Philippians 3:17-21 January 14, 2018
In the first century, there was a small town called Philippi in Eastern Macedonia, which today is Greece. And in this little town was a church, a group of Christians who were very dear to the Apostle Paul’s heart, because he was the first missionary to Philippi, bringing the gospel of Jesus Christ to people who had never heard it before. Many of them believed and so a church was built. And they are the Philippians to whom Paul writes this letter we’ve been studying.
He wrote the letter around 60ad while he was imprisoned in Rome, awaiting either execution or release, and he wrote for at least a couple of reasons. First, he wrote
to reassure the Philippians that, despite being in prison and facing a possible death sentence, he and his ministry were thriving. And second, he wrote to exhort the Philippians, which means that there was some trouble, and troublemakers, in the church, and Paul had practical instructions to give.
In the beginning of chapter 3, Paul warned the Philippians to watch out for the Judaizers, who were a group of professing Christians who taught that true Christianity insisted not only on faith in Christ, but also in strict obedience to the ceremonial law of the OT, including circumcision. Paul said, in 3v2, “Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh.”
Now, in our text today, Paul warns of another group. They were also professing Christians, but their teaching was, like the Judaizers, contrary to Scripture. They had swung the pendulum to the other extreme. Rather than insisting on works necessary for salvation, this group, known as Antinomians, insisted that no works were necessary for a Christian. Rather, they insisted that a Christian, since after all they had been saved by grace alone through faith alone, could live however they like.
Well we know that is not true. And we know Paul disagreed with this, because he just said, in verse 14, “I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” Paul would never say “Live however you like.” He was committed to the hard work which is the Christian life.
This morning, I’d like us to consider Paul’s warning together. As we live the Christian life, it is imperative we find and follow good examples. And, it is also imperative we identify and avoid bad examples, which are not always obvious. So we need the Apostle’s help this morning, for our church’s sake, so that we can identify and avoid those whom Paul calls “enemies of the cross of Christ.”
But before I preach this sermon, we should pray together. Please bow your heads with me.
“Father in heaven, we need help understanding your Word, your Will. We need help applying your Word, your Will. We know that our minds will be dark and our hearts cold without you, so activate your Holy Spirit in us, and give us light and heat we pray, in Jesus’ name, Amen.”
Please open your Bibles to Philippians 3, which, if you’re using one of our church Bibles, you’ll find on page 637. Let me read the text in its entirety one more time before we begin. Philippians 3:17-21. This is the Word of God:
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. Amen.
It is imperative, for the Christian who wants to grow, to find and follow good examples. This is exactly what Paul reminds the Philippians of in v17. Twice, he exhorts them to this. First, he calls the Philippians to imitate him, as others are already doing. “Brothers [Paul says], join [that means others are already doing this] join in imitating me.”
And second, Paul exhorts the Philippians to not only imitate him, but also imitate others. “Brothers, [Paul says] join in imitating me, AND keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.” In other words, find and follow good examples. Now, we can’t find and follow Paul; we can’t keep eyes on him; he’s dead. But we can “keep [our] eyes on those who walk according to the example [of Paul].”
But here’s our challenge – We must find these examples. We need to find Christians who walk according to the example of Paul, which means we need to get to know Paul, and we need to get to know other Christians. We need to read the Bible, and specifically read Paul’s words, who talks more about the Christian life than anyone, so that we know what we’re looking for in others. And then, we need to find those others.
Do you know Paul? Or let me say that another way that I know Paul would be okay with – Do you know the Word? Not all of it. Not perfectly. Do you know the word more today than you did a month ago, a year ago? Do you know the kind of life God wants you to live? Do you understand purity and holiness and faithfulness? Do you know what you’re looking for in a good example?
Do you know others? Are you part of a church? That’s where you’ll find them. Do you know the people in your church? Not all of them. Not perfectly. But do you know people – more people, and more deeply – than you did a month ago, a year ago?
Again, here’s the exhortation from Paul – find and follow good examples. Here is the way he says it: “Keep your eyes on them.” Be on the lookout for them. Search for them. Once you find them, don’t let them out of your sight. Watch them. Keep your eyes on them.
