To live for the things of this earth and for the desires of our flesh — no matter what name we claim — is to live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Paul continues to offer guidance on godly role models with a sobering contrast of those who call themselves Christians, but whose lives tell otherwise. (Phil. 3:17-21)
What does this have to do with joy in Christ? There is joy in seeing a real diamond among a handful of cubic zirconia. There is joy in identifying the truth in a world of lies. And there is joy in having a right and godly perspective for today and the future.
Part 15 of a whole book study series called “Joy in Christ: A Study Through Philippians.”
Be Careful Who You Follow
17 Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.
Here Paul tells the Philippian believers, be imitators of what you see in me of Christ and what has been taught to you of His ways. It is not that Paul sees himself as sanctimonious, high and mighty, or having arrived at perfection. We saw in the last study that he clearly sees himself as still running the race. He is also not in any way trying to gather followers for himself in the place of followers of Christ. In 1 Corinthians 3:4-5, he disparaged the notion of following a man and clearly stated he was a servant through whom you have believed.
Nevertheless, there are people who can serve as godly role models. The phrase keep your eyes on means to regard attentively, pay close attention to, consider closely. The idea here is that the believers in Philippi imitate, or follow after the pattern of, those who faithfully live according to what has been taught. We are to follow Christ, but we see the outworking of how to follow Christ when we see godly, wise, and mature believers following Him.
This fits with Paul’s earlier exhortations to be of one mind in the truth as well as what he exhorted in verse 16. Hold to the truth, he says, and watch how others hold to it — including me and those around you. It is not simply do what everyone else does; rather, he advises care and caution in whom you choose as a model.
D.A. Carson aptly summarizes the idea of seeing other, mature believers as examples:
“How then shall new Christians learn to talk Christianly, think Christianly, evaluate society Christianly, live in families Christianly, learn to witness, learn to give, and learn to develop godly habits of life? Of course, much is said on all these topics in Scripture; many believers will find their lives shaped simply by reading and rereading Scripture. Nor would I want to minimize the powerful, inner work of the Holy Spirit. But the Spirit most commonly uses means, and those means include the modeling that more experienced Christians offer.” [D.A. Carson, Basics for Believers: An Exposition of Philippians]
Obviously there were all sorts of believers in the church at Philippi, some more mature than others, some farther along in their faith journey than others. They needed to be counseled to imitate those who walked most closely with Christ (related: 1 Cor. 4:16; 1 Cor. 11:1; Phil. 4:9; 1 Thess. 1:6-7).
Those Who Are Perishing
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.
There’s a contrast to the kind of Christ-like examples Paul would have the believers at Philippi imitate — both in verse 17 and in his earlier examples of Timothy and Epaphroditus — and these are people who walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. It is a bit tricky at first glance to see who these enemies are. While it is true that the Philippian believers did face opposition from Judaizers, and while Paul does not say specifically who these individuals are, this is a case where context helps clarify meaning.
In the immediate context, look at Paul’s mention of the “walk” and his exhortation to view him and other godly believers as an “example” and “pattern.” A bit farther out, but still in the vicinity, look at his encouragements to humility and Christ-likeness in chapter 2 and his exhortation to keep pressing forward toward the day of resurrection in verses 12-16.
These clues coupled with his lengthy discussion of Timothy and Epaphroditus show us that Paul has in mind direction and guidance for what a believer’s walk — their lifestyle and pattern of living — looks like.
Enemies of the Cross
That said, it’s easier to see that Paul’s grief (and literal tears) is caused by his anguish over these enemies: people who profess Christ with their mouths, but whose lives do not indicate they are regenerated. These people are not simply (or perhaps more accurately, not so much) enemies of Christ Himself, but of the cross of Christ — the very way of life the cross demands: one of self-denial, humility, seeking holiness, dependence upon God, a focus on glorifying Christ, and looking with joy to resurrection glory.
The Expositor’s Greek Testament puts it this way:
The true Christian is the man who is “crucified with Christ,” who has “crucified the flesh with its affections and lusts”. The Cross is the central principle in his life. “If any man will come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me.” Those here described, by their unthinking self-indulgence, run directly in the teeth of this principle.
Paul’s grief over these people tells us a few important things:
- Rather than seeking the glory of Christ in all their thoughts, words, and actions, they claim the name of Christ, but make a mockery of Him by the way they live. They may admire the teachings of Christ, but are not willing to walk in His ways and under His authority.
