Our Citizenship is in Heaven

Philippians 3:1-21

Laurence Semel

Our teachers in the Reformed tradition have taught us to see in the Scriptures the "already and not yet character" of the Kingdom of God. Here in Philippians 3, the already and not yet character of the believer's present existence in Christ lies on the surface of the text for all to see. In these verses, Paul keeps speaking about gaining things that he already has.

For example, in verses 8-11, Paul's subject is the righteousness that comes to him by virtue of faith in Christ. In the previous verses, Paul renounces the former confidence for righteousness that he placed in the flesh, a righteousness of his own effort and of his own making. In place of all that, he says in verses 8 and 9 that the only thing that matters to him is gaining Christ: "to be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith." All that matters is his union with Christ. All that matters is to know Christ and the power of his resurrection. Jesus' resurrection declares him to be righteous. All who are found in him have been raised with him; and his resurrection power gives us the resurrection-life of Christ and the righteousness of Christ. Paul's righteousness comes from his knowing Christ and it comes from Christ's resurrection. Paul in his conversion already partici-pates in the resurrection of Christ as a gift of God's grace. Then in verse 11, he adds that he longs to attain to the resurrection from the dead. He is already resurrected, while he also looks forward to the resurrection. The apostle seeks to gain what he already has.

Another example is found in verses 12-16. The mention of the future final resurrection, in the previous verses, leads him into the subject of perfection or maturity. In verse 12, he says that he has not already attained perfection, that he has not yet laid hold of it. He is currently pressing toward that goal. Paul, however, cannot leave the subject without reminding his readers that we are already perfect (in Christ) and he urges them to keep living by the same standard to which they have attained. He is not yet perfect, but he is already perfect by virtue of the gift of God's grace. He lives out of that status of the perfect, and presses on in order to lay hold of that which has already laid hold upon him through Christ Jesus. Again he presents this pattern of Christian existence in which the believer seeks to gain what he has already been given.

This pattern of thought is obviously very important to the apostle. It forms the substructure of all he has to say. And here in Philippians 3, it lies on the surface of the text and is easy to see. The already and not yet is also at the root of his final comments in Philippians 3:20-21.

Our Citizenship is in Heaven

In the first part of v. 20 you find the already. Paul describes the present blessings of believers: "for our citizenship is in heaven." The believer's present existence is as a citizen of heaven. In a certain sense, we have already been brought to heaven. We belong to heaven.

The idea of citizenship is important in this letter. The city of Philippi was a Roman colony. Retired Roman military personnel lived there. For distinguished service to the empire, they were given grants of land there as well as Roman citizenship. The inhabitants of Philippi enjoyed the same rights and privileges as those who lived on Italian soil. The inhabitants prided themselves on their citizenship. If you remember, this civic pride enters into the story of the founding of that church (cf. Acts 16). While Paul's letter to them glows with joy and gratitude to God for their faith, his joy however is not complete (Chapter 2:2) because he knows that there is strife and disharmony among them that is born out of pride. Pride in Roman citizenship seems to have been carried over into the church. Their earthly citizenship has them thinking and acting in a certain way. Therefore, the apostle determines to remind them of their higher citizenship, of their heavenly citizenship and the behavior and conduct that is appropriate to it. It is not just Gentile pride in earthly citizenship that is causing problems. The Jews do the same. The church in Philippi is troubled by Judiazers who deny the sufficiency of Christ and his work, and who contend that to to be saved, to reach heaven, one must not only believe in Christ, but one must also become a Jew and bear the mark of Jewish citizenship—circumcision. Therefore, Paul is declaring to both Gentile and Jew that they have a citizenship that transcends all earthly citizenship. A citizenship in heaven, granted to them as a gift of God's grace.

Our citizenship is in heaven. The apostle can make this affirmation because of our union with Christ. Jesus as the second Adam has the mission to bring the many sons of God to glory. Our Savior pioneers the path out from under the curse and into the promised blessing. In union with him and benefiting from his work are all his people. You are familiar with Paul's language. We are crucified with Christ, we are buried with Christ, we are raised with Christ, and we have ascended with Christ to heaven. The gates of heaven only open to the king, the one who is of clean hands and a pure heart, who has not lifted up his soul to vanity nor sworn deceitfully (Ps. 24). And as our king passes through those gates, chained to his chariot are all those for whom he has died and upon whom he bestows all manner of blessing. We who were dead in our transgressions have been made alive together with Christ and have been raised up with him and seated with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus (Eph. 2:5-6).

