December 5, 2020

Ordinary Time Bible Study: Philippians — Friends in the Gospel (15)

Ordinary Time Bible Study
Philippians: Friends in the Gospel
Study Fifteen: I’m a citizen of heaven, but heaven is not my home

• • •

Philippians 3:17-4:1, The Kingdom NT

So, my dear family, I want you, all together, to watch what I do and copy me. You’ve got us as a pattern of behavior; pay careful attention to people who follow it. You see, there are several people who behave as enemies of the cross of the Messiah. I told you about them often enough, and now I’m weeping as I say it again. They are on the road to destruction; their stomach is their god, and they find glory in their own shame. All they ever think about is what’s on the earth.

We are citizens of heaven, you see, and we’re eagerly waiting for the savior, the Lord, King Jesus, who is going to come from there. Our present body is a shabby old thing, but he’s going to transform it so that it’s just like his glorious body. And he’s going to do this by the power which makes him able to bring everything into line under his authority.

Well then, my dear family— I miss you so much, you’re my joy and crown!— this is how you must stand firm in the Lord, my beloved people.

This is a key text for understanding the Christian hope — especially 3:17-21. It tells us we are not looking for someone to take us from this evil earth to “heaven.” It tells us that one day “heaven” will come to earth, and everything will be put right by King Jesus.

A key word in this text is the one often translated “citizen” or “citizenship” — our citizenship is in heaven. The word is “colony,” and it is used by Paul intentionally, because Philippi was an official “colony” of Rome. After a key battle in the Roman civil war, about 100 years before Paul arrived, the empire settled war veterans and their families in the area and put it under Roman administrative rule. The residents of Philippi were proud of their “colony” status and did their best to pattern their civic life after Roman ways.

Tom Wright comments on the significance of this:

“We are citizens of heaven,” Paul declares in verse 20. At once many modern Christians misunderstand what he means. We naturally suppose he means “and so we’re waiting until we can go and live in heaven where we belong.” But that’s not what he says, and it’s certainly not what he means. If someone in Philippi said, “We are citizens of Rome,” they certainly wouldn’t mean “so we’re looking forward to going to live there.” Being a colony works the other way round. (emphasis mine) The last thing the emperors wanted was a whole lot of colonists coming back to Rome. The capital was already overcrowded and underemployed. No: the task of the Roman citizen in a place like Philippi was to bring Roman culture and rule to northern Greece, to expand Roman influence there.

But supposing things got difficult for the Roman colonists in Philippi. Supposing there was a local rebellion, or an attack by the “barbarian” tribes to the north. How could they cope? Their best hope would be that the emperor himself, who after all was called “saviour,” “rescuer,” would come from Rome to Philippi to change their present somewhat defenceless  situation, defeat their enemies, and establish them as firmly and gloriously as Rome itself. The emperor, of course, was the ruler of the whole world, so he had the power to make all this happen under his authority.

That’s the picture Paul has in mind in verses 20 and 21….

• Tom Wright, Paul for Everyone: The Prison Letters: Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon (The New Testament for Everyone), p. 126

I’m a citizen of heaven, but heaven is not my home. My ultimate destiny is not to go to heaven, but to be resurrected to live right here, on a new earth in a new creation, made new by God’s rule coming and filling the heavens and earth.

Maybe we should rewrite the old gospel song:

This world is my true home
I’m not just passin’ through
Not lookin’ for a place somewhere beyond the blue
When Jesus comes to reign and all is then restored
Then we’ll be at home in this world evermore

Until then, we who are members of God’s family are colonies of God’s Empire in the communities where we live, called to pattern our lives after the ways of the heavenly city.

May your heavenly rule come, may your will be done on earth as in heaven.

• • •

Ordinary Time Bible Study
Philippians – Friends in the Gospel

Study One: A Friendship Letter

Study Two: Background

Study Three: Greetings in the Gospel

Study Four: Before Anything Else, Thanks

Study Five: All You Need Is (Overflowing) Love

Study Six: The Persevering Pastor

Study Seven: Every Way You Look at It You Win

Study Eight: Courage and Unity

Study Nine: Tending to the Roots

Study Ten: Humility We Must Sing to Imagine

Study Eleven: Tom Wright on Phil. 2:12-18

Study Twelve: Examples of the Jesus-shaped Life

Study Thirteen: Don’t Let Anyone Steal Your Joy

Study Fourteen: Get Up and Finish the Race


  1. I know there will be a new heaven and a new earth. I’ve always thought that we would be in heaven. Jesus said that where I am you may be also. This idea that we will remain on the earth is a new one to me. I’ll have to ponder that.

    • Chris, note that Revelation 21 pictures heaven descending to earth. In one sense, we will be in “heaven,” if heaven is understood as “God’s realm” and we recognize that God will unite the earthly and heavenly realms.

      • Ahhh yes! It’s the union of flesh and spirit, Diety and humanity, The Marriage of the Lamb. The whole point of the thing. Thx. Some equilibrium again. I suppose the possibility exists nonetheless that there will be realms that we will not necessarily be a part of in the new heaven and the new earth. I think it’s a mistake to make the realm of God fit into a narrow preconception. Who the heck knows what will be going on and how vast that reality will be? It’s probably a fair assumption to say that we will not just step in and wrap the whole thing up in our puny arms. C.S. Lewis was a master of imagination for those sorts of possibilities that may lie in our future.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Remember in Revelation 21, the New Jerusalem comes down to Earth, not Christians ascending to Heaven. This is the older (and probably original) version.

      At some point, Souls in Fluffy Cloud Heaven (like Shades in a better Hades) replaced Resurrection of the Body in a Renewed Cosmos as the Christian afterlife. I suspect “souls in Heaven” began as the “Intermediate State” of Medieval theology, to ensure continuity between today’s believer and his Resurrected form. But somewhere along the line this Intermediate State took over; I suspect Victorian Sentimental Romanticism was the final influence that locked it in.

      Also, with “Souls in Heaven”/”Shades in Hades”, Death Wins. One of the appeals of Resurrection to the Greco/Roman norm was “Death and Hell (Thanatos and Hades) were cast into the lake of fire”. Thanatos, Greek god of Death who delivered you to Hades, god of the Underworld and king of the dead. And once Hades got you in his realm, he NEVER let you leave. (See Orpheus and other myths for examples.) Yet with Resurrection, not only do YOU get out of Hades’ realm, but Thanatos and Hades — Death himself — finally dies, never to take you again. THAT’s what 1st Century AD Christians (from a Greco/Roman background) would get out of that passage.

      • –> “Remember in Revelation 21, the New Jerusalem comes down to Earth, not Christians ascending to Heaven.”

        I didn’t seek him out specifically to hear him, but I’ve been at two conferences where Randy Alcorn has spoken about this at length. He has tons of scripture to back up his theory, but basically it’s that “this present earth will be made new, with us in new bodies in it.”

        I don’t worry too much about where or what heaven will be like. I just know I’m gonna like it.

        • I don’t worry about it either. Nobody knows with any degree of certainty, and the language presented to us in the Bible and Christian tradition is figurative and poetic in the extreme. I try to avoid looking for mathematical truth where poetic truth is expressed. My hope is that however it sorts itself out, it will be as good as Jesus risen from the dead, imparting life-giving love and forgiveness with his touch.

        • yes,
          come, the New Jerusalem

          “We’re coming to the edge,
          running on the water,
          coming through the fog,
          your sons and daughters.

          Let the river run,
          let all the dreamers
          wake the nation.
          Come, the New Jerusalem.”