The Model to Follow
“Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself. Therefore, my brothers, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm thus in the Lord, my beloved.”
For a number of weeks now we’ve been looking at Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi and I want to begin this morning by reminding you that this was a real letter written by a man who was a real personal friend of those church members. When we receive a personal letter from a friend like that we are usually glad and take time to read what he has to say with care and attention.
When the post arrives at my house I’m usually working at my desk in the study upstairs. If I hear the noise of the letterbox I leave what I’m doing to check what has come in. Junk mail doesn’t appeal very much at all and if that’s all there is I’m disappointed. Recently I’ve been having issues with the Tax Office and I seem to have been receiving a never-ending stream of letters from the HMRC – I’m not excited by these either as these tend to put me on edge. But when I come across a “real” letter from a “real” friend a whole new set of emotions kicks in. Here is a letter that I don’t just have to read it is something I very much want to.
This is how the church in Philippi would have reacted to the arrival of Paul’s letter. Paul was their friend and they were his. When someone who loves us and cares for us writes to us we eagerly read what they have to say and Paul certainly cared for these Philippians as we can see from what he writes about them in the verses we’re looking at today.
A Loved People
Twice is a short space of time (3:17 and again in 4:1) Paul refers to the Philippians as brothers, or brothers and sisters. It is a word which Paul tended to use in his letters when he was moved by strong emotions. Now a little more than halfway through his letter he addressed the Philippians with this warm term of affection and he did so because he had something important to say to them, something about which he felt strongly. What he had to say would have great significance for these dear friends of his and so he did not write to them in a cold, dispassionate manner but as a man stirred by his strong emotions. He wanted his friends to understand just how much he was concerned about them and to underscore this he piled up a series of words that expressed just how highly he valued them. Just take a look at how he explained what these brothers and sisters meant to him:
4:1 “my brothers, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm thus in the Lord, my beloved.”
“whom I love...” It was love that moved Paul to write in such a way to his friends in Philippi and surely now the Philippians would pay close attention to a letter from one who loves them so deeply. This was no formal or impersonal letter from the Tax Office it was a loving letter from a genuinely concerned friend.
“whom I long for...”Paul’s feelings for the Philippians meant that he really did want the very best for them. He wasn’t writing to them out of a sense of duty and nothing more, rather he was doing all he possibly could to ensure their safety and their well-being. When a close friend expresses his deepest concerns for us we do well to pay serious attention to what he has to say.
“my joy and crown” as Paul thought about his friends his heart swelled within him, these folk weren’t unimportant to him they were his pride and joy: he knew them and his memories of them were so positive, he’d been involved in their lives and he was proud of them.
This was no soft-soap treatment aimed at manipulation it was quite simply an open declaration of sincere love and affection. Paul loved them and would be devastated to hear that they had taken a wrong turning in their spiritual lives so he wrote to prepare them for the trials and temptations that would come their way; he wanted to do all he could to prevent them taking that wrong turning. And so he pleads with them because they are precious to him:
“My beloved,” he says “stand firm in the Lord.”
Now you might be thinking, yes, it must have been lovely for those Philippians to have such a great relationship with the apostle and for them to occupy such a place in his heart. And maybe you can understand how they must have reacted with joy to receive such a letter. But you’re not in that situation, are you? And perhaps you feel that you’re a bit of an outsider looking in. How then can you be expected to react to such a personal letter that is addressed to others?
If indeed Paul’s letter was merely a letter from a first century man to a first century church in a first century context then why might well ask: “Why should we be moved?” But the letter to the church in Philippi is more, much more, than that, it is Scripture. Paul may have been the human author but the source and origin of this letter is none other than God himself. One of the Puritan’s, understanding this, went on to describe the Bible as God’s love letters to his people. If Paul could write so warmly to the Philippians expressing his genuine concern for them then be assured that the Divine Author can and does speak out of a deeper love and greater concern for you!
Let us therefore pay close attention to what such love has to say to us today.
At the beginning of ch.3 Paul dealt with some doctrinal issues. Having met with Christ and having discovered that a person is declared to right with God by faith in Christ, Paul rejected any notion that relying upon human effort had value in God’s sight. Paul’s doctrine changed. Before meeting with Christ he had emphasised works of the law but now as a Christian he had put all his eggs in the basket of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone in Christ alone.
I sincerely hope that you too have followed him in taking this vital step.
Such a step is vital but it is by no means the final step a Christian is to take. You see salvation is not merely a matter of what we think, it has an effect on what he does as well. When a person experiences salvation he is led to making changes in his behaviour – the salvation God gives us in Christ is such that it cannot fail to do so. And so Paul wrote about the change that had occurred in his own life when he as an individual had met with Christ. He then moved on to urge the Philippians as a congregation to follow his example.
Here is how he proceeded:
1. He began with issuing a call
2. He warned of alternatives
3. He added some words about the nature of the Christian’s true belonging
Let us see what he had to say.
