Citizenship in Heaven
Topic: Default Passage: Philippians 3:20–4:1
Good morning! If you read your enews, then you know that I wanted to do something slightly different this morning. In our passage last week, we had this phrase But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, - Philippians 3:20. I have talked some already about how in Philippians we have all these really famous verses, but sometimes in their familiarity, we can lose the gravity of what is being said. Citizenship in heaven is one of those phrases so I wanted to slow down a bit and just look at this topic. There are few doctrines affect our total understanding of the Christian life and the Christian hope the way citizenship in heaven does.
And it's fitting that we talk about this subject on reformation Sunday. 501 years ago, Martin Luther sparked the Protestant reformation by nailing the 95 theses to the door. What would ensue for him and for many others who sought truth was persecution and death. There is no question that if it were not for their knowledge that this world was not their home, then they could not have endured what they did.
You can learn a lot about our culture by the movies we watch. If you look at the movies that come out and really captivate our culture, movies like Star Wars, Harry Potter, Hunger Games, X-men and Avatar, you see themes and patterns that tap into deep longings within us. I call these the ‘Oh, I’m really a superhero!’ movies. The reason we are drawn as a culture to those kinds of movies is because we believe we were made for more. We don’t feel like we fit in in this life. We long for more, but we don’t know where to find it.
We feel awkward, we feel out of place, we feel even lost at times. So, we love movies that make us feel like there is a different narrative. Oh, I’m really a mutant and I’m not alone! Oh, I have the force and I can be a Jedi. Oh, I’m really a wizard and Hogwarts is my home. Or how about a better body awaits me in a better world called Pandora! Movies like these tap into our desire for purpose and belonging.
The truth is that we are made for a different purpose and we are made for a different world. But, to get to that world, according to Paul, we first need to be citizens of that world. And only Jesus offers that.
So, I want to answer three questions about this doctrine. First, what heavenly citizenship is. Secondly, what benefits it provides in this life. Then, third, what it promises for the next life. And I do need to say I have been hugely influenced on this topic by Tim Keller and even though this is my outline, I do want him to get the credit he deserves in the way I am thinking about this.
- What heavenly citizenship is
Heavenly citizenship is a new legal allegiance that trumps every other kind of allegiance you have. Paul is specifically contrasting it to our national allegiance. All of us have some sort of earthly national allegiance. For most in this room that is with the United States of America. For some of you, it is elsewhere, but we belong to an earthly country of some sort and our rights, privileges and opportunities are dictated by our earthly national allegiance. Citizenship in North Korea is going to be a very different life than citizenship in the United States. Citizenship in Turkey is going to look very different than citizenship in England.
And to understand heavenly citizenship, we need to understand what God is doing with this world. Every type of nation, kingdom and country has a lifespan. The greatest empires of the world, Egypt, Greece, Babylon, Rome, they all fell. If we have another thousand years here, I would bet against the US being the world power the way it currently is if it is here at all. All worldly kingdoms fall because all worldly kingdoms are broken and they are broken because our world is broken.
So, God is working to create a kingdom that will never fall and the first part of that work is the creation of new humanity free from the effects of sin. When we believe, we become a part of a colony of the new humanity working to establish the rule and reign of Jesus Christ in every corner of our society. And our supreme citizenship, our greatest allegiance is now to this Kingdom. I love the way Paul says this to the Ephesian Church: So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, - Ephesians 2:19
And I think it is really important in that verse to see what we were before we were citizens. Paul says that we were strangers and aliens. This is important because I meet people who think to be a citizen of heaven, just means the end of fun. I hear them say things like, “I just want to have fun in this life and then, maybe after I have had a lot of fun, I will think about heaven.”
