In my posts in this series, I have made the rather controversial point that baptism should only be done for entire families and at the time of conversion of the head of that family. Subsequently born children do not need to be baptized, either as infants or adults. To accord with this pattern—the only one the bible gives us specifically in relation to this sacrament—I then made the foundational symbol of baptism to be a change of citizenship. The question now needs to be addressed: if baptism represents a change of citizenship; to what “country” do we now belong?
I think most people, even if they didn’t follow or agree with my arguments to this point, would still concur that we have a different citizenship once we are baptized. They would quote from Philippians 3:20 that our “citizenship is in heaven.” Unfortunately, the discussion usually stops there, with “heaven” sometimes translating as “a place far away from the earth” or as “a place in another space and time.” By making our citizenship something centered in heaven, it becomes something mystical and ethereal rather than a concrete, functional reality. Accordingly, despite our best efforts, such an association can either trivialize Heaven or the present life; probably both.
The whole issue reminds me of the debates between David Hunt and Gary Demar. A few decades ago, Demar was part of the Christian Reconstruction Movement, which for all its faults, at least tried to create a Biblical social theory. Hunt saw this emphasis (probably correctly) as an attack on salvation and the Dispensational goals of abandoning the earth for our Heavenly reward. Hunt therefore authored a book entitled Whatever Happened To Heaven?
To which Gary Demar replied, “Nothing has happened to Heaven. It is still there. We are just more concerned about what happens before you get to Heaven. What effect does or should the Gospel have now?”
In Demar’s view, Heaven is important, but the Bible is more concerned about how God’s people are to behave in this world in their own time. Though their politics would have been worlds apart, William Stringfellow would have agreed with Demar on this essential point:
Biblical faith is distinguished from all other religions, all philosophies, and all ideologies by its redundant insistence upon the presence and vitality of the Word of God in common history….This historic, incarnate activity of the Word of God signifies the militancy of the Word of God, both in cosmic dimensions of space and time, and in each and every item of created life.. (A Simplicity of Faith, 1982—Emphasis added.)
Heaven, though often mentioned in Scripture is oddly enough, not often emphasized. We know very few details about what heaven shall be like, except that we shall be “with Christ” when we die. As N. T. Wright often says, “Heaven is important, but it is not the end of the world.”
But conservative Christian readers often scrunch together two very different things. One is going to heaven after you die, and the other is the resurrection of the body as the final destination. Many conservatives are puzzled when I tell them that there’s not very much in the New Testament about going to heaven when you die, and that where you do find material in the New Testament about going to heaven when you die, this is a temporary thing. What really matters is resurrection—Life After Life After Death. (Emphasis in original.)
So in combination (and this may be the only website where you will see Demar, Stringfellow, and Wright quoted in the same post), these men do not think the Christian’s focus should be on heaven. In their view (with which I concur) heaven is at best a temporary resting point between where the action truly resides: in this world and the world to come. Specifically, since the Resurrection of Christ, the emphasis is on how this world is being transformed in a preliminary way into the new Heavens and the New Earth.
This same point is often missed in our interpretations of Jesus’ proclamation that “the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” (Matt 4:17). I have heard people in Bible studies say that Jesus was announcing the fact that soon people would be able to go directly to heaven when they died. Really? That is a barrel load of meaning shoehorned into a single sentence. Besides, if you read all the Gospels together, the “Kingdom of Heaven” is the Hebrew Matthew’s parallel to the Macedonian Luke’s “Kingdom of God.” As such, the “Kingdom of Heaven” is the Kingdom “from” Heaven (as in “Jesus of Nazareth) or the Kingdom whose “source” is Heaven (the books of Moses) or the Kingdom whose ownership is heaven (as in the Temple of God). It is not a Kingdom that only exists in Heaven. If it was, Then Jesus saying this Kingdom that existed only in Heaven “being in our midst” or “among us” would make no sense. In other words, the emphasis is on the Kingdom; it is not on of Heaven.
I submit it is also in this context that we should view Philippians 3:20. In fact, if we read the entire verse this emphasis becomes clearer.
For our citizenship is in the heavens; from where we also wait for a Rescuer, the Lord Jesus the Anointed: who shall form anew the body of our humiliation, [that it may be] conformed to the body of his public honor, according to the working by which he is able even to subject all things to himself. (Phil 3:20-21)
Heaven is important, but only because it will be the point from which Christ will return. Until that time, we shall be a body of humiliation; once He returns, we shall share in his publicly honored body. In that time, all things shall be subjected to His kingship. Therefore, heaven is important; but for us, it is important because it is presently where Christ resides and from which he shall come again.
In other words, our citizenship is in heaven; but it is in heaven only because Christ is in heaven. We are baptized into Christ; therefore, our citizenship is in Christ.