“Citizens of Heaven” - Sermon by Joe Ellis on Philippians 3:17-4:1 — November 14, 2021
We are in a time of deep uncertainty and great instability. Everything seems called into question. We don’t know what normal is anymore. Normal keeps changing, and changing, and changing. We long for our old normal, we thirst to go back to that old normal, we long and hope for that old normal to return. But we don’t know what normal is coming. We don’t know if we should welcome the new normal — we don’t know how to tell when the new normal is finally here, and when it is here we don’t know what good will remain. It is easy to look around this fluctuating normal and wonder what will persist. What will endure? What will survive all this tumult? As faithful Christians, we have been rocked to our core — many of us carry questions about what church will look like on the other side. If this violent shaking of normal continues, what will remain of our faith on the other side? We feel clothed in uncertainty.
Let’s remember, our faith was born from uncertainty. Uncertainty is the DNA of our faith. In fact, in order for faith to exist — there must be uncertainty. Faith is believing in the unseen. Paul encourages us to do this when he says in Philippians 3:17, “Pattern your lives after mine, and learn from those who follow our example.” In other words, “Follow my example and copy me.” Certainly, seeing the unseen with the eyes of faith is one such thing we should copy. Remember, Paul is in prison. Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles, is in chains awaiting his trial — it is a real possibility that he may be sentenced to death and swiftly executed. You may remember that there were some Christians who were actually trying to make Paul’s situation worse — they were preaching in a way to stir up trouble for Paul. On top of that, Paul is writing this letter to the church in Philippi because they are also struggling with division in the church family. Now, at this point in this letter, Paul is referring to some who are living as enemies of the cross. We can’t be sure if these people are inside or outside the church in Philippi — nonetheless, Paul writes about them with tears in his eyes. He cares for these people deeply. With tears he writes about those who have chosen to live as enemies of the cross of Jesus. He writes with tears about those who found the scandal of a crucified Messiah too great and became enemies — those who found the cross too shameful, too absurd, too humiliating. So, they walked away and turned to earthly things — Paul says their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. All they ever think about is what’s on the earth. This letter is filled with uncertainty. Our faith has uncertainty in its DNA. Paul’s writings are born out of uncertain circumstances. Will Paul be executed? Will the Philippian church fall apart? Will they follow the example of those who are enemies of the cross? For them, like us, there is plenty to be discouraged by — if, all we do is think about what’s on the earth.
As we live out our faith it is often too easy for our mind to be drawn into thinking about what’s only on the earth, to look at only what we can see. To look at the collapsing edifices of our faith — to look at people walking away, to look at people giving up hope, to look at churches closing, to look at church infighting, to look at the pain in our own life and bring that rage to God. And after you’ve absorbed it all — some walk away from the faith. Some lose faith. This is often what may happen when “all we ever do is think about what’s on the earth”. When all we ever do is look to circumstance. When our focus is only what goes on around us, hope flies away.
“Do not meditate solely on things of the earth” is Paul’s constant reminder. If anyone had cause to focus in on crumbling circumstances and lose faith — it was Paul. If anyone was to become depressed and overwhelmed by current reality — it was Paul. Yet Paul constantly reminds and exhorts the Philippians, and all of us saying, “Take heart! Direct your attention heavenward. Things are not as they seem.”
As we look at crumbling circumstances, Paul encourages us to direct our attention heavenward. Paul says, “Remember, our citizenship is in heaven.” Hearing this, we tend to think Paul is saying, “Remember the earth is not our home. What happens here doesn’t matter so much because we will one day be called to our heavenly home.” This slightly misses the mark. When Paul talks about our citizenship being in heaven, he’s not saying, ‘so then we need to go there, and not care about what is going on here.’
About a hundred years before Paul wrote this letter, in 42 BC, Philippi was the setting for one of the greatest battles that took place in the Roman Civil War. After their victory, the two generals (Antony and Octavian) had many soldiers in Northern Greece. These soldiers had too much time on their hands and were sitting idle. Something needed to be done with these Roman Citizens. Octavian (who later because the Emperor) didn’t want these soldiers to come back to Rome — that would just stir up trouble. Besides Rome was already overcrowded and underemployed. Instead of bringing these soldiers, these Roman citizens, back to Rome, Antony and Octavian turned Philippi into a Roman Colony. They gave these soldiers land. They charged these citizens with living according to Roman rule in that distant land. So Philippi became a colony of Rome. There in Philippi, citizenship didn’t mean that they would go back to Rome one day, but instead that they should extend the rule of Rome far beyond Rome to Philippi. So these soldiers upheld Roman law, Roman customs, they pledged allegiance to the Emperor, they even worshipped the Emperor in that distant land. These citizens knew that if they got into trouble in Philippi, the Emperor, who they called saviour, would come with deliverance.
