For our conversation [or, citizenship] is in heaven; from whence also we look for the [or, a] Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ: who shall change our vile body [or, this body of our humiliation], that it may be fashioned like unto his glorious body [or, the body of his glory], according to the working whereby he is able even to subdue all things unto himself, (vv. 20-21)
The Greek word politeuma here rendered “conversation” means, as is now well-known, commonwealth, citizenship, or it might almost be transliterated “politics,” for it involves all three thoughts. The apprehension of its scope, as here used by the apostle, should help the Christian to understand his true relationship and position regarding the affairs of this life and of the earth.
Philippi was, when Paul wrote, a Roman colony. That is, as a mark of special favor, Roman citizenship had been granted to all the free-born citizens of the former Macedonian capital. This was considered a great privilege. It enabled each Philippian, though dwelling in Macedonia, to say proudly, “My citizenship is in Rome.” His responsibilities were directly to the Imperial Power. He had to do with the Emperor, not with the provincial government of Macedonia. Now, apply this to the Christian. Saved by matchless grace, though still living in the world, his commonwealth—the government to which he primarily owes allegiance—is in heaven. He is directly subject to the Lord Jesus Christ, and his conduct is to be regulated by His Word. The realization of this, while keeping him free from entangling alliances with the affairs of this world, will not, of course, tend to lawlessness or insubjection to world rulers. A Philippian, subject to imperial authority, would not be a lawbreaker in Macedonia, inasmuch as the same authority to which he owed allegiance had instituted the government of the country in which Philippi was the chief city. And so the apostle tells us elsewhere, “The powers that be are ordained of God,” and he commands Christians to be subject in all things to magistrates, as recognizing the divine authority by which they rule.
But one will search in vain the distinctly Christian part of the Bible—namely, the New Testament Epistles—for any hint that Christians were to seek worldly power or dominion during this present age. Their place is that of subjection, not rule, until Christ Himself returns to reign.
The Emperor, to whom the Philippians owed allegiance, dwelt in Rome. Should he appear in Philippi, he would recognize with special honor those whose citizenship was directly linked with the capital of the empire. Our Lord is in heaven, and from there we look to see Him soon descend when He shall openly confess all those whose citizenship is in heaven—confess them before an astonished and affrighted world (see 2 Thess. 1:3-12).
It is now known, as a result of recent archaeological discoveries, that the term kurios (the general word for “Lord” in the New Testament) was an imperial title. More than that, this imperial title was never used in reference to the emperors until, through a public ceremony, they were deified, according to pagan conceptions; therefore it was used as a divine title. At the very time that Paul wrote this letter, it was common to address the brutal man who occupied the imperial throne as “our Lord Nero,” using the distinctive term just referred to. How marked the contrast when the Christians, often writhing beneath the bitter persecutions of this unspeakably wicked tyrant, looked expectantly toward the heavens for the return of “our Lord Jesus Christ.”
At His coming, the first resurrection will take place. The sleeping saints will be raised and living saints will be changed. For “this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality” (1 Cor. 15:53), and our natural bodies will be changed to spiritual bodies. It should be remembered that when our Bible was translated in the seventeenth century, the word vile did not necessarily have the thought of evil connected with it. That was vile which was lowly or common: so here “our vile body” is really “the body of our humiliation”—the body which links us with the lower creation, a body common to both saint and sinner. At the Lord’s return it will be transformed and made like unto the body of His glory. In that resurrection body He came forth from the tomb, was manifested to His disciples, ascended into heaven, appeared to Saul of Tarsus, and in it He shall soon return with glory. The natural body is really a soulish body, or soulual, if we may coin the word, and a spiritual body is a body suited to the spirit. It is not that one is material and the other immaterial. For both are material, though the one is of finer substance than “this mortal body” and no longer subject to certain laws by which the natural body is now controlled. In bodies of glory, then, we shall dwell forever in the city to which we even now belong. It is our own, our native country, as children of God, and we shall never really be at home until we are there with our glorified Lord Himself.
The same divine energy that wrought in Him to raise Him from the dead shall still work through Him until He subdues all things to Himself. Then as we learn from 1 Corinthians 15:24-28, He will deliver the kingdom to the Father, that God, in all His fullness—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—may be all in all forever and fully manifested in Christ Jesus, who remains eternally our Lord and our Head.
Christ, the Believer’s Strength, and the Confident Mind