Text: Philippians 3:17-4:1
This Sunday is sometimes called “Christ the King Sunday.” It commemorates especially the kingdom of God and the kingship of Christ. Originally it was meant to emphasize the unique nature of Christ’s kingdom. That kingdom is not of this world, and thus it transcends racial, ethnic, and national boundaries. All Christians have a shared citizenship, the citizenship which is in heaven. But this can be and has been misunderstood over the years. What does it mean for Christ to be our king? Does it mean that we cannot have any other earthly kings? What does it mean for our citizenship to be in heaven? We will turn our attention to this question with our text this morning, and we will see that the apostle Paul connects our heavenly citizenship with the future resurrection of the body and glorification of all things.
Our Citizenship is in Heaven
The Apostle Paul says that the Christian has an alternative citizenship to that of this world. This alternative citizenship is in the kingdom of heaven. “For our citizenship is in heaven” (3:20). Earlier in Philippians he had also said, “Only let your conduct be worthy of the gospel of Christ” (1:27). The English expression “let your conduct be” is a translation of a Greek variation of the term πολιτευμα which means citizenship. He is thus telling us to live like a citizen of the gospel, like a citizen of heaven.
But what is πολιτευμα or citizenship? Does this mean that we have our own pledge of allegiance, our own language, and our own constitution, that we should all live together in the same city-state? There have been some Christians who have suggested something like that in the past, but they always ended up in some very bad places, mixing things up spectacularly. That is not, needless to say, the sort of thing that the Apostle is talking about.
“Citizenship” in the ancient world could be a normal “political” concept, granting legal status and protections. But it could also be applied to schools and even voluntary gatherings of peers. Many of the ancient philosophers, Aristotle chief among them, identified friendship as the most important component of citizenship, and there is probably a lesson in that for why our modern nations and republics cannot seem to maintain any stable civic unity– they lack a spiritual and loving bond. But at its most basic “citizenship” is that thing which serves as a means of identity and a foundation for a certain sort of conduct. Americans have certain core values that they hold dear. So do the English. It was this way in Rome, and it was also that way in Greece and the East before them. Citizenship is a sort of internal bond, creating a group identity and mindset.
Now, Paul nowhere suggests that our heavenly citizenship is in contradiction to our earthly citizenship. He plays up his own Roman citizenship when he needs to (Acts 22:22-29), and he consistently tells us to honor political rulers and to seek the peace and welfare of our civic communities. But what he is saying here in Philippians is that Christians have a sort of dual citizenship and that our ultimate identity and final loyalty must be with our Lord in heaven. It is also worth noting that our citizenship is not so much “heavenly” as it is located in heaven. This citizenship presently resides in heaven, and that is because that is where Jesus is. He inaugurated the kingdom at his death and resurrection, and He ascended into heaven to take his seat on the throne.
Christians must be defined by this heavenly citizenship, even while now living on earth. Paul says: “Brethren, join in following my example, and note those who so walk, as you have us for a pattern” (vs. 17). And this is all connected to citizenship. “For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” (vs. 20).
Christ is Able to Subdue All Things to Himself
Our heavenly citizenship shapes our basic character and holds our deepest loyalty. We are who we are in this world because our citizenship is in another. And our hope and expectation is directed towards that citizenship.
For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to His glorious body, according to the working by which He is able even to subdue all things to Himself. (vs. 20-21)
Notice the directions being used here. We are not waiting for ourselves to “go up” to heaven but rather for Jesus (and our citizenship) to transform our lowly bodies down here. And this means that “heavenly citizenship” is not so much about heaven as it is about the future. Heavenly citizenship is focused on the resurrection.
