3:20 our citizenship. Just as Philippi was a Roman colony (Acts 16:12), the church is a colony of heaven.
we await. This anticipation is a counterpart to the longing of 1:23. All other instances of this verb in Paul’s epistles have a similar focus (Rom. 8:19, 23, 25; 1 Cor. 1:7; Gal. 5:5).
3:20 our commonwealth exists in heaven Roman citizenship was highly prized, but Paul encourages believers to embrace a far better identity as citizens of God’s kingdom. Most residents of Philippi probably lacked Roman citizenship (see note on 1:1). For any believers who did hold Roman citizenship, Paul’s statement here presents a challenge to look beyond their earthly status and show highest allegiance to Christ.
a savior, the Lord Jesus Christ In the Roman Empire, the emperor was known as the savior and lord. By applying these titles to Jesus, Paul is calling the Philippians to live under the authority and reign of the universe’s true Savior and Lord, Jesus Christ. It was likely this kind of message that landed Paul and Silas in jail in Philippi (Acts 16:21).
3:20 our citizenship. The Gr. term refers to a colony of foreigners. In one secular source, it was used to describe a capital city that kept the names of its citizens on a register. in heaven. The place where God dwells and where Christ is present. It is the believers’ home (Jn 14:2, 3), where their names are registered (Lk 10:20) and their inheritance awaits (1Pe 1:4). Other believers are there (Heb 12:23). We belong to the kingdom under the rule of our heavenly King, and obey heaven’s laws. Cf. 1Pe 2:11. eagerly wait. The Gr. verb is found in most passages dealing with the second coming and expresses the idea of waiting patiently, but with great expectation (Ro 8:23; 2Pe 3:11, 12).
3:20 Christians need to remember that though we are in this world we are not of this world; our ultimate citizenship is in heaven. eagerly wait: Here Paul presents a direct contrast to the earthly focus of the enemies of the Cross in v. 19. The eager desire of Christians is not earthly things, but a heavenly Person, the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ (Rom. 8:19–25).
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.
20 The thought of those whose lives are dominated by the desire for earthly things leads the apostle to say that true Christians know that their life and citizenship is even now in heaven with Christ (cf. Eph. 1:3; 2:6; Col. 3:1–4). Philippians could be proud of their citizenship in a Roman colony (see the Introduction), just as we all have an earthly citizenship which has its privileges and its obligations. But they, and we, have to value above all the gift of a heavenly life and citizenship, and we live in hope of our future inheritance that we will receive in its fulness in the future. Thus we eagerly await the reappearing from heaven of our Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ.
3:20. While on earth, believers in Christ are foreigners or aliens away from their true home. In stark contrast to the enemies of the cross, the Christian’s citizenship is in heaven. Earthly goals and self-centered desires fade in importance. Mature, godly believers live in anticipation not in participation. Believers know the Lord Jesus Christ is coming back from heaven. He will fully establish the kingdom of heaven, where we have citizenship. While we wait, we participate in kingdom activities, not worldly activities.
|NASB, NKJV||“For our citizenship is in heaven”|
|NRSV||“But our citizenship is in heaven”|
|TEV||“We, however, are citizens of heaven”|
|NJB||“But our homeland is in heaven”|
This verse is a contrast to vv. 18–19. The PRONOUN “our” is EMPHATIC. “Heaven” is PLURAL (cf. 2 Cor. 12:2; Eph. 4:10; Heb. 4:14; 7:26) following the Hebrew usage (shamayim). Possibly Paul was using the Roman colonial status of this city as an illustration (cf. 1:27).
© “we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” Paul often uses this term “eagerly wait” in relation to the Second Coming (cf. Rom. 8:19, 23, 25; 1 Cor. 1:7; Gal. 5:5; Heb. 9:28). Believers’ desire for the Second Coming is one evidence of their relationship with Christ and an impetus for Christlike living (cf. Rom. 8:19, 23; 1 Cor. 1:7).
Paul’s emphasis on the Lord’s return is recurrent, but his understanding of the time element is ambiguous. There are several passages in which Paul includes himself in the group who would be alive at the Second Coming (cf. 1 Cor. 15:51–52; 2 Cor. 5; Phil. 3:20; 1 Thess. 4:15, 17). However, there are other passages where he asserts a future return beyond his own lifetime (cf. 1 Cor. 6:14; 2 Cor. 4:14 and especially II Thessalonians). It is possible that the “we” of the first group of texts is literary, or that Paul’s views on this subject developed. It is difficult to suppose that an inspired author “developed” his theology. A better approach is to assert a dialectical model. Paul, like all NT writers, asserted the certainty and “soon-ness” of the Second Coming. Believers are to live in light of the any-moment return of the Lord! However, Jesus (Matt. 24) and Paul (2 Thess. 2) spoke of historical events that must occur before the Second Coming. Both are somehow true! The return of Jesus is a motivating hope of every generation of believers, but the reality of only one generation!
