Philippians 3:17-19 - A Matter of Modeling

A Pattern to Follow
As people who have become children of God through faith in His Son, we have been called to live in such a way that our lives cannot be explained in ordinary terms. By living in dependence upon His enabling grace, the quality of our character and conduct should be such that Christ is seen in us with greater clarity as the years go by.

But no matter how Christlike a person becomes, it would seem rash indeed for him to tell others to model their lives after his own. Yet this is precisely what the apostle Paul does when he writes in Philippians 3:17, "Brethren, join in following my example, and observe those who walk according to the pattern you have in us." A similar statement in 1 Corinthians 11:1 clarifies Paul's intent and shows that this is not an exercise in egotism: "Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ." The apostle was telling his readers to imitate him to the extent that he was following Christ.

Spiritual truth becomes more real and evident when it is personally fleshed out in the character and conduct of someone we know. Just as in Jesus, "the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us" (John 1:14), so we also become incarnations of the Word to the degree that we allow Christ to live His life in and through us. All of us need models whose lives encourage and challenge us to become more than we otherwise might have been.

As we saw in Philippians 2, Paul, Timothy, and Epaphroditus were living models of what it means to look beyond personal interests to the interests of others. These men went beyond the "Do what I say, not what I do" mentality, because their walk was consistent with their words. In Philippians 3, the pattern Paul was encouraging his readers to imitate involved (1) his turning away from fleshly efforts to achieve righteousness before God, (2) his recognition that a state of sinless perfection cannot be attained in this life, and (3) his commitment to renounce complacency and to press on in the process of obedience.

A Pattern to Avoid
In verses 18-19, the apostle turns from a pattern the Philippians should follow to a pattern they must avoid. "For many walk, of whom I often told you, and now tell you even weeping, that they are enemies of the cross of Christ, whose end is destruction, whose god is their appetite, and whose glory is in their shame, who set their minds on earthly things."

The identity of these people must have been clear to Paul's readers in Philippi, but it is uncertain to readers today. Commentators have debated this point, some arguing that they were pagans, others that they were Judaizers, and still others that they were Gentile libertines. The problem is that in different ways, these verses could describe all three groups. But since the context concerns problems within the church, it is more likely that Paul is either referring back to the legalists (see 3:2-3) or to libertines who were abusing the grace of God.

Paul was deeply concerned about these people and about the influence they could exert on the church at Philippi. In his teaching and writing, he often warned about the two extremes of legalism and libertinism. Here he uses five descriptive phrases:

1. "enemies of the cross of Christ"--Both those who promoted the law and those who promoted freedom from moral restraint were opposing the cross. The former were saying that the work of Christ was insufficient, while the latter denied its life-changing power.

2. "whose end is destruction"--Legalists distort the gospel of grace by adding human effort to the work of Christ as a condition for salvation; libertines distort the gospel by rejecting the purpose for which Christ died.

3. "whose god is their appetite"--In the case of Judaizers, this could refer to their obsession with dietary laws; the opposite extreme is the unbridled pursuit of physical gratification.

4. "whose glory is in their shame"--This could speak of legalists who boast in the circumcision of the flesh rather than the heart, or it could be a description of those who are proud of their excesses (e.g., drunkenness and promiscuity).

5. "who set their minds on earthly things"--This characterizes those who put the traditions of men above the word of God as well as those who put their heart and hope in the things of the world.

The adversary tempts us to the extremes: the fetters of self-mortification in the name of religion and of self-indulgence in the name of freedom please him equally. The only path to true liberty is along the road that leads to the cross of Christ.


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