Our Citizenship Is In Heaven
God places us Christians in a unique situation. No matter what country we live in, no matter what time in history we find ourselves, we always have dual citizenship. We are citizens of the earthly country in which we live, and we are citizens of heaven. In Paul's letter to the Philippians 3:17 – 4:1, he helps us learn that our real joy is found in the fact that Our Citizenship Is In Heaven. March 3, 2007
Citizenship in the Roman Empire came with certain privileges – like not getting jailed for flogged without a fair trial. But not everyone in the Roman Empire enjoyed those privileges. “Why was that?” you ask. Here’s the answer. When the Roman armies conquered a territory, the people of that territory became tax paying subjects of the empire but not necessarily citizens. Those who were born into a Roman family or those who were granted that status or earned it had those privileges. The apostle Paul was an Israelite but had also inherited the status of being a Roman citizen. I can think of a couple instances in which that came into play. Once in Philippi and later in Jerusalem, Paul appealed to his citizenship in order to demonstrate to authorities that their intended treatment of him was inappropriate.
The people in Philippi certainly understood the significance of citizenship in the Roman Empire. Philippi was a city in northern Greece that had been the site of a big battle in which a Roman general named Octavian gained an important victory over his rivals, Brutus and Cassius. Octavian, later known as Caesar Augustus, gave his soldiers the city as a reward for victory and declared it to be a Roman colony with all the soldiers enjoying the privileges of Roman citizenship. For them that meant that they were even able to participate in elections that took place in Rome.
Paul and his companions had visited that city on his second missionary journey and founded a Christian congregation. Although many of the members of that congregation had Roman citizenship, they were under considerable stress, getting picked on by their heathen neighbors and even experiencing some physical persecution. With that in mind it’s most remarkable that this letter to the Philippians is known as Paul’s “letter of joy.” Sixteen times in this short letter the apostle speaks about “joy” and “rejoicing.” You see, Paul wanted them to live in real joy in spite of all the evil that surrounded them.
That’s a challenge for all of us. I’m sure that each of us could use a little more joy in life, and certainly we know of plenty others who would like the same. Watch the news. It’s depressing. Daily reports of another car bomb in Iraq and the deaths U.S. soldiers are depressing. Reports of unethical political campaign contributions are depressing. The political hand-wringing about how to handle shopping mall security are depressing. It’s March. It’s still cold, and we’re supposed to get more snow. The weather is depressing. But the apostle helps us discover the key to real joy. He presses onto our heart the fact that Our Citizenship Is In Heaven.
The world makes that hard
Paul was under house arrest when he wrote this letter. That meant he could receive visitors, but his activities and movements were severely limited, hardly a joyful experience. Much worse, he had to contend with the sad fact that many people were rejecting the saving message of Christ Jesus. “As I have often told you before and now say again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ.” He then stated the sad result, “Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is on earthly things.” Their outlook on life might well be summed up in the well-known philosophy, “Eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die!”
Surely Paul must have been tempted to turn his back on people like that, maybe even to gloat a little and say, “Serves you right! Go ahead! Ignore Christ and be eternally damned!” But that wasn’t his attitude at all. Instead, he cried over their blind plunge toward eternal destruction. He wept at what lay in store for them just as Jesus wept for the people of Jerusalem who had rejected him. If only those people realized what they were losing and what they were bringing on themselves!
We may not be living in fear of physical persecution as were the Philippians, but who would deny that there are more than enough Christ-rejecters around? And in their own way they bring persecution with them. It takes on more subtle forms today, but it’s there.
For example, you’re a single adult. You know that immorality is sinful. But every TV show, every commercial, every movie, every piece of email spam, and all the people you know make it seem like you’re a total nerd because you are abstinent and conduct your relationships with the opposite gender with respect. You’re having lunch with someone in a similar business. Talk gets around to planning a dishonest way to make money by “forgetting” to report some profits that are untraceable. They ask how much you figure you’ll save that way. When you tell them you intend to be honest in your reporting, they shake their head in patronizing pity, “How can you be such a fool?” You’re chatting with some friends, and the conversation turns into talk about someone who isn’t there who supposedly did something wrong. You say, “Hey! Maybe we shouldn’t judge somebody on the basis of rumor.” They look surprised at how naïve and unsophisticated you are. Have you ever been made to be labeled intolerant because you took a stand on the Bible’s distinction between what is morally right and wrong and the distinction between what God has commanded in Scripture and what he has not spoken about? Have you ever been kept on the outside of some seemingly desirable “inner circle” because you are a Christian? That’s persecution. What makes it more difficult is that those kinds of situations come up nearly every day. That kind of constant pressure tends to take joy out of living as a citizen of this planet.
But real joy gets restored and rejuvenated when we realize that our real citizenship in elsewhere. Paul states simply and clearly, “Our Citizenship Is In Heaven”. It’s like planning to travel in a foreign country. You know about increased security since 9-11. You don’t want to be naïve and get burned. So, before you go, you check on-line the Homeland Security guidelines, and you listen to the advice of others who have traveled where you are planning to go. “Don’t leave your bags unattended.” “Watch out for crooked cab drivers.” “Stay on the main roads.” “Don’t drink the water.” When you are aware of the pitfalls and look out for them, you can have a more enjoyable visit.
