An exegetical study of Philippians 3:17–21
or Making Heaven on Earth is our
or Context is Always King
Captain Erik Johansson
This is a slightly edited version of a sermon on
Philippians 3:17-21, first time given for Ystad Corps, Sweden,
you want to explain something rather complicated to someone,
and make sure the other person understands it, the best way is
often to use parables and examples from the society the person
lives in. It is true today, and it was true 2000 years ago,
when Paul wrote his letters in the New Testament. Paul, the
ever so brilliant writer and globetrotter, was a master at
using symbols and metaphors from the society he or his readers
lived in to make sure his readers understood his message. A
great method that any PR guru of today would endorse. There is
only one problem: how do you make sure you understand what
Paul is saying when you read the text 2000 years later, in a
completely different cultural and historical context? Well,
you study the context it was first in! Let us therefore look
into Paul’s letter to the Church in Philippi and see what we
can understand when we read things in its historical and
societal context. Let’s start with learning about the town!
you can see in the picture above, Philippi is a city in
northern Greece, quite close to today’s Bulgaria. But even
though the town was located in Greece, it was, most
importantly, a Roman colony. The town had been founded around
44 BC. by Roman soldiers who had stayed there after fighting a
war against Greece and twenty years later another wave of
retired Roman soldiers had moved in.
This fact, that it was a Roman colony
populated by Roman soldiers and their descendants, is the key
to understanding this whole passage, so let’s take a moment
and learn what a colony is. Merriam Webster's dictionary
defines it as “an area
over which a foreign nation or state extends or maintains
control” and “a
group of people who establish residence in that area and who
retain ties with the parent state”.
In other words: it’s a part of one country, outside its own
country's borders. The people living in the colony, the
colonizer, have one task above everything else: to make the
new place become like the homeland. If you have ever visited a
country that has been a colony you would recognize this. For
example Australia. It was founded as a British colony - tens
of thousands of kilometers away from England. But if you’ve
ever been there, you would’ve noticed that a lot of things are
still very much like in Britain: they speak English, they
drive on the left side of the road, the old houses look
suspiciously much like British houses and in pictures from the
colonial days you would see people wearing the same clothing
as in cold and rainy England, even though they lived in a
tropical climate - and on their coins they still have the
British king or queen. Simply put: Australia was created to be
a mini England on the other side of the world. And that was
true for Philippi also; it was created to be a mini Rome far
away from Rome. Or as we call it with one word: a colony.
try to remember this when we look at the Bible passage:
17 Join with
others in following my example, brothers, and take note of
those who live according to the pattern we gave you.
18 For, as I have
often told you before and now say again even with tears, many
live as enemies of the cross of Christ.
19 Their destiny
is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is
in their shame. Their mind is on earthly things.
20 But our
citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Saviour from
there, the Lord Jesus Christ,
21 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
The text is at the end of chapter three,
in a book with only four chapters all together. It is written
by Paul to the Church in Philippi and he starts by saying that
he understands that it is difficult for them because they have
enemies that don’t like them. Exactly who the enemies were, we
can mostly speculate about, but the main message is clear:
There are people there who don’t like the Church in Philippi.
Paul wants to encourage them and he does so by writing that
“...our citizenship is in heaven.”
Now, remember that he is writing to descendants of Roman
colonizers. People who, if someone had asked them about their
citizenship, proudly would have stated
“we are Romans!”.
That is, they saw themselves as people originating from the
capital of the center of the then known world and home of the
mightiest person on earth - the Roman Emperor. That they
happened to live in a geographical area that was called Greece
was irrelevant; they were proud Romans!
And for the Church, the Christians in
Philippi, what kind of citizenship did they have? A heavenly
one, but of course! Because heaven is where God lives, and as
Christians their King was Jesus - not the Roman emperor. In
other words, what Paul is doing is that he is using the Roman
empire colonial language that they all understood so well, to
explain that they - the Christians in Philippi - are now a new
kind of colonizers; not colonizers of Rome, but colonizers of
Heaven! And as people living in an imperial colony they
understood very well what Paul was telling them: their job is
to make Philippi to be like their homeland that is no longer
Rome, but Heaven. Or as General Willam Booth expressed it some
1800 years later:
“Making heaven on earth is our business!”
Then comes the next part:
“...and we eagerly await a Savior from there, the
Lord Jesus Christ,”
Again, we need to remember that he is writing to people in a
colony. A person living in a Roman colony knew that if his
homeland, where he has his citizenship, is Rome, then that is
from where the rescue - the emperor himself - will come from
if it gets really difficult. But let’s not be confused here: a
colonizer's job is to make the colony become like the
homeland. So, yes, their ultimate hope was in the emperor.
But, not that he would come and bring them to Rome - most of
the Philippians had never even been to Rome and had no reason
to want to go there - but that the Emperor would come and
bring Rome in all its fullness to the colony! Therefore, when
they read these words from Paul, they understand very well
what he was telling them: that one day the King - Jesus Christ
- will come from heaven - the homeland - and save them. Not by
taking them away from Phillipi, but by making Phillipi like
heaven in all its fullness.
finally, what will this rescue look like?
“...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.”
seems like Paul is saying that it will be like when Jesus rose
from the dead: First, we will be resurrected with new perfect
bodies - just like it happened for Jesus. And, secondly, that
Jesus will take everything under control - instead of being
just a small colony of heaven, heaven will be here completely.
Someone who has read this far might say to themselves:
“That’s a nice history
lesson - but what does that mean for me?”. Well, I am glad
you asked. Because if we understand these verses correctly, it
has a dramatic effect on our lives.
First: If we understand that we are not citizens of this
world, but citizens of heaven, then we understand that our
lives are not to be lived by this world's standards, but by
the standards of heaven. Just like the Philippians didn’t live
by the standards of Greece, but by Rome, we can’t live our
lives primarily according to whatever our earthly passports
say, but according to our heavenly homeland.
Second: If we have colonizers of heaven on earth - that means
we have to try to build heaven here where we live. Remember, a
colonizer's dream is not to leave the colony for the homeland,
but to take the homeland to the colony. Therefore it’s our job
as Christians to make this world as much like heaven we
possibly can. In heaven there is no poverty or injustice -
therefore we need to make sure we fight poverty and injustice
on earth. In heaven everyone worships Jesus - therefore we
need to make everyone around us a follower of Jesus. And so
on, and so on.
finally, even if the work is hard and we are facing difficulty
and even persecution, we can have comfort in the fact that one
day - at the end of time - Jesus will come back and bring
heaven down to earth in all its fullness. And for the perfect
world, we will be given new perfect bodies and there will be
no more death, war, pollution, sickness, poverty or injustice.
That day, our colony of heaven on earth, will no longer be a
colony, but heaven - the homeland - will cover the whole
you are not already a citizen of heaven - today is your day.
You can apply for citizenship today by repenting from your
sins and starting to follow Jesus.
Some translations use “homeland” or equivalent instead
of citizenship. However, the greek word used by Paul
is “πολίτευμα” (politeuma) - a word that most NT
scholars agree is a world with political connotations
and more similar to citizenship.