January 2 – Philippians 3:20-21

Our theme for 2022 is “Citizen,” and we’ll be spending the whole year exploring what the Bible says about being citizens in the Kingdom of God. Next week we’ll kick off a series in the book of Matthew that will extend all the way through Easter, so that we can start with a good look at Jesus, the King of all kings, whose Kingdom spans all of history. But before that we’ll use the first week of the year to look at Philippians 3:20-21, our thematic passage for 2022.

For our discussion this week we’ll read 3:17-4:1 (you’ll notice chapter 4 starts in the middle of a paragraph anyway), and this will give us a bit more context for what Paul is talking about here. Keep in mind, though, that we’re parachuting right into the middle of Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi, so there’s even more context before and after this passage that we’re missing. Citizenship is a primary theme of the whole book, and Paul introduces the concept in 1:27 when he talks about our “manner of life,” which in Greek is a related word to “citizenship” in 3:20. Several translations render that phrase in 1:27, “conduct yourselves,” so Paul has in mind a comprehensive view of the way we walk through our lives, the way we carry ourselves, the things we fight for and don’t fight for, and the way we relate to others. In all of this we are called to live “worthy of the gospel of Christ.”(1:27)

But Paul also uses citizenship language to be quite pointed. Philippi was a Roman colony in what is now northern Greece, so Roman loyalty and Roman citizenship were prized commodities. In general, folks were striving to be good Roman citizens for a number of reasons, so Paul’s statement in 3:20 that “our citizenship is in heaven” is meant not only to remind the Philippians of their great hope in Jesus but to also reorganize all their lesser hopes. Note that he doesn’t say “our spiritual citizenship is in heaven” or “we are dual citizens of heaven and earth.” He doesn’t even mention earthly citizenship—heavenly citizenship is so important to the life of a follower, so central, that all other sources of belonging or identity must take a backseat to our belonging to Christ (I should add, though, that they aren’t emptied of their significance or possibility for goodness—ex. citizenship in any particular country can be important and used for good, but it must first be entirely oriented to Christ).

This, of course, created tension for the Philippians, as it does for us today. Whether out of national citizenship, or any belonging to any other group of people, we will find that our citizenship in heaven will inevitably leave us off beat in some regard, not neatly fitting into prescribed molds, sometimes being able to participate and other times having to object. For example, Christians in Paul’s day were called to respect Roman authority (ex. Romans 13), but to never go so far as to worship Caesar as a god, which in the Roman world was a thing “good citizens” did. They were in the world but not of it (John 17:14-16), able to participate and even be a blessing to the watching world, but always looking to a higher authority in Jesus, which was often costly.

And notice the contrast Paul builds here. Where “earthly mindedness” would lead us to worship ourselves, serving our own pleasures (“their god is their belly”), and to delight in all the wrong things (“they glory in their shame”), having our hearts and minds fixed on the ultimate source of our belonging in Christ will help us worship and serve him alone, delighting in the ways things are done in his kingdom, praying that God’s will would be done on earth as it already is in heaven.(Matt. 6:10) But simultaneously, as we’ll touch on in our discussion, we have to be willing to admit our own tendency towards “earthly mindedness,” towards serving our own ends and pleasures, and towards finding our highest belonging in anything other than Jesus.

But, in looking to Jesus, we also see the solution for this. Our belonging to Jesus isn’t based on our performance, our “good citizenness,” but on Jesus’. Because our means of belonging was earned for us in Jesus, and lies totally outside our performance, we can rest assured that our citizenship is firmly fixed in heaven. Where our belonging to all other groups is capable of being lost, becoming a source of embarrassment, or disappointing us, our anchor is solidly lodged in heaven, from which we await our savior. Thus we can stand firm through struggle and difficulty, through the temptation to worship ourselves, and through the cost of looking to a higher authority in Jesus.

Questions for Discussion

• Could someone read Philippians 3:17-4:1 for us?

• What stood out to you in this passage?

• When you hear the word “citizenship” what does it bring to mind?

• According to this passage, what does it mean to be a citizen of heaven while living on earth?

• How does Paul here contrast heavenly citizenship with earthly mindedness?

• The “enemies of the cross” were likely people who were twisting the gospel to serve their own ends. What are some ways it can be tempting for us to do the same thing?

• Take a look at 4:1. How does heavenly citizenship provide what we need in order to “stand firm”?