By virtue of faith in Christ, the lives of believers have been removed to heaven. Heaven is the realm of light. God has delivered us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son (Col. 1:13). Heaven is the realm of life. In Christ we have been passed from death to life (John 5:24). We already belong to the new existence, a heavenly one. Our citizenship is there, and heaven is the country to which we belong. By God's grace, we have been birthed into that kingdom. Our names are written in heaven. The law that governs us is heavenly. God is our king, and heaven is our home country. The church exists in this world as a colony of heaven. While we are temporarily here, we are to reflect honor upon our king and our home country, and in the words of Peter, "to keep our behavior excellent in order that we may show forth the excellencies of him who called us out of darkness into his marvelous light" (1 Pet. 2:9).

Our lives have been removed to heaven. In our Savior's ascension, we behold our own. The covenant goal has been realized. On resurrection day, our Savior prepares to ascend to the Father and he sends the message to his followers: "I ascend to My Father and your Father, and My God and your God" (John 20:17). God is our God and we are his people. We enjoy eternal communion and fellowship with God. Our whole life is set in heaven before God's throne. "If then you have been raised up with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on the earth. For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God" (Col. 3:1-3).

Paul always begins from this perspective. For him, everything else he has to say proceeds from here. Faith in Christ makes us citizens of heaven, and the church must see and judge itself in this way. Paul disciplines himself to see the church in this way and to treat it accordingly. The members of the church are saints, consecrated to God, holy in Christ, definitively sanctified. He sees everything in his own life from the heavenly perspective. For him, this is the basis for all Christian conduct and behavior. It does not render the believer an escapist from this world. We are in the world, but in it in a certain way—in it but not of it. We are of heaven. Formerly, in our sin, we were strangers and aliens to the commonwealth of Israel (Eph. 2:12). Now, we are citizens of heaven and strangers and aliens in this world (1 Pet. 2:11). We pilgrim in this world. We remain in all the ordinary and righteous callings and relations of life in this world, but our citizenship in heaven means we do them for Christ and before Christ. It also means that we are always ready to surrender them in the interests of the higher concerns of the kingdom.

If this pattern of thinking is so important to the apostle, then certainly we may not judge it as irrelevant for us, for the church, for its leaders and its people. Isn't he placing before the church an example to follow? Certainly! In fact he says exactly that here in Philippians 3 when after asserting the believer's perfection in Christ, and urging them to keep living by that standard to which we have attained (v. 16), he says to them, "Brethren, join in following my example, and observe those who walk according to the pattern you have in us" (v. 17). He then warns them about the enemies of the cross of Christ, whose end is destruction, whose god is their appetite, and whose glory is in their shame, who set their minds on earthly things" (vv. 18-19). In contrast Paul asserts, that the believer's citizenship is in heaven, that our end is life, that our appetite is to do the will of God, that our shame is when he is not glorified, and that our minds are set on heavenly things.

Let us follow the example of Paul in our own ministries. When we address the people of God, let us follow the pattern of Paul. Let us approach them from the position of their present blessing in Christ. Let us continually set before them their position in Christ—that in him, they are already citizens of heaven. Failure to approach them this way means we defraud the saints of the prize that is already theirs in Christ and discourage them in their pressing to that prize which is yet to come.

Waiting Eagerly for a Savior

Our Savior has removed our lives with his to heaven; we live our whole life before the throne of God. As citizens of heaven, Paul describes believers as seeking to gain what they already have. They already belong to heaven, but there is more of heaven to come. Believers live waiting for the return of Christ, waiting for the end of the age, for the consummation of all things. We wait for the day of Christ's return and for the resurrection of the dead and for the day when Christ "will transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory" (v. 21).

