Living in the Future Tense (Philippians 3:17–21)

Citizens of Heaven_T_NVHaving set forth his life ambition to be more Christ-like, Paul does not hesitate to tell the Philippians to follow his example. He wants them to imitate him. Surely, he does not mean they should imitate every single area of his life, for he had just stated he is not sinlessly perfect. But in the matter of relentlessly pursuing after Christ-likeness, he does call on his readers to follow his own example.

Join together in following my example, brothers and sisters, and just as you have us as a model, keep your eyes on those who live as we do. For, as I have often told you before and now tell you again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, 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.

How strange in a letter filled with joy to find Paul weeping! Is he weeping over himself and his difficult situation? No, he is a man with a single mind and his circumstances do not discourage him. Is he weeping because of what some of the Roman Christians are doing to him? No, he has the submissive mind and will not permit people to rob him of his joy. These tears are not for himself at all; they are shed because of others. Because Paul has the spiritual mind, he is heartbroken over the way some professed Christians are living, people who “mind earthly things.”

Certainly, Paul is writing about professed Christians and not people outside the church. The Judaizers were the “enemies of the cross of Christ.” They were adding the Law of Moses to the work of redemption Christ had completed on the cross. Their obedience to the Old Testament laws (Col. 2:20–23) and their emphasis on circumcision amounted to glorying in the flesh, and for this they should have been ashamed (Gal. 6:12–15). These men were not spiritually minded; they were earthly minded. They were holding on to earthly rituals and beliefs, and were opposing the heavenly blessings the Christian has in Christ (Eph. 1:3; 2:6; Col. 3:1–3).

The word “spiritual” has suffered as much abuse as the word “fellowship.” Too many people think a “spiritual Christian” is mystical, dreamy, impractical, and distant. When he prays, he shifts his voice into a sepulchral tone and goes to great lengths to inform God of the things He already knows. This kind of insincere piety is a poor example of true spirituality. To be spiritually minded does not require one to be impractical and mystical. Quite the contrary, the spiritual mind makes the believer think more clearly and get things done more efficiently.

To be “spiritually minded” simply means to look at earth from heaven’s point of view: “Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.” (Col. 3:2). D.L. Moody used to scold Christians for being “so heavenly minded they were no earthly good” and that exhortation still needs to be heeded. Christians have a dual citizenship—on earth and in heaven—and our citizenship in heaven ought to make us better people here on earth. The spiritually minded believer is not attracted by the “things” of this world. He makes his decisions on the basis of eternal values and not the passing fads of society. Lot chose the well-watered plain of Jordan because his values were worldly and ultimately he lost everything. Moses refused the pleasures and treasures of Egypt because he had something infinitely more wonderful to live for (Heb. 11:24–26). “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” (Mk. 8:36)

“Our citizenship is in heaven” (3:20). The Greek word translated “citizenship” is the word from which we get our English word “politics.” It has to do with one’s behavior as a citizen of a nation. Just as Philippi was a colony of Rome on foreign soil, so the church is a “colony of heaven” on earth. Paul is encouraging us to have the spiritual mind and he does this by pointing out five characteristics of the Christian whose citizenship is in heaven.

His Name is on Heaven’s Record

Citizenship is important. When you travel to another country, it is essential you have a passport that proves your citizenship. When a lost sinner trusts Christ and becomes a citizen of heaven, his name is written in “the Book of Life” (Phil. 4:3), and this is what determines his final entrance into the heavenly country (Rev. 20:15).

When you confess Christ on earth, He confesses your name in heaven (Matt. 10:32–33). You will enter glory on His merits and intercession alone. Your name is written down in heaven (Lk. 10:20) and it stands written forever.

He Speaks Heaven’s Language

Those who “mind earthly things” talk about earthly things. What comes out of the mouth reveals what is in the heart: “For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of. A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him” (Matt. 12:34–37). The citizens of heaven understand spiritual things and enjoy discussing them and sharing them with one another.

On the contrary, the unsaved person does not understand the things of God’s Spirit (1 Cor. 2:14–16), so how can he talk about them intelligently? “They are from the world and therefore speak from the viewpoint of the world, and the world listens to them. We are from God, and whoever knows God listens to us; but whoever is not from God does not listen to us. This is how we recognize the Spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood” (1 Jn. 4:5-6).

Speaking heaven’s language not only involves what we say, but the way we say it. The spiritually minded Christian does not go around quoting Bible verses all day! He is careful to speak in a manner that glorifies God: “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone” (Col. 4:6). No believer ought to ever say, “Now, take this with a grain of salt!” Put the salt into your speech! Salt prevents corruption. “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen” (Eph. 4:29).

He Obeys Heaven’s Laws

The citizens of Philippi were governed by Roman law, not Greek law, even though they were located hundreds of miles away from Rome. In fact, it was this policy that put Paul into jail when he first visited Philippi (Acts 16:16–24). Paul himself used his Roman citizenship to guarantee his protection under Roman law (Acts 16:35–40; 21:33–40; 22:24–30).

Paul warns the Philippian believers against imitating the wrong kind of citizens: “Join together in following my example” (3:17). Paul was a follower of Christ, so his admonition is not egotistical! (1 Cor. 11:1) Paul knew himself to be an “alien” in this world, a “pilgrim and a stranger” (1 Pet. 2:11). His life was governed by heaven’s laws and this is what made him different. He was concerned about others, not himself. He was interested in giving, not getting. His motive was love (2 Cor. 5:14), not hatred. By faith, Paul obeyed the Word of God, knowing one day he would be rewarded. Men would oppose him and persecute him now, but in that final day of reckoning, he would be the winner (Let’s Win the Race).