This is one of two times Paul calls Jesus “Savior” (cf. Eph. 5:23) before the Pastoral Letters (I Tim., II Tim., Titus), in which he uses the title ten times. This term came to be a title for the Roman Emperor. In Titus there is a parallel in the use of this term between God the Father and Jesus the Son (cf. 1:3 vs. 1:4; 2:10 vs. 2:13; 3:4 vs. 3:6). The early Christians were willing to face death rather than relinquish this title to the Emperor. Both “Savior” and “Lord” were Imperial Roman titles used by Christians exclusively for Jesus.
20. The two previous verses were an aside, prompted by the use of the verb ‘live’ in verse 17. The true ‘life’ of the believer recalled to the apostle’s mind the ‘life’ of the enemies of the gospel; and in the characterization of verses 18–19 he has exposed them in clear terms.
Now the same association of thought opens up a new contrast. The people who ‘mind … earthly things’ (v. 19) are set in direct contrast with the Christian whose citizenship is in heaven. It is our (placed first for emphasis) citizenship which is above, and not that of the enemy who has no part or lot in the true inheritance. But, gar (which is notoriously difficult to translate), will then express the contrast, ‘however, to be sure’.
Citizenship, politeuma, may be rendered ‘commonwealth’ (rsv), ‘behaviour’ (cf. 1:27), or ‘colony of heaven’ (Moffatt). Dibelius paraphrases, ‘We have our home in heaven, and here on earth we are a colony of heaven’s citizens.’ E. Stauffer, moreover, has shown that the only satisfactory sense of Paul’s words here must be a translation of politeuma as a ‘capital or native city, which keeps the citizens on its registers’. The background of the word, in this context, is the situation of the readers who lived in a city which was a Roman military colony directly related to the capital city of Rome. (See the Introduction, pp. 17–20, and note on 1:27.)
The apostle here indicates the double allegiance of the Philippian Christians. As Roman subjects they are citizens of the far distant, capital city of Rome, where the emperor has his residence. As servants of ‘another king, one called Jesus’ (Acts 17:7), they are citizens of that capital city, where the King of kings has his domicile, and whose advent to establish his reign on this earth and to rescue his people (1 Thess. 1:10) is awaited. Here on earth, meanwhile, they are resident aliens who dwell temporarily in a foreign country, but have their citizenship elsewhere (cf. Heb. 11:13; Jas 1:1; 1 Pet. 1:1; 2:11).
From there, ex hou, can refer only to politeuma, and not to ouranois, heaven as the niv might imply. From our capital city which is actually (Greek hyparchei) situated in the heavens we expect a Saviour, whose promised advent will bring the final deliverance from all the trials and persecutions of a hostile and alien world. Saviour is a very infrequent term when used as a title of the Lord Jesus in the Pauline writings. It is found only in Ephesians 5:23; 2 Timothy 1:10 and Titus 1:4; 2:13; 3:6. V. Taylor explains this neglect of the term in early Christian literature as due to the popular use of the designation in Greek religion where the gods were hailed as ‘saviours’, and in Caesar worship which gave this honorific title to the emperor. Christians would be reluctant to claim a term for their Lord which was so applied in current religious speech.
The use of the term here may be justified on the ground that Paul has employed an imagery in which the contrast with the Roman emperor was inevitable. Therefore, he opposes the true emperor, the Lord Jesus Christ, against the head of imperial Rome. Saviour, sōtēr, was a title of the Roman emperors since 48 bc when a decree of the people of Ephesus declared Julius Caesar to be the ‘universal saviour of mankind’; thereafter it became a common title for the ruling Caesar.
Paul uses the word here in a descriptive sense. The attitude of the Christian, especially when undergoing trials such as the Philippians were experiencing (1:27–30; 2:15), is one of expectation which is centred upon the coming of Christ as Saviour (there is no definite article with the Greek sōtēr), i.e. in his capacity as vindicator of his people and as their deliverer from their oppressors. The picture, then, goes back to the Old Testament which often depicts God’s coming to the aid of his afflicted people (e.g. Isa. 35:4); but there is no evidence that here the adversaries persecuting the Philippian church were the Roman authorities, as Lohmeyer states. The contrast between the two emperors, Caesar and Christ, is a general one, possibly called forth from the peculiar civic situation of the Philippian Christians who lived in a Roman colony.
We eagerly await, apekdechometha, for his appearing, says Paul, using a verb which is usually employed of the hope which is set upon many things in the future (cf. Rom. 8:19, 23; 1 Cor. 1:7; Gal. 5:5). An exact parallel is Hebrews 9:28 which uses the same verb. The expected salvation, whether in the sense of our final redemption or complete deliverance from the hand of the persecutors of the church, is contrasted with the ‘destruction’, which is the fate of the persons referred to in verses 18–19.
