Whatever Happens, Think Forward

Philippians 3:17 – 4:1


Last year a group of men wanted to hike a rugged portion of the Buffalo National River that winds through the Ozarks. I’ve never been there, but I’ve seen pictures and videos. It’s a dramatic area controlled by the National Park Service. There are no dams on the river, and at places it is very treacherous. The bluffs on either side are breathtaking. One of the men fell to his death. The Park Service said the reason was the group hired a guide who didn’t have a license or insurance, nor did he have a very good track record. He took their money, but he led them into an area that exceeded their level of preparation, and one man died because he followed the wrong guide.

How easily that happens in life. 

In the passage we’re coming to today he tells us we are more likely to stand firm when we follow the right examples and maintain the right expectations for the future. Let’s read this passage, from Philippians 3:17 to 4:1:

17 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. 18 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. 19 Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set 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. Therefore, my brothers and sisters, you whom I love and long for, stand firm in the Lord in this way, dear friends.

This is an easy paragraph to dissect. The apostle Paul is wrapping up the core message of his letter, and he circles back to this main theme—to stand firm. He says something about that in verse 17; something else in verses 18 and 19; and something else in verses 20-21.

1. You Will Only Find a Few People After Whom You Can Pattern Your Life (verse 17)

First, in verse 17, he tells us we will find only a few people in this world after whom we should pattern our lives. 

17 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. 

I want to suggest that the entire letter to the Philippians hinges around this thought. Let me show you my hypothesis. When you begin reading the book of Philippians, you see that the first 26 verses are an extended introduction in which Paul tells us what he is doing and how he is doing. The actual formal content in the letter begins in verse 27: “Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the Gospel of Christ. Then, whether I come to see you or only hear about you in my absence, I will know that you stand firm…”

Notice this theme: Whatever happens, I want you to stand firm! Then in chapter 2, he gives us Jesus as an example and tells us to have the mind of Christ. He also holds up Timothy and Epaphroditus as examples for us. Then in chapter 3, he offers himself as an example and says to model ourselves after him. And then in chapter 4:1, he finishes the formal content of his letter by saying: “Therefore, my brothers and sisters, this is how you stand firm in the Lord.”

Notice again the sequence of the letter: Stand firm—like Jesus, like Timothy, like Epaphroditus, like me—Stand firm!

Today the forces coming against the followers of Christ are relentless. The Lord wants us to stand firm for the truth, and to stand firm against:

  • Our own fallen natures with their tendencies to sin and bitterness and division.
  • The culture, the sexual immorality, the pornography, the vile nature of our society.
  • The efforts of our enemies to intimidate us or silence us or persuade us to compromise our biblical worldview.
  • The theological errors of the false teachers and the erosion of doctrine in our churches.
  • The attitudes of fear and hopelessness that can plunder our joy.

So it’s important for us to find some men and women who are standing firm, who are holding to the apostolic faith, who are victorious, who are joyful, who are biblical, and who have developed the habits and attitudes of true Christianity. We need their example.

17 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. 

Do you have someone in your life who provides you a pattern, who is a good example? There aren’t very many people on earth like that. I’m thankful the Lord gave me a number of great mentors, from my parents to my pastors to my professors and others. But I sometimes had to seek them out, and I had to have a teachable spirit. And I’m not beyond needing people like that now. Sometimes I find them through their writings. I never met Elisabeth Elliott, but I almost always have an Elisabeth Elliott book near at hand and often when I feel wobbly, a page or two of Elisabeth can set me right.

2. You’ll Find a Large Number of People Who Will Mess Up Your Life (verses 18-19)

The next thing Paul tells us is this: While we’ll only find a few people living apostolically and biblically enough to follow, we’ll find a large number of people who will mess up our lives very quickly, and we must avoid being influenced by them in any way. Look at the next two verses:

18 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. 19 Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things. 

