Divine temple, which is placed in the city’s center as an eschatological source of the Living Water and the eternal life of the citizens of the earthly city in history.

The Church draws this heavenly-earthly synthesis of Christianity directly from the Lord’s words, from Our Father: “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven.” That is why, in the prologue of his “Nomocanon” (“Законоправилo”), Saint Sava refers to the Lord’s Prayer in order to emphasize that the earthly order is based on the will of God, not of man; that history is founded on the Kingdom of God and the eternal, thus affirming the unity of Heaven and earth in the Church as the Body of Christ.

Saint Sava did not invent anything new here: he merely adоpted and applied to the unique circumstances of Serbian history the Byzantine experience of the symphony of Church and state in the transformation of the world and of history. In his medieval studies, Academician Dimitrije Bogdanović convincingly showed that, in the process of accepting the Orthodox faith, Saint Sava also accepted the entire Byzantine ecclesiastical-political and cultic-cultural model and historical conception, with a continuity that went back, through Emperor Justinian, to Emperor Constantine the Great and, through him as the “thirteenth Apostle of the Church” – as the Church Fathers referred to him – to the Apostolic Tradition of the evangelical transformation of the world and of history.

Saint Sava is an active and creative successor of the Byzantine tradition of the earthly city and citizenship founded on the Heavenly City and heavenly citizenship. Both Saint Sava and his father, St. Simeon the Myrrhgusher evidenced the same monastic, apophatic renunciation of the earthly kingdom and city, not for the sake of renunciation, but for the sake of its foundation in Heaven and the Kingdom of God, and its transformation and assimilation, to the extent that it is possible in history, to Heaven and the Kingdom of God. That is the very basis of the St. Simeonic-St. Savian ecclesial covenant, which represents the spiritual axis and verticality of Serbian Christian history.

Holy Prince Lazar, along with the Kosovo Martyrs, catholicly developed and fulfilled this St. Simeonic-St. Savian covenant in the Battle of Kosovo and his Kosovo Covenant based choice of the Kingdom of God and the Heavenly City, Eternal Jerusalem. The Kosovo ecclesial covenant did not, and does not signify renunciation of one’s God-given earthly Fatherland but, rather, the placing of the earthly Fatherland in the context of the Heavenly Fatherland through the defense of the earthly Fatherland all the way to a martyrly death, for the sake of gaining the Kingdom of God, according to the Lord’s words: “But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you” (Mt 6:33). After Holy Prince Lazar and the Kosovo Martyrs for the Venerable Cross and Golden Freedom, the Kosovo ecclesial covenant of founding the earthly Fatherland, the earthly City, on the Heavenly Fatherland, on the Kingdom of God, on the Heavenly City, became the basic moving and meaningful factor of Serbian Christian history. Holy Prince Lazar’s eschatological-historical covenant is the same, New Testament based and New Testament permeated, ecclesial covenant as the covenant of St. Stefan Nemanja-Simeon the Myrrhgusher, as the covenant of Holy Emperor Constantine the Great.

Both eastern and western Byzantine scholarship, each in their own way, have greatly contributed to the study, knowledge and understanding of Byzantine history, culture and civilization. Still, what cannot escape notice is that, with rare exceptions, these studies seem to lack theological insight regarding the very essence of the Christian-Byzantine understanding and experience of the City as the historical body of the Logos Incarnate – God’s Holy Wisdom, regarding the mystery of that Biblical verticality: Heavenly City – earthly city, Upper City – lower city, City of God – city of man. However, the word of Christian Orthodox theology is indispensable when considering the topic of the city in Byzantium or of Byzantine cities in history, because the mystery of the city and the mystery of history cannot be considered solely on the basis of the antique concept of the city and of history, nor solely on the basis of the modern (post-Christian) concept of the city and of history, i.e., without or regardless of the Divine Revelation of the eschatological Heavenly City as the goal and meaning of the historical earthly city.

It is impossible to grasp the mystery of the Byzantine understanding and experience of the city in history without the ecclesial-graceful experience of the Holy Spirit Who, on the Day of the Pentecost, descends on the Apostles and creates the Church as the mystical nucleus of the cosmic-eschatological heavenly-earthly City of God and man; without the graceful knowledge of the mystery of the activity of Divine Providence in history and the mystery of Theandric synergy – the cooperation of God and man on the transformation of history, of all creation into the heavenly-earthly City and Home of the Father and of man.


Let us conclude our introductory lecture on the topic of “The Heavenly-Earthly citizenship of the City of God.”

The very idea of the city and citizenship in Eurasian culture is profoundly Christian, founded on Christology and ecclesiology. The Christian understanding, apprehension and experience of the city and citizenship in history is incomparably more profound than any merely scientific, philosophical, anthropological, sociological or psychological approach that does not take into account the Incarnation of God the Logos and the Church as His historical-eschatological Body that encompasses Heaven and earth, eternity and time. Without Christian Orthodox theology it is impossible to understand not only the mystery of the city in Byzantine history, but the mystery of the City in human history in general.

The voice of the Church’s witnessing and of Christian Orthodox theology is necessary and essentially important today, at a time of rapid reduction of everything heavenly-earthly to the exclusively earthly; of the heavenly-earthly Economy of salvation to a merely earthly economy; of everything exalted and eternal to merely that which can be produced, bought, consumed and eaten – for only Christianity still preserves the original idea and experience of the earthly City founded on the mystery of the Heavenly City, the New Jerusalem. Only the Church, through the witnessing of the boundless richness of the Apostolic-Paternal Tradition and a new, witnessing and active preaching of the Gospel of Christ to the people of the modern City (and cities), can oppose the accelerating transformation of the spiritless Megalopolis of the post-Christian present into a spiritual Necropolis of a post-Christian and anti-Christian future.


The Christian understanding, apprehension and experience of the city and citizenship in history is incomparably more profound than any merely scientific, philosophical, anthropological, sociological or psychological approach that does not take into account the Incarnation of God the Logos and the Church as His historical-eschatological Body that encompasses Heaven and earth, eternity and time. Without Christian Orthodox theology it is impossible to understand not only the mystery of the city in Byzantine history, but the mystery of the City in human history in general.

Translated by Aleksandar Pavić