Commentary on Philippians 3:17—4:1
Paul begins this section by encouraging his family in Philippi to imitate him and others like him.
There is relationship. Moreover, it is in their togetherness and community that they will have the strength through encouragement to walk the way of Christ.
More important than pinning down exactly who these ‘enemies of the cross’ are, is understanding what it means to be an enemy of the cross. After all, Paul does not bother to highlight who they are; either everyone knows who they are or in the context of what Paul is now seeking to communicate to the church at Philippi, it is not important.
Sometimes we can make the mistake of noting who someone is and thereby give them a measure of respect, rather than highlighting what we should avoid about their lifestyle and behavior.
They are enemies of the cross … not necessarily your enemies. And even if they are your enemies, then the way of the cross is ‘love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you’ (Matthew 4:23). They should be treated with love. The emotion with which Paul speaks about them may give us a clue as to who they are — or perhaps who they were. It may well be that they were at some point fellow brothers and sisters in the gospel, seeking to follow Christ.
To be an ‘enemy of the cross’ is quite a curious statement. After all, why would you not be an enemy of the cross? The cross was the ultimate in the imperial toolbox of intimidation. The Romans were well practiced in the malevolent art of torture, intimidation, and terrorization. They utilized various tools which had been perfected over years of dealing with wars, uprisings and rebellions.
When people were crucified, the Romans made sure that it was carried out in the open, in the public space, at crossroads where the maximum number of people would see and understand their message: mess with the Empire and this is where you will end up. And so, in some ways we might anticipate that to be an ‘enemy of the cross’ is a natural, obvious, and sane response.
But Paul sets out a contrasting perspective.
Those who are ‘enemies of the cross’ are set for ‘destruction, their god is their belly; and their glory is their shame; their minds are set on earthly things.’ It seems then that there is a Pauline expectation that those who are disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ will, in some way, be ‘friends of the cross.’ To be an enemy of the cross is to live on a path that would not be familiar to the Lord Jesus.
- Self-preservation: ‘Their end is destruction’ — the destiny of those who are enemies of the cross is ruin. This is a somewhat ironic statement. Those who are living as ‘enemies of the cross’ — who are cohabiting with the powers of the imperial state — ‘think’ that they are preserving themselves, they are doing the obvious thing to look after themselves — and possibly, in their view, to give opportunity to present the gospel. But Paul is scathing — even in their attempt at self-preservation they will meet destruction.
- Self-satisfaction: ‘Their god is their belly’ — Choosing a way of life that is immediately satisfying, filling in the here and now. Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die … It may be that we would want to pin down their behavior and habits to something quite specific, perhaps their food practices or maybe even a reference their insistence upon circumcision, but none of that is certain. What is in view is their self-serving practices. This is in stark contrast to the way that Paul and his companions have lived with a quiet acknowledgment of an acceptance of suffering — imprisonment (1:17), death (1:21), sacrifice (2:17), the loss of all things (3:8).
- Self-obsession: ‘their glory is in their shame’ — Paul contrasts the self-obsession of the ‘enemies of the cross’ who no doubt present themselves and their bodies as something worthy, and to be admired, with the transformation of the body that will come with the resurrection of those who are faithful to Christ. We see this contrast in 3:21, ‘He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory.’
- Finally, Paul sums up his critique, ‘their minds are set on earthly things.’ The charade presented by them is that they are servants of Christ, acting in a pragmatic manner to preserve themselves (and the gospel) in a time of instability, fear, and terror for followers of Christ. Yet Paul points out that their true focus is on earthly things — contrasted with the citizenship of faithful imitators of Christ, which is in heaven. Interestingly, Paul has himself claimed citizenship of Rome (Acts 16:37: But Paul replied, “They have beaten us in public, uncondemned, men who are Roman citizens), but now he dismisses all subjection and subservience to the Imperial powers and holds to a higher loyalty, to the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.
Paul’s confidence is held by the way in which Jesus approached the cross. Jesus faithfully loved. Even as he died he continued to love and to trust in his Father. It was in love that his Father raised him from the dead. It is this power of love that is the greatest power. It is in this power that Paul appeals for his Christ-following family to stand firm. To follow the way of Jesus is to love and to accept the death imposed by the Imperial power. Yet to love whatever the cost is a refusal to accept and bow to the values of the empire … they have not turned you into one of them.
- Love is not passivity.
- Love is active — forgiveness, mercy, kindness.
- Love is creative … even in the midst of destruction.
- Love is relational, even as relationships are broken, and death ensues.
- Love is hopeful, even in the midst of despair.
- Love is trusting.