Paul describes these people in five ways:

  1. They are enemies of the cross of Christ. They are hostile to the message of Scripture and to the cause of Christ.
  2. Their destiny is destruction. They are hell-bound. This is in direct contrast to what Paul just said about himself earlier in chapter 3, that he is straining forward toward the upward, heavenward call of God in Christ Jesus.
  3. Their god is their stomach. They are controlled by their appetites and desires.
  4. Their glory is in their shame. They are proud of what they should be ashamed of.
  5. They set their minds on earthly things. They don’t study the Bible or ponder the truth of the Lord and the things of God. They don’t think about Heaven. They are absorbed with this fleeting earth.

We aren’t exactly sure who Paul is talking about here, but look back again at the earlier passage in Philippians 1, beginning with verse 28. He tells them to stand firm, “without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you. This is a sign to them that they will be destroyed, but that you will be saved.”

I don’t need to belabor this because this is the world that surrounds us every day. They are the people that populate our culture.

3. You Will Only Find One Man Who Will Transform You Eternally (Verses 20-21)

But now Paul comes to the climax of his argument. If we’re going to stand firm in our faith there are a few people whom we should emulate; there are many people we should not emulate; but there is only one Man to whom we should give our lives and who can and will transform us forever. Look at verses 20 and 21:

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.

This is acknowledged by theologians and Bible students everywhere to be one of the greatest eschatological passages in all the Bible.

But Our Citizenship is in Heaven

Philippi was a Roman city, and the members of that city were citizens of Rome. The Roman Emperor had many titles, among them were:

  • Kurios (Lord)
  • Soter (Savior)

Gordon Fee wrote, “By the time of our letter, the primary titles for the emperor were Kurios and Soter (lord and savior)…. In a city like Philippi this would have meant that every public event…would have taken place in the context of giving honor to the emperor, with the acknowledgment that (in this case) Nero was “’lord and savior.’”

In verse 20, Paul is telling us that we are citizens of another kingdom with one who is truly Kurios and Soter. Notice the present tense. Paul didn’t say, “But our citizenship will be in heaven.” We are currently citizens of heaven living as expatriates here on earth. I remember hearing Vance Havner say, “We are not citizens of earth going to heaven; we are citizens of heaven traveling through earth.”

When I travel overseas, I may be in France or England or Ghana or Japan, but my thoughts are back home. I’m glad to be of service in those countries for a little while, and I enjoy seeing the sights. But I try to keep up with the news back home, and I miss my family back home, and I don’t feel truly at home in the various cultures that I visit. The stress and strain of travel gets to me, and sometimes I suffer a bit of culture shock. But I’m always missing home. I’ve never been as homesick as I’ve been on a few occasions overseas.

While making our way through this earth, we shouldn’t really feel at home here. We want to be of service and see the sights, but we’re homesick for heaven. 

The book of Hebrews says we are “foreigners and strangers on earth” (Hebrews 11:13).

First Peter 1:17 tell us to “live out your time as foreigners here in reverent fear.”

If you want me to prove I’m an American citizen, I’ll pull out my passport. But if you want me to prove I’m a citizen of Heaven, I’ll pull out my Bible and turn to Philippians 3:20. Our citizenship is based in heaven; it is recorded in heaven; and we are under the jurisdiction and under the constitutional protection of heaven. The very King of Heaven is our Father!

And We Eagerly Await a Savior From There, the Lord Jesus Christ

As I’ve studied through the four chapters that make up the letter to the Philippians, I’ve found twelve different references to the return of Christ and our eternal home. For example, he said in chapter 1 that for him, to live is Christ and to die is gain. He desired to depart and be with Christ, which is far better. In chapter 2, he talked about the day when every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Christ is Lord. In chapter 3, he talked about the upward call of God in Christ; and in chapter 4 he said, “The Lord is near,” and may people interpret that to mean, “The Lord’s coming is near.”

As you study his thirteen epistles, you discover that Paul could hardly write a chapter without talking about the return of Christ and our eternal home. After all, he had once been caught up to the third heaven and seen just a little bit of what awaits us there. He said he was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things that he was not permitted to tell (2 Corinthians 12:1-4). 

So he used a phrase here in Philippians 3:20, saying we are eagerly awaiting the return of the Savior.  That phrase is the true biblical definition of hope. Hope is eagerly awaiting a future reality. 

  • Paul used this phrase twice in Romans 8.
  • In 1 Corinthians 1:7, he talked about eagerly waiting for Christ to be revealed.
  • He said the same thing in Galatians 5:5.

