Philippians 3:17–21

Recently at our church, I had the opportunity of participating in “team teaching” through the book of Philippians for the adult Sunday School class. The book was divided up, and each of the six men were given 3–4 passages to teach. I am posting the text of my four lessons on this blog. If you are interested in hearing all the lessons for the whole book they are available here. #Philippians

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So far in this chapter Paul has warned against the Judaizers, and any who would place their confidence in who they are, or what they have done and not the finished work of Christ alone. By way of rebuking this idea, Paul gives his own longs list of “fleshly” qualifications and then discounts them as loss and rubbish in light of the one thing that really matters—knowing Christ (cf. v7–8). By this he does not mean merely having knowledge about Christ. Rather it is to know Christ in that intimate relational way that depends on faith, and that leads to becoming like him in his death so that we may also share in his resurrection. This is the focus—the aim—of the Christian life.

Paul knew that he had not yet attained this perfectly, but he was pressing forward, striving with all that was in him towards that goal. And then he does something which I find surprising. He tells the Philippians to imitate him.

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 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. (Philippians 3:17–21 ESV)

Two Examples

One to Imitate

Every so often, when reading Scripture, I come a cross a statement that stops me. It seems to leap off the page and grab my attention. The opening statement of this passage is one such statement. I find it interesting that Paul calls upon the Philippians to imitate him. Would you do that? When encouraging someone to peruse Christ above all, would part of your advice be “imitate me”? Perhaps it is just the circles I grew up in, but it seems much more fitting to say something like, “Don’t imitate me, imitate Christ!” yet here we have the apostle Paul, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, calling on them to imitate him. Would you be comfortable advising someone in their Christian walk by saying, “Imitate me”? Should you?

We might be temped to conclude that someone talking like that is a bit of an egomaniac. That they think far too highly of themselves and their abilities. However, that doesn’t describe Paul at all. First, Paul had a realistic and true view of his own sinfulness. (i.e Romans 1 & 7) Second, he has just made clear that he is not perfect, nor has he already attained. (v. 12) He is certainly not claiming to be to be a “super Christian”.

However, there is something unique about Paul. What sets Paul apart from the Philippians, or you and I? It is his apostleship. As an apostle of Christ Paul did have a special role of authoritative teaching and leading in the Church. That could explain this in part. Especially if we remember the historical context. The Philippian church did not have the New Testament. They had Paul’s letter. They might have had a gospel such as Matthew or Mark, and perhaps a copy of one of Paul’s other letters. However, they were in a very unique historical situation in which the living apostles were authoritative leaders in the church.

With that said, I think it is a mistake to limit this to the apostles only? Any idea why? Because Paul doesn’t. He not only tells them to imitate him, but to “keep their eyes on” (that is to watch and imitate) “those who walk according to the example you have in us.” Now, “us” here might be a reference to the apostles, but those who the Philippians are to imitate is not limited to them.

Finding Someone to Follow

Paul’s emphasis in this chapter, and throughout the book, is to see them grow in sanctification and the knowledge of Christ. One way we do that is by following the example set by others. But how do we determine who to follow?

Paul’s instruction is to follow “those who walk according to the example you have in us.” The Philippians were to imitate those who were following the apostles teaching and pattern of living. Since there are no living apostles today, where do we find the apostles teaching? It is in the word of God. We are not to simply follow the most charismatic personality, or the person who attracts the largest crowds. The standard of who to follow is: Follow the person whose life and teaching is faithfully instep with the written Word of God. And this is not limited to what they say and teach, but also consider their whole life—the way they conduct business, they way the treat their employees, they way they lead their families. All of these should be patterned after the principles found in Scripture.

Of course, to do this means that you must know them and have access to them outside the pulpit or classroom setting. I would encourage you to think carefully about this. Especially young men who are enamored with the famous pastor or bible teacher on youtube. They may be a sound capable teacher of God’s word, but you don’t have access to them in that way.

