“For our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ…” - Philippians 3:20
We are on the eve of another national election, this time a midterm election the turnout for which is expected to be even lower than usual, especially in California. All, or nearly all, native or naturalized citizens who have reached the age of eighteen years have the right to vote. In our republic, citizenship entails many precious rights, and responsibilities, for which we can be very grateful and should be very careful to protect, not only for ourselves but all other citizens and even for those who are sojourning among us. I cannot say I am “proud to be an American” since I can take no credit for being one as I was born to it. However, I am very grateful to God to be a citizen of this nation. Some of you know that I become a little irritated when I hear the opinion that our nation has somehow become little better than a dictatorship or so corrupted from its original intention that our vote or voice no longer counts. Such persons ought to trade places with someone from Saudi Arabia or Communist China and see if they don’t gain a healthy appreciation for the degree of freedom we have in America and fresh hope that her many faults can be substantially mended by “We, the people” if we will take the trouble to become adequately informed and to work constructively together.
The Roman government under which the Apostles lived was not a democracy nor did it offer its subjects much, if any, in the way of political or civil rights. It is true the Paul and Barnabas were Roman citizens (Acts 16:37; 22:25-27) and at least had the right to “appeal to Caesar” (Acts 25:11) from the decisions of a lower court. While Paul was thankful for his Roman citizenship and exercised his rights under it, he did not place it higher in value or even equal in value to his heavenly citizenship. Like the other apostles and the Christians of the first three centuries, he believed “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29) whenever the commands of God contradicted those of men. It is our first duty to determine what God commands us to do and then carry it out, whether or not it corresponds to the will of men. The Bible does say, “submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority… for such is the will of God that by doing right you may silence the ignorance of foolish men” (1 Peter 2:13, 15) but we are to submit only insofar as it is consistent with the whole of God’s will. This demonstrates to the world that our citizenship indeed is in heaven. We are not, therefore, looking for the coming of some political leader or administration or party for the ultimate answer to our problems. Rather, it is from heaven that “we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ…” (Philippians 3:20; from our text, above) It is King Jesus who is the absolute sovereign we serve and to whose kingdom we are pledged.
As I have said, I am very grateful to be a citizen of our nation, but I am far more grateful to God for making me a citizen of His kingdom! Citizenship for Christians is first and foremost that which is registered in heaven, not the County Courthouse or the Federal Archives. This means that our hopes and care must go beyond the outward peace and material prosperity of those living within the borders of the United States. The Bible doesn’t begin with the voyage of the Mayflower or “the shot heard ‘round the world” at Lexington; it doesn’t even mention our nation. It begins with God’s creation of man in God’s image and the world as his home. While it concentrates very much upon the nation of Israel, it is always with the view of extending God’s blessings to all nations. (Genesis 12:3; 18:18) I love the words of John Wesley when someone criticized him for “trespassing” upon the parishes into which the Church of that day was divided, and “poaching” the souls of people committed by the government to the care of their local priests: “I look upon all the world as my parish; thus far I mean, that in whatever part of it I am, I judge it meet, right, and my bounden duty to declare unto all that are willing to hear, the glad tidings of salvation.” (Journal, June 11, 1739)
Being citizens of heaven, the whole world indeed is our parish. We are “ambassadors of Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:20) and our churches are “embassies of heaven” in whatever nation we may find ourselves or to which God may send us. We serve the God who “so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16) We serve a Christ who is “the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world.” We serve the Jesus who commanded His disciples to “go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15) as well to “make disciples of all the nations…” (Matthew 28:19) While loving our own nation we are also called to love all nations, for Jesus’ sake.
Recently, I heard a statement I have heard many times before from people, many professing faith in Christ: “I think we have too many problems here (in America) to concern ourselves with the problems people have in other countries.” (I had been telling this person about someone who had been on a mission trip overseas.) No doubt there is much to be done in our nation and for our people. In point of fact, the United States is a nation of immigrants from all over the world. If God has a special role for the United States to play it must be to demonstrate how all people, no matter what their ancestry or beliefs, can dwell together in peace and harmony. We are a rather large microcosm of the world. This gives us many natural bridges to all parts of the globe and every culture. American Christians have a wonderful opportunity to welcome immigrants and to bear witness to them of Christ’s love. It reminds me of how the New Testament Church began, in Jerusalem on the Jewish festival Day of Pentecost where there were Jews “from every nation under heaven.” (Acts 2:5) Those converted that day by the witness of the believers and the preaching of Peter returned to their countries to spread the gospel there. Many of our immigrants remain in touch with their relatives in the home country and even visit there from time to time. What a great opportunity to impact the world through them!
The recent outbreak of the Ebola virus in West Africa has shown that we cannot be concerned only for ourselves, even from a selfish viewpoint, let alone from the vantage of God’s love for all. What happens anywhere touches us, for good or ill. Being citizens of heaven, we are called to love all peoples, everywhere and seek their highest good, both materially and spiritually. While we should do all we can in our own country we should always be eager to help people in other countries experience at least some of the blessings we take for granted here!