Our salvation is not yet complete. Our citizenship is in heaven, but also, from heaven we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. Our salvation itself partakes of the already and not yet pattern. Salvation is totally from Christ and results entirely from his power. But not all of Christ's power unto our salvation has yet been exerted. Our salvation is not complete until we are conformed to the image of Christ. This involves our being made over in his image, both in the inner man and in the outer man, that is, in our bodies. Our Savior has a glorified body and our salvation is incomplete until that day when Christ returns and when the dead in Christ are raised and are given glorified bodies like his. Even in the intermediate state, the saints in heaven are pictured as waiting for that day (Rev. 6:9-11). The completion of our salvation has not yet been reached. It will arrive when the Savior comes from heaven. It is not an uncertain hope. It is all accomplished by Jesus. It is applied to us in stages, in our justification, our sanctification, and our glorification. Paul says: "For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you, will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus" (Phil. 1:6).

Until the time when Christ returns from heaven, between the already and the not yet, the church's present existence is described as waiting. We are waiting for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. Paul summarizes the content of our Christian existence in this world in many ways. Here, he describes it as "waiting for God's Son from heaven." In other places, he refers to it "as awaiting eagerly the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ" (1 Thess. 1:10; 1 Cor. 1:7). So the church lives waiting eagerly for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. This waiting is anything but passive or inactive. When you wait for loved ones to arrive for the holidays your waiting is full of expectation and anticipation. There is much activity in your home as you wait for them to arrive, as you prepare to welcome them.

Waiting for Christ's return means that our present lives in the present time are directed towards heaven. "Our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ." The Savior will come from heaven. As we have the promise of his coming for us, we also incline our lives towards him. As we wait for Christ to return, all eyes are fixed upon him who is seated at the goal in heaven. We have our minds, our hearts, our eyes directed heavenward. Our Savior will bring us to the goal, but at the same time, like runners, we are stretching every nerve in that direction. As we run, our eyes are on Jesus who is seated at the right hand of the throne of God and who is scheduled to return form heaven. Believers now, between the already and the not yet, live lives that are directed out of themselves, forward and upward to Christ in heaven and the promise of his coming. Our joy continually is to hear about him—how he came for us, how he died for us, about his resurrection and ascension for us and how he is coming again for us. We want to be found in him when he comes. We want to be reaching forward to what is ahead. We want to be pressing to the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ. The people of God should live self-consciously in this awareness. What a joy! How refreshing! Outward to Christ, not inward to ourselves. Forward in the age of fulfillment, not backwards to return to the past. Minds and hearts and souls striving upward to heaven and the things above, not preoccupation with that which is below. All this outward and forward and upward disposition is described here by Paul as waiting with our eyes fixed on heaven. We are waiting for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. In the period between the already and not yet the church waits for the return of Christ, who comes from heaven to complete our salvation.

Our salvation is incomplete and so we wait for a Savior from heaven. But this also motivates the church to the Christian life. This orientation towards heaven does not make us careless or indifferent towards our present life in this world. The perspective that starts with our citizenship in heaven, that we live our lives in the presence of God and before his throne, is a powerful incentive to live in an appropriate manner. And this is always Paul's approach. You are God's family, now live like his family. You are the body of Christ, now act like it within the church. You are the church of God, now stop behaving like the world. You are light, now walk like children of light. You have been called onto God's side, now walk worthy of your calling. Here in Philippians 3:20, he tells them that their citizenship is in heaven. But back in chapter 1:26, he speaks about his hope for release from his imprisonment and of his coming again to see them. Then in verse 27, using a form of the same word, he tells them to act like citizens of heaven: "Conduct yourselves (exercise your citizenship) in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ; so that whether I come and see you or remain absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel." This is fascinating! Do you see what the apostle is doing with the Philippians? He incites them to proper conduct in anticipation of his coming to them. Let the prospect and the anticipation of his coming determine their conduct even while he is absent. Paul not only preaches Christ to them, he also self-consciously patterns his conduct and behavior so as to exemplify Christ. Let the church's conduct be proper in anticipation of Christ's coming. What Paul longs to see when he return to visit the Philippians is what our Lord longs to see in his church. A people who are waiting for him to come by "standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving for the faith of the gospel."

May God grant to us that we remember our heavenly citizenship and the transcendent character of the church. May we be governed by the prospect of our Savior's coming from heaven. That when he comes, he will be pleased with us, and find his church standing firm in one spirit, with one mind (the mind of our Savior himself revealed to us in his word) and striving for the faith of the gospel that was received by those before us and has been faithfully delivered to us. Let our waiting for our Savior from heaven determine our conduct in these ways. Our Savior's return from heaven is a powerful incentive to us to be faithful to that faith and life that answers to our calling as citizens of heaven.

