This article is about what it means to be a Christian. Being a Christian means that you are a citizen of heaven. It is the eighth in a series entitled "What Is a Christian?"

2011. 5 pages. Transcribed by Ineke van der Linden. Transcription stopped at 26:07.

The Christian: A Citizen Eighth in Series: What Is a Christian?

We have been looking at a question, “What is a Christian?,” and we have been answering that question by looking at what the Bible, particularly the New Testament, has to say in answer to the question “What is a Christian?” We began a couple of months ago by saying that a Christian is a Christian, even though that term is hardly used in the New Testament. It only occurs in two or three places in the New Testament, and in each place it is used in a derogatory sense. It was a term of abuse ("little Christs," literally), by detractors of the gospel in the first century. Now, we have also looked at titles like: a Christian is a saint – a "holy one," literally; someone who in the gospel has been set apart and is in an entirely new different relationship with Jesus Christ, a relationship that the New Testament calls being a saint. Next week the title will be “A Christian is a soldier.” My colleague David Lauten will be addressing you on that topic – a Christian is a soldier – next week.

Today’s answer to the question “What is a Christian?” is that a Christian is a citizen. I did not put this together; Dr. Ferguson put this together. This is part of his way of thinking, and so I emailed him yesterday and I said, “What in the world did you have in mind when you said, ‘a Christian is a citizen’?” I knew the answer; at least, I thought I knew the answer, because the word ‘citizen’ is actually only used on a couple of occasions in the New Testament – once in Ephesians and once in Philippians 3. And we will be looking at Philippians 3:20 in a minute.

A Citizen -1

But before I look at what the Bible has to say, I thought I would introduce it this way: I am not a citizen of the United States. (Transcription of audio file from 02:35 to 02:53, 03:00 to 03:20, 03:24 to 03:43 omitted.) I do have legal documentation that allows me to work in this country. I have what is called a green card. And every time I come through immigration there are two options before me. Those who are not Americans or American citizens, or those who hold a green card have to go through one line, and those who are American citizens with an American passport. In my case, I have a European passport (actually, it is a British passport), but I am legal, so I actually go through the American line. And every time I go through that line and you are checked, and once it is all done, usually they will say, “Welcome home." (Transcription of audio file from 04:08 to 04:17, 04:24 to 04:45 omitted.) And I like that, because this is my home. I am not a citizen, but this is my home. Some of my family is here, and my dog is here. This is my home. I live here. You are my brothers and sisters. You are my family. You are part of my wider family, but I am not a citizen. My citizenship is elsewhere.

Now, I am going to play on that theme a little, because as Christians, I can relate to being a citizen of heaven perhaps in a slightly different way from you in that I experience this duality, living in two spheres, every day. (Transcription of audio file from 05:45 to 07:21 omitted.) I have to tell you that in my car I listen, through the technology of satellites, to the BBC World Service. You know, I have options – I can listen to CNN, I can listen to Fox News, I can listen to all kinds of stuff – but my default is “This is the BBC World Service.” And I think, “Oh yes, I am home.” I am a believer. I am a Christian. According to the New Testament, I am a saint. I am in union with Jesus. My sins are forgiven. I live here, but my citizenship is elsewhere. My citizenship is in heaven.

Now, Paul talks about this in several different ways. First of all, Paul was (and he tells us in Acts 21:39) a “citizen of no mean city." Now, if you are using the ESV (English Standard Version) you don’t have those words, but if you remember the King James Version of the Bible, Paul says, “I was a citizen of no mean city.” I think the ESV says, “I am a citizen of no obscure city.” He is talking about Tarsus. He was a citizen of Tarsus, which in Paul’s day meant – only people with a lot of property actually had citizenship, documented citizenship, of a city. Do you remember your geography? If you go up the coastline of what you might think of as Israel and Syria today, up that Mediterranean coastline just when it begins to bend at the very top, go inland about 60-80 miles or so and you come to Tarsus. That is where Tarsus was. Tarsus was a very important city. It actually vied with Athens in Greece, and Alexandria in North Africa, as the place to go to college in Paul’s day. It had a reputation for being the best university. (Transcription of audio file from 10:06 to 10:19 omitted.) According to Paul, Tarsus was no mean city. It had a reputation for learning. He was proud, in a sense, of being a citizen of Tarsus. He actually did not go to the university in Tarsus, because his parents sent him to Jerusalem. He studied in Jerusalem. He would have gone as a young teenager, perhaps as young as twelve. Through his teenage years he would have been in Jerusalem, away from home, studying under Rabbi Gamaliel and others. He tells us this. He was a citizen of Tarsus. Not everybody in Tarsus was a citizen. It was a fairly elite club. But he was one.

