How many of you have a passport? Here in America you can go an entire lifetime without one of those little blue books—unless you want to travel to a distant land. But for those of us who have that proof of citizenship in our possession, it’s a powerful comfort to read that statement where our Secretary of State instructs our embassies all around the world to protect and provide all possible assistance and support to Mr. (name).
With that in mind, it’s hard to find a story anywhere—a positive story, that is—of a person renouncing their citizenship. Usually we look with disdain on a person who tears up their passport or burns a flag and says, “Listen up, America. I don’t want to be a part of this system any longer. I renounce the red-white-and-blue values of my youth.”
Back on an October 31, in 1959, a mousy-looking kid named Lee, wearing American blue jeans, walked into the American embassy in Moscow and told the receptionist, Joan Hallett, he was sick of being a citizen of the U.S.A. He preferred the workers’ paradise, the classless utopia of the U.S.S.R. He was of the mind that the hammer and sickle of communism was a better fit for his frame of mind.
To his surprise and disappointment, however, the Russians didn’t really want him very much either. Before long, he was back in the U.S. along with a cynical Soviet wife who belittled everything he said and did. And it wasn’t much longer before Lee Harvey Oswald, back in the country he had rejected, climbed the stairs to the sixth story of a building in Dallas, and shot that country’s president as he drove past in a motorcade.
There’s a bit of irony in the fact that everyone hates a traitor—and yet all nations use other countries’ traitors to their own advantage. Back during the Cold War—and some of this still goes on, to be sure—we Americans were livid with the Alger Hisses, the Aldrich Ameses who sold out our side. And yet our own CIA encouraged Russian agents to defect, to sell secrets to the U.S. However, Christian writer C. S. Lewis astutely observed: “We may use him, but those who do still regard the double agent as vermin.” No, we don’t think much of a person who disavows his citizenship.
That’s why it gives us pause here in Philippians chapter three when the Apostle Paul appears to do exactly that. All along, he’s been exhorting his fellow believers—you and me—to seek a relationship with Jesus Christ, to strive toward the goal of eternity and heaven. But here right at the end of this chapter, he makes the clearest statement of all about it, just six words long: “But our citizenship is in heaven.”
Just like that: “But our citizenship is in heaven.” And Paul goes on to emphasize why: “And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ.”
That’s the New International Version. If you look in other renditions, to see if this concept is fleshed out differently there, you don’t find much contrast. “But our citizenship is in heaven,” is what you find everywhere. The Message, which is a loose paraphrase prayerfully created by Eugene Peterson, does edit it just slightly: “We’re citizens of high heaven!”
Which is essentially the same thing. Except if you go back to the King James Version, there seems to be a striking difference. Let me share that one with you, and notice the contrast: “For our conversation is in heaven.”
Not “citizenship,” “conversation.” And sure enough, the Greek word politeuma, can mean several things: “citizenship,” “commonwealth,” “colony of heaven,” or even just “behavior.” So here’s a picture, points out Dr. Ralph Martin in his Tyndale New Testament Commentaries for Philippians, of “genuine Christians whose conversation is in heaven.” Don’t you like that?
Just one verse earlier Paul writes about some false teachers, people who are “enemies of the cross of Christ.” And he shares this scathing rebuke: “Their mind is on earthly things.” It’s probably safe to say that if a man’s mind is on earthly things, then his conversations and priorities and spending decisions and investments will all be tied to earthly things as well. Where the mind is, the money generally follows!
But now Paul continues on to write to encourage his friends in Philippi, and you and me here in this 21st century to be citizens of heaven, to have conversations that are focused on heaven, to exhibit lifestyle patterns that show others we’re interested in heaven and in the God who lovingly rules our lives from there. That’s one reason why I have always believed in the importance of involving ourselves in the local church, where our thoughts are always directed toward the matters and the priorities of the New Jerusalem. Our Sabbath School lesson discussions, our hymns, our prayers, our sermons, even our potluck conversations are going to lead us to think about God and His plans and principles.
But you know, this leads us back to the disturbing question from the beginning. The Lee Harvey Oswald dilemma, so to speak. Is a man or woman who is focusing on heaven, and spending all his or her energy and income and resources on getting to heaven . . . is that person much use to the rest of society down here? That old complaint comes immediately to mind, where “So-and-So is so heavenly minded that he’s of no earthly good.” Are we who are Christians sometimes seen as not very helpful in the citizenry issues of planet earth and the pollution of our lakes and oceans because we’re always dreaming about the sea of glass instead?
Back just a few years ago, a man and woman traveled up and down the West Coast, inviting interested people to basically tear up their passports, renounce America, and enter into a new kingdom. They rented hotel ballrooms, and then tacked up posters all around town with this headline: “UFO’s.” And the copy underneath posed these fascinating topics: “Why they are here.” “Who they have come for.” “When they will leave.”
Well, I’m talking about the Heaven’s Gate cult, of course. Which we now tragically remember as the suicide cult from Rancho Santa Fe. But you can read how people sold their houses and abandoned their jobs. A sheriff’s detective named Ron Sutton heard about a man who sold his $5,000 fishing boat for five bucks; someone else just up and gave away a brand new van. “Here. I don’t need this anymore.” A hippie, to whom rock and roll music was everything—his life, his existence—gave away his electric guitar. Because he and others were turning away from, renouncing, their citizenship here in the U.S., and really, as part of Planet Earth. Were they the true followers of Philippians 3:20?
