The creation intent of God is to have a race of embodied worshipers on a glorious earth heavy with the fruits of God-centered human endeavor, produced by righteous men and women who worship Him, represent Him, and rule for Him in every area of life. The Fall did not overturn or halt this intent; rather, in the providence of God it drew it to unparalleled heights. In this age, the seed of the new humanity—chosen from among all the nations of men—is the church. Because we are the new humanity, it is our duty to live up to the demands and delights of God ordained at creation, in the specific context and application of the New Covenant (wherein we have the power to do so!).
In Philippians 3, Paul has been detailing for us the expressions, responsibilities, and fruits of the genuine Christianity that creates this new humanity. Specifically, for the last several paragraphs Paul has been concerned with illustrating and explaining a faith that finishes the earthly race well. In this last paragraph, he shows how the believer’s citizenship in heaven, a chief blessing of genuine Christianity, expresses itself in three radically life-altering ways.
A. Heavenly Citizens Imitate Godly Examples (v. 17)
The Philippians were very enamored with their Roman citizenship, and understandably so. Roman citizens were among the most protected and privileged people of the ancient world. That the Philippians enjoyed these benefits while living in Greece (but on Roman land!) understandably gave them a sense of pride, but it also tempted them to overemphasize the importance and privileges of that earthly citizenship to the detriment of the privileges and obligations of their heavenly one.
Here, as in 1:27, the apostle reminds them that the primary thing about them is their citizenship in the kingdom of heaven (the kingdom heaven rules). It is noteworthy that the word for “citizenship” denotes not merely a status, but an entire course and manner of life informed and governed by that status. A root of the same word is used in 1:27 to speak of “conduct[ing] yourselves” (lit. “living as a citizen”) worthily of the gospel. In both places, the idea is to live a certain way, believe a certain way, choose a certain way, communicate and feel and respond and relate and value a certain way, because you are a citizen of heaven.
Paul here elaborates on some of the practical ways this citizenship impacts us. The first is the imitation of godly examples. Paul tells them lit. “be fellow imitators of me”! This could initially sound arrogant, unless we realize that Paul is both an apostle—he is an embodied emissary of Jesus Christ to men—and a very godly, mature man who has earned the right to enjoin people to follow him. The Lord Jesus, of course, is our supreme example of godliness, though He is first of all our sovereign Savior and Lord. But He has also given us imperfect, sinful examples of maturity to follow, that we might better understand how to live for Him in the context of a sinful nature and fallen flesh. (Our Lord had no fallenness to speak of. He is good to give us examples to follow that struggle as we do!)
What did Paul model? Virtue, victory over the flesh, enduring love for God and others, loyalty to the truth, and more. In him we see not merely commands to follow, but their enfleshment and application in a man who is a sinner like us, yet one who has gained the victory over his flesh through yieldedness to the indwelling Spirit.
But the Philippians needed more than just Paul; they were also to keep their gaze on those who walked as Paul did. “Observe” is the word “to scope out,” “to examine carefully,” to contemplate, to fix your gaze upon. It carries the idea of carful, observant study. They were to study those who lived for and loved the Lord as Paul did, and follow them learn from them, and become like them. With but one example, they risked adopting all his weaknesses as well as his strengths. But with many, they could balance their view of godliness with the full panoply of virtue.
B. Heavenly Citizens Flee Ungodliness (vv. 18-19)
Why are we to have godly examples? Note the “for” that begins this paragraph and the next (v. 20). Paul gives us two reasons why we need to follow godly examples. First, it is because there are many examples of ungodliness. Indeed, as Mike Riccardi writes, we must follow godly examples because the ungodliness and licentiousness expressed by unbelievers “is enmity with and contradictory to the gospel.” We must learn to live a godly life because ungodliness is the antithesis of the gospel. Did you know it is possible to contradict the gospel by how you live? Why? Because the gospel is who Jesus is and what He did, to save sinners from their sin! Not merely from hell, though that is a blessed consequence of salvation. But Jesus gave Himself to purify a people for His own possession, who are zealous for good works (Titus 2:14).