The Call to Imitate is Issued
In this section Paul is not explaining how someone is to become a Christian but he is answering the question: How am I to live out the Christian life? And in answering that question Paul knew that his own experience was far from being irrelevant to other believers. Indeed he knew that he was meant to be a model believer and so he urged the Philippians to imitate the way in which he lived out his Christian life.
3:17 “Brothers, join in imitating me,”
Now such a call might perhaps at first sight strike us as being a bit odd if not somewhat arrogant even. Shouldn’t Paul speak rather about imitating Christ whose example he had already described so wonderfully well in ch.2? After all, Paul wasn’t a perfect Christian now, was he? He has just made that very clear in the immediately preceding verses. So what are we to make of this call to imitate himself?
Well we’re not going to stop with a cursory glance at Paul’s call but we’re going to think a little more about what he really did say and mean.
And the first thing to notice is that Paul in issuing his call was acting as a “brother” that is, he was not setting himself up as some kind of higher being looking down on the Philippians believers in a patronising manner. Paul was a brother, a fellow-traveller, and he was not an isolated individual either for there were others who were already walking the same path of discipleship with him and walking it in the same way as he did. You’ll notice too that Paul was careful not to suggest that he and he alone was a good example to follow, for these others who were driven by the same principles as he was were also to be watched and imitated:
Phil.3:17 “keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.”
The kind of person he had in mind would surely have included both Timothy and Epaphroditus about whom he had also just written.
Paul was sure that he could call upon others to imitate his example when it came to living out the Christian life not because he was obsessed with his own importance – though there are plenty of folk like that around – but because the same principles that determined his life ought to dominate and determine the life of every believer. Listen to what he wrote to the church in Corinth:
1Cor.11:1 “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.”
When we reflect upon what Paul had already written to the Philippians we get a good insight into just what it meant to Paul to be an imitator of Christ. Paul, the Christian, was a man:
· Who rejoiced
· Who prayed
· Who served
· Who offered spiritual worship
· Who was Christ-centred
· Who didn’t rely on his own efforts
· And here we can add he loved and felt things deeply
In brief Paul the imitator of Christ declared that “for me to live is Christ and to die is gain” Phil.1:21.
Imitate me in living like this, Paul writes, and where you see others motivated by similar desires imitate them too!
And how helpful it is to observe how others live out their Christian lives in the midst of a hostile world, confronted by temptations to turn aside in this way or that from the strait and narrow path that alone leads to life.
A Warning Concerning Alternative Models
Paul was aware that his model was not the only one to which the Christians in Philippi would be exposed and he wanted to his friends to realise that it really did matter which model they chose to imitate.
Paul did not give his warning lightly. He was profoundly moved as he wrote. How he would have preferred not to have found it necessary to issue it all! But the truth of the matter was that there were people out there who were setting out another and very different example which might tempt the Philippians and Paul knew that this model would prove to be disastrous for the Philippians if they adopted it. This is what he says of them:
v.18 “For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ.”
Paul doesn’t give us precise details about these people but it seems as though there were some, indeed Paul writes that there were many, who while making a profession of faith were denying that very faith by the way they lived out their lives. These were folk who liked to consider themselves favourable to the cause of Christ but whose lifestyle made them “enemies of the cross of Christ.” Paul had had to warn the Philippians again and again about these people and it gave him no joy to do so – indeed it made him weep and he didn’t react that way when it came to speaking about those who made no profession of faith at all. These were people could probably ‘talk the talk’ but they weren’t prepared for whatever reason to ‘walk the walk’.
These folk posed a danger and Paul knew it was important that the Philippians be alerted to it.
There are plenty of folk like this around today – they may be nice people, they may in the world’s eyes be successful people but they are dangerous. Some will maintain that behaviour doesn’t matter, and others will justify their sinful behaviour by deviant theological argument but one way or the other these people live as “enemies of the cross of Christ”. And they pose us a danger to which we too need to be alerted. It may well be tempting to follow their example but we need to know that we will do so at our peril.
But what is the danger and what makes their behaviour so unhelpful?
v.19 “Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.”
Those who “walk as enemies of the cross of Christ” don’t necessarily speak out against it but they do live their lives in a way that denies the gospel reality of it all. Does our behaviour matter? Yes, it most certainly does as Paul’s teaching makes clear. It was the behaviour of these people that was leading them directly to destruction and make no mistake when Paul mentions destruction he couldn’t be more serious. A brief look at the way in which some other translations render the word used in this verse will confirm just how serious this is:
“perdition”, “damnation”, “lost forever”, “eternal loss”, “headed for hell”
The end of these folk is very serious indeed so make sure you don’t follow the example that they have set, an example which is so very different from that of the apostle. Paul leaves us in no doubt about what the driving forces are in the lives of these people:
a) “Their god is their belly” – that is, these people are self-serving. Paul wasn’t limiting his thoughts to matters of food either. In his letter to the Romans he expanded a little on this type of person when he wrote about those who divided the church and caused controversy:
Rom.16:18 “such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naive.”