But when people say this, they don’t understand the degree to which they aren’t made for this world. This world will not please them. They are as strange to this world as most of us would be if we were to be dropped into North Korea. Imagine being dropped into North Korea! No internet, no phone service, no google translate. You look different than they do, you don’t know their language or customs. And just by virtue of being American you would be at odds with the authorities of that country. This is how strange we are in this world. Our citizenship is not in this world because we were not made for this world. We are strangers here and until our eyes are opened to that reality, we just watch superhero movies.
But, if we know to look for it, we can see this truth play out all around us. People pursue the things of this world thinking they will be satisfied, but they aren’t. They think they belong here, but we can see that they are strangers because they really don’t know how this world works. They don’t know how they are designed to function.
One of the most profound and tense places we see this is in the area of sexual identity. I know this is a very confusing topic and very personal for some of you. It is for me too. I am asked fairly often by friends and family members of people struggling with their sexual identity what they can do? I have asked probably a dozen well trained counselors, two dozen pastors and a even a few psychologists who have a Christian perspective what they say. And the advice is the same across the board. They say, “People think that a different sexual lifestyle is the thing that will finally satisfy them, but it won’t. We all have identity issues, but it is not primarily sexual in nature. You’re job is to love them well and stay in their life until they realize that the pursuit of these desire will not ultimately satisfy.” We are strangers in this world.
One of the greatest blessings Angela and I have received is the opportunity to speak a few times a year at Family Life marriage conferences. Over the past few years we have been stretched in our ability to speak to the design of marriage and we get to see every conference example after example of couples who have decided to live outside of this design, thinking it will satisfy them, but it fails. I see people at these conferences who have resisted the Christian world view their whole lives, but finally come and say, “I’ve tried it my way and it’s not working. I’m open to at least hearing what you think.” They are strangers in a foreign world and they are just beginning to see it.
Our way fails because we were not made for this world. We are strangers and aliens and our natural intuitions will lead us astray until we are given eyes to see that fact. This is why there are no degrees of Christianity. No one in here is ‘more Christian’ than the other. We are either citizens of heaven or not. And probably nowhere does Paul say this more powerfully than in Colossians 1: He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, - Colossians 1:13
If someone becomes an American citizen, that citizenship is given in a moment. One minute you are not an American citizen, then the next you are and it’s the same with Christianity. So, how do you apply? Simply by realizing that you are a stranger in this world. That Jesus has come to establish a new humanity and by submitting to His rule as King of this eternal kingdom. You do that and in one moment, you will have a new citizenship. Citizens of heaven are able to see, as the author of Hebrews writes, that they are strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city. (Hebrews 11:13–16)
And before I move on, I want to say that this is one of the reasons the Sunday gathering is so important. We have found our citizenship, but we still live in a foreign land. If you’ve ever lived overseas, you see some really weird groups of Americans establishing real friendships. Groups of people who would NEVER hang out back in America. When I lived oversees, I had a friend group that included American royalty, US infantry, Mormon missionaries and church planters. I just don’t see us all hanging out together back home, but we were united in our citizenship while living in a foreign land. We shared common values, we longed for the comforts of home, we saw disfunction in this culture that the locals didn’t see. And that bond transcended the natural societal barriers we would have experienced back home.
And every so often, we would get to go onto a US military base in Italy. And immediately when you pass the gates, you are on US soil. All the signs are in English, the fashion is American you begin to see great dining establishments like Pizza Hut and Burger King. I know that sounds crazy, but you can only take so many hamburgers made on sandwich bread with the fries inside it and so many pizzas with hot dogs on top. You pay in dollars and you get free refills again. The police cars make the right siren sounds. The architecture is even American. There you have this group of very different people that even though we aren’t truly home, for a moment, we really do feel like we are home.
And that is what the Sunday gathering is for us. We come together as very different people feeling acutely that we are not home, leaving the world we live in to worship the King of our new Kingdom and for a moment, even if we aren’t truly there, we can taste the home we long for. This is a picture of our Sunday gathering. It has a centering affect on us and to the degree we make the gathering a priority in our lives, to that degree we will taste our true home and flourish as citizens of heaven on earth. This is why the author of Hebrews says, 24 And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. - Hebrews 10:24-25
So, that is what citizenship is. Now, very practically, what benefits does this citizenship provide in this life.
