A Study of Philippians 3:20
“For our citizenship is in heaven; from whence also we look for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ:”
Where is your citizenship?
No, I am not asking if you are a naturalized citizen of this country. I am not asking if you are African, French, German.
According to the Bible, there are only two citizenships: that of the world, and that of heaven; the kingdom of darkness, and the kingdom of light.
In which of these do you hold citizenship?
To which one of these do you belong?
If you are of the world, the Bible says that you mind earthly things. That is, your life revolves around, and your heart seeks the things, the pleasures, the riches, the honors of this present world. Maybe there is an outward show of religious belief and confession. Yet your heart seeks the earthly. The goals of the world are yours.
How much money?
What kind of pleasures?
The amount of honor and power. You live, then, to gratify your own lusts. You speak your own language. You worry about losing what you have. Your god really is your belly, your own appetites. That is what you serve. Life to you, then, is how much money you have, the good times you experience, the things you possess, the satisfying of your cravings: that is your life.
But if, by the living and powerful grace of God, you are a citizen of heaven, then, although you live in this world, your heart revolves around and your love centers in Jesus Christ. You feel out of place here below. As you grow and as you move about in this world you feel that this world cannot satisfy you, cannot be your home. You speak a different, spiritual language. And there is a tension in your life to be with the Lord. Behind all of your planning, all of your building of a home, your working, your training for a job, behind all of your life is the eager expectation of the coming of Jesus Christ, the day of glory, the day when you will be with Him. You feel as if you are an alien on the earth. You do not fit in spiritually. A different spirit dwells in you.
Where is your citizenship?
Or in heaven?
The ascension of Jesus Christ into heaven gives the answer to every believer concerning his citizenship. Because Jesus Christ is ascended into heaven we will confess: My citizenship is also in heaven where Jesus is. Forty days after the resurrection our Savior was taken, in His glorified body, up into heaven, where He now sits at the right hand of God.
The benefits of our Lord’s ascending up into heaven forty days after His resurrection are many. He is in heaven now, says the Bible (1 John 2), as our advocate with the Father. He intercedes for us as a merciful and compassionate High Priest. Still more, in heaven He rules over all things for the church. He subjects everything to Himself. He rules to serve the purpose of God and to bring about the eternal kingdom of our God. And still more, Jesus Christ is in heaven as the pledge that we, too, must go to be with Him. Because He is in heaven, all those who belong to Him shall also be with Him.
But there is also this profound benefit of the ascension of Jesus, namely, that it shows that our citizenship has changed. The apostle Paul, in Philippians 3:20-21, puts it this way: “For our conversation (or citizenship) is in heaven; from whence also we look for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ: Who shall change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like unto his glorious body, according to the working whereby he is able even to subdue all things unto himself.”
By the ascension of Jesus Christ we are now translated from this world of darkness into the kingdom of His Son. We are given a heavenly citizenship. Belonging to Jesus Christ who is ascended into heaven, we are now given the title for glory. The life of heaven is now in our heart. Not only shall I become a citizen of heaven at death – no, I am one right now. I am made a pilgrim and a stranger here below. I hold a spiritual citizenship not in this world but in that which is to come.
Because Christ, the Head of the church, the Head of the body, ascended into heaven. And being united to Jesus Christ by grace through faith means that we too have entered into heaven. Therefore we have, in Him, secured a heavenly citizenship. That is why the world cannot be our home.
The apostle Paul says in Philippians 3:17-19 that there are many, even in the church, who still mind earthly things. Although they confess Jesus Christ as their Savior, in reality their god is their belly. They serve and they live for the appetites of their own flesh. They glory in their shame. They are carnal, earthly, sinful yet in their heart. But the apostle Paul goes on in Philippians 3 to say that that cannot be true of a Christian, not of a true Christian. That cannot be the experience of a true Christian.
Because our citizenship is in heaven, because when He ascended we were made the citizens of eternal glory.
That is certainly a wonderful fact. I said a moment ago that the word “conversation” in Philippians 3:20 is really “citizenship.”
“For our citizenship is in heaven.” One’s citizenship refers to his legal relationship to a state or nation. Our citizenship is in heaven. A citizen, as you know, is one who belongs to the country in which he resides. He enjoys the privileges, he has the rights and protection of his country. He speaks the language of the country.
To the Philippian saints that word would jump out at them.