But Paul's characterization of the content of the believer's present existence as "waiting" also brings into consideration the idea of perseverance unto the time of the coming rest. Because we are to wait by striving for the faith of the gospel and by pressing towards the mark; because our present life in the flesh involves all kinds of trouble, trials and hardship, Paul often sets before the church the future rest that awaits us in heaven. Paul writes this letter while a prisoner for the sake of the gospel. He has already endured much hardship in the cause of the gospel. You can hear his longing for his earthly pilgrimage to be over in chapter 1:21 where he says "For me, to live is Christ, but to die is gain." To die is gain because it means the time of suffering and hardship is over. This causes a certain ambivalence in him. "But if I am to live on in the flesh, this will mean fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which one to choose." Though the apostle longs for heaven, even still, that prospect of rest does not determine his choice. A self interest, even for rest from his labors, will never be the driving concern for Paul. In fact he chooses to remain because he knows that if he remains that this will mean fruitful labor for him among the Philippians and for the church at large. The church eagerly waits for Christ to come from heaven and for the end of the present existence. As it looks towards heaven for Jesus to come, it sees the Savior seated there as King, as the lion of Judah but also as the Lamb with the marks of his slaughter upon him, the marks of his fruitful labor for his people, the marks of his sacrifice and service on behalf of the church. Paul's pattern for existence in this world will follow the pattern of the Savior himself. The church must do the same. "Brethren, join in following my example, and observe those who walk according to the pattern you have in us" (3:17).

Our Humble State

We are already citizens of heaven. Our lives have gone to heaven with Christ. Our present life in this world is characterized as eagerly waiting for our Savior. Waiting for the day that is yet to come determines our present life of pressing towards the goal and works faithfulness and perseverance in us as we look for the rest to come and to the day when our Savior "will transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of his glory."

Paul's statement in verse 21 also sheds light on the church's present life and blessing. The body of glory is in the future. It is yet to come. The state of the believer in the present, between the already and the not yet, is that of humility. Our present bodies testify to that. We are already raised from the dead. Therefore we are people who are alive from the dead, but who still dwell in mortal bodies (Rom. 6:11-12). Our Lord's taking upon himself our human nature marks for him his state of humiliation. We confess that the point of transformation for him was his resurrection from the dead and his possession of his glorified body. The pattern of existence of our Savior was first humiliation, then exaltation. The apostle sees the pattern of the believer to be the same. Saved by faith in Christ and united to Christ and to his resurrection means first a resurrection union with Christ in his humiliation and in his suffering. This is exactly what Paul repeatedly says even in this letter. In chapter 3:10, he writes, "That I may know him, and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings, being conformed to his death." In chapter 1:29, Paul states, "For to you it has been granted for Christ's sake, not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for his sake." The present life of the believer, between the already and not yet, is a humble one. Christ's state of humiliation precedes his state of exaltation. Paul concludes that the same is true of Christ's church.

We are to follow the pattern set before us during the time of the Savior's humble state, who shows citizens of heaven the attitude that they are to display. Roman and Jewish citizens are proud and used to exerting their rights and putting forward their prerogatives, each seeking for himself his own importance and his own interests. But Paul's concern is to remind them of their higher and heavenly citizenship and of an entirely different conduct as citizens. He sets it before them in the famous words of chapter 2. There is something lacking in his joy over them. He writes: "make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose. Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind let each of you regard one another as more important than himself; so do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although he existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a bondservant, and being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross" (2:2-8). Our Savior emptied himself of all his divine rights and prerogatives to be worshipped and served as God. Are not we, who are riddled with sin and who only imagine ourselves to be great and are insistent on all manner of rights and privileges, to empty ourselves to become the servants of God, and servants in the church, and servants towards one another, and even servants in the world? We live now between the already and not yet, in the body of our humble state. Christ humbled himself to the point of death on the cross. Does not our Lord himself direct all who would follow him to deny themselves and take up his cross daily and follow him (Lk. 9:23)? To be a citizen of heaven means that we share in the new life in Christ. It also means that we share in Christ's suffering. Not his atoning and redeeming suffering, but our own cross-bearing, our own dying to sin and crucifying our old nature.

