Living as Citizens of Heaven (Philippians 3:17-21)

One of the Christian doctrines that I love the most is believers’ citizenship in heaven. The book of Philippians references this doctrine in Phil 1:27 and 3:20. In today’s post the idea of Christians being citizens of heaven will be explained in detail.

Living as Citizens of Heaven (Philippians 3:17-21)

Photo Credit: Simon Schoeters


A. Summary of Past Lessons

In the last several weeks we have looked at Paul’s past (Phil 3:1-11) and his current circumstances (Phil 3:12-16). Now we look at his future (Phil 3:17-21).

B. The Text of Phil 3:17-21

17Brothers and sisters, be fellow imitators of me, and follow in the path of those who walk in the path we gave you. 18For many live—as I have told you before (but now with tears in my eyes)—as enemies of the cross of Christ, 19who will be annihilated, whose God is their appetite and glory is in their shame, who are focused on worldly things. 20But we are citizens of heaven and from that place we await our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ 21who will transform our humble body into a similar form of his glorious body by the power that allows him to dominate all things.

C. Introduction to Today’s Lesson and a Brief Joke about Heaven

Recently a teacher, a garbage collector, and a lawyer wound up together at the Pearly Gates. St. Peter informed them that in order to get into Heaven, they would each have to answer one question.

St. Peter addressed the teacher and asked, “What was the name of the ship that crashed into the iceberg? They just made a movie about it.” The teacher answered quickly, “That would be the Titanic.” St. Peter let him through the gate. St. Peter turned to the garbage man and, figuring Heaven didn’t *really* need all the odors that this guy would bring with him, decided to make the question a little harder: “How many people died on the ship?” Fortunately for him, the trash man had just seen the movie. “1,228,” he answered. “That’s right! You may enter.” St. Peter turned to the lawyer. “Name them.” (from


17Brothers and sisters, be fellow imitators of me, and follow in the path of those who walk in the path we gave you.

A. Συμμιμηταί μου γίνεσθε, ἀδελφοί, — Brothers and sisters, be fellow imitators of me

1. γίνεσθε – be

This is a command imperative. It is something that the Philippians were supposed to do.

2. Συμμιμηταί μου– fellow imitators of me

Is this Paul’s Jewish achievements? No! It was his self-denying and self-giving acts (1 Cor 10:33-11:1). It was his willingness to suffer for others (1 Thess 1:6; 2:14; 2 Thess 3:7-9). It was Paul losing everything for Christ while also imitating Christ (Phil 3:5-9). This refers to Paul’s desire to follow Christ as was described in Phil 3:7-14.

B. καὶ σκοπεῖτε τοὺς οὕτως περιπατοῦντας καθὼς ἔχετε τύπον ἡμᾶς. – and follow in the path of those who walk in the path we gave you

1. σκοπεῖτε – follow

Also a command imperative as γινεσθε (“be”) above.

2. The Need for a Mentor and Guide

Paul did not say here, “Follow me and only me.” Instead he reminds the Philippians that in addition to the example of his own life, there are others who are walking the right path that Paul had instructed. Paul wants the Philippians to follow his example while also looking to other people who are walking on the right path. As a result, I think we need to find mentors in our world whom we can talk to, learn from, and follow.


A Mentor for a Leader

In my life I have always had a mentor.

When I was sixteen years old playing golf every day I began to be coached and mentored by a guy named Christ Bitticks. For the next three years Chris and I met at least once a week for golf lessons, to play golf, and just talk about life. He taught me a lot about what it meant to be an adult, learn from my life experience, and to keep the correct perspective on events that happened to me.

When I was 21 years old and trying to lead a small nonprofit program I was approached by a local semi-retired assistant pastor who offered to coach me as a leader. His name was Steve Elliott and he was serving part-time in the church that I was attending and partnering with to run our nonprofit program. For the next five years Steve and I met every month at 6 A.M. at a local Starbucks. In those meetings I would bring him questions and things to discuss that would help me develop as a leader.

