Groans From Within, Part 2: Problematic Passages, Philippians 3

Several days ago I began a discussion on the title: “Groans From Within.”  Many in the church have misrepresented key passages of Scripture that are often thought to refer to a disembodied afterlife.  A passage in the bible that is often misinterpreted is found at the end of Philippians chapter 3.  The key phrase in this passage states, “Our citizenship is in heaven.”  Moffatt translates this as: “we are a colony of heaven.”[1] This passage of Scripture has been read as having to do with believers ultimately hoping to meet in heaven.  Matthew Henry stated: “Believers make Christ all in all, and set their hearts upon another world…and hope to meet shortly in heaven.”[2] Going to the homeland of heaven is understood also by commentator John Phillips:

Right now we are pilgrims and strangers in a foreign land.  This world is not our final home.  We are here as Heaven’s ambassadors.  Every night we pitch our tent a day’s march nearer home.[3]

The implication of this passage may be different than many have assumed.[4] Being a citizen of heaven or, as Dr. Gordon Fee points out, of the “commonwealth” of heaven has Roman Empire overtones.  Rome was the capital city of the entire Empire in the first century.  Philippi, having been a colony of people under Roman rule in Macedonia, would have understood what it was to be of the commonwealth of Rome, and therefore would also have understood the implication of the Apostle’s language.[5] If life were to become difficult or if a person living in Philippi would have decided to retire, they would have by no means decided to abandon where they had spent their entire life in order to escape to the mother city.  The emperor would also have no desire for them to move to the capital city where he was.  Colonies such as Philippi were Rome’s extension into Northern Greece.  If the Philippians would find themselves under attack by enemies of Rome, the emperor himself would come from Rome to deliver them from their iniquities and thus reestablish the colony as a true Roman presence where they already had been living.

This reestablishing of the people in Philippi is paralleled with our future bodily resurrection.  Paul continues his look at our citizenship of the mother city of heaven: “from heaven we await a savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will change our lowly body to be like his glorious body.”  In other words, Jesus will come from heaven to renew all things on earth and will resurrect His people and establish them to the glory that was lost in the “fall.”  The passage is not about escape, but of Christ bringing forth the benefits of heavenly commonwealth by restoring justice to the universe and resurrecting His people.  This will come to pass in the new heavens and new earth as described in Revelation chapter twenty-one.[6]

I am curious to hear your thoughts on this passage and the concept of afterlife over-all.  How have you heard this passage taught in your church context?  What do you think of this proposed interpretation?


[1]Wright, New Heavens, New Earth: The Biblical Picture of Christian Hope, 8.

[2]Matthew Henry, “Philippians,” in Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Bible [book on-line] (n.p.: Public Domain, n.d.); available from; Internet.

[3]John Phillips, Exploring Ephesians and Philippians, 3d ed. John Phillips Commentary Series (Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic & Professional, 2002), 149.

[4]Wright, New Heavens, New Earth: The Biblical Picture of Christian Hope, 8.

[5]Fee, Dr.Gordon D., Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Wm. Be Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995), 379.

[6]Wright, New Heavens, New Earth: The Biblical Picture of Christian Hope, 8.

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  • Jon

    Philippians is one of my favorite book in the bible! I have read it frequently. As for this passage, the problem lies in the understanding of ‘heaven’. As long as there is no intention of re-understanding it I think we will always get stuck in an escapist view of Christianity. I also see the understanding of ‘heaven’ also dictates our understanding of resurrection. Heaven language/understanding has to change to accommodate a clearer understanding of resurrection.

    I am not sure whether I have heard any preaching based on this particular passage but I think whenever heaven is mentioned it is always has an ‘escape’ vibe to it. So i would assume that if this passage would be preached it would explain that we are citizens of heaven awaiting Jesus to snatch us heaven bound via resurrection which is, saving our spirit and souls.

    And for the way you put it in the post, spot on! Particularly on explaining ‘citizenship of heaven’ in the way people reading the letter would have understood it.

  • Kurt, great post here. I’d very much agree with your take on Phillipians 3, though I must say that for most of my life I’ve heard ‘citizen of heaven’ taught in an escapist way.
    It is only in the last few years that I’ve come to realize that not only is there another way to understand that concept, but also that this alternitive (resurrection on a restored earth as opposed to escape into heaven) is dramatically more Biblical and really revitalizes and changes much of the way one veiws the faith.
    Through Wright, Wittmer, and a host of other theologans taking up this theme, as well as my own reading of the Scriptural narritive, I’ve ended up with an understanding of these things that seems very similer to where you are. Let us all keep wrestling with how we can live this out.

  • Kurt, I love the image that citizens of the Empire aren’t expected to go back to Rome at the end. I haven’t read Fee but I swear I’ve seen this somewhere recently. . .maybe in Wright’s “Surprised by Hope” but that’s at home so I can’t look it up. Whoever said it, it is right on target.

    To me a key element of being a citizen of a different kingdom is embodied in 2 Corinthians 5:18-20, in which Paul tells us that God “through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation. . .Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” (ESV)

    As kingdom citizens we are actually emissaries with a specific portfolio. I have begun to think of conversion being more like becoming a naturalized citizen of Jesus’ kingdom. When you become a naturalized citizen, you renounce any and all former allegiances, including, by the way, service in any other nation’s armed forces.

    I have yet to fully develop this train of thought in my own mind. . .it’ll probably show up in expanded form on my own blog some day, but I’ve got to get a lot more meat on the bones first.

  • Type your comment here.Kurt I liked this post. The idea of a future bodily resurrection is something that I never heard about growing up. All the talk was about going off to heaven, as if we were just in a waiting room. When someone told me what our real hope is as christians I was shocked! I expected to be a disembodied “spirit” being in the afterlife. It’s taken me two years of study to get my head around the concept, one day in the twinkling of an eye I will be like Jesus was after he was raised on the third day! A living breathing human being transformed!!! Still getting there though. Don’t have all the answers yet LOL!