Every sunrise reminded him of the coming of the Son of Man in the clouds of glory, and every sunset reminded him that he was one day closer to that event. Every time he looked up to the sky he thought of heaven beyond. Every time he looked down at the ground, he thought of how very temporary was his stay here. Every goodbye reminded him of the coming reunion where there would be no more sad partings, and every pain reminded him of the day when pain would be no more. Every brush with death gave him a thrill of being nearer to heaven, and every act of service reminded him that his labor on earth was nearly over. 

Herbert Lockyer wrote that the very word “rapture” has come to describe an ecstatic experience of great joy. We say that something is rapturous. “It is widely accepted as being expressive of the unspeakable joy of being caught up to meet our returning Lord, and the rapturous rejoicing of the saints as they see their Savior in all his beauty and glory.”

What is wrong with us that we do not think constantly of our heavenly home, so eager we can hardly wait!

Who, by the Power that Enables Him to Bring Everything Under His Control…

The next phrase says, “…who, by the power that enables Him to being everything under His control.” This harkens back to Philippians 2:

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
    and gave him the name that is above every name,
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.

…Will Transform Our Lowly Bodies So They Will Be Like His Glorious Body

Now we’re coming to one of the most glorious verses in the Bible regarding our future. Here the apostle Paul states under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit that the physical frames of human beings who are redeemed by the blood of Christ will be resurrected, and our resurrected bodies will be transformed and glorified to follow the observable pattern of the resurrected and glorified body of Jesus Christ.

I’ve studied this in the Scripture and I’ve not been able to exhaustively understand it, but let me give you three facts I do understand and want to confirm.

1. Our Resurrection Bodies Will Be Recognizable 

The resurrection body will be our actual bodies—the ones we have currently here on earth—and not a new creation. We will be identifiable in our new bodies. We will recognize each other.

Matthew 24:8-9 says that on the first Easter after the women heard the message of the angel at the tomb about the resurrection: “…the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell His disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them. ‘Greetings,’ He said. They came to Him, clasped His feet, and worshiped Him.”

Jesus was alive in the same physical body that had been crucified. They recognized Him, and He spoke to them with His mouth and with His voice—the same voice they had known and loved. And they fell at His feet and wrapped their arms around His ankles. 

Now look at Luke 24:13-16: “Now that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem. They were talking with each other about everything that had happened. As they talked and discussed these things, Jesus Himself came up and walked along with them, but they were kept from recognizing Him.”

Notice that. Jesus showed up from somewhere and started walking with them. He was recognizable, but God did something to their eyes or brains that prevented them from recognizing Him.

Verse 30 says: “When He was at the table with them, He took bread, gave thanks, and broke it and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized Him, and He disappeared from their sight.”

We will recognize each other. We’ll have the same recognizable bodies we have on earth. As we’ll see, they will be new and improved, but the resurrection is not a matter of re-creation but of renovation. 

2. Our Resurrection Bodies Will Be Functional

They will function very much like our current bodies. We’ve already seen that the resurrection body of Jesus can walk seven miles in step with two of His disciples. Now, look down at verse 36 and following of Luke 24: “While they were still talking about this, Jesus Himself stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’ They were startled and frightened, thinking they had seen a ghost. He said to them, ‘Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? Look at My hands and feet. It is I Myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.’

When He had said this, He showed them His hands and feet. And while they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement, He asked them, ‘Do you have anything here to eat?” They gave Him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate it in their presence.” 

So we’ll be able to eat. We’ll have an appetite. Does that mean we’ll get hungry, that we’ll suffer hunger pangs like we do on earth? I don’t know. But I think I’m safe in saying that when we get to Heaven, we’re going to enjoy eating and drinking just like we do on earth. And there’s absolutely no reason I can think of that we should not also be involved in food preparation if we want to be. I happen to enjoy cooking, but in Heaven I’ll know I’ll not be able to make anyone sick or give them food poisoning when they come over to my place for lunch.

I’m not making light of it. If you have been redeemed by the blood of Jesus Christ, your body will be resurrected, and your resurrection body will be identifiable and it will function very much like your body does now, only without all the stress and strain.

