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"17Brethren, join in imitating me, and mark those who so live as you have an example in us. 18For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, live as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19Their end is destruction, their god is the belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. 20But our commonwealth is in Heaven, and from it we await a savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21who will change our lowly body to be like His glorious body, by the power which enables Him even to subject all things to Himself.
4 1Therefore, my brethren, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm thus in the Lord, my beloved."
- Philippians 3:17-4:1

In the verses preceding this week's text, Paul had been discussing his ongoing struggle to be as worthy as possible of the grace that had been given to him, the promise of eternal life. Those who are familiar with the whole of Paul's writings know that he certainly had no ego problems; he frequently spoke of himself in derogatory terms such as 'the foremost of sinners' (I Timothy 1:15). The one thing about himself that he felt he could hold up as an example was his level of dedication to Christ, his unceasing labors to spread the Gospel and Spiritually nourish the Churches he had founded. It is this zeal for Christ that he speaks of in verse 17, and he encourages the Philippians to both imitate his example, and to acknowledge and respect those among them who were already displaying an extraordinary level of zeal for the Gospel.

The reason for this insistence becomes clear in verse 18, as Paul reminds them that there are many enemies of the cross of Christ. It is important to note Paul's reference to discussing this subject 'with tears'. Taken out of context, the following verse (verse 19) could seem like an angry 'fire and brimstone' condemnation. But the truth is that Paul, like both Jesus Himself and all believers since who really understand the Gospel message, are first and foremost saddened by those who oppose the 'Good News' of the great salvation that God offers to all of us. There is, to be sure, an element of anger in the heart of a believer over seeing God's love so spurned; but if God's love is truly in us, we who do believe must first feel sad over the unbelief of others, and desire to influence them to change their destructive ways.

'Destructive' is indeed the operative word here, both in the present life and eternally. 'Their god is the belly' is a way of saying that the enemies of Christ live solely to satisfy their own human desires; 'they glory in their shame' means that such people are proud of the very things that they should be ashamed of. An obvious example of this would be some celebrities who have bragged about how many people they've had sex with. But their behavior doesn't have to result in outward bragging, it's the inward attitude that is really the issue. Such people, obviously, 'have their minds set on earthly things' to the exclusion of God. Again, seeing people act in such a manner primarily provoked sadness in Paul, as it should in us. Believers need to reach out to such people in love, encouraging them to change their ways for their own good, even as we condemn the way they currently live.

In the remaining verses, Paul reminds the Philippians why it's so important to stand up for God's truth in the face of such ungodliness: the eternal results. Believers in Jesus Christ are promised a new, eternal body when the time comes, one similar to Jesus' own Resurrection body. As you may recall, after He rose from the dead, Jesus could instantaneously travel from place to place, even going right through solid walls. He was no longer bound by space and time, and neither will we someday, if we accept His promise to us. Also, our eternal bodies will no longer be affected by disease, injury or weariness (that's the part I'M looking forward to!). It's a wonderful prospect, and thinking about it should cause any believer to want to work ever harder in the service of the God who has promised it.

Paul's words to the Philippians then are still fully relevant to us today. There are still many enemies of the cross who need reaching out to. But we must be careful to, as Paul concludes, 'stand firm thus in the Lord' (4:1). The key to understanding what this means lies in the contrast Paul has just drawn between the dark, empty lives of Christ's enemies, and the lives filled with glorious hope that are lived by true believers. It is this contrast that is the most powerful tool available for persuading others to join God's family. Some well-meaning Christians try to reach people by watering down the Gospel, attempting to make it more like the world system, so that those who are in that system will find it more comfortable. This concept is severely misguided. To bring others into God's family, where they become our 'joy and crown' as they receive the same promises as we have received, requires zeal - zeal which must be based on the undiluted Gospel of Christ, and brought to the world with Paul's kind of uncompromising confidence in God's power. We who believe must not be afraid to be radically different from the world.

In other words, we must 'join in imitating' Paul's example, so that, like him, we may succeed in showing unbelievers the path that leads from tears to glory.

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