That was very important. Roman citizenship in those days was coveted. You remember the experience of the apostle Paul, when he was in Philippi (Acts 16), after he was beaten and imprisoned. He was about to be released in the morning hours, but the apostle said, “They have beaten us openly, uncondemned, being Romans.” When the magistrates heard that, they feared when they understood that Paul was a Roman. You see, as a Roman he had the right to appeal. As a Roman he had exemption from the degrading punishments that the Philippian magistrates had given to him.
Citizenship in Rome, in the Roman government?
That was very important.
Still more, a citizen of the country calls that country his home. He loves his country. He takes pride in having his name enrolled in that country. He wears the native dress. He not only speaks the language but he is governed by the laws, worships the gods of that country. And he bands together with others and fights for the causes of that country.
Our citizenship is in heaven.
What a wonder!
That is not true, of course, by nature. By nature we are born the citizens of this world (Ephesians 2:3). We are children of this world, children of wrath, says the apostle, even as others. We are in darkness. Of ourselves we would seek the things which are below. Our portion would be in this world and in its lusts. To be a citizen of the world, by nature, means, as Paul says in Philippians 3:17-19, that your god is your belly. You mind earthly things. With the rich fool of Luke 12 (in Jesus’ parable), you would believe that life consists in the abundance of the things that you have, that real living is pleasures, parties, beer, stocks, CDs, new cars, friends, a beautiful body. You look for the things of this life. You look for financial success, achievement, lusts, putting one on, getting wasted. You say that that is what life is for, that is what satisfies. And you are governed by the law of man. You would say, “Everyone may do what he wants so long as he doesn’t hurt anyone else.” That would be your code as a citizen of this world.
That world stands condemned, you understand. It will be overthrown by the righteousness of God. And that world can never satisfy. That world of darkness and sin to which we belong of ourselves is a world of emptiness and loneliness. It is a wretched hole. It is tottering on the brink of judgment.
The wonder is that our citizenship now is in heaven. Heaven is eternal. Heaven is the dwelling place of God. Heaven is wrapped in light and peace and joy and perfection. It is a land that is glorious and fair. And each part of that land is glorious because it reflects the glory of God. It consists in perfect fellowship with God. It is rich beyond compare in love and mercy and grace. Its language is golden, its laws proceed from God’s throne and are true and righteous altogether. There is no evil, no lying, no death, no weariness, no toil or pain, no tears. There is Jesus Christ and all of the saints. And it will never pass away. But it goes on from glory to glory. It is fixed and eternal.
Our citizenship is in heaven. Its life is now ours. We hold the title to it. We have been given an inheritance, a mansion in glory. We belong to the state of heaven, where all our sorrows and sighings and all our sins will be forever gone. And we will enjoy fellowship with God.
You ask me, but how is that possible?
You do not buy this citizenship. You do not trade for it. It is not a commodity that you can purchase. You are not born of yourself with any right to have it. All little babies who die do not go to heaven because they are little babies. No. Heaven must be given to you. It must be conferred. It must be graciously given. It is to be found only in Jesus Christ. Paul writes in Colossians 1:13, We are delivered from the power of darkness and translated into the kingdom of His dear Son through Jesus Christ, the Savior, who was given unto those chosen of the Father, sent into the world to take us out of the world, to perform a transaction, to release us from the bondage of this world and to give us an inheritance in the heavenlies.
But still we ask, How is it possible to be a citizen of heaven?
The answer is: the ascension of Jesus Christ. You see, the Bible would have us understand that believers are always in union with Jesus Christ in the most intimate sense. By the wonderful love of God we are placed in Jesus Christ. Apart from Jesus Christ we are nothing. We have nothing. We can do nothing. We are naked and helpless and exposed. But God has placed us in Jesus Christ so that all that is Christ’s is also ours. He is in heaven. He ascended into heaven. He has the perfect right to be there. We have the right also of heaven. I may now, in this life, never possess a title to any square inch of this present earth. I may lose my little nest egg. I may build up my wealth and income, and fire can wipe it out in one night. And all that I have in this life that I value so much is filled with mold and rot. And I will leave it all behind. I cannot take it with me.
But in Jesus Christ I have an inheritance incorruptible, undefiled, that fadeth not away. It is reserved in heaven. It is being kept by the power of God (1 Peter 1:4-5). In Him I live. Heaven is mine through the ascension of Jesus Christ.
Do you know what that means?
That means that you, in Jesus Christ, are now a pilgrim and a stranger in this world. Because Jesus Christ ascended into heaven, this world cannot be your home. Even in the most joyful and blessed moments here below (the love of a family, the fellowship of a church, when God’s light is upon our path), we are not yet at rest, not perfectly. We are not yet home. We are pilgrims, passing through.
