Sunday, May 21, 2006

Citizens of Heaven: Philippians 3:20-4:1

There is much discussion in the news these days about citizenship. Who can become a citizen? What does it take to become a citizen? What does it mean to be a citizen? What privileges and responsibilities do citizens have? The United States of America is a nation founded by immigrants coming to a new land, and populated by the native dwellers of that land, the descendants of immigrants, and new waves of immigrants that have flowed incessantly into America since the days of our founding. So, in these days, important questions are being asked, and hopefully answered, concerning laws of immigration and citizenship. It is not my purpose here today to deal with questions of American citizenship. This is for the lawmakers to work out. My concern today is of another kind of citizenship.

Philippi was once a great city, named for Philip II of Macedon who gained control of the city in 358 BC. Philip named the city after himself, which historians have claimed was the first time anyone ever did that.[1] His son made that city the base of his twelve year quest for world domination. Philip’s son was Alexander the Great. In 168 BC, Philippi was conquered by the Romans, and between 42 and 30 BC, Antony and Octavian established a colony of there, reviving the decimated city by populating it with Roman war veterans. Octavian declared Philippi to have the full rights of Italy (ius Italicum), meaning that, though Philippi was 800 miles from Rome, its citizens enjoyed the same rights and privileges of those who lived in Rome. Most of them had never even been to Rome, but they enjoyed the benefits of Roman citizenship though they lived far away.

The Philippians were proud of their Roman citizenship, evidenced by their declaration in Acts 16:21. It was Paul’s announcement of his own Roman citizenship that spared him from further mistreatment in the city. So when Paul speaks of citizenship, the Philippians immediately perk up. They were citizens of Rome. Paul was a citizen of Rome. But they shared a different citizenship as well – one that transcends boundaries and genealogies. Paul says, “Our citizenship is in heaven.” In the time we have today, I want to examine four realities that Paul deals with in these verses related to our citizenship.

The first is very plainly stated:

I. Our citizenship is in heaven. (v20a)

We must bear in mind that these verses do not occur in isolation. The statement begins with a conjunction that is translated as for in most English translations. And you remember Schoolhouse Rock: Conjunction Junction, what's your function? Hooking up words and phrases and clauses. So a conjunction hooks something up to what came before it. The Greek conjunction gar that is used here has explanatory force. Like the word for it gives a reason.

Paul has told the Philippian Christians that they are to emulate his example and that of others who are following in the path of Christian maturity. They are to ignore the examples of the enemies of the cross of Christ, whose end is destruction, whose god is their appetite, and whose glory is their shame, who set their minds on earthly things (3:18-19).

The reason for this twofold instruction is that our citizenship is in heaven. As citizens of Rome were expected to promote the interests of their homeland wherever they may be, so should the citizens of heaven. They may have never even seen Rome, but their allegiance was to Rome. So it is with the citizen of heaven. We are under the authority and care of our homeland – heaven. We owe our allegiance to heaven and its Glorious King. In some coffer of Rome there were scrolls containing lists of all those who were the authentic citizens of Rome. So in heaven, our names are enrolled in the Lamb’s Book of Life, the citizenship registry of the Kingdom of God, if we are truly citizens of that place.

We are an outpost colony, an embassy if you will. And as such, each follower of Christ is an ambassador. We are citizens of heaven who are assigned to a mission here on earth. An ambassador goes to live in another country, but he goes to represent the interests of his own country. So, he does not immerse himself in the culture of the foreign country in which he lives, but rather keeps his mind on the things in his home country. He flies the flag of his home country. He tells people about the wonders of his home country and how they might enjoy them by traveling there. He speaks on behalf of his king to the kings and peoples of other lands, and he seeks to represent that king with accuracy and authority. His desires are on the pleasantries of home.

So we are ambassadors of heaven. We represent the interests of heaven and our Heavenly King. We do not entangle ourselves in the trappings of this place, but we fix our thoughts on things above, not on things of earth. Our conversation is to be filled with the language of heaven and our King, and we speak in such a way as to make people long for Him and that place. Of the citizen of heaven, Charles Erdman wrote, “Their hopes are centered on its glories.”[2]

Notice also that Paul does not say our citizenship will be in heaven. No, this is a present reality. NOW we are citizens of heaven, living under its law, acting in accordance with its interests. M. R. Vincent said, “Their connection with it is the basis of their life of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Ghost, as distinguished from the life of belly-worship and worldliness.”[3] What enables us to go through life without obeying every prompting of our bellies, our appetites and carnal desires? What enables us to live without setting our minds on earthly things? It is the confident awareness that we are citizens of another land – already the believer in Christ belongs to heaven, and our heavenly King deserves our full allegiance and devotion. This brings me to the second reality of our heavenly citizenship:

II. We are eagerly waiting for a Savior from heaven (v20b)

While we live in this foreign land – this enemy occupied territory – we wait in eager anticipation for one from the homeland to come and deliver us. We are waiting, but we are not wondering. Countless people under the Old Covenant were told that God would send a Messiah – a redeemer for them, and generations later, many wonder if He ever will. Many more have given up waiting and wondering. They figured that if God didn’t deliver them from the Holocaust, He never will. In a conversation with a Jewish rabbi in Raliegh, I asked what the present state of Messianic expectation is among Jewish people. The rabbi, chuckling, referred me to a book by Robert Levine entitled There is no Messiah, and You are It. The subtitle is The Stunning Transformation of Judaism’s Most Provocative Idea. In this book, Levine suggests that people should give up on waiting for a messiah to come and repair the world. The messiah is not a specific individual who will save the world but rather a belief that every person, doing his or her part, together can save the world.[4]

Let me remind you that we are the ones who put the world in the shape it is in now, so I don’t know how in the world anyone thinks we can remedy it that way. Bear in mind, the book was recommended to me by a rabbi. Levine is a Reformed Jewish rabbi, and the book is published by a Jewish publishing company. While these views about the Messiah would not be shared by every Jewish person today, they are certainly very popular and becoming increasingly popular.

