Philippians 3:17-21



By: Scott Grant

Link between heaven and earth


There is earth. And there is heaven. And never the twain shall meet.

In popular thought heaven and earth have little to do with each other. Heaven is some place your soul goes to after you die. Until then, heaven means very little. Even then, heaven doesn’t seem to be much to look forward to. For now, God may be looking down from heaven. Every once in a while he may answer a prayer or two. But for the most part, he’s removed from earthly life.

The scriptures tell a different story. The Apostle Paul says that heaven has established an outpost on earth. Together, those of us who follow Jesus constitute a colony of heaven commissioned by God to spread the influence of heaven. As members of this colony, our citizenship is in heaven. One day, heaven will rule earth. God’s will will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Knowing these things, we live according to the laws of heaven, not earth. The pattern that heaven gives us for earthly living is that of self-giving love.

            Paul’s story in Philippians 3:2-14 features passion for knowing Christ and willingness to relinquish power, status and privileges for the sake of knowing and following Jesus. He follows the heavenly pattern, and in verses 17 through 21, he offers it to us.


            Philippians 3:17-21:

[17] Join with others in following my example, brothers, and take note of those who live according to the pattern we gave you. [18] For, as I have often told you before and now say again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. [19] Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is on earthly things. [20] But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, [21] who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.


Good and bad patterns


            Paul has just told the story of his life so that his readers might follow his example. The story shows how Paul was willing to abandon his privileges as an elite Jew for the sake of Christ. The “pattern” that Paul gave the Philippians and that others exemplify is that of self-giving love. In this letter, the pattern is seen in Paul (1:12-26, 3:4-14) Timothy (2:19-24), Epaphroditus (2:25-30) and, most significantly, Christ (2:6-11). Many of those living in Philippi, a Roman colony, had the privilege of Roman citizenship. Where Christ and Caesar vie for the affections of one’s heart, there must be no question who wins the battle. If the privileges provided by Caesar cause one to distance oneself from Christ and the self-giving love that he calls for, such privileges must be set aside.

            Paul’s pattern is not the only one, however. Just as some “live” according to Paul’s pattern (verse 17), many “live” according to a different pattern (verse 18). So Paul warns the Philippians about these people and their way of life, lest the believers imitate them instead of him.

            The identity of these people is the subject of much debate in scholarly circles. It is possible that they are unbelieving Jews. It is “with tears” that Paul tells his readers about them. Elsewhere Paul speaks about unbelieving Jews in similar language, saying, “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart” for them (Romans 9:2). Paul describes these people in five ways:

– They are “enemies of the cross of Christ.”

– Their “destiny is destruction.”

– Their “god is their stomach.”

– Their “glory is in their shame.”

– Their “mind is on earthly things.”

            Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:23 that the preaching of Christ crucified is a “stumbling block to Jews.” Jews, of course, were not only enemies of the cross of Christ, they were enemies of all crosses. Crucifixion was a form of execution that Rome employed to keep its subjects, such as the Jews, in line. For the Jews, the last place their messiah would be found was hanging on a Roman cross. Jesus, as a would-be messiah, did not endorse the nationalist agenda of Israel and called it to account for abandoning its God. The Jewish leaders perceived him as a threat and handed him over to the Romans, who crucified him. As enemies of the cross of Christ, they would not have endorsed the pattern of self-abandonment that Paul was advocating. On the contrary, they would have been grasping for status, power and privileges. 

            Paul earlier indicated that the pagans who oppose the Philippian believers “will be destroyed” (Philippians 1:28). Here he also speaks of the “destruction” that unbelievers are destined for, in this case perhaps unbelieving Jews. In 2 Thessalonians 1:9 Paul describes “everlasting destruction” as being “shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power.” Why would enemies of the cross of Christ want to spend eternity in his presence?

            The phrase “their God is their stomach” may be a reference to the Jewish food laws that supposedly helped mark out the Jews as God’s people. Many Jews used the food laws as a way to distinguish themselves from the Gentiles and as a way to keep the Gentiles, who didn’t receive such laws, from accessing God. They had elevated the food laws to such an extent that here they are seen as worshipping their stomachs instead of God (Colossians 2:16, 20-21, 23; Hebrews 9:10; Mark 7:1-16). Grammatically, the next phrase, “their glory is in their shame,” is linked to the previous phrase. These people who worship their stomach “glory,” or delight in, such worship, but Paul says it is actually to their shame and that they should perceive it as such.

            If these people are Jews, the earthly things they set their minds on would concern circumcision, food laws and Sabbath keeping. Such laws were given as symbols of heavenly realities, but most people gutted them of their meaning and clung to the forms as a way of self-preservation and as a way to persuade God to take action.

            Lest we accuse Paul of being anti-Jewish, we must of course remember that he himself was a Jew and that he anguished over their unrepentant state. He even said, “For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, those of my own race, the people of Israel” (Romans 9:2-4).