We live in a world that encourages us to satisfy ourselves and to look after N°1. We encouraged to believe that if we don’t then no-one else will and isn’t it so easy to go along with this sort of thinking? “Just do it” the publicity tells us “you’re worth it”. And millions do. They live lives dominated by the desires of the eyes and the lust of the flesh. In their thinking that’s all there is – how tragic!
b) “They glory in their shame” – these are people who have got their value system entirely inverted, that is they’re proud of the very things that ought to promote the most shame in their lives. Instead of regretting their sinful failure they delight in it and boast about it – how liberated they think they are, how free but in reality they are shackled by their sinful nature. They might try to repackage their sin and re-label it but at the end of the day it remains sin however much others might approve of their efforts.
c) “with minds set on earthly things” Oh yes, they might be able to say the right thing but their behaviour loudly proclaims that they are merely mouthing platitudes because their lives are dominated by worldly passions and their horizons are strictly limited by the earthiness of their hopes and desires. Do you remember what Jesus had to say about this?
Lu 12:34 “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”
Of course there are plenty of folk in the world who live like this but it is much more tragic when those who profess faith do so too. Don’t be misled by their fine words – those who live like this are behaving as “enemies of the cross of Christ” regardless of what they might try to say to the contrary. You don’t want to find yourself lining up in opposition to the Saviour do you? Don’t be taken in, your behaviour really does matter and you can’t safely follow the example of people like these – you can’t because their end is destruction and you surely don’t want to follow them there!
So Paul warns the Philippians don’t imitate such people – their lifestyle is both dangerous and utterly unworthy of the Christian!
Where the Christian Belongs
Paul has urged the Philippian Christians to imitate his godly example and to avoid the ungodly example of those who “walk as enemies of the cross of Christ”. He has already indicated that this lifestyle choice is important clearly indicating that two alternatives are by no means mild variants of the same thing but are indeed fundamentally opposed to each other.
But there is another reason why the Christian should seek to imitate Paul’s godly example and that is because of his very nature as a Christian.
vv.20-21 “our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.”
Do you see how Paul invites the Philippians to reflect and to think seriously about these important matters? He doesn’t resort to emotionalism or to threats of violence, he doesn’t issue unsubstantiated orders but makes his appeal to the mind applying God’s truth to it. It is when the Philippians begin to think properly that they will be able to act properly too.
“our citizenship is in heaven” and because this is the case the Christian should be living his life now in accordance with his citizenship. The concept would be readily understood by the Philippians for their were a living example of the principle involved. The Philippians lived in a city that was hundreds of miles away from Rome, but do you remember?, Philippi had a special status – its citizens were Roman citizens and they were treated exactly as though they were Romans living in Rome. If they failed to live up to that privilege their behaviour, which was intimately associated with Rome, reflected poorly upon that city.
And you understand this too. You know how Britain’s reputation has been sullied by football hooligans going on the rampage in a foreign city. You know too how Britain’s image continues to be marred when foreign tourist destinations are made the destination of drunken and obscene hen-parties and stag dos of our fellow citizens.
For the Christian to ape the behaviour of the enemies of the cross of Christ is to dishonour God, his habitation and his gospel. We are citizens of heaven and our behaviour should demonstrate just where it is that we belong and to whom.
Nor is this all. The Christian not only is a citizen of heaven but there in heaven he has a Saviour! And this Saviour is coming back. Paul wrote that the Christian eagerly awaits the return of the One who once died for his sin. This same Saviour has already begun the work of transforming the believer’s life and when he returns he will complete that work. Why? So that he can take his followers home with him to glory. For the moment the believer may well have to live a low key life in a lowly body but all the while that eager anticipation with which he awaits the return of his Saviour bubbles over and affects the way he lives his life right now.
This life is transitory and it will soon be over but the Christian knows that he is being prepared for life in another domain altogether. Destruction, perdition and hell do not lie ahead for the Christian. Glory is his destination and he will be fully fitted out with a fully transformed body that is adapted for life there for he will be given a body that is like that of the glorious body Jesus himself has.
Well it is time to draw to a close. I hope that understand a bit better why Paul was so keen for the Philippians to imitate his example. He was following Christ and turning away from those things that were seeking to destroy his life if only they could and he wanted them to do the same. So he called upon them to imitate his example and to stand firm in the Lord.
Will you do that too? Will you hear that call to imitate the lives of other godly believers as they imitate Christ? Will you remember that the way you live your life really does make a difference? No of course we can’t save ourselves by modifying our behaviour or tinkering with our lifestyle choices – for we are saved by faith alone. But we must also remember that the faith that saves never comes to us alone. You see saving faith is alive – and such faith produces fruit for “faith without works is dead”.
May God grant us eyes to behold the truth, a heart to embrace it and a will to be transformed by it.
And to God alone be the glory.