As Christians, we need real life examples of what it looks like to be a Christian. We need examples of people applying the gospel in real life…
How do they work? How do they play? How do they run a home? How do they worship? How do they interact with people at church? How do they sing? How do they pray? How do they read their Bible? How do they lead their family? How do they play sports? How do they watch movies? How do they listen to music? How do they talk to their spouse?
I’ll never forget a moment when I became keenly aware that people were, for better or worse, watching me. He’s a young man and he’s a member of our church. And one day we were having lunch together and he reminded me of a conversation I had with one of my children and how deeply it had affected him. I think we were in a car together, and I had to pull over and ask one of my children to “please step out of the vehicle and make their way to the back of the car.”
How do they speak to their children? How do they parent their children? How do they rest? How do they spend their money? How do they spend their free time? How do they entertain guests? How do they worship with their family? How do they serve others? How do they sacrifice? How do they share the gospel? How do they trust God? How do they grieve the loss of a loved one? How do they suffer through sickness and hardship? How do they stand for truth? How do they stand for righteousness? How do they die?
Are you seriously telling me you have that all dialed in?!
Paul says, “find and follow good examples.”
Next, and here’s where I want to focus this morning, because this is where Paul focuses – While there are Christians to find and follow, there are also professing Christians to identify and avoid.
Look at vv18-19 with me. Here is the warning Paul gives, after exhorting the Philippians to “keep eyes on good examples.” Let’s read it all together, vv17-19 of chapter 3:
Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. 18 For [so what follows is the reason for Paul’s exhortation to follow godly examples] 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.
In other words, Paul is calling the Philippians (and us) to find and follow good examples because there are so many bad examples. We need to know who they are, and Paul gives us plenty of information to identify them. But first, before we look at the characteristics of these bad examples, let me make three quick observations.
One, keep in mind, these bad examples are professing Christians. They are in the Philippian’s church. These aren’t professing unbelievers – There would be no temptation for believers to emulate unbelievers. These are men and women within the church community, and so young or new or gullible or immature or undiscerning Christians may be tempted to follow them.
Second observation – there are a lot of them. Paul says “many,” and apparently, Paul has pointed them out before, “many, [Paul says], of whom I have often told you…” Knowing Paul, he probably called them out by name. That’s what John did in his third epistle, vv9-12:
9 I have written something to the church, but Diotrephes, who likes to put himself first, does not acknowledge our authority. 10 So if I come, I will bring up what he is doing, talking wicked nonsense against us. And not content with that, he refuses to welcome the brothers, and also stops those who want to and puts them out of the church. 11 Beloved, do not imitate evil but imitate good.
And third, these bad examples fill Paul with sadness. It’s not as if Paul is being callous or cruel when he warns us to identify and avoid some people. Listen again to verse 18, “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.” You can be angry and sad about something at the same time. On the one hand, Paul was clearly upset with impostors in the church.
But on the other hand, he was sad, to the point of tears, because these professing Christians were no Christians at all.
This is the heart of Christ. On one page (Matt. 23) of the gospels we read about Jesus unleashing scathing words on the Pharisees, calling them snakes and vipers and whitewashed tombs. And on another page (Lk. 19) we read about Jesus privately weeping over their rebellion.
So through those three observations, I hope you see what Paul is doing – He is tearfully warning the Philippians to be discerning as they find and follow examples. It’s not as if they can just pick someone from around them to model their life after. They must be discerning. They must be wise. They must use good judgment. There are examples to find and follow, AND there are examples to identify and avoid.
The same is true for us today – Not every professing Christian is a Christian. Saying so doesn’t make you so. For that matter, not all Christian music is Christian music. Not all Christian books are Christian books. Not all Christian movies are Christian movies. There are bad examples. There are people to avoid. They exemplify how not to live and how not to walk.
Now, because we want to be discerning, let’s note how Paul describes these professing Christians.
Paul says this about these people (vv18-19): 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.”
Paul says five things about these bad examples. Let me list them to you, and then we’ll look at them, one at a time.
- They walk as enemies of the cross of Christ.
- Their end is destruction.
Let me pause, before listing 3, 4, and 5, and say this. This is a devastating judgment from Paul. These are professing Christians, who in actuality, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ, whose end is destruction.
