I’ve only traveled out of this country once in my life. Our college choir was in Europe for one month. We had a good time and experienced great hospitality but after one month we were all longing for home. As we came into Kennedy International Airport in New York we began listing all the things we had missed about home. On that list were many things that we frequently had taken for granted before we departed.
My parents spent a couple of years in Seoul, Korea. They were there during the Summer Olympics that were held in Seoul. During that time my parents were very aware that they were foreigners. Some people disliked my parents simply because they were Americans. They were very glad to get home. They yearned at times for comforts and the companionship of home.
Some of you served in the military and were stationed at remote locations. Some fought in the heat of battle. Some did not. But I suspect for everyone of you, it was good to get home. During your tour of duty I suspect you spent many nights thinking of and longing for what was at home.
Paul uses this kind of analogy to remind us that as believers we are citizens of another land. We are aliens and strangers in a foreign and hostile land. Hear again Paul’s words,
But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body. Therefore, my brothers, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, that is how you should stand firm in the Lord, dear friends! [Phil. 3:20-4:1]
WE ARE CITIZENS OF HEAVEN
Paul tells us that we are citizens of Heaven. Let me quickly remind you that Paul is directing his comments to those he believes are sincere followers of Christ. He is not saying that every person is a citizen of Heaven. He is not even meaning to imply that every person in the church is a citizen of Heaven. Paul believes he is talking to those who have received Christ as Savior and Lord. These people are citizens of Heaven by virtue of their relationship with Jesus.
The first implication of our citizenship in Heaven is that we don’t belong here. As comfortable as we may be, this is not our home. The values of the world are not our values. The treasures of the world are not our treasures.
The second implication is that we will never find satisfaction here. For one summer I stayed in the home of a very loving, kind and wonderfully generous family in Michigan. These folks were my hosts during my ministry internship. They worked hard to make me feel at home. But as nice as this environment was, it just wasn’t home. That’s the way it is in the world. We may enjoy some of the times here on earth . . . but it is not the same as being home. There is a longing within us that will not be satisfied until we are with Jesus.
The third implication is that our loyalty is not to this world. We may enjoy our life in this foreign land. But when we are forced to choose between this land and Heaven, we choose Heaven. As the apostles often said, “we must obey God rather than men.” They spoke these words sometimes even though it led to persecution. Their did not seek to cause trouble. In fact, they sought to be the best earthly citizens they could be. But when the law of the world opposed the law of God they stood with the Lord.
Finally, we must realize that we have Heaven’s resources at our disposal. An American citizen living in a foreign country has only to go the embassy of the United States to get help. The powerful resources of our country are available to us. It is the same thing in the spiritual realm. We do not fight in our own power. We have the resources of Heaven at our disposal. All we must do is go to God in prayer.
Do you notice how Paul describes Heaven? Heaven is where Jesus lives. And for Paul, that is all that matters. It is as if we were saying I’m going home. Someone might ask me where my home is. I would say “La Harpe”. And after they ask “Where is that?” They might say, “Tell me about La Harpe”. My response would be, “It is where my family is”. I’d answer this way because this is what makes that place significant. Sometimes I might tell someone that my home is “Chicago” because that is where my family lives. Our home is “home” because of who is there. And the same is true of Heaven.
In addition to telling us that Heaven is where our Lord lives, and reminding us that Heaven is where we will meet family members who have gone on before us, the Bible gives grand descriptions of Heaven. There are lots of gold and precious stones mentioned. At first it may seem that Heaven is a gaudy place. But I don’t think that the Bible is really trying to tell us what Heaven looks like. I think these images are designed to show us that that which we most cherish in this world is “ordinary” in Heaven. Heaven is so far superior to anything that we can describe that you can only say that gold and gems are the common things.