This context is an incredibly important help in understanding Paul when he says, “We are citizens of heaven” in verse 20. We naturally suppose this to mean that we are waiting to go to heaven. We don’t belong here, we belong in heaven. If someone in Philippi said, “We are citizens of Rome,” that wouldn’t mean that they expected one day to move back to Rome. It meant the opposite. It meant bringing Rome to Philippi.
The church on earth is at present a colony of heaven — we are citizens of heaven. This speaks to the responsibility we have to bring the life and rule of heaven here on Earth. Just exactly as we say in the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy will be done, on Earth as it is in heaven.” We are a heavenly colony, a heavenly outpost, we are an extension of the rule of Heaven here on earth.
Yet things are rough here in this heavenly outpost. As we’ve been talking about, if we look solely at life here on earth, it’s fairly discouraging, unsettling and uncertain. One can easily feel weak, helpless and impotent. That’s if we focus our attention only on the earth, and forget what is meant by our heavenly citizenship. “Our citizenship is in heaven.” As citizens, we get to eagerly await our Saviour who is going to come from there.” Our King cares about the welfare of His citizens. Being an outpost of heaven means not only that we live our lives according to the rules of King Jesus, but we actively expect that He will come to us, he will come to our aid. Being Citizens of Heaven means that we expect and anticipate that our Saviour will come to our deliverance. This is one of the few times Paul refers to Jesus as Saviour. In a Roman context it was the emperor who called himself saviour — he would save his people — the citizens of Rome. Paul says, “Our saviour is not Augustus Caesar.” Our Saviour is King Jesus, who will come to our aid from heaven.
This happens in big and small ways here and now, but here Paul is speaking of the final coming of our Saviour. When King Jesus comes, he will bring about great transformation. He will take our body of humiliation, our present shabby, falling apart, ephemeral, decaying, uncertain bodies — and he will transform our bodies into the likeness of his glorious body, the body of King Jesus. The transformation doesn’t stop there. When our Saviour Jesus comes he shall bring his transformation to bear upon all created things. When our Saviour, King Jesus comes, he shall bring everything into line under his authority. Everything — every ruler, every illness, every land, every nation, every creature, every family, every store, company — EVERYTHING! All things will come under his rule — some will not survive the fire of his judgment — yet the good will endure, will be transformed, will be made enduring and everlasting. This is our future, our hope, our certainty, and His promise. This is a certainty!
Christians do not simply look at the world with eyes fixed on what’s happening here on the Earth. We fix our eyes on our heavenly citizenship and all it implies. We don’t simply see this world as falling apart into the inevitability of decay, destruction and depravity. Uncertainty shall not have the last word. The first and the last Word belong to our Lord, King Jesus, the one true Saviour, who will transform our bodies into the likeness of His Glory. So when we see decay, destruction and depravity — we see opportunity for resurrection. When we see decay, destruction and depravity — we see opportunity to practice the certainty of resurrection. That is what it means to live as Citizens of Heaven. It is being certain that our work shall not be in vain, no matter how utterly vain and futile anything may seem, no matter how deeply our work falls apart. For we know that our Saviour, King Jesus, shall come and redeem all things. Heaven shall come to Earth, and one day the resurrection will be complete.
As Citizens of Heaven, we live trusting that we can be faithful to our King in all circumstances — knowing that the Great Transformation will soon come.
Where is it particularly challenging for you to live now as a citizen of the Kingdom? Where is it particularly difficult for you to see only that which is happening here on Earth, as though what you see here on earth will have the final say. What might one small step be to extend the life and rule of King Jesus and practice resurrection even in your circumstances?
Through it all, let’s practice viewing all circumstances through the eyes of faith. Through it all, encourage each other that our Saviour will come. That he will transform all. His rule will one day be complete throughout all the earth. Of this much we can be certain.