MESSAGE FOR OCTOBER 21, 2001
Message #4 in a series on Christ’s Church
This week, we continue our series of messages focusing on the church of Jesus Christ. We spent the previous messages examining foundational, biblical teachings about the church. We have seen that the church is the “ecclesia” of God and we considered what that meant to us. Last week, we saw that the church is also the temple or dwelling of God. That title for God’s people speaks of the holiness that must mark the people of God individually and corporately. We saw God’s priority for the holiness of the church by noting his zeal for the holiness of his dwelling in the Old Testament. He laid down several laws that were all about keeping the land of the Jews from defilement. The reason he was so concerned that the land where the Jews lived be undefiled was because HE lived in the land with them and HE did not want His dwelling defiled. Second, we saw this concern for the holiness of his dwelling with the building of the first temple. He forbade his servant David to build His temple because His hands were full of blood. We saw several scriptures that revealed that God will simply not permit wicked people to dwell with Him. Finally, we went to John chapter two and Jesus’ cleansing of the temple and saw Christ’s zeal for the holiness of His Father’s house. This zeal God has for the holiness of his dwelling should have a powerful impact on us, his church, who exist as his temple on earth today.
Today, we narrow the focus just a bit to examine another biblical title used for the church. This morning, the basis of our thinking comes from two texts in the New Testament and from them we will move to other texts that flesh out today’s theme. One of these texts is Ephesians 2:19. Paul says to the church, “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household.” The key phrase there is “fellow citizens with the saints.” Those who have been born again into the kingdom of God have been made citizens of this spiritual realm. In Philippians 3:20, we see the same truth. Paul writes, “For our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ;” This texts adds to the first in the sense that Paul here specifies that those who follow Jesus Christ, who have the Holy Spirit living within them are “citizens of heaven.”
That will be our focus this morning. We want to dig into that truth—open it up and see the glory contained in it. We’ll do that by asking the question, what does it mean for those who belong to Christ’s church to be citizens of heaven? This designation for the church, like all the others, is loaded with significance. We must never simply allow a title like this one that applies to us to simply be a theological designation. It must be part of our working understanding of who we are and how we are to live. If God calls us citizens of heaven, he wants us to know and live out that part of our identity in Christ—to see the implications this designation should have for us. And the implications connected to being a citizen of heaven are about as profound and practical on a day-to-day basis as any other biblical designation given to the church.
Having a penetrating understanding of this designation, which speaks of the “other-worldly” nature of the church, has perhaps never been more needed in the history of God’s people. This prosperous, materialistic culture we live in is filled with blessings that can be used by the evil one to cause us to forget a crucial truth. That is; that we do NOT belong to this world. We have such unprecedented ease, opulence and prosperity in our Western culture that the temptation has never been stronger to make this world and the things in it our home, our main focus, our god. We can easily live for and take ultimate pleasure from the countless conveniences, possessions, pleasures, opportunities and technologies in this world instead of living for God and finding our deepest joy in Him.
We must never give into any temptation that makes this world and the things in it anything more than that which God has given us to be used for His glory—whenever we move outside THAT purpose for the material, this-worldly blessings in our lives, we are committing idolatry. Whenever we enjoy a worldly pleasure purely for ourselves, disconnected from God and his glory, we have become idolaters. That is, we have begun to live for the created thing rather than the Creator.
First Corinthians 10:31 makes this point clearly. Paul says, “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” We must see everything in this world, even basic, life-sustaining activities like eating and drinking, through the lens of living for God and His glory. The question is: how can we possibly stay God-centered with all the “stuff” we have access to and that can so easily seduce our hearts away from God? One patently obvious answer is to understand our propensity to make idols out of things and deny ourselves several of those things in our life. Jesus says, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth…” This command is regularly ignored in North America, but it is vitally important to spiritual health. But beyond that, our minds must be constantly renewed with the truth in order for us to be living transformed lives in this vitally important area. One biblical truth that is not only helpful, but also essential in renewing our minds and helping us to have and keep this God-centered mind set is this one we examine this morning. That is, this question of “what does it mean to be a citizen of heaven?” If we understand and internalize the truths behind that question, then living for the glory of God in this world will flow out of that truth. It is equally true that if we do not live as a citizen of heaven, then we will, without fail, fall into idolatry at some level.
In answer to this question, “What does it mean to be a citizen of heaven” we want to look at texts which bring out three major implications for us that should be part of our day-to-day existence. The first implication connected to being a citizen of heaven is: Being a citizen of heaven implies being estranged from this world. We see this in texts like First Peter 1:17, “Since you call on a Father who judges each man’s work impartially, live your lives as strangers here in reverent fear.” Peter conveys this same idea in chapter 2:11. He says, “Dear Friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul.” Peter’s point is that this world is filled with sinful pleasures that can act to entice the sinful desires of our flesh. He reminds us that we are aliens—we are not part of that sinful system any longer. We are strangers—we are estranged from it.