When I was 27 years old and attending Dallas Theological Seminary to get my master’s degree I scheduled a meeting with one of my professors—Dr. Elliott Johnson—to ask him a few specific questions related to the class I had just taken from him. In our meeting the professor asked me how I felt I had done on the “Bible charts” that he had us create. I told him I thought I had done okay, but believed I could improve. He responded by saying, “Well, next semester schedule another meeting with me. Bring your charts and I will go over them for you.”  For the next three years I met with Dr. Johnson every week at 7 A.M. to ask him questions about the Bible and life.

Most of my adult life I have had mentors that have guided me both in the practical aspects of everyday living as well as the professional experiences that I have been through. Mentors have helped me do more with the small resources I have had. Leaders need mentors.


18For many live—as I have told you before (but now with tears in my eyes)—as enemies of the cross of Christ, 19who will be annihilated, whose God is their appetite and glory is in their shame, who are focused on worldly things.

A. The Conduct of the Enemies of the Cross (v. 18)

18For many live—as I have told you before (but now with tears in my eyes)—as enemies of the cross of Christ,

1. πολλοὶ γὰρ περιπατοῦσιν οὓς πολλάκις ἔλεγον ὑμῖν, — For many live—as I have told you before

“Paul was the very model of what a Christian minister should be. He was a watchful shepherd over the flock. He did not simply preach to them, and consider that he had done all his duty when he had delivered his message, but his eyes were always upon the Churches, marking their spiritual welfare, their growth in grace, or their declension in godliness. He was the unsleeping guardian of their spiritual welfare. When he was called away to other lands to proclaim the everlasting gospel, he seems always to have kept an eye upon those Christian colonies which he had founded in the midst of heathen darkness. While lighting other lamps with the torch of truth, he did not fail to trim the lamps already burning” (Spurgeon, Spurgeon Commentary: Philippians, ed. Elliot Ritzema, 119–120).

2. νῦν δὲ καὶ κλαίων λέγω, — (but now with tears in my eyes)—

This is the only instance where Paul is said to have cried (Melick, Philippians, 143).

3. τοὺς ἐχθροὺς τοῦ σταυροῦ τοῦ Χριστοῦ, — as enemies of the cross of Christ,

I really like how the NLT translates this phrase, “there are many whose conduct shows that they are really enemies of the cross of Christ.”

One of the earliest and best attested manuscripts, P46 adds a βλεπετε to this phrase which would be translated, “Be aware of the enemies of the cross of Christ.”

B. The Destination of the Enemies of the Cross (v. 19)

19who will be annihilated, whose God is their appetite and glory is in their shame, who are focused on worldly things.

1. ὧν τὸ τέλος ἀπώλεια, — who will be annihilated

a) τὸ τέλος – will be

Literal translation of these words are “the goal” or “the outcome.”

b) ἀπώλεια, — annihilated

While Jesus said that he gives his sheep eternal life and that no one can snatch them away from him, there will be those who do “perish” and “die.” Examples of those who are headed for destruction are found in 1 Cor 1:18, “The message of the cross is foolish to those who are headed for destruction! But we who are being saved know it is the very power of God,” (NLT) and in 2 Thess 1:8-9, “in flaming fire, bringing judgment on those who don’t know God and on those who refuse to obey the Good News of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with eternal destruction, forever separated from the Lord and from his glorious power” (NLT). Also see 2 Cor 2:15; 4:3; 11:15; 1 Tim 6:9.

2. Our Position Towards the Lost

When you read this, does a specific person or people group come to mind?

As Paul knew who these people headed for destruction, we too probably know about these people in our times. It is important to note that Paul had a sincere heart towards the people who were lost and headed for destruction. He shared this message “with tears in my eyes” because of the final destination of those who were enemies of the cross. I believe that we too should have a heart for the lost. If we see people who display similar characteristics of being enemies of the cross, our heart should break because of the final destination of these people. I am hoping that we have is a response of love and compassion and desire for them to know God, not simply a judgmental evaluation of their salvation status.

