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b) Read Phil 3:20: Paul continued his argument for believers in Philippi to avoid ungodly living by writing, “For our commonwealth in heaven exists.”

This creates an extremely abrupt transition from Phil 3:17–19. Not only does the word “for” seem out of place, the language, style, and rhythm of these verses change the flow of the passage. Consequently, many scholars hold that—as in Phil 2:6–11—Paul inserted an early Christian hymn here.[1]

In these verses we once again see the apostle’s “now and not yet” theology.[2]

As believers we begin to experience eternal life due to the impact of the Holy Spirit in our lives (Rom 8:9–11; 2 Cor 1:21–22; Eph 1:13–14).

However, our complete participation in the kingdom of God shall not begin until Christ’s return (1 Cor 15:50–57; 1 Thess 4:13–18). That event shall initiate the renewal of everything on earth into the kingdom of God (Rom 8:18–23).[3]

Nevertheless, everything remains under Jesus’s control (1 Cor 15:20–28; Col 1:15–20).[4]

Even those acts which Paul previously associated with the Father, he attributed to Christ (Rom 8:29–30; Eph 1:18–22).[5]

As Christians, our allegiance belongs to the kingdom of heaven, not to our earthly cities.[6] Paul placed his emphasis upon the word “our,” as it appears first in the sentence.[7]

This created a strong contrast between the false teachers and the believers in Philippi (Phil 3:18–21).[8]



The word translated as “commonwealth” (politeuma) occurs only here in the New Testament. Typically, it refers to a state or government.[9]

However, the term also describes a colony of relocated foreigners or veterans.[10]

Within the Roman Empire, the military often secured a recently conquered nation by removing some of its people and replacing them with those loyal to the emperor. As a result, Greco-Roman ideals and customs took hold in foreign areas.[11]

In 42 BC, the last great battle to establish the Roman republic occurred on the Plains of Philippi. The grateful victors made the city a Roman colony and resettled veterans of the battle there.[12]

Those dwelling in Philippi enjoyed Roman citizenship, unlike most people living in the empire. Thus, they received all of the rights and privileges of people born in Rome, even though they lived elsewhere.[13]

Likewise, the Christians of Philippi lived on earth while their citizenship remained in heaven (Eph 2:19–22).

All of them—even the enslaved, who could not claim the privileges of Roman citizenship—comprised the Lord’s colony, with Christ as their ruler. In Greco-Roman society, a person’s citizenship determined one’s allegiance and regulated ethical behavior (Acts 16:20–21).[14]



A second century Christian author wrote this:

For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity…

But, inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined, and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life.

They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers.

They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives…

Christians dwell as sojourners in corruptible [bodies], looking for an incorruptible dwelling in the heavens.[15]

Although we remain on earth, believers enjoy the rights and privileges of our heavenly commonwealth. For us, eternal life has already begun.[16]

Furthermore, God calls us to live as people belonging to the heavenly Jerusalem (Matt 5:14–16; Rev 21:1–2).[17]



This perspective eventually created conflict between Christians and imperial forces. In particular, the requirement to burn incense as a sacrifice to the emperor—who claimed the right to veneration as a—god resulted in tremendous persecution for those who refused to deny Jesus as their only Lord.

After Pliny the Younger began governing a region of northern Turkey in 109 AD, he experienced great consternation when seeking to determine how to deal with these recalcitrant Christians.

Therefore, he wrote the following to the emperor Trajan, who reigned from 98–117 AD:

Having never been present at any trials concerning those who profess Christianity, I am unacquainted not only with the nature of their crimes, or the measure of their punishment, but how far it is proper to enter into an examination concerning them…

Whether the very profession of Christianity, unattended with any criminal act, or only the crimes themselves inherent in the profession are punishable; on all these points I am in great doubt…

The method I have observed towards those who have been brought before me as Christians is this: I asked them whether they were Christians; if they admitted it, I repeated the question twice, and threatened them with punishment; if they persisted, I ordered them to be at once punished…[18]

Anonymous information was laid before me containing a charge against several persons, who upon examination denied they were Christians, or had ever been so.

They repeated after me an invocation to the gods, and offered religious rites with wine and incense before your statue (which for that purpose I had ordered to be brought, together with those of the gods), and even reviled the name of Christ: whereas there is no forcing, it is said, those who are really Christians into any of these compliances. I thought it proper, therefore, to discharge them…

[Others] affirmed the whole of their guilt…was, that they met on a stated day before it was light, and addressed a form of prayer to Christ, as to a divinity, binding themselves by a solemn oath, not for the purposes of any wicked design, but never to commit any fraud, theft, or adultery, never to falsify their word, nor deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up; after which it was their custom to separate, and then reassemble, to eat in common a harmless meal. From this custom, however, they desisted after the publication of my edict…

After receiving this account, I judged it so much the more necessary to endeavor to extort the real truth, by putting two female slaves to the torture, who were said to officiate in their religious rites: but all I could discover was evidence of an absurd and extravagant superstition.

