“For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ…” (Phil. 3:20)
When Christ ascended into heaven, says Paul, the believers became citizens of heaven. How is that possible, you may ask, when we are not in heaven but firmly planted here on earth? And why does Paul say this? What significance does that have for our daily lives?
The Genevan Study Bible gives a clue when it says, “Just as Philippi was a Roman colony (Acts 16:12), the church is a colony of heaven.” The Roman world empire had colonies all over the place and the one in Philippi was in the land of Macedonia. And now Paul says to the believers: you are more than just a Roman colony; you are really a colony of heaven.
People who live in Australia or Canada know from their own history what it means to be a colony. When the First Fleet of British people landed in Australia, they did not suddenly stop being British citizens. They did not suddenly say, well, we’re in the great South Land now, where the aborigines wear no clothes, live in bark shelters, eat the wildlife and native vegetation, and have religious myths, so we’d better live as they do. No, they knew themselves to be citizens of Great Britain and they set up a colony that reflected the culture, the way of life, the morals and beliefs of their homeland.
The Philippians knew all about that too. Although they were citizens in a Roman colony in Macedonia they knew that as Romans they had their citizenship in Rome. Just because they were in Macedonia, they weren’t to become barbarians and take over a different way of life (see Acts 16:20,21) but were expected to cultivate a society that reflected the Roman way of life. As Roman citizens they knew themselves to be responsible for living in accordance with the lifestyle of Rome and promoting that lifestyle to the native people.
And now Paul says to the believers in Philippi: OK, politically and socially you are citizens of the Roman world empire, but as Christians you are really citizens of heaven. Your heavenly King has placed you on earth where, as citizens of that heavenly realm, you can’t just do as you please; you may not conform to the way of life of those unbelievers who, although they are also under the dominion of the heavenly King, refuse to acknowledge His authority. Instead, you have the calling to conduct yourselves as befitting citizens of heaven. Your whole way of life will reflect that, because you belong to heaven.
Unfortunately, not all the Christians in Philippi reflected that heavenly life style. Some people had come into the church who, although called to be citizens of heaven, lived according to this world. They adjusted their life according to the sinful style of the world.
Now Paul says: you mustn’t do that. Just as a Roman colonist is not allowed to take over the lifestyle of the barbarians amongst whom he is placed, so a Christian is not allowed to conform to the world. That would be a betrayal of heaven; it would not serve the interests of Christ’s heavenly kingdom.
How did we come to have our citizenship in heaven? Through Christ’s ascension. When Christ ascended into heaven He did so as Head of His church, His body. Thereby He made us citizens of the realm where Christ dwells. Just as those British colonists in Australia knew themselves to have British citizenship even though they lived in the Great South Land, so we have our citizenship in heaven even though we live on earth. And just as the British colonists were expected to serve the cause of the British Empire, and Roman colonists were expected to serve the cause of Rome, so Christ has placed us on earth as His colonists to serve the cause and expansion of His kingdom here on earth.
Celebrating Christ’s ascension means that we again take stock of which kingdom we belong to: is it to the sinful realm of this world or the heavenly kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ? To believe Christ’s ascension is to see your calling to resist every temptation to adjust to the style of this world; it is instead to live in accordance with the law from above. Christ’s believers can’t gloss over the principle antithesis between those who focus on the things of this earth on the one hand, and those on the other hand whose motherland is in heaven.
That’s why Christ’s ascension doesn’t make it easier for the believers. Although we’ve been placed here, the unbelievers make us feel like outsiders, strangers. We’re always having to row against the current of worldly sinful values and to experience much opposition from those who are bent on establishing an earthly, worldly kingdom. Yes, the task of colonists is always difficult because they are always strangers to those around them.
But Paul knows how to comfort the Christians in Philippi wonderfully. For not only is our citizenship in heaven but it’s from there that we also eagerly expect the Saviour to come. That doesn’t mean: one day we’ll go to Jesus, but: Jesus will one day come to us.
Many Christians who experience hardships long to go to Jesus. They want to be repatriated. And often you can understand why. But those who long for this are really letting go of the colony. As long as he can go home he’s satisfied. But then he’s not concerned about whether the interests of the kingdom are being served.
Paul knows of a better comfort. Jesus Christ will, on the last day, come as Saviour to us. He is on His way with haste to assist His colonists in their tiring task. He comes in order to bless and save them by expanding the borders of His kingdom and to live amongst us.
It often seems to us that the struggle between the earthly and the heavenly powers seems so hopeless. Often the colonists are forced to draw back. Yet they can be comforted: their struggle is not in vain; shortly their Lord will come to their colony, to make it part of the motherland, which will itself come to them.
Then the notion of being strangers will be forgotten, for the colony itself becomes motherland.
(This meditation draws heavily on a Dutch meditation titled – translated – “Our motherland in the heavens” by the late Prof. B Holwerda. Based on Philippians 3:20,21, he linked it to Ascension Day. It was published in a book De Wijsheid die Behoudt, Oosterbaan & Le Cointre, Goes, Netherlands, 1957.)