When you are looking for a living example to follow, I would encourage you not to overlook the officers of the local church.

Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. (Hebrews 13:7)

These are faithful men, whose lives you have access to. You can get to know them outside of the four walls of the church building, and you can “consider the outcome of their way of life” because you know their families—their children. Also, the fact that they are in that position means the church has attested to their example.

This is one reason why participation in a local church is so vital. The preacher on TV or the Internet may be theologically sound, but he doesn’t know you and you don’t really know him. It is in the context of the local church that we have the best opportunity to build the kind of relationships which allow us to truly know our leaders.

Being Someone to Follow

This practice of imitation is not limited to the officers of the church, however. This is a reality for every believer. You are following someone, and—whither you realize it or not—someone is following you. Mature believer, that new christian is watching you. Adults, these kids are going to imitate you. Older men, these young men are looking to you as examples of how to lead their families. Older women, there are young women looking to your example of how to be a godly woman, wife, and mother.

Now it is one thing to think of the elders or deacons being an example, but it is quite another to think that someone is imitating me. This, however, is the reality of being the people of God. Salvation is being transformed into Christlikeness. By the Holy Spirit’s work in us we are being made into living representations of Christ which reflect his glory (cf. Rom 8:29, Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10).

And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit. (2 Cor 3:18)

We cannot expect others to believe what we say when we proclaim the gospel if they cannot see it lived out in our lives.

But, you might think, there is plenty that I do which should not be imitated. I still fall short, I have not yet attained, I’m not already perfect. Sound familiar? Well, neither was Paul. That is why he says, “Follow me as I follow Christ” (1 Cor 11:1). That is what should be imitated—the striving, the pressing on to know Christ. So, while we don’t want others to imitate our sin, We should want them to follow our example when we sin of godly sorrow and a quickness to repent. Do not confuse being a godly example with pretending to be perfect. The Philippians could follow Paul precisely because he was following Christ.

Do you look for and admire genuine Christlikeness in others?
Are you conscious of the fact that someone may be imitating you? Do you pray that your life will be a living picture of Christ before the eyes of others?

One to Avoid

Paul not only gives a positive admonition of who to follow, but also a warning of who to avoid. He is aware that there will be other teachers who come along, and not all of them will fit this model. They will in fact, stand out in stark contrast to it. (Paul intentionally contrasts them. This is one indicator.)

I don’t remember who said it, but a number of years ago I heard a phrase that stuck with me. “The most dangerous place in America to be a Christian is a Christian book store.” Now we might need to add a number of qualifiers to that statement, but it is true that we have a glut of “teachers” and resources available to us much of which is un-biblical.

Paul wants these believers to be careful who they imitate for there will come teachers professing the name of Christ who, in reality, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. This in no new phenomenon, but was a problem even in the first century. Underlining the seriousness of this is that fact that Paul is brought to tears at the thought of these individuals. I’m sure he is grieved by knowing the damage that these individuals will do to the church, but more than that I believe his tears are for the individuals themselves for their end is certain—it is destruction. They will fail and be destroyed but Christ’s kingdom will endure.

In this text Paul gives us several warnings—tests by which we may mark those to avoid. The first of these centers upon the cross. “they walk as enemies of the cross of Christ”. When a new teacher comes on the scene or you are evaluating a leader, pay careful attention to how they relate to the cross. What do they say about the cross—specifically the atoning work of Christ. Is it the at the center of their teaching or do they rarely mention it? And what about their lives? Do they live a life that is is centered on the cross? By that I mean, can they say with Paul, ”For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” (1 Cor 2:2) or “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” (Gal 2:20a) or ”But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” (Gal 6:14)? If the cross of Christ is overlooked, minimized, or ignored be very wary of them.

