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An exegetical study of Philippians 3:17–21
or Making Heaven on Earth is our Business
or Context is Always King

by Captain Erik Johansson

This is a slightly edited version of a sermon on Philippians 3:17-21, first time given for Ystad Corps, Sweden, September 2020.


If 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!


As 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”[1]. 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.


So 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 glorious body.

(Philippians 3:17-21 NIV)


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.”[2]


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!”[3]


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.


And 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.”


It 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.


And 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 earth.


If 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.






[2] 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.

[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dSth5dpE6L4 - Watched 21st of September 2023









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