- Benefits in this life
Citizenship primarily provides three things. First, the right to appeal. Many of you have followed the story of the EPC pastor Andrew Brunson who was arrested for his faith in Turkey and held in jail for two years and released and returned to the US last week. There are pastors in Turkey who have been in jail for 20 years with no prospect of being released. Why, then, did Andrew Brunson get released? Because he has a different citizenship. He isn’t Turkish, he’s American and he has the right to appeal to Donald Trump. A Turkish citizen can’t appeal to the US President, but a US citizen can. He can appeal to a higher power because he is a different citizenship.
We see this in Paul’s life as well. He is arrested for his faith in Philippi, but when it becomes clear that he’s a Roman citizen things change fast. The local government can’t do whatever they want with him because he has the power of appeal. He can appeal all the way up to the Emperor if he wants and that seems to be exactly what he did. Without that Roman citizenship, though, Paul had no power of appeal.
And Paul, likely with this clearly in mind, is saying that we, as citizens of heaven, can appeal not just to an emperor or president, but to the God of the Universe. We can ask Him for anything and He will listen because He cares about His citizens. And there is nothing more significant that we could ask for than the forgiveness of our sins. Forgiveness for having rebelled against Him.
And this is really important because I have good friends and family members who say things like, “Yeah, I don’t believe the Bible, but I do think at the end of this life, there is forgiveness waiting for me.” The heartbreaking truth that they don’t realize is that they can’t make an appeal to the King for forgiveness without citizenship in that Kingdom. They would have no more audience with the King than a Turkish national would with a US president.
Our citizenship gives us the right of appeal. That’s the first thing. Second, we get power over our sin. When we lived in Italy, we would have to apply for visas to be there and the type of visa we needed was called a ‘Religious Motives’ visa and the Italian consulate does not like to give these out for a variety of reasons one being the fact that they see us as eroding their culture. But, because my citizenship is in the US, I have more power than others around the world applying for the same visa. My power wasn’t my own, it was imputed based on this: (show my passport). Yes, I just used a prop. Look at it carefully, I only do this about once every 3 years.
Not only does this give me power, it gives me access to resources like attorneys and government officials (all of which we used) that help me to experience the fullness of the power of my citizenship. In the same way, when we believe we are given the power of the Holy Spirit who comes in and gives us new desires, new convictions, new depths of love and patience and works to fight the power of sin in our lives. On top of that we are given access to resources that help us to experience the fullness of our new citizenship. Resources like the Word, the church, prayer, confession and communion.
So, how are we doing in taking advantage of this power in our lives? The best two places we can look see the answer to that question are our money and our time. When we compare the way we use our money and our time with people who are not citizens in heaven, can we see a difference? Are we spending our money and our time for this kingdom or the next?
Angela and I, years ago, had a friend who was an immigrant from Senegal. He was working hard in Italy because there was work to be had there. He lived a meager life because he sent all the money he could back to his family in his country. His citizenship was in Senegal and his family was in Senegal so that’s where he laid up his treasures. Does our citizenship in heaven affect the way we spend our time and where we lay up our treasures?
The right of appeal, the power over sin and then, finally, with our heavenly citizenship we get peace in our trials. In our passage next week Paul is going to say ‘do not be anxious in anything.’ The opposite of peace is anxiety. What is anxiety at the end of the day? Anxiety is an uncertainty that that things will work out the way you want them to.
At the end of the day, none of us know how this life is going to transpire, but if we are connected to the King, we can trust that it will work out for our good, We can trust that even if that means continued pain and grief in this world, there will be a next life that will make all the pain of this life worth it. If we don’t really believe this we are going to look elsewhere to cope with our anxieties because we don’t know how to cure them.