Now, Jesus was able to do some remarkable things with His body. He could appear and disappear; He could pass through stone barriers and wooden doorways. He could apparently travel by telepathy. Will we be able to do those things, or is that something unique to His Divinity? I don’t know. I can’t speculate. But I can tell you something else about our resurrection. Not only will they be recognizable and functional, but they will also be imperishable.

3. Our Resurrection Bodies Will Be Imperishable

The most extensive passage on this subject is 1 Corinthians 15. In a way, Philippians 3:21 is a one-verse summary of the entire fifteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians. The first part of the chapter talks about the resurrection of Christ, and then Paul progresses to talk about the subsequent resurrection of Christ’s followers. Look at verses 35 and following:

35 But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?” 36 How foolish! 

Paul wasn’t saying that the question itself was foolish. He was referring to scoffers who were asking the question in derision. In this entire chapter, he is addressing those who didn’t believe in the resurrection. But now he goes to nature to make a parallel.

What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. 37 When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else. 38 But God gives it a body as he has determined, and to each kind of seed he gives its own body.

In other words, our resurrection bodies will be of the same nature as our physical bodies now. They will be of the same essence and identity. But they will be as distinct in quality as a stalk of corn is to a kernel of corn. When you plant an acorn in the ground, you’ll get an oak tree. But the oak tree is much more glorious than the acorn.

Our resurrection bodies are going to be more glorious than our current bodies as an oak tree is to an acorn. They are going to be of an eternal, imperishable quality.

Now let’s go on to verse 39:

 39 Not all flesh is the same: People have one kind of flesh, animals have another, birds another and fish another. 40 There are also heavenly bodies and there are earthly bodies; but the splendor of the heavenly bodies is one kind, and the splendor of the earthly bodies is another. 41 The sun has one kind of splendor, the moon another and the stars another; and star differs from star in splendor.

42 So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. 

In other words, God make different things. He makes human beings. He makes animals. He makes birds. He makes planets. He makes stars. It’s nothing for Him to make a glorified, resurrected, eternal human being. Our new bodies will be very different in terms of splendor. God can create splendor. Our bodies now are fearfully and wonderfully made, but they lack the splendor of an eternal nature. But that will change with the resurrection.

Verse 42 goes on:

The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; 

That is a very important sentence. Our bodies are now in the perishable sphere. When our bodies are resurrected, they will never again be capable of deterioration, and that means no sickness, no weakness, no exhaustion, no disease, no aging, no dying.  

43 it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; 44 it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.

The term “spiritual body” means a body that can function in the spiritual realm of Heaven. It is a body animated by the Holy Spirit, a body just at home in the Heavenly realm as it ever was in the earthly. Notice the word “body.” The resurrection body is still a human body, but now it has a spiritual dimension it never had before. In our resurrected bodies, we’ll be able to experience more love, more joy, more euphoria, more of all the spiritual qualities that are characteristic of Heaven.

In other words, we will be more like Jesus Christ than we can imagine. Look at verses 45 and following:

 45 So it is written: “The first man Adam became a living being”, the last Adam [Christ], a life-giving spirit. 46 The spiritual did not come first, but the natural, and after that the spiritual. 47 The first man was of the dust of the earth; the second man is of heaven. 48 As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth; and as is the heavenly man, so also are those who are of heaven. 49 And just as we have borne the image of the earthly man, so shall we[g] bear the image of the heavenly man.

50 I declare to you, brothers and sisters, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. 51 Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed— 52 in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. 53 For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. 54 When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” 

Conclusion (4:1)

And that’s why Paul says in Philippians 4:1: Therefore, my brothers and sisters, you whom I love and long for, stand firm in the Lord in this way, dear friends.

There are a few people who are worth emulating today; there are many who will mess up our lives if we let them; but there is only one Person who has the power to bring all things under His authority and we are citizens of His kingdom—and we are eagerly awaiting His glorious return, when He will rapture the living, raise the dead in Christ, and transform our lowly bodies so they will be like His glorious body.

So whatever happens today or tomorrow, don’t worry. Follow the right Guide. Follow the one who invited us to come, deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Him.