20. But our conversation is in heaven. This statement overturns all empty shows, in which pretended ministers of the gospel are accustomed to glory, and he indirectly holds up to odium all their objects of aim, because, by flying about above the earth, they do not aspire towards heaven. For he teaches that nothing is to be reckoned of any value except God’s spiritual kingdom, because believers ought to lead a heavenly life in this world. “They mind earthly things: it is therefore befitting that we, whose conversation is in heaven, should be separated from them.” We are, it is true, intermingled here with unbelievers and hypocrites; nay more, the chaff has more of appearance in the granary of the Lord than wheat. Farther, we are exposed to the common inconveniences of this earthly life; we require, also, meat and drink, and other necessaries, but we must, nevertheless, be conversant with heaven in mind and affection. For, on the one hand, we must pass quietly through this life, and, on the other hand, we must be dead to the world that Christ may live in us, and that we, in our turn, may live to him. This passage is a most abundant source of many exhortations, which it were easy for any one to elicit from it.
Whence also. From the connection that we have with Christ, he proves that our citizenship is a heaven, for it is not seemly that the members should be separated from their Head. Accordingly, as Christ is in heaven, in order that we may be conjoined with him, it is necessary that we should in spirit dwell apart from this world. Besides, where our treasure is, there is our heart also. (Matt. 6:21.) Christ, who is our blessedness and glory, is in heaven: let our souls, therefore, dwell with him on high. On this account he expressly calls him Saviour. Whence does salvation come to us? Christ will come to us from heaven as a Saviour. Hence it were unbefitting that we should be taken up with this earth. This epithet, Saviour, is suited to the connection of the passage; for we are said to be in heaven in respect of our minds on this account, that it is from that source alone that the hope of salvation beams forth upon us. As the coming of Christ will be terrible to the wicked, so it rather turns away their minds from heaven than draws them thither: for they know that he will come to them as a Judge, and they shun him so far as is in their power. From these words of Paul pious minds derive the sweetest consolation, as instructing them that the coming of Christ is to be desired by them, inasmuch as it will bring salvation to them. On the other hand, it is a sure token of incredulity, when persons tremble on any mention being made of it. See the eighth chapter of the Romans. While, however, others are transported with vain desires, Paul would have believers contented with Christ alone.
Farther, we learn from this passage that nothing mean or earthly is to be conceived of as to Christ, inasmuch as Paul bids us look upward to heaven, that we may seek him. Now, those that reason with subtlety that Christ is not shut up or hid in some corner of heaven, with the view of proving that his body is everywhere, and fills heaven and earth, say indeed something that is true, but not the whole: for as it were rash and foolish to mount up beyond the heavens, and assign to Christ a station, or seat, or place of walking, in this or that region, so it is a foolish and destructive madness to draw him down from heaven by any carnal consideration, so as to seek him upon earth. Up, then, with our hearts, that they may be with the Lord.
Ver. 20.—For our conversation is in heaven. The word “our” is emphatic; the apostle refers back to ver. 17: “Follow us, not those enemies of the cross; our conversation is in heaven; they mind earthly things.” The A.V. has this same word “conversation” in ch. 1:27, where the Greek (πολιτεύεσθε) is the verb corresponding with the noun (πολιτεῦμα) which occurs here. The verb is used in the sense of a certain mode of life or conversation, as in Acts 23:1, but it does not appear that the noun ever bears that meaning. The rendering “citizenship” also seems deficient in authority. In classical Greek the word has three meanings: (1) a form of government; (2) political acts, politics: (3) a commonwealth. The last seems the most suitable here. The unworthy Christians mentioned in the last verse mind earthly things; but our city, our country, our home, is in heaven: there is the state of which we are citizens; there is the general assembly and Church of the Firstborn, whose names are inscribed in the roll of the citizens of the heavenly city. Our real home is there now (ὑπάρχει); comp. Eph. 2:19, “Ye are no longer strangers and foreigners, but ye are fellow-citizens of the saints” (comp. also Heb. 11:10, 16 and 13:14: Gal. 4:26). From whence also we look for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ; rather, we eagerly wait for (comp. Rom. 8:23, 25; Gal. 5:5) the Lord Jesus Christ as a Saviour; comp. Isa. 25:9, “This is the Lord; we have waited for him; we will be glad and rejoice in his salvation.”
3:20 / In saying that our citizenship is in heaven, Paul uses the noun politeuma, not found elsewhere in the nt, but related to the verb politeuesthai, which he has used in 1:27 to denote the Philippian Christians’ “conduct,” with special reference to their responsibility as members of a community. So here, if their citizenship is in heaven, their way of life should be in keeping with that citizenship.
There may be an allusion here to the constitution of Philippi. Since Philippi was a colony of Rome, its politeuma, the register of its citizens, was kept in Rome, its mother city (Gk. mētropolis). No doubt only a minority of the church membership possessed this citizen status, but the constitution of the city would be well enough known to them all. Moffatt’s translation, “But we are a colony of heaven,” could express the general sense quite well. As citizens of a Roman colony were expected to promote the interests of their mother city and maintain its dignity, so citizens of heaven in an earthly environment should represent the interests of their true homeland and lead lives worthy of their citizenship. This citizenship was theirs already; they did not have to wait for it. But they did eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ. This expectation was a constant element in the primitive apostolic preaching: the Thessalonian converts, for example, were taught “to wait for his [God’s] Son from heaven …—Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath” (1 Thess. 1:10).