Paul wrote, “as it is written: “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor. 2:9). Do you know what this means? It means that no matter what you imagine Heaven to be, the reality is better than your imagination. Do you imagine Heaven to be a place of endless happiness? Heaven is still better that that. Do you imagine Heaven to be a place where you live without fear, anxiety or pressure? Heaven is better still. Do you imagine Heaven as the best of family reunions? Keep trying . . . Heaven is better yet. in truth, we have no idea how wonderful Heaven is. What we do know is that Jesus will be there. And that reunion will be unimaginable in its greatness.
As citizens of Heaven then
- we should spend time thinking about Heaven.
- we should be looking forward to Heaven rather than fighting it.
- we should live our lives mindful that we represent another land and strive to do so well.
- we should tell others about our home as often as we have opportunity.
WE ARE EAGERLY WAITING
The fact that we are citizens of Heaven leads us to look to Heaven. In fact, Paul says we are “eagerly waiting”. He seems to point to two things we are eagerly waiting for.
for His return
When the disciples watched Jesus ascend to heaven after the resurrection and the forty days He spent with them, they stood with their mouths open looking at the sky. Two angels came up to them and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.” (Acts 1:10-11) From the very earliest moments of the church the followers of Christ have been awaiting His return.
There are all kinds of theories on how and when this coming will take place. Some say Jesus will come once in secret to get all the Christians and then will come again to judge the world after a period of intense persecution. This is the view made very popular by the Left Behind books.
There are other views that suggest that Christians will have to endure any persecution that comes, but they will be protected and defended by God’s Spirit. They don’t see any Biblical merit for the idea of a “secret rapture”.
I don’t know which view is correct. I’m not particularly worried about it either. What matters is that Christ will return. It is one of the clearest doctrines of the New Testament. The church has always known that any moment Christ could come in glory and power.
The second coming is a central doctrine. Jesus talked of His return and the early church taught it with great expectation. We often look at the promise of his coming the wrong way. We study prophecy looking for details that satisfy our curiosity about the future. Many Christians have spent their lives trying to discern and hypothesize the particular details of His coming. But Bible prophecy wasn’t given to us so that we could predict the future. It was given to us to stimulate our relationship with and confidence in God.
The second coming reminds us of several things,
- there will be a day of accounting . . .we must not conclude that anyone is “getting away with” anything
- there is to be an urgency in our witness and in our personal pursuit of holiness. We don’t know how much time we have left.
- we must never look at world events and think that things are “out of control”. The Lord’s hands are still on the controls of time.
But if we are honest, we will confess that we talk about our belief in the second coming but we act like we don’t believe it. There is no change in our life. There is no urgency in our witness or our pursuit of holiness. And I think there are several reasons this is true. First, it has been so long since Christ left we wonder if His promise is true. This was an issue they faced even in the first century. Peter addressed this same issue,
But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. [2 Peter 3:8-9]
The Bible says that God is waiting until all who are going to believe come to faith. When that happens, the curtain will be drawn. We don’t like the answer because most of us aren’t very patient. But, the counsel is simple, “Be patient, God knows what He is doing.”
The second reason that we have problem with the teaching of the second coming is because we don’t want it to be true. Most of us hope the Lord will come just as we are breathing our last breath . . . or at least wait until we are really old and can’t get around any more. We are so attached to earth that we somehow imagine that His coming would “mess things up”. If we believed that His coming really could be today we would have to live our lives differently. We don’t want to do that.
The Apostle Paul had a different attitude. He started every day wondering if “this could be the day” that the Lord comes in glory. He was eager. But He wasn’t just eager because Christ was coming but also because of what His coming would mean to Him.
for the transformation of the body
Paul tells us that he is looking forward to the transformation of the body. This is probably something that Paul thought about more than you or I do. Paul’s body had a lot of wear on it. He had been beaten, imprisoned, stoned and left for dead. Paul tells us that he had a “thorn in the flesh” which we are led to believe was some kind of physical ailment. In addition, Paul was getting older and with age comes new limits to your physical ability.