C. The Identity of “Enemies” Described in Phil 3:18-19

1. Judaizers and Their Followers

Why would Judaizers and their followers be enemies of the cross of Christ?

a) What They Advocated for Was Eliminated by Christ

  • First, when the veil of the temple was torn in two, God announced that the way to him was open through Christ (Heb 10:19-25).
  • Second, on the cross Jesus said, “It is finished” and therefore ended the entire OT sacrificial system (Heb 10:1-14).
  • Third, the Judaizers’ circumcision was unnecessary because through Christ we now have a circumcision of the heart (Phil 3:2-4; Col 2:10-13).

b) What They Lived for was Condemned by the Cross

  • First, while Jesus had broken down the wall between the Jews and Gentiles (Eph 2:14-16), these Judaizers were building that wall back up.
  • Second, the Judaizers were obeying the “old system” that had been replaced by a new one (Heb 9:10).

c) Support for this View

Warren Weirsbe (Bible Exposition Commentary, vol. 2, 91-92), Robert Lightner (“Philippians” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary, vol. 2, 662).

2. False Teachers

a) What They Taught

Paul “called them enemies of the cross. The statement must mean more than that they refused to accept the cross as God’s way of reconciliation. It means that they actively opposed the message of the cross and hindered those who would take advantage of its work. Paul cherished the cross” “Melick, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, vol. 32, The New American Commentary, 142).

b) Support for this View

Melick, Philippians, 142.

3. Christians That Live Ungoldly Lives

Charles Spurgeon takes this view (Spurgeon, Spurgeon Commentary: Philippians, ed. Elliot Ritzema, 119–120).

4. Anti-Roman Reactionists

5. Behavioral Materialists

6. Moral Liberinists (Gnostic)

7. Orthodox Jews

8. Lapsed or Apostate Christians


Enemies When Trying to Do Good Work

Leaders who do good work in an ethical way can encounter enemies that prevent the good work from occurring. Sadly, at one point in my life I was one of those “enemies.” While in college I started a nonprofit program called “A Day of Hope” where we gathered food and resources and provided them to families in need for Thanksgiving. I was a young and passionate man who wanted to make a difference in our local community. One time I was invited to speak at my college’s “Fellowship of Christian Athletes.” The Christian athletes were looking for some projects to do in the community for Thanksgiving. They had invited me on behalf of A Day of Hope and a young woman from the Make-a-Wish Foundation to speak at their weekly meeting to learn about ways they could get involved in the community. The Make-a-Wish Foundation woman spoke first, and she gave a great presentation. However, I was a young man who was immature and probably too ambitious for the work I was doing. While I could have just focused on sharing what I had come to share, I instead decided that I would pick on the Make-a-Wish Foundation woman for not being a “local” program like I was presenting. And, she was still in the room while I criticized her program! It was terrible, unprofessional, and not a healthy way to give a presentation about serving others in the community.

On that day, way back in 2007, I was the “enemy.” I was an enemy to that young woman who was trying to go good work in the community and was probably either a volunteer or poorly paid staff member. When leaders try to do good work in the community they are going to encounter “enemies.” These enemies will arise from time to time and like Paul we need to recognize them but press on for what is right.


20But we are citizens of heaven and from that place we await our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ 21who will transform our humble body into a similar form of his glorious body by the power that allows him to dominate all things.

A. The Life of a Citizen of Heaven (v. 20)

20But we are citizens of heaven and from that place we await our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ

1. ἡμῶν γὰρ τὸ πολίτευμα ἐν οὐρανοῖς ὑπάρχει, — But we are citizens of heaven

a) γὰρ – But

This is causal giving a positive reason for Paul’s point here in Phil 3:20 (contrary to Phil 3:18-19 which was a negative reason).

b) ἡμῶν – we

This genitive of possession is emphatic because it is placed at the beginning of the sentence.

c) ὑπάρχει, — are

There are several different ways of expressing the idea of “to be” in New Testament Greek. Here, Paul uses a word that stresses actual existence (BDAG, 1029). Therefore, we can conclude that the citizenship of Christians really does exist in heaven.

d) τὸ πολίτευμα – citizens

Weirsbe notes that this is the “word from which we get the English word ‘politics.’ It has to do with one’s behavior as a citizen of a nation. Paul is encouraging us to have the spiritual mind, and he does this by pointing out the characteristics of the Christian whose citizenship is in heaven. Just as Philippi was a colony of Rome on foreign soil, so the church is a ‘colony of heaven’ on earth” (Wiersbe, Bible Exposition Commentary, vol. 2, 92).

