Commentary on Philippians 3:17—4:1
Mohandas Gandhi once remarked, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians.
Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” Even within the church some of us may find ourselves agreeing with this statement because human beings so often disappoint us. When someone points to the mishaps of a professed Christian as a reason not to embrace the faith, we may tell him to look at Jesus instead. But in our text, Paul calls his audience to look at people and to imitate them.
The Pattern to Imitate
Paul appeals to his readers to imitate him. This may seem to be an expression of insufferable vanity. However, Paul has just used himself as a negative example of putting stock in one’s own status and accomplishments before God. He now regards these as rubbish for the sake of knowing Christ (chapter 3). Paul does not want his audience to imitate false teachers who valued external ritual practices like circumcision (3:1-3). Rather, he wants his audience to imitate him in throwing off all external markers for the single-minded pursuit of sharing in Christ’s suffering and knowing the power of his resurrection (3:10-11).
Paul’s audience is to imitate him or, if he is not present, to imitate those who follow his example, like Timothy and Epaphroditus (see 2:19-30). The word “example” translates the Greek word typos in 3:17. Etymologically, typos refers to a blow that leaves an imprint, like what is left by a stamp or a seal. In moral discourse, the word came to refer to an example or pattern. Paul presents his own life as the typos that has made an imprint upon the lives of his associates and that is worthy of imitation. But Paul himself is not the archetype.
Paul models his life on Christ, reflected in the words “for to me, living is Christ and dying is gain” (1:22). For Paul, all of life is captured in Christ so that everything Paul does is generated by Christ and done for his sake. For this reason, Paul provides Jesus Christ as the quintessential examplefor his audience to follow. He calls them to think and act in humility and self-sacrificial service towards each other (2:1-4). They are to look at Jesus, who acted in humility and self-sacrificial service towards humanity in his incarnation and in his crucifixion (2:5-11).
Jesus Christ is the archetype, the typos that made an imprint on the life of Paul. This is a certain kind of living that requires a certain mindset: not asserting your own rights, considering the needs of others as more important than your own. It took Jesus to the cross. It landed Paul in prison. Paul’s call to imitate him is, in fact, a call to imitate Jesus.
Don’t be Earthly-Minded (verses 18-19)
Some, however, are not following this example and have become “enemies of the cross of Christ” (verse 18). They do not follow the example of Christ as modeled by Paul. Instead of having a mind set on Christ, they have “minds set on earthly things.” Instead of being guided by self-sacrificial service to others, they are guided by their own desires (“their god is their belly”). These people have not denied Christ by their confession or words, but have denied Christ by their behavior. They are enemies of the cross of Christ because they refuse to conform to the pattern of humility and self-sacrifice that led Jesus there.
Be Heavenly-Minded (verses 20-21)
With a sharp contrast, Paul says that he and his audience are not earthly minded, but are heavenly minded (verse 20). Paul reminds them that their true citizenship is in heaven and not on this earth. Philippi was a Roman colony, so Paul’s audience were Roman citizens with rights and benefits of which they were proud. Paul himself invokes these benefits when he is in Philippi to his aid (Acts 16). But here Paul redefines the citizenship of the Christian. The Philippians — and we as Christians — are citizens of Christ’s city, governed by the gospel. Paul uses the present tense, “our citizenship is in heaven,” which calls them to enact their true citizenship now in a foreign land.
Paul has had his mind on the redefinition of citizenship throughout the letter. His use of citizenship language in 3:20 recalls 1:27. Most translations disguise the sense of the Greek language with a translation such as the NRSV, “let your manner of live be worthy of the gospel.” Literally, it is “live as citizens worthy of the gospel.” They do this by participating in the common cause of “standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel.” Paul comes full circle in our passage to speak of citizenship again. Notice that in 3:17 Paul asks his audience to “join together” in imitating him. The kind of living to which he calls is not a solitary job, but is necessarily done in community.
There is an old adage: “she is so heavenly minded that she is no earthly good.” Paul’s point, however, is that we must be heavenly minded if we are to be any earthly good. To enact our heavenly citizenship is to follow the example of Christ as modeled in Paul, acting in humility and self-sacrificial service to others. As citizens of heaven, we live in a foreign land where self-aggrandizement and self-satisfaction are prized.
During Lent many of our congregants have fasted in order to practice disciplined living and the mortification of bodily desires, following the example of Jesus when he was tempted in the wilderness. As helpful as this practice is to stave off a mind set on earthly things with our god as our belly, we may still find ourselves as enemies of the cross by the way we treat each other. Let us imagine ways to follow the example of Jesus through humble and self-sacrificial living for the sake of others. When we see someone replicate this example, theirs is a life worth imitating.