Joni Eareckson spends most of her life in a wheelchair. Her legs are lifeless and her arms are limited in what they can do. Joni spends a lot of time thinking about the transformation of the body. She imagines what it will be like,
One day no more bulging middles or balding tops. No varicose veins or crow’s-feet. No more cellulite or support hose. Forget the thunder thighs and highway hips. Just a quick leapfrog over the tombstone and it’s the body you’ve always dreamed of. Fit and trim, smooth and sleek. [Eareckson, HEAVEN p. 34]
The Bible likens our resurrected body to the transformation that takes place when a seed is planted in the ground, or when a caterpillar comes out of the cocoon as a butterfly. The transformation that takes place is something that we can’t understand. Eareckson writes,
trying to understand what our bodies will be like in heaven is much like expecting an acorn to understand his destiny of roots, bark, branches, and leaves. Or asking a caterpillar to appreciate flying. Or a peach pit to fathom being fragrant. Or a coconut to grasp what it means to sway in the ocean breeze. Our eternal bodies will be so grand, so glorious, that we can only catch a fleeting glimpse of the splendor to come. [Eareckson, HEAVEN p. 39]
This is why we long for His coming. When Christ comes our inheritance will be revealed. Do you remember the days of childhood when you longed for Christmas? The days went by slowly, you had trouble sleeping at night because of the anticipation. You talked about it all the time.
As an adult I am facing something like that now. My book is nearing publication and I find myself thinking about that moment when I hold that book in my hands for the first time. I imagine that sense of accomplishment and wonder. It will be a dream come true and I look forward to that day.
How much more we should long for Heaven. If we had any idea of what Heaven was really like we would live with new energy and new confidence.
WE MUST STAND FIRM
Therefore, my brothers, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, that is how you should stand firm in the Lord, dear friends! [4:1]
The Apostle Paul gives us a “therefore”. It’s his conclusion to all that is said. Because Christ is coming again, and because we are looking forward to a day when He will transform our earthly bodies, we should stand firm. Notice that he doesn’t just say “hold your ground.” He said, “that is how” you should stand firm. What is he talking about?
First, Paul wants us to know that we will stand firm and hold our ground if we remember the truth. We must remind ourselves of the truth of the gospel. You see, doctrine matters. The fact of Christ’s promised return is important to remember. Remembering the truth will help us stand. Remembering that He is coming will help us to endure in difficult times. It will help us to defend ourselves from the lusts of the world. It will keep us from getting too comfortable in the world.
Second, Paul wants us to focus on the truth. Remember he told us that he keeps “straining forward toward that which is ahead.” The second coming was not simply an interesting course of study for Paul. To Paul the second coming was the fuel that kept him going. He never forgot that He was working toward a goal. He was working to bring the gospel to anyone who would hear so that when the Lord returned these people would go to Heaven and not to Hell. When life was frustrating and He wanted to give up, He remembered that there is good reason to hang on. This is not all there is. When He was facing persecution he remembered that someday God would vindicate His own. Someday the truth would be known and wrong would be righted.
And finally Paul celebrated the truth. I imagine that people found Paul grinning at odd times. At those times Paul was thinking about what is ahead. I imagine that there were times when Paul sang songs while others complained because Paul was thinking about the future day. I imagine that there were times when Paul found his heart racing with anticipation when he thought about seeing Jesus face to face. When the truth about the future sinks deep into our soul, it gives us new reasons for joy.
You see, Paul’s words are not just theological trivia. The hope that Paul talks about is practical. So, as we conclude let me ask you some pointed questions,
- How would your life be different if you knew Jesus might come today?
- Are you living as a citizen of Heaven or are you denying your citizenship by the way you live?
- Are you putting more emphasis on your earthly body than you should? Do you remember that our bodies are tools to honor the Lord and not an end in themselves. Are you spending more time caring for your temporal body than you are for your eternal soul?
- Do you believe in Heaven? Are you investing in Heaven or are you spending everything you have on the things of this life.
Some people say that some people are so heavenly minded that they are no earthly good. But that isn’t true. Some people are so self-righteous that they are no earthly good. They are so wrapped up in religion or their own superiority that they become out of touch with everyone. A person who is truly heavenly minded is a person who working hard to make a difference because they are most aware of what is at stake.