A Citizen -2

He tells us also that he was a citizen of Rome. He was a Roman citizen. He tells us this in Acts 22:25ff: “When they had stretched him out for the whips, Paul said to the centurion who was standing by, “Is it lawful for you to flog a man who is a Roman citizen and uncondemned?” He was a Roman citizen. He was a citizen of Tarsus, but he was also a Roman citizen. There are three times when Paul tells us that he is a Roman citizen. The first time is in Acts 16 in Philippi, the second time is here in Jerusalem, and the third time he’ll do it is in Caesarea. Here in Acts 22, there has been a riot. He has gone back to Jerusalem. He has taken the offering that he has being collecting for about two or three years, and he is taken this offering back to Jerusalem because of the famine that there was in Jerusalem. And he is now in the outer court of the temple and a riot has broken out, and the Roman soldiers have caught Paul. The centurion has stretched him out. He is about to be beaten with whips and rods (this was not scourging, but it was something very similar to that), and he tells them here that he is a Roman citizen. And Roman citizens were not supposed to be scourged; they were not supposed to be beaten with whips.

Now, elsewhere Paul will tell us that he was beaten five times in this way. His back would have been torn to shreds. If you would have taken Paul’s shirt off his back you could have seen the scars from the whippings that he had received. But he appeals now, first of all, to the centurion, and the centurion then goes to the tribune and says, “He is a Roman citizen, and that means he cannot be scourged.” Later on, a few chapters later, he will be in Caesarea in prison, and again they are going to beat him. And this time he appeals to Rome – he appeals to Caesar – because as a Roman citizen he had the right to a fair trial before his accuser, and his accuser in this case was the state itself. So he appeals to Caesar.

Now, an interesting question: “How could Paul be a Roman citizen?” He was Jewish. How did this Jewish family in Tarsus receive citizenship in the Roman Empire? And remember, Paul says he was born! He did not just receive citizenship in Rome, he was born a citizen. Which means that either his father or his grandfather or his great-grandfather had (because he was a Jew) received citizenship. The speculation is (and this is only a speculation) – remember, Paul was a tentmaker. This was a craft that he had learned from his family – the speculation is that this family had supplied tents for Roman soldiers in the expansion of the Empire, and for which they were given citizenship. And with citizenship came lots of rights and privileges – privileges in law and privileges relating to property and privileges relating to commerce. It would have been a very elite club to be a citizen of Tarsus, but it would have been an even more elite club to have been a Roman citizen in Tarsus. So, Paul has his ‘green card’! No, he has a passport that says ‘the United States of America’ on it – only it says "citizen of the Roman Empire." And there literally were little documents that he would have carried with him, or perhaps would have been kept at home in Tarsus. And when he became a Christian, he was thrown out of his home; his parents disowned him when he became a Christian. We don’t actually know whether Paul actually had these documents on him.

But in Philippians 3:20 he says something quite extraordinary: “Our citizenship is in heaven.” It is not in Tarsus, it is not in Rome, it is in heaven. What does that mean? It means five things.

We Are Aliens🔗

Firstly, it means that he is an alien. Do you know that is what I am called by this country? I am an alien. Now, I love the science fiction channel, and I love science fiction, and I am technically called by this country a resident alien. (Transcription of audio file from 17:17 to 17:25 omitted.) Paul says, “I am a citizen of heaven.” Peter, do you remember, in the first verse of Peter’s first letter he writes, “To those who are strangers and aliens.” “I don’t really belong to this world,” Paul is saying. “I am proud of being a citizen of Tarsus. I am proud of being a citizen of the Roman Empire. But I don’t really belong in this world. I am an alien in this world.”