This word “estranged” is helpful as we think about this concept of our relationship to this world as citizens of heaven. We’ve all heard of broken families where one member is “estranged” from the others. That means that there are ill feelings or “bad blood” between them and the other members of the family and because of the breach in the relationship, they have chosen to remain aloof, indifferent and sometimes even hostile to the rest of the family. They have deliberately chosen no longer to associate with the others whom they formally related to as family members. In a family that is sinful but that is very much the way believers are called to relate to this satanic world system we temporarily find ourselves in. We saw in Ephesians 2:19 earlier that a person who is in the world and does not know Christ, is a “stranger and an alien” to God and to the church. When we are born again into the church of Christ, we then become and are called to live as “aliens and strangers” to the world. The question is not whether we are an alien or stranger—we are regardless of our position. The question is whether we are estranged from the world and its satanic, self-absorbed system or whether we are estranged from a holy God and his people, the church.
We are not to be on friendly terms with the world—we are estranged from it. We are to remain indifferent and at times even hostile to its value system and its way of life. James 4:4 says, “You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God? Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.” There we see again the fact that to be friendly with one spiritual realm is to be estranged or hostile toward the other. First John 2:15 says, “Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.” There again is the mutually exclusive relationship that exists between being in the world and being a citizen of heaven. There is no dual spiritual citizenship available to anyone. We must choose to which spiritual kingdom we will belong.
Our sinful flesh longs for the things of this world, but we are called to kill it by picking up our cross and denying ourselves any participation in the sin of this world. Part of the motivation God gives us to help us do that is the biblical truth that speaks of just how inferior this world and its pleasures are compared to the ones He offers to the citizens of heaven. As we regularly rehearse in our minds the biblical truth about the inferiority of this world to the realm where we, as citizens of heaven belong, that will energize our faith and help us to deny ourselves the sinful pleasures of this world.
One of the more biblically predominant weaknesses of this world in comparison to heaven is the fact that this world and all that is native to it, is temporary. We see this in Hebrews 13:14. He says of this world, “For here [in this world] we do not have an enduring city,…” This world and the things in it will not last. Perhaps the only advantage to living in the throw away culture like ours is that it does provide us with countless illustrations of the temporary nature of this world and the things in it. Not only are paper plates and plastic cups and cardboard cameras temporary, almost as temporary on an eternal perspective are our vehicles and our houses and these aging bodies. We don’t view those two groups of commodities in the same way, but they are all temporary and will be one day very seen be gone.
The powerful truth of this is seen in Hebrews 11:10. The author is speaking about Abraham and his search for his eternal home and says, “He was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” The author notes that one difference between the city of God, the home of all citizens of heaven, and this world is this—the city of God has foundations. What that means is that our heavenly home is built to last—it is eternally enduring. Mobile homes and shacks and tents have no foundations because they are by nature, located on a temporary basis. They are movable. A house, by contrast has a foundation. It is anchored into the ground and because the ground is stable and relatively permanent, that makes the house relatively permanent. Hebrews implies that this world and the things in it are like a tent without a foundation, temporary.
Here on the lakes of Minnesota, we are somewhat renowned for our fish houses. I will never forget the first time I drove past a large frozen lake and, to my amazement, saw that people had placed little shelters on top of the lake. It was surreal—I had no place for that—little domiciles on ice—it was more than I could absorb. We know fish houses are by nature temporary, aren’t they? Can you imagine the folly of trying to dig a foundation for a fish house? Someone has his excavator out on the lake digging into the ice—to dig a foundation for a fish house. It’s absurd! The reason its absurd is because the nature of a fish house is to be temporary. If you were to dig a hole for a fish house foundation, you would soon hit water and water has this disturbing tendency to be a very unstable base upon which to build anything. The fish house would soon be a house for fishes.
We laugh at the idea of digging a foundation for a fish house, but that idea is not nearly as absurd as treating the temporal things of this life—our possessions, our titles, our positions, our money, our bodies as if they were of lasting significance. How easy it is for us to treat these “things” as though they had any lasting value. Every time we do that, we are guilty of digging out foundation holes in our heart for these things. We try to make something intended to be temporary and movable in our lives into something fixed and eternal. And we can know if we are guilty of that if, when these things are threatened or taken away from us, instead of praising God and moving on, we find we have a big hole in our heart and feel deeply grieved because we have been so badly wounded by the removal of one of our gods.
Part of being a citizen of heaven is being estranged from this world and what is native to it. We are to remain indifferent, aloof and even hostile to those things which are native only to this world. We need to occasionally ask: how many people are there in my life who can tell that I am a citizen of heaven by virtue of my indifference to the things of this world? Or, to get at it another way, do we grieve when with the television breaks down, or the car is wrecked or the stock market dips or our skin loses its elasticity or we lose our job? If that is how we respond to those things, then we are guilty of the rough equivalent of digging foundations for fish houses—of treating something that is temporary as if it were eternal. Being a citizen of heaven implies being estranged from this world.