In response to Paul’s clear exhortation, we want to identify and avoid these professing Christians. But, we also want to make sure WE are not these professing Christians.
A true Christian is not afraid of self-examination. So, as we move on, look for this out there, but also look for this in here (our heart). Identify and avoid these bad examples, but address their sins as they appear in your own heart.
- Their god is their belly.
- They glory in their shame.
- Their minds are set on earthly things.
We’re going to take these out of order. We’re going to take 3,4,5, and then 1 and 2, because 1 and 2 – “they walk as destruction-bound enemies of the cross” is a summary of 3,4, and 5. In other words the way these people walk as enemies of the cross is that their god is their belly, they glory in their shame, and their minds are set on earthly things.
- Their god is their belly.
This is a way of saying that this person is enslaved to their earthly desires. There are things they want from this earth that they refuse to say “no” to. They give themselves to sensual indulgence. Whether it is a desire for food or drink or sex or power or money – their desires for the things of this world rules over them.
They are searching for ultimate satisfaction in this life and in the things of this world. One puritan said “For the worldling, their gold is their God. For the believer, God is their gold.”
- They glory in their shame.
Here’s how this goes. First, you do something you should be ashamed of. You sin. Then, you do it again. And again. You give yourself to it. Then, and this is a dark turn, rather than confessing and forsaking it, you (usually with the help of others) justify it – “it’s okay, it’s not sin, it’s not sin in my case,” and then, with enough help from others, God forbid, you glorify it, and what you once called evil you now call good.
At this point, not only is sin denied, it is celebrated. They are rejoicing in things that should make them feel ashamed. They boast in it. They are proud of it. They laugh at people who restrain themselves. They mock people who don’t indulge sin and pursue things like holiness and purity.
Woe to those who call evil good
and good evil,
who put darkness for light
and light for darkness,
who put bitter for sweet
and sweet for bitter!
- Their minds are set on earthly things.
Colossians 3:2 says “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.” These men don’t do that. Their minds are not in heaven, they are on earth.
These professing Christians are worldly. They don’t see past this life. They are at home in this world and their ultimate sense of belonging is in this world. They think like this world. They act like this world. They desire what the world desires. Their dreams are here. Their aspirations are all here. Their pride and their boast is here. Their greatest treasure is here. Their heart and desires and affections are here.
Their minds are set on earthly things. They don’t think about their soul. They don’t think about eternity. They don’t think about death and what will happen after – That sounds morbid to them.
“They don’t want to talk about death because they want to go on minding earthly things” (MLJ). They don’t think about death because death brings an end to all they have enjoyed here. But the Christian thinks about death as the beginning of all they will enjoy in heaven.
Worldliness does not think past the horizon of this earth. And this is the vast majority of people today. What are people talking about, and reading about, and thinking about, and arguing about, and giving themselves to?
It’s sad to Paul and should be to us. There are happy people everywhere who’s thoughts are confined to this earth. They go on with their attention on good earthly things, like keeping a home, and providing for a family, and loving children, but they give no mind to life beyond this. They give no thought to heaven, and as far as they are concerned, Christ has died in vain.
Walking as enemies of the cross
So, for some, their god is their belly, they glory in their shame, and their minds are set on earthly things. In this way, they walk as enemies of the cross of Christ.
In the book of Galatians, in Galatians 1:3-5, Paul says: 3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, 4 who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, 5 to whom be the glory forever and ever.” The cross delivered Paul from this present evil age, but for the worldly professing Christian, they don’t want to be delivered from this present evil age. This present age is fine or good they would say.
Then, in Galatians 6:14, Paul says “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.” Paul is saying that, because of the cross of Christ, the world no longer has any power over him. He can take it or leave it. But for the worldly professing Christian, the world has power over them – they want the things of this world, they need the things of this world. And so they walk as enemies of the cross of Christ.
In conclusion, a Christian does not think this way. Our last two verses tell us so. Vv20-21: 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.
A Christian does not walk as an enemy of the cross.
A Christian’s god is God.
A Christian glories in Christ.
And a Christian’s mind is set on things above.
As Christians, we must find and follow good examples. We must identify and avoid those who walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. We must identify and avoid following the example of worldly professing Christians, while being careful to address worldliness in our own hearts.
What example are you following?
What example are you setting?