- By living in such a manner, they cheapen the atoning sacrifice of God’s Son on the cross and they cheapen the precious gift of God’s grace to us. In fact, they treat the cross and the inherent grace therein with license, not submitting themselves to God’s moral law, but using the excuse of grace to live according to their fleshly, natural desires.
- Given the emphatic description Paul uses (we’ll get to this next) and his deep sense of grief over these people, I don’t think it is unwarranted to call the salvation of these people into question (at the very least), even to suspect that they are false professors of Christ and hence not truly saved.
The Enemies Described
Four aspects describe enemies of the cross of Christ:
their end is destruction. The Greek for destruction here is apóleia, “in particular, the destruction which consists in the loss of eternal life, eternal misery, perdition, the lot of those excluded from the kingdom of God” (Thayer’s Greek Lexicon) As Paul points out in 2 Thessalonians 1:9, those who do not know God (through Christ) and do not obey Christ’s gospel will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.
This is a strong indicator that Paul speaks in verse 18 of unbelievers as it would not follow that Paul would describe the future of a believing person in terms of destruction.
their god is their belly. These people do not worship the one true God; instead they worship their appetites and desires. They feed and fuel them to their heart’s content. If anyone tells you they do not worship or idolize anything, it is not true; we all worship something or someone. To worship is to find gratification in someone or something. These people appear to be more interested in worshiping the world and all it has to offer than in worshiping Christ, acknowledging His atoning sacrifice on the cross, and living in obedience to Him.
Authentic believers, as Paul pointed out in Philippians 3:3, worship in the Spirit of God and seek to deny rather than satisfy the flesh and its natural desires.
they glory in their shame. This idea of taking pride in your shame is reminiscent of Paul’s writing in Romans 1:28-32 where people not only practice immoral and ungodly behavior, but approve of those who have that kind of behavior in common with them. Is this about boasting in their sins? The great parties, the gory details of their sexual relationships, the mocking or hostility they may have shown toward God? All reasonable possibilities for shame.
In contrast, we can again point back to Philippians 3:3 to those authentically in Christ who glory in Christ Jesus and seek to grow in holiness.
minds set on earthly things. Again, Paul’s emphasis here in describing these people is upon the focus of their interests, obviously intertwined with what this world offers. Do you know a person who confesses Christ as Lord and Savior with their mouth, yet has more interest in television, shopping malls, movies, and the distractions of daily life? Have you ever had a conversation with a person who claims to be a Christian, yet shows no interest in the things of the Lord — in fact, may even change the subject when you bring Him up?
These individuals put their heart and hope in the things of the world. Instead of setting their earthly goals on heavenly gains, they set their earthly goals on earthly gains. [Pastor Keith Krell, God’s Goals]
It grieves me to see believers who walk in this way. I want to see you walk in progressive conformity to Christ, and I want that for myself. Examine yourself. If you find you look just like the world and no different, if you find that you spend more time in distraction than in God’s word or in quiet time with Him, or if you find that you are not taking up the humbling, self-denying cross of Christ each day, then consider where your true loyalty is:
If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. 3 For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.[Col. 3:1-4 ESV; my emphasis]
This leads right into the next thing on Paul’s mind, which is remembering what it is we as believers are looking forward to.
Eagerly Looking Toward Glory
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.
Here’s another reminder from Paul about where we truly belong as believers, where our true home lies — and it’s not on this earth! No, he says, in contrast to those enemies of the cross of Christ, whose love is for this world, our citizenship is in heaven.
There’s a logic in returning to this topic after the somber tone of Paul’s description of the enemies of the cross. Though others do not, he says, we press forward to glory. Though others do not, we eagerly look for Christ’s return. Though others do not, we eagerly look to being free from this body of sickness, frailty, and death, and exchanging it for a glorified body! If that doesn’t give you a reason for joy, I don’t know what can!
Moreover, the same power that resurrected Christ from the grave will accomplish this transformation — and not just our bodies, but all of creation will ultimately be put under Christ’s submission (related: Phil. 2:10-11; 1 Cor. 15:28).
A view from the Psalms to reflect on as you end the study:
23 Yet I am always with you;
you hold me by my right hand.
24 You guide me with your counsel,
and afterward you will take me into glory.
25 Whom have I in heaven but you?
And earth has nothing I desire besides you.
26 My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart
and my portion forever.
[Ps. 73:23-26 NIV; my emphasis]
Just as Asaph’s gaze was steadfastly upon God, endeavor to fix your gaze upon the cross of Christ and allow it to rightly order your priorities and perspectives.