Indeed, Paul writes that these people—professed believers who corrupt the gospel through fleshly living—in their lifestyle (“walk”) are opposed to, contradict, the cross. (The word for “enemies” refers to hostility, enmity, or animosity, whether open or concealed.) Paul says he is weeping, presently, as he writes. He weeps over those who call themselves believers but stand stubbornly athwart the cross that intends to slay their sinful nature that they might rise to newness of life with the One who is ruling Lord. They reject the implications the cross has on their daily living, believing, thinking, and feeling. To stop running thee race of righteousness—to stop persevering in the way of holiness unto eternal life—is to become an enemy because the cross creates a pure, surrendered people.
Verse 19 goes on to give us four illustrations of enemies. Their destiny is “destruction”, an everlasting, conscious degradation and decimation, endless torment in a literal body that can never die. Their god is their appetite—not physical hunger, but the gratification of the sensual, earthly desires that are often called “passions.” (This is broader than, but obviously includes, sexual desire.) These desires are not necessarily wrong in themselves, but the ungodly person lives and centers themselves around their gratification. They make decisions based on how it will make them feel. They sin if they do not get what satisfies them and sin to get it. Their shamelessness is in their glorying in the very things that should be their shame. They boast about the ungodliness they indulge by saying they are so confident in the imputed righteousness of Christ, that they so value their freedom in Christ, that they live like the devil. After all, they’re not saved by anything they do, right? (They forget the transformed life as the path to final salvation and evidence of union with Christ needed for acquittal at the final judgment!) And their utter worldliness is characterized by their preoccupation with the fallen things of the current world system—not necessarily the things of culture per se, but the ways culture and earthly endeavor are used to express ungodliness. That is their orientation—to the inhabited, cultivated world as it is now, not as it will one day be!
The fact is that we all have the seed of an enemy of the cross in our hearts. And every time we sin, for that moment we function as an enemy, not as a beloved friend. God—and Paul—are good to remind us of these things, that we might cling ever more tightly to our keeping Savior.
C. Heavenly Citizens Anticipate Future Glory (vv. 20-21)
The second reason we must follow godly examples is because godliness is both the expression of our current position and the means to the realization of our future hope. Our characteristic is anticipation of our future hope, which changes how we live now. Remember that citizenship is both a position and the lifestyle that flows from it; it is an objective reality that has subjective implications and impact on every detail of life. The godliness we see in others that we are to emulate is the lived-out expression of our submission to that citizenship and the One who rules that realm.
The heaven in which our citizenship lies is the heaven where the risen Christ currently dwells, from which He will imminently return to—what? To take disembodied spirits to a spiritual heaven where we walk on clouds and stare at Him in endless refrains of hymns for eternity? Or to conquer the ungodliness of men and take back His earth, giving it to His saints where they and He will live forever and ever? The latter is Paul’s theology. The former is a lie from the pit of hell. Jesus will one day return—the pretribulational rapture being the downpayment on the “first resurrection” of all believers in Revelation 20—to resurrect dead believers and transform living ones into glorious new bodies like unto His! How will He do this? By His omnipotent power which He exercises even now as reigning King (Eph. 1:18-23). Jesus has all authority over the universe, and as omnipotent God-man He will subject all things to Himself, including our fallenness. Our fallenness must bow to His authority; when He calls us, we will rise to meet Him in perfect bodies that will be strong and young forever. Our bodies now are humble, easily frail, sick, and dying. One day, we will have glorious “spiritual” bodies—raised immortal to full eternal life on a resurrected earth.
This is our hope. The pathway to our hope is persevering in imperfect but growing, real godliness, enabled by and in the context of our sovereign-grace-created citizenship in heaven. Our citizenship in heaven is to powerfully change every detail of our lives now, and assures us of a comprehensive and glorious hope. May we be joyfully faithful until the day we see Jesus Christ!