By Christopher VanDusen

If we’re paying attention to some of the people around us, or just to the news, we see many people who oppose the good news of Jesus Christ by the way they live. They live to please themselves, they’re proud of it, and they mostly think about their life in this physical world. If you’re a Christian, how do you avoid falling into the temptation of imitating these people, when they’re everywhere, and some of them even claim to be Christians? The apostle Paul answers this question in Philippians 3:17-4:1.

In the letter to the Philippians, Paul is writing to a church that he had planted, and had been supporting his missionary work ever since then. When he wrote it, he was under house arrest in Rome, waiting to defend himself before the Roman Emperor against false accusations from some of his Jewish enemies that he had disrupted the peace of Jewish society. While waiting, the Philippian church sent a man named Epaphroditus to him with money for his financial needs, and news of how they were doing. In response, Paul sent Epaphroditus back to them with this letter, in which he expressed his thanks for them, and instructed them on how to think, live, and deal with some of their problems.

In the first chapter of the letter, Paul explains how he prays for them; how his house arrest has spread the gospel throughout Rome; and how they are to deal with persecution. In the second chapter, he explains how they are to love one another; be united; show their unbelieving neighbors who Christ is; how he plans to send them a representative; and why he decided to send Epaphroditus back. In chapter 3, he instructs them to rejoice; to guard against legalism; and to pursue Christlikeness. It’s immediately after he urges them to strive to be like Christ, and to be as much like Him as possible, that he instructs them to imitate him, and to avoid imitating enemies of the gospel in Philippians 3:17-4:1:

17 Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. 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. 19 Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. 20 But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 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.” (ESV)

In this passage, Paul encourages the Philippians to do four main things:

  1. Follow His Example and Patterns (v. 17)
  2. Flee Pleasure-Seeking Enemies of the Cross (vss. 18-19)
  3. Fix Their Sights on Their Emperor’s Appearing (vss. 20-21)
  4. Firmly Stand by Executing His Prescriptions (v. 4:1)

Follow Paul’s Example and Patterns

First, Paul commands the Philippians to follow his example and patterns:

“Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.”

He begins this command by telling them to imitate him. This clearly doesn’t mean that they’re to try to be as much like him as possible, since he immediately tells them to also watch those who follow his example. Rather, he means that they’re to imitate his general lifestyle as an imitator of Christ.

However, since they can’t always have him with them to show them how to live, he also commands them to watch “those who walk according to the example [they] have [us]”. When he uses the word, “walk”, he means one’s way of life, or lifestyle, since walking, just like living, requires repetitive and consistent effort. But the Philippians are only to pay close attention to those who walk according to his and others’ “example”. Who does Paul mean by “us”? It seems that Paul is referring to one of the last groups of people he mentions in verse 15, where he says, “Let those of us who are mature think this way” (ESV). Thus, the Philippians aren’t only to follow Paul’s example, but also the example of others who are spiritually “mature”, or experienced in Christ’s teaching, and in consistent Christlikeness.

The Greek word translated “example” is translated as “pattern” in the NASB. Again, the idea is that those whom they watch are to be those who imitate Paul’s way of life as a follower of Christ. So, they are to imitate Paul and mature believers, not only by recalling his way of life, but also by paying careful attention to those who are like Paul, and therefore, like Christ.

Flee Pleasure-Seeking Enemies of the Cross

In verses 18 to 19, Paul explains why he commanded the Philippians to imitate him, and to watch those who live according to his pattern:

“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.”

The first reason Paul gives for his command to imitate his pattern of living is that there are many who “walk as enemies of the cross of Christ”. In other words, the Philippians are in danger of coming into contact with many people who oppose “the cross of Christ” by their manner of living. Notice that Paul doesn’t say that they talk as enemies of the cross, but that it’s their behavior, or lifestyle that marks them as enemies of the cross. But what does Paul mean by “the cross of Christ”? Obviously, he doesn’t literally mean the cross on which Christ, or the Anointed High Priest, suffered and died, but the message of Christ’s suffering and death on the cross for our sins. This is another way of saying “the good news of Christ”. And there are many people who oppose this message by the way they live.