Sad to say, there are those today, like the Judaizers in Paul’s day, who profess to be citizens of heaven, but whose lives do not show it. They may be zealous in their religious activities and even rigorous in their disciplines, but there is no evidence of the control of the Holy Spirit in their lives. All they do is energized by the flesh and they get all the glory. It is bad enough they are going astray, but they also lead other people astray. No wonder Paul wept over them!

He Is Loyal to Heaven’s Cause

The Cross of Jesus Christ is the theme of the Bible, the heart of the Gospel, and the chief source of praise in heaven (Rev. 5:8–10). The Cross is the proof of God’s love for sinners (Rom. 5:8) and hatred for sin. The Cross condemns what the world values. It judges mankind and pronounces the true verdict: Guilty!

In what sense were the Judaizers the “enemies of the Cross of Christ” (3:18)? For one thing, the Cross ended the Old Testament religion. When the veil of the temple was torn in two, God was announcing the way to Him was open through Christ (Heb. 10:19–25). When Jesus shouted, “It is finished!” He made the atoning sacrifice for our sins and ended the whole sacrificial system (Heb. 10:1–14). By His death and resurrection, Jesus accomplished a “spiritual circumcision” that made ritual circumcision unnecessary (Col. 2:10–13). Everything the Judaizers advocated had been eliminated by the death of Christ on the cross!

Furthermore, everything they lived for was condemned by the Cross. Jesus had broken down the wall that stood between Jews and Gentiles (Eph. 2:14–16), but they were rebuilding that wall! They were obeying “carnal ordinances” (Heb. 9:10), regulations that appealed to the flesh and were not directed by the Spirit. They were minding “earthly things.” But the true believer crucifies the flesh (Gal. 5:24). He also crucifies the world (Gal. 6:14). It is the Cross that is central in the life of the believer. He does not glory in men, religion, or his own achievements; he glories in the Cross of Christ (Gal. 6:14).

Paul weeps because he knows the future of these men: “whose end is destruction” (3:19). The word destruction carries with it the idea of waste and lostness. (It is translated “waste” in Mk. 14:4.) Judas is called “the son of perdition [destruction]” (Jn. 17:12). In contrast, the true child of God, whose citizenship is in heaven, has a bright future.

He is Looking for Heaven’s Lord

The Judaizers were living in the past tense, trying to get the Philippian believers to go back to Moses and the Law; but true Christians live in the future tense, anticipating the return of their Savior. As the accountant in Philippians 3:1–11, Paul discovered new values (Learning How to Count). As the athlete in Philippians 3:12–16, he displayed new vigor (Let’s Win the Race). Now, as the alien in 3:17-21, he experiences a new vision: “We look for the Savior!” It is this anticipation of the coming of Christ that motivates the believer with the spiritual mind.

There is tremendous energy in the present power of a future hope. Because Abraham looked for a city, he was content to live in a tent (Heb. 11:13–16). Because Moses looked for the rewards of heaven, he was willing to forsake the treasures of earth (Heb. 11:24–26). Because of the “joy that was set before Him” (Heb. 12:2), Jesus was willing to endure the cross. The fact that Jesus Christ is returning is a powerful motive for dedicated living and devoted service today. “All who have this hope in Him purify themselves, just as He is pure” (1 Jn. 2:28–3:3).

The citizen of heaven, living on earth, is never discouraged because he knows his Lord is one day going to return. He faithfully keeps on doing his job lest his Lord returns and finds him disobedient (Lk. 12:40–48). The spiritually minded believer does not live for the things of this world; he anticipates the blessings of the world to come. This does not mean he ignores or neglects his daily obligations; but it does mean what he does today is governed by what Christ will do in the future.

Paul also mentions the believer will receive a glorified body, like the body of Christ. Today, we live in a “body of humiliation” (translated “vile” or “lowly” in 3:21); but when we see Christ, we will receive a body of glory. It will happen in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye! (1 Cor. 15:42–53) At that moment, all the things of this world will be worthless to us—just as they ought to be, relatively, today! If we are living in the future tense, then we will be exercising the spiritual mind and living for the things that really matter.

Isn’t that our problem today? We do not arrange “things” in their proper order. Our values are twisted. Consequently, our vigor is wasted on useless activities and our vision is clouded, so that the return of Christ is not a real motivating power in our lives. Living in the future tense means letting Christ arrange the “things” in life according to the proper rank. It means living “with eternity’s values in view,” and daring to believe God’s promise that “whoever does the will of God lives forever” (1 Jn. 2:17).

When Jesus returns, He will “transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like His glorious body” (3:21). All Christians will receive glorified bodies like His. No more will they have the limitations they now experience in their “lowly” bodies, which are humbled by disease and sin. Their resurrected bodies will be like Christ’s and their sanctification will be completed. What a marvelous day that will be for those who know Christ!


  1. Excellent word! I especially appreciate this, “the spiritual mind makes the believer think more clearly and get things done more efficiently”. Throughout scripture we are exhorted to “get” wisdom and knowledge. Knowledge is clear and certain perception of truth, wisdom is the right use of knowledge; both emanate from God. This truly enables us to perform all that God would have us do, clearly and efficiently.
    Have a blessed day brother.

  2. Our citizenship is a great description of our legal status of not only receiving heaven, but also to be heirs. What a promise connected to faith! What a joy to be connected to the Vine!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s