And I wonder, is that how you view yourself in the list of priorities? You know, you are from Columbia. You are a South Carolinian and then some. And some of you are very proud of being South Carolinians, and you don’t want to be North Carolinians and you don’t want to be from Mississippi. Some of you are very proud of the status that you have because you are an alumni of “XYZ” (whatever university you went to). But I wonder if the first thing and the most important thing that dominates your Christian thinking, your worldview, your perspective, is “I am first of all a citizen of heaven. I belong there. My name is written in the documents of heaven, in the Lamb’s book of life.” “When the roll is called up yonder, I will be there.” It says, first of all, that we are aliens.

We Have a Different King🔗

Secondly, we have a different Emperor. We have a different Governor. We have a different King. And he is King Jesus. He is my Sovereign Protector. He is my Lord. He is the one to whom I owe allegiance. (Transcription of audio file from 19:59 to 20:24 omitted.) When I go to baseball games, at the very beginning you stand up and take your hat off, I put my hand on my heart and I sing the American national anthem. I am not a citizen, but I actually sing the American national anthem as you sing “God Save the Queen” when you are in Britain. But I don’t serve the president. I have a greater king. I have a far greater king. And his name is Jesus.

We Live by Different Laws🔗

Thirdly, it means we live by a different set of laws. Now, there are laws. I pay my taxes. (Transcription of audio file from 21:15 to 21:29, 21:33 to 21:55 omitted.) I obey the laws of this country. But I obey a greater set of laws. The apostles Peter and John were once told not to preach in the name of Jesus. And do you remember what their response was? There are times when we must obey God rather than men. We have allegiances to the state and we have allegiances to the country. Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, but render to God what is God’s.

We Can See Heaven🔗

Fourthly, there are times when I can see that land that I belong to. I think I can see it. You know, in Pilgrim’s Progress there is a place called Beulah land. Does anybody have a house here that they have actually called Beulah? You know, in Scotland it is very common to see among Christians their house is called Beulah, because from Beulah you could see heaven. From Beulah you could not see Doubting Castle. The spires of Doubting Castle could not be seen from Beulah, but you could see heaven. And the glory of it – well, Bunyan didn’t know sunglasses, but the language of Pilgrim’s Progress suggests that the light was so bright coming from the celestial city that they had to shade their eyes because the light was so bright. And sometimes I think I can hear the angels singing, because that is my home. And sometimes I see just little glimpses of it here. Sometimes in a sermon; sometimes when I am reading the Bible; sometimes when I am singing. When the “roll is called up yonder” and you shut your eyes and you think, “That is where I am going.”

We Have the Rights and Privileges of Heaven🔗

And fifthly, my citizenship is in heaven means I have all of the rights and all of the privileges that belong to that city. I have all of it now. I am not there yet – I am an alien – but I have that. Pretend I have my green card in my pocket. If I had my green card in my pocket, I have the right to enter this country. I have the right to work in this country. I have the right to pay taxes in this country. That is my right. That is my privilege.

A Citizen -3

You know, if you are a believer… Are you a believer today? Are you trusting in Jesus only for your salvation? Have you come to him? Told Him that you are a sinner? And the only way that you can be saved, the only way that you can have an assurance that heaven is your home, is by saying, “Nothing in my hands I bring, simply to thy cross I cling. Naked, look to thee for dress. Helpless, look to thee for grace. Foul, I to the fountain fly. Wash me, Saviour, or I die.” You know, if you are a believer, “Nothing can separate you from the love of God, which is in Jesus Christ our Lord.” I am a citizen of heaven. What is a Christian? A Christian is a citizen of heaven, an alien in this world. So I sit loose to this world. I don’t build my life on this world or its treasures, because my citizenship is in heaven.

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