The Theological Lexicon of the New Testament states that in the “strict sense of the word, a politeuma is an organization of citizens from the same place, with the same rights (isonomoi) in the midst of a foreign state” (Ceslas Spicq and James D. Ernest, Theological Lexicon of the New Testament [Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1994], 130).

The word used in this manner “is not so much a reference to their citizenship, nor even their status as a ‘colony’; it should be understood in terms of their metropolis or capital city, which lists its members among its citizens. It is a community of foreign nationals (foreigners to paganism) with a threefold meaning: (a) local (the politēs has ties to a place, a city)—our politeuma is in heaven; (b) political—like every analagous civitas, conferring liberty and equality on all its members, full rights; (c) constitutional and legal—exclusive dependency on the supreme authority of the Kyrios, Jesus” (Spicq and Ernest, Theological Lexicon of the New Testament, 131).

e) ἐν οὐρανοῖς – of heaven

“A friend in Washington, D.C., arranged for my oldest son and me to tour the White House. She told us to be at a certain gate at 8 o’clock in the morning and to be prepared to show evidence of who we were. David and I walked up to the gate, and the guard politely asked our names. We told him, showing our credentials. He said, ‘Yes, sir! Mr. Warren Wiersbe and David! You may enter!’ We got into the White House because our names were written down on the proper list, and our names got on that list through the intercession of another. So it is with our entrance into heaven: because we have trusted Christ, our names are written down, and we will enter glory on His merits and intercession alone” (Wiersbe, Bible Exposition Commentary, vol. 2, 92).

f) Citizens of Heaven

It was a great privilege for the Philippians to be considered Roman citizens. However, it was even more of a privilege that they were able to be citizens of heaven. While we are citizens of heaven, we still live on earth. There is a tension to be managed here. We need to live the values and goals of the heavenly life while also existing here on the sinful and materialistic world. These are two sets of values and cultures that clash. Thus, we need to depend on the Spirit and focus on living as citizens of heaven here on earth.

2. ἐξ οὗ καὶ σωτῆρα ἀπεκδεχόμεθα κύριον Ἰησοῦν Χριστόν, — and from that place we await our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ

a) ἐξ οὗ — and from that place

The preposition here, ἐξ, works with οὗ referring to heaven.

b) κύριον Ἰησοῦν Χριστόν, — the Lord Jesus Christ

“so also Christ was offered once for all time as a sacrifice to take away the sins of many people. He will come again, not to deal with our sins, but to bring salvation to all who are eagerly waiting for him” (Hebrews 9:28, NLT).

The Faithlife Study Bible states that in Paul’s time the people of Philippi likely called the emperor of the Roman Empire as “lord.” Here Paul strategically calls Jesus “Lord” and is thereby reinforcing his message that the Philippians were citizens of heaven and therefore should live in a worthy manner. The idea of citizens of Philippi normally calling the emperor of Rome “lord” but instead calling Jesus “Lord” might be what got Paul and Silas into trouble during their visit to Philippi, “They are teaching customs that are illegal for us Romans to practice” (Acts 16:21, NLT).

Further, Comfort describes the significance of the word “Lord” here because in the “Greco-Roman world, it was common for Caesars to call themselves ‘Lord’ and ‘Savior.’ Christians stood alone in calling a man from Nazareth their ‘Lord.’ In addition to being their Lord, Christians considered Jesus to be their Savior, their deliverer” (Comfort, Philippians, 209).

