“Our Citizenship Is in Heaven” (Philippians 3:17 – 4:1)
Citizenship is a big deal in our country right now, especially since this is an election year. There is talk about how to keep non-citizens out, how to keep them from entering our country. There is talk about which candidate or candidates may or may not be “natural born citizens” and thus eligible to run, and about what that term “natural born citizen” actually means. Our attention is drawn to our rights as citizens, guaranteed by the Bill of Rights. And we think of our duties as citizens, to be well-informed when we consider candidates and cast our votes. So citizenship is at the forefront of the thinking of many people this year.
Well, today I’m here to tell you that you should be thinking about your citizenship, and rightly so. Our duty as citizens, our civic involvement, is important. But there’s a citizenship you have that is even more important, and by a factor of about a bazillion. And that is the citizenship St. Paul talks about today when he says, “Our Citizenship Is in Heaven.”
Yes, our citizenship is in heaven. And this morning we’ll explore what that means–and what it doesn’t mean. This is vitally important for each one of us to know. Our text is the Epistle for today, from Paul’s letter to the Philippians.
Interesting that Paul would use this term “citizenship” when writing to the Philippians. Because citizenship was indeed a very big deal in Philippi. That city, while located in Macedonia, had become a Roman colony. So there were a large number of Roman citizens living in Philippi, especially retired military. And Roman citizenship carried with it certain privileges, wherever you happened to live in the Empire.
As Paul himself well knew. Remember when Paul and Silas first arrived in Philippi on their missionary journey. Because of the disturbance their arrival had created, Paul and Silas were thrown in prison, shackled up. That night there was an earthquake, Paul and Silas were set free, and they even converted the Philippian jailer and his family. But then the next day, Paul had a complaint to raise with the city officials: “Did you guys know that I am a Roman citizen? You’re not to treat a Roman citizen like I was treated!” The officials there in Philippi were apologetic. You see, Roman citizenship had its privileges.
So Paul’s use of the term “citizenship” here in his epistle to the church in Philippi has with it all that background. But Paul sort of turns the term around. It’s not Roman citizenship that is so important, or any other earthly citizenship. No, what really counts is that our citizenship is in heaven. That is our highest treasure, and no one can take it away from us.
Our citizenship is in heaven. But it is not a “natural born” citizenship. No, by nature, we are not citizens of heaven. As Jesus said, “Flesh gives birth to flesh. The Spirit gives birth to spirit.” “Unless you are born of water and the Spirit, you cannot enter the kingdom of God.” By nature, by our natural physical birth, we cannot rise above the level of our sinful flesh, our inherited sinful nature. We are natural born sinners, doomed to die and caught in the domain of the devil. We need a new citizenship, a new birth, in order to enter the kingdom of heaven.
That happened when you were born of water and the Spirit. In other words, that happened in your baptism. In the waters of Holy Baptism, the Holy Spirit came into your life and sealed you with the new birth. That was your citizenship day, when you became a “supernatural born citizen.” The heavenly Father claimed you as his child. The blood of Jesus, his Son, washed away your sin. The Holy Spirit worked in you the gift of faith, so that now you trust in Jesus your Savior for all your righteousness, forgiveness, and everlasting life. Now, as Christians, we can say that our citizenship is in heaven. And Paul here is reminding the Philippians–and us–of this great fact.
What a great treasure this is! What a joy to know where our ultimate citizenship is located! Never forget this, this great gift that God has bestowed on you! Otherwise, your ticket and your passport would be stamped for hell. But now your citizenship is in heaven, and with that as your destination–indeed, with that as your present possession–that changes everything!
You have a new perspective on your life in this world. You know that on this earth you have no lasting city. We are strangers and pilgrims on this earth, sojourners, pilgrims, heading for our true home. As Jesus said, we are in this world but not of it. So we do not blend in, we do not fit in, with the warped values of this world. The popular culture does not determine how we think or how we live. “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” “Set your minds on things above, not on things that are on earth.”
Your citizenship is in heaven. And yet, and yet, we still have some living to do on this earth. And that is important, too. There are people to love and serve while on our journey. We have our various vocations to fulfill while we wait for our Lord Jesus to return: husband, wife, parent, child, church member, employer or employee, and yes, even citizen of this country. And as Americans, we have certain duties and responsibilities that go with that. We should become informed and involved in choosing wise leaders. We should pray for our governing officials, even when we disagree with them–especially when we disagree with them. Our life in this world, and the lives of our fellow citizens–this is important. As Christians, we do not just withdraw into our little shell and ignore what is going on around us. The church is God’s kingdom of the right hand, the more important one. The state, civil society–this is God’s left-hand kingdom. But both are still God’s kingdom, both are important, and we have a role to play in each one.
Knowing that we are citizens of the kingdom of heaven, this affects how we conduct ourselves here on earth. Paul writes: “Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven. . . .” You see, we walk differently, we conduct our lives differently, being citizens of heaven. We have higher things to set our minds on. What the sinful world prides itself in, what they glory in, we regard as shame. Don’t go there. Our god is not our belly, the sum of our appetites and passions. No, we worship the one true God, who works in us the good fruit of kindness, patience, and self-control. We do not walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. Far from it! In the cross of Christ we glory!
We glory in the cross of Christ, because it is Christ crucified who saves us! We would be lost forever without the cross of Christ. On that cross, Christ Jesus bore the sins of the world, your sins and mine. On that cross, Christ won your forgiveness and your eternal salvation! He purchased your citizenship in the kingdom of heaven.
Now what does that citizenship mean for your long-range future? Paul gets at that next: “But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.”
Christ Jesus, after his sacrificial death and his victorious resurrection–Christ ascended into heaven and now is seated at God’s right hand, the position of all honor and authority. And we have his promise that one day–and it could be one day soon–we have his promise that our Lord will return and make all things right. And so now we eagerly await his return and look forward to it.
What will happen on that day? Paul tells us: Christ “will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body.” Did you catch that? You’re going to get a full-body makeover when Christ returns! This is the resurrection of the flesh, the resurrection of the body, which we confess in our creeds. Your body is not going to stay decayed and decomposed in the grave. No, when Christ returns, he will call forth our bodies from the grave, and we will be raised and re-composed in a most glorious manner! No longer subject to disease or death. Sickness and sorrows, all gone! Sin, no more! We will be fitted out for immortality, ready to live eternally in a restored creation, better than ever! Friends, this is our hope, our sure and certain hope! This is what we are looking forward to!
Our citizenship is in heaven, but it will not be a heaven where we are just floating around on clouds like Casper the Ghost, mere ethereal wisps. God created the Garden of Eden in the beginning, and it was a real physical creation with real people having real bodies. So expect something like that, only much, much better the next time around. It will be heaven on earth, paradise restored, the new Jerusalem, and then some!
With that in view, with that on the horizon, with our long-range future secure, what does that mean for our immediate future? Our Epistle reading for today closes with this thought: “Therefore, my brothers, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm thus in the Lord, my beloved.”
Friends, because we are citizens of heaven, we can handle whatever comes our way here on earth. We are standing firm on the rock of our salvation, and nothing can shake that or take it away. We belong to Christ right now, and we are waiting for his return. Brothers and sisters, our citizenship is in heaven.