In the same way, Paul is saying, “Don’t be naïve. Take an honest look at the world around you. Be aware of the realities of life in this world. All the little pressures on your Christianity can wear down your sensitivity to the seriousness of sin. If you’re not alert, you’ll find yourself doing just what those who care less about God are doing. You’ll start to talk like them, act like them, think like them. But, if you want to have a more joyful visit for the eighty or ninety years you have on this earth, remember that your citizenship is in heaven. Yet, the truth is that the world makes that hard.
The Lord makes that real
Citizens in a country like ours have a certain amount of input into how things are going. You can hear politicians once in a while encourage American citizens to make a difference by getting involved. They’ll say, “Do your part. Do what you can to make life better. We can make this nation a better place.” I don’t want to rain on anyone’s parade because there is something positive about the spirit of cooperation and participation in civic matters. But there is also the reality that we can never make this world into a heaven on earth.
Paul had to remind the Philippians of that. He said, “If you are able, do what you can to change the difficult situation you are in. But remember that you will not be able to create a heaven on earth. Therefore, rejoice! Our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body. Therefore, my friends, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, in this way stand firm in the Lord”. God has entered our world. He lived a life we should have lived. He died a death we should have died. And God now counts that life and death as though we did that living and dying, all without our input. On top of that, he is going to come again to transform us so that we will enjoy his loving presence in perfect bliss without commercial interruption or tempting distractions.
Paul states simply and clearly, “Our Citizenship Is In Heaven”. Did you notice that he uses the present tense? He does not say, “Our citizenship will be in heaven.” He says, “Our Citizenship IS In Heaven.” We can stand firm no matter what those who don’t care about Jesus might say or think or do. We can stand firm because Our Citizenship Is In Heaven, and it is the Lord Jesus himself who makes that real.
His Word makes that sure
Picture a third world country ruled by a dictator. The people living in that country have little joy. They have very few benefits and blessings as citizens there. They have few privileges. They can’t buy the food they want. They can’t move up into a different career path. They don’t get a paycheck, only what the dictator allows. One day one of those citizens was able to escape. He came to America and was shocked to learn what citizenship here means. “How can I be sure?” he asked. The answer, of course, is to show him the Constitution of the United States. There’s the proof.
The citizens of Philippi were supposed to have certain privileges since they were also considered citizens of Rome. But that didn’t stop the non-Christians from making life difficult for the Christians. In many ways their only source of joy came from Paul’s announcement, “Our Citizenship Is In Heaven”. But how could they know for sure? Paul said, “Join with others in following my example, and take note of those who live according to the pattern we gave you”. What does that mean? What is this pattern he had given them? Was it the way he behaved and lived while in their city for a brief time? What it his demeanor when handling adversity in his own life? Listen to what he wrote a little earlier in this same letter, “I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord … I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings”(Philippians 3:7-10). For the certainty of his citizenship in heaven, Paul went back again and again to the certainty of Jesus’ forgiving love which came to him in no other way than through the words and promises of God.
So, he told the Philippians, “I know you are struggling. I know there are days you feel like a stray dog in midtown Manhattan with no restaurant scraps in any alley, but there still is joy. Your citizenship is in heaven. Do you want certainty? Do you want a guarantee that that is true? Check what God says about you in his Word. He says again and again, ‘I will ransom them from the power of the grave; I will redeem them from death … I will heal their waywardness and love them freely, for my anger has turned away from them’(Hosea 13:14; 14:4). Your citizenship is in heaven, and the Lord’s Word makes that sure.
The most dangerous and damaging heresy that has hit Christianity in the last century and a half is the horrible attempt of some so-called scholars to try to get people to think that the Bible is just people’s best literary effort to God instead of God’s miraculous and cover-to-cover divine truth for people. That false teaching, that the Bible is not all God’s own thoughts and words, undermines certainty and joy. What in this world can you count on? What in this world gives true certainty? Think of it! We have God-given, God-guaranteed truth – Our Citizenship Is In Heaven! Do you want to be certain about that? Do you want a guarantee from God himself? The Lord’s own Word makes that sure.
God places us Christians in a unique situation. No matter what country we live in, no matter what time in history we find ourselves, we always have dual citizenship. We are citizens of the earthly country in which we live, and we are citizens of heaven. Go ahead and enjoy your life in this world and in this land. In spite of the weaknesses and errors of our governmental system and governing leaders, we still have a lot to be thankful for. But be honest. Look around at the reality of this sin-stained world, and thank God that it is not our permanent home. What truly gives us joy is the reality of our spiritual and eternal citizenship. Our Citizenship Is In Heaven. Heaven is our home! Amen.
Preached at Grace Lutheran Church, Milwaukee, WI (http://www.gracedowntown.org/) on March 4, 2007