Paul was in trouble—again. After Roman soldiers had arrested him for causing a near riot in Jerusalem, they prepared to have him “interrogated under the lash” (Acts 22:24). But with one question, Paul stopped the proceedings in their tracks. “Is it lawful,” he asked the centurion in charge, “for you to scourge a man who is a Roman citizen and has not been tried?” (22:25). The centurion halted. He knew that going forward with the scourging could land him in jail. That’s because being a citizen of the Roman Empire meant something; it meant that one had certain rights that could not be violated.
Clearly, Paul understood his identity as a Roman citizen, and he understood the benefits of this citizenship. But he also knew that he had another identity that had an even greater set of benefits: “Our citizenship is in heaven,” he wrote (Philippians 3:20).
Citizenship still means something today. No matter what country we live in, our citizenship carries certain rights and responsibilities with it. It’s also something that most of us consider valuable and not to be taken lightly. And so, with Paul, we too can claim a kind of dual citizenship: our national citizenship and our heavenly one.
Every year, during the month of November, the readings from Mass turn our focus to heaven, hell, purgatory, and Jesus’ Second Coming. So in keeping with that tradition, we want to devote this month’s issue to exploring what it means to live as citizens of heaven. We want to look at what the New Testament teaches us about heaven so that we can get a clearer view of how God wants us to live now. We also want to get a glimpse of the glorious future that awaits us. Just as Paul’s heavenly vision carried him through his hardships, our vision of heaven can help us keep our eyes fixed on “the prize of God’s upward calling, in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14).
A Heavenly Vision. It’s hard to imagine what heaven is like. None of us can really know because none of us have ever seen it directly. But Jesus knew, and he didn’t keep it hidden. In fact, he began his public ministry by announcing, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17). Then he proved it by healing the sick, casting out demons, raising the dead, and proclaiming the mercy of God. Clearly, a new age had begun; the time had come for heaven to break into this world in a new way.
This breaking in of heaven exploded even more powerfully when Jesus died and rose from the dead. Jesus had conquered death forever—not just for himself, but for all who believe!
So yes, the kingdom of heaven has come—and it is still here! It is just as real for us as it was for Mary Magdalene at the tomb, Peter in the upper room, and the disciples on the road to Emmaus.
Nowhere do we see heaven on earth more clearly than in the miracle that happens on every altar when plain bread and wine are transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ. Every time we gather to worship the Lord, we are surrounded by a heavenly host singing, “Glory to God in the highest!” Every time we hear his word proclaimed, we are hearing Jesus’ own voice as he sits on his throne. And every time we come to receive him in Communion, we are receiving another taste of the eternal life that he promises to everyone who eats and drinks with faith. So no matter where we are and no matter what our situation, the kingdom of heaven is present wherever the risen King of heaven is glorified and worshipped!
Heirs of Heaven. When Jesus was transfigured before Peter, James, and John, he revealed the glory of heaven—a glory that will one day envelop everyone who believes (Matthew 17:1-8). Jesus showed us that just as he shone with the glory of God on that mountaintop, we will all be transformed and shine along with him. Just as Jesus heard the voice of God the Father, we will hear him say, “You are my beloved with whom I am well pleased.”
In fact, St. John tells us, “We are God’s children now” (1 John 3:2). That means you! You may doubt it at times. You may not even live as a child of God all the time. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that God has claimed you as his own and made you a child of his kingdom. After you die and go to him, you will know without a shadow of doubt that you are a child of God. Whether you see it or not today, your dignity as a son or daughter of God is indelibly imprinted on your heart!
Now, the images we see in Jesus’ transfiguration are a big contrast to our current experience. In this world darkened by sin, we see glimpses of heaven, but we can see only “indistinctly, as in a mirror” (1 Corinthians 13:12). Our dignity as children of God is hard to perceive. Our vision is clouded by sin and past hurts. Our hearts are torn between “the flesh” and “the Spirit” (Galatians 5:16). And so we live in hope, awaiting that day when all of our inner conflicts are resolved and all of the darkness in our hearts and in the world is banished forever.
You will still experience physical death, but God has promised that if you share in his death to sin, you will also share in his resurrection. He has promised that the time will come when he will “change our lowly body to conform with his glorified body” (Philippians 3:21). That means we will all be like Jesus, “for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2)!
A New Heaven and a New Earth. In the Book of Revelation, St. John describes a vision of heaven that he had received. Of course, mere human words can never capture fully what heaven will look like, but John’s vision reveals an important truth: heaven is a glorious place beyond anything we can imagine.
John describes God as sitting on a glorious throne amid lightning and peals of thunder. He is surrounded by four mysterious creatures and twenty-four elders who continually cry out, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God almighty, who was, and who is, and who is to come” (Revelation 4:8). A host of angels sings, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain” (5:12). And “a great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue,” is caught up in worship of Jesus, the Lamb of God (7:9).
Toward the end of Revelation, John describes a “new heaven and a new earth,” when all creation will be renewed:
I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, God’s dwelling is with the human race. He will dwell with them and they will be his people and God himself will always be with them as their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain.” (Revelation 21:3-4)
This Is Your Story. The most wonderful thing about all these descriptions of heaven is that they are meant to be your own story. Jesus wants to bring you into his heavenly home, where you will live with him forever. You will have a glorified body freed from every ache and pain and sickness. You will have the same personality you have right now, but it will be purged of all sin and negativity. Every kind and just and holy desire you have ever had will flourish, just as every self-centered and sinful desire will melt away. In other words, you will be as holy as the saints and as eternal as the angels!
But it gets even better. In heaven, you will be reunited with all your loved ones. Can you imagine the joy of once again embracing your mother, father, husband, wife, children, or closest friends? You will also become friends with all the saints. Imagine sharing stories with the Virgin Mary, enjoying the new creation with St. Francis of Assisi, or hearing Mother Teresa tell you about her own struggles and joys on earth.
Best of all, you’ll be supremely happy because you’ll be surrounded by the love of almighty God. As you gaze on his face, you’ll be in awe of his beauty and majesty and glory (Revelation 22:4). You’ll want nothing more than to join all the saints and angels in joyful worship of the One who created you in love, redeemed you in mercy, and brought you to this glorious place.
Your New Home. You are a citizen of heaven, so set your heart on your new home! This is the place that Jesus has prepared for you. This is where his Holy Spirit has been leading you since the day you were baptized. This is your “upward calling, in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14).
So let this heavenly vision influence how you look at everything on this earth. Let it guide you in your decisions, comfort you in your sorrows, strengthen you in your trials, and color every one of your relationships. In the next article, we will examine some of the things we can do so that we can begin to experience heaven right here on this earth.