THE BROAD CONTEXT:
Paul and Silas visited Philippi a city in Macedonia—northern Greece) on Paul’s second missionary journey in 49-50 A.D. They established a church there, but were soon arrested due to false charges brought by the owners of a fortune-telling slave girl whom they had healed, removing the power of divination that had made her valuable (Acts 16:16-40).
After Paul revealed that he was a Roman citizen, the authorities released them, and they left Philippi to go to Thessalonica.
Paul wrote this letter from another prison cell (1:7)—probably from Rome, but we can’t be sure of that.
Paul acknowledges with gratitude that the Philippian church sent Epaphroditus bearing gifts for Paul in his imprisonment (2:25; 4:18). Paul informs them that Epaphroditus became seriously ill during his visit with Paul. After Epaphroditus recovered, Paul sent him back to Philippi with this letter. He also spoke of the possibility of sending Timothy to Philippi at some point in the future (2:19).
THE IMMEDIATE CONTEXT:
Paul’s pastoral concern is that the Philippian Christians model their faith and practice after legitimate Christian leaders, such as Paul, Silas, Timothy, and Epaphroditus—and that they reject the counsel of “dogs” and “evil doers” (3:2)—”enemies of the cross” (3:18) whose “god is their belly” (3:19). He goes on to say, “Beware of the false circumcision” (Greek: katatomen) (3:2). Katatomen—combines the preposition kata (according to) and the verb temno (to cut). The word “mutilation” conveys its sense.
By the time that Paul wrote this letter to the Philippian church, it was well-established that Christians were not subject to Jewish law—including circumcision. However, certain renegade Christians continued to require Christians to observe Jewish law. These renegade Christians, then, are the “dogs”—the “evil workers—the mutilators—those who practice the false circumcision.
The foundational issue is whether Christians are saved by works of Jewish law or by faith. Throughout his writings, Paul insists that it is faith, not works, which saves us.
PHILIPPIANS 3:17 – 4:1. BE IMITATORS OF ME!
3:17Brothers, be imitators together of me, and note those who walk this way, even as you have us for an example.
18For many walk, of whom I told you often, and now tell you even weeping, as the enemies of the cross of Christ, 19whose end is destruction, whose god is the belly, and whose glory is in their shame, who think about earthly things.
20For our citizenship is in heaven, from where we also wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ; 21who will change the body of our humiliation to be conformed to the body of his glory, according to the working by which he is able even to subject all things to himself.
4:1Therefore, my brothers, beloved and longed for, my joy and crown, so stand firm in the Lord, my beloved.
“Brothers, be imitators together of me, and note those who walk this way, even as you have us for an example“ (Greek: typos) (3:17). Common knowledge tells us that we are profoundly influenced by the company we keep—so Paul counsels the Philippian Christians to imitate him and others like him rather than the “dogs and “evil doers” (3:2) and “enemies of the cross” (3:18) whom he warned against earlier.
“even as you have us for an example“ (Greek: typos) (3:17). The word typos has a number of meanings, to include a person who bears the image of another person (even as Paul bears the image of Christ).
Paul is not the first to notice the importance of the company we keep. The author of Proverbs warned:
“One who walks with wise men grows wise,
but a companion of fools suffers harm” (Proverbs 13:20).
Nor is this the only time Paul counseled Christians to imitate him. He told the Corinthian Christians:
“Be imitators of me,
even as I also am of Christ”
(1 Corinthians 11:1).
Verse 17 is important, because it reveals the source of Paul’s trustworthiness. Paul imitates Christ—and so has become a trustworthy guide whom people can follow with confidence.
To the Thessalonian church, Paul wrote:
“Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,
that you withdraw yourselves from every brother who walks in rebellion,
and not after the tradition which they received from us.
For you know how you ought to imitate us.
For we didn’t behave ourselves rebelliously among you,
neither did we eat bread from anyone’s hand without paying for it,
but in labor and travail worked night and day,
that we might not burden any of you;
not because we don’t have the right,
but to make ourselves an example to you,
that you should imitate us” (2 Thessalonians 3:6-9).
Knowing the value of a Christ-like example, Paul counseled young Timothy:
“Be an example to those who believe,
in word, in your way of life, in love,
in spirit, in faith, and in purity” (1 Timothy 4:12).
When I was about 12 years old, our nearest neighbor boy had little parental influence, so he was a bit wild. One day my mother took me aside and said, “Sometimes a good person can pull a bad person up, but I have seen that Jack is pulling you down. I don’t want you to play with him anymore.” Even then, I knew she was right. Today, I believe that she probably saved me from a ton of trouble.