I am so glad that we are not wondering. We are waiting. We know who He is. Paul says, “the Lord Jesus Christ.” We know Him for He has already come once. In the Person of Jesus Christ, God Himself came to dwell among us (John 1:1, 14). In the first sermon of the Christian church, Peter said on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:22-24, turn there please):

Jesus the Nazarene, a man attested to you by God with miracles and wonders and signs which God performed through Him in your midst, just as you yourselves know – this one, delivered overy by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put to death. But God raised Him up again, putting an end to the agone of death, since it was impossible for Him to be held in its power.

In John 14:2, Jesus said some often-quoted words: In My Father’s house are many dwelling places; if it were not so, I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you. Jesus has promised that He would prepare the place of our citizenship for our dwelling. And in the next verse, John 14:3, He made this promise: If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself, that where I am, there you may be also.

The citizens of heaven are eagerly waiting for these promises to be consummated. The Lord Jesus Christ is coming again. He is coming from heaven. He is coming to take us to the place of our citizenship. The writer of Hebrews said this (9:28): So Christ also, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time for salvation without reference to sin, to those who eagerly await Him. In other words, when He comes again, there will be no cross. There will be no other remedy for human sin than the one already supplied when He came the first time. He has dealt fully and finally with sin. When He comes again, it will be to consummate the redemption of those who have come to Him through faith and repentance and now eagerly await Him.

This brings me to the third reality of our heavenly citizenship:

III. The Savior from heaven will make us fit for heaven (v21)

Look what Paul says He will do: He will transform the body of our humble estate into conformity with the body of His glory.

The enemies of the cross that Paul described in v19 are obsessed with their bodies. They worship the appetites of their bodies. They glory in the shamefulness of their bodies. Their minds are fixed on the earthly activities of their bodies. But these bodies that we occupy now are temporary dwelling places. In 2 Corinthians, Paul calls these bodies tents. We are just occupying them as we sojourn through this land en route to our home. We don’t want to adopt the Gnostic heresy that they are inherently evil and should be renounced. The KJV rendering the term vile is misleading. These bodies, tainted and ravaged by the effects of sin though they may be, were nonetheless created in the image of God. Therefore we should not disregard totally the human body, but neither should we make our earthly existence in these bodies our ultimate concern.[5]

The bodies that we now have are humble. They are lowly. They have limitations and weaknesses. We are susceptible to illness, injury, cravings, and sin. But these bodies will be transformed. This is what Paul is saying in 1 Corinthians 15. He says there We will not all sleep (that is his metaphor for death), but we will all be changed. In other words, some will be changed through resurrection, others through rapture, but surely no one will enter heaven wearing these humble bodies. He says the perishable must put on the imperishable and mortal put on immortality.

These mortal and perishable bodies will become glorious. But they will not be a display of our own glory. Notice that we will be transformed into conformity with the body of HIS glory. Peter, James, and John saw a glimpse of that glory at the Mount of Transfiguration. John saw it in a vision on Patmos as he wrote the Revelation. But our eyes have not beheld Him in that glory… YET. But John says in 1 John 3:2, “It has not appeared as yet what we will be, but we know that when He appears, we will be like Him because we will see Him just as He is. One glimpse of the coming King of heaven and we will be transformed into His likeness. How will He do this? By the same power that will put all things under subjection to Himself. Nothing is too difficult for God.

Now what effect ought this have on us? That is the fourth reality:

IV. Our heavenly citizenship produces spiritual stamina for us on earth (4:1)

Knowing that our citizenship is in heaven, and that Christ is coming to transform us into His glory should motivate us to press on until the day it happens! Stand Firm in the Lord! Paul’s statements about the coming transformation in 1 Corinthians 15 culminate with the admonition of verse 58: Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your toil is not in vain in the Lord. John’s statements about our transformation at the coming of Christ conclude with the words of 1 John 3:3 -- And everyone who has this hope fixed on Him purifies himself, just as He [Christ] is pure. In other words, the realities that we have described here ought to in no way produce spiritual lethargy on our parts.

They ought to motivate us to active purity, to steadfastness, to an abundance of work for the Lord, to STAND FIRM until He comes.

If you are a believer in Christ today – you have given your life to Him as your Lord and Savior – then you are a citizen of heaven. Christ is coming for you to take you to your eternal home. He is preparing your eternal dwelling place and in His perfect time, He will come again. When will this happen? I don’t know when, but I know that He keeps His promises. We might taste death before He returns, but that will not stand in the way of Him transforming us into the likeness of His glory. And until He comes, or until our death, we must stand firm. We must press on. We must keep ourselves pure. And we must labor for the Master so that when He comes He will find us faithful.

There is one thing you must know about heavenly citizenship: there will be no illegal aliens there. You can’t sneak across the border or go on a temporary visa or guest worker program. Heaven is a place reserved only for its citizens. And while that may sound discouraging at first glance, I assure that it is wonderful news, because the borders are open and citizenship is offered freely to you. You don’t have to sneak into this Kingdom. The King, Jesus Christ, stands at the border with His arms open wide to receive you. If you will turn from sin and cling to Him by faith as Lord and Savior, you will be made a citizen.

[1] Cited in Richard Melick, NAC: Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, p22.

[2] Charles Erdman, Epistle of Paul to the Philippians, 116.

[3] M. R. Vincent, ICC: Philippians, Philemon, 119.

[4] Statements condensed from synopsis and reviews of Levine’s book at

[5] Melick, 144.

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