CITIZENS OF HEAVEN
Written by Doug Ponder on September 1, 2013
After You Believe
Occasionally you may hear some cynical person say, “Once I’ve been rescued by Jesus, why should I care to do what he says?” It’s as if, for them, God’s promise never to cast us out those who come to Jesus is a license to do nothing—or worse, to sin with reckless abandon.
That is not how Paul understood salvation. He writes, “I want to know Christ—to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect (complete), but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own” (Phil. 3:10-12).
Paul says he presses on, works hard, even suffers for Jesus, precisely because he is confident that Jesus has died and risen to ‘make Paul his own.’ The knowledge that he belongs to Jesus, in other words, is the very thing that drives Paul to continue trusting and obeying Jesus. In other words, Paul turns the cynical objection on its head: If you know that you belong to Jesus, why not strive even more to embrace that identity? It works something like the marital promise on a wedding day. When spouses promise to love each other “until death do us part,” neither of them sees this vow an excuse for doing whatever they please. Quite the contrary. The promise is what sustains their love.
What Salvation Is (And Isn’t)
Part of the problem is that many people are confused about what salvation is (and isn’t). Salvation is not some kind of cold transaction, a simple matter of trading in our faith for the forgiveness of God. If we go on thinking of salvation in that way, we will inevitably begin to think of God as a divine ATM. That is, we will think God exists simply to dispense the “cash of forgiveness” upon receiving our “card of faith.” Thus we turn God into a vending-machine-like object who exists to service us on our terms.
But that is not how Paul (or Jesus) talked about salvation. Salvation is not the byproduct of a transaction; it is the outcome of a transfer of allegiance. Instead of walking as “enemies of the cross of Christ” (Phil. 3:18), we are now “citizens of heaven” (Phil. 3:20)—which means having a new king and belonging to a new kingdom—all because Jesus died to make us his own (Phil. 3:12).
Subjects of the King
All citizens are subjects of something or someone. To be a citizen of the United Kingdom is to be a subject to the British crown. To be a citizen of the United States is to be subject to the laws of the land and the documents which establish our government. Those who are citizens of heaven are subjects of the rule of God in Christ Jesus. They are subjects of Jesus, the king. They recognize Jesus as the rightful ruler, or Lord, or their lives. They submit to Jesus as Lord, and they rejoice that Jesus is Lord because they believe his rule will accomplish all that he promised it would.
This is not the same as saying that Christians make Jesus Lord of their lives. As the one who has “the power to subject all things to himself,” Jesus is already the Lord of everything—whether we like it or not. But we should like that Jesus is Lord because of the kind of ruler he is. He’s kind of king who rides into battle to lay down his own life to save his people, even though they’ve spent much of their lives betraying him and rebelling against his rule. He’s the kind of king who has defeated our worst enemies, sin and death, by triumphing over them in his resurrection from the dead. He’s the kind of king who won’t let evil or injustice have the last word, which is why he promised to return to set all things straight. It’s completely foolish to oppose a king like that.
Citizens of the Kingdom
When Paul says that we are “citizens of heaven,” he is not talking about “going to heaven when we die.” That is true, of course, but that is not chiefly what is means to be a citizen of heaven. As we have already said, part of what it means to be a citizen is to submit to the rule of God in Christ, rejoicing that Jesus is Lord.
But another part of being a citizen deals with how we are to think about our new identity as people who belong to Jesus’ kingdom. In the ancient world, everyone knew that being a citizen of Rome did not mean that you were supposed to turn other people into Romans so that they could leave their towns and move to Rome. Instead, being a citizen of Rome meant that you were expected to live like a Roman citizen, bringing the ways of customs of the empire to wherever you were living. That is the image Paul likely has in mind when he says we are “citizens of heaven.” Jesus has made us his own so that we might bring the life of heaven to earth—which is precisely what Jesus taught us to pray for (Matt. 6:9-10).
And yet, there were times in the ancient world, as there are still today, when the citizens of an empire or country were in some kind of trouble. They needed help and they couldn’t rescue themselves. In such cases, being a citizen did not mean that the emperor was going to snatch you away from wherever you were living to bring you back to the mother city. Instead, being a citizen meant that you could trust that your ruler would come to where you live, bringing with him all the forces needed to set things straight. That is exactly what we are doing here, as we “await a Savior” from heaven (Phil. 3:20), who will come to us to transform us (Phil. 3:21), and indeed the whole world, into God’s glorious new creation.
Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.