I deemed it expedient, therefore, to adjourn all further proceedings, in order to consult you. For it appears to be a matter highly deserving your consideration, more especially as great numbers must be involved in the danger of these prosecutions, which have already extended, and are still likely to extend, to persons of all ranks and ages, and even of both sexes.

In fact, this contagious superstition is not confined to the cities only, but has spread its infection among the neighboring villages and country.[19]



Pliny’s letter confirms Paul’s statement, “for a savior we eagerly wait (apekdexomai), our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Our emperor does not reside in Rome but in heaven (Acts 2:32–36; Acts 7:55–56; Heb 1:1–3).[20]

The word which Paul used conveys a burning expectation for God to fulfill his divine plans,[21] culminating in the return of Christ to earth from heaven.[22]

Then all of creation shall be restored to pristine wholeness (Isa 65:17–25; Rev 21:3–7; Rev 22:1–5).[23]

Most people in the Roman Empire used the term “savior” (kurios) when describing Caesar,[24] the ruler of their earthly commonwealth.[25]

From the time of Octavian (Augustus) through the reign of Hadrian, (27 BC–128 AD), subjects of Rome hailed their emperors as the “saviors of the world.”[26]

Since the Philippians’ true emperor was Jesus,[27] Paul encouraged them to exhibit more excitement about the return of Christ than for a visit from their imperial ruler.

The benefits of belonging to an earthly nationality cannot eclipse the advantages of our heavenly citizenship (Isa 35:4–10; James 4:4; Heb 11:13–16; Heb 13:14).[28]

Image via Wikimedia Commons


Read Phil 3:20. How can you tell if your citizenship is in heaven? What made this verse especially pertinent for believers in Philippi? Why did the allegiance of Christians lead to conflict with the Roman Empire? How does our heavenly commonwealth contrast with the one Cain built (Gen 4:17)?





Go to Glorified Bodies (Phil 3:21)

[Related posts include Minds on Earthly Things (Phil 3:17–19); Glorified Bodies (Phil 3:21); Cain Dedicated a City (Gen 4:17); Co-Heirs with Christ (Rom 8:16–18); Creation’s Eager Expectation (Rom 8:19); Subjected to Futility (Rom 8:20); Set Free from the Slavery of Corruption (Rom 8:21–22); Dead in Adam but Alive in Christ (1 Cor 15:20–23); We Shall Be Changed (1 Cor 15:51–52); Victory over Death (1 Cor 15:53–55); Equality with God (Phil 2:5–6); A Summary of Trinitarian Creeds (Appendix to Phil 2:5–6); Taking the Form of a Slave (Phil 2:7); Obedient to the Point of Death (Phil 2:8); The Name Above Every Name (Phil 2:9–11); The Firstborn of All Creation (Col 1:15–18); The New Holy City (Rev 21:10–11); A Return to Paradise (Rev 22:1–5, 20); and Ancient Literature]

[Click here to go to Chapter 2: The Descent of Humanity (Genesis 4:17–24)]


[1]Hawthorne, Philippians, 28–9.

[2]Fee, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, 376.

[3]Regarding Rom 8:23, there are indications in the Greek text that it is precisely because the Holy Spirit dwells within us that we groan as we wait for the coming of God’s kingdom in all its fullness. Some translations give the impression that we groan despite the Spirit’s presence.

[4]Hawthorne, Philippians, 229.

[5]Fee, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, 376.

[6]Hermann Strathmann, “πολιτευμα” (politeuma) TDNT 6:535.

[7]Matthew S. DeMoss, Pocket Dictionary for the Study of New Testament Greek (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 100. In Koine Greek, the word “for” can never appear at the beginning of a sentence or clause. What the author wished to emphasize comes at the beginning of the sentence or clause.

[8]Hawthorne, Philippians, 231.

[9]Witherington, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, 216.

[10]Danker et al., “πολιτευμα” (politeuma), BDAG, 845.

[11]Hawthorne, Philippians, 231.

[12]John B. Polhill, Paul and His Letters (Nashville: B & H, 1999), 161.

[13]Hawthorne, Philippians, 231.

[14]Witherington, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, 216–7.

[15]Mathetes, “The Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus,” in The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaues, Ante-Nicene Fathers Vol. 1 (ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Cox; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1950), 5–6, 307–9,

[16]Hawthorne, Philippians, 231–2.

[17]Fee, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, 379.

[18]Most translations of this letter indicate that the punishment was execution.

[19]Pliny the Younger, Letters of Pliny the Younger, Vol. 2 (ed. F. C. T. Bosanquet; trans. William Melmoth; New York: Hinds, Noble, and Eldredge, 1900), 10.96, 394–5,

[20]Hawthorne, Philippians, 232.

[21]Walter Grundmann, “ἀπεκδεχομαι” (apekdexomai) TDNT 2:56.

[22]Fee, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians , 380.

[23]Hawthorne, Philippians, 232.

[24]Fee, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, 381.

[25]Witherington, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, 218.

[26]Deissman, Light from the Ancient East: The New Testament Illustrated by Recently Discovered Texts of the Graeco-Roman World, 369,

[27]Hawthorne, Philippians, 233.

[28]Witherington, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, 218.