To the unsaved there are what appear to be lush green hills and pleasant places; money, a three-hundred thousand dollar home, a new car, an honorary degree, the lusts of their flesh – oh, they say, how wonderful! But not to us! We view it differently. We view this present world as a desert landscape, as a rocky cliff. Its music, its laughter is hollow. Its pleasures leave us empty. For we have seen the King in His beauty. We have been told of heaven’s lofty peaks and its wonderful, gracious meadows. And we yearn for the fulfillment of that land.
That does not mean that we despise this life and our calling, that we view our calling and life as evil in itself, that we sit around and mope all day long.
We are called to serve the risen Lord here and now. And He walks with us in the valley of death. He cheers us and is with us. Nor does it mean that, being citizens of heaven, we now escape the difficulties of this present world. A pilgrim in a strange land and in a strange city does not escape the perils of that land. When bombs fall and the earth quakes and sickness comes upon that city, these things are the lot of the pilgrim too. No, we do not have exemptions. We are not given exemptions from the sufferings of this present life. We are exposed to the climate of this present land. Death stalks. Sorrows, miseries. We find on our pathway those who are beaten down, and we help them in the name of the Lord. We hear the screams of this world given over to sin and torments, and weariness and temptations blow against us. But we do not belong.
This is not escapism. This is not a “pie-in-the-sky” theology. This is the reality of belonging to the ascended Lord Jesus Christ.
Do you feel that?
We are not eligible for the honors of this world. The world comes to you and says, Make a name for yourself among men. Climb to the top, man. And we turn away and say, For the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, I count it all but dung; I work to be faithful to Him.
We are not subject to the laws of sin in this world. The world says, When in Rome do as the Romans; each for himself and the devil may care. Grab now before it is gone. You may conduct yourself in business any old way. You may conduct yourself in the male/female relationships any old way, as long as you get what you want.
And we respond to that: The love of Christ constrains me. His will I will do. His word will I keep.
We do not join the world’s causes. The world says to us, Come join in establishing man’s utopia. And we respond, I will not fight your battles; I will not march in your ranks. I belong to the army of the cross, to the legions of heaven.
We will not serve their gods. They say to us, Come bow down before the god of beauty. It is before you in the magazines, in the shopping malls, with the ideal, attractive shape of the “real” woman. It is before you in drunkenness, parties, wealth, fornication. They say to us, Come on; when you hear the music, then bow down to these idols, pull the tap on the beer. When the party starts, you are welcome to join us.
And we respond: Be it known unto you, O world, that we will not serve your gods; we will not worship the images that you have set up. We will not hoard your treasures, we will not live your life, we will not seek your approval.
For what will it profit us if we gain the whole world and lose our souls?
Eternal life, life at God’s right hand, whom to know is life eternal.
We are the citizens of heaven. We are under heaven’s government. We pray, Thy will be done. We see heaven’s honors, heaven’s riches, heaven’s pleasures. Our self-worth is not that we have our name inscribed in the county hall, not that we have a titled deed to earthly property. But our worth is in Jesus Christ and that through His name we are inscribed in the book of eternal life, in the blood of the Lamb of God. So we live in hope.
That is something that the world lacks. They idolize hope but they do not have it. Everything they peg their hope on comes up empty. But we have a true hope. Our hope is the expectation of the coming of Jesus Christ, when He shall change our vile body like unto His most glorious body.
You understand that the word “hope” in the Bible is not in the sense of “hope so.” No, hope in the Bible is very certain. Hope is confident. It is a yearning, a desire. We hope and desire for Christ to come when we shall receive our glorified bodies, when we shall put off these present pilgrims’ garments. Our present earthly life, our present pilgrims’ clothes constantly need fixing. They cannot keep out the cold or protect us from the heat. We are very frail, lowly. And we cry, we have sorrow, and we hurt. We sin.
When He comes we will be perfected, transformed. We will be given a body which is able to live in heaven. We will be given that which is suited for eternal life. There will be no sin, no dishonor, no corruption. We shall be shrouded in victory!
And it is sure. It is sure because He has the victory. In His resurrection and in His ascension all power now belongs to Him. He subdues all things unto Him.
Is this your hope?
Once more, I ask you, Where is your citizenship?
Here below, or in heaven?
Those who belong to the ascended Lord Jesus Christ answer the question this way: Come, Lord Jesus, come quickly.
By Carl Haak