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2) Read Phil 3:17–19: In contrast to building our own empires (Cf. Gen 4:17), God calls us to direct our efforts toward the expansion of his kingdom (Luke 9:59–60).
Consequently, the Apostle Paul wrote these words to the Christians in Philippi: “Fellow imitators of me become, brothers [and sisters]. And continually keep your eyes on those who walk according to the pattern you have in us.”
To assist these new believers living in a thoroughly hedonistic environment, Paul exhorted them to imitate him, as he emulated Christ (1 Cor 11:1; 1 Thess 1:6).
Other Jewish and Christian leaders also challenged their followers to internalize and practice their way of life (2 Chron 34:31–33; 2 Chron 36:11–14; Heb 13:7).
This commonly occurred in the Greco-Roman milieu as well.
The first century AD statesman Seneca wrote the following:
We can get assistance not only from the living, but from those of the past. Let us choose, however, from among the living, not men who pour forth their words with the greatest glibness, turning out commonplaces and holding, as it were, their own little private exhibitions, not these, I say, but men who teach us by their lives, men who tell us what we ought to do and then prove it by practice, who show us what we should avoid, and then are never caught doing that which they have ordered us to avoid. Choose as a guide one whom you will admire more when you see him act than when you hear him speak.
How did Paul want the Philippians to mimic him?
In this epistle, he prayed for others with a spirit of thanksgiving so that they might grow in sincerity and blamelessness (Phil 1:3–4, 9–11).
Paul rejoiced in the advance of the gospel, recognizing that even in his imprisonment God accomplished his will (Phil 1:12–14, 29–30).
Emulating Jesus, he sought to live a life characterized by love, a desire for unity, and self-denying humility (Phil 2:1–8, 14–18).
The apostle recognized the insufficiency of observing rites of the Mosaic law when compared to the great value of knowing Christ (Phil 3:2–11).
Paul put the sins of his past behind him as he strove to live as Jesus demands (Phil 3:12–16).
He rejoiced in all things, practiced prayer rather than worrying, focused upon good things, and enjoyed contentment regardless of his circumstances (Phil 4:4–14).
However, Paul recognized the difficulty of imitating someone no longer present in Philippi.
Therefore, he called his original readers to “continually keep your eyes on those who walk according to the pattern you have in us.”
While “us” may refer to his co-author Timothy, more likely Paul cited Epaphroditus, a man from their own city (Phil 1:1–2; Phil 2:25–30).
Copying the behavior of those who practice living in a Christ-like manner matters because “Many walk—as I was often saying to you, and even now crying I am telling you—who are enemies of the cross of Christ.”
Philippi was located on a major highway running from east to west a full day’s walking distance from the coast. It appears that the apostle singled out certain itinerant missionaries who passed through the city.
Paul described them as those, “…whose end [is] destruction, whose god [is] their stomach, and [whose] glory is in their shame.”
These people considered themselves Christians, but their evil ways of living testified otherwise. Even today, those who preach false doctrines and model tainted behavior can lead those who follow them to destruction (2 Cor 11:13–15).
“Destruction” (apōleia) points to an eternal state of torment and death, rather than causing someone to cease to exist. Rejecting the salvation available to us through the cross results in the condemnation of our souls (Matt 10:28; Heb 10:26–31).
These false believers set their minds on earthly things instead of heavenly ones.
The metaphor “their god [is] their stomach” was likely familiar to Paul’s readers.
The great fifth century BC playwright Euripides reported the Cyclops as saying:
And as for Zeus’s thunder-bolt, I do not shudder at that, stranger, nor do I know any respect in which he is my superior as a god. [If I ever thought about him before,] I am not concerned about him henceforth…
When Zeus sends his rain from above, taking my water-tight shelter in this cave and dining on roasted calf or some wild beast, I put on a feast for my upturned belly, then drinking dry a whole storage-vat of milk, I drum on it, making a din to rival Zeus’s thunder…
The Earth brings forth grass willy-nilly to feed my flock. These I sacrifice to no one but myself—never to the gods—and to my belly, the greatest of divinities.
To guzzle and eat day by day and to give oneself no pain—this is Zeus in the eyes of men of sense…For my part, I shall not forgo giving pleasure to my heart.
Paul wrote of people who gave themselves over to bodily desires until pleasure became their god (Rom 16:17–18). What should have provoked shame they saw as glorious.
In contrast, for the apostle, to live was Christ and to die was gain (Phil 1:21).
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a) Read Phil 3:17–19. In what ways can we imitate Paul? How can we identify those who set their minds on earthly things? Why should we avoid becoming like them? Is there someone in your life whom you consider worthy of imitation?
Go to Citizens of Heaven (Phil 3:20)
[Related posts include Citizens of Heaven (Phil 3:20); Glorified Bodies (Phil 3:21); Cain Dedicated a City (Gen 4:17); Unity in the Spirit (Eph 5:18–21); Adopted as Sons (Eph 1:5–6); Equality with God (Phil 2:5–6); Taking the Form of a Slave (Phil 2:7); Obedient to the Point of Death (Phil 2:8); and Ancient Literature]
[Click here to go to Chapter 2: The Descent of Humanity (Genesis 4:17–24)]
Hawthorne, Philippians, 216.
Ben Witherington III, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), 213–4.
Gordon D. Fee, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians (NICNT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 363–4.
Lucius Annaeus Seneca, Moral Epistles, Vol. 1 (LCL; trans. Richard M. Grummere; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1917), epistle 52, 349, https://archive.org/stream/adluciliumepistu01seneuoft#page/348/mode/2up.
Hawthorne, Philippians, 217–8.
Fee, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, 367.
Hawthorne, Philippians, 221.
Albrecht Oepke, “ἀπωλεια” (apōleia) TDNT 1:397.
Hawthorne, Philippians, 223.
Fee, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, 372.
Witherington, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, 216.
Euripides, “Cyclops,” in Cyclops, Alcestis, Medea (trans. David Kovacs; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994), 320–40, http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0094%3Acard%3D316.
Fee, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, 372–3.
Fee, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, 374.