It would be pressing Paul’s language here too far to infer that he himself expected to be still alive to greet the appearing Savior. In 1:20–24 he expects rather to die before the advent of Christ, and in verse 11 above he hopes to “attain to the resurrection from the dead.” So, in saying now that we eagerly await a Savior, he expresses the attitude of Christians in general, without special reference to his personal prospects.
3:20 Having described the enemies of the cross, Paul now moves to contrast them with what is true of believers. But instead of giving a list of descriptions for believers, Paul simply provides one: But our citizenship is in heaven. By citizenship (politeuma) Paul refers to the status, privileges, and rights that originate from being a citizen of a particular place. By its very nature citizenship is a corporate concept; it cannot truly be lived out in isolation from fellow citizens. It is part of the same word family as the verb politeuomai, which Paul used in 1:27 to exhort the Philippians, ‘Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ.’ As we noted there, politeuomai has the sense of living as a citizen of particular realm. Thus Paul was calling them to live out their citizenship in God’s kingdom in a manner worthy of the gospel. Here in 3:20 Paul uses the related noun politeuma to remind the Philippians that although they live in the Roman colony of Philippi their true home is somewhere else. Just as ‘citizens of a Roman colony were expected to promote the interests of their mother city and maintain its dignity, so citizens of heaven in an earthly environment should represent the interests of their true homeland and lead lives worthy of their citizenship.’208
In contrast to the enemies of the cross who set their minds on earthly things (3:18), the citizenship of the Philippian believers is in heaven, or more woodenly ‘in the heavens.’ Paul uses the plural to emphasize that heaven is the realm where God dwells and rules. The contrast between the different spheres of heaven and earth recalls 2:10–11, where Paul stressed that every knee would bow in heaven and on earth and under the earth to the exalted Christ. A close parallel to what Paul says here is found in Colossians 3:1–4:
If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.
The heavens are the realm where God and Christ reign over the universe, and as those who belong to Christ believers are also in some sense already raised with Christ and seated with him in the heavenly places (cf. Eph. 2:6). This is simply another way of speaking of the same reality that Matthew refers to as the ‘kingdom of heaven’; i.e., heaven is the realm where God’s rule is unchallenged and his kingdom is not like earthly kingdoms. With the coming of Jesus the realm of heaven has now come to earth in the person of Jesus. Because of the incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, we as God’s people experience in part the blessings of this kingdom, but its fullness awaits the consummation.
Paul speaks of this same reality in Galatians 4:21–5:1, when he says ‘the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother’ (4:26). He supports this contention by quoting from Isaiah 54:1, a passage that was instrumental in the development of the Second Temple Jewish tradition of a heavenly Jerusalem that would be revealed at the end of history as the dwelling place of God’s people. This Jerusalem, in contrast to the earthly Jerusalem, would be spotless and pure, the place where God himself would dwell with His people in shalom. The Apostle John presents that very vision as the consummation of God’s work, explaining in detail this heavenly Jerusalem descending as a bride from heaven for Christ her groom (cf. Rev. 21–22). But whereas in Galatians 4:21–5:1 Paul emphasizes the present experience of citizenship in the Jerusalem above, here in Philippians 3:20 the focus is on the future consummation of that citizenship in a new heavens and earth.
It is from heaven that we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. The verb translated wait (apekdechomai) has the sense of ‘await eagerly.’ With but one exception (1 Pet. 3:20), this verb refers to the eschatological expectation/hope of the believer. Nowhere is this clearer than Romans 8, where Paul uses the verb three times in a span of seven verses. Believers and creation itself share a common eager waiting for God to consummate His purposes (expressed in terms of adoption and redemption of our bodies), but in the meantime that eager waiting must be marked by patience (Rom. 8:19, 23, 25). That same eager waiting is directed towards the Lord’s return in 1 Corinthians 1:7 as well as ‘the hope of righteousness’ in Galatians 5:5. So it should not be surprising that Paul uses it here to emphasize the intensity of the believer’s waiting.
The ‘object’ that we wait eagerly for is a Savior, Jesus Christ our Lord. The focus is on the word Savior, which has the general sense of ‘one who rescues’ from some form of (physical and/or spiritual) danger. This title (sōtēr) was frequently applied to Yahweh in the LXX. Of special note is that it occurs in Isaiah 45:15, 21, which is the same portion of Isaiah 45 that Paul quotes from in Philippians 2:10–11. The emphasis in Isaiah 45 is on Yahweh as the ‘only Savior’ of Israel, in contrast to the false gods they have gone after. Indeed, a central theme throughout the OT is the fact that only Yahweh is the true Savior of God’s people; as a result they should not look to other nations or gods for deliverance. This conviction is rooted in the Exodus event, which was the formative divine act in the creation of the nation Israel (cf. Jer. 23:7–8).