An understanding of Roman citizenship is particularly helpful here. You see, not everyone who lived in the Roman empire was a citizen. A citizen was a highly valued status. And the citizenship of being a “Roman” was exactly that: being a Roman wherever you went. Thus to have a Roman citizenship meant that your citizenship was “in Rome,” whether or not you were in Gaul or Galatia, Pompeii or Philippi. The various colonies of Rome were seen as outposts of Rome spread throughout the empire, bringing “Romanness” to that territory. Thus Paul is effectively saying that this earth is now a colony of heaven. The gospel is the proclamation that Jesus is lord, or that Jesus is king or emperor, and the fact that we are eagerly awaiting him to transform our bodies and subdue all things to himself is a potent message. It means that the earth is being made over after the image of the kingdom of Christ.
It is a powerful message, that Jesus is Lord, and it justly frightens all those who would attempt to claim ultimate power for themselves. But the fact that Christians believe that their king is actively colonizing the earth does not mean that Christians believe that they make that happen through our socio-political activism. We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, neither do we use carnal weapons. So what does Paul here say that we are to do, in light of our heavenly citizenship? He says that we “wait,” “walk,” and “stand.” It is Jesus who has the active role. He transforms and subdues. This transformation occurs in two ways, through the persuasive power of the gospel proclamation and the final power of the resurrection. We “wait.” Jesus “transforms” and “subdues.”
Walk the Walk
The Apostle actually gives us his practical application of this doctrine. “Therefore… stand fast in the Lord” (4:1). When we recall his earlier statements in 3:15-17 we can see that “standing fast” means continuing to walk in the way. We must walk like heavenly citizens.
Therefore let us, as many as are mature, have this mind; and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal even this to you. Nevertheless, to the degree that we have already attained, let us walk by the same rule, let us be of the same mind. Brethren, join in following my example, and note those who so walk, as you have us for a pattern.
Notice these two expressions: “by the same rule” and “of the same mind.” Those descriptions describe “the walk.” We can also see that the Christian walk is the opposite of the walk described in 3:18-19:
For many walk, of whom I have told you often, and now tell you even weeping, that they are the enemies of the cross of Christ: whose end is destruction, whose god is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame—who set their mind on earthly things..
Our walk is not one of self-interest, of earthly things, but instead it is a heavenly walk, esteeming others better than ourselves. It is a walk that is filled with the same mind, the mind of Christ. The Epistle to the Philippians repeats the imperative to “be of one mind” at least seven times, and it is plain that the mind that we are to have is the mind of Christ Jesus:
Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (2:5-11)
If our citizenship is in heaven with Christ, then it is also true that he is our ultimate statesman and founding father. We are to be good citizens of heaven by living like him, by walking in humility and the way of the cross. But make no mistake about it, this walk of humility is also a means of dominion. It was that way for Jesus. After subjecting himself to all things, he was rewarded with glory and rule. And this walk will also be a means of the Christian dominion, as they are co-rulers with Christ. They walk in humility, but they will see a transformation and a subjegation. This will be of persons, to be sure, but it will be through souls.
And so it is true that our primary job is to “stand fast” (4:1). We do this, not in spite of, but because Jesus Christ is Lord. This “standing fast” does not mean that we wait aimlessly. Rather it means that we persevere in the mind of Christ. We continue to live heavenly lives now, according to the fruit of the Spirit, in the eager expectation that Christ will transform this world through His word.
Our heavenly citizenship does not devalue our earthly citizenship, but it does place limits upon it. The fact that our citizenship is in heaven means that we can only place our hope in the king above all kings, Jesus Christ who now reigns in heaven. It teaches us that eschatological transformation is not a product of ballot boxes, nor even of social agendas or community plans. Rather, it is a product of the preaching of the gospel and the living out of the Christian virtues, showing as well as telling where our heart is.
But it also teaches us that this transformation will come. As sure as Jesus sits on the throne, he is able to subdue all things to himself, and the gospel is both that sinners are being saved and that the decay caused by sin is being undone. Death is itself is defeated in the cross of Christ and our lowly bodies will be glorified after the image of the son of God. Since our citizenship is in heaven, we can stand fast. We can be confident. We can eagerly await the resurrection of the dead.