The second warning is “their god is their belly.” The term ”belly” here can refer literally to the stomach or “body-cavity” but it can also be used metaphorically for ones appetites and desires. I think it is this latter, metaphorical use that Paul intends here. It is not that they worship the stomach organ, but their own desires. Why is self-indulgence a mark of counterfeit spirituality? Instead of giving God his proper place and subjecting their appetites to his will, they instead let their desires take the ruling role. Thus, while they may name the name of Christ, they are really driven not by what pleases him, but by their own pleasures. Power, material possessions, and sexual immoralities become their down fall.

Clea and I have been unfortunate to witness this recently in a family that we know. We have not been close to them for some time, but have recently watched from a distance (mostly via their facebook posts) as their ministry, marriage, and family fall apart. Watch out for those whose lives are a picture of self-indulgence rather than sacrificial devotion to Christ and his Church.

A third sign of those to mark and avoid imitating is that “they glory in their shame”. All believers in this life are imperfect. All of us must struggle against sin until glory, but there is a clear difference between the saint who is grieved by their sinful behavior with a sorrow that leads to repentance, and someone who takes pride in their shameful actions. An example of this are the prosperity preachers who boast proudly of the wealth which they have fleeced from people by proclaiming a perversion of the gospel.

Finally, the forth warning sign is that “their minds are set on earthly things.” This is really a summery of the other points. Their minds are always set on the here and now. They are intent up on gaining earthly glory and fame rather than on the name of Christ being exalted. They are more interested in possessions and physical pleasures than in the immeasurable spiritual treasures to be found in the message of the cross. They glory in the temporary results of sin while ignoring the eternal glories of the age to come. What are some ways that we can recognize and avoid this mindset?

Two Kingdoms (or Cities)

This distinction in how we thing about the world and spiritual things, about this life and the life to come marks a clear distinction between the believer and the world. Paul wants them to remember that, while they may be living in the Roman colony of Philippi and able to enjoy all the benefits that come with that, they are ultimately citizens of another city—another kingdom.

A Citizen of Heaven

“But our citizenship is in heaven.” Unlike the enemies of the cross, the true believers allegiance lies else where. Philippi prided itself on its status as a Roman colony. Its citizens were not just residents of the city, but they were citizens of Rome with all the attending rights and responsibilities. As believers, we must remember that, though we live in the world, our ultimate allegiance, our citizenship, is in the kingdom of God and the world to come. In what ways does a Christian inevitably “stand out” as a citizen of heaven?

If we live in light of this it means that our focus, our priorities will be different. Rather than being enemies of the cross, we embrace it saying, “This is all my hope and peace, nothing but the blood of Jesus. This is all my righteousness, nothing but the blood of Jesus!” With a mindset on this we will be distinct from the unbelievers around us. Our focus is not fixed on this life, but on that which is to come. We are awaiting someone.

The Lord from Heaven

We read about those whose god is their belly. They are focused on the fleshly appetites and pleasure living only for today, now, this world. And though it may bring a form of pleasure for a time, their appetite-god will take and consume, never giving lasting satisfaction, and in the end prove to be no god at all, but just a sinful self-delusion.

In contrast to that, “we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ”. Our hope is not in this life only for he is coming to rule as Lord over all, not for a little while, but forever. He offers not only temporary pleasures, but eternal glory.

The Glory to Come

And he “will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.” As for the enemies of the cross, what glory they have now will be turned to shame. For the believer, we have the reverse to look forward to. Our shame will be turned to glory at his appearing. The temporary pleasures of this life cannot compare with the glory to come.

Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.” (1 Cor 15:51–54)

Then will our salvation be complete. The Spirits work of transforming us into the likeness of Christ will be finished. The pleasures of this world cannot compare. This old body, ravaged by the effects of sin and the fall will be made new. No more sorrow, no more death, no more decay. We will have a new body fit for life in the presence of our savior for eternity to come.


So, follow godly examples, learn from them. Do not set you mind on earthly things, but fix your sight on what is of eternal value. Cling to the cross of Christ. Make it your aim to know him and to make him known, and keep looking for his appearing. Do that, and you will keep the things of this world in their proper focus. You will be able to endure hardship and persecution with joy. After all, you never know when someone may be following your example.