However, the title Savior was also used in Greco-Roman literature ‘as a title of honor for deserving pers[ons] … and in ins[criptions] and pap[yri] we find it predicated of high-ranking officials and of persons in private life … it is applied to personalities who are active in the world’s affairs, in order to remove them fr[om] the ranks of ordinary humankind and place them in a significantly higher position.’ Even the Jewish author Josephus uses the term sōtēr to refer to people whose leadership and/or contributions to society were highly regarded, including himself! Given this practice, it should not be surprising that ‘Savior’ was adopted as a title for certain rulers, sometimes as a means of expressing their deified status.217 Although the practice began in the eastern parts of the Empire, by the time of Paul the combined titles of ‘Savior and Benefactor’ were being applied to the Roman emperors.
Here in Philippians 3:20 the OT and Greco-Roman backgrounds to the term sōtēr converge. When Paul uses the term, there is no question that he does so with its OT background in view. Jesus is the agent of God’s salvation through His life, death, resurrection, and ascension; only He is able to rescue His people from their slavery to sin. But given the fact that the Philippian church was predominantly Gentile and living in a Roman colony, when they heard the term ‘savior’ they would have been reminded of the imperial propaganda that presented Caesar as the Savior and Benefactor who brings peace to the world. The convergence of these two backgrounds would have challenged the Philippians to remember that despite the perpetual bombardment of the imperial propaganda, the Lord Jesus Christ is the only true Savior. And by using the title Lord, Paul harkens back to the key title of the Christ-hymn in 2:5–11. Jesus Christ is the true Lord and Savior, not Caesar or anyone else for that matter.
‘Where do I belong?’ is one of the most fundamental human questions. We were created by God to live with Him in perfect fellowship, joyfully serving under His authority and experiencing His pleasure. But as a result of Adam’s sin humanity was expelled from God’s presence lest we be consumed by His intense holiness. As descendants of Adam we all have a deep longing to be at home with God in perfect fellowship (cf. Augustine’s famous line ‘our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you’), a recognition that there must be something greater than this sin-plagued world that is our true home. To be sure, sin suppresses or distorts this longing in all sorts of ways, but it remains, often triggered when a person encounters the transcendent and cannot fully explain the strange mixture of wonder and yet familiarity present in that moment.
Thankfully, God from all eternity had planned how He would bring His people back from their exile into fellowship with Him in a place untouched by sin and death. In one sense, from Genesis 3 forward the rest of the Bible is the story of God’s relentless work to bring His people back into fellowship with Him in such a place. As that plan unfolds the theme of exile remains a prominent motif, as the people of God often are exiled from their homeland, forced to wander in a land that is not their own. Each time this happens it is a microcosm of humanity’s ultimate exile from their home with God. Only the death of God’s own Son Jesus, who took upon Himself the ultimate experience of exile from God on the cross and bore the wrath that we deserved for our sin, could end our exile. And although we have been redeemed, as God’s people we have not yet reached our heavenly home. In the meantime we are exiles and strangers in this world, who long to be in our true home with Christ in heaven. It was such a hope that motivated the great Puritan John Bunyan to write his classic Pilgrim’s Progress.
When we as believers find little or no longing for our heavenly home, it is likely because we have become too comfortable in this world. After all, how much better could the new Jerusalem be than our large house in our privileged neighborhood with all of the comforts one could imagine? Such attitudes (whether explicit or implicit) are evidence that instead of living as citizens of God’s kingdom, we have set our minds on earthly things. We as God’s people are exiles and sojourners on our way to our true home. It is this reality that must shape how we live in this world. It defines who we are, what we think, how we live, and what we value. In a world enslaved to the futile ways of rebellion against God we have been set free in Christ. Because of this reality our first allegiance is to Christ and His people. Such allegiance even transcends biological bonds when loyalty to them means infidelity to Christ. As the body of Christ we are an outpost of the heavenly city here in this present evil age, put here by God as a display colony. As such we can call for those enslaved to this world and the ruler of this age (Eph. 2:2) to experience a taste of God’s kingdom here in this world by seeing how Christ has transformed us into something different from the world.
20 The relationship of this sentence to what has preceded is brought out by the second explanatory “for” in as many sentences. The emphasis is twofold; first, over against those who walk contrary to Paul and whose “minds are set on earthly things,” Paul says, “our citizenship is in heaven.” He says “for” rather than “but,” because, secondly, he is offering the ultimate reason for their following his example and for looking out for others who do so as well (v. 17). “For,” he now explains, “our citizenship (hence our focus) is in heaven” and our future is “glory”—in contrast to those whose “end” is destruction since they live only for the present.16
The linkage between this concluding word and v. 17 is also brought out by his returning to the inclusive “we” (see vv. 3 and 15–16), common to Pauline soteriological moments where the truth of the gospel embraces him as well. Perhaps we should say, in light of vv. 12–14, that Paul is now making sure that the Philippians recognize themselves as included with him as participants in the eschatological prize.
