Election season seems the perfect time to contemplate citizenship, does it not? What does it mean to be a citizen? Certain rights, responsibilities and duties come immediately to mind. Chief among these rights is the right of the citizen to reside in and/or enter a sovereign territory. What did the Apostle Paul mean when he wrote, "For our citizenship is in heaven..."? Philippians 3:20. We know Paul was Jewish, but Paul was also a Roman citizen, a fact which kept him from scourging and death on more than one occasion. As citizens of a country from which many seek to obtain citizenship, we in America have a good idea of the significance of citizenship. But, do we as believers truly appreciate that "our citizenship is in heaven..."?
I think we tend to think of heaven as something we hope to experience in the distant future. There is nothing in Paul's letter, however, to suggest that this is true. Paul very explicitly claims that citizenship in heaven is our's presently. How different would life be if we grasped this truth? Although there are many more, let's take a look at just three of the rights of citizenship.
The right not to be tortured or imprisoned without a trial. Roman citizens had the right not to be subjected to torture, scourging or imprisonment without just cause. This is the right exercised by Paul in Acts 22:25. Actually, so important was this right, that the commander who had Paul in custody became afraid that Paul had even been placed in chains. For Christians, there is a corresponding right not to be tortured or imprisoned. All that is required to exercise this right is forgiveness. Recall the parable of the unforgiving servant whose master had forgiven him 10,000 talents. When the servant refused to forgive a fellow servant who owed him a small fraction of this, his lord handed the unforgiving servant over to the torturers until he should repay all that was owed. Jesus said, "My heavenly Father will also do the same to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart." Matthew 18:35. Knowing the torturers is key, otherwise the effect of this statement is negligible. The torturers are demonic forces that cause physical, emotional, psychological and other problems. Various illnesses, chronic physical and psychological conditions, and addictions are all forms of torture and imprisonment. This is not to say that every minor problem is the result of unforgiveness, certainly not, but I would suggest that a great many chronic, recurring, and seemingly incurable or inescapable problems are rooted in unforgiveness. Forgiveness is but one of the duties we owe as citizens, and the right we are granted in return is well worth the cost.
The right of appeal. Roman citizens had the right to appeal from decisions of local magistrates to Caesar or the supreme court. Again, this is a right exercised by the Apostle Paul in Acts 25:11. Paul, unwilling to stand trial before Festus, exercised his right as a citizen of Roman to be tried before Caesar's tribunal. This decision resulted in Paul remaining captive for considerably longer than was necessary, but Paul had to stand trial before Caesar. An angel of the Lord confirmed this on the trip to Rome, and despite a shipwreck, a snake bite, and a rather adventurous voyage, Paul arrived safely in Rome and ministered for two years unhindered. Okay, so what does this have to do with anything? As a citizen of heaven, we have the right to appeal to our emperor. The decision might not be swift, the journey might not appear smooth, and it might seem like we are not going anywhere, but if we are walking in the perfect will of God to our ultimate judgment, neither murderous plotters, severe storms, or poisonous snake bites will prevent us from reaching our destination. So, appeal to God, ask him to guide your way, and go.
The right to enter. Again, this is a right I believe most Christians are willing to accept as something that will happen in the distant future. But, is this really the case? There are other instances in the Bible of individuals being "caught up" to heaven, but since we are discussing the experiences of Paul, let's look at Paul's trip to heaven. "I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago...was caught up to the third heaven. And I know how such a man...was caught up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words, which a man is not permitted to speak." 1 Corinithians 12:2-4. Is such a revelation or trip available to the rest of us? To be honest, I cannot say for sure. I do not believe anything in scripture forbids it, but the idea is so foreign that it rarely gets contemplated, much less discussed. If our citizenship is in heaven, do we not have the right to enter? If our citizenship will be in heaven, then the entry is in the future, but if our citizenship IS in heaven, can our entry be now? Can we come and go as we please? Can we visit and bring back souvenirs?
A word of warning. This revelation to the Apostle Paul came with much responsibility and even torment. Yes, torment. "Because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me-to keep me from exalting myself." 1 Corinthians 12:7. With great revelation comes great responsibility. I think the extent to which we are permitted entry is related to the responsibility the Lord is willing to entrust us with.
A word of encouragement. Paul's revelation was so grand that he gladly accepted this burden. Jesus also said that His burden would be light, but how can we possibly be expected to bear the burden of changing a nation, ministering on foreign soil, or leading souls into salvation if we whine about the relatively minor burdens of daily life. Just for clarification, Jesus said His yoke would be easy and His burden light, He never said the burden would feel easy. When the reality of the kingdom begins to effect our perception, rather than our perception effecting our reality, then yes, we will begin to experience the revelations Paul experienced and we will truly experience our citizenship in heaven.