Here is a Keller analogy. Imagine it like this. If you are in job and you have a boss who is extremely wise AND a trusted confidant, what does that do to your workplace experience? It creates peace there. So, if one morning you walk in and there is all sort of noticeable transition and restructuring going on that you were not aware of, because you have a deep sense that the person making the decisions is both wise and trusted, your anxiety in this transition will be low. You don’t know what’s going on, but you trust the boss and you know he cares about you.
Now, I don’t want to oversimplify anxiety and I do acknowledge that there can be contributing chemical issues, but I do want to be clear that we are connected to the King and the more we nurture that connection, the more peace we will experience in this world even when it feels like life is falling apart.
But, at the end of the day, our citizenship in heaven is more about the next life than it is this one. So, third point.
III. Promises in the next life.
There are whole streams of Christianity who whose main hope are in promises they claim the Bible makes about this life. They double down their belief that this life is where we are promised wealth, health and happiness. The theological term for this is an over-realized eschatology. Taking promises that exist in the next life and trying to apply them in the here and now.
Now, obviously, I believe there are promises for this life, I just used my whole second point on that. But those aren’t the primary promises. We are going to get sick and some of us are going to get better and some won’t. This life will fail all of us when we die. A Christianity whose primary promises are in this life is not a Christianity I’m very interested in.
So, what are the promises we have in the next? The promise is that Jesus is coming back and turning this colony of new humanity into an eternal kingdom perfect in every way. In this Kingdom, we will have glorified bodies that laugh at CrossFit. The deepest pleasures of this earth will seem bland and cold compared to pleasures of the world to come. I personally think we will be able to explore the universe without any hinderance or need of little tin cans to sit in. We will have no cancer, no strife, no pain and no tears.
This is how John describes it in Revelation: 1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. 4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away." - Revelation 21:1-4
Now, when this verse comes up, I’m often asked, “But if I’m there and my parents aren’t. If I’m there and my children aren’t. How could there be no mourning? I can’t imagine a life there without those I love here.” This is a really good and reasonable question. Is God going to simply use the obliviate charm to wipe our memories of any loved ones who aren’t in this new Kingdom? I don’t think so. First, I want everyone to know that there will be surprises in heaven. We will see people there we didn’t expect to. So, we can’t lose all hope in anyone.
I can’t answer this question perfectly, but two things I know for sure. First, once there, you will not doubt God’s goodness or fairness in the least. And second, that the joy of being in our home, in our new bodies and with our Creator will so significant that it will cast out all pain and grief forever.
This is the hope Paul has. This is why he can write from prison, Therefore, my brothers, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm thus in the Lord, my beloved. - Philippians 4:1
If we believe in Jesus, we are citizens of a new Kingdom. The question we need to ask ourselves is are we living like citizens? It was interesting living in Mississippi, or as they call it, Missippi, for 11 years and learning more about how the South evolved after the civil war. When the Civil War ended, you had men and women who had been slaves for generations who were all of a sudden citizens.
Can you imagine what that was like? These men and women were used to walking through the streets with no rights. They had to do whatever white people told them to do because if they didn’t they had no rights and could be beaten within an inch of their life. Now, in an instant, they learn they are citizens with the protection of the U.S. government. If someone beats them now, they could go to jail. But, even with this knowledge, few freed slaves acted like citizens. They still operated functionally as slaves. And we can do the same thing.
Even though we are citizens of heaven, we act like citizens of this world. We have so many ingrained habits and patterns within us and, on top of that, we have a society that is constantly telling us to live a certain way. If we have been made citizens of a new Kingdom, we have the privilege and the duty to live that citizenship out.
There is a battle for our minds. There is a battle for the minds of our children. Many of us grew up with commercials and billboards telling us, “This is the thing that will make you happy!” Now we have social media with a whole other level of power over our minds if we don’t know how to interpret it.
Can you imagine, though, the impact of a church who fully understands their identity as citizens of heaven and who fully embraces that power? That’s what I want to pray for.