Our citizenship is in heaven.
Christians are not citizens of this world. The Greek word for “citizenship” in today’s verse refers to a colony of foreigners. In a secular source, it is used to describe a capital city that kept the names of its citizens on a register. Indeed, we are registered citizens of another place—heaven. Our names are there, our Father is there, our brothers and sisters are there, and our inheritance is there—it is our home.
The Israelites taken into the Babylonian Captivity give us a historical parallel to the contemporary church. Their home was still the Promised Land even though they lived for so many years in a foreign company. But when it came time to return, many had become so entrenched into the Babylonian culture that they didn’t want to leave. When the Lord says it’s time to go to heaven, we fight it as if it were the worst thing imaginable because this world has become everything to us. That’s why we must always be reminded that our citizenship is in heaven.
3:20 The apostle now contrasts the heavenly-minded attitude of the true believer.
At the time the Epistle was written, Philippi was a colony of Rome (Acts 16:12). The Philippians were citizens of Rome, enjoying its protection and privileges. But they were also citizens of their local government. Against this backdrop, the apostle reminds the believers that their citizenship is in heaven. Moffat translates it: “But we are a colony of heaven.”
This does not mean that Christians are not also citizens of earthly countries. Other Scriptures clearly teach that we are to be subject to governments because they are ordained by God (Rom. 13:1–7). Indeed, believers should be obedient to the government in all matters not expressly forbidden by the Lord. The Philippians owed allegiance to the local magistrates, and also to the Emperor in Rome. So believers have responsibilities to earthly governments, but their first loyalty is to the Lord in heaven.
Not only are we citizens of heaven, but we also eagerly wait for the Savior from heaven! Eagerly wait for is strong language (in the original) to express the earnest expectation of something believed to be imminent. It means literally to thrust forward the head and neck as in anxious expectation of hearing or seeing something.
The underlying motivation for pursuing Christlikeness is the hope of the return of Jesus Christ. Since Christ is in heaven, those who love Him must be preoccupied with heaven, longing for Christ to return and take them to be with Him (1 Thess. 4:17).
Paul had little interest in the comforts and pleasures of this world, as the following passages indicate:
We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. (2 Cor. 4:8–10)
In everything commending ourselves as servants of God, in much endurance, in afflictions, in hardships, in distresses, in beatings, in imprisonments, in tumults, in labors, in sleeplessness, in hunger, in purity, in knowledge, in patience, in kindness, in the Holy Spirit, in genuine love, in the word of truth, in the power of God; by the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and the left, by glory and dishonor, by evil report and good report; regarded as deceivers and yet true; as unknown yet well-known, as dying yet behold, we live; as punished yet not put to death, as sorrowful yet always rejoicing, as poor yet making many rich, as having nothing yet possessing all things. (2 Cor. 6:4–10)
Are they servants of Christ?—I speak as if insane—I more so; in far more labors, in far more imprisonments, beaten times without number, often in danger of death. Five times I received from the Jews thirty-nine lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, a night and a day I have spent in the deep. I have been on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my countrymen, dangers from the Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers on the sea, dangers among false brethren; I have been in labor and hardship, through many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. Apart from such external things, there is the daily pressure on me of concern for all the churches. Who is weak without my being weak? Who is led into sin without my intense concern? (2 Cor. 11:23–29)
This view led him to the conviction that made him write, “I am hard-pressed from both directions, having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better” (1:23).
It is consistent for believers to have a heavenly focus, because our citizenship is in heaven. Politeuma (citizenship) appears only here in the New Testament, though Paul used the related verb in 1:27. It refers to the place where one has official status, the commonwealth where one’s name is recorded on the register of citizens. Though believers live in this world, they are citizens of heaven. They are members of Christ’s kingdom, which is not of this world (John 18:36). Their names are recorded in heaven (Luke 10:20; cf. Phil. 4:3; Heb. 12:23; Rev. 13:8; 21:27); their Savior is there (Acts 1:11; 1 Thess. 4:16); their fellow saints are there (Heb. 12:23); their inheritance is there (1 Peter 1:4); their reward is there (Matt. 5:12); and their treasure is there (Matt. 6:20).