In the Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, L. W. Hurtado writes, “In the wider religious uses in Paul’s time, two [uses of ‘lord’] in particular have sometimes been pointed to as of direct significance for Paul’s designation of Christ as kyrios: the use of kyrios for the deities of various so-called mystery cults, and the application of the term in Roman emperor devotion. . . Both the mystery cults and emperor devotion achieved their zenith of popularity in the second century and later, well after the Christian use of kyrios for Christ was firmly established. Most importantly, a general and deeply felt antipathy toward, and disdain of, pagan religiousness were characteristic of Jews such as Paul and the others who made up the initial circles of Christian groups (L. W. Hurtado, “LORD” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, ed. by Gerald Hawthorne, Ralph Martin, and Daniel Reid [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993], 561).

While some say this development of the use of the word “lord” for Roman emperors might not have developed until later, I believe the implications were still the same for the Philippians and are still the same now. Jesus Christ is Lord now above and beyond everything and everyone in our world.

3. All Roads Lead to Heaven?

I remember talking about God once with a group of coworkers one summer afternoon. In our discussion one of the ladies looked at me and said, “Well, Christopher, all roads do lead to heaven, don’t they?” My response needed to be clear and biblical. I responded with a smile, “Well, Jesus did not say that. The Bible does not teach that all roads lead to heaven.” Then she continued to justify her argument.

At another time I had a coworker who regularly attended a Catholic Church in her community. She regularly talked to me about God, Jesus, and the church. However, when another coworker and I went to her house to help her move some items I was surprised to find little “buddhas” all over the house. While there she even began to show me all the buddhas that she had, large and small, and how they were valuable to her.

Do all road lead to heaven? The text here is very clear that they do not. Just as Paul had previously contrasted the “mutilators of the flesh” (Phil 3:2) with the “true believers” (Phil 3:3), here he contrasts those “headed for destruction” (Phil 3:18-19) with those who are “citizens of heaven” (Phil 3:20). Paul is making it clear that the road to heaven is through Jesus Christ, not through anything or anyone else.

B. The Change Our Bodies Will Experience (v. 21)

21who will transform our humble body into a similar form of his glorious body by the power that allows him to dominate all things.

1. ὃς μετασχηματίσει τὸ σῶμα τῆς ταπεινώσεως ἡμῶν σύμμορφον τῷ σώματι τῆς δόξης αὐτοῦ κατὰ τὴν ἐνέργειαν – who will transform our humble body into a similar form of his glorious body

a) ὃς – who

This refers to Jesus, mentioned in the previous verse.

b) τῆς δόξης αὐτοῦ — of his glorious body

“Dear friends, we are already God’s children, but he has not yet shown us what we will be like when Christ appears. But we do know that we will be like him, for we will see him as he really is” (1 John 3:2, NLT).           

The people of Phil 3:18-19 have a destination of destruction while our destination is glory!

2. κατὰ τὴν ἐνέργειαν τοῦ δύνασθαι αὐτὸν καὶ ὑποτάξαι αὐτῷ τὰ πάντα. – by the power that allows him to dominate all things.

a) τοῦ δύνασθαι αὐτὸν – power that allows him

Three translation options are available here:

  • epexegetical, “working power that enables him;”
  • purpose, “working power for the purpose of being able;” and
  • result, “working power with the result of being able.”

b) ὑποτάξαι – to dominate

Four translation options are available here:

  • complimentary, “who is able even to dominate all things;”
  • epexegetical, “who is able even to dominate all things;”
  • purpose, “in order that he might even dominate all things” and
  • result, “with the result that he might even dominate all things.”

3. The Future Hope

This is the hope that we have for the future. In the future, we will get new resurrected bodies that might reflect the old bodies, but there will be no pain, shame, or sorrow.

By Christopher L. Scott

Christopher L. Scott serves as senior pastor at Lakeview Missionary Church in Moses Lake, Washington. Through his writing ministry more than 250,000 copies of his articles, devotions, and tracts are distributed each month through Christian publishers. Learn more at