            If this is a polemic against Jews who are enemies of Christ, what is it doing here, in Paul’s letter to the Philippians? Paul has already described the Jews in pagan terms (Philippians 3:2-3). It’s likely that his warning throughout Philippians 3 is against the lure of both Judaism and paganism, with the latter probably being the more significant concern. The particular pagan feature that Paul seems most preoccupied with is the Caesar cult of the Roman empire. The attraction of following Caesar instead of Christ was a strong one in the Roman colony of Philippi.


The importance of examples


            Here again in this letter we see that “patterns” are important for us. We not only need instruction in how to live, we need to see what following such instruction looks like in a life. Here the pattern is abandonment of privileges when they conflict with knowing and following Christ. In Philippians, we see the pattern in Paul, Timothy and Epaphroditus. Their stories are inspiring. We could benefit from being on the lookout for figures in history who followed the pattern. Biographies are a good source. Also, we need to take note of those who are following the pattern today. They serve as living examples. If we have the opportunity to seek these people out, to talk with them and get to know them, so much the better.

            We need to take note of those who are following this pattern because the pattern that our culture gives us, and that most are following, is one of self-preservation and self-exaltation. Those who follow the cultural pattern are enemies of the cross of Christ in that they oppose self-abandonment and promote self-exaltation. Although those who follow such a pattern may be living it up, their destiny, if the pattern doesn’t change, is destruction. We need to remember this, lest we conform our lives to their pattern. Their god is their stomach; they have their own set of laws in order to distinguish themselves from others and keep others from reaching their heights or breaking into the club. The exclusivity they revel in is actually to their shame. Their minds are thus set on earthly things; they rejoice in and protect earthly status, power and privileges.

            This pattern is all around us – in the people we work with, in the television shows we watch and in the web sites we visit. It almost seems as if the pattern seeps into our thinking through the air we breathe. We need to see the pattern of self-exaltation and self-preservation for what it is – as an enemy of the cross of Christ. And we need to breathe in the biblical pattern that abandons privileges for the sake of knowing and following Christ.

            One of my living examples is Chrissy Tsai, who is a PBC missionary to East Asia and has particular ties to this fellowship. I read her monthly updates and I see a woman who above all else wants to know Christ but is very honest about the performance issues that get in her way. Here’s someone I can identify with. She has given up much in this country to follow Jesus to another country and share the love of Christ with those who don’t know him. Here’s someone who inspires me. She’s following the Christ pattern. I commend her to you as someone you can identify with and learn from. To get on her e-mail list, write to her at


Colony of heaven


            Verse 20 begins with a word that is usually translated “for,” not “but.” In verses 20 and 21 Paul is explaining why his readers should follow his example. They should do so – they can do so – because they know what will happen at the end of the story. The Christ pattern of love will one day be the law of the land, so they can live now in the light of that day.

            In contrast to those whose minds are on earthly things, Paul indicates that believers’ citizenship is in heaven. Believers, therefore, should set their mind on the heavenly things that pertain to their citizenship. Some of the readers of Paul’s letter would have been citizens of Rome. Even if the Philippians have Roman citizenship, their more significant citizenship is in heaven. A colony was established to secure a conquered country by permeating it with Roman culture. If the natives threatened the colony, Caesar, who was called “savior” and “lord,” would come to rescue and liberate his people.

            Paul is saying that the Philippian believers, as citizens of heaven, are called to spread the influence of heaven in their city. Their Savior and Lord, Jesus Christ, will one day come to finish the job and liberate them. Rome will try to set their minds on earthly things, but believers must hold to their citizenship in heaven and its calling.

When Christ does come to save the citizens of heaven at the end of the age, he will “transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.” Our bodies are “lowly” now in that they are subject to temptation, sin, illness, frailty, death and decay.

Christ’s body was transformed when he was resurrected. He still had a human body, but it was a different kind of human body. This may partially explain why his followers didn’t recognize him after he was resurrected (Luke 24:16, John 20:15). It also may explain how he was able to appear in a room with locked doors (John 20:19, 26). The word “glory” pertains to Christ’s exaltation and sovereignty. Caesar had a certain “glory,” but it will be shown to be pitiful and transient in light of the glory of Christ.

David, in writing to God in Psalm 8:4-8, speaks of “man” in this way:

You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings

And crowned him with glory and honor

You made him rule over the works of your hands;

You put everything under his feet:

All flocks and herds,

And the beasts of the field,

The birds of the air and the fish of the sea,

All that swim the paths of the seas.

            God intended humanity to be sovereign, to rule over his creation. The New Testament says Psalm 8 is fulfilled in Christ (Hebrews 2:6-8, Ephesians 1:22). He becomes the new Adam, the truly human one.

The bodies of believers, once they are transformed, will be like the body of Christ. These will be physical bodies, somewhat like the bodies we have now, but completely suited to, and animated by, the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 15:35-49). And these bodies will enable us to fulfill God’s intention for us to rule over his creation – only it will be a new creation that will have undergone its own transformation (Romans 8:20-21). The new creation will be filled with the glory of God – his presence and majesty (Habbakuk 2:14, Revelation 22:23).