Well, there’s a line in Dr. Martin’s Tyndale study guide which is absolutely crucial to notice. Here it is: “The apostle here indicates the double allegiance of the Philippian Christians” he writes. “As Roman subjects they are citizens of the far distant, capital city of Rome, where the Emperor has his residence. As servants of ‘another king, one Jesus’ [that’s Acts 17:7], they are citizens of that capital city, where the King of kings has His domicile, and whose advent to establish His reign on this earth and to rescue His people is awaited.”
One of the finest books I can suggest on this topic is entitled Kingdoms In Conflict, written by Chuck Colson and Ellen Santilli Vaughn. Colson is perhaps uniquely qualified to weigh and then describe how a Christian can be both a citizen down here and at the same time have a passport for that Better Land. If you remember that name and have the expression “Watergate” come into your mind at the same time, there’s a reason for that. In the late 1960s, Colson was in the high halls of power, with an office just a few feet away from President Richard Nixon’s. He knew intimately about political goals and flags and armies and earthly agendas. He could send out a memo and make things happen; he could pick up a phone and destroy an enemy. But then after the Watergate scandal and some jail and some praying and a conversion experience, he began to not only serve God but to run a ministry, Prison Fellowship, which prepares inmates for life in both kingdoms. So Colson is a very successful man with dual citizenship. How is this accomplished? Which master do you serve first and most?
Well, he writes with keen insight about the temptation for Christians to try to run the world here below, which isn’t really my topic today. But then he addresses our immediate concern: “It is, in fact, their dual citizenship that should, as Augustine believed, make Christians the best of citizens,” he writes. Meaning “the best of citizens down here.” “Not because they are more patriotic or civic-minded, but because they do out of obedience to God that which others do only if they choose or if they are forced. And their very presence in society means the presence of a community of people who live”—and this is an interesting expression—“by the Law behindthe law.”
Well, what does all of this mean? Let me ask you something. Why do most people pay taxes? Well, because if they don’t, the IRS nails them with a penalty. Have you noticed that letters from the Internal Revenue Service just have a certain “look” to them? And not a very happy look? So people go to the post office at 11:55 p.m. on April 15 because they fear the consequences. They’re afraid they’ll get audited. They’re afraid they’ll go to jail.
On the other hand, why does the Christian pay taxes? Ideally, he or she does it because the Bible says to. We’re commanded to love and support our government.
Why does the average secular person not steal or embezzle funds? Maybe because it’s against the law, or frowned on by society; most likely, because of the rules and penalties. How about the Christian? Because of God’s eternal law, the Law behind the law. Because we want to honor God’s eternal kingdom with our integrity. Because we want to further the agenda of our King of kings. Because we want to point our neighbors toward a better way. Well, I could go on, but you get the idea. We have a glorious sense of that higher law, that eternal campaign for victory over evil.
Chuck Colson adds a bit more: “The citizens of the Kingdom of God should be patriots in the highest sense, loving the world by loving those in the nation in which they live.” And why? “Because that government is ordained by God to preserve order and promote justice.”
And then finally, in perhaps his best statement about how these two citizenships should blend and mesh, he observes: “Christian citizens should be activists about their faith, striving by their witness to ‘Christianize’ their culture—not by the force of the sword, but by the force of their ideas.”
This actually takes me into next week’s sermon study, where Paul writes to these citizens of heaven about living holy lives right there in Philippi. What difference does this new religion make in a man or woman’s life? he asks. One of the stiffest, boldest challenges ever to be found in the Bible is in verse eight of the next chapter, about being “true, noble, right, pure, lovely,” etc. That’s the kind of character a person living in the suburbs of Philippi should demonstrate.
And then just one more thought-provoking postscript: “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances,” Paul writes. Is he writing that from Paradise, from a heavenly mansion? Or from a comfortable retirement with a healthy pension? Does he write those words out of abundance, where a grateful church has set him up with a parsonage, a company car, and a Kaiser Permanente medical plan? No! In fact, he’s in jail! Down here where his earthly citizenship is very obviously going on! Earthly powers have him in chains! But he’s still content, because the second half, the better half, of his dual citizenship is about to kick in.
As we close, let me express a hope that our church right here is, in its own way, helping to demonstrate Philippians 3:20. We occupy this building and we have this family of believers. We spend money this year and every year, doing God’s work. We pay salaries and we print bulletins and we have a web site and we serve free meals. We’re part of a city and a state and a national government.
But when it’s all said and done, this church is here to encourage you to embrace citizenship in that other kingdom. To make your little blue passport secondary to the Calvary one which admits you into heaven. It’s my prayer that everything our church involves itself in doing will lead us to understand that we are really just passing through this place. And that our eternal home is with our Savior in the mansions He has prepared for us. Shall we pray?
Dear Lord, we pray that You will make us good citizens in both worlds. Keep us practical here on earth; sustain us as loyal and humble Americans. But in every day of our lives, please help us to remember that we belong first to You, and that Your kingdom is our greatest love and our highest priority. We ask in Jesus’ name, Amen.
Submitted by David B. Smith. Better Sermons © 2005-2009. Click here for usage guidelines.