“For our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ; who will transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory, by the exertion of the power that He has even to subject all things to Himself.”
– Philippians 3:20–21 –
Paul has been exhorting the Philippians to follow his example (Phil 3:17) in pressing on in the race of pursuing sanctification (Phil 3:12–14). In these verses, he gives two reasons, or motivations, that the believer in Jesus should be pressing on with all our might in our fight for holiness.
Our Present Position
The word “our” in that opening phrase is thrown all the way to the very front of the sentence in the original in order to show an emphatic contrast. Sensuality, shamelessness, and worldliness characterize the enemies of the cross (Phil 3:18–19). But as for us, Paul says, our citizenship is in heaven. And because of our present position as citizens, enrolled on the register of the Heavenly Kingdom, our lives must be ruled and governed by the laws of that blessed realm.
And the Philippians would have understood this imagery of “citizenship” immediately. According to Acts 16:12, Philippi was a Roman colony. And the historical sources tell us that Philippi enjoyed an elite status in the Roman empire called the ius Italicum—which is to say that it was governed as if it was on Italian soil. Philippians enjoyed the full rights and privileges of Roman citizenship as if they had been born there themselves. And they were proud of that status. They spoke the Romans’ language, they copied the Romans’ architecture, and they even adopted the way the Romans dressed. Everything about their way of life was governed by a kingdom which they were citizens of but were not presently living in.
And so Paul latches on to that reality and says, “Brothers, you may glory in your Roman citizenship. But you must recognize that you are citizens of an infinitely greater kingdom: the Kingdom of Heaven itself! You have your birthright there, for you were “born from above” (John 3:3). And though you remain on this earth, you are nevertheless enrolled on the heavenly register as citizens of that realm. Your names are in the book of life, Philippians chapter 4 verse 3. And you are, presently, seated in the heavenlies with Christ (Eph 2:6)! Your imperishable and undefiled inheritance is reserved in heaven (1 Pet 1:4). Your great and final reward is in heaven (Matt 5:12). Your treasure is stored up in heaven (Matt 6:20).
And so there may be people who have abandoned the pursuit of holiness (Phil 3:18–19), but they belong to the realm in which sin rules, and so their conduct is determined by sin. But our citizenship, friends, is in heaven—the realm where Christ Jesus rules as Lord. And so your conduct must be determined by His Lordship.”
And so the point is: if we presently belong to a kingdom that is distinguished in every way by holiness, we ought to live holy lives as citizens of that kingdom in this heavenly colony here on earth that we call the Church.
Our Future Hope
But not only does Paul spur us on to pursue holiness because of our present position. We are also motivated to pursue Christlikeness because of our future hope. Paul goes on to say, “…from [heaven] also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” And when Christ appears, what is it that Paul emphasizes that He’ll do? He will “transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory.”
And if you are in Christ, friends, you know what it is to groan (2 Cor 5:1–2, 4; Rom 8:23), being burdened by the weakness of our flesh as a result of sin. Our bodies are not inherently sinful; they are not merely a prison which we long to escape. Adam and Eve were created perfectly in the image of God and they were both soul and body. But ever since Adam fell our bodies have reaped the corruption of that seed of disobedience and rebellion. It is because of sin that our bodies decay, and are beset with sickness and infirmity, and will finally succumb to death.
And of course, we groan not only under the physical weakness of our body, but we groan in a body that is still beset with sin itself. And so we eagerly await the coming of our Savior, because He will transform our bodies so that they are conformed even to the body of His own glory. He will literally banish sin from our bodies! The answer to Paul’s cry in Romans 7:24—“Who will save me from the body of this death?”—is answered in this text. We eagerly await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.
Just as Christ’s resurrection is the guarantee of our resurrection, so is His resurrected and glorified body the guarantee of our resurrected and glorified bodies. As we have borne the weakness and the infirmity of the image of the earthy man, we will one day bear the power and the glory of the image of the heavenly Man, the last Adam (1 Cor 15:42–49). The very nature of our Savior’s final work of salvation at His coming will be to transform our sinful bodies into sin-free, glorified bodies! This is the very work He’s coming to do! To finally purge us from all sin!
And if we eagerly await that, Paul argues, how can we do anything less than fight sin with all our might here and now? If that is the great destiny of my body as it experiences such consummated salvation in Christ, how can I presently yield my body and its members as instruments to unrighteousness?
May it be that our present position as citizens of heaven, and our future hope of glorified, resurrected bodies, cause us to press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.
But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth
in which righteousness dwells.
Therefore, beloved, since you are waiting for these,
be diligent to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace.
– 2 Peter 3:13–14 –
We know that when He appears, we will be like Him,
because we will see Him just as He is.
And everyone who has this hope fixed on Him
purifies himself, just as He is pure.
– 1 John 3:2–3 –