“For many walk (Greek: peripateo), of whom I told you often, and now tell you even weeping, as the enemies of the cross of Christ“ (3:18). Paul leaves it to the Philippian Christians to figure out who the “enemies of the cross of Christ” are. It seems unlikely that the congregation is riddled with such people, because Paul opened his letter by saying, “I thank my God whenever I remember you” (1:3)—and “You are all partakers with me of grace” (1:7).
The Greek word peripateo literally means “walk around” (peri means “around”—and pateo means “to walk.”).
From very early times, Jews used the word “walk” to speak of the manner in which one conducted one’s life:
• Enoch and Noah walked with God (Genesis 5:22, 24; 6:9).
• God challenged Abram, “Walk before me, and be blameless.”
• The Psalmist said, “Blessed is the man who doesn’t walk in the counsel of the wicked, nor stand in the way of sinners” (Psalm 1:1; see also Psalm 119:3).
Paul’s earlier comment about the “false circumcision” (Greek: katatome—a cutting or mangling) (3:2) may mean that Jewish Christians were trying to require all male Christians to observe circumcision—i.e. putting their faith in Jewish traditions such as circumcision instead of accepting the singular saving grace of the cross of Christ.
Or they may have been Gnostics, who believed that the body is unimportant—and so disavowed moral behavior as unnecessary. Such a belief, if it affected very many members of the congregation, could become corrosive enough to destroy the witness of the congregation.
“whose end (Greek: telos—end or goal or purpose) is destruction” (Greek: apoleia—to destroy) (3:19a). In this instance, Paul’s concern has to do with those who would seek to destroy the little Christian congregation in Philippi.
There are untold numbers of people who find pleasure in breaking things—in besmirching reputations—in torturing and killing—in wanton destruction. We see that in our news reports nearly every day.
A number of these people are enemies of the church. It is sometimes a mystery why mass murderers choose a particular location for their murders—but it is no mystery why several of these mass murders have taken place in a church at worship. They hate Christians, and their actions reflect that hatred.
Just as disturbing is the federal government’s assault on Catholics and others who believe that abortion is tantamount to murder. While the courts have struck down portions of the law that requires those Christians to act against their conscience, our governing officials knowingly passed legislation to require them to do just that. Their action reveals just how hostile those officials are to Christians and Christian institutions. If you think the government acted properly, you should keep in mind that a government that was willing to force millions of Christians to violate their consciences won’t hesitate to force you to act against your conscience if they take a mind to do so.
“whose god is the belly” (3:19b). This has become a common phrase. “His god is his belly” means, “He thinks only about food—to the extent that food controls his life.” That is one obsession, but there are many others, such as sex, money, and power.
“and whose glory is in their shame” (Greek: aischune—disgrace or shame—or the conduct that leads to disgrace or shame) (3:19c). While it would seem unlikely that a person would glory in his/her shame, it does happen. In prison, a murderer can achieve a tough reputation that would make other inmates hesitate to challenge him/her. A business executive might pride him/herself on being tough—too tough to care about other people.
But glorying in the conduct that brings about shame is more common. A boy might enjoy talking about the fights he fought, even if they led to his expulsion from school. A man might enjoy talking about sexual conquests, even if they have besmirched his reputation and cause him problems.
“who think about earthly things“ (3:19d). Paul intends the phrase, “earthly things” to contrast with “spiritual things” or “Godly things.” Most of us are guilty of thinking about earthly things to the extent that we let those things control our lives—to the extent that we allow thoughts of earthy things to crowd out consideration of spiritual things. We are obsessed with earthly things such as alcohol or drugs, sex, money, power—and any number of things. We are obsessed with them because we believe they will bring us what we want—happiness, power, reputation, friends, security, or whatever. In other words, we look to them to save us. They have filled the space that we should reserve for Jesus—our true savior.
“For our citizenship is in heaven” (3:20a). This is the point! We live on the earth today, and have earthly needs, such as food, clothing, shelter—and more. We must cook, sew, and wash the dishes. We must get up in the morning and go to work. We must take care of our families. We must exercise the obligations of citizenship.
BUT this world is merely a temporary residence while we wait to go home to the Lord. It can be positive, providing us with opportunities to love God and neighbor—but it is more like a tent than a brick-and mortar house.
Our permanent citizenship is in heaven (as Paul calls it in this verse)—or the kingdom of God. That is something to celebrate! It is far better to be a citizen of heaven than to be a citizen of the U.S.—or any other country, no matter how good.