But Paul doesn’t just see these people as enemies, and villains, but also as victims of Satan, since he says he “often told [them] and now tell[s] [them] even with tears”. At the moment that he composes this sentence, he’s crying about these people who oppose the gospel by their lifestyle.

In the next sentence, Paul explains why he’s crying for them, and how they oppose the gospel by their living. First, “their end is destruction”. That is, at the end of their earthly lives, they will be eternally destroyed by God, since they hatefully oppose His gospel, and therefore oppose Him, and show that they hate Him. Second, “their god is their belly”. In other words, rather than worshiping God and Christ, they worship their appetites, or their physical desire for food, at the very least. To put it another way, they live to please themselves physically, rather than to please God. Third, “they glory in their shame”. The Greek word translated “glory” is doxa, which is used in the Bible to speak of the manifestation of someone’s character and nature, or of making one’s character known. Literally, Paul says that the glory of these people “is in” their shame. Hence, the way these people express who they are is by their shameful behavior, which is openly evil. The fourth and final reason they walk as enemies of the gospel, and why Paul weeps for them, is that their minds are “set on earthly things”. That is, they constantly, and continually, think about their earthly, physical, lives, rather than their relationship with God, and their eternal destinies.

By saying that the Philippians ought to follow his pattern because there are many enemies of the gospel like this, Paul is implying that they must not imitate them, and should rather flee from close association with them.

Fix Your Sights on Your Emperor’s Appearing

In verses 20 to 21, Paul explains why the lifestyles of the enemies of the gospel are in direct opposition to Christlike living by describing the heavenliness of Christians:

“But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, 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.”

The first reason that Christians can’t set their minds on “earthly things” like the enemies of the gospel is that their “citizenship is in heaven”. The Greek word translated “citizenship” is politeuma, which literally means “form of government”, and was used to refer to a government, or the way in which it functioned. Paul used this word with the Philippians because, unlike some cities in Macedonia, Philippi was a Roman city, and was treated as such by the Roman government. Therefore, the citizens of Philippi took pride in this fact, since they had certain privileges, such as some self-government. However, Paul opposes this mindset of viewing oneself as a citizen of Philippi, and of the Roman Empire, by saying that the Philippians are citizens of heaven, or God’s ultimate spiritual dwelling place. Rather than mostly thinking of themselves as Roman citizens in a Roman colony, the Philippians were to view themselves as heavenly citizens of a heavenly colony in Philippi.

The second reason that the Philippians can’t be obsessed with earthly things is that, from heaven, they “await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform [their] lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.” Again, Paul is comparing the Philippians’ spiritual life to the life of a Roman citizen. The Romans were indoctrinated to view the Roman Emperor as their savior and lord. The Emperor was supposed to be able to save his citizens from troubles, and he was said to be “lord”, or kyrios, which literally means “supreme in authority”. In contrast to this teaching, Paul says that it’s Jesus Christ who is the ultimate Savior and Lord of the Philippians.

And how will Jesus the Anointed Prophet, Priest, and King, save them? By transforming their “lowly”, or “humble”, bodies to be like His glorious, or perfect, body, “by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself”. Unlike to the Roman Emperor, the Christian Emperor Jesus will perfectly save His citizens from their sins and imperfections by the power that He uses to control all things, when He comes back. Therefore, the Philippians ought to remember this, so they avoid imitating those who are obsessed with earthly things, rather than heavenly things.

Firmly Stand by Executing Paul’s Prescriptions

In the first verse of chapter 4, Paul concludes his instruction on how to judge whether someone’s worthy of imitation by commanding the Philippians to maintain Christlike lives in the way he’s prescribed because of his love for them:

“Therefore, my brothers, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm thus in the Lord, my beloved.”