Geerhardus Vos has written a sermon entitled "Christ's Deliberate Work" on the text in Mark 10:45: "For even the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many." Vos states: "The passage speaks of our Lord's atoning death and yet is intended to place before the disciples an example to be followed by them in their own conduct of life. At first sight this might seem to involve an impossibility because the case of Jesus was so peculiar and unique as to be by its very nature and purpose inimitable. How can a weak, sinful man, even though he is regenerated by the grace and controlled by the Spirit of God, even attempt to reproduce this in his character and conduct? Though the concrete circumstances are unreproducible in our case, this not only does not hinder them from being but is the very cause of their becoming the most powerful incentives to us to make our self-denying service of others as unlimited and unqualified as it is possible within the range of our powers and opportunities to make it. What limit would we dare set upon the poor little self-denial which the conditions of our earthly life enable us to practice?"

As citizens of heaven, who wait eagerly for the return of our Savior, the constant object of our vision is Christ who is set before us in all the uniqueness of his person and work and who also sets before us the pattern of humility to follow. The character of the life of the citizen of heaven now, between the already and the not yet, while we walk this earth, is the pattern of our Savior's life of humility and service when he walked this earth.

This is the Christ that the apostle Paul sees enthroned in heaven and who is the constant object of his vision. The apostle's conduct as a citizen of heaven is patterned after Christ. Again, he urges us in chapter 3:17 to "join in following his example and to observe those who walk according to the pattern you have in us." It is the pattern of the cross. There are those who are enemies of the cross of Christ. This is not enmity directed against the cross as the tree on which Jesus was hung. Even the Judiazers embraced the cross. The enemies of the cross stand against the life-directing pattern of the cross. The cross of Christ is indeed the place to which all men must come to have their burden of sin and guilt removed and to have peace with God. But the cross is not a place that we just visit. Rather we also journey, now, between the already and not yet, in its light.


We are citizens of heaven. We live our present lives before the throne of God. This is exactly where we need to continually place the people of God. We think that to motivate them and to spur them on to faithful Christian living, that we have to be continually rebuking them, critiquing them, telling them how bad they are, and how deficient in everything they are. That is not Paul's approach. He never delivers imperatives to the people of God until after he has told them of all the present blessing that they enjoy already in their Savior. They must see that they are already citizens of heaven by God's grace. They live their lives there. There is no greater motivation for Christian living then to realize that our lives in their entirety are lived before God.

We wait for the day of Christ's return and for the time when our present humble bodies will be transformed into conformity with his own glorious body. The character of the lives of the citizens of heaven as we sojourn in this world is that of humility and servanthood. This is what the New Testament is unfolding to us in all its teaching about our lives in this world. We haven't touched the heart of Christian marriage, for example, when all we have done is sorted out the respective duties, authority and position of husbands and wives. Let Christian spouses preach Christ to one another in their self-denying love for one another. Let our young people learn to die, to lose their own lives, and in doing so to find life. Let us preach Christ and him crucified to a lost and dying world. It is the cross that has transforming power. It is the cross that makes us new creatures. It is the cross that makes us citizens of heaven. It is the cross and the resurrection that produces at the end of this present age, the transformation of the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of Christ's glory, by the exertion of the power that he has, even to subject all things to himself.

The already and the not yet are pictured beautifully for us in the Lord's Supper. As we celebrate the sacrament together the focus on Christ and heaven is represented to us. As citizens of heaven, we look away from our selves and outward to Christ. It is not our broken backs or our blood, sweat and tears that saves us and brings us to heaven, but rather Christ's body broken, his blood shed. The supper inclines us forward to the goal. This is spiritual food for strength for our journey in this world, for our pressing towards the mark, reminding us that it is Christ in us who will bring us safely to our destination. The supper directs us upward, for the feast is but a foretaste of that wedding supper of the Lamb which is yet to come, when we will eat it in the consummated kingdom, home in heaven, where we will be able to reach out and touch our Savior, with a glorified hand.

Reformation Orthodox Presbyterian Church

Morgantown, West Virginia


A sermon delivered at the opening worship service of the 64th General Assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, June 4, 1997.