But citizenship imposes responsibilities as well as privileges. Our nation, state, county, and city governments spell out our obligations in their laws. If we deviate from those obligations to a significant extent, we could find ourselves in trouble.
Likewise, as citizens of heaven, our citizenship imposes obligations as well as privileges. God asks us to worship him—and to bear witness to his love and grace—and to love God and neighbor. But if we subject ourselves to the “enemies of the cross of Christ” (3:18), our conduct will reflect their evil ways—and our faith will suffer as well.
So it is important that we (1) acknowledge our heavenly citizenship, and (2) live in accord with heavenly principles. Admittedly, that isn’t easy, because we have one foot on earth and the other foot in heaven. Sometimes we feel stretched to the breaking point because the earthly and heavenly kingdoms are so different. Jesus calls us to live by heavenly virtues, and that is difficult when we are immersed in earthly concerns.
But we need to do our best to live in accord with our heavenly citizenship—because that defines who (and whose) we are—and to bear witness to the Lord who granted us that citizenship.
“from where we also wait (Greek: apekdechomai) for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” (3:20b). Jesus has ascended into heaven, where he sits on the throne that awaited him while he was on the earth. The New Testament promises that he will come again to “gather together his chosen ones from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the sky” (Mark 13:24-27).
The author of Hebrew put it this way:
“Christ also, having been offered once to bear the sins of many,
will appear a second time, without sin,
to those who are eagerly waiting (apekdechomai) for him for salvation” (Hebrews 9:28).
The Greek word apedkechomai (wait) suggests an expectant waiting. Paul eagerly awaits Jesus’ Second Coming, anticipating that Jesus, at that time, will set the world aright and will usher Christians, dead and alive, into their heavenly reward.
“who will change the body of our humiliation (Greek: tapeinosis) to be conformed to the body of his glory“ (3:21a). While tapeinosis can mean humiliation, in this verse it might better be translated humble—as in humble bodies. Most of us regard our bodies as humble. Few of us are as handsome or beautiful as we would like—or as smart. But Paul’s greater concern here is that our humble bodies are subject to temptation and various kinds of spiritual corruption. We know that to be a fact too. But in this verse, Paul holds out the promise that, at Jesus’ Second Coming, he will transform our humble bodies to be conformed to Christ’s glorious body.
We should acknowledge that Christ begins this transformation when we first start our walk with him. We all know Christians whom we admire for the steadiness of their Christian walk—and the depth of their faith—and the purity of their lives. Nevertheless, they await the final step in the transformation of their humble bodies to conform to Christ’s glorious body.
“according to the working (Greek: energeia) by which he is able even to subject all things to himself“ (3:21b). The Greek word energeia would be better translated energy or power (rather than working). Christ has the power to bring everything—the whole universe—into subjection to himself. When he does that, the universe will come into conformity with God’s original intent at the creation—no longer defaced by the sin that Adam and Eve brought into our world.
“to subject all things to himself“ (3:21b). Paul adapts Psalm 8:6 to his purposes here. He uses the same phrase in 1 Corinthians 15:27.
“Therefore, my brothers, beloved and longed for” (4:1a). In the beginning of this letter, Paul wrote, “I thank my God whenever I remember you,” (1:3) and “God is my witness, how I long after all of you in the tender mercies of Christ Jesus” (1:8). Now he addresses them as “beloved and longed for”—terms of deep affection.
“my joy and crown” (Greek: stephanos (4:1b). These are further words of endearment. Stephanos was most often used for the victor’s crown in games or war rather than a kingly crown. Paul regards these Philippian Christians as his crown—the symbol of his achievement in spreading the Gospel to Philippi.
“so stand firm in the Lord, my beloved” (4:1c). The Philippian Christians are beset by many hardships—persecution and those who are promoting false doctrines—so Paul encourages them to stand firm so that their faith might prevail.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Bockmuehl, Markus, Black’s New Testament Commentary: The Epistle to the Philippians (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1998).
Craddock, Fred B., Interpretation: Philippians (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1985)
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Holladay, Carl R., in Craddock, Fred B., Hayes, John H., Holladay, Carl R., and Tucker, Gene M.,Preaching Through the Christian Year C (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International, 1992)
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Martin, Ralph P., Tyndale New Testament Commentaries: Philippians, Vol. 11 (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1987)
Martin, Ralph P. and Hawthorne, Gerald F., Word Biblical Commentary: Philippians (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2004)
Melick, Richard R., Jr., New American Commentary: Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, Vol. 32 (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1991)
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Still, Todd D., Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary: Philippians & Philemon (Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Inc., 2011)
Copyright 2015, 2017, Richard Niell Donovan