Though they do not yet live in heaven, believers live in the heavenly realm (Eph. 2:6); they experience to some degree the heavenly life here on earth. They have the life of God within them, are under the rule of heaven’s King, and live for heaven’s cause.
Paul’s reference to citizenship may have been especially meaningful to the Philippians, since Philippi was a Roman colony. The Philippians were Roman citizens, though obviously living outside of Rome, just as believers are citizens of heaven living on earth.
20 The recurrence of rare words in 3:20; 4:1; and 4:3 (appearing first in 1:27) marks 1:27–4:3 as a unit. The verbs in 1:27, politeuomai (“conduct yourselves [as citizens],” GK 4488; 1:27), stēkō (“stand firm,” GK 5112), and synathleō (“contending as one,” GK 5254), reappear in the same order: politeuma (nominal form, “citizenship,” GK 4487; 3:20), stēkō (“stand firm”; 4:1), and synathleō (“contended at my side”; 4:3). Paul also weaves the vocabulary from 2:6–11 into these verses and draws on that passage’s elevated style (Lincoln, 88–89), which suggests that he reaches the climax of his argument in this entire section (1:27–4:3).
Since we “eagerly await a Savior from [heaven]” (cf. 1 Th 1:10; 4:16; 5:23), that must be where the Christian’s Lord is now, and the Lord’s presence there is the reason why the Christian’s commonwealth is in heaven. By using the metaphor of a civic body, Paul reminds the Philippians that they are an outpost on earth of God’s kingdom in heaven. The metaphor evokes at least four points of comparison:
(1) Since Philippi was an outpost of Caesar’s empire, he leaves them to draw the contrasts. Caesar is not the savior, as imperial propaganda would want people to believe, but Jesus is. Paul may deliberately allude to popular names of Nero—“Lord” and “Savior”—to make the point that Caesar is not Lord.
(2) The metaphor evokes the rights and privileges of citizenship. Philippian Christians who may have been granted the honor of Roman citizenship will need to recognize that their heavenly citizenship is infinitely greater and to evaluate their status in the same way that Paul evaluated his status as a Jew. The least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than any in the kingdom of Rome. If they are dual citizens, their allegiance to the Lord of heaven is to outweigh all other commitments. If they are not legal citizens of any earthly city, then they should know that they are full citizens of a heavenly commonwealth, with all its perquisite rights and privileges. In this body of citizens, all members share full and equal rights.
(3) In Greek thought, a citizen should submerge his own interests and profit to that of the city. Paul’s metaphor reminds Christians that as citizens of heaven they should subordinate their self-interest to the welfare of the community to the point of self-sacrifice.
(4) Roman colonies were set up as “miniatures” of Rome (Gellius, Attic Nights 16.13.9) to foster the majesty of Roman culture, religion, and values. The Christian commonwealth has a different constitution and different laws, and Christians are to exemplify the values of the heavenly realm. Christ’s resurrection establishes a new city (polis) and an alternative political jurisdiction that challenges the values and the methods of the empire. The empire tyrannizes, enslaves, and crucifies its subjects. Christians are not to imitate the crucifiers but the crucified one. They are to accept suffering rather than to inflict it. If one is conformed to the kings of this world, one is conformed to a way of death; if one is conformed to Christ, one is conformed to a way that brings life.
In a world of conflicting powers, Christians await the Savior’s return to rescue them from death-dealing powers. They are not to place their trust in Caesar to protect them from enemy hordes and death through his military power but in God’s power to raise the dead and destroy death. Christ was obedient to death but now reigns with all power (2:6–11) and will come to effect the rescue and vindication of those who belong to him, as God effected the same for him (Lincoln, 107). Christians must wait patiently and faithfully for his return.
 MacArthur, J. (2001). Truth for today : a daily touch of God’s grace (p. 165). Nashville, Tenn.: J. Countryman.
 MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (pp. 1976–1977). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2001). Philippians (pp. 259–261). Chicago: Moody Press.
 Garland, D. E. (2006). Philippians. In T. Longman III (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Ephesians–Philemon (Revised Edition) (Vol. 12, p. 248). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.