Commentary on Philippians 3:17—4:1
The Epistle reading comes near the conclusion of Paul’s letter to the Philippians and his tone is sharp, emotional, pleading and full of love for those he addresses.
This passage, unlike that of the coolly argued Romans text the week before, is “pastoral” in the sense of an urgent conversation about problems and joys. Paul’s words speak in specifics about negative realities impinging on the life of the Philippians; his words give mirror-like details against the general picture of the rejection of God’s call, which the Gospel text presents in Jesus’ lamentation over Jerusalem.
I. The Text
This passage falls into two general sections. The first deals with the behavior of true believers and the second to which that is linked is the eschatological hope believers have in the coming of the Savior.
It is unclear historically which adversaries Paul was referring to in verses 18 and 19. It could be those who were attempting to force the agenda of Jewish law on Christian believers. It could be those who were preaching a different kind of Gospel from Paul and whose behavior signified their inability to conform their lives to Christ. It could be those people in the Philippians’ environment who lived hedonistically and violently.
Whoever they are, Paul is clear about their life style. They “live as enemies of the cross of Christ…their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is their shame…their minds are set on earthly things.” It is crucial to note that verses 18 and 19 feature a pattern of life. Paul is not referring to individual sins as such but to an entire way of being. In other words, their mindset, actions and orientation war against everything Paul considers Christian.
Paul’s antidote to what the Philippians are witnessing, his care for their souls and lives, comes through the summons which begins this passage. He asks them to consider two versions of the Christian life: “join in imitating me…observe those who live according to the example you have in us.” This is an enormous claim pastorally! Paul is basically laying out two versions of reality and asking the Philippians to choose the one he and other faithful followers are offering.
What is the basis for Paul’s exhortations? The answer is found in verses 20 and 21. Paul is telling the Philippians they do not, ultimately, belong to the environment in which they live. They live ‘elsewhere,’ which is to say “our citizenship is in heaven.” What Paul is underscoring here is that the Philippians need to know which citizens of which realm they are — this answer will determine their choice of behaviors.
Paul’s words should not be preached as a rejection of the body, its needs, its life alone and in community. Instead, Paul says “He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory…” (verse 21). What does this mean? This is not a literal, detailed look at transformation. Instead, it is an eschatological promise of change which does not denigrate the body but takes seriously the incarnated reality of humanity for the sake of Jesus. Paul further underscores the transformation by saying it is part and parcel of “the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself” (verse 21).
The connection between behavior and eternity has prompted this excellent summary statement from Moises Silva’s commentary on Philippians: “Paul himself, of course, often links eschatological hope with ethical commands…” (184). In other words, Paul is not simply offing codes of conduct or rules for living. Rather, he is linking the teleological with the behavioral as a means of offering encouragement and hope to the Philippians. His final pastoral statement of support in 4:1 asserts this as he calls them to “stand firm in the Lord.”
II. Homiletical Possibilities
Even without a clear understanding of those Paul is referring to as “enemies of the cross,” this passage offers ample reflection for the season of Lent. Every age and place has its enemies of the cross. The preacher might probe what some of these might be for the listeners. Across American culture the lack of interest — even opposition — to the Christian faith is noticeable in many venues. At a more depressing level, congregational life has sunk into apathy and “going through the motions.” Those addicted to food, drugs, and entertainment of all types are significantly present in any community and offer challenges to Christians who encounter them.
It is crucial that the preacher not trivialize the potential for Lenten reflection on such realities. There is a great deal of the mentality which runs in the vein of “I will give up chocolate for Lent.” How does one counter such thinking in terms of inviting listening believers to live sacrificially – all the time?? Paul is asking, in this passage, for believers not simply to “behave” but to look at the meaning of all they do in relationship to a much larger power and reality. Sermons on this passage hopefully can catch that sense of the larger reality.
Another sermonic approach which invites a sermon is that of transformation. The passage both urges this against those who would claim otherwise, but it also promotes it through the promise of change that affects the entire human being, body, soul and spirit. Transformation is placed on both temporal and eternal planes. In theological and sermonic terms, one word which might help listeners lean into the promise of transformation is ‘sanctification.’ This word not only inhabits the season of Lent quite well but engages the believer in understanding that the faith life is a process. Or to quote the exasperated words of the parent driver on a trip with the kids. “No, we are not quite there – yet!”
Finally, this passage uses personal example as encouragement. Like Paul, all can offer this as means of helping other Christians live in hope and maintain the patterns of life in Christ. It is a call to all who desire the future “citizenship [that] is in heaven.”