Here, Paul motivates the Philippians to obey his instructions about imitating some, and not others, by expressing his great love and affection for them. First, he calls them “my brothers”, or my adelphoi, which means those who share the same father — or in this case, Father. He’s implying that he’s equal to them in God’s family, and views them as his brothers and sisters that he cares for. Second, he says that he loves them. This doesn’t simply mean that he likes them, but that he’s devoted to their well-being. Third, he longs for them. That is, he wants to see them, because he does in fact enjoy their company. Fourth, he calls them his “joy and crown”. Obviously, this first means that they give him joy, or inner happiness that doesn’t depend on one’s circumstances. By calling them his “crown”, he’s alluding to the athletic competitions at that time, in which the winners of the competition were given a “crown”, or “wreath”, to wear, showing that they had defeated their opponents. When Paul went to Philippi the first time, he had to compete against demons, human enemies, and lies, in order to win the Philippians to Christ’s kingdom. Having done that, they became his “crown” that he was proud of on behalf of Christ.

After expressing his great love and affection for them, Paul then commands them to “stand firm thus in the Lord”, or to stand firm like this in the Lord. By telling them to “stand firm”, he’s saying that they are to hold their position as Christians who are devoted to learning about Christ, and to imitating Him and those who are like Him, against all opposition from persecutors, false teachers, and fake Christians. But they aren’t just to stand firm like this, but to do so “in the Lord”. This means that they are to consistently live as those who are in the Supreme Authority, or who are one with, or united to, Him. As such, they share His life, know Him, and represent Him to unbelievers, and to the world around them.

Finally, Paul ends this command by calling the Philippians his “beloved”, reminding them that his driving motivation behind his instructions for them is that he wants what’s best for them.

Imitate the Christlike, Avoid the Earthly, Wait for Your Savior, and Stand Firm

So, if you trust in the God-man Jesus Christ as your Savior crucified for your sins, and your risen Emperor, how does this passage apply to you?

First, as Paul commanded the Philippians to imitate his example and the spiritually mature, are you imitating those who are spiritually mature, and live Christlike lives by paying attention to how they live?

Second, as Paul warned the Philippians that there are many who live as enemies of the gospel because they worship their appetites, openly shame themselves, and set their minds on earthly things, do you recognize them, and avoid being close friends with them, while at the same time grieving over their destruction and sin?

What about you? Do you worship and serve your physical appetites? Do you have your mind set on earthly, or physical, things? If so, then you’re walking as an enemy of the gospel, and God will eventually destroy you if you don’t change your mind and trust in the Lord Jesus Christ to save you from your sins and God’s wrath. God sent His eternal and divine Son to earth to become a man, Jesus of Nazareth, and to suffer and die on a Roman cross to take the punishment we deserve from God for our sins. Then, God raised Jesus from the dead, and took Him into heaven as the King of the universe. He commands everyone to change their minds and trust in Him as Savior and Lord to get His forgiveness, mercy, and peace, because He’s going to judge everyone perfectly through Jesus, and punish all His enemies forever in a place of torment. Please make sure you’re trusting in Christ and what He did on the cross for your forgiveness and acceptance from God, and be saved from eternal destruction and your shame.

Fourth, do you view yourself as a citizen of heaven, even more than a citizen of any earthly nation?

Fifth, are you eagerly awaiting the Savior from heaven? Paul doesn’t say that the Philippians should do this, but that they do do this. If you aren’t doing this, then you need to check to see if you really depend on Christ to save you, and to be your Lord.

Sixth, are you looking forward to Christ transforming your body to be like His glorious body with His divine power?

Finally, are you standing firm in the Lord by imitating Christ and spiritually mature people because you know that it’s for your good?

This passage calls us to stand firm in the Lord by following the example of the apostles, and of those who are spiritually mature in our lives, and to shun the example of earthly people because we’re looking forward to being given perfectly Christlike bodies, that will make it impossible to sin.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the:
English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Text Edition: 2016. Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.