This is the second play on their Roman citizenship in this letter; and here it is a bold stroke indeed. Paul is not herewith renouncing their common citizenship in the earthly “commonwealth” of Rome; on the contrary, that citizenship is what will make the present sentence ring the changes for the Philippians. Citizens of the Roman “commonwealth” they may well be, and proudly so; but the greater reality is that they are subjects of the heavenly “Lord” and “Savior,” Jesus Christ, and therefore their true “commonwealth” exists in heaven.19
And they are citizens of the heavenly commonwealth “already,” even as they await the consummation that is “not yet.” Although Paul’s language will not quite allow the translation, “we are a colony of heaven” (Moffatt), the point of the imagery comes very close to that. Just as Philippi was a colony of Rome, whose citizens thereby exemplified the life of Rome in the province of Macedonia, so the citizens of the “heavenly commonwealth” were to function as a colony of heaven in that outpost of Rome. That this is Paul’s concern lies in the context. They are to imitate Paul in their “walk,” because (“for”) their true “commonwealth” is in heaven; as such they live God’s righteousness as an outpost of heaven in Philippi. And that life is cruciform in expression, which knows Christ in the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, by being “conformed” to his death on the cross. Thus this passage serves as the basis for the preceding appeals, as well as for those that follow (calling for “steadfastness” and “unity”).
This is the “already,” and the emphasis in the preceding appeals rests here. But the ultimate concern is with the “not yet,” with their living in the present as those in pursuit of the heavenly prize. Thus the rest of the sentence focuses on his and their sure future, which focuses altogether on their heavenly “Lord and Savior.” The fact that their “commonwealth” already exists in heaven, and that they await their Savior from there, points to their divine vindication, to the full realization of what is “not yet,” even though living out their heavenly citizenship “already” has led to persecution. Three points are made: (1) Our present citizenship is already “in heaven” from whence we “eagerly await [the coming of] our Savior,” who is none other than “the Lord, Jesus Christ,” the one who had the name “Lord” bestowed on him at his exaltation (2:9); thus Paul focuses first of all on the coming of Christ as the eschatological Lord and Savior. (2) At his coming Christ will “transform” the bodies of our present “humiliation,” by “conforming” them into the likeness of his present “body of glory”; thus Paul also emphasizes the great “eschatological reversal” that they (and we) shall experience at his coming, that Christ himself experienced at his resurrection and exaltation. (3) He will do this “in keeping with the power” by which he is able to (and will) also subject all things to himself, thus emphasizing his absolute sovereignty over all things, including those in Philippi—and their “lord and savior,” the emperor.
(1) While the language of this clause does not specify Christ’s Parousia (coming), what Paul says does in fact presuppose it. First, we eagerly await him “from heaven,” which can only mean, his Parousia from heaven; and second, we “eagerly await” him, a verb used exclusively by Paul in connection with the coming of Christ at the eschatological “wrap up.”22 By this verb Paul harks back to his own “eager pursuit” of the heavenly prize (vv. 12–14), likewise emphasizing how he lives in the present with his focus constantly on the goal.
Significantly, both for his readers’ context and for our understanding of Paul’s christology, the one whom we “eagerly await” is called “Savior.” The significance is highlighted by its rarity in Paul; only once heretofore (Eph 5:23) has he used this title to describe Christ. That he does so here is almost certainly for the Philippians’ sakes, since this is a common title for Caesar.25 That he does so at all is especially significant christologically, since the title occurs frequently in the OT to refer to God our (my) Savior. As with the title “Lord,” therefore (cf. 2:9–10), Paul has co-opted yet another OT term for God and unflinchingly attributed it to Christ. None of this would be missed by the Philippians, who know the term well in both of its contexts.
The clincher to all of this—as far as Paul’s word of reassurance to the Philippians is concerned—is the final, otherwise unnecessary, appositive, “the Lord Jesus Christ,” in which he picks up the precise language (including word order) from 2:11, the only two absolute uses of this combination in the letter. The Savior, they are thus reminded, is none other than “the Lord, Jesus Christ” himself, whose lordship every tongue will confess at the eschatological denouement. Here is the ultimate reason for their rejoicing in the Lord. The Lord is the Savior, by whose grace they have been redeemed and whose coming they eagerly anticipate, even as in their present suffering they are being “conformed into his likeness.”
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.
Our Blessed Hope
But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ.
In the early days of the Christian church the doctrine of the last things had three great points of focus: the return of Jesus Christ, the resurrection of the body, and the final judgment. Of the three the most significant was Jesus Christ’s return. This was the blessed hope of Christians; it was for this they prayed. With this thought they comforted one another in the face of sorrow, persecutions, death, and martyrdom. We can imagine that as they lay in prison, suffering and tormented, often near death, they looked for his coming and thought that perhaps in an instant and without warning Jesus would appear and call them home. As they entered the arena to face the lions or looked up to face their executioner, many would have thought with joy in their hearts, “Perhaps this is the moment in which Jesus will return; and even now, before the beasts can spring or the ax can fall, I shall be caught up to meet him.”