            The transformation of our bodies will take place by the “power” that enables Christ to “bring everything under his control.” The power that Christ has is that of the one true King. He will use that power, as our Savior and Lord, to transform our bodies. Not only will he transform our bodies, he will bring everything under his control, including Caesar and all other powers who oppose him and oppress his people (1 Corinthians 15:27-28).

            In verses 20 and 21, Paul picks up several strands from his poem about Christ in Philippians 2:6-11, which spoke of the incarnation and exaltation of Christ.1 He does so to show us that the exaltation of Christ means that we too will be exalted and that we must take the same lowly road that Christ took.


The third alternative


            As members of the church of Jesus Christ, we have been sent by our Lord and Savior to form a colonial outpost from which we spread the influence of heaven. The church has often opted for one of two extremes. It has withdrawn from the world in order to avoid being stained by it. Or it has entered the world in order to dominate it. It has either sought to withdraw or dominate. Both inclinations have their basis in fear. When we withdraw, we fear contamination. When we dominate, we fear annihilation.

            The scriptures offer us a third alternative, one that falls off on neither side. We gather together to adopt and reinforce the Christ pattern of self-abandonment. Then we enter the world and influence it through this pattern – through the power of love rather than the love of power. This third alternative will always have some tension to it. We will often wonder if we’re falling off on the side of withdrawal or domination, and we will feel pulled in both directions. Isolation and power each have their appeal. We will have to think and pray and use all the wisdom that God gives us in order to take this path, but it is the path we are called to.

            When we withdraw, we lose whatever influence we might have. When we dominate, opting for the power of love rather than the love of power, we model the pattern of the culture instead of the pattern of Christ, and, again, we lose our influence.

            Levi the tax collector was an outcast. Jews considered him a turncoat for collecting taxes for the Romans. Jesus, however, went to Levi’s house, and had dinner with many other tax collectors and sinners there. The scribes and Pharisees were aghast. Jesus was spreading the influence of heaven at a party of sinners without being influenced by them (Mark 2:13-17). We should consider attending such parties. If they won’t come to our parties, we need to go to theirs. When Jesus entered the world of sinners, he was not contaminated by their sin. Rather, his holiness cleansed their sin (Mark 5:25-34). Jesus resides with us by his Spirit. He has made us holy (Ephesians 1:4). We too can venture forth into the world as a sanctifying influence.

            N.T. Wright comments: “We need people who will hold on to Christ firmly with one hand and reach out the other, with wit and skill and cheerfulness, with compassion and sorrow and tenderness, to the places where our world is in pain. We need people who will use all their God-given skills, as Paul used his, to analyze where things have gone wrong, to come to the place of pain, and to hold over the wound the only medicine which will really heal, which is the love of Christ made incarnate once more, the strange love of God turned into your flesh and mine, your smile and mine, your tears and mine, your patient analysis and mine, your frustration and mine, your joy and mine.”2

            We can seek to influence the world through the power of love, and risk rejection, because we know that our Lord and Savior will come from heaven to finish the work. When he does, love will reign. The Christ pattern of love will be the law of the land. We are not waiting to go to heaven. We are waiting for heaven to come to earth. When our Savior comes to earth, he will transform God’s creation and our bodies, and we will reign with Christ over this new creation. The scent of heavenly influence will be everywhere. Our minds and bodies will be perfectly suited for this new creation and this calling. Our bodies will be able to carry out the desires of our hearts, which will be perfectly in line with God’s will. Our wills will conform to his, and we will delight in this alignment. We will be what God always intended us to be. We will be what we’ve always wanted to be. We will be the kings of the earth. And everything that is now out of control will be brought under the control of Christ.


Salt of the earth


Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth,” Jesus said. “But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men” (Matthew 5:13). Salt was used as a preservative. Jesus was telling his followers that they are supposed to influence life on earth. To say “you are the salt of the earth” is another way of saying “our citizenship is in heaven.” We are the salt of the earth and a colony of heaven, sent by God to influence the earth through the heavenly pattern of self-giving love.


SCG / 4-14-02

1          Philippians 3                                                         Philippians 2

                Change (summorphon, 3:21)                              Very nature (morphe, 2:6), appearance (morphe, 2:7)

                Is (uparchei, 3:20)                                                Being (uparchon, 2:6)

                Like (3:21)                                                              Likeness (2:7)

                Lowly (tapeinoseos, 3:21)                                   Humbled (etapeionsen, 2:8)

                Bring everything under control (3:21)              Every knee should bow (2:20)

                Lord Jesus Christ (3:20)                                      Jesus Chris is Lord (2:11)

            Glory (3:21)                                                            Glory (2:11)

2 N.T. Wright, “For All God’s Worth.” Eerdman’s, Grand Rapids, Mich., 1997. P. 101.


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