Living Counter-Culturally as Citizens of Heaven
Paul has this way of saying something that is either utterly profound or utterly confusing (or both) and then just moving right along without further explanation. That’s how it feels at the end of Philippians 3 when Paul takes a break from instructing us to follow his example to tell us this: “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” (Philippians 3:20–21).
Citizens of Heaven
It’s an encouraging passage, but it can be confusing too. After a second read, it provides more questions than it does answers. How can I be a citizen of heaven if I’ve never been there? Is Jesus coming here, or are we going there? Paul doesn’t take much time to unpack this passage more in-depth, but it is worth slowing down to dissect what he does say.
Whenever you’re trying to understand the deeper meaning in a passage, it’s helpful to know who the author is talking to. In this book, Paul is speaking to the church at Philippi, so we know his audience is Christian. Therefore, Paul isn’t saying that everyone is a citizen of heaven, but that Christians specifically are. This is important because Paul uses this phrase in a passage where he is telling the Philippians not to look like those around them. This other group of people Paul is discussing “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” (Philippians 3:18-19). They’re focused only on themselves and the here and now, not the things of heaven.
Paul’s example is different. He “is forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead” (Philippians 3:13). And that’s what he is calling other Christians too as well. We shouldn’t selfishly focus on ourselves, but rather on Christ both as a model and savior. As citizens of heaven, we represent Christ to others, and that’s a responsibility we should take seriously. But also, because we live in fallen “lowly bodies,” we need Jesus to cover our failures.
All Things Subject to Christ
The message here has universal application to Christians of all times and places, but we also know through our initial study of Philippi that it has a specific application for Paul’s immediate readers. Philippi, in particular, was known for its patriotic nationalism. Full of retired Roman soldiers, Philippi was proud of its status as a Roman colony. So, when Paul says that Christians have citizenship in heaven, not Rome, he’s saying something significant.
We know Paul isn’t suggesting we be poor citizens because he’s already commanded in Romans 13:1 that “every person be subject to the governing authorities.” He is, however, saying that there is a more important citizenship for the Christian, “for there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.” God is bigger than Rome, and he comes before Rome. For the Christian, Jesus is king, not the Roman Emporer.
New Heaven and New Earth
But Paul doesn’t stop here. To finish up this chapter of Philippians, he throws us one more curveball to ponder. “Our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Philippians 3:20). Even though we are citizens of heaven, we aren’t going back there—not in the way we would expect at least. In Christ’s usual fashion, he is coming down to us, not asking us to climb up to him. And he’s bringing heaven with him.
We see the culmination of this story in Revelation 21:1-4. John writes, “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. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 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. 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.'”
There’s a grand ending to our story, and it involves Jesus and his kingdom coming down to earth. In this story, Christ reigns, not the emperor or the president. We get to be with him forever, and he’s fixing our mess once and for all. Our bodies will be transformed like his, and he will “subject all things to himself” (Philippians 3:21). And it’s this great truth that allows us to stand firm while we wait.