Unfortunately, in our day belief in the second coming of Jesus Christ has faded into a remote and sometimes irrelevant doctrine in many large segments of the Christian church. It is entirely possible that our present lack of courage and lack of joy flow from this attitude.
A Biblical Doctrine
We are told today by many, some of them within the church, that belief in the return of Jesus Christ is a preposterous doctrine or at best a “pie-in-the-sky” philosophy. But it is hard to see how any professing Christian can dismiss it.
The return of Jesus Christ is mentioned in every one of the New Testament books except Galatians and the very short books such as 2 and 3 John and Philemon. Jesus quite often spoke of his return. Mark records him as saying, “If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels” (Mark 8:38). Again, “At that time men will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens” (Mark 13:26–27). John tells us that Christ’s last words to his disciples included the promise: “I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am” (John 14:2–3).
Paul’s letters are also full of the doctrine. To the Christians at Thessalonica he wrote, “For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever” (1 Thess. 4:16–17). Peter called the return of Jesus Christ our “living hope” (1 Peter 1:3). Paul called it our “blessed hope” (Titus 2:13). John wrote, “Look, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him” (Rev. 1:7).
It is the same in the verse that is our text in Philippians. “But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body” (3:20–21). In these verses and in many others the early Christians expressed their belief in a personal return of Jesus that was to be closely associated with the resurrection and transformation of their own bodies and a final judgment of individuals and nations. They acknowledged that their lives should be lived on a higher plane because of it.
The personal return of Jesus Christ should have a profound bearing on our own life and conduct. Lord Shaftesbury, the great English social reformer, said near the end of his life, “I do not think that in the last 40 years I have lived one conscious hour that was not influenced by the thought of our Lord’s return.” This conviction was one of the strongest motives behind his social programs.
If you are expecting the Lord’s return, then this conviction ought to alter your concern for social issues as well as other things. At the height of the racial crisis in the United States in the early 1960s, two signs hung on the wall of a restaurant in Decatur, Georgia. The first sign read, “Jesus is coming again!” The second sign directly below it said, “We reserve the right to refuse service to anybody!” The juxtaposition of the two signs was unintentionally humorous for at least two reasons. First, because they implied that the owner, who apparently was looking for the return of Jesus Christ, might refuse him service. Second, because the racial discrimination that was involved was incongruous in the light of Christ’s imminent return.
Are you looking for Jesus’ return? If you are motivated by prejudice against other Christians or others in general, whether they are black or white, rich or poor, cultured or culturally naive, whatever they may be—then the return of Jesus Christ has not made its proper impression on you. If you are contemplating some sin, perhaps a dishonest act in business, perhaps trifling with sex outside of marriage, perhaps cheating on your income tax return—then the return of Jesus Christ has not made its proper impression on you. If your life is marked by a contentious, divisive spirit in which you seek to tear down the work of another person instead of building it up—then the return of Jesus Christ has not made its proper impression on you. If you first protect your own interests and neglect to give food, water, or clothing to the needy as we are instructed to do in Christ’s name—then the return of Jesus Christ has not made its proper impression on you.
John wrote, “Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. Everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself, just as he is pure” (1 John 3:2–3). The greatest consequence of belief in the return of the Lord Jesus Christ should be a purification of our conduct.
Hope in Suffering
Another consequence of a firm belief in the return of Jesus Christ should be a transformed understanding of suffering. For suffering strengthens our hope and makes our present fellowship with Jesus more wonderful. This is why Paul writes of the believer’s hope in Romans saying, “Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope” (Rom. 5:3–4). In Paul’s experience hope had transformed suffering, and suffering had intensified his hope.
The word “suffering,” which occurs in this verse, means any tribulation, persecution, or hardship—like that which Paul lists of himself in 2 Corinthians 11: beatings, imprisonments, stoning, shipwrecks, perils, weariness, thirst, and hunger. It includes the cruelest oppressions. The Greek word Paul used and its Latin translation carried the most vivid of images in Paul’s day. The Greek word was thlipsis, which means the kind of oppression that a conquered people would receive from a cruel conqueror. The Latin translation was based on the noun tribulum, which meant a threshing sled, and implied severe torture. A tribulum was generally several feet wide and five or six feet long and was studded with sharp spikes on the bottom; it was pulled over the grain on a threshing floor by an animal. The Latin word tribulare compared oppression to experiencing such threshing.
It is easy to see how the Christians thus conceived of their suffering. They knew themselves to be often pressed as wheat while the tribulums of the world passed over them. They knew the feel of the spikes and the lash of the flail. But they endured such suffering. They had learned that it was the way God separated the wheat in their lives from the chaff and made them more useful and more obedient servants.