Secondly, being a citizen of heaven implies living a life of faith. Faith is, according to Hebrews 11:1, “…being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” This world in which we live and which we can see and feel and touch is not our home. That is a statement filled with faith as Hebrews 11:1 defines it. Our home, that which we live for, that which we hope for, that which we are certain of, the place of our citizenship, is unseen, while this very visible world is not something we hope in or see as our true home. That attitude requires faith. Part of the faith that is seen in a citizen of heaven is that they long for a kingdom in which to live that is far better than this one. In other words, in this world with quite literally, “all the comforts of home,” they are homesick.
This only makes sense when you think about the first point. If we are estranged from this fading, temporary world—if we are indifferent to it while our true home is somewhere else--that realm where we are meant to live eternally, the kingdom that reflects our deepest passions--then we will certainly long for it, wont we? This is the clear experience of all who have walked by faith before us. In the biblical “Hall of Fame” of faith Hebrews 11, this concept is one of the dominant themes of the chapter. Abraham, the human “father” of faith knew this kind of longing. In Hebrews 11:9, it says of him, “By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” God reveals that the reason Abraham went to the land of Canaan was because God had placed a longing in his heart for a city with foundations. Canaan was just a stopover on Abraham’s way to glory, his true home and the one he sought by faith.
In verse 13, the author begins to conclude his treatment of great heroes of faith like Enoch, Abraham, Sarah and Noah and he says, “All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only say them and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are LOOKING for a country of their own. [That is, one where they really belong] If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were LONGING for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God or he has prepared a city for them.”
We see this same trait in Moses. In Hebrews 11:26 we read of him, “He regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt because he was looking ahead to his reward.” The reason Moses could leave the opulence of the palaces of Egypt and settle for a tent in the wilderness amidst the din of griping and complaining is “because he was looking ahead to his reward.” The tents of the desert were a faint shadow of the glory of the palaces of Egypt. But Moses, through the eyes of faith could see that the palaces of Egypt were tin shanties compared to the city of God in heaven. And with faith he looked forward to that. In Hebrews 13:14 we read, “For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.”
What these texts tell us is that the fulfillment of all the promises of God to them was found NOT on earth, but in heaven. The deepest yearning and the fulfillment of what they were believing God for is the city called heaven. It was for heaven they were really looking. It was for heaven that they were really longing. Those people whose hearts long for heaven and the opportunity to be with God are the ones God is not ashamed to be called their God. For those who long—literally, those who “reach for—stretch out for” heaven, God is building a city—no one else—just for those folks. They have tasted of the swill of this world’s pleasures and possessions and have, by God’s grace spewed them out. Their tastes will not be satisfied with the rotgut of this world when God has set their palates for the vintage wine of heaven.
Where is your gaze settled? Are you longing, stretching out for the glories of heaven or are you content with this fallen world? Do you see how the first and second points relate to one another? Its as we become more and more estranged with this world that we long more and more for our true home. Its as we tear down more of the idols in our hearts that we have more room there for an impassioned love for God. Do we long for heaven? That should be the deepest longing of the citizen of heaven. Is it ours?
The final implication is: Being a citizen of heaven implies triumphing over the hardships in this world. This third point, logically follows the first two. If a person is estranged from this world—indifferent to its treasures and comforts--if he is instead longing for the joys of heaven and placing all his hope in that heavenly city, then how will he respond to any suffering that comes along the way of his pilgrimage to heaven on this earth? We get the answer in several texts.
The author of Hebrews writes to his audience, “you…joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions.” The reason these believers could joyfully accept the loss of their homes and possessions was because they had a biblical perspective on the worth of what they had on this earth compared to what would be “better and lasting” in heaven. Because they were estranged from this world, indifferent to their possessions here and because they longed for heaven, it only made sense for them to joyfully accept, in the name of Christ, the plunder of their worldly goods.
Peter makes the same point in 1 Peter 4:13. He says to suffering believers, “But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed.” Again we see that what gives these believers the perspective to rejoice in suffering for Christ is the fact that they will be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. The future glories of heaven should reach right into our lives and radically change our hearts and minds as it relates to suffering for Christ. Jesus says in Matthew 5, “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” The source of joy that enables us to triumph in the midst of persecution is the promise of heavenly reward. Romans 8:18 says, “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.” Just as there is no comparison between the pleasures of this world with the pleasures of heaven, there is also no comparison between the fleeting, temporal sufferings the believer must endure in this world and the glory of who God will make us in heaven.
From all this we see that one sure way to know whether we are estranged from this world and are, by faith longing for heaven is this: when we are persecuted—when we are in some way abused for serving Christ, do we rejoice based on the fact that heaven and the pleasures found there are worth far more than any punishment this world has to dish out? God calls us citizens of heaven. Do we think of ourselves that way? What difference does that truth make in our lives? The Bible says it should have a life changing impact on us. May God give us the grace to live as citizens of heaven for His glory.
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