All of God’s children learn this sooner or later. Certainly it was known by the persecuted prophet Jeremiah. What had persecutions done for Jeremiah? In Jeremiah 17 he intimates that they had actually drawn him closer to the Lord and strengthened him for his work. He is contrasting two types of people. The first is the person who trusts in human beings and thereby departs from the Lord. Jeremiah says this person “will be like a bush in the wastelands; he will not see prosperity when it comes. He will dwell in the parched places of the desert, in a salt land where no one lives” (v. 6). The other type of person is the one who trusts God and whose hope is in him. What is he like? Jeremiah says, “He will be like a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream. It does not fear when heat comes; its leaves are always green. It has no worries in a year of drought and never fails to bear fruit” (v. 8). In other words, Jeremiah had found that suffering had strengthened his roots and had actually drawn him closer to the Lord.
All Christians should experience that. Tribulations will come. Job spoke truthfully when he said, “Yet man is born to trouble as surely as the sparks fly upward” (Job 5:7). But the Christian can have a hope in the midst of tribulation that transforms suffering and is strengthened by it.
Day of Judgment
Everything written up to this point has been encouraging. It has been intended for Christians. But there is a somber side for those who do not know Christ and who therefore do not expect him. Christ is coming; it will be a joy for Christians. But it will also mean the beginning of Christ’s judgments. These will be terrible for those who do not know him.
Christians acknowledge this every time they recite the Apostles’ Creed, for they say that Jesus shall come again from heaven “to judge the living and the dead.” Paul told the Athenians that God has “set a day when he will judge the world with justice” (Acts 17:31). In that day Jesus Christ will return to judge the nations, the false church, and individuals. Everyone will have to answer to him. Will you meet him as one judged righteous on the basis of our Lord’s death for sin and his gift of righteousness? Or will you meet him as one who trusts in your own human goodness and is therefore cut off from God’s presence forever?
It is my experience that people react in one of two ways to Christ’s judgment. Some simply disbelieve it, for they think that judgment is incompatible with the character of God. I mentioned something about the judgment of God on The Bible Study Hour once and received a letter from a woman who seemed greatly offended at the thought that a loving God could ever pronounce a judgment on anything. I wrote back asking her what she would think of a God who would let a murderer go on murdering throughout eternity, a thief go on stealing throughout eternity, a sexual pervert continue to violate other men and women throughout eternity, and other sinners to go on sinning. Certainly it is in the character of a loving and righteous God to stop such things. It may help some persons to think of the final judgment in this light and begin to find out what the Scriptures say concerning it.
The second reaction to the fact of God’s judgment comes from the unbeliever who has heard the offer of salvation by grace through the gospel but who prefers to deal with God’s justice. Pity the man who wants nothing from God but God’s justice! Justice will condemn a person to hell. The only hope for anyone lies in God’s mercy.
The result of seeking nothing but justice from God is seen in a story from the life of Abraham from the Old Testament. God told Abraham that he was about to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah for their great wickedness, and Abraham had immediately begun to think about his nephew Lot and his family who lived there. He knew that they would also be destroyed in God’s judgment, so he began to reason with God. He said, “Will you also destroy the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous in the city; will you also destroy and not spare the place for the fifty righteous that are in it? Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” God said, “If there are fifty righteous persons in the city, I will spare it.” Abraham became worried at this point because he only knew of four righteous persons himself. They were Lot, Lot’s wife, and Lot’s two daughters. He began to doubt that there were fifty. So he said, “Suppose there are only forty-five? Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” God replied, “I will spare the city for the sake of forty-five.” Abraham bargained with God until God had agreed to spare the city for the sake of ten righteous people. But even then Abraham had not reduced the figure far enough. So after God had removed Lot and his family from Sodom, his judgment fell upon the cities.
That is what happens when the Judge of all the earth does right! Humans are condemned by God’s justice. If you seek nothing from God but justice, you will be condemned at Jesus Christ’s return. Fortunately there is no need to meet him as Judge. For the One who is coming in judgment is also the One who once came as the Savior, to die for your sin, to bear your judgment, and to meet you thereafter as your Lord, your friend, and your bridegroom. You must decide how you will meet him. The decisions of this life affect the issues of eternity.
 Sproul, R. C. (Ed.). (2005). The Reformation Study Bible: English Standard Version (p. 1723). Orlando, FL; Lake Mary, FL: Ligonier Ministries.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2006). The MacArthur study Bible: New American Standard Bible. (Php 3:20). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
 MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (pp. 1976–1977). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.
 Foulkes, F. (1994). Philippians. In D. A. Carson, R. T. France, J. A. Motyer, & G. J. Wenham (Eds.), New Bible commentary: 21st century edition (4th ed., p. 1257). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press.
 Utley, R. J. (1997). Paul Bound, the Gospel Unbound: Letters from Prison (Colossians, Ephesians and Philemon, then later, Philippians) (Vol. Volume 8, p. 198). Marshall, TX: Bible Lessons International.
 Calvin, J., & Pringle, J. (2010). Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians (pp. 108–110). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.